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Individual electoral Registration

Volume 540: debated on Thursday 9 February 2012

I am announcing today the publication of the Government response to the pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation on individual electoral registration (IER) and changes to electoral administration.

Last June we set out our proposals for improving the electoral system through the introduction of IER in Great Britain.

As we said then, the electoral register is a key building block of our democracy. We see both registering to vote and voting as civic duties and we strongly encourage people both to register and to vote. We published our proposals for consultation and for scrutiny by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) because this is a vital part of our democracy, so we want our plans to be tested, and we want to be sure that the choices we make on the costs and benefits of the options open to us are well informed. We are grateful for the feedback that we have received not only from the Committee, but from everyone who took the time to respond to our White Paper.

In addition to putting our proposals out for testing, we have actively sought evidence from a range of other sources to inform policy development.

The research we funded the Electoral Commission to undertake has underlined the case for reform of the way people carry out their civic duty of registering to vote. We commissioned a literature review of research in this area from Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, a respected academic, which is published alongside this paper and adds further to the evidence base which informs our decisions.

We have paid attention to the lessons learnt from experience of Northern Ireland including the importance of carrying forward electors who have not registered in the first canvass under the new system, and their excellent work in registering new voters including working in partnership with schools to encourage young people to register.

The principle of introducing IER was widely supported by both by the PCRC and those who responded to the White Paper. We have listened to the feedback expressed about elements of the Government’s proposals and are proposing a number of key changes to the proposals included in the White Paper. In particular we want to ensure there are more safeguards in place to ensure as many eligible people as possible stay on the electoral register during the transition and that we can focus on those people eligible to vote but missing from the register. The major changes to the policy position are as follows:

Simplifying the Transition

Over the past year we have carried out a series of data matching pilots, comparing electoral registers in 22 areas with a range of data from public authorities. While the final evaluation is still being concluded, the evidence so far suggests that comparing entries on an electoral register with information held by the DWP allows us to confirm as accurate a significant majority (an average of two thirds for that data set alone in the pilot areas) of entries on the registers concerned.

Subject to the results of the full evaluation, and further testing this year with stakeholders, we are therefore minded to build on this to simplify the transition to IER for the majority of electors. It is now our intention that the name and address of all individuals on an electoral register when IER is introduced will be matched against the data held by public bodies such as the DWP and local authorities themselves. If an elector’s information can be matched, the individual will be automatically placed onto the new IER register and would not need to take any further action to be registered under IER. Only those people who cannot be confirmed automatically will be invited to provide identifying information to be verified. This should simplify the transition process for the majority of electors, reducing the number of people required to provide personal identifiers and will also allow EROs to free up resource to target the smaller group of people whose information cannot be matched and those who are currently missing from the register.

Compulsion and Personal Choice

It remains our firm belief that registering to vote is a civic duty; we have taken into account the concerns raised by the PCRC and those who responded to the consultation about the possible impact that an “up front” opt out could have on registration levels. As we made clear last year, we are minded to amend this provision and intend either to retain the “opt out” but require a person wishing to do so to complete a separate application, or to entirely remove this option altogether.

There has also been widespread discussion of whether it should be an offence for an individual not to register to vote when invited to do so. Despite the strong feelings expressed in the consultation on this issue, our view is that the evidence is not conclusive that introducing a new criminal offence will make any significant difference to registration levels, nor do we feel it is appropriate that we use the threat of a criminal offence to promote greater engagement in the electoral process. However, there are arguments for and against introducing a civil penalty for non-response to an invitation to register, and some important practical implications to resolve on how such a system could work.

We will explore these issues, including with our key stakeholders and in the light of this decide on the approach to take on both a civil penalty and the “opt-out”. We will set out our decision on this in the legislation when introduced.

Move the 2013 household canvass to 2014

We have listened to concerns that the gap between the last old style household canvass and the amended canvass in 2014 is too long. Therefore to ensure that a more accurate and up-to-date register is used as the basis of the new register we are planning to delay the annual canvass in 2013 to the early part of 2014.

We believe these changes, along with the others outlined in the Government’s response, will significantly strengthen these proposals. The full response to the PCRC’s report and the views expressed during the public consultation on our White Paper and draft legislation are set out in the Command Paper, but they are not our final word on the subject.

As we continue to refine our proposals ahead of introduction of legislation later this year, we will continue to work closely with stakeholders to further inform our thinking and develop our proposals. We have listened and learned, and we shall continue to do so.

Copies of this Command Paper have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. We will also be shortly publishing on the Cabinet Office website only a literature review on electoral registration, written by Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, and a high-level implementation time line for individual electoral registration.