Amendment 141

Elections Bill - Committee (5th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 23rd March 2022.

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Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle:

Moved by Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle

141: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—“Automatic voter registration(1) Registration officers must take all reasonable steps to ensure that all persons eligible to register to vote in elections in the United Kingdom are so registered.(2) The Secretary of State must by regulations require public bodies to provide information to registration officers to enable them to fulfil their duty under subsection (1).(3) Regulations under subsection (2) must apply to the following public bodies—(a) HM Revenue and Customs;(b) the Department for Work and Pensions;(c) the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency;(d) the National Health Service, NHS Wales and NHS Scotland;(e) schools and further and higher education institutions;(f) local authorities;(g) HM Passport Office;(h) police forces;(i) the TV Licensing Authority;(j) Job Centre Plus;(k) the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Local Communities;(l) the Department for Transport;(m) the Department for Health and Social Care;(n) the Home Office; and(o) the Ministry of Justice.(4) Regulations under subsection (2) may also apply to other public bodies. (5) Registration officers must—(a) use the information provided by the public bodies listed in regulations under subsection (2) to register otherwise unregistered persons on the appropriate electoral register or registers, or(b) if the information provided does not contain all information necessary to register a person who may be eligible, contact that person for the purpose of obtaining the required information to establish whether they are eligible to register and, if so, register them on the appropriate electoral register or registers.(6) If a registration officer has registered a person under subsection (5), the officer must notify that person within 30 days and give that person an opportunity to correct any incorrect information.(7) Where a person is registered under subsection (5), that person must be omitted from the edited register unless that person notifies the registration officer to the contrary.(8) Nothing in this section affects entitlement to register to vote anonymously.(9) The Secretary of State may issue guidance to registration officers on fulfilling their duties under this section.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would require registration officers to enter eligible voters on the register, and provide for them to receive the necessary information from a number of public bodies.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, we had not pre-planned who would speak but, having attached my name to this amendment and being one of the two people here to do so, I will speak, with some unexpectedness, in favour of it.

Amendment 141 introduces a carefully planned and worked-through plan—as noble Lords can see—for automatic voter registration. It is a great pity that, given the time of this debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, is not able to be with us, but I hope that we might return to this on Report. It would be particularly interesting to hear from both the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Woolley. Many of the issues that the noble Lord addresses in this amendment were similarly addressed in his speech on voter ID and the importance of allowing the engagement of everybody in our electoral process. I urge people who have not read or heard that speech to catch up with it because it is an important one.

To put the case for why we need automatic voter registration, when I was reflecting on this, I thought it sounded like the sort of thing that we would normally do in Grand Committee in the Moses Room, looking at some detailed statutory instrument and going through the dusty tomes. But this is of course far from a bureaucratic detail. Rather, to bring in automatic voter registration would be the long-delayed completion of a democratic progression of a couple of centuries, right through the 19th-century reform Acts and the 20th-century women’s suffrage. It is a vital step in ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote actually has that vote available to them. The fact is that people do not have that practical opportunity now.

As I said at Second Reading, just because the Government are trying to slash away what little democracy we have in this country with many elements of this Bill, it does not mean that we cannot use this opportunity to set out a way forward to reform and repair our archaic and dysfunctional UK constitution. For there are what is known in shorthand as the “missing millions”— people who are eligible to vote but not registered for the right. An Electoral Commission study from 2019 suggested that their numbers exceed 9 million, while more than 5 million people are incorrectly registered. Those millions are not some random sample of the population. It is the young and those in private rental accommodation, many of whom have to move often, who are massively underrepresented on the rolls and by our so-called democracy. This ties into the debate that we were having earlier about votes for 16 and 17 year-olds. Those people are least likely to vote Conservative.

This amendment, therefore, is about not just people’s individual rights but ensuring that our electoral results reflect the views of the people. The background to this is individual electoral registration, which was introduced in 2014. It cleaned up the messes—I am sure that I am far from the only Member of your Lordships’ House who has knocked on the door of a very small flat at which there are apparently 16 people registered, and it is not a case of fraud but various people have moved in and out and names have been added without any being removed. However, it also cleaned out millions of people who should have been on those rolls, particularly young people and students at university.

This is a really important point and I hope that the Minister might be able to address it. It is not even easy to check whether you are registered correctly. The Electoral Commission website says—this is the only information it provides—

“contact the electoral services team at your local council”.

That is how you go about checking whether you are on the electoral roll. It is a far from simple, easy process. Can the Minister say whether the Government plan any improvements on that simple step so that people can check whether they are registered?

To briefly address the details of this amendment, automatic voter registration need not be complicated or introduce a large bureaucratic burden. Schools and colleges could register young people as attainers—those about to become voters—and university students could be registered by their universities. Changing the address on your driving licence, which is something everyone is legally obliged to do, registering for council tax, or having contact with the Department for Work and Pensions are all things that could feed into the electoral roll—they are how the Government know where people are.

I will make one final point, because I am sure other people will have many other things to say on this important amendment. Of course, automatic voter registration will not guarantee that people turn out to vote. Already, typically, fewer than 70% of people on the roll turn out for general elections, and often 30% or fewer in council elections. But giving people the opportunity by making sure their name is on the rolls as it should be without them having to go to extraordinary efforts has to be essential to make any claim of calling this country a democracy. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, as it is to add my name to this amendment also in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Warsi. I do not need to repeat the compelling points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, but I will just say this. We all know that to have the option of voting is a fundamental right, just as to pay tax when it is owed is a fundamental duty. The Government worked very hard, as they should, at ensuring that when people reach the age of 18, they are automatically registered for tax purposes. I really believe in taxation, obviously. They are right to do it, and it ought to be increasingly easy to do that in our automated world. If the Government can do that, why on earth would they not do the equivalent thing when people reach whatever the age of majority is—we argued about that—to ensure that people are registered.

We have had the arguments about voter ID, which is ID when you turn up and choose to vote. No doubt, we will come back to those, but this is an earlier step. If the Government are really serious, as they tell us they are, about not disfranchising people and making sure they have this possibility of exercising their right, why would they not at least ensure they are automatically registered, with all the information and all the tools available to the state? If I may say so to the Minister: if the Government would listen on this issue and be prepared to have discussions, it might go some way to ameliorating concerns about potential voter suppression in relation to ID when people to turn up to vote at the polling station.

This is an infinitely sensible proposal, infinitely possible to achieve. A quarter of the way into the 21st century, with all the wit and wisdom we have at our disposal, and all the resources the Government have, if we are really serious about ensuring people are not disfranchised, they should be automatically registered when they reach voting age.

Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour

My Lords, the exacerbation of the political exclusion of poorer and marginalised communities—Gypsies, Travellers and Roma in particular —consequent on this Bill was thoroughly aired in Committee on 17 March, when, I regret, I was unable to attend, and on Second Reading. I read Hansard carefully, and I will not rehearse the powerful arguments made by my noble friends Lady Hayman of Ullock and Lady Lister and the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and acknowledged by the Minister responding—the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook.

I would just add, in support of Amendments 141 and 144B, that only this week, colleagues from Friends, Families and Travellers—I declare an interest as president and my other related posts shown in the register—and the Roma Support Group made the points at a meeting with DLUHC that people from their communities already have difficulty in meeting the identification requirements for exercising their right to vote and would feel even more left out of the system under the Bill’s proposals. The fact that postal voters would be exempt compounded their sense of injustice.

As I understand it, the Government do not actually know the relative proportion of minority ethnic turnout to vote. Nor did their voter ID pilots establish this basic national social evidence. In my opinion, the Government would be well advised to consider positively the assistance offered by these amendments in making sure that no one is left out.

As the Bill stands, Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, and other marginalised citizens, are in effect discriminated against, when they should be enabled to join the mainstream. The proposals deter rather than enfranchise people. They subvert democracy. These amendments would help right that wrong. I urge the Government to adopt them.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat 9:30 pm, 23rd March 2022

My Lords, I support both these amendments. Does the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, wish to speak to her amendment first?

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

First, it is important to establish that there is a problem. I quote from the briefing supplied by the Electoral Commission to your Lordships on these amendments:

“There is more that could and should be done to modernise electoral registration processes in Great Britain, to ensure that as many people as possible are correctly registered.”

I believe I heard the Minister make the same point—that he believes it good public policy to get people registered. The Electoral Commission’s most recent estimate is that

“between 8.3 and 9.4 million people in Great Britain who were eligible to be on the local government registers were not correctly registered”.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said, those figures were collected in December 2018. It says there are another 360,000 or more people in Northern Ireland not correctly registered. It also made the same point as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett:

“Our research found that young people, students and those who have recently moved are the groups that are least likely to be correctly registered.”

Courtesy of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, I would say that Travellers are very much in that group of under-registered people.

The Electoral Commission has published feasibility studies which identified that there is potential to evolve the current system. Those studies are reflected in the amendments before your Lordships today. Amendment 141 is one route to it—the two are not exclusive but it is one route—and Amendment 144B is another, to which we have added our names as well. It provides simply that, when a person is issued with a national insurance number, they receive their application for the electoral register.

The Electoral Commission makes two more points in its briefing:

“the education sector … could help EROs identify attainers and other young people. Also, data from the Department for Work and Pensions could potentially be used by EROs to register young people to vote automatically when they are allocated their national insurance number ahead of their 16

I do not want to frighten the Minister; the Electoral Commission is not suggesting that they would vote from their 16th birthday but simply that, as attainers, that would be an appropriate time for them to apply to be put on as an attaining voter.

At least in theory, I think we are all in favour of all qualified UK citizens being on the electoral roll and we would all say that we would like them to exercise their vote. This legislation increases the number of people eligible to go on that register by virtue of what the Bill proposes to do in relation to overseas electors. We will debate that shortly.

Clearly, the Government do not have a problem with having a larger voting roll. They share the Committee’s view that it is desirable, in principle, that all eligible people should be on the roll, and yet, so far, they have been extremely resistant to doing that, as far as attainers in particular are concerned. In the light of the evidence that the Electoral Commission has produced, that it is a significant number and that there are solutions, and in a situation where the Minister has in front of him two amendments proposing practical ways to solve that problem, I hope that in winding up he will be able to say that he will take this back, give it further consideration and perhaps produce an appropriate government amendment on Report.

Photo of Lord Eatwell Lord Eatwell Labour

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord True, has made two sets of powerful arguments about the right to vote. First, he made a series of powerful arguments in favour of photo identification as a right to vote and, just now, he talked about the rights and responsibilities of citizens with respect to prisoners’ right to vote. Would an acceptance of this amendment not represent some consistency, and a rejection of this amendment represent some very clear inconsistency in the following sense? What would the Minister do about a situation where someone turns up at a polling station with a British passport and a British driving licence on which their address is registered, and they are then refused the right to vote? They will have complied with everything the Minister argued for in the discussion of identification, but they will be denied the right to vote because of a variety of complexities that still bedevil our registration system.

Surely it is appropriate that there are democracies—Norway, Australia—in which a presence on the register and the right to vote are automatic and ensured by modern data systems that can easily do the job. Surely, if he has a degree of consistency in his arguments about this Bill, the Minister will support these amendments.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, throughout Committee I have kept coming back to the impact assessment. Right there on the front page of the impact assessment it says:

“What are the policy objectives of the action or intervention and the intended effects?”

It is:

“To ensure that those who are entitled to vote should always”— always—

“be able to exercise that right freely, effectively and in an informed way”.

That is the intended consequence, the stated intention of the Bill before us: that those who are entitled to vote

“should always be able to exercise that right”.

People cannot exercise that right if they are not on the electoral roll. It is an absolute condition of always being able to exercise that right.

The amendments before us are absolutely bang on the money, in terms of what the intended policy of the Bill is in the impact assessment. As citizens of this country, we are all given automatic rights and responsibilities. Through that, we get certain certificates or automated numbers. We get our national insurance number automatically. We do not have to apply; it is automatically granted to us at 16. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said, we are registered for taxation automatically. We get our NHS number automatically. If noble Lords asked the vast majority of the public if they would object to being automatically registered, I have seen no evidence that says people would reject that proposition. Whether people then go to vote is down to the politicians to encourage them, enthuse them and get them to the polling station.

The very fact that the Government’s policy is to “always” ensure that people are able to exercise their vote in an automatic, easy and effective way means that these amendments should be accepted by the Government. If they are not, I would ask the Minister to explain why not having automatic registration, and keeping what is on the face of the Bill, would actually meet their objective to

“ensure that all those who are entitled to vote should always be able” to do so.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, in speaking to my Amendment 144B, I would like first to take the opportunity to thank the Patchwork Foundation for its very helpful briefings on this matter. I will be brief because we have already heard that the current system of voter registration really is not working to the benefit of many people, and that voter registration rates are disproportionately low among young people and some minority groups.

There is confusion among eligible voters about how and when to register. The University of East Anglia carried out a survey in 2016 which found that two-thirds of electoral registration officers reported that citizens had complained to them about the voter registration process being bureaucratic, and that this had discouraged them from registering. Surveys of poll workers have also found that the most common problem that they encounter is citizens asking to vote when they are missing from the electoral register. Furthermore, a poll conducted by YouGov before the 2019 general election found that 16% of respondents believed that they were automatically registered to vote if they paid their council tax, and 17% believed that they were automatically registered when they turned 18. There is a lot of confusion and we belief that AVR will go a significant way in tackling the disparities and the inefficiency of the current system. It would diminish the impact of cyclical registration patterns, which can put so much pressure on voting infrastructure and the officials who are running and managing it. It would also go some way in bridging the current gaps in registration across various ethnic and social economic groups, as other noble Lords have said.

The UK is one of the few liberal democracies that does not already have some sort of system of AVR in place. Of 40 liberal democracies assessed by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and the University of East Anglia, the UK came out as one of just six countries that does not have a system of either automatic or assisted voter registration. Where it is in existence, it has proved very effective at encouraging first-time voters to vote. By contrast, the UK is witnessing a fall in the number of young people registering to vote.

We have had quite a discussion on this, and I will finish by saying that this is terribly simple and straightforward. As other noble Lords have said, people are already written to ahead of their 16th birthday with their national insurance number. If we can do that, why can we not at the same time have an automatic registration to vote? We have the means to do it, so why do we not just get on with it?

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

My Lords, I thank the Committee for the debate; it is a debate we had two years ago when we were discussing a previous Bill. If applying to vote was difficult or time-consuming, the Government might have more sympathy for this proposal, but it is not. It can be done online, by paper and post, in person, or by telephone, where the registration officer offers these services. Online, it takes five minutes and can be done anywhere, anytime, on a smartphone or a tablet; I have done this recently myself.

As a small but very positive step to encourage young people to vote, HMRC now includes additional information on registering to vote on letters issuing the national insurance numbers, and this practice has been in place since the end of September 2021.

These amendments contradict the principle that underpins individual electoral registration: that individuals should have ownership of, and responsibility for, their own registration. At this point, I say that some members of our communities do not want to register—we have all probably met people who do not want to go on the electoral register. Automatic registration would threaten the accuracy of the register and, in doing so, enable voting and political donations by those who are ineligible.

Registration officers are responsible for maintaining complete and accurate registers. They have broad powers to request information from anyone or any organisation to support the maintenance of their electoral register. They have a duty to identify individuals who may be eligible to register and invite them to do so. The recent canvass reforms have relieved some of the pressures that EROs previously faced, and introducing a form of automatic registration would undermine the success of the reforms thus far.

Relying on the services listed in these amendments would be costly and time-consuming. I am unaware of any single public service that, as part of its application procedures, captures all the data required to determine eligibility to register to vote: name, address, age, nationality and immigration status.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 9:45 pm, 23rd March 2022

The noble Baroness may be aware that there is an equivalent of a national register: Experian, which collects a great deal of data and is used by a lot of private and public authorities. If it can do that, why cannot the Government?

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

I do not know, but I will look into that with the team.

Automatic registration therefore risks not being truly automatic or adding ineligible people to the register. For example, under the EU voting and candidacy rights changes provided for in the Bill, very few EU citizens who arrived to live in the UK after 31 December 2020 will have the right to register to vote, but most will be issued with a national insurance number. Moreover, most national insurance numbers are issued before someone is 16, which is too young to be added to the register, even as an attainer, in England and Northern Ireland. Therefore, the Government have no plans to introduce automatic registration at this stage, and I request that this amendment be withdrawn.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and a number of other noble Lords asked what we are doing to encourage registration. Since its introduction, the register to vote website has revolutionised the ability of electors to participate, with over 60 million applications to registers being submitted since 2014. In the last UK general election, a record 47 million people were registered. We continue to refine and adjust the way that the digital system works to improve its security.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, brought up accessibility. It is very pleasing to see that the register to vote service has the highest accessibility rating—AAA—under the web content accessibility guidelines. It is also the responsibility of the Electoral Commission to promote participation, and it runs an annual campaign to encourage eligible voters to register.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I will ask a question, because this may impact on another group. The Minister mentioned that we will not know whether EU citizens who have come here properly after a certain date have the right to vote. The Government have signed agreements with a number of EU countries—Spain, for example—that will allow EU citizens to vote from them. Why is that a problem, in terms of this issue? How many EU countries have we signed reciprocal voting arrangements with?

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

No, I think we will deal with that later—but if we do not deal with that today, I shall make sure that the noble Lord gets a note on it, because I do not have a list of them to hand.

We have no plans to introduce automatic registration, and I request that the amendment is withdrawn.

Photo of Lord Eatwell Lord Eatwell Labour

Could the Minister address the inconsistency to which I referred—that someone with a British passport and a British driving licence, obeying the requirements in this Bill for identification for voting, could be denied the right to vote because they are not registered?

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

No, because they are not registered. You cannot just have anybody walking into a polling station with some pieces of paper or a passport and saying that they have the right to vote. They have to register to vote.

Photo of Lord Eatwell Lord Eatwell Labour

So the Minister is saying that a British passport and a driving licence are random pieces of paper. Is that how she is referring to them?

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

No, my Lords, but you have to register to vote in this country, and going into a polling station and just saying that you have a passport but you have not registered cannot allow you to vote.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, this has been a very interesting and informative debate and I thank the Minister for her answers, and thank all noble Lords who have participated.

To pick up some points from the Minister, she suggested that it was not difficult or time-consuming to register. Perhaps this is not something that most people in your Lordships’ House do very often, but moving house is up there just below divorce and death in terms of people’s level of stress. Moving house is something that many people in our society, particularly younger and poorer people, find themselves doing regularly at six- or 12-month intervals—and now we are going to make this extra thing that they have to remember when there are so many other things they are worrying about. Perhaps when people are younger, the first or second time they move they do it religiously, but by the time they get to the sixth, or the eighth or the 10th time that they move, and they have so many things to worry about, it is unsurprising that they do not. It is difficult, when it is mixed in with that whole difficult experience.

The Minister made the point about people owning their own registration and that they might get registered accidentally when they should not be. Of course, the form that automatic registration could very easily take would be to change your driving licence address in the box and then respond to the questions about whether you were eligible to vote, providing any extra information that might be needed. I shall have to go away and look at this, but all the information that you have to provide for a driving licence would be sufficient, I should have thought, for voting. I shall go away and look at that.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, brought up an interesting point about complications around EU citizens, which we will come to—but again that could be answered by a tick-box arrangement.

One key point has come out of this debate, well highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, but also by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. This is a balance to voter ID. I do not agree with voter ID but, if you are going to have it, as the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, said, and you turn up with your paperwork, and you are still told, although you have your passport, that you are not really a proper citizen because you have not ticked a box on a website, that is going to create some real anger.

I am not sure that the Minister really addressed the important points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, who so often in your Lordships’ House is a champion for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, and many other excluded groups in our society. For all kinds of reasons, it is so much more difficult for those citizens, and we should be going to extraordinary efforts to make sure that their voice is able to be heard.

I pick up also the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, about the Government’s own impact assessment. If this is the aim of the Bill, it is very hard to see why the Government should not be taking these steps.

I make the final point that I raised a question with the Minister that was not answered—whether the Government are looking to make it easier to check whether you are correctly registered. You may have moved two or three years ago in a mad flurry—maybe your relationship had just broken down and that was why you moved—then there is an election coming, and you think, “Did I register to vote or not in that difficult period?” You would then have to know what council you are in and find its electoral services and send them an email or ring them up—and we all know what ringing a council up is like. Are the Government doing anything to improve that? If the Minister cannot answer that now, perhaps she could write to me about that, and perhaps she could commit to that before I withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

I think from the discussion it is very obvious we are going to return to this on Report, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 141 withdrawn.

Amendments 142 and 143 not moved.