Skip to main content

Electoral Register (Access to Public Services)

Volume 536: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2011

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to introduce a requirement that electoral registration be a condition of access to public services; and for connected purposes.

I am introducing this Bill because I believe in the power of democracy. Earlier this summer, we saw the consequences of alienation. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions described

“a divided society, with a destructive minority apparently detached from notions of right and wrong”.

Of course, the riots were individual acts of criminality, but I agree with him that a large number of people feel so detached from society that they have nothing to lose. There is a democratic deficit. I therefore believe that we should actively include our whole community in our democracy, to combat such alienation.

At present, registering to vote is just about the nearest thing that we have to a social contract. It is an acknowledgement that we live in a democracy and that we abide by the outcome of that democracy, yet around 3.5 million people are not registered to vote. According to the Electoral Commission that minority, who are not engaged, are likely to be made up of the disadvantaged: young people, people on low incomes, private sector tenants, some but not all ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities.

My Bill aims to bridge the gap between that excluded group and the rest of our community because social breakdown takes place in that gap. If someone wants to access housing benefits, a state pension, a national insurance number or even a driving licence, they will need to be on the electoral register if the Bill is passed. I do not think that that is a great imposition. After all, if someone needs to be on the electoral register to get a credit card, why is it a problem to be on it to get a driving licence?

Linking access to public services with the electoral register will increase participation and provide an explicit link between the democratic process and the benefits that we enjoy because we live in a democracy, and, yes, it is tough love. It will mean that if people want the benefits of living in a democracy, they need to sign up to democracy. If they do not like living in a democracy, fine, they need not sign, but they should not expect all the good things in return.

Already, the electoral register has many useful purposes —for instance, it is the source of deciding who does jury service—and it is already possibly the country’s most cost-effective anti-crime database. The police use it if they want to catch up with someone or need to find out who a suspect might live with or know. Banks and credit companies use it to prevent fraud. Many councils already use it to check that people are paying their council tax or are on the right benefits. Charities and direct marketing companies use it to help their businesses and to raise funds for countless good causes. Finally, of course, its most important role is to give people a chance to vote. It is therefore in everyone’s interests for the electoral register to be as comprehensive as possible.

My Bill will target precisely the people who are unlikely to register, to bridge the 3.5 million gap. Sadly, we also need the Bill now to remedy a number of other measures being introduced by the Government that every commentator expects will widen that gap. First, they plan to make registering to vote optional. That is a dangerous step. It will legitimise disengagement and institutionalise an underclass. In countries where registration is optional, the already disadvantaged are those most likely to lose out. In the US, only six in 10 people on incomes below $20,000 register, and registration rates are just as low among under-25s and people who rent their homes—precisely the demographic of those who were involved in our riots.

The Government have suggested that councils might not need to chase up electoral registration forms with an annual canvass of every property. Again, I think that that is a retrograde step. My council, Merton, has told me that its canvass is effective. Before it took place, only 65% of homes returned their forms; afterwards, 97% did so. Finally, the Government have said that they would stop mums and dads registering their children to vote. When individual registration was introduced in Northern Ireland, the register collapsed by 11%, and the Electoral Commission said that that adversely affected disadvantaged groups—just the sort of people with whom we most need to engage to prevent exclusion.

Combined, the Government’s measures are likely to take about a third of voters off the register—more in areas of deprivation. People on the edge of society will further disengage, and we will institutionalise the underclass. What is worse, because the register will be less accurate and comprehensive, far from preventing fraud the proposals will increase it. The Government’s own papers admit that fraudulent electoral registration is “rare”, and that 20 times more people are satisfied with how they register to vote than dissatisfied. Only 2% of us think that registering to vote is “very unsafe”.

There is little incentive to register fraudulently, because councils such as mine already use the electoral register to ensure that everyone pays council tax. In fact, the electoral register is widely seen as more accurate and less prone to fraud than virtually any other data set. A number of councils have looked at using other databases to improve the electoral register, but the consensus seems to be that the electoral register is already the best. They have told the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform that other databases

“tell us what we do know, rather than what we don’t”.

Many other databases are terrible by comparison. The Department for Work and Pensions database, for instance, includes people who are dead or who have left the country, and it does not include any information about nationality. As the information industry and crime fighters have known for years, the electoral register is the most accurate, because it is based on better intelligence from the people who actually live at each address and know who else does. Instead of undermining the electoral register in the mistaken belief that fraudulent voting is widespread, we should place greater emphasis on it in order to tackle other fraud.

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 who are not. My Bill is therefore a remedy for the Government’s proposals. It will reinstate those missing millions, the majority of whom may be eligible for benefits, tax credits, a state pension, a driving licence and so on. It will make the register even more accurate, and it will ensure that even more disadvantaged people engage in the democratic process.

In the past few months, I have heard many speeches about social breakdown and an excluded underclass without a stake in their community. I have not heard anyone calling for a “something for nothing” society. What this Bill says is that we should live in a “something for something” society: public services in return for a civic duty. Registering to vote might seem like a small thing, but if we send the message that people have to sign up to democracy if they want the rewards of living in a democracy, who knows, we might even strengthen it.

Registering to vote is a symbol of engagement, and recognition that people are not on the margins but a full part of our society. We do not need to take millions of people without a stake in their community off the electoral register—that will only institutionalise the underclass. We need an explicit social contract, and the Bill will achieve that. It will tackle fraud and reduce social exclusion, but more than that, it will ensure that more people have a chance to vote. If they do not like what is going on in their community, they will not have to destroy local shops—they can get rid of us. On that positive note, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Siobhain McDonagh, Ian Austin, Hazel Blears, Mr Russell Brown, Rosie Cooper, Nic Dakin, Mike Gapes, Meg Hillier, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Mr Andrew Love, John Mann and Mr John Spellar present the Bill.

Siobhain McDonagh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on 20 January 2012, and to be printed (Bill 255).

London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (Amendment) Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)).

That the following provisions shall apply to the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (Amendment) Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 28 April (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (Amendment) Bill (Programme)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement at today’s sitting.

Subsequent stages

2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Mr Newmark.)

Question agreed to.