Amendment 40

Elections Bill - Report (1st Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 8:31 pm on 6th April 2022.

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Lord Woolley of Woodford:

Moved by Lord Woolley of Woodford

40: After Clause 12, 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 Lord Woolley of Woodford Lord Woolley of Woodford Crossbench

My Lords, having hurried in here, I am now out of breath. We seem to have caused a bit of a stir with the first round of amendments, but what I liked was that our fiery debate was very respectful. We all have our own opinions, which are very strong from time to time, but I really liked how respectful it was. During the last round of debates, I spent a lot of my time trying to save people from either falling off the register or not voting, if that makes sense. With the amendment I now put to the House, I want to do the opposite.

I want to do something that is so incredible that we will be remembered in history for what we do tonight, if noble Lords agree to my amendment. Rather than lose 2 million voters, which we fought about on the previous amendment, tonight we can send a signal to ensure that 9 million people who are not on the voting register are put on and have a voice. It will be unprecedented and we will make history. We can do it. I hope that noble Lords will seize this opportunity and go and tell friends and family. I have been told to finish, so I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, a couple of minutes after I thought I might have to rise to move the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and others, I rise to support it. With between 6 million and 9 million people missing from electoral registers or incorrectly registered, something is clearly wrong.

Surveys by the Electoral Commission show that 60% of people think, incorrectly, that the registration process happens automatically and that they do not need to do anything. Registering is not just about the right to vote; it is about making yourself available for jury service and being able to obtain credit. The Government maintain that there should be an opt-in principle to the right to vote, but there is no opt-in principle for healthcare, education or support from the emergency services, nor do the Government expect you to opt in to paying tax, so you should not have to opt in to the right to vote.

Automatic voter registration would cut the cost of existing registration processes and reduce red tape and bureaucracy, all things which the Government would normally say that they want to support. Introducing it would free up resources to focus on those who are still unregistered, which is also something the Government say that they want to do, but are they worried that the wrong people may then be able to vote? That is not a very democratic principle, but it is one trumpeted by Republicans in the United States.

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

My Lords, I had the pleasure of introducing this amendment in Committee and I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, who has been the proponent of this throughout, was able to be here on Report and provide such a powerful introduction. I raised one practical point previously: how hard it is for people to check if they are on the roll. The Minister said she was going to write to me about that, and I look forward to her letter.

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, is not in her place now, but in Committee she stressed the way in which automatic voter registration would be helpful to poor and marginalised communities, particularly Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. We should keep that in mind, and also the words in Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, who noted that the impact assessment is to ensure that those who are entitled to vote should always be able to use that right—that is the Government’s stated aim for the Bill.

After those brief words, I will repeat three words said by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, in his introduction: “seize this opportunity”. I think he was speaking then to voters, but that it is a great message to leave with your Lordships’ House: seize this opportunity for democracy.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour

My Lords, I rise to say three things. First, I am pleased to see the Minister back in his place and I hope he has recovered. Secondly, I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, has made another journey from Cambridge to be with us tonight. Thirdly, I agree with him that we should make history and I urge the House to vote for this amendment.

Photo of Lord Eatwell Lord Eatwell Labour

My Lords, I was struck by the argument from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that one does not have to opt in for taxation. I think he is arguing for “no taxation without representation”, a slogan which if recognised in the past might have eased some pain which a British Government suffered.

At the end of the debate in Committee, I put it to the Minister that someone should turn up at a voting booth with a British passport and a driving licence and would then be denied the right to vote. She replied, “Of course, that person’s not on the register.” That seemed to illustrate the total folly of the current restrictive register, and the wisdom of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, which I urge everyone in the House to support and so maximise the number of people who are engaged in the civic process of voting in this country.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

I want to support what the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, has said, and perhaps try to pre-empt the Minister in her reply. In Committee, two reasons were given. One was a mitigation that HMRC in fact informs those who receive new national insurance numbers of their right to vote, which started in September last year. That is excellent and if HMRC can inform them, I am sure they could send the form to go with it. The noble Baroness also said:

“Automatic registration would threaten the accuracy of the register and … enable voting and political donations by those who are ineligible”.—[Official Report, 23/3/22; col. 1058.]

There is a measure of disconnect between the Government’s approach to this issue and their approach to overseas voters. Will the Minister consider whether it would not be sensible to go one more step with HMRC and to link their policies for overseas voters with the domestic voting system?

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, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, for tabling this amendment, to which I have added my name, and for his introduction. I also thank noble Lords for their brief comments.

I want to refer back to Committee. The Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, said that the amendments proposed on automatic voter registration

“contradict the principle that underpins individual electoral registration: that individuals should have ownership of, and responsibility for, their own registration … Automatic registration would threaten the accuracy of the register and, in doing so, enable voting and political donations by those who are ineligible.”—[Official Report, 23/3/22; col. 1058.]

However, does she agree with me that there are underlying problems with the status quo, such as millions of eligible citizens being incorrectly registered or missing from the registers entirely, major strains on the system during a last-minute registration rush ahead of election days, and resource problems for electoral officials? A founding principle of democracy is political equality. We therefore need to ensure a level playing field on election day. AVR could boost voter registration rates among under-registered groups to create this more level playing field.

It is already current law that every citizen is registered. People often get letters saying that they will be fined £60 if they do not register. Voter registration is not an opt-in process. AVR is a solution that would help administratively to best realise what appears to be the current goal of full, compulsory registration. AVR is also the norm, not the exception, in countries around the world. Many countries that have historically not had AVR because of the absence of a population register are now increasingly introducing either direct enrolment for specific groups or assisted voter enrolment through other public agencies. Where they have been designed well, these innovations have proven to be able to deliver cost savings and boost voter registration for specific groups.

As the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said, we can give millions of people not on the electoral register a voice. If he chooses to divide the House on this amendment, we will support him.

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

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford. He, my noble friend Lord True and I have debated this issue a number of times in this House. The intention behind this amendment—to increase the number of people registered to vote—is one that the Government wholeheartedly support. However, the practical difficulties brought about by automatic voter registration are such that the Government cannot support the amendment.

Given the number and range of public bodies listed, as well as the vast amounts of data they hold, the amendment would overwhelm electoral registration officers with data. Data protection legislation rightly prevents the unnecessary sharing of personal data. This amendment would see unparalleled volumes of personal data shared—even that of the majority of people who are already correctly registered. Likewise, it would see people registered without their knowledge or consent.

There would also likely be a large number of security and privacy concerns, such as when it comes to handling the data of minors, those who are escaping domestic violence, those who wish to remain anonymous electors or those who do not want to be on the register—and there are a number of people who do not. I do not know whether it has happened when you have knocked on doors, but people have certainly said to me, “We are not on the register and do not want to be”.

The amendment also takes no account of the coverage, currency or accuracy of the data held by the various public bodies. As they would be listed in primary legislation, these public bodies would be required to share their data, even if it is of no use for electoral registration. Using inaccurate or out-of-date information to register people to vote automatically would seriously undermine the accuracy of the electoral register. That is the crux of the issue: accuracy is just as important as completeness. Having more individuals on a register is not inherently a good thing if those individuals are registered at incorrect or multiple addresses.

When it comes to implementation, a whole host of other issues arise. How would an ERO deal with contradictory evidence from different data sources? If an individual was removed from the register because the ERO determined they were no longer eligible, how would this be picked up by an automated system so that they were not automatically added again? What these questions point to is the fact that there is no true system of automatic voter registration; any trusted system of registration requires the active input of both electors and EROs to determine eligibility. The Government also contend that such active input is important to aid electors’ understanding of the process and their awareness of upcoming electoral events.

Lastly, the Government cannot accept the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, because it is deficient. It leaves untouched all the existing legislation for electoral registration. It would require significant further work, and possibly a whole new Bill, to unpick which elements of current law would need to be amended or repealed to accommodate this amendment. For these reasons, and more I have no time to go into—

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

I am grateful that the noble Baroness has explained a whole series of practical reasons that she says will make it difficult. I would like to know what the government position in principle on this is. If the practical differences can be overcome, in principle are the Government in favour of all those who have the right to be on the register actually being registered?

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

Of course we want maximum registration, but not through a flawed system. There are many other ways the Government will continue to work on getting more people on to the electoral register, if they want to be on it.

I urge the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, to withdraw his amendment. Tackling under-registration is an important and complex issue, but this is not the way to address it.

Photo of Lord Woolley of Woodford Lord Woolley of Woodford Crossbench

I thank the Minister very much for that answer. The irony of this discussion is that we have spent hours and hours on the Bill, and we are proposing an expenditure of about £200 million on the basis of one fraud: one out of 47 million. What I am suggesting is that we find a way, first in principle, to get 9 million people to have a voice. I know it is difficult; it will not be a walk in the park, but what price is democracy? What price is telling every individual out there eligible to vote that we will use all our powers, all our political will and all our decency to make sure that they can have a voice in these Chambers? The answer should not be, “It’s too difficult”. The question should be “How do we do it?” I am afraid that I want to put the will of this House to a vote.

Ayes 116, Noes 147.

Division number 3 Elections Bill - Report (1st Day) (Continued) — Amendment 40

Aye: 116 Members of the House of Lords

No: 147 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Amendment 40 disagreed.

Amendment 41 not moved.