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Electoral Commission Committee

Volume 507: debated on Thursday 11 March 2010

The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Voter Registration (Young People)

1. What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the number of people under 25 years old who are not registered to vote. (321505)

The Electoral Commission informs me that it published its most recent national estimate for under-registration in England and Wales in 2005. This found that 16 per cent. of eligible 18 to 24-year-olds were not registered. However, recent research published by the commission found that in a small number of case study areas approximately 56 per cent. of those under 25 years old were missing from the registers. The commission plans further research on that issue.

Does my hon. Friend share my serious concern and alarm, given that the implication of those shocking statistics is that hundreds of young people in Kettering, thousands of young people throughout Northamptonshire and tens of thousands of young people throughout our country will not be able to take part in voting for a change of Government at the next general election because they are not on the electoral register?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and the Electoral Commission informs me that it is planning a campaign, which will take place before the next general election, with a range of activities targeted at young people. The campaign will include online advertising on sites that the group uses, such as Facebook, along with advertising on television and radio and in magazines. Registration is an urgent matter, and my hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to it.

I welcome the measures that the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned, but does he agree that registering people to vote is far too important to be done on the cheap, and that there is no substitute in many parts of the country and with many target groups for knocking on doors, finding out who lives there and making sure that they are registered to vote?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is the responsibility of electoral returning officers throughout the country. The Electoral Commission is introducing better and clearer guidelines for them on the activity that it expects. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we must find those young people and make sure that they are put on the electoral register so that they are at least given the opportunity to vote come polling day.

One very worrying thing about young people not voting is that they are the people on whom the decisions will have the longest-term effect. When I go into schools I find that enthusiasm for politics is great among the younger age group, so will the Electoral Commission consider conducting research on whether a reduction in the voting age to 16 might engage people in the political system while they are at school and before they get lost?

It is an interesting point, but I am afraid that at the most recent general election only 37 per cent. of those aged 18 to 25 could be bothered to vote, and until that percentage increases the case for 16-year-olds being given the right to vote has not been made.

Voter Participation

2. What steps the Electoral Commission plans to take to maximise voter participation at the forthcoming general election. (321506)

The commission informs me that, to encourage voter registration ahead of the general election, it will run a multi-media campaign using television, radio, press and online advertising. That activity will be targeted at the groups that are less likely to be registered, including young people, students, certain ethnic minority communities, service personnel and UK citizens living overseas.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his answer, but does he agree that although it is not illegal not to vote, it is illegal not to give the registration officer the necessary information? Have we not have reached the point at which we should marry up the two?

The House would have to consider that issue, and it would involve a change in the law. The Electoral Commission is always in the marketplace for interesting ideas, and I shall make sure it is aware of the hon. Gentleman’s representations, but in the end it will be a matter for this House.

I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to column 288 at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, when it was pointed out that the Army Families Federation has carried out trials showing that the majority of troops serving overseas will be unable to vote. In order to maximise voter participation, will my hon. Friend speak again to the Electoral Commission and take on board the point that I have made before, which is that there should be one registration when people join the armed forces and an encouragement to cast proxy votes, so that when they serve their country abroad, which involves the possibility of dying for their country, they have the opportunity to vote?

That is a very important matter, and the Electoral Commission is extremely alive to it. The commission is working closely with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence, Royal Mail, the British Forces Post Office and electoral administrators to ensure that everything is done to improve the situation. Given the tight time scales involved in exercising a postal vote once a general election is called, my hon. Friend makes an extremely important point that proxy voting may be the right answer. The commission is certainly aware of that.