Voter Registration

Oral Answers to Questions — Treasury – in the House of Commons at 12:37 pm on 27th January 2015.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd 1:07 pm, 27th January 2015

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the registration of voters by registration officers;
and for connected purposes.

Mr Speaker, as you and many Members of this House may know, I have been raising the issue of voter registration since 2001. In that time, we have seen massive and far-reaching changes to the way in which we register to vote in order to empower citizens with the ability and confidence to cast their vote come election time. What I propose in this Bill will work towards increasing the number of people registered to vote, particularly those who are least likely to be registered to vote, which includes young people.

Since 2001, we have seen the number of non-registered voters increase. I do not wish to shy away from the arguments about why people are not registered to vote, but first let me say that, according to revised figures from the Electoral Commission last year, some 7.5 million people were missing off the electoral register in 2010. But even in the past 18 months, England, Wales and Scotland have collectively gone through the biggest change in the way people register to vote since the Great Reform Act 1832. The move to individual electoral registration has seen 5 million people fail to transfer over from the household register to the new individual electoral registers, and 1 million people have fallen off the electoral register completely.

I have been working with the fantastic group, Bite The Ballot, which is a neutral cross-party youth democracy group, to bring forward this Bill to tackle the under-registration of young people in England Wales and Scotland, and to make registration easier with an “opt-in” option on Government forms.

The first part of this Bill seeks to emulate what is now practice in Northern Ireland. Following the transition to individual voter registration in Northern Ireland in 2002, there was a marked decrease in the number of people registered to vote. In 2008, to tackle that problem, the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland was given the power to request information from post-primary schools to pre-populate electoral registration forms for those eligible attainers.

The schools initiative, according to the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, is the most productive part of his community engagement programme. His office visits 182 schools between mid-September and early November each and every year, and has successfully registered 50% of the total eligible youth population via the scheme alone. Bite The Ballot, which has five years’ experience in inspiring attainers and young people to register, tells us that face-to-face engagement is the best way of ensuring that young people register, so I say, why not follow best practice in Northern Ireland, and follow suit in the rest of the United Kingdom? By visiting schools and colleges, and running voter engagement sessions, our youngest citizens can be inspired to begin their lifelong democratic journeys as active, engaged citizens.

The Bill also seeks to open up the avenues to registration with a simple opt-in tick box on all Government forms. The measure is similar to the USA’s “Motor Voter” Act of 1993, which has enabled a massive 32% of American voters to register through interactions with the state. It would empower citizens to register to vote when filling in, for example, applications for a renewed driver’s licence, a passport and benefits, or when enrolling with a GP. The system I am advocating would only ever operate on an opt-in basis to protect the individual’s private data and identity. Having moved to a system of online registration, that type of data sharing is surely not beyond the skill of the Government Digital Service.

The Government have just announced £10 million to aid local authorities and national organisations in the task of registering people to vote. That is welcome, and must be spent on activities that work and are known to work. School and college visits, as Bite The Ballot proves, work. Enabling people to register when they interact with Government services, as the Americans have proved, works. My Bill seeks to make the UK’s system of voter registration as easy, engaging and accessible as possible. I believe that the two proposals I make in the Bill go some way towards achieving that.

In conclusion, may I pay tribute to you, Mr Speaker, for your support for the issue of registration and turnout, including your support for lighting up the Victoria tower with a big X on voter registration day next week, and your support for online voting by 2020?

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Chris Ruane, Mr Russell Brown, Nic Dakin, Mr Clive Betts, Mr Kevan Jones, Mr George Howarth, Mr Mark Williams, Mr Elfyn Llwyd, Jim Shannon, Jessica Morden and Mark Durkan present the Bill.

Chris Ruane accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 March 2015 and to be printed (Bill 163).