My Lords, I would like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Wills on securing this debate on government policy on electoral registration. It is a very timely debate, as other noble Lords have said. I am well aware of my noble friend's passion on the subject, and his desire to see individual registration properly introduced and for that to improve both the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register. I had the pleasure of working with my noble friend when he was the Minister responsible and it is to his credit that much was done in legislating for the introduction of individual electoral registration. We sometimes seem to forget in this House that individual electoral registration is already on the statute book, introduced by the last Labour Government.
I should advise your Lordships' House that I am a member of the Electoral Commission. I was appointed as one of the first political commissioners. Like other noble Lords, I want to ensure that we have the most accurate and complete registers possible. We should all work with the Government, the Electoral Commission, local authorities and the professionals on the ground-the electoral registrations officers-to ensure that we have the best and most robust system in place. The suggestion from my noble friend Lord Wills that there should be open, all-party talks on this matter, with a view to achieving a bipartisan consensus on the way forward is one that the Government really should take up and run with. Many noble Lords from all parties could play a decisive role if that offer was taken up.
It is also important that the Government are open to ideas and suggestions on what is best practice and that we get the widest possible consensus on where we are going on this subject, so crucial to the health of our democracy. I want to see real consultation with the Local Government Association, SOLACE and the Association of Electoral Administrators-the EROs' professional body.
Like other noble Lords, I want to refer to the research that the Electoral Commission published before Christmas. This research was funded by the Government and provided a very welcome wake-up call for us all. I hope that it will be used in a positive way to shape the Bill that will come before Parliament in the next Session and will seek to speed up the process and make a number of other changes. All noble Lords in your Lordships' House should work to ensure that nothing in the proposals from the Government, when they come before the House, weakens measures to improve the accuracy and completeness of the register. If we allow that to happen, we will have failed the citizens of the United Kingdom.
The research tells us that parliamentary registers are 82.3 per cent complete and local government registers are 82 per cent complete. This equates to 8.5 million people unregistered as of April 2011. I fully accept that not all those people are necessarily entitled to vote, but the research goes on to estimate that at least 6 million people who are eligible are not registered to vote. That is a really shocking figure.
I recall, not least when the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was before this House, Members on this side of the House suggesting that there could be more than 3 million people missing from the register. That sometimes received a sceptical response from the government Benches opposite. I wonder how different the proposals from the Boundaries Commissions of the United Kingdom would be if all those people actually registered to vote. Is it really surprising that accuracy and completeness levels are lower where residents have moved since the previous canvass; or that the lowest level of completeness is recorded among 16 to 18 year-olds and 19 to 25 year-olds; or that in black and minority ethnic communities, completeness is 9 per cent lower than in white communities? I want to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, a real expression of willingness to work with everybody and anyone to improve the situation.
It is important also to incentivise people to return registration forms, as many noble Lords have mentioned, and to ensure that they understand that it is a civic duty to participate in our democracy. I recently thought that one possibility could be a scheme where every property that had an individual or individuals registered would qualify for a £50 discount in its council tax. I think it should be looked at. Of course other issues need to be addressed as well, but in the short time available cannot be covered in great depth.
We hear many debates and all noble Lords know that life is very tough for people at the moment. If we have more people falling off the register, life just gets tougher for them. Being on the register is one of the most important factors in respect of your credit rating. If you are not on, you are either not going to get credit or you will be forced to the more expensive end of the market. Noble Lords will be aware that I have raised the issue of financial inclusion many times. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, will give a commitment to the House today to speak to his colleagues in the business department about this possibly troubling, unforeseen consequence if this is not managed correctly.
In conclusion, I again thank my noble friend Lord Wills for calling this debate. It has been very worthwhile and I look forward to the contributions from my noble friend Lord Bach and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, from the Government.