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Electoral Register (Access to Public Services)

Volume 566: debated on Wednesday 17 July 2013

Motion made 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.

Registering to vote is about the nearest thing this country has to a social contract. It is recognition that we live in a democracy and abide by the outcome of that democracy. However, about 3.5 million people are not registered to vote. According to the Electoral Commission, these people are likely to be young, on low incomes, private sector tenants, ethnic minorities or people with disabilities. Their disengagement from democracy is a cause of great concern to me and many other Members. This Bill will ensure that they engage.

In future, if someone wants housing benefits, a state pension, a national insurance number or even a driving licence, they will have to be on the electoral register. I do not think that that is too much to ask. After all, if people need to be on the electoral register to get a credit card, why not to get a driving licence?

Linking public services to the register will increase participation and draw an explicit connection between democracy and the benefits we enjoy because we live in a democracy. If someone does not like living in a democracy, that is fine, but they should not expect all the good things that democracy offers in return.

The electoral register is important and deserves to be comprehensive. It is the source of deciding who does jury service, so everyone should be on it. As far as I am concerned, refusal to be on the register shows contempt for juries and contempt for courts. What is more, the electoral register is an important tool in the fight against crime.

The police routinely use the register if they want to get in touch with a suspect or someone who is at risk. It is what banks and credit companies use to prevent fraud. Councils use it to check that people do not commit council tax or benefit fraud. A failure to sign the register is therefore a failure to co-operate with the agencies that fight crime. I do not have a problem with reasonable sanctions being taken against those who do not sign.

Of course, the electoral register should be supported for nobler reasons. Charities use it to help raise funds for countless good causes. When it comes down to it, however, its central purpose—to give people a chance to vote—is more important than anything else. For that reason alone, I think we can all agree that the electoral register should be as comprehensive as possible.

When I went to the USA last year to volunteer on the Obama for America campaign, some politicians engaged in what was called voter suppression, a deliberate attempt to ensure that poor people, ethnic minorities and the young could not vote. Surely none of us wants to live in that kind of country, where elections are won or lost because of who is denied a vote. My Bill is an antidote to voter suppression and it is needed, because the figure of 3.5 million is about to grow.

I am assured that the Government are not committing voter suppression, but according to the Electoral Commission registration rates may soon fall from 90% to 65%. Mums and dads are about to be prevented from registering their children to vote. Individual registration sounds appealing, but when it was introduced in Northern Ireland, the register collapsed by 11%. The Electoral Commission says that this “adversely affected” disadvantaged groups—the people most likely to be disengaged.

Thankfully, the Government’s plan to make registering to vote optional was shelved and the annual canvass was reinstated. However, there are serious flaws in the new system of registration, especially with regard to how difficult it will be for local authorities to sign people up.

The challenge of getting people to register was belatedly recognised last month by the Minister for political and constitutional reform, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), when she offered £4.2 million for anyone who could come up with unspecified measures to reduce the number of people who fall through the gaps. However, as the Electoral Reform Society says,

“when you’re talking about trying to prevent literally millions of people from falling off the register, £4.2m is not a great deal of money. You need a lot more than that to close the gap.”

My council, Merton, is very good at promoting the electoral register. Before its annual canvass, only 65% of households have completed their form; afterwards, 97% have. That, however, is households. Like many of us, I knock on a lot of doors to talk to constituents, and there are homes where I see the same faces every year but miss the same individuals every time. Electoral registration officers will no longer be able to accept the word of the person they do see that the person they do not see still lives there, so those people will fall off the register, and because EROs will no longer be able to accept forms that are completed on the doorstep, but will have to rely on people to fill them in later, even good, proactive councils such as Merton will have to fall back on blind faith. We all know that many of those forms will never be filled in or returned.

The Electoral Commission reckons that a third of eligible voters will simply not register, and the figure will be worse in areas of deprivation. What we will see, if we are not careful, is that the people on the edges of society will slowly disengage—we will institutionalise the underclass. The electoral register will no longer be comprehensive.

The Government say that the new system will tackle fraud. Like everyone else, I am concerned about electoral malpractice, but we have to remember that, even according to the Government’s papers, fraudulent registration is “rare”. The Electoral Commission’s report on the 2013 elections lists a number of alleged malpractices:

“potential campaign or nomination offences, including alleged false nominations, false statements about the character or conduct of candidates, and allegations that some election materials failed to include the correct imprint.”

Fraudulent registration was not mentioned. Indeed, surveys show that 20 times more people are satisfied with how we register to vote than are dissatisfied. What is more, there is little incentive to register fraudulently because when councils look at the electoral register, it might lead to a higher council tax bill.

Instead of reducing the electoral register to tackle a fraud that does not take place, we should enhance it to fight bigger crimes. The problem with our electoral register is not that too many people are on it, but that 3.5 million people are not. There is a lot that we could do about that. The Electoral Reform Society wants steps to be taken to make it easier to register, such as people being able to register on election day. It also wants people to be able to register

“whenever people interact with government—for instance when they collect their pensions or benefits”.

I would go even further. Registering should be stage one in the process of interacting with Government. At a stroke, that would reinstate millions of people who are missing from the register. The vast majority of the missing people are eligible for benefits, tax credits, pensions and so on, and many are already receiving them. Bringing those people on to the register would ensure that even more people are engaged in the democratic process. The Bill is about living in a something-for-something society—public services in return for civic duty; the rewards of living in a democracy in return for signing up to democracy. Registering to vote is about engagement. It is a recognition that a person is not on the margins, but a full participant in society. It is our social contract.

Strengthening the register would tackle fraud and reduce social exclusion, but more than that, it would ensure more people had a chance to vote. Those of us who believe in democracy should all agree that that would be no bad thing. 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, 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 Friday 24 January 2014, and to be printed (Bill 95).