[Hywel Williams in the Chair] — Voter Registration

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 22nd October 2014.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Sam Gyimah.)

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change) 9:30 am, 22nd October 2014

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams.

Securing a debate on voter registration is timely with the general election now in the near future. It gives us the opportunity to discuss the enormous changes in the electoral register, a process that started in England and Wales on 10 June this year and in Scotland after the referendum on 19 September. For a democracy to work well, the system needs to be as easy as possible to enable as many eligible people as possible to vote. The first step in the process is to have an accurate, up-to-date and as complete a register as possible.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Labour, Caerphilly

I agree with my hon. Friend absolutely about the importance of having as accurate an electoral register as possible. She began by indicating that the time scale is tight. Would it not be sensible for the Government to allow more time, so that we can be certain that we have as many people on the electoral register as is humanly possible?

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. In the main debate when the measure passed through the House, I said that I agreed in principle with individual voter registration, but that it had to be implemented in a way that works. The new system, however, is simply being rushed through. My fear is that because the changes are being done at speed, and because of the lack of funding available to implement them, they will disfranchise millions of people. That does not improve our democracy at all.

The groups being disfranchised that I am most concerned about are: students and young people; people who live in the private rented sector; and adults with no dependent children who are not yet claiming pensions or not on benefits. I will start with students and young people.

My city, Sunderland, is a university city, so in term time we have an influx of many thousands of young people. They do not always live at home—historically, their parents would have put them on the register at home—they move more frequently and they have a transient lifestyle, whether because they are students away in term time and back home in holidays or simply because they are young people leaving home for the first time, living with friends. Their national insurance number is often registered to the address of their parents’ home, so if they tried to go on the electoral register where they are students the data would not match.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

Sheffield, like Sunderland, is a student city, and I represent more students than any other Member of Parliament—36,000. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the university of Sheffield on its work—which we hope to roll out to Sheffield Hallam university next year—in seamlessly integrating electoral registration with student enrolment to encourage maximum registration? The Government have given some support. Will she encourage them to take up such a process much more vigorously, working with Universities UK and the National Union of Students, and to look at the opportunities beyond universities in colleges, schools and other institutions?

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

I absolutely endorse what my hon. Friend says. I have been in discussions with the university of Sunderland in recent weeks to look at that very issue and how it can maximise the number of students on the register. If the Government are prepared to get involved in such a process, that would be a help.

A final point about students and their NI number is that they might have the wrong number allocated, although they would be unaware of that. MPs do not deal with this problem every week, but it is not an uncommon situation for people to come to us because they have the wrong NI number, which they only become aware of when they try to claim a benefit.

For example, not so long ago I had a case of a young woman who had left school and become a hairdresser. She had always worked since leaving school and paid her taxes and her NI. It was only when she applied for maternity pay, when expecting her first child, that she suddenly got a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions saying that she had made no NI contributions. Clearly, that was not the case, and she could prove easily through payslips and her employee records that she had a full NI record. She was not aware of the problem, however, until she got to the point of needing to use the record.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

My hon. Friend gives a graphic example of the issue with national insurance numbers. Is she aware that 35% of Muslim women do not have NI numbers? Where does that leave them when getting registered under the new system?

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

That is a pertinent point. The NI system is a good one in general, but it has flaws and is not perfect, and many issues arise from that. As I explained, many people will not be aware that there is a problem with their NI number until they do not data-match.

Given the housing shortage, the private rented sector has grown exponentially over the past 10 years. Even in my city, where house prices are relatively low, there is a shortage of social housing and people have difficulty getting mortgages, because of low wages, zero-hours contracts and so on. Even in Sunderland, therefore, we have a housing crisis and more people than ever, from all walks of life and all age groups, living in the private rented sector. It is a transient population, because of how our tenancies work, with short-term tenancies and people often moving home every six months, and they are difficult to reach.

The final group I want to mention are adults with no dependent children. They are not claiming benefits, their children are grown and they do not receive child benefit any more, and they are not yet at pensionable age. Often, that group of people are at a time in their life when they are downsizing and moving home. Does everyone remember to change the address in their NI records? Most people do not have that on their list of things to change. They are not doing anything wrong; they are still paying their contributions through their employer and so forth, but again their NI records are not as accurate as they should be. Again, only when those people seek a benefit from the NI system does that fact come to light. It is easily sorted out, but in the meantime they will not data-match. Furthermore, working people are busy people and they are often not at home when canvassers call, when the local authority is trying to improve their records. Again, through no fault of their own, they will be disfranchised.

Those are all genuine examples of people who do not actively want to be unable to vote, but have lifestyles that, under the new system and the speed of its introduction, make them difficult to reach. They will therefore fall off the register and be unable to vote.

I want to talk a little about my constituency. Sunderland Central falls within the electoral and local authority district of Sunderland. Our electoral services are famous. They do things well, they are efficient and quick, and they take enormous pride in what they do. It is a well resourced department, which does things well, to the extent that, historically, people from the department have gone around the world to help improve other countries’ electoral administration. That is how good they are. They have put Sunderland on the map. They are very quick at counts, to the point that at the past few general elections there has been no competition for us—nobody even tries any more. The votes for the three Sunderland MPs are counted, and the results are known, on the day that the votes have been cast, which is unique in this place. At the previous general election my seat was third to be declared in Sunderland, but my result was still in at 20 minutes to midnight, so I could relax a long time before many of my colleagues.

The electoral services staff in Sunderland have taken the changes incredibly seriously. They were part of the pilot and have been involved in working groups with the Government and the Electoral Commission to look at how to implement the system. Yet even in Sunderland there are massive problems. I want to read out a few things that the head of electoral services told me yesterday. She said:

“Following the Confirmation Live Run…Sunderland had a match rate of 84%. This was improved with Local Data Matching which brought the match up to 92%. This meant that in real terms Sunderland then delivered 15,753 Household Enquiry Forms…which were comprised of empty properties, student accommodation and non-responders to last year’s canvass. After reminders”— that is, two things through the post—

“and a visit from personal canvassers, Sunderland has an outstanding total of 6,128 which is about 39% of the original total.”

Even after two letters and a personal call, Sunderland is still more than 6,000 people short under the new system.

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Labour, Newport East

I very much agree with the points my hon. Friend is making. The Government funding for following up on non-responders and new electors is based on getting a 50% response to the first reminder and a 50% response to the second, but I believe that in some places the response to the first reminder has been as low as 10%. Does she agree that the Minister needs to put more money into the process if we are to get the response rates up?

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. More money and more time are needed to get the system right. As I said at the beginning, in principle we agree with individual voter registration, but the implementation has not been right.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

On the dry run and the number of local government departments that then conducted their own local data-matching, there are 380 electoral registration officers in the country, but only 137 wrote to the Electoral Commission to say that they had done their dry run. My county was one—I pay tribute to our ERO, Gareth Evans, for doing so—and my hon. Friend’s county got an extra 10% registered. But two thirds could not be bothered. Was the Electoral Commission too lax in its monitoring and policing of the dry run?

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

The point is well made. Not enough information, time or thought has gone into how registration is happening. My hon. Friend’s electoral registration unit and my own are among the best in our countries, but quite frankly not all EROs are of the same standard. They vary enormously. They do not always use the same computer systems. Some are better than others, and some are better resourced than others. There is massive variation. We have one of the best electoral services departments in the country, but we are still having problems. The figures for some of the worst in the country will be dreadful.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. Does she agree that it is also important to recognise the really hard work done by canvassers, who go out there and chase the information? I have talked to the canvassers in my constituency working on behalf of the ERO, and the reality is that they have not had proper pay increases for some time. There is even more pressure on them now. There is a real issue with capacity for that resource at this crucial time.

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, in Sunderland we have put a lot of effort and resources into the matter, but we are constrained by a massively reduced local authority budget. That is the backdrop to some of what is going on.

As I was saying, 92% of households matched after the live run but there may now be residents in those houses that we do not know about. They are deemed to have been matched, and have not been canvassed, so if new people have moved into the properties in addition to those who have been matched, we will not know about them. The figure is misleading.

We could have another mini-canvass in January or February. I understand that the Minister is currently considering whether to fund that. A mini-canvass is absolutely essential and should be mandatory for local authorities. As I have said, my local authority is doing everything it can to make its register as accurate and workable as possible, but so far many authorities have not done as we have. The Government need to look carefully at funding a mini-canvass and making it mandatory that electoral registration officers carry it out.

Sunderland sent out more than 13,000 invitations to register—they are for the red and amber mismatches from the confirmation live run—and have just started door-knocking for those. As yet, there has been no response for almost 11,000 of them. That is how hard to reach some people and places are.

Another issue is that the system of postal vote registration has changed; so has the information that could be used to match people and keep them on the postal vote register. In Sunderland we were part of a national pilot in 2004 of all-out postal vote elections, as a result of local authority boundary and ward changes. Since then, on average around 40% of the electorate in Sunderland has used postal votes. People like voting by post in Sunderland. It is effective and efficient, with a very high turnout. There are probably many reasons for that: although we are a university city our indigenous population is quite aged, and older people tend to like to vote by post. We also have quite inclement weather a lot of the time, so people often do not like going out to vote—the north-east coast is beautiful but it can be very cold.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Labour, Caerphilly

I will not question for one moment the beauty of Sunderland or its weather. My point is connected to my first intervention on the speed of the introduction of the changes. One reason the Government are so keen to press ahead as quickly as humanly possible is the perception of fraud, particularly with regard to postal votes. Does my hon. Friend agree that the perception is not necessarily the reality, and we should go on the reality? The truth is that very little electoral fraud takes place.

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

I absolutely agree—that is my next point. There has been only one serious electoral fraud issue in the past 10 years or so. Electoral fraud is a serious issue. If is it happening anywhere it absolutely needs to be tackled, but it is not happening on a mass scale; in my experience it certainly is not happening with postal votes.

As I was saying, a lot of people in Sunderland vote by post. They are used to it and do it every time, so it is their normal voting pattern nowadays. According to the records in Sunderland, difficulties with matching, sign-up and other issues mean that some 1,740 people currently on the postal vote register are going to drop off it, and will not know that. It will get to the day when postal votes need to be cast and they will not have their postal vote. I am quite sure they will ring up to say that they have not received it, and will be told, “You are not on the postal vote register any more.” That simply is not good enough. Those people may not be able to get out to a polling station. If they can, they may go and vote in person on the day, but as I said a lot of them are older and are not in the best of health, so are not able to do that.

Does it really help our democracy to disfranchise people because of the situation with the postal vote register? Historically, other data that a council holds—perhaps council tax records—have been used to data-match, to make sure that people kept their postal vote. That is no longer going to be allowed to happen, and the Government need to look at that.

Will the Minister fund a mini-canvass? Will he make that decision urgently, because we are now into October? A mini-canvass needs to take place early in the new year, and I have outlined the reasons for that. Is he comfortable with the problems that are arising? Estimates are that 7.5 million people are not usually registered, and the latest estimates I have seen are that 5.5 million more will drop off the register under the new system. That means 13 million people will be disfranchised at the next general election. Is the Minister comfortable with that? What other plans does he have to put right the implementation and roll-out of the system?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Conservative, Norwich North 9:50 am, 22nd October 2014

It is a pleasure to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, and to be the second speaker after Julie Elliott, who made an extensive speech. I would invite her to Norfolk, where the climate tends to be a little drier and, occasionally, warmer, although I cannot speak for that in a week where we have all been battered by somewhat higher winds than normal.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on calling this important debate. This is an urgent and important matter for us all, and particularly for me, because, until 1 pm today, I am the secretary of the all-party group on voter registration—we have our annual general meeting at 1 pm, and I fully hope to continue being the secretary or to become another officer of the group. At our meeting, we will also have a briefing from Cabinet Office officials on individual electoral registration. I can therefore reassure hon. Members that there is great interest in this important reform programme and that it is being properly scrutinised, not only in this room, but by the all-party group. It is, indeed, also being scrutinised by many others outside this place, and I could name, among many others, Bite the Ballot or the group I met last night, who are behind the Twitter handle “It’s A Power Thing”—I am sure that you tweet every day, Mr Williams, and that when you find examples of what politics really consists of, you, too, use the hashtag ThisIsPolitics. I am confident that every one of us in the Chamber shares with such groups a passion not only for getting young people to register to vote, but for making sure that anybody and everybody can use their rightful place in the franchise.

I am sure the Minister will explain everything he is doing to ensure the greatest possible accuracy and completeness in voter registration. He will not need me to reiterate the many arguments I have made on this issue, because I have been on record many times in this Parliament as a former Minister with responsibility for the registration programme.

I am pleased to see that we have colleagues from Northern Ireland with us, and I am sure they will be able to explain further some of the lessons that have rightly been learned from a similar roll-out there.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

I pay tribute to the non-partisan work the hon. Lady does on the all-party group—she is an excellent politician. On the lessons from Northern Ireland, the registration rate there in 2011 was 71%, which was way down. There was then a complete canvass, with door knocking, and the rate went up to 88%. Door knocking is the single most important way to improve registration, but, in 2013, 23 authorities did not door-knock. What does the hon. Lady think of that?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Conservative, Norwich North

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. He and I have tussled over this many times—again, in a non-partisan way. There is no call for this to be a party political question, but there is every call for us to ensure that local authorities have the tools to do what works, and I am sure the Minister will respond fully and properly to the suggestions that the hon. Member for Sunderland Central made.

On the subject of errant local authorities, Chris Ruane will remember that I wrote to colleagues in this place when I was a Minister, and I have done so again during my time with the all-party group, to encourage Members to hold their local authorities to account for what they and their EROs do to properly engage with those who should be registered. Members of the House have a real chance to take a proper interest in this subject—again, in a non-partisan, non-party political way—because we have every interest in ensuring that we have an accurate and complete register and, indeed, that all the tools of the trade are being used to back up the state of our politics. It will not be a matter of debate among us that politics has a bad name and continues to be the subject of declining interest among voters. That is not acceptable to any of us, and all of us, in our different ways, take a passionate interest in the issue.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP, South Antrim

I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing this timely debate. When she talks about people who vote, she means those who are on the register, but there is a disconnect even there. After we get those people on the register, it is difficult to get them to exercise their voting rights. However, how do we get those who are totally uninterested on the register? There certainly is a problem there. In Northern Ireland, 88% of people are on the register, but there is still a long way to go to get the proper franchise.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Conservative, Norwich North

The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point, but I am certainly not going to be able to solve the problem he raises in my comments—and nor, I suspect, will the Minister be able to. In the scenario the hon. Gentleman described, there is an element of somebody not wishing to do something, and, in the final analysis, I do not think there is a way to compel somebody to do something they do not wish to do. Before we got to that point, I would put every argument to show that their place in democracy is a hard-won right and, at times, very sensitive; and I am sure the hon. Gentleman would be able to give us many more localised reasons why that is so in Northern Ireland. I would argue that, in the grand scheme of things, it is not hard to get on the electoral register in our country. We should compare that with what happens in countries around the world, where it is still hard for people in this day and age to have their democratic voice heard. The best example, which we have seen in the newspapers only in the last month, is probably Hong Kong, where people wish to play a part in democracy. We could all take a few lessons from that back to the people we represent to further the discussion of what democracy really is about.

That allows me to move to the point I wanted to make. I want to go back to principles. I disagree with the hon. Member for Sunderland Central that we are facing disfranchisement—we are not. The people we are talking about are enfranchised and legally able to vote. We are talking not about some descent into North

Korean-style practices, but about the method of getting as many people as possible, in the most accurate and complete way possible, to change from one system to another. I am no fan of large bureaucratic systems, and I would—like the Minister, I am sure—place a high value on making the programme as simple and as fast as possible for the voters concerned.

I strongly agree with the hon. Lady’s point—which unfortunately she made only in passing—that the IER programme has cross-party agreement. We do not need to go back to a hyperbolic disagreement; we are looking at the best means of achieving a shared goal. It was the right thing to do in the early days of this Parliament to remove potentially wasteful and expensive duplication in the programme by bringing it forward, and I am sure the Minister will be able to give us a full update on why he continues to think that that was the right thing to do at the time.

Let me also lay out a crucial factor in the implementation programme. There is not going to be—I say it again—some forced North Korean-style loss of participation in our democracy at this crucial time, because no elector will be removed until after the general election. Again, I shall leave it to the Minister to explain fully how he envisages that working, but it is important not to blow things out of proportion. The programme has cross-party agreement and that should continue. We should all pull together to find the best ways to get the result we want.

As to the principle behind IER, it is one of the most important final pieces in the democratic journey, made over centuries, towards a right and proper adult franchise. Among those three letters the “I” has always, for me, been important; it is right and proper for individuals to be able to exercise the right to register, and that is why I believe in the programme. Neither I nor, I am sure, the hon. Member for Sunderland Central would think it acceptable for the right of a woman to register her hard-won place in democracy to be exercised by someone else in her household; so why do we seem to be quibbling over the ability of young people, renters or single adults to take care of their affairs? We need to keep in mind the basic principle that it is right for individuals to take responsibility for their own place in democracy. We have a good democracy, in which there is a place for those people, with their names on it. It is, in the end, for them to take that up, and for us to persuade them why doing so is worth their while. It takes two to tango, of course.

There are a few short months until the general election. There is much for us all to do—in this place, together and individually—to put politics across in the best light. Parliament week will shortly be upon us, so that we will collectively be able to do that little bit more. I could name many groups where people are already encouraging their peers to vote. As I have said, I am particularly interested in encouraging young people to take their place in democracy.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

Does the hon. Lady agree that the problem is double barrelled? It certainly is in Northern Ireland and, I am sure, in the hon. Lady’s constituency. Young people, who tend to be more mobile than older people, are less likely to register and less likely to come out and vote even when they are registered. We have a twin approach to deepening the franchise.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Conservative, Norwich North

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. He is right. We are all familiar with the statistics from the previous general election: turnout in the 18-to-24 age group was about 44%, while three quarters of those at the other end of the age scale turned out. That is the difference we are talking about; but we are also talking about an evolution that has happened in politics. The situation is not one in which young people will snap into the habit of voting when they get married and get a mortgage. If we wait for that, we will be waiting a long time, for some of the reasons that the hon. Member for Sunderland Central touched on when she spoke about housing.

However, this generation has changed the way it does politics, and actually does fantastic things through non-traditional political means—through informal politics and community politics. It is our job to make sure that formal politics meets them halfway. That is something that I will continue to speak on passionately in this place and act on outside it, and I will endeavour to open up this place to those people. I hope that today’s debate allows us to contribute a little to that process. We should all be in agreement about the value of the programme and the need to ensure that individuals’ rights to register and vote are upheld and encouraged. We should be talking merely about the best way to get people in our local authorities, and the citizens we represent, to the ballot box.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd 10:04 am, 22nd October 2014

I have taken a passionate interest in individual electoral registration for the past 13 or 14 years, since my hon. Friend Mr Brown alerted me to the drop in numbers between 1997 and 2001. I pay tribute to him for switching me on to that important issue—and to my hon. Friend Julie Elliott, who secured this important debate.

Democracy is an important issue today. Two key statistics are that at the last general election 11 million people did not vote, although they were on the register, and that 7.5 million people were not even on the register. That means that 18.5 million people did not participate in the democratic process. To put that in perspective, I should say that 10 million people voted Conservative and 8 million people voted Labour—more people did not get involved in the electoral process than voted for the two main political parties. Democracy today in Britain is in crisis, and the way the coalition Government have introduced IER will threaten it further.

Chloe Smith is right: there was cross-party support for the changes in 2009. I opposed them for nine years and then supported them when we decided, with cross-party support, to introduce them after the 2015 general election. It was crucial to do that, because it would allow us to find the missing 7.5 million people who were off the register and get them back on for the 2015 election—because we knew there would be a drop-off.

When Labour introduced IER in Northern Ireland in 2001, there was a massive drop-off—something like 30% of people on the register disappeared from it. My colleagues from Northern Ireland will say that there was a degree of fraud there, which had not been addressed, and that is right, but even in 2011 the registration rate was still 71%. We need to learn the lessons of Northern Ireland, which are that when IER is introduced, registration will immediately drop.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), DUP Westminster Leader

I had a meeting with the Electoral Commission a couple of weeks ago and the latest figures are now 88% for Northern Ireland. That is only after a household door-to-door canvass was done. That had been dropped in Northern Ireland. The lesson is that there is a need to get people signed up by regularly going door to door; that cannot be left to town halls or electoral officers, as happened in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

I agree. I shall bring part of my speech forward, to address the point. In 2008 the Labour Government said that every ERO must carry out door-knocking for non-responders. In 2008 16 EROs out of 383 did not do that. They broke the law. In 2009 there were 17 such EROs and in 2008 the number was down to eight. But what happened in the year of the new Government? The number of EROs who broke the law went from eight to 55. In 2012 it was 30 and in 2013 it was 23. That includes Gwynedd in 2012 and 2013.

It is appalling that Ministers and the Electoral Commission tolerated law-breaking with respect to the most important basic building block of democracy. That has not been addressed, although the coalition proudly boasts that it will introduce the biggest changes to UK democracy since universal suffrage—and there are still 7.5 million people missing from the register.

The cross-party support for IER was shattered in 2010 when the coalition Government decided that, ahead of the economy and all the changes that they said were needed in health, education and benefits, the No. 1 issue on which they wanted to focus forensically was bringing forward the date for IER by a year. Why was that? I have asked Ministers in oral questions, in Committee and on the Floor of the House. I asked the Minister, and he did not know. I had to tell him and previous Ministers in Committee the reason, which according to a parliamentary answer was mass concern among the public about fraud in the electoral system; apparently, the time scale had to be brought forward by one year to assuage that concern.

I will give the statistics for electoral fraud, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central has already given. There has been one proven and successful case in the courts over the past 10 years. The Electoral Commission and Ministers say that there is 37% concern. One of the surveys said that there was 37% concern, but others say that there is 10% concern—so for 10% concern, and one case in 10 years, the legislation had to be brought forward by one year. The real reason is party political advantage.

The equalisation of seats, with 7.5 million people missing from the register, was supposed to deliver the next election. Bringing IER forward by one year and knocking off perhaps 18 million people was supposed to deliver every election after that. That is not quite North Korea, but it is not far away. The issue has been handled in a party political way.

I pay tribute to the Liberal Democrats because they co-operated in the House of Lords, having realised what a train crash was happening. The Government proposed making an individual’s decision to go on to the register a lifestyle choice. For 350 years, this had been a civic duty for those who qualified to be on the register and to take part in democracy, but the Government wanted to change that to a lifestyle choice—“buy it if you want to; don’t buy it if you don’t”. That is the wrong approach, and so much so that the Liberal Democrats realised what was happening. I pay tribute to Lord Rennard for alerting his party to it.

Civic society was appalled. Magistrates were appalled because people are called for jury service from the electoral register. The police were appalled because they use the electoral register to find out where people who commit crimes live. Operation Black Vote was appalled because the biggest losers out there were the black and Asian communities. Unlock Democracy, the Electoral Reform Society and Bite the Ballot were concerned about the proposal, so the Government had to back-pedal from a lifestyle choice to a civic duty.

I pay tribute to the Electoral Commission for one of the few good things it has done. It formally warned the Government that if they carried on, of the people who do not bother to vote—65% at the last election, although it has been as low as 59%—41% will not register. It is like a banana republic: 40% of people in the country are not on the register. That is what the Conservative wing of the coalition Government proposed. That is what it thought it could get away with, but it was beaten by an alliance of civic societies and some Liberal Democrats.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Wayne David for his work in bringing civic societies together. We had public hearings in the House of Commons when people were allowed to express their fears. We took that message to the Electoral Commission and the Government, and the Government had to listen.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP, South Antrim

If the Liberal Democrats are so concerned, why do I not see many of them here this morning?

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

I could not possibly comment.

I have explained the Government’s position. I now turn to the Electoral Commission’s position, and I have paid tribute to it for what it has done. In 2009, I met people from Experian, the credit reference data agency. We sat in my office in Portcullis House and I said that 3.5 million people were missing from the register. They said, “No there aren’t. The number is 6.5 million.” I immediately relayed that to the Electoral Commission, which said that that was nonsense and that it would conduct its own research. The day before that was released—I think it was released on a Friday, so it was on the Thursday—it told me that I was right and that the figure was 6.5 million, but a different 6.5 million. Perhaps it was 13 million. Who knows?

Labour does not have clean hands. Some 3.9 million people were not on the register in 2001 and that rose to 7.5 million on Labour’s watch. That was not for party political advantage because of the profile of the people missing from the register: the unemployed, those on low wages, those living on council estates, those living in houses of multiple occupation, young people and black and ethnic minority voters. It was not for party political advantage, although we should have done a better job—but party political advantage has kept those 7.5 million people off the register for the past four years. The Electoral Commission has not played its full role in getting them back on the register.

It would cost only £340,000 to do a proper survey of the missing millions, but in the past 14 years the commission has carried out only three. That is despite electoral administration legislation in 2005, 2009 and 2010. The commission has been remiss in its research. It should not be left to a Back Bencher and a credit reference agency to prompt it into doing its job.

Photo of David Mowat David Mowat Conservative, Warrington South

I apologise for missing the start of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I am listening carefully to his logic and the build-up to the 7.5 million people who seem to be missing from the register. According to his own logic, that occurred under the previous Government, but the fact that we have not fixed it is apparently due to our pursuing partisan values. That logic is odd. Why did the previous Government fail so completely on that?

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

We did not do our job and I admit that. However, we had a plan from 2010 to 2015 to remedy that and to put the missing millions on the register in time for IER to be introduced in 2015. That plan was wrecked for party political advantage by the Conservative wing of the coalition Government.

The Electoral Commission has let us down in other ways. In the dry run for IER, the Department for Work and Pensions cross-referenced national databases with the electoral register. There was a match rate of about 82%, which it then sent to 383 local EROs. It asked them or said that if they wanted they could do local government data matching to get them from 82% to 92%. Of the 383, only 137 informed the Electoral Commission that it had done that. There may have been others, but they could not be bothered to tell the commission. It should have been firm and told those authorities that they had to take part in the dry run to iron out any difficulties ready for the live run. It did not do that.

The Electoral Commission’s plan for 2014 to 2019 covers what it hopes to achieve over the next five years. It recognised in 2014 that 7.5 million people were missing from the register in 2010. What is its aim for putting those people on the register over the next five years? The answer is zero. It has said that its aim for April 2011 was for the register to be 85.5% complete; for April 2019, the aim is that that completeness does not deteriorate. So 7.5 million names are missing now and there will be 7.5 million missing in 2019. That reminds me of a report once sent to my mum stating, “Christopher has set himself very low standards and failed to achieve them.” The Electoral Commission has failed. It set itself low standards and will fail to achieve them. It has been remiss.

When the Electoral Commission found out that the number of people missing from the register in 2010 was not 6 million but 7.5 million—that has flatlined; it is the same now—it welcomed that. It welcomed the fact that there had been no improvement in the registration rate. It had flatlined and had not increased, and the commission thought that was an achievement. It has set itself low standards. It is not only happy that 7.5 million people will be kept off the register for the next five years, but it has introduced restrictions on the handling of postal votes. It says that political parties cannot be trusted to go out and ask people whether they want a postal vote and to send it off when it has been filled in. It refers to electoral postal vote fraud, but there has been only one case of that in 10 years.

The Electoral Commission is not happy with just doing that. It is proposing that when people go to the polling station in 2019, they will have to show photo ID. That has been done in America, in right-wing Republican states—there is a perfect mirroring between Republican and Democrat states in America in terms of those that have and have not introduced photo ID. The independent Electoral Commission in this country is proposing that we copy those Republican states. It is an outrage. There has been one successful prosecution for electoral registration fraud in 10 years.

There are big issues out there. The prediction, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central outlined, is that there will be an additional 5.5 million people missing off the register as a result of IER. The hon. Member for Norwich North is right that they will be protected for the general election. There will be a carry-over from household registration to individual registration, and we thank the Government for that—I think they were forced into it by the Lib Dems and others—but the next big date is the freeze date for the Boundary Commission, for the next boundary review, which is December 1 2015. If there is no carry-over for those 5.5 million people and for the 7 million people already off the register, 13 million or perhaps 14 million people will drop off it before the boundary review freeze date of 1 December 2015.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Conservative, Norwich North

I want to draw the hon. Gentleman back a little. He is correct about the December 2015 date, but does he think that those voters then go to a Siberia of democracy? Does he not think that they still have the right to register if they wish to?

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

Absolutely, and those black voters in the southern states of America had the right to go and register but they did not. We know that people have not registered and that more will fall off, and we know that we can take steps to encourage more to fall off or to stop people from falling off. I think the coalition Government are quite happy with the situation. I think it is deliberate, given the time scale, the bringing things forward by one year and the lifestyle choice that they considered. It all points in the same direction: that they wanted maximum political benefit from the constitutional changes that they were introducing.

I shall finish my speech as I started it. If we have 11 million people not voting and 7.5 million people—perhaps 14 million people—not on the register, we will not be serving democracy in the mother of Parliaments.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health)

Order. I remind the two remaining Back-Bench Members who wish to speak that we will start the wind-ups at 10.30 am. It would be a kindness if the time could be shared evenly. I call Jim Shannon.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights) 10:22 am, 22nd October 2014

With that in mind, Mr Williams, I shall be brief—by my calculations, we have four minutes each.

I congratulate Julie Elliott on securing the debate. I wish to speak about Northern Ireland, which hon. Members have referred to. In last May’s council elections in Northern Ireland, out of 1,243,649 eligible people, only 51.3% voted. We had an issue with spoiled ballot papers and those who were unable to vote in European elections. The figures are extremely disappointing. Much has changed, and my hon. Friend Dr McCrea and my right hon. Friend Mr Dodds referred to the registration in Northern Ireland of some 88%, but even with that, the electoral turnout was only 51.3% at the last election, which is of some concern.

We also have the problems in Northern Ireland of the two electoral systems, with the straight X vote and the single transferable vote. Having two elections with two different votes, sometimes on the one day, can cause confusion, and we have been trying to address that issue.

Chris Ruane, who spoke very passionately, referred to fraud. In Northern Ireland, we have had many examples of fraud. There have been blocked-up houses in west Belfast that apparently housed 10 people—well, they must have had four legs and a tail, because otherwise there is no way in the world they would be able physically to get out and vote. Such electoral fraud took place across parts of Northern Ireland and has been addressed. When we go to vote, we have to take photo ID with us, but that is something that we just need to accept in Northern Ireland.

There is the issue of how we interact with people and encourage the voters to be more involved in what takes place, and we can look at the referendum in Scotland and what happens when an issue generates interest. It had a 75% turnout and 90% of people were registered, with some 18% voting through a postal vote. I believe that more can be done with the postal vote system. Its only disadvantage is that people do not have to produce ID to show that they are who they say are, so an element of fraud might come into it.

In her introduction, the hon. Member for Sunderland Central referred to the issue of how we engage with younger people, and that is a key issue. How do we ensure that younger people are involved? How can we encourage that involvement? In Northern Ireland, we have a system under which students in lower sixth—or year 12 as it is here on the mainland—are encouraged to have their photographs taken for electoral cards with their date of birth on, so that when they turn 18, it is all done for them. That is one approach to the problem, although of course the card can easily be lost—in someone’s pocket or purse or whatever—and with that goes people’s wish to be involved in the process. But education is an important element, and Northern Ireland does that through colleges of further education. Those are some of the good things that we would wish to see.

Finally, students who are interested may register to be involved in the party political process, and that is good. They may do their courses at school, and that is good as well, but sometimes they drop out. How do we engage those who drop out? We need to ensure that people grasp how they can change, influence and make things better, and the only way to do that is to vote in elections. Next year, it is Westminster—“elect the person you want to do what you want at Westminster.”

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour, Islwyn 10:26 am, 22nd October 2014

Thank you for calling me, Mr Williams. I think I only have four minutes, so I will throw away the magnum opus speech that I was going to give and just make a few points that I think were covered by my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) in two outstanding, passionate speeches.

My key point is that the introduction of voter registration, as we have seen, is so important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd wrote in Progress magazine, we could return to electoral registration rates like those of Alabama in the 1950s. We saw the situation in Florida in 2000, with the famous Bush versus Gore presidential election, where there was widespread belief that people were missing out on a democratic duty.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Conservative, Norwich North

On that point, I intervene extremely briefly to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he is implying that he thinks I am racist, as I think his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd, was doing?

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour, Islwyn

No, I do not think I said that. If I implied that, I apologise. I do not think the hon. Lady is racist.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour, Islwyn

I do not think my hon. Friend believes that either, and if that was implied, I apologise.

Like many people in this debate, I believe that the new voter registration system is being introduced too fast. As it will be introduced just months before the general election in 2015, if it does not work, people will have no vote and therefore no voice in the election.

In July this year, the Electoral Commission found that the electoral register is only 86% complete. That equates to about 7.5 million people not being able to vote. Combine that with inaccuracies on the electoral register and one in seven voters have no voice in elections at all. What makes that worse is that 40% of those who are not registered believe that they are. I know so many people in my constituency and in other constituencies I have lived in who have turned up to vote and found that they are not on the electoral register at all, but they pay their bills and their council tax, so they cannot understand why they cannot vote. As has been said, that is a particular problem for young people who are less likely to register than older people who will see through their democratic mandate; for black and mixed-race people, who are less likely to be registered than white people; and for people who are living in the private rented sector who are less likely to be registered than homeowners.

That picture shows that the groups in society who are most transient are less likely to vote, and I look forward to the Minister’s response on that point. This is an area that I believe that the Government must get right. Although we accept that individual voter registration can help to rectify the situation, the methods proposed by the Government may just make it worse. Under their plans for data-matching, the electoral roll will be matched with DWP data, and the groups who are likely to be unregistered are also the least likely to have matching information on databases. The duty now lies with the Government to work with civic groups, electoral registration officers and others to ensure that every last step is taken to maximise registration. We cannot allow whole swathes of the country to lose their voice at the next general election. This is an area that the Government must get right or risk having millions disfranchised. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts on that, and with that, Mr Williams, I conclude my remarks.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 10:29 am, 22nd October 2014

We have had a very good debate, with excellent contributions on both sides of the Chamber. I congratulate my hon. Friend Julie Elliott. Many of us will be jealous of how quickly the counts are undertaken in Sunderland elections. I think that for the last election in Liverpool, I got my declaration at 6 o’clock in the morning. Something can certainly be learned from a system that enables people to be in bed in the early hours of the following morning. More seriously, I pay tribute to the work that Sunderland electoral services does. As she said, that is something from which we can all learn in this country, as well as people in other parts of the world.

May I mention two other contributions before making my own speech? Chloe Smith, the former Minister, spoke about the work of the all-party parliamentary group, and it is a very welcome innovation. It is supported by Bite the Ballot, which I will say something about later. Bite the Ballot is a fantastic, non-partisan organisation that basically exists to get more young people registered to vote. I pay tribute to it; it is playing a very important role in the changes.

I also have to mention, of course, my hon. Friend Chris Ruane, who has been tireless in raising these issues. He was raising them before others were even talking about them. He is tenacious in challenging Ministers, shadow Ministers and, indeed, the Electoral Commission, and all power to his elbow for the brilliant work that he has done. He expressed the concern that Opposition Members have consistently expressed about the acceleration of the introduction of individual voter registration. I support individual voter registration because it is an archaic concept for the head of a household to determine who is registered to vote. There is undoubtedly cross-party support for changing that, but we have to balance getting to what is the right system that we all support with doing that in a way that does not have the unintended consequences that hon. Members have spoken about.

As has been said, the latest estimate from the Electoral Commission is that there are now 7.5 million people who could be registered but are not. We know that that is not a cross-section of the population as a whole. There are massive disparities between different sections of society. Let us look at 2011, which was the last time we could compare census data with the electoral register. About half of 18 to 24-year-olds were not on the register, compared with just 6% of those aged over 65. If we look at private renters—my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central spoke about private renters from the Sunderland experience—we see that barely half of people living as private tenants were on the electoral register, compared with more than 90% of home owners. Therefore it is a very big challenge, and that was under the old system of household registration. The big concern is that the situation could get worse.

We know that the data-matching pilots have given a figure of 79% for matching. That leaves 21% needing to be found in other ways, including local data-matching and data-mining.

Certain groups are particularly affected. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd drew attention to the latest annual report from the Electoral Commission. I share his concern—which he expressed so powerfully—that it says that its target is simply to avoid any further fall in the level of registration. Surely we must have greater ambition than that. We want the 7.5 million figure to go down. The risk, as has been said, is that it will get even worse.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

Exactly. We want the 7.5 million figure to fall. We want the numbers of those who are not on the register to fall. We want a register that is more accurate and complete. Seven and a half million is far too many voters unregistered. We want the figure for those who are not on the register to be lower.

The hon. Member for Norwich North rightly reminded us that those who are already on the register will be carried over for 2015, but of course that does not capture people who have turned 18 since the previous register, who would be new to the register, and crucially—this is where I want to focus my remarks—it does not cover those who have moved home since the previous register. They then have the responsibility of registering under individual voter registration. In this immediate period, those are the people whom I am most concerned about.

There are three groups. One is private renters. By the nature of private renting, people are more likely to move about, and I echo the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central in that regard. When the Minister responds to the debate, I ask him to say something about the position of private renters. What can be done, working with local authorities and organisations that represent landlords and that represent private tenants themselves? Generation Rent is a fairly new organisation that is playing that role. What can we do to try to ensure that the numbers of private renters who are registered goes up rather than falling even further?

However, let me focus in particular on the two groups that I think are most affected in the immediate term: students and young people. There is already an enormous gap in terms of young people’s registration, as I have said, but also the turnout of young people who are registered. There has always been that gap—it is not new—but it has widened over the last 40 years or so.

Students are a particularly important group in this regard. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central spoke about Sunderland as a university city. My hon. Friend Paul Blomfield, who is no longer in his place, spoke about the Sheffield experience. We can learn from the excellent practice that he has promoted in Sheffield and which Sheffield university has adopted. When its students register as students, they are then taken to the voter

registration site of the Electoral Commission so that they remain registered to vote. I think that that is the ideal system and that all universities should adopt it, but there are worrying signs already that the levels of student registration are falling dramatically.

I spoke to a Manchester city councillor recently. She told me that the initial indications are that registration at the student halls of residence in Manchester is averaging around 10% under the new system, whereas under the old system, with block registration, it was of course 100%. In the city centre ward in Manchester at the moment, registration is down by 98%. Things can be done between now and next April to ensure that the levels are improved, but that reminds us of the scale of the challenge with regard to university students, and that is something that does apply for 2015; it does not await further changes in terms of the legislative framework. What measures will the Government take to work with universities, the National Union of Students and local authorities, so that we maximise the number of higher education students on the register at their place of study in time for the election next year?

Let me now say something about young people and, in particular, the role of schools and colleges in registering young people. I was very interested to listen to Jim Shannon talking about the experience in Northern Ireland. The model that exists in Northern Ireland—the schools initiative—is one from which we can learn a great deal.

I have done a number of visits with Bite the Ballot to sixth forms both in Scotland and in England and seen the fantastic work that it does in encouraging young people to register to vote. I think that it makes sense to have a duty on schools and colleges to work with local authorities on voter registration. I urge the Government, who I think have been resistant to that idea, to consider it as a serious option. I asked the Minister about it at Deputy Prime Minister’s questions last week and I shall do so again today. Bite the Ballot has suggested that we have an opportunity with the Wales Bill, currently going through Parliament, to make an amendment that would ensure that there was a responsibility on schools to undertake one voter registration session a year and to work with their electoral registration officer to get more young people signed up. It is a modest amendment that is before the House of Lords at the moment. It is, as I understand it, supported by all the party leaders in Wales, including the leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly. The head teachers’ trade union—the Association of School and College Leaders—is very supportive of the idea, and we support it. I urge the Government to give serious consideration to adopting it. Clearly, under the Wales Bill, it would apply only to Wales, but we would like it to be adopted in England and Scotland as well—one step at a time. We would be drawing on and learning from the positive experience of that practice in Northern Ireland.

We have concerns about the speed with which the Government are implementing individual voter registration. The principle is sound; it is the speed of implementation that concerns us. In relation to certain groups, there is real concern about a large number of people falling off the register. I ask the Minister to consider, either in his remarks today or perhaps beyond today, whether we need to amend the legislation to allow certain groups to be block registered. I am particularly concerned about two groups in that regard. One, which I have already spoken about, is university students. There is a case for saying that the legislation should be changed to allow students who live in halls of residence to be automatically registered, in view of those unique circumstances. The other group that I am concerned about is those who live in residential homes—often older people or people with learning difficulties or other disabilities—who may fall off the register. Is there a case for looking at the retention of block registration for those two groups?

The immediate priority is to address some of the points that have been raised in the debate. I support my colleagues who have spoken of the importance of the door-to-door canvass in getting the highest level of registration possible. There is a real concern that, even with some of the additional resources that I acknowledge the Government have provided for the introduction of IER, that basic building block is being eroded in many local authorities, and it must not be. If IER is not to result in the negative consequences that some of us fear, door-to-door canvassing—including, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central said in her opening speech, a mini-canvass in January and February—is essential. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on that.

I reiterate the importance of looking at the Northern Ireland experience with schools and colleges. I urge the Minister to think again about extending to England, Wales and Scotland the duty on schools and colleges that exists in Northern Ireland. Above all, in the next period, the group that is most likely to find itself not on the register at election time next year is students in higher education. That is a real risk. Will the Minister give a commitment that he will work closely with the universities, the National Union of Students and local authorities to maximise student registration?

I finish by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central once again for securing such an important debate. A register that is as accurate and complete as possible is a crucial building block for our democracy. I am sure that the Minister will agree that to have 7.5 million people not on the register is unacceptable. If an unintended consequence of IER is that the situation gets even worse, surely all of us, whichever side of the House we are on, should be very concerned.

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 10:42 am, 22nd October 2014

I thank the shadow spokesperson for his remarks, and I thank everyone who has spoken in the debate. In particular, I congratulate Julie Elliott on securing the debate, and I thank her for her interest in the important topic of voter registration.

Individual electoral registration is one of the biggest modernisations of electoral law in this country for 100 years. As my hon. Friend Chloe Smith mentioned, for the first time we are not relying on the head of a household to register everyone in that household; people can register themselves. In addition, we have online registration, so that people can register to vote in as little as three minutes. The introduction of online registration will allow the mobile populations that have been mentioned, such as students and private renters, to register from their smartphones. That is a big modernisation, which we should all recognise and celebrate.

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Shadow Minister (Energy and Climate Change)

Are there any statistics yet on how many people are registering online?

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Since the launch of IER on 10 June, the digital service has processed more than 2.5 million applications. Almost 70% of those were made online through the “Register to vote” website, which has a satisfaction rate of more than 90%.

I am conscious of the time, so I will try to address all the points that have been raised as fast as I can. A lot has been said about the transition to IER, and there has been some bombast, hyperbole and conspiracy theory. The transition was speeded out as part of the coalition Government’s programme to tackle electoral fraud and rebuild trust in our elections. The timetable is phased over two years to help to manage the risk that the transition will impact on the general election. I want to put on record that no one who registered to vote at the last canvass will lose their right to vote at the general election in 2015. It is for Parliament to decide in the summer of 2015 whether the transition will conclude in 2015 or at the end of 2016. The phase-in of the transition to IER with a carry-forward will allow those who are not individually registered by the time of the 2015 general election to vote in that election. I hope that will provide some reassurance that no one will be disfranchised, which is the word that has been used so far.

Of course, we must be mindful of the pitfalls of introducing a new method of registering to vote, and we should focus on the completeness and accuracy of the register. Much has been said about the need for the register to be complete, and the Government and I agree with everyone on the need for that, but we cannot ignore the importance of accuracy. Without an accurate register, we risk undermining the very elections on which the system is based, so we must not simply sweep away the importance of accuracy.

During the process, we have had to learn a lot of lessons from Northern Ireland, which is a point that was raised several times during the debate. We have introduced some safeguards, such as the confirmation process, the carrying forward of electors, online registration, the retention of the annual canvass and the maximisation of registration funding. So far, £4 million has been made available to help all local authorities and five national organisations to maximise the register and deal with the problems that have been identified.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

One of the key lessons from Northern Ireland is the importance of door-to-door canvassers, especially for non-respondents. Some electoral registration officers have broken the law by not knocking on those doors for five years on the trot. What advice has the Minister got for those EROs who break the law?

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

EROs, of course, must follow the law. I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s point during the course of my speech. The need to ensure that students, who can be quite mobile, get on the register has been mentioned several times during the debate. I assure hon. Members that through the creation by the Cabinet

Office of a student forum in early 2013, the Government have been working with key partners in the higher education sector, including Universities UK, the Academic Registrars Council and the National Union of Students, to agree on practical steps that EROs and universities can take to encourage students to register. Steps that have been agreed by all representatives of the student forum include the provision of data from universities to EROs to help them to contact students individually; promoting the use of online registration, particularly during university course enrolment; and publishing guidance for ARC to help registrars to implement those steps before the start of the 2014-15 academic year.

My predecessor, my right hon. Friend Greg Clark, wrote to university vice-chancellors asking them to support local authorities in their efforts to maximise the number of student registrations. A lot is being done to get students on the register. We recognise the importance of data sharing in the context of students, which was mentioned during the debate. Individual electoral registration officers must make it easier for students to register. More than 410,000 applications from 16 to 24-year-olds have already been submitted via the online registration process.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I welcome the work of the student forum. Can the Minister assure us that he will take a close personal interest in the matter and look at the figures as they come in? If by January or February it is clear that there has been a substantial fall in the level of registration among students, will the student forum work with him to look at what can be done via online registration to get those figures up?

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I assure the hon. Gentleman that not only students but all under-registered groups are a priority for the Government. We want to maximise the register so that people can exercise their right to vote.

The Electoral Commission’s research found that 90% of people feel that it would be easy to provide their national insurance number when registering to vote—that is based on real evidence—and only 1% of applicants so far have been unable to provide their national insurance number or their date of birth. In February 2014, the local authority in Sunderland received £12,627 for maximising registration. That allocation was based on under-registration, especially due to the authority having a high student population. Of course, there are people without national insurance numbers, but that is a very small cohort. In such exceptional situations, people can provide other information, such as their passport.

A lot has been made of local data matching in this debate, and in other debates on individual electoral registration. All local authorities and valuation joint boards in Great Britain took part in the confirmation dry run in 2013, which involved matching their electoral registers against Government records. We believe that EROs are best placed to understand the relevance of locally held data and are likely to improve confirmation matches. That varies between local authorities, so we believe that EROs are best placed to make that judgment.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

I thank the Minister for giving way once again. Should the Electoral Commission have told the 383 EROs that the cross-matching of local government data was mandatory, not just a choice?

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

As I have said, it is for EROs to judge how to go about local data matching in order to maximise the register. I have a couple of points to make about EROs, so if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come to that in a second.

We have also talked a lot about people in homes who are missing from the register. Again, I assure Members that every unconfirmed elector will be written to twice, and those who do not respond will receive a doorstep visit. Eighty-seven per cent. have been confirmed and transferred to the new register automatically. Every household will also have two written reminders during the annual canvass. We are therefore undertaking a practical, step-by-step process to ensure that people get on the register.

Postal vote fraud is another issue of concern, and it is a valid concern. The Government are working to address any form of electoral fraud, and I assure Members that further measures are being taken to strengthen the integrity of the postal voting system. Measures introduced in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 provide that applicants for postal votes must submit identifying signatures and dates of birth, which are checked against corresponding records. Like the recent review by the statutorily independent Electoral Commission, we have found no reason to recommend changes to the postal voting system, which we will keep as it is.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

The Electoral Commission is proposing changes to the postal vote system. If Conservative or Labour canvassers are out there on the knocker and a person wants a postal vote form, which we give to them and they fill in, the Electoral Commission proposes that we cannot take that form away and send it off. That is a big change, which I oppose, although I support the Electoral Commission’s proposal on handling postal votes at election time. Is the Minister correct that new proposals are not being made on postal voting?

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Sorry, but I am not very clear on that. Will the hon. Gentleman restate his point?

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

The Minister has just said that there are no proposed changes to postal votes, but the Electoral Commission proposes to stop members of political parties handling the registration of postal votes on the doorstep, and I do not think we should accept that proposal. The commission also proposes that political parties do not touch postal votes at election time—I can support that proposal, but I do not support the proposal on registering postal votes.

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman has a point. Of course, the integrity of the electoral system is important, and it is worth keeping postal vote fraud under review as we go through IER.

I know that the performance standards of EROs are a subject close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart. I am pleased that the report shows that the majority of EROs clearly met the performance standards in 2013, but the commission identified 22 EROs who failed to meet performance standards. That is obviously disappointing, even if it represents an improvement on 2012, when 30 EROs failed to meet the standards. In fact, performance has improved every year: 53 EROs were failing in 2011, 30 were failing in 2012 and now 22 are failing, which is still too many. My predecessor wrote to all EROs who failed to meet the standards, stressing that Parliament expects them to meet those obligations. The Cabinet Office provided additional funding in the current financial year for that important work. I assure Chris Ruane that Ministers are fully prepared to issue a formal direction to EROs, if necessary, to ensure that they comply with their statutory obligations.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

I do not like to pull the Minister up on what he is saying, but he just said that EROs had improved every year, but they have not. It was 16 EROs who did not perform their statutory duties in 2008, 17 in 2009 and then as low as eight in 2010, but in 2011 it shot up to 55. That is not an improvement; it is getting worse. Then the figure was 30 and then it was 23, so what the Minister has just said, from the Front Bench, is factually incorrect. There has not been an improvement over the years; there has been an improvement, then a worsening and then another improvement.

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; yes, there has been a recent improvement: 58 EROs were failing the standard in 2011, 30 were failing in 2012 and 22 were failing in 2013. That is an improvement, but the important point is the one I made: that Ministers are fully prepared to issue a formal direction to EROs, if necessary, to ensure that they comply with their statutory obligations. Twenty-two is an improvement, but it is still too many.

I am conscious of the time, so let me bring my comments to a close. We have a registration system that is a huge advance on the previous system. We have modernised the system and introduced online registration; it is not a retrograde step. There are 7.5 million people who we need to ensure we get on the register, but those 7.5 million people were not on the register before 2010, so I reject the allegation that somehow there is a Government conspiracy at work. As politicians, we all have an interest in ensuring that we have a thriving democracy, which is why the Government are allocating funds to ensure that we maximise the register.

The shadow Minister made the point about the Wales Bill. My concern is that we would be introducing more onerous burdens by adopting those recommendations, but we will certainly keep under review the need to ensure further canvassing and doing everything we can to ensure that the register is as complete and accurate as possible.

Sitting suspended.