New Clause 1

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 30th June 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

“Registers used to determine the “electorate” in relation to the 2023 reports

‘(1) In rule 9(2) of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act (definition of the “electorate”), for “The” substitute “Subject to sub-paragraph (2A), the”.

(2) After rule 9(2) of that Schedule insert—

“(2A) In relation to a report under section 3(1) that a Boundary Commission is required (by section 3(2)) to submit before 1 July 2023, the “electorate” of the United Kingdom, or of a part of the United Kingdom or a constituency, is the total number of persons whose names appear on a register of parliamentary electors (maintained under section 9 of the Representation of the People Act 1983) in respect of addresses in the United Kingdom, or in that part or that constituency, as that register has effect on 2 March 2020.””—

This new clause inserts a new clause (to be added after clause 6) which provides for the meaning of the “electorate” in Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act, in the case of the 2023 reports of the Boundary Commissions, to be determined by reference to the registers of parliamentary electors as they have effect on 2 March 2020 rather than by reference to the versions of those registers which are published under section 13(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 on or before 1 December 2020 (which is the “review date” provided for under clause 7), a prescribed later date, or 1 February 2021 (where section 13(1A) of that Act applies).

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

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

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 4—Definition of “electorate”—

“(1) The 1986 Act is amended as follows.

(2) In rule 9(2) of Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act, omit the words from “the version that is required” to the end and insert “the electoral register as on the date of the last General Election before the review date.”

For the purposes of future reviews, this new clause would define the electorate as being those on the electoral register at the last General Election prior to the review.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

First, allow me to address the new clause that stands in my name before turning to new clause 4, which stands in the names of the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood and for City of Chester.

The purpose of new clause 1 is to mitigate a risk arising from the covid-19 pandemic that could affect the successful delivery of the next boundary review. The risk relates to electoral data, namely information on the numbers of electors across the UK. Hon. Members will be well aware that this is fundamental to the work of the boundary commissions. We need the next review, and all reviews, to be based on the most robust form of the data. Under current legislation, the next boundary review would be based on the number of registered electors as at 1 December 2020, following the annual canvass.

As we know, the annual canvass is a large information-gathering exercise that checks and verifies the addresses of registered electors. The boundary commissions generally use the version of the electoral register that follows the canvass because it is the most up to date and accurate available at the start of the review. This year, however, concerns have rightly been raised about whether the operation of the 2020 annual canvass might be affected by covid-19, given that it is a considerable exercise mobilising many staff and contractors over several months. This new clause responds to those concerns and provides for the next boundary review to be based, on a one-off basis, on the number of registered electors at 2 March 2020.

That data represents the most up-to-date electoral registration information available from the point before the impacts of covid became widespread. It will capture the registrations that took place in the run-up to the 2019 general election, subject to any monthly updates that were then also made up to 2 March 2020. As hon. Members may know from other remarks I have made and the letter I sent to the Committee, I have engaged with both parliamentary party and administrator representatives on this issue. It is critical that the next boundary review is not compromised as a result of covid, so I have tabled the new clause.

New clause 4 seeks to change the definition of the electorate to that of the electoral register from the last general election prior to the boundary review. There are a number of reasons why the Government believe this is not the appropriate dataset to use for boundary reviews, and I will lay those out.

First, as I set out when introducing new clause 1, the electoral register is updated through the year. The annual canvass then provides the most comprehensive audit of the electoral register each year. It represents the most consistent and up-to-date picture of how many UK electors there are and where they live.

Secondly, the current approach of using the December registers, the data from which is collected, checked and published by the Office for National Statistics, ensures that the boundary commissions are using officially published data that is up to date, transparent and readily available to all citizens. By contrast, electoral registration officers are not required to published data on the number of electors on the registers of parliamentary electors for general elections. That data is not officially published by the Office for National Statistics, so it could be argued to be more opaque, whereas transparency is helpful.

Thirdly, I think many of us would agree that when we are looking to update UK parliamentary boundaries, it is important that the most up-to-date and robust data is used. Unlike the canvass, general elections do not happen every 12 months—or at least we hope that they do not—and the use of election data could therefore result in boundary reviews being based on information that was considerably more out of date than that provided by the canvass. I will go into that in a couple of ways.

It is unusual for a general election to occur in the second half of a calendar year. 2019 was a notable exception, and I am sure we all reflected on that as we were banging on doors in the rain and the snow. To take a past example, had we used the general election data for the boundary review starting in 2000, we would have been using data from the 1997 general election. That would have been two and a half years out of date at the start of the review, and over a decade out of date by the time the boundaries were first used in an election in 2010.

Let me take this moment to address a few other myths about electoral registers. There are a few areas of tension as to how the registers work, and the arguments can be confusing. I do not think general election registers are always the answer, and I want to address a few of the erroneous arguments that are made. One myth advanced by some is that after a general election people suddenly vanish off the electoral register; as the register compiled for the election is sometimes regarded as the fullest or biggest, people argue that electors have to have been captured at exactly that early moment. I do not think this is the case. It seems to derive from the idea the election registers are more comprehensive as a consequence of the many registrations made in the run-up to a major poll. However, they do not somehow vanish after a poll; they are not lost. Those people remain there, and the canvass that follows any general election will verify that those who registered for that election are still resident at the same address, together with any further registrations that have taken place in the intervening months. If they are still resident, they stay on the register—quite rightly—and are taken into account at a boundary review starting after the review date.

For example, if people registered in the run-up to the 2019 December general election and remained at the same address after the election, they remain on the register. It is as simple as that. Of course the contrary is also true: if they moved immediately after the election, it is only right that the canvass and the monthly updates that follow it highlight that change. Therefore, the fullest register, as general election data is sometimes described, does not stay accurate forever.

Maintaining accuracy and completeness needs to be part of an ongoing cycle. The quality of the register relies on these two elements—completeness and accuracy. One is not enough on its own: they have to be seen together. If a person registers in the run-up to a general election in area A and shortly afterwards moves to area B, it is not right that they stay on the register for area A. Some might argue, I suppose, that for completeness they would stay registered in area A while they also registered in area B, but that is not accuracy. The work of the electoral registration officers, who have responsibility for maintaining complete and accurate registers, is to create a picture that is both as accurate and as complete as possible while, admittedly, accepting that no register can ever be perfect because the population does move.

The Government have been working hard over the years with electoral administrators to improve the accuracy and completeness of the registers. I will take a moment to highlight some of that work. The introduction of online registration has made it easier, simpler and faster for people to register to vote, taking as little as five minutes. This also applies in a positive way particularly to people who traditionally found it harder to make an application to register. Working with lots of partners, we have developed a range of democratic engagement resources to promote democratic engagement and voter registration. That is all available on gov.uk. We are also in the process of implementing changes to the annual canvass of all the residential properties in Great Britain that will improve its overall efficiency quite considerably. It will let registration officers focus their efforts on the hardest-to-reach groups, and play an important role in helping to maintain the accuracy and completeness of the register.

I hope I have given a sense of what we are doing to support the best quality data available for the function of the Bill, in the form of the covid 19-related new clause 1. I have also presented some arguments why canvass data is better data to use than the general election data. I also wanted to provide the Committee with a few insights into how we have been working to improve levels of registration in this country, and why we should all agree that that is very important, albeit slightly to the side of the main subject of the Bill. If the Committee wishes me to respond to points that others may make, I will be happy to do so, but I shall pause here and urge that the Government new clause be added to the Bill.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement 2:15 pm, 30th June 2020

I will speak to both new clause 4, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester, and Government new clause 1.

I welcome new clause 1, which corrects what I feel would be the error of using December of this year as the basis for the register for our boundary review. Clearly, the covid-19 situation has put huge strain on all our councils and local authorities, which at present are working to support some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. It would be ludicrous to ask them to undertake an annual canvass at a time of such stretched capacity in local government. However, after 20 years of delay, the boundaries must reflect the electorate, with the best possible accuracy, and that means selecting the register that best reflects the reality of the general population of our country.

I would like to use this opportunity to probe the Minister on her choice of the March 2020 register. We are in a unique position, in that just six months ago we had a general election, and before that election we saw a huge spike in voter registration. Indeed, we can see that, since the introduction of individual electoral registration, there tends to be a spike in electoral registrations before major electoral events—the most notable recently being referendums and general elections, of which we seem to have had an awful lot. The Office for National Statistics data for the period between 1 and 12 December 2019 showed that approximately half a million people registered to vote, and electoral registrations increased in 94% of our constituencies. The number of electoral registrations was at its highest level, surpassing the previous peak in December 2012.

I have some concern about the drop-off in registrations between 12 December 2019 and 2 March 2020. We heard evidence that potentially hundreds of thousands of people have fallen off the electoral register during that period. Indeed, in the current context, in which the Government have been very clear that we will not be having by-elections or scheduled elections this year because of the coronavirus, there is not the same impetus for individuals to register to vote.

This is part of a much wider problem around electoral registration, with the Electoral Commission recently—actually, it was almost a year ago—making recommendations to the Government to plug the huge gaps in our electoral rolls. I look forward to hearing the Government’s response when that is forthcoming, but we know that about 9 million people in this country are missing from the electoral registers. My concern is to find the most accurate and most complete register possible in order to ensure that every one of our citizens is included within the boundaries that we have at the next general election. New clause 4, in my name, suggests that that register would be the one from the general election, for the reason that I have set out, which is the spike in electoral registrations that we see before major electoral events, in order to ensure that every single citizen in this country who should be counted in the review is counted.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My hon. Friend has covered most of the points, so I will be very brief. In a sense, I will be asking the Minister only a couple of questions.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we hit the high water mark at the general election. The Minister has corrected me when I have perhaps claimed too high an increase for the 2017 general election. Nevertheless, there is a surge in registrations that makes a general election register, as I have said, the high water mark and, if we are asking for a snapshot, the most accurate snapshot within, perhaps, a period of nine months or a year either side. In that respect, it is the most accurate register on which to base a set of boundaries.

I wonder whether the Minister can answer a couple of questions—I am not trying to catch her out. First, can she say, given that there is that rush at a general election, what measures a Government might put in place to maintain that high water mark level of registrations? For example, in the past year there was a proposal to downgrade the annual canvass. That proposal actually went through, which I was not happy with at the time, but the Minister was confident it was achievable. We are not going to see that this year, rightly, but what measures could be put in place to maintain that high water mark around a general election? Can the Minister also explain—I think this was touched upon during the evidence sessions—whether any assessment has been made of the numerical difference between the general election register and the register in March that we are going to base this on, and why that difference exists?

Using the March register, as opposed to waiting for more people to drop off the register at the end of this year—potentially 200,000 people—is a very sensible move. I have praised the Minister in the past when she has earned it; this was the right thing to do, and I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood in welcoming the change to maintain as high a water mark as possible in the number of people registered. As she has said, there is a broader debate about automatic registration, but I do not think that is covered in this new clause.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am happy to offer a few further arguments as to why it is misguided to seek to use general election data. Going back to the facts of the matter in December 2019, there are two points I want to make. The first is that the December 2019 general election was an unexpected event, for a number of reasons. That may be a matter of ins and outs for politicians, but for administrators, that is quite a proposition: they have to be able to run an election as requested.

At that time, electoral officers had broadly three options for when to publish their electoral registers—three different options at three different times. Some published in October 2019, just after the election was called, for very valid reasons: they might have seen the benefit of trying to simplify the process of giving each elector their identification number and arranging the printing and postage of poll cards. A second group published on 1 December 2019, the traditional deadline for publication of the revised registers following the canvass. And some published on 1 February 2020, which is the deadline for those who had an election other than the general election in their area during that period—that is, a by-election between 1 January and December 2019. My point is that there are three different times when election officers would have published the registers, so there is no such thing as a single register that provides the silver bullet the Opposition are looking for. I am afraid it is deeply misguided to think there is.

My second point, based on the facts in December last year, is that some registers were swollen, but some were not. The hon. Member for City of Chester will recall the evidence given by Roger Pratt to this Committee:

“Three hundred and eighty-eight seats were actually larger at the general election than on 1 December, but 261…were smaller at the general election”.––[Official Report, Parliamentary Constituencies Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2020; c. 30.]

Not only is there not a silver bullet, the bullet does not even go in the direction in which the Opposition would like to fire the gun.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My understanding, however, is that the overall number of electors always swells to a high-water mark during a general election, albeit there will be some constituencies in which that is not the case, as Mr Pratt advised us.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

As a matter of common sense, that swelling is likely, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that people have an incentive to register before an election. It is evidently the case that the demands of an election, where people have the chance to cast their vote and have their say, are an encouragement to registration. I do not argue against that at all; I welcome that. As I said in my earlier remarks, we want to encourage people to register year round, but there is that particular incentive with an election. These facts remain, however, and they drive holes through the Opposition’s argument right now.

I am afraid that there is one further point that I need to drive home hard: the hon. Member for the City of Chester should know better than to rehearse the really poor arguments he made about canvass reform when this time last year we discussed the statutory instrument that he mentioned. It was not a downgrade of the annual canvass. He had not done his homework at the time. It was an upgrade of the annual canvass, whereby resources can be focused on the hardest to identify, who, from Labour Members’ discourse, we might think they wished to go after. The upgrade also involved looking at where resources should be focused, rather than taxpayers’ money being put to poorer use where those resources are not needed. In other words, canvass reform allows registration officers to do a more targeted job of the canvass. That is a good thing. It allows citizens to have a better experience of canvassing, because they are being asked to fill out fewer forms. It allows taxpayers to save money. As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood rightly pointed out, every pound in local government is sorely needed at the moment. There should never be an argument for wasting money in local government on an exercise that could be better targeted than it has been in the past. Those are the facts about canvass reform. Furthermore, I am afraid the hon. Member for the City of Chester is incorrect to say that we will not see that this year. We will. If he were in touch with his Welsh Labour colleagues in Cardiff, for example, he would know that it is going ahead this year, and that they rightly support it. Indeed, so do the devolved Government in Scotland, because it is the right thing to do. But enough on the annual canvass; that is not our subject matter here.

The Government strongly believe that the use of the electoral register in the way for which the Bill provides is the right thing to do. I have given comprehensive reasons why the idea of doing it from a general election register is not strong. I urge the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood not to press new clause 4 to a vote.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

We will be pressing new clause 4 to a vote. The Minister made some good points, and this is an area where we have spent many a happy day discussing the annual canvass and the inaccuracy of electoral registers. In the current cycle, I concede that the difference between the general election register and the March 2020 register is quite narrow because of the timing of the recent general election. However, new clause 4 is designed to deal with future boundary reviews. When a large amount of time has elapsed between the date of the snapshot and a general election, there may be significantly more than hundreds of thousands of people missing from the electoral register, therefore I will press new clause 4 to a vote.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Just to clarify, that is not now.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.