Electoral Registration — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:50 pm on 12th January 2012.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 1:50 pm, 12th January 2012

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wills, very much for giving us the opportunity to have this debate, which, as one or two noble Lords have remarked, was intended to take place in the other place some months ago. It is very good that we are now focusing on this important matter.

We are one of the very few countries left in the world that has a household basis for registration. I think it dates from the Reform Act 1867 and is possibly a little outdated by now. The case for moving from household to individual registration was in every party manifesto and is generally accepted. The question is how we do so while ensuring that we end up with as complete, accurate and trusted a register as possible. I wish to stress those three aspects as being very important. The register has to have integrity-it has to be trusted by everyone and must not be subject to too much fraud; it has to be as accurate as possible; and it has to be as complete as possible. Those three things are difficult to achieve together and the question of balance is always a very different one.

The system of registration also has to have the support and confidence-that is part of the question of integrity-of all those concerned. We now have the Electoral Commission as a non-partisan, trusted umpire for us all to listen to. The research paper that it has just produced has been a very valuable contribution to the debate. One of the things that it shows us is that we are not half as good in the current system as we thought we were. The current system does not itself provide full registration. It was not at 90 per cent, as the study in 2000 suggested. Last year's study suggested that we are now down to between 82 and 85 per cent. We are right to ensure that when we move to the individual system we are at least as good as that.

Let us recognise that we are not necessarily losing vast numbers of people as we move from one system to another: we have already suffered to some extent from a range of social and other trends. We all need to recognise that one reason why electoral registration has fallen is that popular commitment to the electoral process has also fallen. Popular alienation or disengagement from politics is part of the problem, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said. All parties share a duty to respond to that disillusion rather than to concentrate on Westminster games.

I can assure everyone that the Government will listen to and read this debate. I will take back and discuss with others the question of a working party. I will certainly also include in that the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, that, if we are to have a working party, it must include not just the beneficiaries of the current system-the two parties to which the noble Lord, Lord Wills, referred so frequently in his references to bipartisan agreement-but the wider group of those who do not support either of the two main parties. I remind noble Lords that in the last two elections the number of people voting for the two major parties slipped well below three-quarters and down towards two-thirds of those voting. In his rather uncharacteristically sour speech, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, was obviously hoping that we would go back to a two-party system. I think that that is one of the things least likely to happen in the future.

We all have partisan interests in this. We recognise that the Labour Party is deeply concerned about the boundary review. I heard-again, from the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey-the argument that Labour represents the unrepresented and the unregistered. It is an interesting but untestable conclusion. The Conservatives are a little partisan in the assertion that the voting rights of overseas citizens are very important. This is another very large issue, and I simply remind the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, that the American system is that citizens abroad should all vote but should all also pay full tax on their global income-no representation without taxation. We will perhaps need to consider that issue in parallel with any extension of the rights of overseas voters. The Liberal Democrats, as noble Lords will know, are very concerned about the fairness of the current voting system-something about which the Labour Party has very mixed views.

We have to be concerned, above all, with the question of how we re-establish the trust of our voters and our citizens in the system that we have. The register is much less complete than it was, and we therefore need now to look at how we might improve it. There are some philosophical issues underlying this, such as questions of citizens' responsibilities as well as their rights, how far the act of registration and the act of voting ought to be considered something which every citizen should do, the relationship between the individual citizen and the state, and the concept of civic duty. We all share a broad interest in addressing the extent to which our citizens now talk about rights but not sufficiently about responsibilities and seem to think that they may have contact with the state without having obligations, in return, to the state. One of the issues that we have been talking about in looking at data-matching with regard to the DWP database and others is how you might provide incentives. As people meet with their benefit office or apply for a driving licence, or whatever, you remind them that now is also the time to consider the other part-what you contribute to your public, national community as well as what you get out of your state.

We are looking carefully at the issue of compulsion. As noble Lords will be aware, at the moment it is not an offence not to be registered; it is an offence not to return the household registration form. To extend the compulsion to the act of registration itself would be extending the degree of compulsion. I hear very clearly what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said and I note that this is widely supported around the House. That is something that the Government will consider further.

To my great surprise, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said that this proposal had received very little scrutiny. It has received full pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government will provide a response to that very shortly, which will take us a degree forward. The Deputy Prime Minister has already responded to a number of concerns. This is an area where the Government are still listening. We all know that we have to have a dialogue about a new system which will command the support and trust of all those concerned.

The question of how far registration should be compulsory takes us on to the issue of nudge and whether we can push people without frightening them at the same time. Uncharacteristically for a deep liberal, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, wants to frighten people with large notices on the top of their forms. That may perhaps be necessary, as with cigarette smoking and other examples but, again, it is an area at which we need to look a little more. We do not see that moving to individual registration will necessarily lead to a net reduction in those on the register.