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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 6th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 7:15 pm, 6th March 2017

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate and have set out the reasons why we should increase the franchisement of students. The Government entirely share that aim of increasing the number of students and young people registered to vote. As part of our drive to create a democracy that works for everyone we are taking a number of steps which I will touch on in a moment, such as funding the National Union of Students to the tune of £380,000 in 2015 to increase student electoral registration.

We listened carefully to the concerns raised by noble Lords when the amendment was debated during Committee. While we agree with the objective of this amendment and understand the intention behind it, we firmly believe that this Bill is the wrong vehicle to achieve greater student electoral registration, and that the scheme as proposed in the amendment has serious drawbacks. The Government have an alternative plan to address student registration which we believe will be more appropriate and effective; again, I will come on to that in a moment, the Government having considered it in the light of the debate in Committee a few weeks ago.

Both Universities UK and the Association of Electoral Administrators have told us that a one-size-fits-all approach to electoral registration, which this amendment would be, is not necessarily the best solution. The AEA does not want further unnecessary prescription introduced into the electoral registration process. Some universities have also signalled that they do not support the system that this amendment seeks to mandate. Seeking to achieve this objective in this way is unnecessary and risks complicating the Government’s relationship with electoral registration officers, as it contradicts our stated objective to give them greater autonomy in how they choose to conduct their statutory duty of maintaining the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers. Choice is the key point here. It is for HE providers and the electoral service teams, who are the acknowledged experts in registration, rather than Parliament—whether through the Bill or other means—or the OfS to determine what the right approach is for their local area.

Furthermore, this system simply will not work for electoral registration officers in London and other large cities since many students have a term-time address in a different registration area from their university or HE provider. For that reason alone, the amendment simply will not work. This is a significant issue given the numbers of students in London, where approximately 376,000 students could be living across all 33 London boroughs. Only the borough in which both the university and the student are located would have the necessary data required to complete an application. Students can participate in the democratic process by actively choosing to register to vote at either their university or home address. As the noble Lord has just said, research has suggested that 60% of students may do so.

We have a commitment to increase student electoral registration. To date we have undertaken a range of steps to encourage it, most recently ahead of the EU referendum. In addition to those steps, I can commit today that the Government will, in their first guidance letter, ask the OfS to encourage institutions to offer their students an opportunity to register to vote by providing a link to the online registration page so that students can apply to register quickly and easily. I think that this is a user-friendly solution that avoids some of the problems in the amendment which I have touched on. I understand that in Committee the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, stated that this was successfully applied at Aston University, and other providers have done so too.

However, we have also heard the calls for urgency, repeated by the noble Lord from the Opposition Bench, and we do not want to wait until the OfS is in place. That is why I can confirm that the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson, will write to HEFCE before Third Reading to ask it to work with the sector to encourage best practice and to actively promote student electoral registration.

To inform our activity, the Minister for the Constitution hosted a student round table in January at which he heard about the barriers to registration that students face. Since then, we have embarked on a plan to further our aim of maximising student electoral registration and we will continue to do so ahead of the local elections this May and beyond. I can now confirm to noble Lords that in the forthcoming weeks we intend to meet university vice-chancellors to that end. We will also write to the higher and further education sector to promote the outcomes due to be published from the different models available, to encourage take up and to continue to facilitate greater co-operation between providers and local electoral service teams.

For the reasons already given, I believe that this voluntary and collaborative approach is the right one. However, if the evidence is that it is not working, it will be open to the Government and the OfS to consider other options in future, including, perhaps, the use of appropriate and proportionate registration conditions, requiring providers to comply with any such condition or explain why they cannot comply. The Government will also work with sector partners, such as Universities UK, to promote different options and encourage take-up.

The Government have already committed to publishing and promoting the outcomes of the University of Sheffield pilot, which we part-funded, as well as other models, all of which are currently being evaluated, and we will publish the results at the earliest opportunity. As I wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, an indicative assessment shows that this project had successful outcomes. However, ICT software costs are a prohibitor, and some universities have already told us that they will not implement this model for that reason.

In addition, the amendment rests on the provider informing “eligible students” of their registration rights and local authorities providing various details regarding those students. An “eligible student” is defined as someone entitled to vote as an elector at a parliamentary election, but it is not clear who determines eligibility. Given that the amendments suggest that it is the provider who has to take specified actions, it looks as though it has to be that same provider who determines eligibility—something it surely is not, and indeed should not be, resourced to do. For all those reasons, we are confident that a voluntary approach is the best option and we are confident that more of these agreements can be reached in this way.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, previously stated, many other institutions are already taking steps to encourage young people to ensure that they are on the register. In fact, numerous HE providers have, of their own volition, already implemented a model similar to that used by the University of Sheffield, including, as the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, said, the University of Bath. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that students can choose where they are registered, and some students might not wish to have their data shared.

We are also committed to increasing registration among all underregistered groups, of which students form only a part. This will be part of our democratic engagement strategy, which will be published in spring 2017.

Therefore, I say to the noble Baroness who moved the amendment that the Government have genuinely thought about the arguments put forward in Committee. We have come forward with a new set of proposals, which we think meet the objectives that we all share. Against that background, I ask her to consider withdrawing her amendment.