Individual Electoral Registration

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 15th September 2010.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 12:30 pm, 15th September 2010

With permission, I should like to make a statement on the Government's plans for the implementation of individual electoral registration in Great Britain-Northern Ireland having introduced such a system in 2002.

It is widely recognised on both sides of the House that the current arrangements for electoral registration need to change. At present, there is no requirement for people to provide any evidence of their identity to register to vote, which leaves the system vulnerable to fraud. Household registration harks back to a time when registration was the responsibility of the head of the household. Access to a right as fundamental as voting should not be dependent on someone else. We need a better system of keeping up with people who move house or who need to update their registration for other reasons. Individual registration provides an opportunity to move forward to a system centred around the individual citizen.

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House are concerned when they read of allegations of electoral fraud, including those alleged to have taken place at elections this year. Although proven electoral fraud is relatively rare, we should be concerned about the impact that such cases have on the public's confidence in the electoral system. The most recent survey, which was taken after the general election in May, found that one third of people think that electoral fraud is a problem. We can be confident that any allegations will be properly investigated by the authorities, but it is right that we take steps to make the system less vulnerable to fraud, because tackling that perception is an important part of rebuilding trust in our democracy, which is why this Government are committed to speeding up the implementation of individual registration.

Individual registration will require each person to register themselves and to provide personal identifiers-date of birth, signature and national insurance number-which will allow registration officers to cross-check the information provided before a person is added to the register, which should tackle the problem of fraudulent or ineligible registrations.

However, I want to make it absolutely clear that there will be no new databases. The Government's commitment to rolling back the surveillance state will be demonstrated clearly later today when the House debates the remaining stages of the Identity Documents Bill. Electoral registration officers will check the information they receive from people applying to be registered with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the applicant is genuine. People seeking to access public services are already subject to various similar authentication processes, for example when applying for benefits, and I do not believe such a check, which will help to eliminate electoral fraud, is disproportionate or that it represents an invasion of privacy. Naturally, we will ensure that robust arrangements are put in place to ensure that personal data are securely held and processed by electoral registration officers. Personal identifiers will not be published in the electoral register.

The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 was passed in the previous Parliament with all-party support. At this point, it is worth paying tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Grieve and my hon. Friend Mrs Laing, who worked tirelessly on promoting that. The Act gave us a framework for moving to individual registration. Introduction was to be on a voluntary basis before a further decision by Parliament-on the recommendation of the Electoral Commission-on whether to make it compulsory from later in 2015 at the earliest, but it is our judgment that that is a slow and very expensive way of doing things.

I am announcing today that we will legislate to implement individual registration in 2014. We will drop the previous Government's plans for a voluntary phase, which would have cost about £74 million over the Parliament. I believe that there is a far more cost-effective way to familiarise people with the new requirements for registration and-importantly-avoid any temporary drop in registration rates.

We propose that individual registration will be made compulsory in 2014, but that no one will be removed from the electoral register who fails to register individually until after the 2015 general election, giving people at least 12 months to comply with the new requirements, and ensuring as complete a register as possible for the election. From 2014 onwards any new registrations will need to be carried out under the new system, including last-minute registrations. We will also make individual registration a requirement for anyone wishing to cast a postal or proxy vote. That will tackle immediately the main areas of concern on electoral fraud, but it will ensure that people already on the register can vote at the next election and will have more than one opportunity to register individually.

Individual registration also provides us with an opportunity to tackle concerns about people missing from the electoral register, which are held on both sides of the House. But it is important to put this into perspective: the UK registration rate at 91% to 92% compares well internationally, including with some countries where voting is compulsory.

There is a significant number of people who are eligible to vote but not on the register. There is a variety of reasons for this and the move to individual registration provides us with an opportunity to do something about it. Whether a person chooses to register or not should be their individual choice. But we should do everything we can to ensure that people are not prevented from registering because the system is difficult to use or through ignorance of their rights. For example, research carried out by the Electoral Commission revealed that 31% of people believed that they would be automatically registered if they paid council tax. Many of those people may not therefore actually take the trouble to register to vote. As part of introducing individual registration, as well as improving the accuracy of the register, we will therefore take steps to improve its completeness.

I can also announce today that we will be trialling data-matching during 2011-that is comparing the electoral register with other public databases to find the people who are eligible to vote but who are missing from the register. The aim is to tackle under-registration among specific groups in our society and ensure that every opportunity is available to those currently not on the electoral register. These pilots will enable us to see how effective data-matching is and to see which data sets are of most use in improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. If they are effective, we will roll them out more widely across local authorities on a permanent basis to help ensure that our register is as complete as possible. The Electoral Commission will also play a key role in assessing and reporting on the pilots.

I will be writing to all local authorities responsible for electoral registration to invite them to put themselves forward to take part in these trials and I strongly encourage them to work in partnership with the Government on this important matter. Much work is already done by electoral registration officers to raise awareness and encourage people to register, but I will be considering further how local authorities. Members of Parliament and the Government might work together to develop an approach that will make a positive impact on the level of electoral registration.

Registration should be a simple process. We will also be considering how electoral registration can be integrated into people's day-to-day transactions with Government, for example when they move house, or visit the post office, or apply for a passport or driving licence.

Our proposals will improve both the completeness and accuracy of the register. We will therefore seek to bring forward a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny in the current session followed by a Bill to introduce individual registration from 2014. The need to improve the accuracy and completeness of electoral registers is an issue on which there is cross-party consensus. As we move forward, it will be important for us to maintain consensus and we will be seeking to work closely on implementation with political parties across the House.

The steps that I am announcing today will achieve change over the lifetime of this Parliament that will safeguard the integrity of our electoral system and improve registration levels. They are an important part of rebuilding people's faith in our democracy and I commend this statement to the House.