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?