Representation of the People (Annual Canvass) (Amendment) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:43 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 12:43 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, these regulations are important, but they appear to be being put forward in some haste. I understand that they will be taken today without debate in the House of Commons, which, ironically, leaves this place again having to scrutinise issues fundamental to our democracy.

Our Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said that the Government’s Explanatory Memorandum,

“failed to provide a coherent overview of the intended policy changes”.

It described the Explanatory Memorandum as “impenetrable”, which does not inspire confidence. Therefore, there is a need for some caution—perhaps even a little suspicion—about these regulations, given the history of the issue of the annual canvass.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that all parties agreed with the principle of individual electoral registration, but, when the legislation was being prepared, the Conservative side of the coalition was keen to drop the annual canvass. Those of us most concerned with levels of voter registration were strongly opposed to this, and Parliament agreed that it would be retained.

The proposals now, for a more targeted annual canvass, are sensible in principle. The present system is inflexible and, as the Electoral Commission warns, some necessary steps must be taken to help increase levels of registration if we are to proceed in this way with the annual canvass. I seek some assurances from the Government in that respect.

First, we should look at an issue of principle. For many things, such as a subscription to an information service, the data principle must always be one of opt-in. But you do not need to opt in to the right to have NHS treatment or the rights that are automatically afforded to every citizen under the law. So you should not have to opt in to the right to vote. If we make changes to the annual canvass, progress must be made towards automatic voter registration, in which any engagement with a state body showing that you are eligible to vote should result in your inclusion on the electoral register. If HMRC, the DVLA, the DWP, the passport authority, your local council or your university know where you live and that you are legally entitled to be on the voting register, you should be included automatically, as a right. If electoral registration officers have legitimate access to other data—for example, from credit reference agencies—they should be able to use it.

The new proposals for the annual canvass provide for an element of automatic re-registration when the details of people in a household have not changed. However, a survey conducted by the Electoral Commission some time ago showed that most people think that the electoral registration process is automatic for everyone and that they do not need to do anything to get registered. That is partly why so many registration forms are discarded, so many people are omitted from the register, and so many are unable to attend a polling station or get a postal vote for an election.

In 2015, the Electoral Commission estimated that 8 million people were missing from the electoral register. If they had been included then the outcome of the general election that year—and of the referendum the following year—might well have been different, as the youngest people were the most likely to be omitted from the voting registers. We are now preparing for a general election campaign knowing that the most recent estimate from the Electoral Commission is that around 9 million people who are entitled to vote are either not registered or not registered correctly. One does not need to know much about elections to know how important those numbers are in helping to ensure a fair and democratic outcome. Given that polling day is six weeks away today, what steps are the Government now taking to try to ensure that as many people as possible are registered in time to vote in the election on 12 December?

We have recently seen the Government spend £100 million on propaganda about leaving the EU today, which we are not doing. We have also seen them waste a lot of money producing 50p coins to commemorate leaving today, which we are not doing. But what we are doing is having a general election on 12 December, so how much money will the Government spend on advertising the need to ensure that people are registered to vote?

On the issue of principle, will the Minister confirm that the right to vote is not something that should require an opt-in principle but is a right that should be afforded automatically? The change in methodology for the annual canvass is said to result in a saving of £20 million per year. Can the Minister confirm that this sum will in future be reinvested in helping to ensure that as many as possible of the 9 million people who are unregistered, or incorrectly registered, will be included and enabled to vote in future?