My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for securing today's debate. I agree that this is an incredibly important issue. However, I fear that I must begin with a confession lest I be accused of hypocrisy. Late last night, to my horror, I realised that I am not currently registered on the electoral register.
I moved flat a couple of months ago, so I am inaccurately registered. This is one of the ways in which we lose people permanently from the register. It got me thinking as I walked home about the question, "How do you trace me?". I thought, first, of my self-assessment tax return, but then thought that it might not be too wise to get HMRC involved in this issue. I then turned to my utility bills as a way of being traced, but they were not all in my name and I switched provider in the move. But I then came up with an idea that is perhaps worth the Government investigating. I redirected my post. How many people who move use this facility? Would it be worth requesting that the Post Office add to the form the question, "Do you wish to be added to the electoral register at the address to which you are redirecting your post?". With 13 to 15 per cent of people now missing from the electoral register, I ask the Government to consider whether this is worth investigating.
I realise that that is a very pragmatic beginning to a speech on an issue of the highest principle. I shall seek briefly to speak about the lack of party consensus on the matter and the current "nudge" philosophy of this Government. The Minister in the other place stated on
"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".-[Hansard, Commons, 15/9/10; col. 885.]
However, when I googled this issue, I found that there is anything but party consensus. So often during the past 11 months in your Lordships' House, I have been told, "You have joined at rather a strange time", or, "We are not normally this party political". If one were to think of elections and government as analogous to a board game then issues such as the number of MPs would be part of the game, and the system of voting, AV or otherwise, would be rather like the rules. However, the electoral register determines who gets to participate in the game. This issue is fundamental to our democracy and sits in a different category of issues, rather like judicial independence. Therefore, to see cross-party fault lines develop on this issue concerns me greatly. I know that this can then lead to the argument, "It was not we who party-politicised-it was you", but I believe that we must depoliticise this issue, and swiftly. If the Minister were willing to consider the working group suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, I would add that political parties should be supplemented by-or there should perhaps even be a majority of-independent representation, which would greatly assist in rebuilding public confidence in our system.
This is a Government who believe in the "nudge", a theory perhaps best explained by example. If you wish to apply for a driving licence, you must now answer the question whether you wish to be an organ donor before your form can be processed. If you do not answer the question, the form will not be processed, the theory being that there will be a higher level of organ donors as the system will have nudged everyone to answer the question. That being so, surely the Government would want to nudge people to ensure that there is the highest level of voters on the register and the highest level of people eventually voting. Had the behavioural insights team that now exists in No. 10 Downing Street been asked about the opt-out mechanism, I doubt that it would have been proposed.
In Northern Ireland, one has to complete the voter registration form, and I wonder why the British Government are taking away this minimal form of compulsion when undertaking the greatest change to UK elections since the granting of universal suffrage. Why do I have to fill in the self-assessment tax form and register my car, if I own one, with the DVLA, but not have to fill in this form? I would be grateful for further evidence from the Minister that making the whole system voluntary will not affect the completeness of the electoral register.
I note that the report from the Information Society Alliance states:
"Compulsory registration does not in all cases yield registration rates notably above those achieved in countries without compulsory registration".
But will it be so in our case? Were the four of us who shared a house alone in knowing that someone had to fill in that form so we could not leave it hanging around forever?
Finally, I have much sympathy with the need for a full household canvass in 2014, as the Electoral Commission has stated that about 20 per cent of people eligible to re-register will not actually be written to in the first write-out in 2014. I presume that that 20 per cent is in addition to the 6.5 million people who are not even on the register at all. I am not convinced that a full household survey in 2013 is more important than in 2014, if resources are the issue at stake .
Accuracy and completeness of the register are but a means to an end, that end being public confidence in the outcome of the election. Is it impossible for the UK to have problems? Let us look at the United States and the hanging chads of the presidential election in 2000. In 2015 it could be a tight race, again. It could be in poor economic conditions. We know that there will be a reduction of MPs to 600. Moreover, 2015 will be the first truly Twitter, Facebook, internet election, with potentially restless people in touch by smartphone. Any complaints or hyperbole, whether well founded or not, travel fast nowadays-August's disturbances taught us that if nothing else. Let us not take anything for granted, especially our free, fair and peaceful elections.