National Voter Registration Day — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 1st July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat 2:45 pm, 1st July 2014

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to encourage educational establishments to take part in National Voter Registration Day 2015.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the Government welcome all initiatives that promote democratic engagement and increase electoral registration, such as National Voter Registration Day. The Government are keen to work with organisations that encourage young people to register to vote and look forward to hearing further details of next year’s event in due course.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat

I thank my noble friend for that standardised reply. I wonder if he might not consider actually giving a bit more substance to what he said. Given that we had a debate last week about British values, one of which is democracy, would it not be a good idea to do what has happened in Northern Ireland with the school initiative, where electoral registration officers go into schools, talk about democracy and its importance, and encourage young people to register to vote? Could we not consider a pilot scheme in the rest of the UK?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, with the approach of the general election next year, it is a bit late for pilot schemes. The Government have given £4 million to local authorities to promote registration among vulnerable groups. I am aware of three local authorities, Dumfries and Galloway, Ceredigion, and Redcar and Cleveland, that have specifically allocated some of this to looking at how to register young voters. In Ceredigion’s case, it has an explicit partnership with Bite the Ballot while doing this. We encourage all those activities. I remind the noble Lord that electoral registration is managed at the local level, which as a former local councillor he will well know.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

What progress has been made on individual electoral registration? It is very important for young people to know about the democratic process, but as part of that they must also know that they have to register in order to vote.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, online electoral registration was introduced four weeks ago. I have the figures only for the first week and we were extremely encouraged by how many people had registered. We hope that we will have the figures for the first month by next week. That is part of why we think that we have moved on from the Northern Ireland experience, in which electoral registration officers took paper forms into schools. We think that young people are much more likely to register online. The experience of 2010 suggests that the registration rate rises rapidly in the few months before a general election. It rose by 700,000 in early 2010. We expect that to happen again.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, is it not a simple truth that electoral registration is a waste of public and taxpayers’ money, and that we should have dedicated expenditure to the areas where there was an abuse of the electoral system?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I am not entirely sure that I understand that. There are a number of problems with electoral registration. We have various categories of voters, including the substantial number of people in London who are citizens of the European Union but not of the UK. I have been very impressed by the sheer difficulty of getting access to some of the dwellings that are now behind gated communities, so we must spread our effort into them. Of course we are focusing on the vulnerable categories, with which we are well familiar.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Liberal Democrat

My Lords, is the Minister aware that organisations such as Bite the Ballot, of which I am honorary president, can register an elector for 25p, while the figure for the Electoral Commission has gone up to £25 per individual registration? Can we somehow encourage more work in the voluntary organisations, which are going into schools already and doing things to this end, and can we as a Parliament say that we want the highest number of new youngsters possible on the register, even before the coming general election?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we need a range of activities by a range of different organisations, including political parties, of course. We touched on citizenship education yesterday. The activities in schools—I hope that Peers and others will help in that by going into schools—are all part of the effort we need to make to engage young people in the registration process.

Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Labour

My Lords, why do the Government not send registration forms with every student loan?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

It is partly because we want people to register to vote online. It is more efficient and cheaper. A number of efforts are going on with universities to ensure that students are also encouraged to vote. There will be various activities during Freshers’ Week. I will take that back as a suggestion but we feel that we are covering this in another, more effective way.

Photo of The Bishop of St Albans The Bishop of St Albans Bishop

My Lords, the Question is about encouraging educational establishments to encourage a whole new generation of people to engage in the electoral process. Of course, next year is a hugely significant year, with the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Can we not only encourage our schools to use this as an opportunity to really inspire people to think about civil participation, citizenship and so on but find some imaginative ways to give people the information in the educational packs that will be used next year?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, certainly. We trust that the churches will play their own role, and perhaps we will have mentions in sermons of civic duty and what one should render unto Caesar as well as unto God.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, why do we not require young people to register?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, in this country, it has not been compulsory to vote or to register to vote. That would raise all sorts of questions about civil or criminal penalties, and some fundamental questions about the relationship between the citizen and the state. This country has not wanted to use compulsion where it can possibly avoid it.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, might I take the noble Lord back to the original point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, which is the Northern Ireland experience? When individual voting was introduced there, there was an alarming drop-off in the number of young people registering, so we already know that that is a threat on the horizon. Northern Ireland came up with a good solution—the schools initiative—which effectively dealt with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, raised about formally registering all pupils. Surely, on the basis of the experience we already have from Northern Ireland, we should embrace that initiative and get schools to register all pupils when they come up to the age of 18.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the Government’s mechanism encouraging schools to use Rock Enrol!, a slightly different package, has so far received a fairly good take-up from schools. We very much want schools to encourage their pupils to register online, but we are having a dialogue about it with schools and teachers.