Northern Ireland Assembly Parties Panel: 6 October 2020

Meeting Overview

Date: 6 October 2020

Time: 10:30am

Date of next scheduled meeting: 26 January 2021

Who was at the meeting

Sinn Féin:               

  • Gary Fleming


  • Catherine Matthews

The Electoral Commission:      

  • Anna Carragher, Commissioner
  • Cahir Hughes, Head of Electoral Commission NI
  • Mairaid McMahon, Manager
  • Hannah Greenfield, Information and Support Officer

Electoral Office for Northern Ireland:           

  • Virginia McVea, Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland

Welcome and introductions

The Chair, Anna Carragher welcomed everyone to the meeting and introductions were made. Apologies were passed on from the UUP as they were unable to attend.

Notes of previous meeting held 28 January 2020 and written update of June 2020

The notes of the previous meeting were agreed as an accurate record and the written update was noted. Another written update will be produced following this meeting and circulated to elected representatives.

Issues raised by political parties in advance of the meeting

No issues were raised.

Update from Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland

  • The Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) gave an update on how the Electoral Office had been run during Covid-19 lockdowns. During the summer, the office was re-opened with all staff following social distancing guidance. However, due to the change in public health guidance, it has now reduced back to a skeleton staff. The counter for serving the public has remained open on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays by appointment only.
  • The CEO advised that the Canvass has been postponed until 1 July 2021. The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland (EONI) are planning to begin the canvass with a mail drop, and to use mail drops throughout the process. The use of canvassers will be examined carefully and ideally they will be used only towards the end of the canvass.
  • The Chair thanked the CEO for her update and opened the matter up for questions. One party questioned the timing of the Canvass, given that it will conclude within 12 months of a planned election and people may be removed from the register. The CEO explained that the timing is a government decision, controlled by legislation, and it is not within the remit of the EONI to change. A member of the panel requested that a timetable of the canvass be shared with the parties. The CEO advised she would like to engage with the parties to encourage registration amongst the public. Using census data, the EONI would like to send out pre-populated forms to those less likely to register to vote online. The EONI would like there to be greater public awareness in completing these forms correctly, as around 60% are returned with errors.
  • The Electoral Commission will be completing a large scale public awareness campaign. Cahir advised they would like to make more use of data available for targeting campaigns during the latter part of the canvass in places where the evidence suggests the response rate isn’t as good.
  • A member of the panel stated the digital registration number (DRN) has caused a lot of confusion for people. They asked if there would be a public awareness campaign around the importance of retaining this number. The CEO advised that as the canvass is a reapplication process, it does not require the applicant to provide their DRN. However, once they have reapplied they will be given their DRN again and at that point it is important they keep hold of this number as it is necessary for registering for an absent vote. Cahir advised the primary message of the Electoral Commission public awareness campaign for the canvass will be to “register to vote online”, with secondary reminders of the need to retain your DRN once it is issued. This may also be echoed in new public messaging around the use of absent voting in the run up to the May 2022 election.

Electoral Commission Update

CSPL Review of Electoral Regulation

  • Mairaid highlighted that in June, the Committee on Standards in Public Life launched a review of the regulatory framework on electoral finance, enforced by the Commission, the police and the courts. The Electoral Commission circulated a link to the consultation to a range of NI stakeholders, including the parties, at the time, inviting them to submit a response if they wished to do so.
  • In the Electoral Commission’s consultation response, it is made clear the current regulatory framework broadly works well to support public confidence in the integrity of elections and referendums in the UK. We noted there are generally high levels of compliance with the law, and the framework has been updated over time.
  • However, the response sets The Electoral Commission’s suggested priorities for reform that are designed to deliver greater transparency, reflect new ways of campaigning, and provide sufficient deterrents to those tempted to breach electoral law. Mairaid advised that The Electoral Commission has recommended greater alignment between the party and candidate regulatory framework, to ensure the system is fairer and more proportionate for candidates and frees up police and court time.

PACAC Inquiry

  • Mairaid advised that there is an ongoing inquiry from Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) into the role of The Electoral Commission. This will examine public and political confidence in the Electoral Commission and will be looking at its powers, remit, and functions. There is currently a call for evidence out which closes on 16 November 2020, and a link to the Call for Evidence would be circulated after the meeting.

UK Government digital imprints consultation

  • The Commission has welcomed the UK Government’s consultation on digital imprints. We have previously recommended extending imprint requirements to digital election and referendum material. The consultation provides an opportunity to deliver real change for voters and give them a better understanding of who is trying to reach them online. The consultation seeks views on the technical scope of the new digital imprints regime and closes on 4 November 2020. We will be submitting a response, and would encourage parties to respond to the consultation too.

Online party conferences and events guidance

  • We understand that some political parties will be holding digital conferences and other meetings which would otherwise have been held in person as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In response to this we have prepared some FAQs on our website to address how these events interact with the PPERA party funding rules. The rules on payments made in connection with digital conferences and events are treated in the same way as physical conferences and events under PPERA. We have also considered how the rules apply to advertisements at these online events and digital conference stands which parties may wish to sell.

Upcoming reporting dates for political parties

  • 30 October 2020 - Deadline for submitting Quarter 3 2020 (1 July 2020– 30 September 2020) donations and loans report
  • 28 October 2020 -Statements of Accounts for parties and accounting units with income and expenditure over £250,000 will be published.


  • Thanks and best wishes were passed onto Anna Carragher as this was her last meeting as Chair as she steps down from the Northern Ireland Commissioner role.
  • Cahir advised that recruitment is ongoing for a new Northern Ireland Commissioner. The closing date for these applications is 14 October 2020. The House of Commons Speaker’s Committee is planning on interviewing for this in early November.
  • Recruitment is also about to commence for a new Chair of the Electoral Commission.
  • The Speaker’s Committee is also carrying out recruitment for a new Smaller Parties Commissioner.

Proposed meeting dates 2021

  • Tuesday 19 January
  • Tuesday 9 March
  • Tuesday 8 June
  • Tuesday 12 October