My Lords, first I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wills, on securing this debate. It comes at a good time because the recent report by the Electoral Commission highlights a number of weaknesses in the current electoral registration process, especially in the completeness of the voting register. It suggests that perhaps 6 million or 7 million people who should be on the register are not. The current household-based processes for registering voters in Great Britain are not consistently applied. The system is not accurate system and is antiquated in that it requires action by someone acting as head of household-a position that does not exist in any household that I would recognise.
Any unnecessary change to the system beyond a simple switch from household to individual responsibility that might risk missing out many more voters while doing nothing to improve accuracy would be a very bad step in the wrong direction. I am pleased that any changes will now be open to very considerable pre-legislative scrutiny. Many representations have been made suggesting that the recent White Paper probably puts accuracy above completeness as a priority in the registration process. However, both principles are very important. Fraudulent entries on the register are abhorrent, but the absence from the register of people entitled to vote fundamentally weakens our democracy. I am pleased that the idea of encouraging voters in effect to disfranchise themselves through a so-called opt-out box on the registration form has been dropped; it would have sent a totally wrong signal about responsibility.
There is agreement among the parties on the principle of individual electoral registration, but, in considering any other changes to the process, clear evidence of the benefit of the changes to the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register must be shown if they are to be made. Many people consider that the main strength of our existing registration system, and the reason for widespread compliance, is that it is based on a legal requirement. Electoral registration officers clearly consider this requirement to be vital to the process, because the registration forms that each officer designs make the requirement clear above anything else.
I shall quote from some of the forms that I have been able to collect from different local authorities, which are sent to every household as part of the registration process. Exeter City Council's form says in bold near the top of the form:
"You are required by law to give the information requested on this form".
Wandsworth Council's form says in large print at the very top:
"You are required by law to provide the requested information even if you do not qualify to vote".
Elmbridge Borough Council's form says in large bold type under the address of the recipient:
"By law you must return this form every year even if there are no changes to make".
Edinburgh's form emphasises that the information is "required by law" by emboldening those three key words. Lambeth Council's form says at the top:
"By law you have to register every year", and this form, like many others, also leads with the fact that,
"You can be fined £1,000 if you do not reply".
Eastbourne's form also states most prominently in bold print the legal requirement to comply with the process and also features the sanction of a fine of up to £1,000 if you fail to do so. In fact, every single form that I have been able to collect strongly emphasises this point of legal requirement. I suggest that this is clear proof that the statement is considered to be of significant value by those most concerned with the detail of the process.
Of course, prosecutions for failure to comply are very rare, but the threat of legal sanction is considered to be very effective. The Electoral Commission has relayed to me the views of the Association of Electoral Administrators. These administrators are the people who employ those who go round visiting homes and chasing the forms to try to ensure that they are returned and that the register is as complete as possible. The association says that interrupting households to ask them to fill in a form is never easy, and if completion becomes a voluntary activity-simply a polite request-it does not think that the forms will be completed. The fact that it is a legal requirement is what persuades the vast majority of people to comply with the registration process.
The Electoral Commission clearly agrees. It concludes that:
"Without some form of sanction, we would expect a lower rate of response to requests for information than is currently achieved".
The threat of legal sanctions is what makes the existing register as comprehensive as it is. Without them, the completeness of the register is likely to fall considerably. Removing legal sanctions would put the quality of our democracy at great risk-for no benefit to that democracy. That is why I will not support any change that does not satisfactorily preserve this legal requirement to comply with the registration process on everyone who should fill in a form to register to vote. Registration to vote is not a personal choice in our system and it should not become one. It is voting or not that should remain a personal choice. This is not just about the fairness of elections but about the fairness of the way in which constituency and ward boundaries are drawn up.
I am sure that Ministers will remember the many occasions last year on which they defended the electoral register-as it now is-as the basis for drawing up constituency boundaries. They said that we could be proud of an estimated 92 per cent compliance with the registration process. They must now realise that if we change the basis of the register in fundamental ways, it may no longer be fit for purpose for redrawing boundaries.
There are many issues that I would like to raise in relation to this, particularly the need for a full and comprehensive canvass in 2014. We know how important that is, but for reasons of time I have chosen to concentrate on that specific issue, which I consider to be of paramount importance. I hope that my noble friend Lord Tyler will shortly take up some of the other issues about which I am also very concerned.