Amendment 16

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 8th October 2020.

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Lord Shutt of Greetland:

Moved by Lord Shutt of Greetland

16: After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—“Improving completeness of electoral registers for purposes of boundary reviews etc.(1) Within a year of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament proposals for improving the completeness of electoral registers for purposes of boundary reviews.(2) The proposals in subsection (1) may include requirements for either—(a) the Department for Work and Pensions to provide every registration officer with the name, address, date of birth and nationality of each individual in their district to whom they issue a National Insurance number ahead of their 16th birthday, and for registration officers to add to the full electoral registers those electors who they are satisfied are eligible for inclusion; or(b) the Department for Work and Pensions to notify individuals of the criteria for eligibility to vote and of the process for making an application to join the register when they are issued with a new National Insurance number.”Member’s explanatory statement16 and 17 year olds are added to electoral registers for the purposes of boundary reviews, but many of them are not known to the registration officers. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to make proposals for improving the completeness of electoral registers and suggests two possible ways in which the issue of a National Insurance number could trigger the inclusion of 16 and 17 year olds.

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Chair, Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee, Chair, Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee

My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 16 as an important enhancement of the Bill, which would improve the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers for future reviews.

The amendment has at its core the work of the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act, which I chaired and which reported in July. We learned, in our extensive deliberations, that though electoral registers are primarily prepared for use at elections for voting purposes, they have other uses, such as enabling juries to be enlisted and providing proof of residence by credit agencies. Importantly, they are also used as a series of building blocks for constituencies and their boundaries.

Sadly, registers are far from perfect, but it must be right to get them as accurate and complete as possible. The committee made a series of proposals for improvement. The most glaring omission from registers is that 75% of young people known as attainers—people aged 16 or 17 who may be added to the register so that they are able to vote when they attain the age of 18—are not registered. They are very relevant to this Bill—hence the reason for this amendment. I am delighted that four Members subscribing to the amendment are former members of the Select Committee and cover the four corners of the House of Lords.

There is, too, precedence for this action, in that it follows on from the work of the House three years ago in its consideration of the Higher Education and Research Bill in 2017. The House approved an amendment, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, to enable higher education students to be easily registered, through collaboration between the Office for Students and electoral registration officers. A Department for Education guidance leaflet on facilitating registration shows that in one university, De Montfort in Leicester, of those students qualified to register, 98.5% provided details for registration. The amendment seeks to put all young people in the position of the De Montfort students, so that the present 25% registration rate comes more into line with that of their elders. The Electoral Commission paper, Completeness in Great Britain, indicates that the highest rate for completeness is for the over 65s, at 94%, whereas the lowest level is that of attainers—the 16 to 17 year-olds—which has declined from 45% in 2015 to 25% in 2019.

The amendment seeks to prescribe the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament proposals for improving the completeness of electoral registers for the purpose of boundary reviews. It would bring with it the bonus that a substantial number of young people who are entitled to vote would have the right to vote. Further, it suggests that this requirement could be met by the Department for Work and Pensions providing registration officers the details of individuals in their district to whom it had issued a national insurance number ahead of those individuals’ 16th birthday so that they could be added to the register. Alternatively, the Department for Work and Pensions would notify individuals of the criteria for voting and the process for making an application when they were issued with a new national insurance number. The former would lead the way in lifting registration for young people; the latter would help but is less certain to be effective.

As we have heard, the Minister is desperate for near precision in prescribing all boundaries to be within 5% of the average size, but the baseline and building blocks are in danger of being wildly imprecise if the bulk of young people are omitted from the registers.

I thank the many noble Lords who supported the amendment in Grand Committee, but the attempt to embrace the totality of the Select Committee’s recommendations was too much to find favour with the responding Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook. However, I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, while having reservations about automatic registration in general, was clear that he supported assistance or automatic registration for attainers. This is the opportunity to make that change. This is important: young people should be part of the building blocks for constituency boundaries.

Earlier today, reference was made to unfairness to voters. The Bill, unamended, is unfair to young people, and I intend to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Labour 7:00 pm, 8th October 2020

My Lords, I want to say a few words in support of the amendment, to which I have put my name.

In Committee, your Lordships heard a lot about the incompleteness of the electoral register and about the 8 million or more who are eligible to be on it but are not and are therefore unable to vote. We could, and should, do better in securing a more complete register. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, who so ably chaired the Select Committee on which I served—it was a pleasure to serve under him—has set out the compelling reasons why this is so important.

The amendment asks the Government to produce proposals to improve the completeness of the register. I can see no reason for that to be resisted unless, despite what they have said repeatedly, the Government do not want to improve the register’s completeness. Beyond that, the amendment encourages the Government to make improvements in one area of the electoral register that particularly needs improvement.

As the Electoral Commission and many others keep pointing out, and as the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has just demonstrated, the number of attainers on the register has fallen significantly over the last few years. Between 2015 and 2018, the registration rate for eligible 16 and 17 year-olds almost halved, and the introduction of individual electoral registration, for various reasons, has been a significant driver of such decline.

Quite apart from the general imperative, which, again, was much discussed in Committee, to ensure that the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies should be drawn on the basis of the most accurate and complete electoral register possible—the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has just reminded us of those arguments—there is, I believe, another reason why the amendment matters. Attainers are not the only group significantly underrepresented on the electoral register but they are important in one particular respect: Parliament makes the laws that shape the country that they inherit, so it must be right to do everything possible to ensure that they have every opportunity to shape Parliament.

I recognise that there may be libertarian concerns that registration should not be automatic but a matter of choice for individuals. However, the measures suggested in the amendment would be enabling; it is not a back door to compulsory voting. It would still be for the individual to decide whether or not to vote, but individuals cannot make that choice if the process of registration has passed them by—and the data show that all too often, that process does pass attainers by.

There may also be concerns about privacy. But as more and more services move online, the Government have developed some considerable expertise in securing the privacy of users. I support the amendment on the basis that the Government would be able to address any such concerns if and when they introduced any measures to increase the electoral registration of attainers.

The amendment would require the Government to take steps to improve the completeness of the register, and would encourage them to do so, for the young people who will inherit this country from us. I therefore hope that it is an amendment that all sides of your Lordships’ House will support.

Photo of Lord Janvrin Lord Janvrin Crossbench

My Lords, I too—alongside the noble Lord, Lord Wills, who has just spoken—was a member of the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. I have added my name to this cross-party amendment, as I continue to believe that the Government should address the issue of the completeness of the electoral registers as a matter of priority, and certainly in the context of this Bill.

As has been made clear, the amendment has evolved since Committee, with its focus on completeness and on attainers. I want to make three brief points on Report. First, I entirely accept that the Government recognise the importance of the issue of completeness, and that they are well aware of the missing millions, and of the evidence that we do not perform well by international standards. In Committee, the Minister said that they were not complacent, and that there was work in hand to address some of the issues. If that is so, it would be a very small step for the Government to agree to a deadline for bringing forward further proposals, particularly in the light of the committee’s recent report. It would show a sense of urgency, which is important.

Secondly, the focus in the amendment on doing something about attainers is worth highlighting. Attainers are in a different position, and this has always been recognised, in that their names can be considered for entry on the register before they attain the right to vote. As the noble Lord, Lord Wills, said, there is significant evidence that registration rates for attainers have dropped markedly in recent years. Therefore, there is real cause to focus on them.

Thirdly, my reading of the amendment is that it is compatible with the Government’s position on automatic registration. I understand the Minister’s position that, in principle, registering to vote and voting are civic duties. The amendment does not seek to challenge the Government’s view, in that it would be perfectly possible to accept it while holding firm to that principle. I hope that the Minister will be able to accept this modest amendment as a way of working towards fairer constituency boundaries based on better data. It may be modest, but it is important in the wider context of the integrity of our democratic process.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I back this amendment with some vigour as the last of a cross-party group of colleagues who worked together in great harmony as members of the Select Committee established under the genial chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, to consider the impact on our electoral system of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013.

I note in passing that, when the legislation that became the 2013 Act was going through this House, I pressed for the swift abolition of the 15-year limit on the right of our fellow citizens overseas to vote in our elections. Though that has been promised in three successive Conservative manifestos, seven years have passed without action.

It has to be said that other members of today’s cross-party group behind this amendment worked much harder than I did on the recent Select Committee. However, lazy though I was, I quickly came to share their conviction that there was no more important issue in electoral affairs today than the need to improve—and improve substantially—the completeness of the electoral registers. It is a theme that runs throughout our report, published in June. Like my colleagues, I was struck by the extent to which we compare unfavourably with some other major democracies.

This simple little amendment would help not insignificantly to make our registers more complete. It is universally acknowledged, as we have heard in this debate, that not nearly enough of tomorrow’s voters aged 16 and 17 are being brought on to the registers in readiness to cast their votes when they become 18. I have always been keen to support an intensification of the ways in which electoral registration officers can fulfil this part of their duties. As I have mentioned on a number of occasions in this House, Northern Ireland has set a fine example in this respect, giving EROs ready access to schools and colleges.

Today’s cross-party amendment would enable attainers to get on to the registers more readily than ever before. It would bring them directly to the gateway of democracy. Two alternative routes are proposed. Under the first, attainers would be brought automatically on to the register where EROs were satisfied of their eligibility. Under the second, attainers would be notified about the process for acquiring the precious right to vote. The first route would take attainers through the gateway of democracy. The second would bring them to the threshold and leave them to decide for themselves whether to cross it and secure for themselves participation in our democracy. For those who believe that registration should be a matter of individual choice, the second route will seem preferable. But within the Conservative Party, there are many who regard registration as a matter of duty that everyone should be obliged to fulfil, as my noble friend Lord Cormack has pointed out in this House many times.

Finally, might I be permitted a brief historical comment? When election registers were introduced in the 19th century, the political parties fought tooth and nail in the courts to get their supporters on to them and keep their opponents off. Today, the supporters of this amendment from all parts of the House want to see the registers become as complete as possible. Is that not a cause for some rejoicing?

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in the debate on this Bill in the other place on 14 July, the Minister Chloe Smith spoke about

“what we are doing to ensure that the registers are as accurate and complete as possible” and said:

“We should encourage more people to register to vote.”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/7/20; col. 1466.]

This amendment does nothing more than ask the Government to say how. It requires them to set out proposals for doing what they say they want to do in relation to young people and makes suggestions. It asks the Government to consider two different ways in which we could easily, and without cost, ensure that more young people are added to the electoral registers by the time they are first entitled to vote.

The Government say that the completeness of the electoral registers is back up to the levels that predated the introduction of individual electoral registration. However, as my noble friend Lord Shutt pointed out, the Electoral Commission showed in 2019 that while 94% of over-65s are registered to vote, only 66% of 18 to 19 year-olds are registered to vote. Those who will attain the age of 18 in the next year or two are supposed to be included in the electoral registers for the purposes of the Boundary Commissions. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Wills, pointed out, the registration rate for this group has fallen dramatically. According to the Electoral Commission, only about 25% of attainers are currently registered, compared to about 45% in 2015. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for this House to insist that the Government lay proposals before Parliament to implement their declared policy of improving the completeness of the electoral registers and recognising the problem with young people in particular.

Linking the registration process to the issuing of national insurance numbers is an obvious way in which that can be done. If the Government were willing, the Department for Work and Pensions could notify electoral registration officers that young people must be added to the registers when they get their national insurance numbers. All their rights to be registered anonymously and not be on the public register could be properly protected. The Government have been reluctant to extend across Great Britain the model successfully used in Northern Ireland to register 16 and 17 year-olds at school but accepted that students, when registering for university, should be notified of the electoral registration process, thereby encouraging them to register, as the Government say they want.

We need a system for registering young people that works. I can think of no better way to do this than by linking the process with the issuing of national insurance numbers. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, who sadly cannot be here this evening but is trusted by many Conservative candidates to advise on their campaigns, said on this issue in Grand Committee that he supported either assisted or automatic registration for all those about to attain the age of 18 and that they should be included in the electoral registers. Both options are possible with the amendment. He said that it was crucial to get people involved in the community and the politics of society from an early age. The amendment is about enabling that. We encourage young people to think for themselves and vote accordingly, and I urge this House to do the same.

Photo of Baroness Gale Baroness Gale Labour 7:15 pm, 8th October 2020

I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate.

It has already been mentioned that the cross-party House of Lords Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, recommended a system of automatic voter registration for attainers. Since the introduction of individual electoral registration, the number of young people registered has fallen among 16 and 17 year-olds, as many noble Lords have mentioned. Given this low number, the amendment seems a simple solution that will ensure that attainers are included on the register. That is now more important as the Bill proposes to use the data on the register to draw the parliamentary constituencies. Such a low level of registration among attainers should be a matter of concern, and without the change suggested by the amendment there will be less representation of young people.

Automatic registration is sometimes opposed on the basis that it is an individual’s responsibility to ensure that they are on the electoral register. This suggestion should not apply to 15 and 16 year-olds, who have no prior experience of the electoral system. There is therefore a strong case that it should not be their responsibility to ensure that they are on the register. This is a sensible arrangement to ensure that young people are on the register and therefore will get all the information required when voting takes place.

At present, the data is less likely to include the names of young people than older people. This means that the register will be skewed towards older people when it comes to voting, resulting in the views of young people in the UK not being expressed in our democracy. For that reason alone, the Minister should give the amendment great consideration. Making this easier, and in such a simple way, will go a long way towards having a much more accurate electoral register than we have at present. There has been agreement around the House tonight on the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has said that he will call a vote, and we on these Benches will support it.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who tabled this amendment. It provides an opportunity for me to update the House once again on what initiatives the Government are undertaking to improve the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers, and to reiterate our arguments against introducing automatic voter registration.

I take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for his excellent chairmanship of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee and for its detailed report on how fit the electoral system is for today. I am glad that the committee was able to publish the Government’s response to the report yesterday, ahead of this debate, and I place on record the Government’s thanks to all members of the committee and its staff for the hard work they put into this important inquiry.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Shutt, Lord Campbell-Savours and Lord Janvrin, and my noble friend Lord Lexden, would require the Government to lay before Parliament proposals to improve the completeness of the registers. What is meant by “completeness” is not defined in the amendment, nor indeed in the rest of the Bill. For the Electoral Commission, “completeness” measures whether those eligible to be registered are on the registers. An alternative definition might be whether the registers contain all those who want to be registered and are eligible to be so. Nor does the amendment refer to the efforts to ensure the accuracy of the electoral registers. The Government believe that accuracy is just as important as completeness. Inaccurate registers lead to voting fraud and undermine public faith in the integrity of our democratic processes.

I am happy to be able to update noble Lords today on government efforts to ensure the completeness of the electoral registers. I share with many in both Houses the ambition that every eligible elector who wants to be included should be included on the electoral register. I have heard a lot from noble Lords about how this should be done. I do not think the outcome is in argument; the discussion is on how we get there. The Government strongly believe that it must be for the individual themselves to make the decision to engage with the democratic process, but government does have an important role in making the process as easy as possible to ensure that there are no barriers to registration. That is why this Government have been working hard with electoral administrators to improve the accuracy and completeness of the registers through initiatives such as online registration and reform of the annual canvass process.

I will highlight just a few examples of our work in this area. The introduction of online registration has made it simpler and faster for people to register to vote—it takes as little as five minutes. This improvement benefits all electors, young and old, including groups that have traditionally experienced barriers to making an application to register. Millions now apply to register in the run-up to elections so that they can have their say; it was considerably more difficult to do this in the past. Working with partners, the Government have developed a range of resources to promote democratic engagement and voter registration, all of which are available on GOV.UK, and which are aimed at electoral registration officers, civil society groups, teachers and others.

We are also in the process of implementing changes to the annual canvass of all residential properties in Great Britain which will improve its overall efficiency considerably. This includes local and national data matching, including that held by DWP, to allow EROs to focus their attention on properties that are likely to require additions to the register. This will allow electoral registration officers to focus their efforts on hard-to-reach groups—and that includes young people—and will play an important role in helping to maintain register accuracy and completeness. This is the first year of the reformed canvass, and anecdotal reports so far suggest that administrators have found the process much less bureaucratic and time consuming. No longer do administrators have to waste their limited resources confirming that people have not moved.

We are also analysing the impact of the new student electoral registration condition. Indeed, all noble Lords who have spoken today have mentioned the issue of attainers. This provision came into force in 2018 and requires that higher education providers in England comply with ERO requests for data. Providers are also encouraged to co-operate and work effectively with local authorities to promote electoral registration among their student populations. We need to give such projects time to bed in, and the Government time to see the outcomes they are looking for.

The strategy has also included providing ministerial and Office for Students guidance to promote higher education providers and EROs collaborating innovatively to suit local needs. We have no plans to extend the approach to schools. However, we remain supportive of the existing engagement between EROs and schools in their local areas. I know from my own experience in local government the extent to which EROs were working with their schools, as indeed were politicians, both national and local. Indeed, the Government encourage EROs to double down on their already impressive efforts and to continue to use schools to reach out to pupils, particularly those who will be of voting age within the next couple of years.

I hope this provides noble Lords with sufficient assurances that we are all trying to get to the same end; we need to be working together. The Government are dedicated to improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral registers, while also maintaining electors’ individual liberty to choose to register of their own accord.

The amendment makes two suggestions as to what the Government might include in the proposals it would be required to lay before Parliament to improve the completeness of the registers. The first would see a form of automatic registration introduced for attainers—those who are too young to vote but who can register before they attain voting age—to ensure that they are registered to vote as soon as they become an adult. As I have explained to the House previously, the Government are opposed to automatic registration for reasons of both principle and practicality—and it does not matter what age the potential elector is. In terms of principle, we believe that registering to vote and voting are civic duties. It therefore follows that people should not have these duties done for them or be compelled to do them. In addition, treating attainers differently would lead to a lack of equity in the electoral registration system, and transferring responsibility for registering people to vote on to the Government would constitute a fundamental shift in how the registration system currently works.

There is also the principle of individual responsibility, which is why we introduced individual electoral registration in 2014. Automatic registration is not compatible with the idea that it is each eligible citizen’s own responsibility to register to vote. An approach based on individual responsibility also leads to the outcomes we all want to see. After the introduction of individual electoral registration, the registers for the 2017 and 2019 general elections were the largest ever. There is also some evidence from overseas to suggest that those who register themselves are more likely to vote. Individual electoral registration has worked.

The Government’s online registration service does exactly this: supporting citizens who want to register by making the registration process easier than ever. Satisfaction with the register to vote website is consistently above 90%, and it is regularly developed and improved.

Turning to the practicalities, we have many concerns about automatic registration. I will briefly—I promise—outline just five of them. First, it is almost certain that an automatic registration system would lead to a single, centralised database of electors. We are opposed to this on grounds of the significant security and privacy implications of holding that much personal data in one place, as well as the significant cost such a system would imply. Secondly, any system automatically registering citizens who, for example, are applying for a driving licence, a passport or universal credit could present accessibility challenges to those citizens who do not use any of those services.

Thirdly, there is currently no public service whose application procedures capture all the data required to determine eligibility to vote—name, address, age, nationality and immigration status. This means that any so-called automatic system would still require significant human intervention. Fourthly, electors have faith in our current registration system. The results of an Electoral Commission survey on the 2019 general election found that a net 78% of those surveyed were satisfied with our registration system. Of the net 10% who were dissatisfied, 9% said they should be automatically registered to vote and 1% said it should be compulsory.

Fifthly and finally, as the House has heard from noble Lords this afternoon, we should also take note of the experience of other jurisdictions that have introduced automatic registration. Registrations may have increased, but so have concerns about errors and inaccuracies. IER improved the accuracy of our registers by removing redundant and ghost entries and requiring that an applicant’s identity is verified before they can be added to the register. Automatic registration could lead to unsolicited poll cards being sent to house- holds, especially in areas with high turnover—student accommodation and private rented accommodation—opening the door to greater personation, postal and proxy vote fraud. The Government are not prepared to undo all this good work by introducing errors and inaccuracies through the back door, as automatic registration would surely do. Let us not forget that inaccurate registers facilitate voter fraud.

This is not an area where the Government are resting on their laurels. As I said before, I think we are all trying to get to the same place but in a different way. I want to assure noble Lords that we are undertaking considerable action to improve the completeness and accuracy of electoral registers, and great progress has been made. I therefore thank the noble Lord for his amendment. I hope I have gone some way to reassuring him of the Government’s intentions for improving the completeness of the registers and invite him to withdraw.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 7:30 pm, 8th October 2020

My Lords, I have received no request to speak after the Minister, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Shutt.

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Chair, Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee, Chair, Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords who spoke in favour of this amendment, which is everybody bar the Minister. It is important that this is an all-party affair and that registration is seen as beyond party. I am very disappointed in the Minister’s response, but not surprised. I do not understand how registration is a voluntary act, yet you can be fined if you do not register. That is a very strange form of volunteering.

The Minister has said a great deal about what the Government are doing. We heard about it in Committee and it is all commendable stuff. However, she has not said, for example, how it can be that in 2015 45% of attainers were on the registers and it is now down to 25%. That seems to me failure; it is not success.

I do not think this is good enough. It is not good enough for our young people, so I would like to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 293, Noes 215.

Division number 5 Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Report — Amendment 16

Aye: 293 Members of the House of Lords

No: 215 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Division conducted remotely on Amendment 16

Amendment 16 agreed.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 7:48 pm, 8th October 2020

My Lords, we now come to the group beginning with Amendment 17. I remind noble Lords that Members other than the mover and the Minister may speak only once and that short questions of elucidation are discouraged. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division should make that clear in debate.

Clause 7: Protected constituencies