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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:00 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 1:00 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who was involved with the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. I remember the discussions with the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, and others within the Government about the change from household to individual electoral registration; and the frustrating discussions we had then about data matching and a wider modelling of individual data held in the Government’s hands, which would have made this all a great deal easier. When the Minister says—six years later—that we are bringing electoral registration into the 21st century, that is a bit generous. We are bringing a little more modernisation to electoral registration but it is not that modern yet, compared to a number of other Governments who are now beginning to bring data together.

I entirely agree with paragraph 7.2 of this dense document, which says:

“In its current form, the annual canvass … is heavily paper based, inefficient and outdated, leaving little scope for digital innovation”.

This modest change does not take us very far down the road towards digital innovation.

I strongly agree with my noble friend Lord Rennard that we have to move towards an automatic system for voter registration for all citizens. I recognise, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, would probably agree, that in changing the system the Conservatives are more concerned with ensuring accuracy and the Liberal Democrats are—as I suspect the Labour Party also is—more concerned with ensuring that we also get completeness. The gap between those we know are eligible to vote and those on the register is a real problem and a scandal. We all know of the problems in the United States between a right-wing Republican Party which does its best to limit the number of people on the register and the Democrats, who are much more concerned with completeness. We do not want to go further down that road in this country.

I am impressed by the way that in a number of other countries—for example, Estonia—digitisation and the use of government digital data has taken them a good deal further towards providing a unique identifying number for individual citizens. It is a means of access to the data which government hold on you; we in this country have so far failed on that. The verification proposals have not been very successful, after bringing in Experian and a number of other private companies. This is something that we should look at in the next Parliament. Indeed, some of us ought to propose an ad hoc Lords committee, precisely on this. Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Finn, and I might then return to the subject on which we battled with a number of people some years ago.

We have seen with the Windrush scandal, and may see again on the question of settled status for EU citizens, that people for whom various government agencies must have held data were unable to demonstrate that they had certain rights and had lived here for a number of years. There are various obstacles as to why the Government do not put that data together: they are legal and administrative, and there is sometimes rivalry between government departments. The move towards a unique identifying number, which is far from the old debate that we used to have on ID cards, would then feed back into making sure that every citizen is automatically on the electoral register. That would take us, at last, into the 21st century—25 years too late by then, probably.

This also links into the question of voting age. I have been converted to supporting a voting age of 16, partly because it would bring young people into the system when they are still at school. The noble Baroness, Lady Finn, will remember the remark that people would make as we debated this. We were told that young people in their 20s did not register for anything: they forgot to register for their doctor and did not register for a whole range of things. That left them, particularly young men, outside the system in which government knew who and where they were. That is unfortunate. If we move to a voting age of 16, young people will go on the register, and will have to be taught about citizenship while they are still at school—another scandal which we need to resolve. The idea that all British citizens have certain automatic rights and obligations will be strengthened.

I therefore give a lukewarm welcome to this mild move. It takes us a little further forward, but it does not take us forward far enough. When some of us suggest in the next Parliament that we should look at the broader question of the collection and maintenance of government data, and individual access to it for each citizen, I hope that it will have a warm welcome in this House.