Electoral Registration — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:48 am on 12th January 2012.

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Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Labour 11:48 am, 12th January 2012

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate, which takes note of the Government's policy on electoral registration. This is often a highly technical issue, but it is always an important one. The struggle for the right to vote defines the history of our democracy but electoral registration makes that right a reality. This debate is a timely one, as the Government have embarked on a significant change to electoral registration, with potentially profound consequences for the health of our democracy.

Many issues could be addressed under the rubric of this debate. For example, it would be possible to explore why the Government have been so dilatory in pursuing proposals put forward by the previous Government to ensure that service personnel serving in conflict areas can cast their votes themselves. It would be possible, for example, to discuss the abolition of the edited register. There is also a range of other more technical issues that could be discussed. I hope that the distinguished noble Lords who will follow me in this debate will address some or all of these issues.

I want to focus on the introduction of individual voter registration. Most people, in all political parties, believe that the Government are right to bring in individual voter registration. The previous Government legislated for it-and I declare an interest as the Minister who brought in that legislation. I did so because I believed that it was right to do so. It is right, as a matter of principle, that citizens should be responsible for their own eligibility to vote. Individual registration can help to tackle fraud, although, as I will discuss later, the extent of fraud should not be overstated nor is individual registration a cure-all for it where it does exist. However, there is widespread concern about the way that the Government are introducing this change. I am particularly worried by their abandonment of the bipartisan approach adopted by the previous Government. I am also worried about the damage that they risk doing to the efforts to secure a comprehensive register, which must be the foundation of our electoral system.

For all its merits, the introduction of individual registration carries with it the severe risk that significant numbers of people who are eligible to vote will not be registered to do so and so will be unable to vote. This was the case in Northern Ireland when it moved to this new system of registration a few years ago. The report by the independent Electoral Commission on the experience in Northern Ireland found that the new registration process disproportionately impacted on:

"Young people and students, people with learning difficulties and other forms of disability and those living in areas of high social deprivation".

That report concluded-and this is important, because of the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland-that:

"While these findings relate directly to Northern Ireland, they are not unique and reflect the wider picture across the UK. They present a major challenge to all those concerned with widening participation in electoral and democratic processes".

In evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of the House of Commons, Jenny Watson, the chair of the Electoral Commission, said that it is possible that, under the Government's proposed changes,

"the register could go from around a 90% completeness that we currently have to around, say, a 60% completeness".

There is already a serious problem with the electoral register in the United Kingdom. The latest estimate from the Electoral Commission suggests that at least 6 million people who are eligible to vote were not registered to do so in December 2010. The fact that so many people who should be on the register are not, despite all the measures taken by the previous Government to increase registration-measures which I am pleased to see the current Government are taking forward-shows how intractable this problem is. It damages our democracy when so many eligible citizens cannot vote because they are not on the register.

The introduction of individual registration risks making a bad situation significantly worse. That is why its introduction was delayed for so long. The improvements it is likely to bring to the accuracy of the register are balanced by the deterioration it is likely to bring in the register's coverage. The previous Government sought to reconcile these competing objectives by tying the implementation of individual registration to the achievement of a comprehensive and accurate register by 2015, as far as it was practicable to do so. This timetable allowed for a phased introduction of the new system. However, that Government showed their commitment to meeting the timetable by giving the Electoral Commission the power to oversee the process independently and the obligation to report annually to Parliament, so that if Parliament wanted to make any changes as the system progressed it could do so. We also gave the Electoral Commission substantial new powers to carry out these objectives.

The previous Government spent a great deal of time and effort building cross-party agreement on this approach. In the debate in the other place on 13 July 2009, which was the major occasion when this issue was debated there, the Front-Bench spokespersons for both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat Party supported the government approach and the timetable, and they did not vote against it. The present Government could have continued with this approach, but for reasons that they have never adequately explained they did not do so. They are rushing forward with the timetable for individual registration and removing the key safeguard of the requirement for a comprehensive and accurate register.

That is not all. The Government threaten to make the register even less complete by proposing to remove the civic and legal duty to register to vote, and to abolish the annual household canvass in 2014. I am sure the Government will say that they are taking measures to mitigate these potential risks just as the previous Government did-and I give them credit for that: they are-but nobody can be confident that such measures will solve the problem.

So why have the Government abandoned the previous Government's careful, non-partisan approach to this important issue? They have suggested threats to the integrity of the register as a possible reason for this haste. In the words of the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, a few months ago in this place:

"for the first time certainly in my lifetime, the integrity of the voting system was starting to be called into question".-[Hansard, 31/10/11; col. 974.]

So, by implication, the Government appear to be arguing that the need is so urgent that there can be no delay in bringing in a measure that can help tackle electoral malpractice. But independent bodies tasked with safeguarding the integrity of our electoral system do not share this assessment. The analysis carried out by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission, for example, into the 2010 elections stated that,

"no evidence of widespread systematic attempts to undermine or interfere with the May 2010 elections through electoral fraud", was found. They said:

"we are not aware of any case reported to the police that affected the outcome of the election to which it related nor of any election that has had to be re-run as a result of electoral malpractice".

There is never any justification for complacency about even a single incident of malpractice, but the evidence does not suggest that the level of electoral malpractice justifies the risk that the Government are running with the electoral register.

A report in 2008 from an independent body, the Rowntree Reform Trust, concluded:

"It is unlikely that there has been a significant increase in electoral malpractice since the introduction of postal voting on demand in 2000".

It added that any malpractice that had taken place,

"related to a tiny proportion of all elections contested".

Nor will individual registration, for all its merits, address all the cases of malpractice. The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission have concluded that the very nature of recorded electoral malpractice changes; as measures are introduced to tackle one form of malpractice, the problem shifts to other forms of it.

Indeed, I would say that the Government themselves do not see the problem as disproportionately pressing, because they scrapped ID cards. Whatever the justification for scrapping ID cards, they did scrap them. Whatever problems noble Lords may see with them, ID cards would have helped tackle the single largest category of alleged malpractice, which is voting offences, which includes personation at a polling station. The Government scrapped ID cards despite a recommendation by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission that to strengthen the security of the electoral process, the Government should review the case for requiring proof of identity of voters at the polling station.

The weakness of the Government's case for their approach is matched by the damage they risk doing. They risk excluding millions from their democratic right to vote. Their approach junks the principle, followed for good reasons by successive Conservative and Labour Governments, that fundamental constitutional change, particularly when it relates to the electoral system-the very wiring of our democracy-should only proceed, wherever possible, on a bipartisan basis. Their approach means that the boundary reviews in 2015 will be conducted on the basis of a profoundly flawed register, and therefore will subvert all the high-minded principles that the Government have advanced for these boundary reviews.

The increasingly unrepresentative register that is likely to result from the Government's approach will restrict the pool of those available for jury service, and so it will threaten the quality of justice in our country. Scope has warned that,

"the transition process must be handled carefully so that it doesn't inadvertently exclude disabled people".

Finally, the Government's approach risks turning our electoral arrangements in this country into a matter for partisan dispute for the first time in over a century, and this is potentially toxic for our democracy. Most agree that those eligible voters not registered to vote are most likely to vote Labour when they do vote. It is true that the Liberal vote in the inner cities is also likely to suffer. The Electoral Commission has found that,

"under-registration is notably higher than average among 17-24 year olds ... private sector tenants ... and black and minority ethnic (BME) British residents".

It also found that 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".

The evidence suggests that the party that will suffer least, if at all, from a fall-off in registration is the Conservative Party. Electoral registration is only 90 per cent complete in Labour seats, but 94 per cent complete in Conservative seats.

Politicians and Parliament have been falling into disrepute in recent years-it is a matter of grave concern, I know, to everyone in this House and in the other place. I ask your Lordships to consider the impact on the health of our democracy if it turns out, as it might, that the outcome of a general election has been determined by the fact that millions of eligible voters could not vote because they were not registered to do so, and that this was the result of a government policy deliberately pursued despite all the evidence that it would have precisely this consequence. Whatever the motivation behind the Government's precipitous abandonment of a bipartisan approach to individual registration, they still have a chance to return to the approach adopted by the previous Labour and Conservative Administrations.

Independent bodies have now reported on the Government's approach and expressed concerns about it. The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, on which the Government have a majority, has noted,

"serious concerns that the Government's current proposals will miss an unacceptably large number of potential electors".

The Electoral Commission has argued that the UK Government and UK Parliament should make a number of changes, including requiring electoral registration officers to run a full household canvass in 2014, abandoning the government proposal to allow voters to opt out from registration, publishing a detailed implementation plan, considering how to ensure the change is delivered consistently and ensuring that sufficient funding is available for the activities involved in implementing the change from household to individual electoral registration.

I hope that the Government will now take the concerns of these independent bodies more seriously than they have done up until now. I suggest to the Minister that one way of addressing all the problems that the Government's approach risks creating would be to set up a working group, consisting of representatives of all the political parties represented at Westminster, to agree how best to tackle the problems that have been so widely identified and by independent bodies. There are many distinguished Members of your Lordships' House, many of whom will speak in the debate today, who I am sure could make a major contribution to such a working group. I recognise that the Minister may not be in a position to respond substantively to this suggestion today, but I would be grateful if he could agree to write to me with a considered response if he is not able to do so today. If he rejects this proposal, could he set out in detail whether he accepts that the introduction of individual registration will lead to increased numbers of eligible voters falling off the electoral register? If he does not, can he guarantee that this will not happen?

This is a technical issue but, as I hope I have indicated in these remarks, it is one with potentially profound consequences for our democracy. I hope the Minister will not brush these concerns aside, but respond to them constructively and in a way that can re-establish the bipartisan approach that should always characterise public policy on such constitutional issues.