Thank you, Mr Owen, for chairing this important debate.
Democracy is deep in the DNA of my constituency, Blaenau Gwent. Growing up there, I learned about its rich social history, including how it provided leadership for the Chartist movement, which did so much to secure the vote for working people. From the caves in the village of Trefil, where they are said to have stored pikes before the march on Newport in 1839, to Nantyglo, where Zephaniah Williams, the Newport rising’s leader, lived, Blaenau Gwent has long been at the centre of democracy building in the UK.
Although the battle for the vote has been won by working people, to exercise their vote, people must first be on the electoral register. That leads us to the dry, but crucial topic of how to get the best register possible. Free and fair election machinery is one of the most fundamental services the state can provide for its people. From it, our democracy thrives. The electoral register is, as the Electoral Commission says, the bedrock of our democracy.
As we all know, the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill—the ERA—is in the Lords, following consideration in the House of Commons. We know, too, that Labour legislated to introduce individual electoral registration—IER—so there is no disagreement amongst us about the principle. For background: as of December 2010, the Electoral Commission estimated that the register was 85% to 87% complete, which means that 6 million people were missing from it. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Miss Smith, who is responsible for political and constitutional reform, may have more recent figures, and it would be interesting to hear the Government’s latest estimate. I want the effective introduction of IER. I want many more, not fewer, people on the electoral register. I am worried about the Government’s proposals for IER in the future.
With all our different sources of identification, the megabytes of data available and the contact channels in use through modern media, a complete and accurate electoral register should be deliverable. Crucially, I want to see the annual canvass maintained. An individual knocking on a potential voter’s door is still probably the most effective way to get people registered. Face-to-face contact is as important as ever in our digital age. The Minister told me that the annual canvass will continue to be used as long as it remains the best way to register voters. That is good.
When the changes to electoral registration were introduced in Northern Ireland in 2006, under a Labour Government, the need for an annual canvass was removed. Over the past five or six years, registration rates have gone down to 71%. Does my hon. Friend think that the figures from Northern Ireland have a bearing on the debate today?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I want to cover later. The decline in registration in Northern Ireland is an important warning for the debate today and for the future of IER.
To return to the annual canvass, I am with the Electoral Commission: it should be a permanent feature. Also, surely the full implementation of IER should wait until the evaluation of all the current data-matching and data-mining pilots is complete. As we know, the first set of pilot schemes took place during the annual canvass in late 2011. The Electoral Commission found that the pilots had been both time-consuming and costly. Councils said that they lacked sufficient skilled staff to carry out the data input and matching. The pilots were funded by the Cabinet Office, so given the squeeze on local government, it must be doubtful whether councils can do the data matching without more money for such important work. Given that, the Electoral Commission says that data matching should be tested further, and I am glad that further pilots are taking place.
Data matching trials with the Royal Mail and the Student Loans Company are also under way. They will be helpful for groups of people who have historically been difficult to register, which include younger people, people from black and minority ethnic communities, and people who rent from private landlords. I am sure we all want to reach such people.
Until now, we have considered data matching only with publicly held information, but I think it could be helpful to include private sector databases, such as credit reference agencies and tenancy deposit schemes. Privacy concerns must of course be addressed, but home addresses for contracts or purchases of, say, mobile phones, cars and personal finance can identify where voters live and so could be on the electoral register. Having said that, caution is essential.
Last November, the Electoral Commission, published a report, “Continuous electoral registration in Northern Ireland”. Its conclusion is stark: there has been a considerable deterioration in both the accuracy and the completeness of the electoral register in Northern Ireland over the past four years. From a register estimated in 2008 to be 83% complete and 90% accurate, the latest appraisal found one that is only 71% complete and 78% accurate. That is very worrying.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on that point. He is right about the 71% completeness, as of last year, but does he think that it will have a knock-on effect on the redrawing of boundaries? If the boundary change proposals are successful, they will go through in Northern Ireland with 29% of the population missing from the register.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. That is why the Electoral Commission called the electoral register the bedrock of our democracy: it decides how many people are in each constituency and where those constituencies are. It is essential that we get this right.
The management of continuous registration has not been able to cope with two important things: people moving home and people becoming eligible to vote. That is where it needs to be improved. The Electoral Commission has called for urgent action to remedy the situation and a more flexible form of annual canvass, so that households as well as individuals can update the register.
Does my hon. Friend agree that continuous electoral registration will at least be easier in Northern Ireland than in some parts of our cities, particularly London, where population turnover is a good deal higher and there is much more diversity?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way a third time. Does he agree that churn is great not only in our cities and student towns, but in seaside towns? There are 52 principal seaside towns in the UK that have high levels of transience, and their registers will be down too.
My hon. Friend has helpfully corrected me. He points to the difficulties of churn in many parts of the UK. I have been to the lovely town of Rhyl, and I know of the difficulties there in getting a complete register.
Last week, the Minister said that
Registration of 51% would be a majority, but surely that is wordplay and shows a lack of ambition; after all, 71% completion is failing nearly a third of the eligible electorate. The Government must up their game. Electoral registration needs to be professionally marketed and administered in all Government contact with the public, and perhaps with private sector data as well. Given concerns about under-registration, there should be a full carry-forward of postal or proxy votes for the 2015 general election. If that does not happen, the Government must ensure that sufficient resources are provided, so that as many postal voters as possible are verified and able to vote.
As a constructive critic, the independent Electoral Commission must have an absolutely central role in the switch to IER. I hope that the Minister will tell us today when online voter registration will be ready for launch. The Government must invest in and develop accessible online registration with greater speed. If the internet is used successfully for banking and payment systems, surely it can be developed for voter registration.
My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way during this important debate. Does he agree that this plethora of initiatives—they are absolutely essential, as he is arguing—should include one by the Electoral Commission aimed specifically at people with literacy problems? I believe that they are under-represented on the register, and they certainly are in voting. Obviously, for that initiative to reach them, it needs to be delivered through audiovisual advertising.
My right hon. Friend makes a good argument, and I hope that that will be included in the studies taking place. It is essential that as many people as possible can to register and vote.
As we know, changes to electoral registration will be made at a time when local authorities face significant cuts. Expenditure in this area should be prioritised, because our democracy is too important to be whittled away by a thousand cuts.
As a Newport MP, I very much enjoyed my hon. Friend’s earlier reference to the Chartists. We put a huge burden on our electoral administrators and, as he says, electoral registration is not immune to the big local authority cuts. Does he agree that, with more elections than ever before and given that burden, it is even more important that we resource election administrators properly?
I agree. Election administrators rightly complain about the amount of resources they are given to do their important job. They should be supported both locally and nationally.
I believe that it is the responsibility of the state, not of political parties, to secure maximum voter registration, so I hope that the Minister that will commit herself to that and give priority to those hard-to-reach voters, particularly the young. Voting is a habit best acquired early, and one that we should all strive to promote. The Government need to show much more ambition on voter registration. Let us get the 6 million people who should be on the electoral register signed up and able to vote in the future.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Smith on securing this debate, which is not only important, but on the afternoon following the vote in the House of Lords to postpone the next boundary review until 2018, clearly timely. I have to say that I welcome that decision. The proposed new boundaries would have benefited me electorally, but they are unfair and undermine our democracy, precisely because of the mismatch between population and registration that was so ably highlighted by my hon. Friend in his comments.
I want to illustrate that point by comparing my constituency with that of my political neighbour, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Clegg. My constituency is in the heart of Sheffield—inner-city, multicultural, with large council estates and two universities—and 17% of households have nobody on the register. The Deputy Prime Minister’s constituency, which is like a piece of the home counties parachuted into South Yorkshire, is monocultural, with large areas of comfortable owner-occupation and a stable population, and only 4% of households have nobody on the register. There is therefore a huge disparity between the number of people we actually represent and the number of registered voters.
On the surface, simply considering electoral registration, the constituencies would look much the same size, but if we compare the 2011 census figures with the number of voters registered on
The Lords has quite rightly rejected this Government’s attempt to gerrymander the new boundaries in their favour. Does my hon. Friend agree that they should concentrate on getting electoral registration up, so that when we redraw the boundaries, it will be done on the basis of the most accurate figures possible?
I very much agree with that point, which I will move on to. The relationship between the boundary review and the number of people registered to vote—the basis on which we calculate boundaries—is an important issue. As it stands, the boundary review would exacerbate the problem, not simply because of under-registration, but because of the point in the electoral cycle at which that review would be conducted, with the next one being in December 2015.
I worry that individual registration threatens to make the situation worse, which is why I have argued that we should base our boundaries on adult population, not numbers of registered voters. Whether or not we go down that route, there is a need massively to improve voter registration, because if we do not, we risk creating a US-style democracy, with huge under-registration that excludes the disadvantaged and disengaged and focuses elections on the needs of the more privileged, so poisoning our politics.
I am sure that many measures will be proposed by my hon. Friends, but I want to concentrate on young people. From my election campaign, I can think of many examples of speaking to young people on the doorstep. At the outset of the conversation, it was clear that they had no intention of voting and that they would never have been on the electoral roll had it not been for their parents, but in many cases—the marked register confirms this—after that conversation and having engaged with the issues, they voted. That vote would otherwise have been denied them. The Government need to focus specifically on imaginative ways to ensure the effective registration of young people—working with schools, using social media and considering other ways to address that group.
I want to talk particularly about students. Not all students are young, but the vast majority are, and given the impact of Government policy on mature student entry, an even greater proportion of students will be young people in future. Many of them are worryingly disillusioned with democratic politics. The Liberal Democrats’ broken pledge on tuition fees—this is not a party point, but none of them is here to listen; it is of some concern that that great reforming party has chosen not to engage in the debate or to show any interest in enhancing electoral registration—has not simply damaged their party; it has damaged trust in politics for a whole generation of young people.
Both Sheffield’s great universities are in my constituency, with 32,000 of their students living there. They live there for at least 31 weeks a year, and many of them for 52 weeks; it is their main place of residence. They contribute to the economy and life of the city, and they have a right to have their voice heard in elections. At the university of Sheffield, there is currently block registration of all eligible students in university accommodation, but that is threatened by the legislation on individual voter registration. I assume that the Government do not think that our universities are guilty of electoral fraud, so I question the need to rule out block registration.
Even if that argument is not accepted, there is a need to mitigate that policy’s impact. The former finance officer of Sheffield university students union made the point about the difficulties of individual voter registration for students very forcefully. He said:
“When students first arrive at University and live in halls, amongst all the other things going on, registering to vote often isn’t a priority and it is comforting to know that it’s often done automatically. If this is changed then it would become another form to fill in during the whirlwind first few weeks away from home and some students, particularly those not engaged in democracy will not be registered.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Like him, I have two universities in my constituency, and I strongly underline the points that he is making. Does he agree that a further difficulty is that the nature of much college and institutional accommodation makes it much more difficult to do a person-to-person, door-to-door canvass than in conventional streets? That will compound the problems that may occur with the under-registration of students.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention, and he is absolutely right. In Sheffield, there has been a trend away from houses in multiple occupation, which provided at least an opportunity for some contact during the canvass, to huge student flat complexes, in which the security arrangements make it impossible to engage by knocking on doors. That exacerbates the problem.
The difficulty of under-registration is that future boundary reviews will be conducted in the first term of each academic year. The students unions of both universities in my constituency run really vigorous electoral registration campaigns, and they have some impact, but they are held in the run-up to elections—in February, March and April—when people are beginning to think about voting. They do not run them in December, when data will be collected on which future boundary reviews will be based. When I am out talking to students in the days before elections, many of them are still unregistered when they finally decide that they want to cast their votes. Individual voter registration will effectively exclude tens of thousands of students—my constituents—from the electoral roll and therefore from consideration when boundaries are redrawn. They will be denied a voice unless we look at innovative ways to ensure that that does not happen.
I have spoken to the vice-chancellors of both Sheffield’s universities, and they would be happy for the voter registration process to be incorporated into the student registration process. I have discussed that idea with our electoral registration officer, who is keen to work with them. That process would involve a couple of simple questions on the student registration form, such as “Do you wish do register to vote?” Alongside that, there should be an explanatory note on entitlement to vote, because students are often confused about their rights to vote in their city of study and the city in which their parental home is located. That question would be linked to the collection of the student’s national insurance number, which would be a requirement of the process.
Sheffield is a great pioneering city, and we were at the forefront of the Chartist movement, too. If we can make the process work, there is no reason why it should not work elsewhere in the country. Will the Minister commit to meeting Universities UK and the National Union of Students to discuss that proposal and ways to maximise student registration?
I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Smith on securing this debate on a topic that is close to many of our hearts. At present, registering to vote is the nearest thing we have to a social contract. It acknowledges that we live in a democracy. Depending on the figure we choose, however, millions of people are not registered to vote. We may disagree about the figure, but we all agree who is not registered: people who are disadvantaged, young people, people on low incomes, private sector tenants, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.
In the previous Session of Parliament I introduced a private Member’s Bill, which is more relevant than ever, which was designed to bridge the gap between the excluded group and everyone else. The idea is simple. If someone wants to connect with the state by getting benefits, a pension, a national insurance number or even a driving licence, they must be on the electoral register. That is not a big imposition. After all, if someone has to be on the electoral register to get a credit card, why not be on it to get a driving licence? Linking access to public services with the electoral register has two purposes. It will increase democratic participation and, more importantly, it will provide an explicit link between the democratic process and the benefits that we enjoy because we live in a democracy. It is classic rights and responsibilities. If someone does not like living in a democracy, fine. They do not have to sign, but they should not expect all the good things as something for nothing.
The electoral register already fulfils certain important citizenship functions. It is a way of deciding who does jury service. It is possibly the country’s most cost-effective anti-crime database. The police use it if they want to catch up with someone. Banks and credit companies use it to prevent fraud. Benefits investigators use it to check that people pay council tax and are on the right benefits. More positively, charities use it to help raise funds. Most obviously, of course, it gives people a chance to vote. It is in everyone’s interests, therefore, for the electoral register to be comprehensive.
We are about to enter an era of individual registration, or, as I prefer to call it, stopping mums helping their children to vote. When individual registration was introduced in Northern Ireland, the register collapsed by 11%, and we have heard in this debate that it might be down by as much as 29% at the moment. The Electoral Commission states that that adversely affected disadvantaged groups—young people, the poor and people who are in and out of unsecured shorthold tenancies. Those are just the sorts of people with whom we need most to engage to prevent social exclusion and the kind of senseless violence that we are witnessing in Belfast at the moment. Northern Ireland, as I said earlier, is a stable community compared with London.
In addition to individual registration, there is some confusion about how compulsory it will be to register to vote. Where registration is optional there is, unsurprisingly, a drop in who registers, especially among disadvantaged groups. In the US, 40% of people on incomes below $20,000 are not registered, and there are similar rates of disengagement among under-25s and people who rent their homes in this country. On top of that, there is confusion about councils’ annual canvasses. My council, Merton council, stated that only 65% of homes return registration forms, but after its canvass, 97% of homes have registered.
There is even more confusion because in 2015, those who do not individually register will be able to vote in the way they are used to if they vote in person, but people who vote by post or proxy will not be allowed to. That will cause many problems, especially for older and disabled constituents. That seems unfair, because the forms they signed promised them a vote indefinitely. I stress that I make that point even though it harms my electoral prospects. At last May’s elections, Labour had a 10% lead in Merton, but the Tories had a 13% lead among postal voters, so I want it to be noted that I am actually arguing here on behalf of the Conservative party. I make those points because I love democracy, not because I seek political advantage.
According to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission, no election result has ever been decided because of over-registration, but we need only look to America to find people who believe that an election can be fixed by systematically removing voters from the register. I was in Ohio last autumn, canvassing for President Obama, and voter suppression is an increasing tactic of the right. They have seen their country become more diverse and liberal, and they think that they can sabotage that by taking people off the register, by going to court to stop early voting, by placing lawyers at polling stations in poor areas to intimidate voters as they stand in line or to slow down the lines, by insinuating that Latino citizens might not have full voting rights and by making it impossibly difficult for young black men with very minor felonies on their record to vote at all. For the sake of democracy, such voter suppression should not be allowed to succeed here.
The problem with our electoral register is not that there are too many people on it; it is that there are still 3.5 million people who are not. Telling people who want tax credits, a pension or a passport that they have to be on the electoral register might help. It will make the register even more accurate and ensure that more disadvantaged people engage in the democratic process. It will also, in a small way, begin to tackle the so-called “something for nothing” society. Making our social contract as explicit as that will tackle fraud and reduce social exclusion. More than that, it will ensure that more people have a chance to vote. Being registered to vote is a symbol of engagement. It shows that you are not on the margins, but part of the mainstream. Voting is not only for the elite; it is something we should celebrate for all. That is why, for the sake of democracy, I hope that other members will consider supporting my suggestions and making registering to vote more, not less a way of life.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Owen. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Smith on securing this very important and—as has been said before—timely debate.
I was first switched on to the issue of electoral registration by my hon. Friend Mr Brown some 12 years ago, and I have been passionately campaigning on it ever since; I think that I have tabled something like 300 parliamentary questions to flush out information on this important issue.
Progress has been made. I think that the original proposals by the Government—I refer to the Conservative part of the Government—were meant to use the boundary review to get the 2015 election, and to use electoral registration to get probably the four or five elections after that. It has not turned out that way. Some gratitude must be shown to the Liberals for that, because they have seen the light and helped Labour and all other believers in democracy in slowing down the whole process.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Wayne David and his boss, my right hon. Friend Sadiq Khan, on the fantastic way that they have handled this issue in recent years. I also congratulate the Civic Society—I include in that Operation Black Vote—as well as Unlock Democracy, Scope, the Electoral Reform Society and the Electoral Commission. I have locked horns with the Electoral Commission on a number of occasions, but it has done a good job as far as electoral registration is concerned. And, as I say, the Government have listened and I want to give credit for that.
I wish to raise a few issues here today, and one of them concerns funding. I carried out a survey in Wales, asking all the electoral registration officers how much they spent per elector on registration. Lo and behold, the more they spent on registration, the more people there were on the electoral register. The Government have offered £108 million to help with all these changes, but that money is not ring-fenced, so I ask the Minister, first, to ensure that the £108 million that is being given to local authorities for registration is spent on registration. Secondly, I ask her for full, careful and non-politicised deliberation on the issues of data matching and data mining, the details of which will be announced shortly. Thirdly, I ask that she looks carefully at the level of fines for non-registration. The Constitutional Affairs Committee recommended a fine of £500 for non-registration, which might be a bit severe, but at the lower end a fine of £35 has been suggested, which would be absolutely—well, having such a fine would be the wrong thing to do. So those are three issues that I ask her to look at carefully.
My hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh mentioned voter suppression. If the changes had gone through in their original form, we could have said that they were a form of voter suppression. To have 6 million people—not 3 million, but 6 million—off the register, with the Electoral Commission warning that that figure could go up to 16 million people if the original proposals went through, would mean that we would not have a functioning democracy.
I also ask the Minister to look at some best practice from Wales. The Conservatives are always lambasting Wales and saying that we have got it wrong; here is an example of where we have got it right. I am holding the form from Denbighshire county council to all its electors, and right in the middle there is a threat that if someone does not fill in the form they will be fined £1,000. Those who do not fill in the form receive a letter from the chief executive officer, Dr Mohammed Mehmet, and in the last paragraph it says:
“In order for me to fulfil my legal duty, I am therefore requesting that you complete the enclosed information sheet and return it to me promptly in the envelope provided. If you fail to supply the information requested within 14 days, I will have no option but to pass the matter to the council’s legal department.”
As a result of that, in the poorest ward in Wales—the West ward of Rhyl—registration went up by 34%. That has been achieved in Wales, so I will leave a copy of the form for the Minister to look at.
May I ask the Chair what time wind-ups will start?
I have been instructed to carry on by the Chair.
There are a few issues in the excellent document by the Electoral Commission, “Managing electoral registration in Great Britain”, which was published in June 2012. It gives some performance indicators. However, one of the worrying performance indicators is:
“Performance standard 3: House-to-house enquiries.”
“House-to-house enquiries” involves sending canvassers round, from house to house, to find non-responders. In 2008, 16% of electoral registration officers did not perform that role; in 2009, that went down to 5%; in 2010, there were only 2% of officers not carrying out this essential function to get the registration up; and in 2011, the figure increased by 800%, to go back up to 16%.
This is obviously a very important issue when it comes to voter disengagement. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there is also perhaps a role for political parties? When it comes to MPs doing their constituency work, and interacting with their constituents, perhaps whenever that work has been done the MP can say, “Are you on the electoral list and if you’re not, perhaps you can register?”
Absolutely. It is incumbent upon us all as MPs to do that—no vote, no voice. That issue needs to be considered as well.
May I respectfully ask that the statistics that I have given are sent to every MP, every Assembly Member, every Member of the Scottish Parliament and every Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, as well as to every councillor across the land, so that we get some pressure from below? As well as Governments passing laws from above, we will get some pressure from below. Most MPs realised that their electoral registration officer was not fulfilling their duties, they would be on to them, but nobody knows about these facts and figures. So I ask the Minister if she will use her offices to ensure that this vital information is sent out to all MPs.
I realise that I have a colleague, my hon. Friend Sheila Gilmore, who wishes to speak, so I will—
Okay. In that case, Chair, I shall go on even a little bit longer. [Laughter.]
Some of the issues pertaining to Northern Ireland have been mentioned by a number of Members—
The hon. Gentleman has made that point about Northern Ireland. Just for the record, Mr Owen, I want to say that many people are not registered and those who vote perhaps give an indication in the wrong ballot box—that is my opinion, of course. However, after the disgraceful decision to remove the Union flag from Belfast city hall, the number of people who registered to make a decision and make a change went up greatly. Of course, by that stage it was too late. So, if people want to make a change, vote early.
Hopefully early, but not often. [Laughter.] I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
In the case of Northern Ireland, when the changes were introduced in 2006—I admit that they were introduced by a Labour Administration, and that the requirement to have that annual canvass and get out there “on the knocker” was not in place and there was continual registration—registration rates went down in the five or six years afterwards, to 71%, meaning that 29% of people were not registered. If the analysis is made, we will find out that those people, in the main, will be people who live in council houses, or tenants of social landlords, unemployed people or low-paid people, and quite often they will be black or minority ethnic. So quite often these are the people on the margins of society, and as I say there are currently 6 million of them missing from across the UK and the figure for Northern Ireland is proportionally higher than for anywhere else in the UK. So we need to learn the lessons from Northern Ireland if we are rolling out this Bill.
It has been claimed by the Electoral Commission, and I think by the leader of the Liberal Democrats as well, that these changes will be the biggest changes since the introduction of universal suffrage. If they are that big, we need consensus, and if there is not consensus I can promise the Government this—if Labour gets in at the next election, there will be a massive push from Back Benchers and Ministers to undo what has been done.
Labour did not politicise the issue of electoral registration for the 13 years that it was in government. I wish that it had. I was taking the message back to Government Ministers—Labour Government Ministers—and saying,
“This is a big issue. We have 3.5 million people unregistered.” We could have politicised that issue. If those 3.5 million people ever voted, they would have been our voters. And in fact it was not 3.5 million people; it was 6 million people. If those 6 million people are added to the register, there would be no need for the equalisation of parliamentary seats, because the vast majority of those 6 million people would be in Labour seats. So this issue of registration has massive implications and I urge the Minister, and her team and the Prime Minister, to listen carefully and not to go about this process in a party political way but in a fair, balanced and consensual way.
When Labour came to power in 1997, after we had been out of power for 18 years, the first thing we did was to give away power. We did that by introducing proportional representation for European elections. In Wales, we went from four Labour MEPs to one. That was not in our party political interest. We had a majority of 180 Members of Parliament, and we could have established the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly without PR, but we did not. We could have dominated those institutions, certainly in Wales and Scotland, but we did not— we did things in a balanced way. Again, that worked against us.
What did we do with quangos? They were stuffed with Tories. The quango king of the country lived in my constituency. He was on £86,000 a year in 1996—more than the Prime Minister. What did Labour do? There was no more of that. We took out big, full-page adverts, usually in The Daily Telegraph, asking for good, decent people. We said that things would be non-party political. We gave away power in local government in Scotland. Everything was balanced.
I know how important my hon. Friend thinks the canvass is for electoral registration. Does he share my concern that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill suggests that a Minister can abolish the canvass? Does he also share my concern that the canvass will consist of knocking on a door and exhorting people to fill in the form? If they have refused to fill in two previous forms, why would they fill in the third? At the moment, the canvasser stands there with a member of the household and completes the form with them.
That is an eminently sensible point, which I support.
In conclusion, partisanship should not be shown on this issue. The Minister should look at the lessons from Northern Ireland and from the data matching and data mining. She should also look carefully at the level of fines and at best practice from around the UK, including my constituency. If she does all those things, she will be supported by both sides of the House and all parts of the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank my hon. Friend Nick Smith for securing the debate.
We assume that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill will complete all its stages at some point and that individual voter registration will go ahead. The Bill will come into force in a period when quite a lot of important things are going on electorally. In Scotland, the process will take place at much the same time as the referendum, which raises considerable issues for electoral registration officers, who will have to manage the processes simultaneously. For the purposes of the referendum, there is a proposal—what happens will depend on the view taken by the Scottish Parliament later this year—to enfranchise 16 and 17-year-olds. If that happens—the Scottish Government have certainly indicated their intention to do it—it will raise procedural questions about how these things are done. Electoral registration officers in my city, for example, could therefore be dealing with a large number of issues at the same time as individual electoral registration.
Like many Members, I think it is important that we put in the effort. The canvass is important. It does not necessarily have to be hugely more expensive, although equally we should not take money away from electoral registration officers. We need to know where the effort needs to be put in, and if electoral registration officers do not know, they need only ask political parties, which can certainly tell them, because the differences in electoral registration in different parts of our constituencies can be extremely stark. We can almost predict where the low registration will be before we go into certain streets and start looking at the electoral register to discover just how many households are missing from it. Armed with that knowledge, we could concentrate on areas where we already know there is a shortfall. Things will only get worse—there is no doubt about that—so we need to concentrate on certain places.
We may need to think laterally about making it easier for people to register. For example, I was out knocking on doors at the weekend and the Member with me pointed out that several of the apparently unregistered houses belonged to council tenants. How did we know that? We knew what kind of new doors the council had recently put on those houses, and we took a bit of guess, albeit it was a fairly safe deduction. Those people had probably moved into those properties relatively recently. New tenants go through various processes with the council: they sign tenancy agreements and some, but not all, apply for housing benefit. That is an ideal opportunity to register people at the same time. People have to do a lot of things—they sign up for the electricity and other things—so why not make electoral registration part of the process, so that they can automatically register as they take up their new tenancy?
Often, it is those very people who come to our surgeries—they are certainly coming to my surgeries at the moment—and say things like, “I’ve just had this letter saying I’ll have to pay something towards my rent from April. I’ve never heard anything about this. I don’t know anything about this.” They see these things as politics, but politics is, of course, about things that happen to them. Once people realise that, they begin to be get a bit more interested, but no doubt some of the people who come to see us and are very angry are not registered. We therefore need to think about making electoral registration as straightforward as possible.
We could go into schools to register young people; that is not at all unreasonable, because once people are registered, the forms will continue in future years. I do not see why it is not possible—this was raised previously—to allow people to register quite late in the election run-up. When there is an election, people’s minds turn to registration. With modern technology and the ability to deal with late registration, we could perhaps let people register virtually up to the election, as happens in parts of the United States. If we do that, people who become interested and who see that the election matters will not find themselves unable to vote. I have known people turn up at a polling station only to discover to their horror that they are unable to vote. At times, they get very angry about that, because they have been fired up by what they have heard.
One thing that is slightly worrying to somebody who sat through the debates on the Bill and who is a member of the Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform is that we are now hearing that the situation in Northern Ireland is not as rosy as we were led to believe. The Select Committee looked at the issue and took evidence on it. We were aware that there had been a fall-off in registration initially, but we were given repeated assurances, first, that it was a temporary phenomenon that had been overcome and, secondly, that the rest of the UK would learn from the process and not make the same mistakes. Now, however, we hear that it might not be such a temporary phenomenon. That may be because there was concern at the outset, so extra effort was made to improve the position, but that declined again when the foot was taken off the pedal, which clearly shows that we have to keep putting in the effort. That is a matter of some concern because of the assurances we were given. Those of us who raised concerns about the Northern Ireland situation were told that we really had nothing to worry about, that it had been resolved and that things were moving forward much more successfully. That is not the case.
In the lead up to the changes, the Government need to look carefully at improving registration levels, which clearly are not good enough in some places. That would be necessary even without individual voter registration. That may require electoral registration officers to work far more closely with their fellow local government employees, laterally in relation to council housing, but there is also housing association housing. They might even work with some private landlords to see whether a link can be made, because that group of tenants is probably the most mobile and they are the ones falling through the hole.
Once we have all the household figures from the most recent census, which have not been published yet, we will clearly see what we know anecdotally from our own areas, which is how much more private renting there is now than there was even 10 years ago. That is such a mobile population that it is probably a major factor in reducing levels of electoral registration. How can we make contact with people when they move in? Can we find ways whereby electoral registration officers do not sit somewhere, isolated, but work with letting agents, perhaps, to make the forms available?
One of the problems with the Northern Ireland process was that the data-processing system was not working correctly, so the information was not all collated. One of the reasons for that was the funding. Wherever a data matching process is set up, bringing all the different bodies, benefits and rent allocations together, it should show where the person is, but it does not always work that way unless there is funding to ensure that that the data matching process takes place. That is a lesson that has been learned in Northern Ireland. The system has not worked. It must work better.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment and insight into problems that have arisen. There are dangers in relying on a technological answer. As we found with some of the data matching pilots, different organisations record things very differently, although perhaps that should not happen; the technology does not always work; addresses are not always referred to in the same way. Such small differences mean that although the technology should make it possible to identify where a person is, even if they were not previously on the register, that may not happen. A small difference in the description of the address is enough for the technology to let people down.
There is nothing better than the individual approach, and we should not rely on technology to perform that task. Technology has a place, and if it makes certain things easier, all well and good. It may provide a base to start from, but it is wrong to assume that it will somehow get us out of the problem. Getting out to people where they are—for example, by having an electoral registration officer sitting in a supermarket with a stall and forms to catch people while they are there—is not a bad idea. There are all sorts of ways to engage better with people. I hope that that will be taken seriously, that electoral registration officers will be given the resources and information they need, and that good practice will be shared so that that can happen. Otherwise things will get worse. It is deeply depressing to go to what I suppose in my constituency is a typical tenement building and to find that of perhaps eight or 10 residences, barely half are registered, even under the present system. It is not good enough.
This afternoon’s debate has been excellent, and I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Smith on securing it and on his first-rate contribution. He set out clearly many of the issues. It is a timely debate, because, as a couple of hon. Members have mentioned, the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill is now back on course after being mysteriously delayed by the Government in the other place. It is back on track and we look forward to its return to the Commons.
Several hon. Members have made good points. We heard about the situation in the United States of America where unfortunately voter suppression is all too often a political tactic of the right. I am sure that we all deplore that. Some hon. Members mentioned the need to focus on groups that are under-represented on the register: black people, young people, disabled people and those who are very mobile. We need to make a special effort to ensure that our electoral register is as complete as possible.
We have also heard about the Government’s change of heart when the Bill was passing through the Commons about whether a penalty should be imposed for an individual’s non-compliance in the process of registration. We welcome that, but we of course pressed the Government in Committee on how that would be administered and how much the fine would be. At that time, they understandably said they had not reached a final decision, but they have now had months to consider, and I wonder whether the Minister will say precisely how much the fine for individual non-compliance will be.
We also heard, importantly, about Scotland and were reminded that there will be a referendum in 2014 on Scotland’s continued membership of the Union. That will of course coincide with preparations for individual electoral registration. Uniquely in that election, but I hope not as a one-off—I would like the principle to be extended—young people of 16 and 17 will be given the vote for the first time. That will inevitably, I think, put great pressure on the electoral registration process north of the border.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent said, the debate is about the nature of our democracy and democratic participation. The electoral register is the lynchpin of our democratic process, and we all want it to be as accurate as possible. No one condones the examples of fraud that have taken place, but we must not exaggerate the amount. Just as importantly, we want the electoral register to be as complete as possible. We all want as many people as possible to have the chance, in a modern, thriving, healthy democracy, to exercise their democratic right.
I want to put some specific questions. First, on Northern Ireland, many of us were led to believe, as was mentioned in the debate, that the situation there was a good example to follow. We all recognise that the situation there is different from Great Britain’s, but nevertheless individual electoral registration was introduced there. We were told initially that there was a fall-off in the number of people on the register, but that that had improved. However, we now understand from the Electoral Commission that there is a marked reduction in the number. The commission’s report gives a number of reasons, but clearly one is to do with the decision taken in 2005 to discontinue the annual canvass in Northern Ireland. That appears to have had a significant impact on the chief electoral officer’s ability to track population movement.
Members have referred to the fact that people are increasingly mobile these days, and that is particularly an issue in our inner-city areas, including here in London. A key lesson that must be learnt from the Northern Ireland experience is the importance of retaining the annual canvass. We have discussed this issue at some length in the House, and Members have expressed concern about the Government’s possibly not continuing with the annual canvass. Although clause 7 of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill provides Ministers with the power to amend or abolish the annual canvass, the Bill also states that the Minister must have the approval of both Houses and that the Electoral Commission must prepare a report. I welcome that, but I would like a cast-iron commitment that the Government, in learning from the experience of Northern Ireland, have no intention whatsoever of scrapping the annual canvass.
That is an important point, because it is entirely complementary to the broader point about maintaining the annual canvass. An annual canvass is successful because it is about face-to-face contact; it is about electoral registration officers having a relationship with people and providing information about how they individually can complete their forms. The two points go well together. I would therefore like a cast-iron commitment from the Government that they have no intention whatsoever of putting a question mark over the future of the annual canvass.
That leads on to my second point, which is about the role of electoral registration officers. The ERA Bill proposes in sub-paragraph 6(2) of schedule 4 that the words “so far as is reasonably practicable” are introduced in relation to the role of electoral registration officers. I do not think that that the provision was modified in the Lords. Some people have suggested that that weakens the role of EROs and means that they cannot do their job as effectively, and although that is not necessarily the case, it introduces the potential to further allow EROs to limit the scope of their intervention. The important flexibility that currently exists is in danger of being weakened, and I would like reassurance from the Minister regarding EROs’ essential role in ensuring that individual electoral registration is implemented fairly and effectively.
Following on logically from that, I think that we all realise that, for electoral registration officers to be effective, they must have the necessary resources to do their job properly. The Bill’s explanatory notes state:
“A total of £108m was allocated at the Spending Review in 2010 to meet the cost of implementing Individual Electoral Registration. This includes £85m resource funding in 2014/15 to fund registration officers to make contact with each potential elector individually and invite them to register in 2014”.
There has also been reference to an extra £13 million per year being provided.
I take my hon. Friend back to the statistics for house-to-house contact given by the Electoral Commission in its document, “Managing electoral registration in Great Britain”. If the Government have supplied £108 million, there should be no excuse for that contact—knocking on people’s doors—to go down massively. What does my hon. Friend think is the reason for that? It happened under the Tory watch.
We must be mindful of the tremendous pressure on local government at the moment. Although moneys might be nominally provided for electoral registration, I would like the resources to be ring-fenced, to ensure that they are used for the process for which they are stipulated. We are not blaming local authorities —we can all understand the tremendous pressure that they are under in a cuts climate and that education and social services and so on require resources—but if money is not ring-fenced, it is all too easy for it to be surreptitiously shifted from one budget to another. That is why it is very important that the Government commit to introducing ring-fencing.
I understand my hon. Friend’s sentiment, but I do not think that it is quite that easy. A wrong impression might be given—a bit like with speeding fines—with electors under the impression that local authorities were deliberately fining people to ensure an extra source of income.
Just to clarify, I meant that if fines were introduced and the money went somewhere central, the Government should somehow consider how the money could be ring-fenced for electoral registration purposes. I appreciate that if the money went to a local council there could be a perverse incentive not to register people to charge more fines.
That is a sound sentiment, and I would welcome the Minister’s response. We certainly all recognise that adequate resources must be provided if the system is to work. Money, from wherever it comes, is to be welcomed, and we need as much of a focus as possible on this issue.
I understand that the Government, according to their implementation plan, were to come forward with a funding mechanism for local authorities by last December, and I also understand that that has happened. Have the Government gone a step further, however, and not simply talked about a funding mechanism but begun to consider how much local authorities will have and whether there will be differential allocation according to the amount of work that is necessary in each area? I refer back to a point made earlier about under-represented groups. The Government, through the Cabinet Office, have been doing good work in liaising with various groups that work with under-represented elements in society, but there is a need for extra targeted resources, to ensure that we get under-represented groups fully registered.
Finally on funding, I want to ask about the situation in Wales. I understand that last year there were ongoing discussions with the Welsh Government about a sum possibly being devolved for them to carry out their work in relation to local authorities in Wales. Can the Minister enlighten us on whether the discussions have concluded and what sum has been allocated for individual registration in Wales?
This is important legislation, and it is commendable that so many Members—Labour Members, at least—have attended the debate. I am slightly concerned that more Government Members are not here, but I hope that now that the Bill is once again making progress, thanks to last night’s definitive decision in the other place, our constructive dialogue will continue when the Bill returns to this House.
I thank Nick Smith for providing us with a helpful and interesting debate. I will attempt to answer the various questions that have been raised, and I hope that I will entertain the Chamber for the remaining 21 minutes.
On the point of sheer entertainment, I will mention my constituency, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned his. The Chartists enjoyed their moment in Norwich, too. I live round the corner from Mousehold heath, the scene of a great point in the history of democratic and somewhat rebellious engagement, which is a fine thing to mention in this debate.
On a perhaps drier topic, encouraging individual registration is vital, and I reassure the Chamber that the Government do not lack ambition on that note. It is the role of the Government, politicians, political parties, electoral administrators and plenty of others to encourage people to register to vote. The Government are committed to doing all we can to maximise registration levels, and to consider ways to modernise the system to make it as easy and convenient as possible to register to vote.
The Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which is currently passing through Parliament and provided us all with a few moments of excitement last night, with perhaps a few raised heart rates here and there, will go some way towards changing the electoral registration process for the better by introducing individual electoral registration. The Bill will create a legislative framework to allow alternative channels for registration, such as online registration, which I am pleased to confirm will be available from July 2014. The Bill will also provide for the use of data matching to verify applications, to confirm existing entries on registers during the transition to IER and to find individuals who do not currently appear on the register. We have already carried out pilot schemes.
Does the Minister agree that the findings of the data matching processes so far indicate that the electoral register is the most accurate record in existence? The electoral register is more accurate than the records of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, perhaps because it is compiled by people who live in a particular area and who go door to door.
In some ways, the hon. Lady is right. The electoral register, by its nature, is a repository of solid information, but it is important that we put to work other data sets held by different levels of government to maximise numbers. We all want the numbers to be maximised, and we must find the best ways to do so. We are carrying out various schemes to test the usefulness of matching electoral registers against several public authority data sets. A further set of pilots will commence shortly, some of which will address students and recent home moves.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, in general terms, for his flashes of bipartisanship both in this debate and, occasionally, in the main Chamber, but I regret that some of his, dare I say, time-filling appeared to descend into slightly more partisan commentary. I will be similarly partisan in response: the version introduced by Labour cost more than our version to the tune of some £100 million, and I think it is worth comparing schemes on that basis. The previous scheme would have caused confusion because, effectively, it sought to run a voluntary version of individual registration alongside another process. I believe that the version before us is somewhat cleaner.
In short, no.
Other hon. Members have asked various questions about data matching, which I must address so that I answer everyone in time. In particular, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent asked about the use of credit reference agencies, which is a point that he has raised capably many times. We considered the possibility of a pilot using credit reference agency data, but I am advised that running such a scheme within the existing legislation would be difficult. As I said in my answer to Siobhain McDonagh, I am interested in finding as many useful sources of data as possible, and I shall continue to look for them. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent and I will continue that debate as we continue our research, but I am aware of a number of shortcomings in using data from credit reference agencies.
There will be a move to digital applications from the current paper application form, which will make registration more convenient for a number of people. The move will increase accessibility for many people with disabilities. I will be talking to the Electoral Commission later this week, and I am happy to raise the points raised by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden on the accessibility of the forms. We will be actively encouraging applicants to use the online system, which we intend to be the primary channel for applications. It is important, however, that we retain the option of a paper form to cater for anyone who is not ready for the move.
I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s point on absent voters. She generously explained how important that group is in her constituency, and often, those in that group are older voters, whom we will consider carefully. I certainly would not wish to see any such group disadvantaged, and I will watch that carefully.
The Minister suggests that she wishes to watch the process carefully, but of course the Government have the power to change their mind about the proposal that people with postal votes should not be automatically rolled over. There is still time to do that before the new process comes into play. Rather than simply reacting to a problem after the event, perhaps the Minister might consider a change of mind.
I thank the hon. Lady for that reminder of what a Minister is and is not capable of doing. I repeat that I will be watching all these matters like a hawk. Some are within our direct control, some are for the Electoral Commission and some are for Parliament as we complete the process. I reassure her that I am deeply interested in ensuring that we maximise registration levels in all corners.
The current plans for registration include the annual canvass, and I fully assure the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent that it will continue to be used for as long as it remains the best way to ensure that the register is as complete as possible. If data matching is used, and we hope that we might now be able to match well over two thirds of voters by using that method, a whole new world of possibilities is opened up as to how we might, on an annual basis, register the right people. I do not think a situation in which the annual canvass is less effective than new methods is beyond our lifetimes. I do not suggest that I know what those methods might be—I deliberately take a long view in posing this scenario—but it is possible to use the legislation ahead of time to introduce a power to give an instruction not to use an annual canvass if other methods have become more effective. I repeat that we are all interested in effective methods. I am not interested in ineffective ones. However, Members will have heard the fuller debate on that issue in the Chamber earlier this year when it came before the Commons. I reassure them once again that all the safeguards will remain in place before any such abolition will be considered.
I welcome what the Minister says up to a point, but rather than hypothetical future scenarios, we are looking for proof that the Government are learning the lesson from Northern Ireland, as the Electoral Commission said, and recognising the centrality of annual canvasses. What might happen in future is a matter for another time; we want a categorical affirmation that the lessons from Northern Ireland have been learned and that an annual canvass is here.
It is important that I go on to Northern Ireland before we run out of time. We are absolutely clear that we will be learning and have learned the lessons from Northern Ireland, and we have looked carefully into the Electoral Commission’s report. We are taking steps to prevent a fall in registration levels upon the introduction of individual electoral registration by retaining the annual canvass—as I said, we have no plans to abolish it in Great Britain—by moving the 2013 canvass to early 2014 to allow a more accurate and up-to-date register to be used at the beginning of the transition to IER, and testing and evaluating the benefits of data matching, about which I spoke briefly, by confirming eligible electors through the data match process. That confirmation will give us a substantial baseline level of completeness throughout the transition to individual registration. All those things are vital. We have always recognised that the transition to individual registration poses a risk to completeness rates, so we are putting in place those safeguards.
I do not intend to answer that with a number, but as I have said many times and will say once more, we are all interested in the maximum level of registration in this country.
Will the Minister respond to the very good point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden about the crucial difference that can be made by the ability of the canvasser on the doorstep to help people complete the form? Will she reconsider it and commit to moving in that direction?
I will. I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman asks, as it reminds me to ensure that I answer the hon. Lady’s question. I do not believe that there is anything to prevent canvassers from helping on the doorstep. I am happy to come back on that in further detail, as I see that we are running out of time.
On the civil penalty for failing to make an application to register when requested to do so by a certain date, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent asked me for a figure. It is currently subject to keen stakeholder engagement, and I look forward to being able to update the House in due course. In passing, I note under that heading that the civil penalty is about deterrence, not making money. The sum will fall to zero once the individual registers. There is no interest in turning it into a money pot; that is simply not what it is for. I reassure the Chamber that through the safeguards that I have described, we want a situation in which we have confirmed the majority of existing electors and automatically retained them in the register, which will allow us to ensure that the register is at least as complete as it is now while improving its accuracy during the transition to individual registration.
It is important that I discuss some other measures in the time available. The IER system must be flexible enough to respond to changes in society. Beyond the transition, we will assess the most appropriate channels for applications. We want it to be digital by default, and we want an IT service to underpin the process for validating all applications, in whatever format they are made.
The Government are, of course, committed to funding the transition to individual registration, as has been noted throughout this debate. We will fund local authorities in England and Wales directly through grants made under section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003, allocated for the purposes of paying for the transition. Local authorities will receive a non-ring-fenced specific grant to pay for the move to IER. It will not be included in the formula grant. Appropriate safeguards already exist in the legal duties, which will be seen by the House in secondary legislation, and those duties rest on electoral registration officers. Local authorities will clearly be obliged to fund a number of business-critical activities, and that is in compliance with their statutory duty to pay EROs’ properly incurred expenses. I am happy to deal with that matter more in correspondence if Members wish.
Encouraging democratic participation is vital, and I hope that hon. Members have noted my commitment to it in the flavour of my comments in this debate. We are seeking to work with a range of organisations to engage individuals and communities from all sections of society in the political process. I am afraid that I cannot avoid using a minute to respond to some of the more partisan points made by Chris Ruane. Nobody owns voters, places or cities. We all go out and work for them. I am sure that he joins me in that sentiment, and I look forward to working with him in his more bipartisan moments.
We know that registration levels are disproportionately low in some groups; I think that everybody has made that point in this debate. To help us understand current levels of electoral registration, we have carried out a detailed programme of research, including funding an Electoral Commission study on the completeness and accuracy of the register, an independent academic review of all available research and further studies into exploring the barriers to registration for groups missing from the register under the current system.
I said that I would mention some places on which the data mining pilots are particularly focused. As I think hon. Members know, they are to be focused on attainers, students and recent home movers, among others. I have no concerns about being approached by Universities UK or the National Union of Students, although I note that those groups met my predecessor at a more urgent stage of the Bill. However, I am happy to have further such discussions with them. On the points made about student voters, I note that only 13% of halls of residence currently use block registration. That is instructive, as it suggests that there are alternative methods. It is vital to treat young people as adults who can and ought to register in their own right and under their own responsibility.
On other ways that we are working with groups in broader society, the Northern Ireland experience is helping us plan activities. We are working with Bite the Ballot and Operation Black Vote to increase understanding of the importance of voting and the process of registering to vote; I have done such events in Norwich, and I think it is important to do so.
We are continuing all those efforts to drive up registration rates as we move towards IER. To do so, we need partnerships with a range of organisations in the private, state, voluntary and community sectors. As I said, I welcome and appreciate all the good points made in this debate. I shall be speaking to the Electoral Commission later this week, as I do regularly as part of this work, and I shall impress on it as part of its responsibilities to communicate about registration to the broader public—hon. Members will know that that is one responsibility of the EC—the good points made in this debate.
In conclusion, the Government are fully committed to doing what we can to increase voter registration levels. There is no silver bullet solution. I do not think that increasing democratic engagement is the Government’s responsibility. To borrow words from the Scripts’ recent song “Hall of Fame”, I think it is a question for students, teachers, politicians and preachers. It is also a question for parliamentarians, parents, carers, role models and officials from political parties. We must provide people with compelling reasons to vote.