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 Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing) 1:00 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, I should first declare an interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association, as it is local authorities which do lots of the work here. I support a review of the current model of the annual canvass of electors and the aim of making it easier and cheaper to administer. That is important at a time when local authority budgets are squeezed but, like the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, I am a little concerned that this provision has come here very quickly at the end of a Parliament. I would have liked a much longer debate and the time to have looked at this more carefully. That said, I would maybe give it a very lukewarm welcome; that is the best you will get out of me today.

My concern is that if we make changes, we should not damage the primary purpose of the canvass, which is of course to get more people on the register and ensure that it is accurate and complete. That is very important. Whatever changes we are making here today, we know that there are maybe seven million, eight million or nine million people who are eligible to vote in our country but who are not registered. We are doing very little about that, but it is an issue. Yes, we want to be streamlined and cost-effective, but we also want to ensure that we are doing the job properly and getting those people registered to vote. My concern is that we risk not getting that right.

The Government’s new model is a hybrid of the models that they have been trying over a number of years. That in itself is a little strange. Can the Minister confirm that the model proposed has been properly tested and that it is not just a case of, “We’ve tested bits of other models and put them all together”? I fear that that is what the Government have done, without actually testing the model.

I am concerned that the pilots have not been enough. We have talked about the 24 local authorities, but are we confident that the number of authorities involved, and their breadth and scale, has been right? What will the impact be on underrepresented groups? The Electoral Commission did a study of the accuracy and completeness of the register. We all know which groups are more likely not to be registered: 71% of people aged 18 to 34 are registered compared with 93% of people over the age of 55; 58% of private renters are registered to vote compared with 91% of homeowners, and 75% of people from black and ethnic-minority backgrounds are registered, whereas the figure is 84% for white ethnic backgrounds. Various key groups are not registered. Will the Minister set out how the new model will ensure that those groups are registered? If it does not do that, it is a complete failure. We know the people who are not registered. What are we going to do to get them on the register? That will be the test of whether the new model works.

I am all in favour of using technology and other methods and moving on from paper-based systems, but the new model has to work. That is what worries me. I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in this respect.

The regulations get at best a very lukewarm welcome from me. I am concerned generally about where we are. When we get back in the new Parliament—whoever is in government—we need to look at what we do about the millions of people who have the right to exercise their vote but who are not on the register.