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Electoral Register

Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2011

There has been a lot of misleading coverage recently about the effects of individual electoral registration, so may I take a minute to explain this? This Government will do everything they can to maintain the completeness of the electoral register. That includes phasing in the move to individual registration over two years, so that people on the register who do not apply under the new system do not lose their vote at the next general election. Every eligible elector will be asked in 2014 to register under the new system. That will include: personal invites to people on the register; inquiries to households where no one is registered or people have moved; reminder letters; and face-to-face doorstep canvassing. We are also testing data matching, to identify people missing from the register, and looking at how we can increase the choices that people have about how to register. I am looking forward to the conclusions of the pre-legislative scrutiny and of the consultation, which closes this Friday, but I do, however, have sympathy with the concerns expressed by the Electoral Commission and others about the opt-out proposal, and I am minded to change these provisions when we bring forward the final legislation.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that reply. It is important that we make sure that people who do not exist or who are not eligible to vote do not get on to the electoral register. Equally, it is important that those who are eligible to vote are registered. Will he please assure the House that this will happen?

That is precisely the purpose of individual electoral registration: it seeks to bear down on fraud in the system. Of course, the previous Government were committed to doing this in any event in a few years’ time but, as on so many matters now, they seem to shun any responsibility for their failure to act while they were in government. We are finally here to do the job that they failed to do.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister consider bringing forward from 2014 to 2013 the mandatory requirement for new applications to join the register to include the national insurance number?

We are bringing it forward in any event. Under the previous Government’s plans it would have been introduced only after the next general election, but we are bringing it forward in this Parliament. Of course, we are trying to get the balance right. We need to proceed with this thoroughly, which is why we are doing it carefully but in a way that means it is fully delivered by the end of this Parliament.

There will be no change at all to the civic duty—[Interruption.] I am quite honoured; that is the response that Opposition Members normally give to their former party leaders. If they listen to the answer, they might quieten down a bit. The civic duty remains exactly as it is. The proposal we have made is that the opt-out should be introduced. The Electoral Commission and others have raised concerns about the possible effect of such an opt-out and, as I confirmed in my earlier answer, I consider that concern sympathetically. That is the whole point of a consultation and we will wait to see the final outcome of the consultation, which ends at the end of this week, but I am minded to change the final legislation to reflect those concerns.

The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that people on both sides of the House share concerns about the electoral register, and that is why before the last general election there was cross-party support for an agreed timetable to move towards individual voter registration. He refers to the Electoral Commission, which is concerned not simply about the opt-out but about the speeded-up timetable and the removal of the fines for failing to register that, in its words, will lead from a register of 92% to one of about 65% in many parts of the country, meaning that millions of voters will fall off the register. That will lead not only to the skewing of future boundary changes but to skewed jury panels. Will he do what we did and work with all parties and the Select Committee to try to reach a proper resolution for the biggest change in the way that people are registered since the introduction of the universal franchise?

I think the right hon. Gentleman is simply plain wrong about certain facts. For instance, the offence in law to sanction those who do not pass on information as part of the registration process as households will remain. There will be no change to that at all. The civic duty will remain, too. The only thing we are considering, as I said earlier, is what the possible effects of an opt-out would be. We proposed the opt-out for a very good reason of principle. Under the existing system, registration takes place per household. If, however, we make that a duty on individuals, the question becomes whether it is right or wrong to give an individual the right to opt out. We have proposed that the opt-out should exist for individuals but others have raised concerns about it. I have listened sympathetically to those concerns and I have already said that I am minded to change the provisions in the final legislation. That seems to me to be an example of a Government who are prepared to listen and to hold a sincere consultation process, which will come to an end at the end of this week.

Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the absence of 1.5 million people from the electoral register: those who are aged 16 and 17? When can we look forward to a time when those people, who can raise a family and get married, who can pay taxes and who can serve in our armed forces, can vote, too?

As my hon. Friend knows, I personally have a great deal of sympathy with that view, but it is not reflected in the coalition agreement or shared across government. Clearly, it is a debate that we will continue to have on both sides of the House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. On the issue of compulsion, the Electoral Commission has already said that to move to individual electoral registration without compulsion will see the registers fall from more than 90%—this is what the Electoral Commission says, and the Deputy Prime Minister is nodding his head—to 65% coverage. Ethnic minorities, young people and the urban poor will be disfranchised. Apart from gerrymandering the constituency boundaries, fixing the election timetable and now letting millions of people fall off the register, what else is he doing to let the Tories stay in power for a generation?

Instead of lurching towards ludicrous conspiracy theories, the hon. Gentleman should look at the facts. The Electoral Commission did not say what he—[Interruption.] No, the Electoral Commission raised a specific concern about the opt-out. Its specific proposal was that the opt-out should be retained but should be made more difficult. We will now consider either the Electoral Commission’s variant or getting rid of the opt-out altogether. That is what I am saying, in a spirit of openness, that we are reflecting on, and that will be reflected in the final version of the legislation.