Committee (11th Day) (Continued)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:45 pm on 19th January 2011.

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Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 9:45 pm, 19th January 2011

My Lords, one of the consequences of this Bill is that it forces the Boundary Commission to construct a new electoral map on the basis of the electoral register as it stood last month, December 2010. There is no dispute between anyone in this House that millions of eligible voters are missing from that register. In 2005 the Electoral Commission estimated that 3.5 million eligible voters were missing from the electoral roll in England and Wales alone-that was based on five-year-old figures. A more recent estimate by Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, the leading academic expert on electoral registration, suggests that the figure for the whole of the United Kingdom today could be closer to 6 million potentially registrable electors.

According to the House of Commons Library, in excess of 400 parliamentary constituencies have a registration rate of at least 95 per cent, but over 200 seats have a rate below that number and around 100 seats have a rate below the national average of 91 per cent. In a significant number of cases, mainly in urban constituencies, around 80 per cent of the eligible electorate is registered to vote. That means that one in five voters is missing in some constituencies, predominantly those with a lower income profile.

The Electoral Commission investigation that I have referred to before, which was published in March last year, shines more light on the socioeconomic characteristics. In the course of these debates, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has explicitly agreed that,

"under-registration is notably higher than average among 17-24 year olds (56% not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and black and minority ethnic British residents (31%)".

The commission's report, published in May 2010, said:

"The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation".

Given that the Government's stated aim is to create more equal-sized constituencies and has always been fairer votes, one assumes that they are concerned about using an unequal register to pursue that objective-unequal in that there is not a consistent level of underregistration right across the country. By excluding the missing voters from this rigidly arithmetical review of constituency boundaries, the Government will inevitably and in practice distort the electoral map of Britain and dilute the representation of people who come from the specific groups that I have just identified. That would be unfair and fundamentally undemocratic. It is difficult to see how the Government want knowingly to proceed with a process that will deliver that outcome, particularly in the light of the stated fundamental aims of the review.

It is true to say that, over the past decades, boundary reviews have been conducted on the basis of the existing incomplete electoral registers, and previous electoral registers will have been more inaccurate than the electoral register now. So why change from that process? The answer is that in recent times there has never been a review of the scale being proposed here, with probably every single constituency being affected by the review that will take place, at some speed, up to October 2013, and of course 50 seats being chopped in the process.

In addition, under the previous arrangements-this is a secondary point-the process was always balanced by the opportunity for genuine public consultation, via the local public inquiries that this plan does not just abolish but forbids the Boundary Commission to conduct. Moreover, under the previous arrangements, the Boundary Commissions had the ability to take into account at least the direction of travel of the populations of these places. Therefore, they were able to take into account over a period of time what the likely population was going to be. There has never been such a large-scale review in the past. There will be no local inquiries at which these points can be made and, because numbers have to come first in all save three constituencies, there is no scope to try to build them in as one of the discretionary factors.

Two options are open: one is to pause and work to get the missing eligible voters on the register. That has been persistently and aggressively rejected by Ministers from the Dispatch Box in this House. If the timetable cannot be altered, why not do as the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Lipsey proposes and ask-or instruct through this statute-the Boundary Commission to use a formula that would enable missing eligible voters to be factored into its deliberations? A range of data sets can be used. There would be inaccuracies but I respectfully suggest that the probably minor inaccuracies that would arise would be a very worthwhile price to pay to get greater equality and fairness in our electoral boundaries, as they would reflect more accurately not just those who were registered but those who were entitled to be registered.

My noble friend Lord Lipsey has said that this is a probing amendment and described it as tentative in some respects. I am very keen to hear the Minister's answer to the amendment, particularly as Ministers have acknowledged the problem but, with respect, have not really come up with a solution. They have said, "It is just one of those things. We're doing some data matching pilots". I hope that there will be proposals to deal with the issue because, if there are not, in my respectful submission that undermines what has been said about the fairness which the Government seek to obtain.