Northern Ireland Assembly’s Parties Panel: 1 October 2019

Meeting overview

Date: 1 October 2019

Time: 9:30am

Location: Boardroom, Ormeau Business Park, Belfast 

Date of next scheduled meeting: 28 January 2020

Who was at the meeting

Alliance Party:           

  • Sharon Lowry


  • Lee Reynolds

Green Party:             

  • Kate Barry

Sinn Féin:               

  • Gary Fleming and Seamus Drumm


  • Catherine Matthews


  • Barbara Knox

The Electoral Commission:      

  • Anna Carragher, Commissioner
  • Cahir Hughes, Head of Electoral Commission NI
  • Roisin McDaid, Senior Officer (Political Parties Liaison)
  • Craig Westwood, Director of Communications, Policy and Research
  • Laura Palts McCarthy, Senior Public Affairs Officer

Electoral Office for Northern Ireland:           

  • Virginia McVea, Chief Electoral Officer for Ireland

Welcome and introductions

The Chair, Anna Carragher, welcomed everyone to the meeting and round table introductions were made. Anna congratulated Cahir on his new role and updated the panel on other Commission staffing changes. 

Notes of previous meeting on 11 June 2019

The panel agreed the notes of the previous meeting. There were no matters arising.

Issues raised by the political parties

No items had been raised by the parties in advance of the meeting.

Electoral Commission updates

Anna commented on the current political environment and said that the Commission had contingency plans in place for any unscheduled poll.

Electoral Commission assessment on May 2019 local government elections

Cahir told the panel that on 8 July we wrote to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland giving our assessment that the local elections in Northern Ireland had been well run, with feedback from voters and observers being positive. A copy of the letter was provided.  

The Commission identified a number of minor legislative issues that we have highlighted to the Government. These included issues relating to home addresses on ballot papers, the management of the count and polling scheme reviews. In response the Government has already consulted with us on draft legislation to remove the requirement for home addresses to be on ballot paper and other minor issues.

Commission response to draft legislation

Cahir updated the panel on draft legislation that the Commission had responded to the Government on: 

  • Representation of the People (Electronic Communications and Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020

In August we responded to draft legislation for the canvass, welcoming the opportunity it would give voters to respond to a canvass online for the first time in Northern Ireland. Overall we were content with the draft legislation, although we are waiting on a further draft of the Regulations from the NIO.

  • The Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2020

We have also responded to a draft Order from the NIO that makes some amendments to local government elections. Most notably this brings local government elections into line with other elections by removing the requirement for a candidate to have their home address published. It also addresses the issue relating to the use of capital letters for a candidate’s name on the ballot paper. We have welcomed the amendments made by the Order. 

Report on the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers

On 26 September we published our latest assessment on the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers in Northern Ireland. A copy of the report was provided. 

Cahir highlighted the headline figures from the report. Private renters remain the least likely to have up to date register entries (38%) compared to people who owned their houses outright (88%). Registration levels are also low among young people aged 18-34, with only 51% correctly registered, compared to 94% for people aged 65 and over. 

The 2018 figures show a return to the levels of accuracy and completeness recorded in 2012. The last Northern Ireland canvass was in 2013, with the next one scheduled for 2020.

The Commission has renewed calls for modernisation of the electoral registration system in Northern Ireland, recommending that public data could be better used to help keep the electoral register accurate and complete throughout the year.

Modernising electoral registration feasibility studies

Craig updated the panel on the feasibility studies the Commission published in July. The studies explored how the system could be modernised further to make it easier for people to register to vote and for Electoral Registration Officers to maintain accurate and complete electoral registers. Craig said that our studies provided an evidence base for any future policy. 

  • Anna added that compared to NI, it is a more complex picture in GB with 381 separate registers.
  • Gary said that they have serious concerns about the register but they support automatic registration of attainers when they get their national insurance number.
  • Lee made the point of being careful with data and that people have the right not to participate. Anna acknowledged the point but added that people should be registered even if they choose not to vote. Craig mentioned the debate about automatic or automated registration. 

Update from Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland

The CEO welcomed Cahir to his new role and thanked the Commission for its accuracy and completeness report.

There are now 1.3m people on the register which is one of the highest levels it’s been at.

From 1 January to 1 October 2019 there were 21,849 paper applications and 117,089 online applications. The mid-year estimate for attainers is at 50%.

EONI is looking at different data options to analyse registration levels and target outreach.

Working with property services’ data, EONI should be able to identify streets with the lowest levels of registration.  The CEO would welcome opportunities to work with the Commission and parties on more raising more targeted public awareness. 

The CEO is also considering how to contact attainers and an option is to use a C2K network which would allow contact with ever pupil on the network. Working with CCEA the EONI is planning to provide lesson plan materials for 11-14, 14-16 and 16+ to support electoral registration.

The CEO is working with Start 360 to reach those not in education or training.

EONI is working with RQIA to improve engagement with care home residents and to develop care home standards that would support this. There was a discussion about the difficulties of getting access to care home residents and how this needs to be balanced with the pressures and priorities of care homes and families.  

This led to a discussion around access to apartment blocks and their residents’ turnout rate.

Anna asked if more could be done to improve and modernise access to electoral ID for attainers and the elderly. The CEO said that a legislative change is needed but highlighted some options that could modernise the process. This included using photos on the C2K network for young people. However GDPR legislation would have to be carefully considered alongside this. 

These are longer term projects and might need pilots to test if they work in practice. The CEO suggested working with the Commission given its experience of the ID pilots in Great Britain

The polling station review is due to be published on or before 1 December. The CEO will confirm with parties when it will be published. 

The CEO will arrange a meeting with the panel to discuss how data sources could be more effectively used to manage the electoral register. 

Electoral Commission updates – recent Commission publications

Codes of Practice on election spending

Roisin updated panel members on the Codes of Practice. In July we submitted two codes of practice on election spending to the Minister for Constitution.  One on candidate and one on party spending. The Minister now needs to decide whether to make any amendments to the codes before laying them before parliament to approve. The draft codes and our report on the responses to the consultation process were circulated to members in July and are available on our website. The codes, if enacted will apply to elections to Westminster, Northern Ireland Assembly and Councils in Northern Ireland. These codes would also apply at local government elections in Northern Ireland where the regulated period was combined with the regulated period for another election

If you have any questions about the codes, please contact Roisin.

Political finance – statutory return deadlines

Parties were reminded of the following deadlines:

  • Donation and loan returns for 1 July 2019 – 30 September 2019 (Q3 2019) must be submitted by 30 October 2019.
  • Donation and loan returns for 1 October 2019 – 31 December 2019 (Q4 2019) must be submitted by 30 January 2020.
  • Lee raised concerns about advice received regarding the reporting of loans. Roisin said that we can meet to discuss any individual concerns. 


AOB – none raised

Proposed 2020 meeting dates

  • Tuesday 28 January
  • Tuesday 24 March
  • Tuesday 9 June
  • Tuesday 6 October