Prompt to register as an overseas elector

Overseas Electors Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 31st October 2018.

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“(1) If the registration officer receives information that leads him or her to believe that a registered elector has moved, or is going to move, outside the United Kingdom, the registration officer shall contact that elector to prompt him or her to register as an overseas elector.

(2) The Electoral Commission may issue guidance for contact under subsection (1).”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Once again, I refer the Committee to our previous discussions about the administrative burden on electoral registration officers and the spikes in applications for electoral registration that always occur close to elections and when elections are announced. The new clause would introduce a provision to prompt UK citizens who are considering moving abroad or are in the process of moving to register as an overseas voter.

The Labour party is committed to taking radical steps to increase voter registration and turnout. We feel that it is important to use the Bill to encourage overseas voters to register in the early stages of moving abroad. That would not only reduce the workload of EROs, who must send out reminders to encourage new overseas voters to register, but strengthen our democratic culture by encouraging voter registration. If new overseas voters register early, they will be more likely to remain invested and engaged in British politics in the long term. Of course, the purpose behind the Bill is to get people who have perhaps lived abroad for more than 15 years involved and give them a stake in the electoral process.

The basic structure of electoral registration has remained unchanged for many years. Under the current structure, it is electoral registration officers’ duty to ensure that the voting register is as accurate and complete as possible, to conduct an annual household canvass, and to issue and chase inquiry forms. Household inquiry forms are sent to every household to confirm the details of those living at the property. Although the forms do not directly generate new registrations, they are critical to producing information about voters across the country.

Under the new clause, any information suggesting that a British person is moving or has moved abroad would trigger a prompt from the ERO to encourage them to put themselves on the voter register abroad.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

On the practicalities of sending out a form to someone abroad every year, presumably that would be quite an expense to the electoral system. I presume that the people abroad who want to stay on the roll will have to send a letter back, and will have to pay for the postage.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for his intervention. That is the current situation. The purpose behind the new clause is to ensure that people register at the outset so that we avoid spikes in registration in the immediate lead-up to an election period when, given everything else that is going on, electoral registration officers are at their busiest, their work is at its most hectic and they are under the most careful of examinations. As we saw in constituencies across the UK at the previous general election, there was not just a flurry of late registrations, but in certain constituencies there were complaints afterwards that people had not been allowed to vote, even though they felt they had registered in time. In some circumstances, they had confirmation that they had been registered, but they were not on the register. The new clause is intended to avoid that. The problem that the hon. and gallant Gentleman mentions would not necessarily have been avoided anyway.

The new clause is intended primarily to ensure that those eligible to vote take the opportunity to register. The Opposition are committed to strengthening our democracy through increasing voter turnout among those who are eligible. The Minister knows that in the past we have had criticisms that barriers are being put in place to prevent people from registering or voting. The Government have told us that they are committed to increasing the turnout, and we take them at their word.

It is important that newly eligible overseas voters are prompted to register from an early stage of living abroad. Not only will that make life easier for our EROs by allowing them easily to find documentation to verify voters who recently resided in the UK, but it will make it more likely that overseas voters will remain engaged and active in UK politics through an awareness of their ability to vote. Indeed, if new overseas voters were prompted to register from an early stage of their residency abroad, it would make the administrative task of EROs less difficult, as they would have up-to-date residency information about overseas electors.

I hasten to add that the Bill is, of course, about voters who have been outside the UK for more than 15 years. By getting on the register at the moment that they go abroad, there will already be an accurate register of the fact that they were resident in the UK when they pass the 15-year mark. It will make it much easier for long-term overseas voters to legitimately re-register, because there will be a continuation of their position on the register.

Secondly, I propose the amendment in order to reduce the work of the EROs in the lead-up to elections. There is no doubt that the administration of overseas applications is far more resource intensive than that for UK-based registrations, and the removal of the 15-year deadline will only serve to exacerbate matters. EROs from my area are anxious about the true extent of the administrative work that will result from this change; they have been given no guidance or information from the Government to prepare them.

EROs are extremely concerned that the traditional spikes of increased electoral registration that occur before a general election will become increasingly difficult to manage, as the validation work to be done by EROs will inevitably take longer, with paper copies of the registers, rather than online copies, needing to be checked through the use of historical electoral archives. Nevertheless, the Committee must remember that there will still be immense difficulties when it comes to verifying British overseas residents who have failed to register to vote, perhaps for decades. EROs do not have the necessary training, resources or money to be responsible for carrying out the in-depth, time-consuming research that is necessary to register overseas voters who have never been present on a British voting register. Prompting new overseas voters to register might mitigate this issue in the long term, but it is important that Ministers remain conscious of this central issue, which would result from passing the Bill in its unamended form.

The Labour party seeks to encourage wider voter registration among those eligible to vote. If this legislation is passed, we believe it is important that new voters are encouraged to register to vote, and that they are made aware of their rights to vote overseas. Indeed, it is a well-known trend that overseas voters generally lack an awareness of their rights to cast a ballot. The amendment could provide EROs with the opportunity to make voters conscious of their political rights while overseas.

The 2016 survey conducted by the Electoral Commission makes it clear that there remains widespread confusion about what it means to be an overseas voter and about the criteria for eligibility. The survey found that 31% of British expats believe that receiving a UK state pension makes someone eligible to vote, and 22% believe that owning a property in the UK makes someone eligible—I winced a bit when I saw that, because I thought that somehow we were going back to a property qualification for the suffrage, but clearly that is not the case. Of those who did not vote, a lack of awareness was a common reason. Roughly one in five, or 21%, said that they did not know how to register, and 21% said that they did not know how to vote. Only 50% or respondents were aware that they can register to vote online.

In its report on the 2017 general election, the AEA noted that many overseas voters mistakenly believed that they could vote online or have their ballot papers emailed to them. Knowledge about voting eligibility is surely at the heart of our democratic society. The Government must act to inform British citizens living abroad, and in the country, about the eligibility of overseas voters. The lack of awareness certainly has the potential to create a significant barrier to casting a ballot.

My friend the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has expressed concern about delays to the Bill, but I am also keen that we make the best of it if it goes through. Hon. Members are keen to maximise the number of overseas voters and, through this new clause, to ensure that the system works well and that as many overseas voters as possible take advantage of it.

We believe that, by prompting newly eligible overseas voters to register, ideally before they have left the UK, we can increase awareness and engagement among newly eligible overseas voters. If the overseas voter has not yet moved and is in the process of doing so but is still in the UK, it is a lot easier to resolve any queries that the electoral registration officer might have.

Once overseas voters are made aware of their eligibility, they are much more likely to engage in voting. For example, the Electoral Commission’s overseas voter day demonstrates the power of voting education, which speaks to a point made by the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham. The overseas awareness day took place on 10 May 2016 and was supported by embassies and consulates around the world. It aimed to encourage British citizens who were eligible to vote to register as overseas voters so that they could vote in the EU referendum. The Electoral Commission ran a public awareness campaign for overseas voters from 17 March to 9 June 2016. More than 139,000 overseas voters registered in that period. The new clause could go some way towards making overseas voters aware of their voting rights at an early stage—Members will agree that voter awareness is critical to strengthening our democracy.

Let me float a potential solution that could be trialled to improve the situation. There are many problems with the current individual electoral registration scheme. It has been costly—it is estimated by some to cost £120 million or so—yet remains ineffective and inefficient. Many thousands of voters have dropped off since it was introduced. Fifty-eight per cent. of respondents to an Electoral Commission survey supported automatic registration when a person receives their national insurance number, while 34% said people should be able to register at a polling station on the day of the poll. I am not sure I necessarily support that—it might be a little bit too late for verification—but 34% disagree with me.

Automatic registration would remove a host of administrative hurdles that currently complicate the task of registering an overseas elector. Individual electoral registration is undoubtedly problematic. At the 2015 general election, 12,800 people were turned away from polling stations, unable to vote, because they were not on the register. At the 2017 general election, that figure was more than 10,000. One of my concerns about the introduction of mandatory ID checks for people wanting to vote is that more people will be turned away or will not turn up at the polling station at all because they do not have that ID—that is probably an argument for a different day.

Many non-governmental organisations and charities, such as Bite the Ballot and Hope not Hate, regularly undertake voter registration drives, but voter registration should not be their responsibility—it should be the responsibility of the state, which should do everything it can to ensure as complete an electoral register as possible. The more complete an electoral register, the stronger and sounder our democracy.

Most people are aware that registering to vote is compulsory and that they risk being fined for not doing so, but we still have enormous gaps in the register because putting the onus for a complex system on citizens and underfunding local authorities is clearly not the most efficient or cost-effective way to ensure its completeness. The Government are prioritising anti-fraud and security measures and, in doing so, using datasets from different public bodies. For example, when we now register to vote, I think I am correct in saying that we have to put our national insurance number on the form. In the age of big data and digital by default, it is time the Government adopted those principles for electoral registration.

This is clearly a pressing issue and there is widespread support for modernising our electoral registration system, including from the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Electoral Reform Society. The cross-party Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, which was a predecessor to the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, supported automatic electoral registration in its 2015 report on voter engagement in the UK.

There are examples in many countries across the world of the successful implementation of automatic voter registration systems. In Canada, for example, electoral information is continually updated with information from other Government sources such as the Canada Revenue Agency, immigration and citizenship services and driving licence agencies. It is also possible for electors to continue proactively to update their information with electoral registration administrators.

Closer to home, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Sweden add to their electoral registers automatically using various different Government-held datasets. A database that would hold the UK-wide register was proposed by the previous Labour Government. The co-ordinated online record of electors—the CORE system—would have linked up with existing information to keep the register up to date.

When that was scrapped in 2011, the coalition Government claimed that it was not cost-effective, yet the switch to IER has cost £120 million and we still have an incomplete register. Building the CORE system and running it annually from 2011 to today would have cost just over £20 million according to the estimated figures, and we would have a much more complete register of electors.

The Welsh Labour Government are currently consulting on electoral reform in Wales following the devolution of powers in the Wales Act 2017. The consultation includes options on data sharing and the possibility of moving to a more automated system. We hope that voters in Wales will shortly be added automatically to a national electoral register and be able to vote from age 16 onwards.

With recent general elections hanging on such tight margins, it is obvious why a full and complete register is essential. Mere handfuls of votes swung constituency results in the general elections of 2015 and 2017, so it is clear that every vote makes a difference. As I have said, having more complete registers would assist voters as they are going overseas, because it would make it a lot easier for them to verify their residency and right to vote in the UK, and to do so in a particular constituency.

One of my concerns about the Bill in general is the lack of clarity in allocating the voter to a constituency. Having the most complete register possible is not simply about improving the credibility of the election as a whole. It would aid overseas voters by giving them that anchor within the UK for when they finally leave. I commend the proposed new clause to the Committee.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North 3:45 pm, 31st October 2018

On 28 November last year, I led a debate in Westminster Hall about voter registration in my constituency. The reply for the Government came from the hon. Member for Kingswood. I appreciated the spirit in which he replied, but I was unable to draw something from him that I hope to draw from the Minister. We want an accurate record and do not want anybody there who should not be, but I have never been clear whether it is a Government priority for it to be the fullest record possible. We want to reach people who are not on it and encourage them to do so. I believe it should be the fullest record possible and the amendment supports that aim.

Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 4:00 pm, 31st October 2018

May I give a quick plug to the Government’s democratic engagement strategy, which was published in December 2017 after the hon. Gentleman’s debate? It sets out in detail how we wanted to look at registration for the future.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North

I appreciate that and I encourage colleagues to look at that document. I was clear in that debate, and I will be clear now, that my instinctive enthusiasm is for automatic registration. I do not want anyone to think that I am not arguing for it or that I am trying to bring it in by the back door. That is where my enthusiasm lies, and I ought to be honest about it.

According to the Government’s impact assessment, the best estimate of the Bill’s cost is £8.8 million. However, I was disappointed to read paragraph 40 on page 10, which states:

“There is currently no planned expenditure for communications to raise awareness amongst overseas electors of their existing right to vote from central government. Some work may be expected from the Electoral Commission prior to polls.”

I would like people to be reminded and prompted. Page 13 gives an estimate that 25% of the newly enfranchised will register, so I wonder whether we can do better. Prompting people would be one way of achieving that. As we have discussed, the desire behind the Bill is to extend the franchise and give people a chance to vote, but that is not ambitious enough. We are glad the Government have committed to spending money—clearly there will be a cost—but I wonder whether we have the chance to go a little further.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester has squeezed my speech—I was going to rely on the same Electoral Commission survey. However, at a basic level, this is about ensuring that people understand the system, never mind prompting or positively encouraging them to register. Only 29% of those surveyed thought that they had to renew annually, while 38% thought that that was a falsehood and 34% did not know. Come what may, we have a job to do to make people understand not only whether they can register but how to do it. I will leave it at that, but I commend my hon. Friend’s new clause and hope Committee members consider it kindly.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.— (Glyn Davies.)

Adjourned till Wednesday 14 November at Two o’clock.