Amendment 16

Part of Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 8th October 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 7:15 pm, 8th October 2020

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.