Northern Ireland Assembly Parties’ Panel: 3 October 2023

Meeting Overview

Date: 3 October 2023

Time: 09:30 am

Date of next scheduled meeting: 25 January 2023

Who was at the meeting

Electoral Commission;

  • Dr Katy Radford, Electoral Commissioner for Northern Ireland (KR)
  • Cahir Hughes, Head of Electoral Commission, Northern Ireland (CH)
  • Julie Howell, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Lead (JH)
  • Jonathan Mitchell, Manager, Northern Ireland Office (JM)
  • Roisin McDaid, Senior Officer (Political Parties Liaison) (RM)
  • Hannah Greenfield, Digital Communications Officer (HG)

Electoral Office for Northern Ireland;

  • Dr. David Marshall, Chief Electoral Officer (DM)

Political Parties;

  • Alliance Party, Helen McCann (HM)
  • Democratic Unionist Party, D.U.P. – Dan Boucher (DB)
  • Sinn Féin - Ronan McLoughlin (RML)
  • Social Democratic & Labour Party, SDLP – Catherine Matthews (CM)
  • Ulster Unionist Party – Ralph Ashenhurst (RA)

The Executive Office Racial Equality Subgroup 

  • Rev Dr. Livingstone Thompson (LT)


  • Alliance Party - Sharon Lowry and Peter McCully
  • Sinn Féin - Gary Fleming
  • Ulster Unionist Party - Tim Lemon

1. Welcome, apologies and introductions

1.1 KR welcomed attendees to the meeting. Particular welcomes were made to DM, JH and LT.  

1.2 DM is the new Chief Electoral Officer and has joined the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland (EONI) from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) where he was the Director of Census and Population Statistics.  

1.3 JH is the new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion lead for the Electoral Commission, based in Northern Ireland.  

1.4 LT the Guest Speaker joins us as the Chair of the Executive Office Racial Equality Subgroup. 

2. Minutes from NIAPP meeting Tuesday 28 March and any matters arising.

2.1 CH thanked attendees for their feedback from the last meeting and the minutes were agreed.

3. Issues raised by political parties in advance of the meeting

3.1 There were no issues raised by political parties in advance of the meeting.

4. Update from the Electoral Commission

4.1 Cyber-attack on the Electoral Commission
4.1.1 CH provided an update on the recent cyber-attack on the Electoral Commission. In August we announced we had been the subject of a complex cyber-attack for which CH offered his apologies to the panel. The incident was identified in October 2022 after suspicious activity was detected on our systems.  

CH confirmed that the registers held at the time of the cyber-attack include the name and address of anyone in Great Britain who was registered to vote between 2014 and 2022, the names of those registered as overseas voters during the same period, and the names and addresses of anyone registered in Northern Ireland in 2018. The registers did not include the details of those registered anonymously. The Commission’s email system was also accessible during the attack.

While the data contained in the electoral registers is limited, and much of it is already in the public domain, we understand the concern this may cause.  

Information relating to donations and/or loans to registered political parties and non-party campaigners is held in a system not affected by this incident. Any un-published information on donations to parties in Northern Ireland (pre-2017) held on our systems remains secure and was not accessed during this cyber-attack. However, any information or data shared with us via email will have been accessible during the attack.

CH confirmed that we have liaised with the PSNI and the likelihood of a cross reference being made with the data accessed during their data breach is extremely low.

RA asked if the Electoral Commission are aware of who was responsible for the breach. CH advised that no information had been disclosed on who was responsible for the attack.

KR informed attendees that there is support available on our website including the opportunity to put in a subject data request. 

4.2 Local Council election report.
4.2.1 JM provided the following update on the local council election report that was published in September: Overall, we found voters in Northern Ireland continue to have positive views about how elections are run in Northern Ireland, with satisfaction over the registration and voting processes remaining high.

However, the Digital Registration Number (DRN) continues to be a barrier to voters. The report found over 5,000 postal or proxy vote applications were rejected due to a missing DRN.

JM highlighted that we continue to call on the UK Government to urgently review the operation of DRN in Northern Ireland to ensure barriers are removed while also maintaining the integrity of the absent voting process. Panel members agreed that the DRN continued to pose many challenges for voters and that action needed to be taken across the electoral community to address this.  

4.3 Accuracy and Completeness report.
4.3.1 JM provided an update on the accuracy and completeness reports that were published in September: Our analysis shows substantial improvements have been made to the quality of the electoral registers in Northern Ireland following the canvass in 2021 and it is the largest it has been.

However, up to 300,000 people in Northern Ireland are still either incorrectly registered to vote or missing completely. In particular, young people, private renters, and those who have recently changed address continue to be less likely to be correctly registered to vote.

Although improvements have been made due to the canvass, between canvasses the registration system continues to struggle to capture population movement and the canvass process itself requires the EONI to contact and receive a response from all eligible electors, even if they were registered before the canvass and their details had not changed.

It is therefore unlikely that levels of accuracy and completeness – and therefore the number of eligible people able to have their say at elections – will significantly improve without significant changes to the electoral registration system.

The report calls on the UK Government to create clear legal gateways for government departments and public bodies to share data on potentially eligible voters. Such reforms would enable the Chief Electoral Officer to register voters directly, or to send them invitations to register.

4.4 Election Act changes.
4.4.1 JM provided an update on upcoming electoral administrative changes coming from the Elections Act

CM asked for clarification on changes to Commonly used names and addresses and whether this would mean candidates won’t need to declare their home address. JM confirmed that candidates will be able to withhold their home address on nominations papers so that only their local authority area appears on the ballot paper.

KR asked what if any impact would there be on Irish names. JM agreed he would check on this and follow up with KR outside the meeting.  

DM highlighted that there were also a number of technical changes made to the delivery of the elections as a result of the Election Act.  

DM suggested the Electoral Commission and the Electoral office produce a note outlining Election act changes and circulate this to members of the NIAPP by the following meeting. JM agreed that this would be a good idea and would circulate to panel members ahead of the next meeting.  

4.5 RM provided an update on regulatory changes coming from the Election Act.
4.5.1 Digital Imprints

RM highlighted that from November 2023, campaigners will be required to include imprints on their digital political campaign material. This means that many types of digital material such as websites, social media adverts, tweets, posts, images, audio and videos will require an imprint. This is the same requirement as for physical campaign material.  

It was confirmed that an ordinary member of the public will not need to include an imprint on any organic digital material.

We expect the statutory guidance to come into force in November 2023. We will contact parties when this has been approved and to arrange any training that may be needed. This change will affect candidates and future candidates so it is important parties are aware.

RML asked for clarification on whether this change is only relevant during an election cycle. RM advised that given the way the rules are written (future election, future candidate) the rule could be relevant at all times.

RML asked if an elected representative put out information related to day to day business would this need to include a digital imprint. RA also asked whether additional information about the scope of this legislation would be available. RM advised that the draft digital imprint guidance is currently available on the Commission’s website and outlines the scope of the legislation as well as the range of scenarios in which an imprint is required.

RM again confirmed that training would be offered and CH encouraged attendees to get in contact if they needed any help with this going forward.

4.5.2 Code of Practice for Non-Party Campaigners.

RM advised that the Act has introduced a duty on the Electoral Commission to produce a Code of Practice on the laws relating to non-party campaigner spending.

It is a legal guidance document that includes what qualifies as expenses, reporting controlled expenditure, and joint campaigning. The Code will apply to elections to the UK Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It is a statutory defence for a non-party campaigner to show they complied with the Code in determining whether their campaign activity was regulated.

The Code was laid in the UK Parliament on 13 September and if approved is expected to come into force in November. 

5. Update from the Chief Electoral Officer.

5.1 The Chief Electoral Officer, DM provided a presentation on his plans for the Electoral Office as set out in the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland 2023/24 business plan  

5.1.1 This included information about current issues with delivering elections such as DRN processes and Elections Act changes.

5.1.2 DM advised the delivery of elections is difficult due to small staff numbers however he is looking to further digitalise processes going forward.  

5.1.3 DM raised the issue that there are currently around 100,000 people on the electoral register who will have to be removed under current legislation by December 2024 unless contact is made. Various attendees were concerned by this as individuals would be unaware they were no longer registered.

5.1.4 DM advised that EONI would be writing to secondary schools and households with attainers to try and fill the gap between the last canvass and the next election. DM advised that his aim was a complete electoral register.

5.1.5 DM raised the issue of the DRN as an additional burden for voters and asked party representatives to make canvassers aware of the requirement when handling absent vote applications. DM advised EONI are currently working on a series of mitigations which should be in place by the end of the year. He suggested that at this point, it may be worth parties and Electoral Commission coming together again to see whether these are sufficient in dealing with the DRN problem.

5.1.6 DM advised that EONI are preparing for upcoming elections by looking at how to maintain temporary staffing levels as around 5000 staff are needed for an election. CM advised these staff must also be adequately trained.

5.1.7 DM demonstrated a new process for accessing the electoral registers. DM also demonstrated the process for the public to check online if they are registered.

5.1.8 KR thanked DM for the information provided. 

6. 2023 financial reporting dates for political parties

6.1 RM advised the deadline for submitting Quarter 3 (1 July 2023 – 30 September 2023) donations and loans reports is 30 October 2023. 

7. Promoting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

7.1 KR invited LT to provide an insight on equality, diversity and inclusion as Chairperson of the Executive Office Racial Equality Subgroup

7.1.1 LT demonstrated the barriers for people in elections by giving the example of a party member who discovered within a week of the election that she couldn’t represent the party due to her status. This is symptomatic of the lack of information available about the electoral process.

7.1.2 LT advised that individuals moving from one culture to another are more willing to give up material items than their notions and principles. In an electoral context, this can refer to self-registration which does not exist everywhere. In other places, people are automatically on the electoral register or have been registered by someone else. These people therefore become excluded from the process.

7.1.3 Culturally appropriate and specific communication is important and encouraging inclusion in political processes should be happening automatically and become a habit. In terms of barriers to knowledge, individuals are unaware of the challenges relating to the DRN and rules relating to voting such as deadlines are not well known in BAME communities. Knowledge is lacking but so is ability in terms of the registration process.

8. Upcoming meeting dates for 2024

8.1 The dates of upcoming meetings are provisionally, Tuesday 23 January, Tuesday 02 April, Tuesday 4 June and Tuesday 8 October.

9. Any other business

9.1 CH advised that the Commission’s Northern Ireland team will be moving to new premises by the end of the year. The new office will be at The Boat beside Custom House Square. As there will be more meeting room space available it is likely that future meetings of the Panel will be hosted there. RM asked parties to be aware if they are sending us documents that we will not be in the current office from the end of November onwards. CH advised that we would be in touch with further information regarding the move.