Amendment 16

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

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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 6:45 pm, 8th October 2020

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.