My Lords, as honorary president of the youth democracy charity Bite The Ballot, I am delighted to have the opportunity given to me by this short debate to urge the electoral registration of the largest number of people, especially young people, so that they can vote in the European Union referendum on June 23. Young people are least likely to be registered to vote, and then least likely to turn out. At last year’s general election only 43% of those between 18 and 24 voted, compared with 78% of the over 65s.
I am told that up to 4 million young people have yet to register. Their voices must not be allowed to be silent. Not only will the future of Europe rest on these votes but, when elections take place in the United Kingdom, those who are not registered and are not able to cast a vote will be allowing themselves to go unheard. They will have no influence on our health service, our schools and colleges, our environment, the houses we need to build or the future of our steel industry: no registration, no vote, no influence.
We salute the campaign of a century ago that enabled womenfolk to vote. I also remember well, in my time, when in 1994 all people in South Africa, whatever their colour, were allowed to take their place in a queue to vote. There is a television clip that I remember clearly: people in Soweto waited for 12 hours in order to cast their vote, and the queue was a mile long. A TV interviewer spoke to one elderly lady in the queue who was just five minutes too late and had found herself unable to vote, so she would have to stay overnight and vote the following day. The interviewer asked her if she was not perplexed about this. She said, “Not really. I have waited a lifetime. What is one more night?”. I read only this morning Nelson Mandela’s remark on that day in April 1994:
“Today is a day like no other before it. Voting in our first free and fair election has begun … Today marks the dawn of our freedom”.
I love the phrase,
“the dawn of our freedom”.
The vote that will give people the power to decide the outcome of the referendum is the most important decision of their lifetimes—especially those of young people. Within the European Union they will be able to direct the future of climate change and tackle questions of war, peace, prosperity, refugees and much else. We have only a few days before the referendum will take place. The vote will affect every one of us, but it will affect young people for even longer because they are younger. It will affect their entire lives, so the turnout of students and young people will be vital.
Of course, in a referendum every vote counts. As one of the many organisations working to register voters, Bite The Ballot hopes to register 5 million—no, sorry, that would be ambitious—500,000 new voters in the next few days, and is co-ordinating a week-long campaign to raise awareness about the EU referendum and the consequences of an in or out vote. It is trying to mobilise unrepresented youth groups to register to vote—the 4 million people who are not registered at the moment. As part of an eight-day campaign between
We have two weeks. The deadline is
“Voting in our first free and fair election has begun”.
My Lords, I must at once pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for this debate on this most pressing issue, and for his tremendous, unremitting work to counter the grave underregistration of young people in our country today. Earlier this week the Evening Standard reported that some one in five young people in London were not registered. As president of Bite The Ballot, an organisation that is greatly admired in this House as elsewhere, the noble Lord is playing a conspicuous part in a continuing campaign of the highest importance.
With the deadline for registering for the referendum rapidly approaching, Bite The Ballot, as we have heard, is working intensively to try to get 500,000 people more young people registered and to produce simple, factual and neutral information to get those who are registered to cast their votes. That will make a pleasant and a welcome change after the deluge of exaggerated and tendentious claims that have come from both sides in this campaign so far. Everywhere there is an intense desire to have serious, well-informed and balanced material to assist voters in this crucial referendum. One suspects that the appetite for such material is especially strong among the young.
The Government, for their part, are making available substantial extra resources to help tackle our country’s serious problem of underregistration, and there are other initiatives, too. Last month, universities, further education colleges and sixth-form colleges received letters from Ministers, urging them to promote registration. Mr Nick Boles, Minister for Skills, wrote:
“I want all of us in the further education and sixth form community to do everything we can to encourage those eligible to register to vote”.
Words of greater eloquence more calculated to inspire the recipients of Mr Boles’s letter to take action might have been better, but the message was undeniably clear.
In his reply to this debate the Minister may perhaps be able to tell the House what indication universities and the “further education and sixth-form community” have given the Government as to the results of their endeavours so far. Has interest in the referendum been boosted by debates in student unions on Britain and the European Union, which would stimulate registration to vote? Academic institutions in the tertiary sector can do so much to draw young people fully into participation in the great national decision that will be made on
Any discussion of underregistration leads ultimately to schools. I have with some frequency drawn attention to the excellent work done in Northern Ireland by its highly respected Electoral Office under what has come to be known as the Northern Ireland schools initiative— although budget cuts now threaten that office’s future work. Regular visits to schools by its staff in recent years have helped make Northern Ireland’s registration rate among 18 and 19 year-olds much higher than the Great Britain average.
The importance of the Northern Ireland schools initiative is underlined in the recent all-party report, Getting the Missing Millions Back on The Electoral Register, which I commended to the House earlier this month. The first of the 25 recommendations in the report calls on the Government to replicate the initiative in the rest of our country by issuing special guidance to electoral registration officers so that,
“registration may be incorporated into school life”.
As we consider the millions missing from the registers for the referendum, is not that recommendation of particular long-term importance?
My Lords, 14,000 in Liverpool, 17,000 in Birmingham, and 6,000 in Lewisham —these are all voters lost to the register in areas where the eligible voting population has increased. Never has so much money been spent on registering so few voters. Perhaps the Minister can remind us of how much money this whole exercise has cost.
It was a good idea to do this at the time and, after all, it did not really matter. I remember the jokes in the bars and restaurants on the Estate about the types of voters that would be lost to the register and their voting preferences. I also remember the debate in this House, when we confused the matter and made out that there was criminalisation in the voter registration system when there has not been a prosecution since the Second World War. No one would take it seriously, and perhaps they would not take seriously the parallels with that situation and the exclusion of some groups of voters in the southern states of America, and say that it does not really matter. But it does matter, for the following reason.
The voters lost to the register are not a random selection. I will give noble Lords one fact. If you look like us and are an older person living in your own home in the shires, you are more than 90% likely to be registered. If you are young, from an ethnic minority, male and living in an urban area in private rented accommodation, you are less than 10% likely to be registered. This is storing up a huge amount of alienation for the future. It divides our society rather than unites it, and it is a stain on the conscience of all democracies to have this many missing millions.
Now it matters not only to us and to this country but to the Government, for this reason: the missing voters are also those who are more likely to vote “in” in the European referendum. That is why the Prime Minister has taken to Tinder and Facebook to encourage young voters to register.
However, I am not here just to criticise. I also want to make some practical suggestions about what we can do. Last year, I introduced a Bill on automatic registration, and I ask for the Minister’s support in bringing forward such legislation. It would be cheaper and would register over 95% of voters. I also ask for the Minister’s support for the Greater Manchester initiative to bring through automatic registration. However, neither of those suggestions will sort out this problem for
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Roberts on securing this important and timely debate. I also congratulate Bite The Ballot on the important work that it is doing.
In Cambridge, the student members of Cambridge for Europe, of which I am a patron—the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who is in his place today, is a member of the steering committee—have made fantastic attempts to encourage fellow students to register to vote. They have created posters and distributed fliers to all students across the university. They have also produced a video, which is aimed rather more at persuading people to remain but includes sixth-formers. It encourages people who are not enfranchised in the vote on
Members on all sides of your Lordships’ House spent many hours trying to ensure that the European Union Referendum Act 2015 created legislation for a referendum that was as fair as possible to both sides of the debate. As the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, made clear, it is unfortunate that it coincided with the move to individual electoral registration. However welcome IER might be in principle, the fact that millions of people, particularly young people, are missing from the electoral registers for this crucial poll is a cause for considerable concern. None of us should be sanguine.
However, I note that some who would have us leave the European Union seem sanguine about a low turnout—presumably because they feel that it will enhance their chances of winning a vote to leave. I also note that those who would have us leave and have spent many hours in this House trying to ensure that the Government can be held to task are not in their places today. Maybe they are out ensuring that voter registration is occurring, or maybe not.
It is vital that we re-engage citizens and enhance our democracy, exactly as those who want to leave claim they wish to do. Here the Scottish independence referendum offers some positive lessons. There were also some negative lessons, but one of the key things about the Scottish independence referendum was how it engaged and mobilised young people, including 16 and 17 year-olds, who sadly are not enfranchised in this UK referendum despite the best efforts of your Lordships. Engaging new cohorts of voters is crucial for the revitalisation of democracy in the United Kingdom regardless of the outcome of the referendum. I hope that those who would have us leave can accept this premise and support all efforts to register the young, rather than merely seeking to speak to the grey vote—voters who are more likely to be registered and who will already have been able to vote in 1975. This referendum is a chance to enhance democracy in this country, but for that to happen it is essential that registration and turnout are as high as possible to ensure that the votes can be challenged by no one and that every individual has a say over their own future.
I note in passing that the Question for Short Debate as phrased refers to the actions of Her Majesty’s Government. I also note that purdah begins in less than 12 hours. Could the Minister confirm that measures are in hand by Her Majesty’s Government to ensure the maximisation of voter registration are not going to infringe on any duties under purdah? That is crucial, because if they are, it will be used against us. Correctly, the European Union Referendum Act 2015 lays certain duties not on Her Majesty’s Government but on the Electoral Commission, which presumably will be guarded against purdah issues. In particular, the Electoral Commission has a duty to promote public awareness about the referendum and how to vote in it—that is not who or what to vote for but how to engage in the practice of voting. Could the Minister tell the House what actions the Electoral Commission has taken in this regard and what he envisages the Electoral Commission will be doing between now and
Finally, the chief counting officers are also required to take whatever steps the relevant officers think appropriate to encourage participation in the referendum. Are Her Majesty’s Government content that satisfactory progress is being made in that regard? If not, what actions would they recommend be taken in the next two weeks to ensure that everybody who could be registered is and that we maximise turnout and enhance democracy in this country?
Having heard what the noble Baroness has said, it pains me to have to admit that Cambridge can sometimes get things right. However, I disagree strongly with her and her party on referenda. I firmly believe that Mrs Thatcher was right: referenda are the devices of dictators and demagogues. However, we are where we are. This is a very important debate and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, in allowing us to have it.
I am antediluvian when it comes to IT. I belong to the quill pen and forked stick school of messaging and I am not a Facebook user. However, I know that a very large number of young people are. According to the Financial Times, people in their 20s,
“make up 28 per cent of the platform’s UK users”.
I do not have a number, but it is enormous. I am indebted to Ms Lisa Pollack in this week’s Financial Times, who tells me that for the general election and recent local elections, Facebook posted notifications reminding people to register to vote:
“This made the network one of the largest referrers to the registration website, according to the Cabinet Office”.
But she also says that:
“There is not yet a plan to do similar for the … EU referendum”.
I do not know whether the people at Facebook listen to our debate or whether they need to be motivated by the Electoral Commission, and I do not know whether the Electoral Commission needs to be motivated by the Minister. But given that the Minister is, like the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, young, lively and a techno-freak, he will know that all these stages could be gone through electronically within the next 10 minutes before he responds to the debate.
I really hope that an effort will be made to have done by Facebook for the referendum what was apparently done for the general and local elections, because the worst possible outcome to this referendum would be a close result either way on a very low turnout. That is what we must really try to avoid.
My Lords, I, too, associate myself with all those noble Lords who congratulated my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno on securing this very important debate. He really is my noble friend. I spent a great deal of time in the 1990s trying to help him get elected to the other place. I think the closest we came was in 1992, when he missed by just 995 votes. I have always illustrated talks about elections with that to show how important a handful of votes can be in determining the outcome. I failed in my endeavours to get him into the other place, but this debate today highlights how important his contributions to this House can be in raising issues such as this one about the rights of citizens to participate in a democratic decision.
Early in the last Parliament, Ministers stood at the Dispatch Box opposite and spoke confidently about how the level of voter registration in this country was approximately 92%. The last Government published a White Paper on voter registration saying that the level was about 90% and that that compared favourably with levels in many comparable countries. But then the Cabinet Office commissioned some work in advance of the introduction of individual voter registration and it was shown that the real levels of voter registration in this country are in the low 80s, rather than in the low 90s.
I acknowledge that some good action was taken to try to alleviate the problem, including the promotion of online registration. However, much more could and should have been done, but it was not. We know now that two out of three polling stations in the last general election turned away people who wanted to vote—people who were almost certainly entitled to vote but who were not registered to do so and therefore could not. We know that 186,000 people who did register to vote during the course of the last general election campaign did so but did it too late to exercise their votes in that election. So there is a serious problem with perhaps 7.5 million people missing from the electoral registers, and up to 4 million of those are thought to be young people. They will all be unable to vote in the European referendum unless they register to vote by the
The problem was made worse by the Government’s sudden decision last summer to bring forward full implementation of the individual electoral registration system and exclude up to 1.9 million people from the voting registers, specifically against the advice of the independent Electoral Commission. The Government appeared to be so keen to remove entries from the electoral register that even noble Lords such as noble Lord, Lloyd-Webber, were apparently flown in from all over the world in a great endeavour to attend the House of Lords and vote specifically to prevent many people who would probably have been entitled to be on the electoral registers remaining on them until the end of this year. We still do not know how many people were really affected by that change, but if the result of the referendum is close, the Prime Minister might regret making it in order to unfairly influence the outcome of the Boundary Commission’s processes in his party’s favour.
Much good work is being done on this issue by the voluntary organisations Bite the Ballot and HOPE not hate. I hope the Minister will not just agree that their work is commendable but actively support all their efforts. They are organising a national voter registration drive in the week before the
As this debate has shown, however, there are many problems with trying to identify and register people in the immediate run-up to any election or vote, so we need to look at solutions such as those put forward in the Missing Millions report, co-produced by Bite the Ballot. I hope the Minister will meet with representatives of the organisations involved in producing that report and with members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation to discuss taking forward some of their 25 different proposals to address the problem of under-representation.
It should be made easy to check online to see if you are registered to vote. All students should be registered as part of the enrolment process for their courses, as already happens in some institutions. Moreover, as the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, said, all schools in Great Britain should follow the example of schools in Northern Ireland, where students register to vote as part of citizenship education classes. Young people being notified of their national insurance number should be told at the same time that they should use this information to register to vote, and possibly also in order to assist with their credit rating. Above all, the forms for registration need to be standardised according to best practice, the penalties for non-compliance explained explicitly and the benefits of registration made clear.
We should do all that we can to ensure that everyone entitled to vote in the referendum can do so. We must also work to make sure that everyone entitled to vote is registered to do so in the future.
My Lords, I join all noble Lords in warmly congratulating my noble friend Lord Roberts on introducing this very important debate. He reminded us of the fight for women’s suffrage and for the vote in post-apartheid South Africa. Against that background, it is all the sadder that so many people are missing from the electoral roll and that we have such poor turnouts. As my noble friend said, only 43% of 18 to 24 year-olds voted in the general election last year, and according to Eurobarometer, apparently the UK is ranked 20th out of 20 European countries for voter turnout among those aged up to 30. That is absolutely shameful.
I, and I believe my party, believe that votes at 16 would help to solve the problem by hooking kids in while they are still at school and being wooed by politicians from the age of 14. I say gently to the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, that unfortunately we did not secure votes at 16 for the referendum due, I am afraid, to Labour votes missing at both ends of this building. Also, as my noble friend Lord Rennard just pointed out, unfortunately my noble friend Lord Tyler’s Motion against the premature implementation of individual electoral registration was lost by only 11 votes.
We know that universities have done good work and the Bite the Ballot #TurnUp voter registration week is an excellent initiative. However, I have just been checking the pages about registering to vote on GOV.UK, and the Government need to audit those pages to ensure that they are as modern, clear and helpful as possible and that the guidance set out is aligned with the Electoral Commission and other websites. That is certainly not the case at present as regards the need for a national insurance number. A letter from the Minister, Nick Boles, to further education and sixth-form colleges in April stated that students,
“will need to provide their National Insurance number”, whereas the GOV.UK website states that people “may” need their national insurance number, while the advice circulated by Bite the Ballot is that people do not need their national insurance number.
I found on the website of the organisation Crisis a helpful explanation that if you do not know your national insurance number, you may have to contact your electoral registration office, although even then the “may” is still there. Can the Government rapidly check and correct the GOV.UK website within the next two weeks to ensure that everything is crystal clear? My noble friend Lord Rennard referred to Bite the Ballot’s report called Getting the ‘Missing Millions’ on to the Electoral Register, with numerous proposals on the national insurance issue and other voter registration reforms. We really need to come into the 21st century.
The guidance on students being able to register at two addresses is also slightly obscure. It is on a webpage on GOV.UK entitled “The electoral register and the ‘open register’”. I do not think anyone would think to click on that link to find out when you can register in more than one place. Why would you look on a webpage that was about the open register and the closed register to find that guidance? Somebody needs to be the mystery shopper to check this out very quickly indeed.
The organisation Crisis has also produced guidance on the ability to register even if someone does not have a fixed address, is in temporary accommodation or does not have a permanent address. On a quick look I did not find that guidance on either the Electoral Commission or the GOV.UK websites.
In addition, would it not be helpful if citizens could request a postal vote simultaneously with their registration to vote? They would not have to wait to go through that further process. There are a lot of things we could do to streamline and make more accessible this voter registration crisis, particularly for young people who are not in the pen and quill age—I partly straddle both, if I may say that to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. They expect to do everything online and we have to facilitate the ease of that process.
Reference has already been made by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and picked up by my noble friend Lord Rennard, about how we need to extend the proactive work, which does not seem to be on the agenda of the Electoral Commission in England and Wales, on the initiatives in schools in particular. I am not the expert that my noble friend Lord Rennard, is, but the Electoral Commission in England and Wales is mainly devolved to local authorities. If we are to get that done it has to be through local authorities in England and Wales. Even if it is not in time for
My Lords, first, like other noble Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, on securing this short debate and on his persistence in raising the issue of electoral registration. It is of great importance. When we consider how many people are still not registered to vote, particularly young people, it is an issue we must return to again and again until the Government take effective action.
As we have heard, on
I agree with the comments made by my noble friend Lady McDonagh about the problems that certain groups have to get registered. That should be of concern to us all. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, is right when she raises the point of removing people from the register one year early, which has caused specific problems and made the situation much worse today. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, also made a compelling point about the number of people missing from the Electoral Register and the regrettable actions taken by the Government last year.
I also congratulate Bite the Ballot on its work to raise young people’s awareness. The Government should do more to support this organisation, which has done more than any other to address registration among young people, in my opinion. The #TurnUp campaign is one initiative where Governments can provide real support. So will the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, set out in detail what the Government will do to support this campaign? The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, is spot on when he talks about adding messages on every government website and looking at communication tools. What discussions have the Government had with Facebook, Twitter, Google and others to do more on their platforms? What else is being done? How are we using interaction between the public sector and the citizen to engage with people on the importance of registering to vote?
I hope when the Minister responds that we will not just get a list of figures saying, “We have given £X million here and £X million there”. I hope we will hear the real practical steps being taken to engage with people, the Government’s plan right up to
We have talked about using different tools and initiatives. For example, this weekend we have the play-off finals at Wembley. There are sell-out crowds each day on Saturday, Sunday and Monday—80,000 each day. I will be there on Sunday supporting my team, Millwall. I hope they get back into the Championship. What is the engagement plan for those events and other events around the country in the next few days?
I very much hope that this country votes to stay in the European Union. We need everyone who is eligible to vote to be registered and we need the Government to provide the leadership necessary, both in the short time left to
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, that if she checks Hansard she will see my support from this Dispatch Box and from the Division Lobby for votes at 16, with colleagues from the Labour Benches, although when it became clear that the elected House and the Government were not going to move on that, we did not support another round of ping-pong. I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for tabling the Question and enabling us to have this short debate.
My Lords, I also begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, on securing this debate. I, like so many other Lords, wholeheartedly applaud the work that he and Bite the Ballot, of which he is president, have done and are doing to encourage voter registration. I am also grateful to all of your Lordships who have taken time to attend and contribute to this important debate.
I start by taking a step back. As the noble Lord said, to vote in an election or a referendum and to express one’s personal view on how you want your community or country to be run and the direction it should take is obviously a precious, priceless act. Going into a polling booth, picking up that stubby little pencil and putting a cross in the box of one’s choice: thousands of people have died to win and protect that power—a power on which our democracy rests. Whatever the faults of our electoral system, people around the world still look at it with envy. As a number of noble Lords have said, our challenge is to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is encouraged to register to do so.
Doing this is clearly in all our interests. It should not be a matter of partisan politics. A vibrant democracy rests on an engaged electorate. That level of engagement is a measure of people’s trust and faith in the political system. As we approach the referendum—a momentous day in our democracy’s history—the need for that engagement is greater than ever. We want all people from all backgrounds, whatever their age, race or religion, to vote on
But today’s debate is obviously specifically about young people. The challenge we face here, as has been pointed out, is quite stark. Young people are more than five times as likely not to be registered to vote as older people. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said, at the last election turnout among young people was a third less than the population as a whole. However, I am pleased to report that while we should absolutely not be complacent, there has been some progress. The introduction of online registration made it easier to register to vote and to track progress, enabling us to answer some of the questions that my noble friend Lord Lexden raised. Since the start of 2016, there have been 4.1 million applications to register to vote. Of these, 950,000 applications were made by 16-24 year-olds, with more than 85% of these applications made online. More recently, the average daily rate for May was 43,935 applications per day, with 95% made online. More than 30 people on average applied to vote each minute this month. The average daily rate in May for applications from 16-24 year-olds is 9,528.
As I said, despite all this the Government are not complacent. For example, as was pointed out there is an issue with students. A poll carried out by Universities UK revealed that just 56% of students who are only registered at their term-time address say they are likely to be at this address when the referendum takes place. We are now working with Universities UK to address this, supporting last week’s student action week to ensure students were aware of the date of the referendum itself, the registration deadline and—more importantly—the need to register to vote at the address they will be at on
The Government also support and amplify the Electoral Commission’s campaign, such as making sure that its posters are more readily available throughout the public sector and government network, for example in job centres, agriculture centres and transport hubs. On top of that, while the Electoral Commission has worked with Glastonbury organisers to ensure festival-goers are aware of the options for proxy and postal voting, the Prime Minister urged the country via Facebook to register to vote before
I will write to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, on her questions about what more the Electoral Commission is doing between now and
On top of all this, we are looking beyond the referendum to keep up the momentum. We will enable local authorities to pilot more innovative approaches to maintaining their registers in 2016 and 2017, working with civil society organisations and others to develop new ways to reach underregistered groups. For example, we will create a registration academy so that local registration teams can understand, learn from and emulate the best results from successful projects around the country. To respond to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who knows so much about this issue, the Government are working with a range of organisations—the British Youth Council, UpRising and Mencap to name just some of them—to ratchet up registration among underrepresented groups and improve engagement. On meeting groups keen to increase registration, my honourable friend John Penrose, the Minister responsible for these issues, met and continues to meet regularly with such groups.
I will now address the question asked by my noble friend Lord Lexden, which he has asked a number of times before and does so with tenacity. Why do the Government not follow the successful example of the Northern Ireland school initiative and give guidance to electoral registration officers to go into schools? EROs are already free to work with local schools and colleges in their area and many already do. Local authorities are well placed to understand local differences and target their voter registration activity as they see fit. More than 140,000 16 and 17 year-olds have applied to register to vote since the start of this year. We should not assume that the initiative in Northern Ireland would work in the rest of the UK as there are differences with the electoral system and the structures in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the Government see no reason to legislate for such an initiative.
We are certainly not complacent on this matter. We are doing all we can to ensure that those who are eligible to vote, and to register to vote, do so. I hope we can all agree that we will continue to discuss how we can work together to ensure that every eligible citizen can have their say at the ballot box in years to come.