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Higher Education and Research Bill - Report (1st Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 6th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Labour 7:00 pm, 6th March 2017

My Lords, in moving Amendment 52, I must apologise to your Lordships for not having been present to move it in Committee. Naturally, I read Hansard carefully and have to say that I was disappointed by the Minister’s reply.

This is a simple amendment that would make it mandatory for all higher education institutions to offer their students the option of being placed on the electoral roll at the point of enrolment or re-registration. I know that a few universities are already doing this and I am particularly proud that this includes the University of Bath, of which I am pro-chancellor, and the University of Oxford, where I have been elected the next principal of Somerville. I understand that the Minister, Mr Chris Skidmore MP, has recently been at the University of Bath to discuss the issue.

The amendment would provide the best means of achieving the objective I share with the Government: to improve the level of voter registration among students, which fell dramatically as a consequence of individual electoral registration, when thousands and thousands of students dropped off the register. We have a duty to do this for three reasons. First, we should enable students to have a vote and a voice. As my noble friend Lord Smith of Finsbury said in the previous debate, many of his students who, by 23 June last year, were convinced of the need to vote in the EU referendum were unable to do so because they had not registered. By exercising their democratic right to vote, young people are able to influence policy and shape their future. Secondly, it would help to instil the voting habit in young people. While I realise that there is still a big step to be taken between registering to vote and voting, there is evidence that when someone has voted once they are more likely to vote again. I still get a tingle down my spine when I put a cross on a ballot paper, and I am always grateful to those who fought for our right to vote. Thirdly, it would ensure that when constituency boundaries are redrawn in future, they will better reflect the size of the population.

It is also in the public interest of universities to do their utmost to ensure that students participate in the electoral process. I pay tribute to the work of my honourable friend Paul Blomfield MP, who, working with the vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield and the city council, and with the support of the Cabinet Office, devised a very successful pilot at the University of Sheffield. The results were simply staggering. Seventy-six per cent of its eligible students were registered to vote. In Bath, the university initiated a project on the direction of the pro-vice-chancellor for learning and teaching, who was working with Bath and North East Somerset Council. This resulted in 40% of eligible students registering to vote in 2015-16. In Cardiff, with a similar system, 65% of students registered in 2016-17. By contrast, institutions that simply pointed students to the national electoral registration portal as part of the enrolment process saw an increase of only 13%. This is clear evidence that my amendment would make a real difference to student participation in the democratic life of our country.

In January, the Minister spoke of bureaucratic burdens and I am very conscious of the bureaucratic burdens on higher education institutions, but the amendment is not overly onerous. It simply requires universities to make a minor change to their student enrolment systems to provide new students with the opportunity to have their names added to the electoral register in a seamless process. Universities already collect most of the data needed to register students. National insurance numbers were until recently an impediment but the Cabinet Office has offered new and very welcome guidance on this, so it is no longer necessary.

I am also aware of the difficulties that can arise because the enrolment software of universities is sometimes not bespoke and voter registration cannot be incorporated into it. However, these difficulties can be and have been overcome. In addition to accepting the amendment, I also ask the Government to provide guidance on how electoral registration can interface more easily with data protection issues.

Some have said that the amendment would be costly, but the opposite is true—an important factor when councils are suffering painful cuts. In Sheffield, the council now covers the university’s costs for registering students and the cost per student has dropped from around £5 to 12p. In Cardiff, the council saved more than £63,000 last year. In Birmingham, the city council revealed that one of the benefits of its arrangement with the University of Birmingham has been that it has allowed the council to give greater focus to its electoral registration efforts in other areas, such as care homes, where IER has also presented great challenges.

My amendment would simply embed good practice. To date a very small percentage of universities have taken the initiative to act. I pay huge tribute to them and my amendment will not impinge on their already excellent work; it will merely ensure that their best practice becomes the norm. The amendment is particularly important in the context of the Bill, which seeks to increase the number of new institutions. I want to ensure that enabling their students to vote is firmly on their agenda, not as an option but as something they are obliged to do.

Democracy is fragile and a healthy democracy requires democratic participation. Enabling and empowering young people to vote is our democratic duty. Here we have a real opportunity to increase participation among hundreds of thousands of those least likely to be on the electoral register. I beg to move.