New Clause 3 - Automatic Voter Registration

Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 26th October 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

“(1) It is a duty of—

(a) the Secretary of State; and

(b) registration officers

to take all reasonable steps to ensure that 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 in accordance with the duty under subsection (1).

(3) Regulations under subsection (2) must apply to public bodies including but not limited to—

(a) HM Revenue and Customs;

(b) the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency;

(c) the National Health Service;

(d) NHS Scotland;

(e) all types of state funded schools;

(f) local authorities;

(g) the Department for Work and Pensions;

(h) HM Passport Office;

(i) police forces;

(j) the TV Licensing Authority.

(4) Registration officers must—

(a) use the information provided under 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.

(5) If a registration officer has registered a person under subsection (4), the officer must notify that person within 30 days and give that person an opportunity to correct any mistaken information.

(6) The Secretary of State may issue guidance to registration officers on fulfilling their duties under this section.

(7) Where a person is registered under subsection (4), that person shall 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.”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 11—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 (3) 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 shall 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.”

This 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.

New clause 13—Voter registration at universities and colleges—

“(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations require universities and colleges to provide to registration officers the information they hold that is required for the officers to register their students to vote.

(2) Universities and colleges must share with each student the information relating to the student that the university or college proposes to provide to the relevant registration officer, and must give students the opportunity to withhold consent to the provision of the information.

(3) If a student withholds consent under subsection (2), the university or college must not send their information to the registration officer.

(4) Nothing in this section affects entitlement to register to vote anonymously.

(5) The Secretary of State may issue guidance to registration officers, universities and colleges on fulfilling their functions under this section.”

This new clause would require universities and colleges to submit to registration officers the information necessary to register their students to vote.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

For all the rancour and argument that there has been in this Committee over the last few weeks, I think we all agree that voting is a fundamental democratic right that has to be protected. As it is a fundamental democratic right, surely it is incumbent on those in power to seek to maximise participation right across our society and to encourage everyone in society to have their say and make their voice heard. It is our job in this House to ensure that the citizens we represent can exercise that democratic right.

Sadly, far too many people in this country are being excluded from the democratic process. The current system of electoral registration sees fewer and fewer people on the register and the number of those missing from the register increasing. Having a healthy electoral register is a prerequisite of a healthy democracy. We cannot have one without the other. Therefore the primary responsibility of any democratic Government should be to ensure that they do all they can to enable participation in our democracy. That is why automatic electoral registration is important, because we have a responsibility to those who are missing or who find it difficult to register to do everything we can to ensure that the electoral database is as full and complete as it possibly can be.

Government and public bodies working together and using secure data and trusted datasets to collect information at every point at which a citizen interacts with the state––whether that is when they are paying tax, receiving a benefit, using their national health service, claiming a pension or applying for a driving licence––gives the state an opportunity to move towards putting those citizens on the electoral register. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North who gave the example of what he called motor voting in the state of Oregon: when someone applies for a driving licence, they are immediately put on the voter register.

Such ideas could vastly improve registration and participation. They have been tried and tested elsewhere. I understand that a similar model exists in Australia, where the state of Victoria has 95% accuracy in its registration. It does that at extremely low cost, with minimal numbers of staff updating and maintaining the rolling register. Countries all over the world have systems whereby citizens are automatically registered and able to vote: France, Sweden, Australia, Greece, Austria, Brazil, Uruguay. The list goes on and on of countries that ensure as a priority that their citizens can exercise their free and democratic right to vote without barriers.

All too often, in the UK, people assume that they are on the register because they pay council tax. They expect to be automatically on the register only to find on polling day that they are turned away when they turn up to vote. People assume, perhaps understandably, that because they have a passport, are registered for council tax or have a national insurance number or a driving licence that there is enough information about them to mean that they will be automatically put on a voter database. As someone much wiser than me once said, “We don’t have to register to pay tax, so why should we register to vote?”

Millions of our fellow citizens are currently missing from the register. They do not have to be. It does not have to be this way. The Government choose that it is this way and they can choose for it not to be this way. One has to ask oneself why in this incredibly wide-ranging Bill they have deliberately chosen not to introduce automatic voter registration. The answer is simple and depressing. It is because, as with so much of this awful Bill, it is not in the short-term party political interest of the Government to do it. Not only do they not have any interest in registering the missing millions, but they are going out of their way with the passing of the voter ID legislation to add to the numbers who are missing.

This is the Minister’s opportunity to make good on what he has said a number of times: that she is listening to the arguments and is somehow open to persuasion—it is just that no Opposition Member has ever managed to be that persuasive. On behalf of the missing millions, please, please look at automatic voter registration. Without it, as I said earlier, we cannot have a functioning, healthy democracy, because there are millions of people missing from our register.

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 3:30 pm, 26th October 2021

New clauses 3 and 11 would impose a legal duty on public bodies, requiring them to provide information to electoral registration officers for the purposes of automatic electoral registration of identified electors. I am open to being persuaded, but the arguments need to be very good and, clearly, should not contradict the principles on which we stand for election or that can be found in previous legislation. We cannot agree to the new clauses as they contradict the principle that underpins electoral registration: that individuals are responsible for registering themselves. For those reasons, we cannot support new clauses 3 and 11.

In addition, new clause 13 broadly replicates existing legislation and is therefore unnecessary. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 ensures that the facilitation of electoral registration is a condition of the higher education framework, so I urge Members to oppose the new clause.

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

I rise to speak to new clauses 11 and 13, which are tabled in my name. Throughout the passage of the Bill, we have had discussions about the security of elections, and there has been much talk about whether individuals can fiddle results and how elections can be stolen. I tabled the new clauses with the hope of making our elections more secure, because we know that when the electoral register is more accurate and more complete, it is harder for malign actors to fiddle it round with just a few votes. At the moment, having 9 million voters either missing entirely or registered incorrectly is a weakness in our democratic system. It is a move to improve the security of our elections to have a more accurate electoral register.

I liked the point made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute: we do not register to pay tax, so why do we register to vote? I believe that it is very important to vote, and I tell anybody who will listen how important it is to take part in our elections, but I am aware that many people do not have figures like me in their lives—they are probably grateful for it. Given that we know we can have automatic voter registration and a more accurate electoral register, it strikes me as utterly bizarre that we would not want that—that we would not want a more accurate electoral register and not want to know that when we go to the country everyone who should be registered to vote can vote and hopefully does vote. I would like to see increased voter turnout, but at the moment people are falling at the first hurdle when they find that they are not on the electoral register.

New clause 13 is specifically about colleges and universities, because we know that younger voters are far less likely to be registered than older voters. There is a real gap.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Inclusive Society), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Lady has reminded me of our very first evidence session and what she said to Richard Mawrey QC, which was that increasing turnout and participation makes fraud harder. Much of the Government’s case in this whole debate has been about stopping fraud and cheating, and in response to her question, Richard Mawrey said,

“that is absolutely right, because fraud is obviously a relatively risky occupation, and the more bogus votes you have to put in, the more difficult it is.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 11, Q9.]

He agreed entirely with the hon. Lady that to widen participation and to increase the franchise is to diminish fraud. Does she agree that automatic voter registration would do exactly that and exactly what the Government have been calling for?

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

I thank the hon. Member for reminding us of the evidence that we heard at the beginning of the Committee, or that at least some of us heard—those of us who were listening or who were members of the Committee at that point.

The new clauses—I agree with that tabled by the SNP, too—are all about improving the security of our elections. We did not spend so many hours of our lives debating clause 1, on voter ID, with the Government arguing consistently about the security of elections, only for them to look at these new clauses, which deal with just that, and say, “Well, not those ones.” One could say that it is starting to look a little partisan.

I implore the Minister to look carefully at the new clauses. I appreciate that she is new to the role, and I would be very willing to open a dialogue with her to find ways to get those missing millions on to the electoral roll, because I believe that cross-party consensus can be found. I do not think any member of the Committee would argue that people should be missing from the electoral roll. Our electoral roll should be accurate in reflecting where this country’s voters are and whether they are registered, giving them the opportunity to go and vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 28 Elections Bill — New Clause 3 - Automatic Voter Registration

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.