I beg to move,
That this House recognises the importance of a complete and accurate electoral register to the health of our democracy; welcomes the fact that 1.8 million voters have registered using online registration, but notes that, according to the Electoral Commission, 7.5 million eligible voters are missing from the register; notes with concern that an estimated one million voters have left the register in the past year and that the shift to individual electoral registration could see millions more fall off the register; calls on the Government and the Electoral Commission to do more to tackle under-registration, including block-registering students in university or college accommodation and people living in adult sheltered accommodation and care homes, introducing a schools registration scheme, on the model of the Northern Ireland Schools Initiative, to boost registration in time for the General Election on 7 May 2015, and maximising the use of national and local data sets in securing a complete register; and further calls on the Government to set a clear goal to reduce the numbers of missing voters and to delay fully implementing individual electoral registration until this goal is met.
As the Government’s timetable has meant limited time for debating this important matter, I shall focus my remarks on the motion and how we can ensure that the general election in 92 days’ time is as fair as possible. We want the electoral register to be as complete and accurate as possible—something that I hope we all want. After all, it is the lifeblood of our democracy. If a person is not on the list, they cannot vote—it is as simple as that.
However, the electoral register also performs a much wider civic function. It provides the building blocks that the Boundary Commission uses to decide parliamentary constituency boundaries. One of the fundamental principles of our legal system—trial by one’s peers—depends on the register, as it provides the list of those who can be called for jury service. Those who are not on the register will find it more difficult, and maybe even impossible, to secure credit or a mortgage.
That is why it is so appalling that according to the Electoral Commission’s own research some 7.5 million people are missing from the register. We know what kinds of voters are more likely to be missing: young voters, students, those who have recently changed address, those who rent privately, the unemployed, those from ethnic minorities and those in socio-economic groups D and E—in other words, poorer members of society.
Some 95% of the over-65s are on the electoral register, yet estimates of the proportion of 18 to 24-year-olds on it vary from 56% to 70%. If that were not a big enough problem, we know that there is also considerable variation in the rates of those who actually vote. Just 44% of 18 to 24-year-olds voted in the 2010 general election, and the figure for the over-65s was pushing 75%.
On 13 October 2011 the right hon. Gentleman said that 10 million people would lose the right to vote, but he has just said that the figure is only 7.5 million, so how has the situation improved since then?
I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make—that 7.5 million is somehow more acceptable? He will appreciate, because he cares about these matters, that it depends on what figures are referred to. The Electoral Commission has done some estimates, as have other academics. It might be a laughing matter for Conservative MPs, but we think that it is a very serious issue.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way in this incredibly important debate. Does he share the concern of many people in Liverpool that the figures for attainers—the under-18s who still need to go on the register in anticipation of becoming eligible to vote—show a 97% drop in the number of 16 and 17-year-olds on Liverpool’s electoral register as a result of the introduction of the Government’s new scheme, from 2,635 to just 76? Is he as appalled as I am about those new figures?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said, the register that will be used for the general election in 92 days’ time will have missing from it those who have just reached the age of 18 and should be taking part in general elections. It is estimated that there will be 3.3 million first-time voters on 7 May, and we are concerned that too many of them will be missing from the register.
Almost three quarters of those who vote are in socio-economic class AB—the wealthiest—yet fewer than two thirds of C2s and Ds do so. Our elections are being fought on the basis of a seriously skewed register, with key groups and communities under-represented.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
In a moment.
Our election results are being decided by voters who are older and more affluent. This is an appropriate time for me to give way to the hon. Gentleman.
There are 47 countries in the Council of Europe, and individual voter registration is a basic minimum safeguard against fraud in every single one of them. Does the right hon. Gentleman not support that as a basic principle?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we introduced the measure in 2009, and he supported it. Under our motion, we would not get rid of individual voter registration but ensure that there were safeguards before the next general election.
I represent an inner-city seat where we shall see a significant reduction in the overall number of our electors, and I am concerned about the implications of that. Individual voter registration came in cheek by jowl with the concerns about electoral fraud that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) mentioned. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise the genuine concern about the fact that we can now have postal votes at will? The number of postal votes went up from some 920,000 in the 1997 election to over 6 million in the last election. It is the concern about the misuse of postal votes that makes individual registration so important.
The hon. Gentleman’s point is not relevant to the motion, but I will deal with it directly. If he has concerns about the misuse of postal votes, I advise him to report them to the police and to the Electoral Commission. He will be aware of the numbers of prosecutions that there have been over the past few years. We have to be quite careful about using parliamentary privilege to make allegations. If he has specific examples, I ask him to refer them to the police and the Electoral Commission.
The constituency with the highest proportion of postal ballots is Tatton, with 96%. Is the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) aware that 93% of people transferred their postal ballots from household registration to individual registration? Postal ballots are valued by the voting public.
That is a very important point. In some constituencies the number of people using postal votes is incredibly high. I am sure that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was not suggesting that the voters in Tatton are committing electoral fraud.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a complete red herring? The Electoral Commission’s report of 2006, when we had all-postal pilots—in my own constituency, for example—found that fraud was not an issue.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. To be fair to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, he was not suggesting that there was huge-scale fraud but pointing out the concerns that exist. He is nodding, so I think he accepts that.
I will let the hon. Gentleman make one final point before I make progress.
I was suggesting not that there is widespread fraud but that the large number of postal votes makes it all the more important to ensure the sanctity and security of the electoral system. Taking the individual registration route was an important part of that. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman’s party, when in government, made it clear that we should go down this route. The concern that he is expressing about students and people from certain socio-economic groups is part and parcel of the individual registration process.
I am grateful for that clarification, and to demonstrate what a nice guy I am, I shall give way one last time.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way a second time. May I inform him and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) that there has been one successful prosecution for postal ballot fraud in the past seven years?
I thank my hon. Friend for confirming the point that I was seeking to make a short while ago.
There is some good news. Many people out there are not prepared to put up with this inequality. I pay tribute to all those involved in registering people to vote—it is a tough job, but critical—from local authority electoral registration officers to political party activists of all parties pounding the pavements, and from the NUS to HOPE not hate, Operation Black Vote and our trade unions, who tirelessly work to get people registered. I also pay tribute to the Daily Mirror’s No Vote No Voice campaign, getting its readers and their families and friends registered to vote.
In particular, I want to pay tribute to and thank Bite the Ballot, the architects of tomorrow’s national voter registration day. Anyone who has been involved in one of their sessions with young people cannot fail to be impressed by the infectious enthusiasm of Mike Sani and his team. It is a real pity that the Prime Minister chose to snub their leaders’ debate, although it is perhaps indicative of how some in the ruling classes view younger voters.
To complicate matters further, the whole way we go about registering to vote is undergoing a fundamental change. Yes, it was the last Government who, in 2009, legislated to introduce individual electoral registration. That legislation was shaped by the experiences in Northern Ireland—when they moved to IER, there was an 11% fall in the numbers registered, so to counter that a transition period was put in place for long enough to prevent a repeat. Safeguards were also put in place at key milestones to check against any deterioration in the completeness of the register. Colleagues on both sides of the House welcomed that careful and considerate approach to moving to IER.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), now Madam Deputy Speaker, who in those days spoke for the Conservative party, said:
“I am very pleased to have the opportunity to put it on the record once and for all that we agree with the Government that the accuracy, comprehensiveness and integrity of the register and of the system is paramount. That is one of the reasons why we will not oppose the timetable the Minister has suggested this evening.”
The then Liberal Democrat spokesman said:
“I do not think that anybody was suggesting that the timetable be artificially shortened, or that any risk be taken with the comprehensiveness of the register.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 108-12.]
After the last general election, the coalition, in its arrogance, decided to rip up the cross-party approach supported by all sides in the previous Parliament. The coalition agreement contained a commitment to
“speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration”,
and the Government introduced the reckless Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which removed the voluntary phase and instead introduced compulsory individual electoral registration from July 2014.
My right hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. He correctly predicted the drop-off in the electoral register, and the scrapping of the voluntary arrangement in the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 is the root cause of these problems. Does he share my concern that the loss of those electors will lead to the long-term deterioration of the electoral register?
Absolutely. Having fewer and fewer people taking part in elections is a bad thing for all of us. The Government’s justification for getting rid of the voluntary phase was that it would save money, but it is right to remind the House that we warned that speeding up the process and stripping out the key safeguards was gambling with the completeness of the electoral register. We were not alone. Similar warnings were voiced by experts, academics, the Electoral Reform Society and the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who is in his place. We take no satisfaction in saying, “We told you so.”
Does the shadow Secretary of State not accept that anyone who was on the household register in July 2014 who is still in the same house remains on the new register today? Is that not a serious safeguard?
I shall come to the data-matching shortly, but we have considered those on the register in December 2013 and those on the register in December 2014, after the data-matching. An estimated 1 million voters have dropped off the electoral register. For 1 million to be missing in a year is bad enough, but the trends in the groups that are unregistered is also worrying. Data coming in from local authorities are showing serious drops among students and those turning 18. In the patch of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), the number registering fell from 630 to 114 in just 12 months. As has been said, the figure for attainers registering in Liverpool has slumped from 2,300 to just 76. Three areas with large number of students —Cardiff, Newcastle and Brighton—have seen drops of between 9% and 10.5% in the numbers registered.
I represent one of the youngest constituencies in the country, with an increasing number of young private renters—there are more private renters than home owners in the constituency—and people who move frequently drop off the register. I pay tribute to my borough of Hackney, which has put money and time into bringing the register up again. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the cost of doing so is also a problem for local tax payers?
To give Members an idea of the scale of the challenge, local authorities now have to write to each individual voter rather than to each household, which is a huge expense. To be fair—because I like to be fair—the Deputy Prime Minister has finally woken up—
A Tory Minister of course stands up when I mention the Deputy Prime Minister.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for being gracious in giving way. Liverpool authority received £161,000, which was the third highest allocation for maximising registration funding in the country. If there is any question to ask about the drop-off in registrations, it should be directed towards the council.
Let us get this right. Academics, experts, the Select Committee, the Electoral Reform Society and everyone else says “Slow down”, but the Government go ahead. We warn them that it will go wrong, but who do they blame when it goes wrong? Somebody else. They are the same old Tories.
I must say that I take great exception to the Minister’s arrogance, because his letter—agreed with the Electoral Commission—missed off attainers, and that has led to the drop in the number of 17-year-olds being registered.
The Minister shakes his head, but he should read that letter. Even the letter he has now sent out does not ask households to include 17-year-olds. He changed the original letter. It’s your fault!
Perhaps Ministers do not realise what officials in the Cabinet Office are sending out, but they have accepted that it was their mistake.
To be fair to the Minister, his boss, the Deputy Prime Minister, has finally woken up to the mess that this Government made by speeding up the process. That must be why, last month, the Deputy Prime Minister announced £9.8 million to help with registering voters who are currently under-represented. He accepted that he had messed up. Will the Minister confirm that that money is ring-fenced solely for electoral registration activities?
Another critical factor is the extreme pressure on local authorities because of the cuts imposed by this Government. Local authorities have to write to 48 million individual voters, instead of 20 million households. Unlike the Minister, who criticises them, I take my hat off to local authorities, most of which are doing a remarkable job dealing with this massive change in our democracy, all against a backdrop of enormous pressures on council budgets.
In Coventry, more than 8,000 people have not been registered, the bulk of whom are students. Coventry city council, alongside the students, has organised a registration day tomorrow at both universities. The situation is very serious, and it is no good the Government blaming everybody else but themselves when things go wrong.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I am sure we all agree it is outrageous that the Government are once again seeking to blame somebody else for cock-ups that they were warned about.
The electoral register is in a parlous state. It is just 92 days until the general election, and just 75 days until the deadline for registration on 20 April. We need action, and we need it now. Doing nothing is not an option. The main thrust of our motion is to propose a number of remedies to which the House should give its backing. A particular priority must be young people. All the evidence shows that if people vote when they first become eligible, they are more likely to vote for the rest of their lives, because voting becomes a habit. The opposite is also true: if people do not vote early in life, taking part in elections will never be much of an issue for them. There must be a greater onus on schools and colleges to provide focused activities.
The Electoral Commission and the Minister have not learned. Even though the issue of attainers has been raised with him, the letter that authorities are sending out, to which he and the Electoral Commission have agreed, does not refer to 17-year-olds being electors. They have not learned the lesson, even though the issue has been pointed out to them by electoral registration officers all over the country and certainly by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane).
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I pay tribute to him and other colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), for working hard with the universities and young people in their constituencies to get young people on the register.
We need special provisions for this group of people. We should allow universities and colleges to block-register those who are in halls of residence, to meet the unique challenge presented by younger people, and students in particular. That could be done very quickly and in time for May. A similar case can be made for care homes and sheltered accommodation: large groups of people who are under the responsibility of an organisation, a local authority or a charity should be allowed to be block-registered.
A scheme in Northern Ireland called the schools initiative has proved to be successful in raising the registration levels of younger people. It places a duty on schools and colleges to provide the ERO with lists of those who are approaching the age of majority. The EROs then go into the schools and colleges with pre-populated registration forms and get the students to complete them. That is even easier now that online registration is allowed.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the two parties that form the coalition have a vested interest in keeping down the number of students and would-be students on the electoral register, because those two parties are the ones that put the fees up to £9,000?
Many people will start thinking that, unless the Government take action. It is in all our interests for as many people who can vote to be on the register and to vote.
One of the brighter spots of the move to IER, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), has been the use of DWP data to verify those on the old household register in order to register them automatically on the new individual register. It is far from perfect and it has struggled with many of the under-represented groups, such as students and younger people, but it has taken the pressure off many millions of people who have not had to go through the rigmarole of registering individually.
That has showed how we can use data that are already in our possession to make the job easier. Why should we restrict that to DWP data? Why can we not look at registering people automatically if local EROs are confident that they are eligible to vote? That is covered in the later sections of the motion. The Government are in possession of considerable data about members of the public, including on benefits, social security and pensions and data held by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Passport Office and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Local authorities have data on council tax, council tenants, parking permits, school rolls, meals on wheels and so on. Those agencies should all be geared up to ask members of the public whether they are registered to vote when they come into contact with them. We could perhaps set up systems to notify a local authority if somebody applies for a new driving licence or changes their address with the taxman.
We should be more ambitious. We should be making better use of data so that people are put on the register automatically. I have had informal chats with some local authorities and they believe that they could construct a more complete register if they were allowed to use the data in their possession. We would, of course, allow people to ask to be removed from the register. The idea of maximising the information that we possess to populate the register has legs, and we will explore it in detail if we win in May. It would be useful to hear from the Minister why it is not being looked at and to hear what his objections are.
In conclusion, it is unacceptable that so many people are unregistered and are being deprived of their say in the way the country is run. I am disappointed that the Government and the Electoral Commission are so complacent about the bad news on the state of the register —bad news that grows by the day. We need a clear statement of intent from Ministers and a goal for the reduction in the number of missing voters, because we cannot afford to take risks with the register. A chronically depleted register, with missing voters concentrated in certain communities and parts of the country, will call into question the legitimacy of our democracy. Let us act now before it is too late.
This is an important debate. The right to vote has been hard won, and it is the duty of everyone in public life, including those in the Government, to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is able to vote. It is also vital that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible. In pursuing that, it is my view that everyone who has the right to vote shares that right equally, including students, minority ethnic groups, forces personnel and British residents overseas. The Opposition speak as though some voters should be prioritised over others, but we believe that if someone is eligible to vote, we must take the necessary action to ensure that they are on the register.
I hope my hon. Friend will agree that the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) made an admirable case for political equality, and as he wrapped up his speech he spoke about the legitimacy of our democracy. Does the Minister agree how surprising it is that Labour Members are not insisting on the equalisation of constituency sizes?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I will not be tempted into that debate.
Individual electoral registration was first introduced by the last Labour Government and has cross-party support—there is nothing sinister or cynical about the transition. As with academy schools in education, Labour was right to seek to modernise our electoral system by introducing IER, but once again we are seeing the measure through while Labour Members seek to disown it. I wonder what has prompted the change of heart on the Labour Benches.
The Minister talks about the importance of including everyone on the register, but in Liverpool we have lost more than 20,000 people from our electoral register. He said earlier that Liverpool had received a sum of money, but obviously that has not worked so far. What else will his Department do to assist Liverpool to ensure that we get those 20,000 people back on our electoral register?
As I said, in addition to the £161,000 of maximised registration funding, Liverpool received £288,000 to help boost its register. If that money was not enough, the city can apply to the Cabinet Office for more funding using justification-led bids. Electoral registration officers have statutory responsibility for maintaining the register, so perhaps the hon. Lady will ask her EROs what they have done with the money.
What has prompted the change of heart on the Labour Benches about IER? Is it because the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) is trying to taunt the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) in their bids to become the Labour candidate for the Mayor of London? Could it be that the Labour party, rightly scared of the next election, has retreated to the comfort zone of opposition politics and scaremongering about the Government’s policies?
If the Conservatives win, and if the Minister is still a Minister in June, he will take the most momentous decision of his life: whether to let 5 million people drop off the register before the freeze date for boundaries on 1 December. What principles will guide him in that decision? When I asked him that in Committee, he did not have any.
I will come to the details of the electoral register—[Interruption.] May I answer the question? There is a clear process through which the decision will be made about whether to end the transition in 2015. That will be down to the independent advice of the Electoral Commission, whoever is Minister and whoever is in government.
In a democracy everybody should have the right to register to vote, but we must also get the correct people to register so that there is no fraud. Surely the Government must ensure that the register is correct.
My hon. Friend puts his finger on it: IER is about ensuring the completeness and accuracy of the register, and as we do that some people will drop off and others will have to get on it.
Can the Minister identify any case in the last 30 years of wrongful registration? Is this not a red herring?
IER was the policy of your party to make the electoral process secure. The Electoral Commission has identified 16 local authorities at risk of electoral fraud. Just because you have not been able to point to it, it does not mean fraud is not happening. That is the point.
The same Labour party that introduced IER is now seeking to disown it. It is the same Labour party that said our long-term economic plan would lead to the disappearance of 1 million jobs. [Interruption.] Instead, 1,000 new jobs have been created every day of this Parliament. It said that reforming education maintenance allowance would increase the number of young people not in education, employment or training. [Interruption.] Instead, we have seen the biggest drop in the number of NEETs since records began.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am listening carefully to the rubbish the Minister is talking. It is quite embarrassing. We are discussing electoral registration, not the Government’s economic record, so could we get the Minister back on to the subject?
That is not a point of order.
I am making the point that the Opposition are scaremongering, rather—[Interruption.]
Just a second. The Minister was giving way to me, not you, Mr Twigg. I say to hon. Members that we have very little time, and shouting down the Minister does not help anybody trying to listen to the debate. Let us listen and show some courtesy to all Members.
The Opposition said that our plan to ensure universities were properly funded would lead to fewer students going to university, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds. We now have record numbers of students, including from disadvantaged backgrounds, attending university. With this record, it is no surprise that the Opposition are seeking to create fear and uncertainty where there should be none.
The Minister said that our motion sought to disown IER. Where in the motion do we do that?
In practice, you either believe in IER, or you do not. Your motion talks about block registration—[Interruption.]—which is a deviation from the principle of IER—
Order. I am not responsible for the motion. I have let one or two “yous” go, but now I feel I am being brought into this debate. I also say to Members that the Minister is giving examples as he sees fit. It might not suit certain Members, but it is up to the Minister to make his speech as he wishes, and he is completely in order.
Let me give the facts on the electoral register. The Electoral Commission’s research shows that, in 2000, 3 million people were missing from the register. In 2011, that figure had risen to an estimated 7.5 million. This is against a backdrop of an increasing population. Since 2011, the drop in registration figures has stabilised. For the 13 years Labour was in power, the state of the register deteriorated, and very little was done about it.
Will my hon. Friend explain why when in power Labour made sure the military had individual registration but now seems less keen on the idea for other people?
My hon. Friend rightly points to the principle I laid out at the beginning of my speech: we have to treat all voters equally when it comes to the electoral register.
We all know that under the old system the register was inflated. Tenants and students moved on, but the register did not. People were registered at multiple addresses without their knowledge.
In Blaenau Gwent over the past year, more than 2,000 people have dropped off the register. Does the Minister accept that being on the register is important in obtaining credit and getting a mortgage? What are the Government going to do to help the 8.5 million people who have fallen off the register to get a mortgage and to borrow money?
The number of people on the register is increasing all the time. If we look at the register for December or for any month, we see that it provides a partial snapshot of a two-year transition process. We also know that the old system was susceptible to fraud. In one case, someone managed to register their dog to vote.
Does the Minister not accept that many of these problems became apparent when this was introduced in Northern Ireland? The Government have chosen to ignore all that and press on anyway.
That is contrary to the facts. One thing the Government did was to learn the lessons from Northern Ireland. Without going into all the detail, we preserved the annual canvass, for example. Electoral registration plummeted in Northern Ireland because it did not have the annual canvass. Since IER went live, however, nine out of 10 electors have been automatically transferred to the electoral register. No one on the electoral roll at the last canvass will lose their right to vote at the next general election.
Much emphasis is placed on people missing from the register. The Minister said that people entitled to be on the register are on it for two years. When I asked my office to go through some of the people seeking asylum and indefinite leave to remain in this country, we found that 16 people not entitled to vote under the old system were on the register and that 10 of them continued to be so. I have duplications and people who should not be on the register. What provision will be made to remove them?
My hon. Friend points to why we introduced IER. He should take the matter up with his local ERO, who is responsible for ensuring the integrity of his local register.
Online registration has made it simpler and easier to register to vote, and I am pleased to announce that 900,000 18 to 25-year-olds have registered to vote online. As I said, we have learned the lessons from Northern Ireland.
I can assure the House that every resource request, from electoral returning officers, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and the Electoral Commission has been met. I pay tribute to all the electoral administration officers and dedicated professionals in the Cabinet Office who are working to make the transition to IER a smooth one, but we are not complacent.
For the record, the Minister said that 900,000 had registered to vote online, but I think 900,000 might have chosen to register online—unless his announcement is much more significant than we all thought, and he is actually announcing today online voting, which many of us would welcome.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his correction; that number registered to vote online.
Despite the 900,000 young people who have registered to vote online, we are not complacent in our efforts. In January, we announced that an extra £10 million would be invested this year to maximise voter registration—in addition to the £4.2 million announced last year. Today, I can announce that £2.5 million of this funding will be used specifically to target groups that are under-represented on the electoral roll, including students, minority ethnic communities, overseas voters and members of the armed forces, while also tackling the issue of electoral fraud.
The Minister keeps talking about money, but the issue is not about money; it is about the system that he is implementing. Why is it that, even though he and the Electoral Commission have been told about this, the latest letter Durham and other councils have to send out to households still do not include the old wording about registering 17-year-olds?
The hon. Gentleman has asked that question three times—twice to his own Front-Bench spokesman and now to me. What we have is a system of individual voter registration. Under the old system, parents would have put the attainer’s name on the form; under the new system, people have to register themselves. That is why we are funding “Rock Enrol!” to introduce students to the registration process at school, and why we are carrying out a national awareness campaign to introduce people to that same process.
Not only have I raised the point four times today, but I have raised it with the Minister outside the Chamber as well. The fact is that those who receive these letters need to know whether they will become attainers. Under the old system, it was possible to ask for anyone aged 17 who was is likely to attain the age of 18 in the next 12 months to be placed on the register. It would have been simple to make the change. The money that is now being spent on sending the letters would have ensured that 17-year-olds in those households were registered.
The £2.5 million that I have announced will be delivered through a number of organisations, including the British Youth Council, Citizens UK, Mencap and Operation Black Vote, to ensure that as many people as possible are placed on the register. The right hon. Member for Tooting mentioned data-matching. There is much more that we can do in that regard. We are currently running pilots involving the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and there will be a report on them in September. Once IER has bedded in, we shall consider other ways in which we can use data that is gathered when people interact with other public services to help them to register to vote.
Earlier in his speech, the Minister made the point that everyone should be treated equally. The fact that he is allowing data-matching means that every single person must fill in a form. If he accepts the principle that everyone should be registered in the same way, why will he not extend that people to allow block registration in halls of residence?
The registration of students, and block registration in particular, is a key issue in the motion. In my view, you either believe in individual voter registration or you do not. You cannot have it both ways. Singling out any group of voters for block registration would be a step backwards to the old, discredited system of registration.
What is most farcical about the stance adopted by the Opposition today is that they want to give 16-year-olds the vote, but do not trust them to be able to register themselves, even once they are at university. Their whole approach is based on political gimmicks. That is why the Leader of the Opposition ended up making a speech on under-registration in Sheffield, although Sheffield university, which has piloted a registration system involving the use of data when people enrol, has one of the highest student registration rates.
Will the Minister also note that Sheffield Hallam university, which has not reached that stage, has one of the lowest levels of student registration?
It should be doing that. [Interruption.] It is not a case of blaming someone else. In 2013, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities wrote to all vice-chancellors and academic registrars, encouraging them to look at multiple ways of getting students on to the register. We have set up a student forum in which best practice can be shared. If any academic registrars are not doing that, Members should by all means let me know, and we will write to them again to ensure that they are engaging in best practice.
Let me now answer the question about block registration. Data-sharing between universities and local authorities is the key, and we are working to ensure that all universities share data. That will enable electoral registration offers to have students’ enrolment details, and to chase them to register. It also means that we can preserve the central tenet of IER, which is that individuals should be responsible for their own registration.
Bizarrely, there are more properties than there are electors on the register in the Newland ward in my constituency, where the vast majority of Hull university students live. Those students live in houses in multiple occupation. That strikes me as very peculiar. Will the Minister comment?
Another point that has not been grasped by the Opposition is that students can choose where to register to vote. They can choose to register to vote at home or at their college premises, or, indeed both. That is entirely right. What we should move away from—and what we are moving away from—is the system whereby the warden of a college chose where the student registered. In some cases, people did not even know that they were on the electoral roll in the area concerned.
It is important that we debate this issue, but we have to be clear about what is happening today. This is not a genuine concern about a policy, because we know Labour is supportive of IER. Instead, it is an opportunistic attempt by the Labour party to con students that it is fighting for their interests when its own activists’ handbook advises it to ignore under-registered groups. That is why I urge the House to reject the motion.
Speeches have a time limit of six minutes.
I begin with a happy announcement. If colleagues wish to go outside from about 6 pm, national voter registration day, which is tomorrow, is being celebrated this evening by a projection on to the Elizabeth Tower of an exciting animation showing ballot papers going into a ballot box. I thank the Speaker for facilitating my request to involve Parliament in national voter registration day. I am sure colleagues will avail themselves of the opportunity for a wonderful “selfie” from Westminster bridge.
More seriously, the elephant in the room is not the technicalities of voting and registration, but why people are disengaged from politics. We must facilitate people’s engagement with politics. The real reason people are not engaged with registration and voting is that they are disengaged from our democracy. They suffer a daily drip feed of corrosive cynicism, often very strongly politically biased, from the media. Our parties have atrophied. We have concentrated more and more on 50 to 100 marginal seats and not looked after our parties. There is immense ignorance, which none of us does much to dispel, around the idea that Parliament and Government have the same, rather than conflicting, interests. There is a failure, even in this place, to set out what a plural, devolved democracy of independent institutions might look and feel like. Add to that the chronic sclerosis of Whitehall and an over-centralisation that kills local creativity and responsibility, and we have a recipe of poor capability on electoral registration and bureaucracy around voting that can produce a poisonous mixture for the future of our democracy.
I am delighted we are seeking to address at least some of those difficulties today. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has reported seven times on this specific issue since 2011—seven separate reports by a Select Committee of this place to flag up what might go wrong with individual electoral registration. I have gone back through the reports today looking over the same difficulties. To the Government’s credit, they have addressed some of them, in particular on finance and on certain technical matters, and I am grateful for that. Fundamentally, however, many of the difficulties the Committee has outlined over five years are coming to pass, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) said from the Opposition Front Bench, with just 92 days to go before an election and 38 days to go before Dissolution. In our complacency, we have let these problems grow and we are finding immense difficulties in each of our constituencies.
On postal voting, about half a million people have been kicked off the electoral register because they failed to reregister. That is a misfortune for them. Many of us will have been on the doorstep and said, “Hello, I am your Member of Parliament. I can see that you might need a postal vote. Can we give you that postal vote? Can we get that registration for a postal vote for you?” The Member of Parliament has been there and almost given a guarantee that the constituent will have a postal vote, but some of those people will be the very people who will not now be eligible to vote—some may not be in the first flush of youth—because of all the technicalities. We need to make sure we get these messages over and get them over quickly.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the universal postal voting regime was introduced to boost turnout. Why does he suppose that since 2001 turnout has been 59%, 61% and 65%, whereas in previous elections it was 75%, 73% and 78%?
We live in a democracy and it is the sacred duty of every Member of this House of every party to ensure that as many people register to vote and as many people can vote as is humanly possible. To throw out this red herring of fraud when there has only been a handful of cases—[Interruption.] As my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) reminds me, only one case has ended in a successful prosecution. Denying millions of people the right to vote is the biggest fraud we are perpetrating in our democracy and we should not be collaborating on that.
The reason there have been so few prosecutions could be, as we found out in the case of Nigel Kennedy, that there is a limited period in which a prosecution can be brought. That period may expire before the time it takes to get the evidence, and that determines that there will not be a prosecution.
One case has been proven and taken forward. I want to give a couple of other statistics, and, sadly, there are a lot more zeros in them. Some 7.5 million people were not registered to vote at the last election. That works out at about 10,000 people in each of our constituencies. In fact, in deprived areas, such as my constituency, I am damned sure that it will be more than that—so more than 10,000 of my electorate are not even registered to vote, let alone not taking up the right to vote. Of those who did register at the last election, 16.5 million people decided not to bother to vote. If we add the non-registered to the ones who did not bother to vote, it comes to more than the number of those who voted Conservative and Labour combined.
This is a scandal. I am not blaming the Government for this; I am just saying that we as a Parliament need to take this in hand. We as a Parliament need to get people to register. We need to encourage people to vote not just because the techniques are right, but because they feel engaged in their system and believe that decisions are made not just at the Whitehall level, and because they feel they own their democracy and own decision making, particularly in own locality.
The point about EVEL—English votes for English laws—has been thrown into the debate again, but that is a procedural technicality for this House, rather than a question of how we devolve power, as they do in virtually every other western democracy, to people at the grass roots, to seize the opportunity to develop their own ways in their own areas.
I give way to my distinguished colleague from the Select Committee.
On the subject of English votes for English laws, does the hon. Gentleman recognise that if the Government continue with the current Act—the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011—the seat distribution to the boundary commissions in the next Parliament will be on the basis of reduced registration in England, so there could be fewer English seats in this House and more Scottish and Northern Ireland seats?
Whenever a colleague in this House hears someone talking about EVEL and English votes they should be reminded that, unlike most democracies, we decide the size of our constituencies not on the number of people in them but on the number of people who are registered, and, as I have said, even at the last election 7.5 million were not registered. What a nonsense of a system that is!
I am going to give one last statistic, which is a slightly happier one. Some say, “People out there aren’t interested in this stuff”, but a world-record number of people replied to a Select Committee consultation on voter engagement. People out there are desperate; they are hungry for engagement. That is why there are so many organisations around. I have a list of a few of them here: Bite the Ballot, Unlock Democracy, the Hansard Society, the British Youth Council, Sky’s “Stand Up Be Counted” campaign, Catch 22, the National Union of Students, Involver, UpRising. They all wanted to grab that chance of saying to us that we have got to do better.
It is not good enough. Sixteen thousand people responded to our report, and the follow-up report, having listened to those 16,000, will be published tomorrow. There will be a debate in this House starting at 1.30 pm for those Members who are not able to speak in today’s debate.
We must do something about this. If people read the report tomorrow, they will see lots of ways forward on an all-party basis to involve our people in our own democracy.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who speaks with great expertise on this subject. He makes the case that we need to do all we can to get people to register to vote in this country, and I completely agree, but I believe we are doing that by all methods possible, as I shall come on to demonstrate. However, I completely agree with his wider point about engagement; we need to find new ways forward. I will read his report tomorrow with great interest.
Sadly, there always are and always have been a substantial number of people who do not register to vote—whatever the system, and in every democratic country—no matter what their persuasion. Different figures are bandied about because it is an imprecise science: we can count the people on the register, but we cannot count those who do not register. As of July 2014, before the shift to individual voter registration started, at least 6 million people were not on the register.
Seven and a half million.
I am talking about 2014.
The figure the hon. Gentleman gives is the snapshot of the number of unregistered people as of 1 December. I have to say that he ruins my weekends. He tables at least 400 written questions every week, and I have to spend my weekends reading through the answers. Of course, it is great fun. My wife is convinced that I am having some kind of illicit relationship with him. [Interruption.] Not a pleasant thought.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify what he has just said?
I do not think anybody needs to clarify the relationship between you and Mr Streeter.
As I said, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is not a pleasant thought from my point of view.
The truth is that a vast amount of work is being done around the United Kingdom to get people to register before the general election, but it is important to remember that anyone who is already on the household register and is residing at that address has not been removed as a result of the shift to IER. The Electoral Commission is running a national campaign across the UK to encourage people to register to vote ahead of the 20 April deadline. It will reach all adults, with a focus on groups—already mentioned in this debate—that research has identified are less likely to be registered to vote, such as people who have recently moved home, those who rent their home, young people, and people from black and minority ethnic communities.
Some of this work is being undertaken with the support of organisations and private companies that represent these communities or have a special reach into them. For example—this is very good news—the Electoral Commission and Facebook have today announced that on national voter registration day, which is tomorrow, every person on Facebook in the UK who is eligible to vote will see a voter registration reminder message in their newsfeed. Some 35 million people use Facebook in the UK every month, which is more than the number who voted at the last general election. This is using innovative methods to reach people and encourage them to vote. We must keep returning to the point that people can now register to vote online. It takes 30 seconds, and the only thing they need is their name—[Interruption.] Yes, I have seen it done. [Interruption.] I was already registered; I was data-matched. People need their name, address, date of birth—most of us know those things—and national insurance number; ring your mum and find out what it is. If people have those four things, they can register; it takes 30 seconds. This is good news.
I do that every week. I don’t know what the hon. Lady is on about.
This builds on the important work the Electoral Commission is doing to get the message across that everyone should register to vote. I am also pleased that the commission is strongly supporting national voter registration day—an excellent initiative launched by Bite the Ballot last year—in a number of ways, including by re-launching the “Ballot Box Man” YouTube advert aimed at encouraging young people to register to vote. If you have not seen it, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is very entertaining and makes the point extremely well. A wide range of social media activity is being undertaken, including on Twitter and Facebook. A range of resources is being sent out to electoral administrators and the commission’s partners from across the voluntary, public and private sectors to help them get people registered. The commission is also supporting the launch of Operation Black Vote’s bus tour across Great Britain—that also begins on national voter registration day—to get more BME people on the electoral register.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and we must all celebrate national voter registration day and get involved in it. It seems to me that many of the Opposition’s arguments are not against individual voter registration and that they are about encouraging people to register under the new scheme. Does my hon. Friend agree with that?
I do agree with that. We have not focused enough on the responsibility not only of individuals to register to vote but of electoral registration officers, whose job it is to encourage people to register. They are sending out letters, and they should be going door to door. They are being given extra resources to enable that to happen. I believe that a very substantial number of people will join the register between 1 December and 20 April. We would not be having this debate in three months’ time.
I will not give way again if that is okay, as I have a lot to say in the next two minutes.
This week, on Monday 2 February, the commission’s new national advertising campaign launched a series of online display adverts to highlight the fact that anyone who is not registered will be unable to vote in the general election on 7 May. The adverts provide a direct click-through link to the gov.uk/registertovote page. On the same day, the commission also launched an online campaign across the 20 countries in which UK expatriates are most likely to live, to make expats aware that they might be able to vote and to encourage them to register to do so. The important point has been made several times by Government Members that everyone who is eligible to vote should be encouraged to register, and not simply those in certain groups.
The commission’s main national public awareness campaign for the UK parliamentary general election will begin on 16 March 2015 in Great Britain and will include television, catch-up TV and online advertising. The commission has set the ambitious target of 1 million additions to the register in Great Britain between 16 March and 20 April, with a further 10,000 in Northern Ireland.
We have had targets before.
Yes, we have, and the right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that the Electoral Commission hit its target in the run-up to the last general election. I am pretty confident that it will do so again.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I cannot give way again; I have only 29 seconds left.
I hope that the House will recognise that there is a great deal of activity already under way or about to happen that is likely to increase voter registration dramatically. We also have a responsibility ourselves to take our great communication skills to our constituencies and to get the message across to everyone out there: register to vote—don’t lose your voice!
I shall start by making the bold statement that if the Conservative proposals on electoral registration had gone ahead in their original form in 2010 and 2011, we would have seen a constitutional coup that would have kept the Tory party in power in this country for a generation. There would have been a two-pronged attack that involved bringing the date for the introduction of individual electoral registration forward by a year. That simple act would have resulted in a total of 35% of the electorate dropping off the register, in addition to the 15% who were already missing from it. Those people would have been the most economically and socially marginalised in the country, and their marginalisation would have been complete with their vote gone.
The second prong of the attack was to have been the equalisation of constituencies at 75,000 electors per seat, plus or minus 5%. That change would have been carried out while 7.5 million people were missing from the electoral register—the equivalent of 100 missing parliamentary seats.
I am concerned that the number of people on the electoral register is used as a proxy for local government funding allocations. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a real concern, especially for the poorer constituencies, which are experiencing the greatest drop-off of all?
I agree with my hon. Friend.
I wish to probe more deeply into the machinations of that grand plan. It is only by looking at what has happened in the recent past that we can find out what would happen over the next few months if the Tories were to get back in.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not give way.
Individual electoral registration was introduced by the Labour Government in 2009 with cross-party support. The issue was so sensitive that we sought that cross-party support. The deadline for its introduction was after the latest date for the next general election, which is of course this year. The reason for the long run-in period was that there were already 7.5 million people missing from the register, and we hoped that we could get them back on to it during that five-year period. The Electoral Commission was going to have marking points throughout the period, so that we could implement IER and assess its impact. This cross-party support, this cherished unity, was shattered, as one of the first aims of the coalition agreement, set out on page 27, was:
“We will reduce electoral fraud by speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration.”
What was this massive electoral fraud that so concerned the Conservatives? Why was it so important that a new IER Bill took precedence over virtually all other Bills at the height of the economic crisis?
Let us look at the facts and figures concerning electoral fraud. The fraud that so exercised the Conservatives was one case in 2008 and one in 2009. In the six years from 2008 to 2013 there were three cases out of 45 million electors. That was the size of the problem.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
No. I shall make progress.
That was the size of the problem—three cases of electoral fraud in six years. The Government, backed up by the Electoral Commission, claim that it is not the numbers—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he explain to us why the Labour Government decided to introduce IER if not to deal with electoral fraud, which he says does not exist?
We introduced it because, although the old system had served us fairly well and quite a high number of people were registered, we thought it was patriarchal and registration should be down to the individual. We did it with cross-party support, cross-party unity.
Why did the Conservatives go to such trouble to shatter the cross-party support? They knew exactly what they were doing when they rushed the Bill through with undue haste. They hoped that even more poorer voters would drop off the register before the 2015 general election and increase their chances of winning it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most appalling things that this Government did was to produce a White Paper which referred to voter registration as a lifestyle choice?
I am coming to that right now.
What the Conservatives proposed was not simply bringing forward the date by one year. They had a few more tricks up their sleeves. They wanted to replace the civic duty to register by making it a lifestyle choice. Electors could simply opt out of registering by ticking a box that would be supplied to help them on their way to political disengagement. The Electoral Commission warned that if this happened, it would be assumed that those who did not vote would not register and we would lose 35% of the electorate.
If the Tories had succeeded, nearly half the electorate would have been missing from the register. Those left off would have been the poorest. This was a blatant, deliberate political act to drive the poorest people off the register. There is a term for it used by right wingers in America—voter suppression. No vote, no voice: those people were being silenced. The Conservatives were leaving nothing to chance. They planned a few more measures to ensure that those electors were forced off the register. They proposed that there would be no annual canvass—the Minister mentioned this. We introduced an annual canvass. The Minister did not want to introduce an annual canvass, but he was forced to do so. To complete the stitch-up the Conservatives proposed to remove any sanctions for not registering to vote. All these actions together show beyond doubt that the Tories’ direction of travel was to disfranchise as many poor voters as possible.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) who, as shadow minister at the time, summoned civic society to fight this, and we managed to get the worst aspects of the Bill removed. The Lib Dems finally realised that they were being stitched up too. I pay tribute to the work of Chris Rennard in the Lords and others in the Lib Dem party who informed their Front-Bench team of what was going on.
We were able to stop the worst aspects of the Bill, but even though the Tories were defeated by a mighty alliance of those who wanted to protect democracy, they managed to squeeze one concession from their Lib Dem partners. The Tories proposed that they be given an opportunity, should they win the election, to make a political decision to drop off the unregistered in June this year, six months before the freeze date for the next boundary review. Five million electors would not transfer from household registration to individual registration. These voters would also be removed from the Scottish parliamentary elections, the Welsh Assembly elections and the local government elections. The Minister has already admitted that he has no guiding principles when he makes this important decision to smash British democracy—no such principles are in place. He failed to answer on this when I asked him at the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and he failed to answer today when I asked him. The press and the public are watching the Minister. Would he like to intervene on that? Where are his guiding principles?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that invitation to intervene. Whoever is the Minister, and whoever is in government, the decision they make will be taken on the independent advice of the Electoral Commission. That is pretty clear as far as guiding principles are concerned.
The Minister wants to have a word with his boss because I do not think he is thinking like that. The Minister was unable to answer this question about guiding principles, so I will tell him what the answer on the guiding principles will be. They will be what they were at the beginning of this Parliament: party political gain for the Conservative party.
I will not follow the line of argument of the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who I suspect sees a conspiracy every time he walks past a bus queue. The reality is that this serious issue deserves rather better than the cynical treatment it has had from the Opposition today.
The integrity of the register is an integral part of our democracy, and that integrity means not only that those who should be on the register are on it, but that those who should not be are not on it. The level of complacency demonstrated by the Labour party towards that aspect of the equation is nothing less than contemptuous towards our electors.
The Electoral Commission has been quoted on many occasions, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that even it says that it is the perception of fraud, not the actuality of it, that Members are talking about?
The report last week deals comprehensively with that, and there is another report to which I will refer the hon. Gentleman in a moment. Let me deal first with the important issue of why the Labour party really has adopted this attitude. I made an assumption about the backing away from Labour’s previous stance that we saw from the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). I am sorry he is not in his place, because I know he is a great fan of block votes and he is probably looking for a few in the London Labour party at the moment for the nomination for Mayor—I am sure we could pass that on to him. I assumed it was the normal reaction that we get from the Labour party nowadays. IER was, of course, introduced—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) must contain himself for a moment. IER was, of course, introduced in 2009. What is that magic figure of 2009? Of course, Tony Blair was still around, so it is a legacy of the previous—[Interruption.] The Labour party is anxious to forget everything that went before and the reason the previous Government come into it is this: the Labour party had a track record of being extremely flaky on adopting IER.
The Electoral Commission published a report in 2003 and the Labour Government responded to it in 2004, saying that they were sympathetic to the principle of individual registration but they were not going to implement it—that is the reality. Ever since then, Labour has had to be dragged kicking and screaming towards improving the quality of the electoral register. In the end, the experience in Northern Ireland, where IER certainly produced a reduction in the number of people on the register but also significantly reduced fraud, made it clear that Labour’s position was untenable. The people of Northern Ireland blazed the way for the rest of this country and we should salute the introduction of IER there. If it is good enough for Northern Ireland, it should be good enough for the rest of the UK as well, and it is no good the Labour party trying to row back from that now.
The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 made provision for this phased implementation of IER. Ironically, that was not originally in the Bill and it was put in only as a result of pressure from the then Opposition parties in the House of Lords. The Labour party was reluctant even to take that step.
It is often said that the country would be better governed if there was a consensus, but may I say that I have never been part of the consensus on IER? I thought it was stupid when it was suggested by the stupid Electoral Commission and it has remained stupid ever since. We have had the mad situation that in this democratically elected House we have knowingly voted to reduce the number of people entitled to vote—it has been a disgrace.
I am delighted to see that the right hon. Gentleman is taking a hard-line stance, which is consistent with his political views. There is no doubt that he demonstrated that same consistency when he voted down changes to the boundaries that would have ensured that the electorate of his constituency was broadly more equal with that of mine, but we will not trouble him with that unfortunate matter.
The fact that the issue of electoral fraud has been dismissed so often by the Opposition suggests that they think it is irrelevant, but it is not. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) made an important point. The real difficulty that we have is proving cases, and the complacency shown by the Opposition on this matter is breathtaking. The reality is that the six-month time limit makes it particularly difficult to get the evidence required for this type of offence. I hope that, in the future, we will revisit that matter. We should extend the timeline for bringing prosecutions for election offences, and I hope that we can consider that in the new Parliament.
The very nature of the offence makes it difficult to prosecute, particularly when it involves the head of the household, as it has in the past, filling in forms on behalf of other people. It is also difficult to get people to stand up against members of their own family on whom they may be dependent. That is why there are fewer prosecutions than we would expect. That fact is borne out by the useful report, “Electoral Offences since 2010”, which has been issued by the Library of the House of Commons. Members might be interested in looking at it. It was published on 30 July 2014, and details, over a raft of pages, individual instances of allegations of electoral fraud. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon mentioned, it has been difficult to bring many of those cases to a successful prosecution, but the report is, none the less, really worth looking at.
In the London borough of Tower Hamlets, there have been repeated cases of fraud. Let me say here that I am not trespassing on the current court case. This has nothing to do with the election petition against the mayor. Historically, there have been repeated allegations of malpractice in Tower Hamlets, largely by abuse of the block registration of postal votes. In March 2012, Tower Hamlets removed 127 names from the electoral register. It was not possible to bring a prosecution in that case, but the names were removed because they should not have been on the register. Clearly, malpractice was going on. Some 550 people were registered in 64 properties in the borough. In some cases of registration, there were eight people to a bedroom. It was nonsense, but it is something that the Labour party regard as “fairly minor”. It says that it is a small price to pay. I say that it is not, because it demeans the electoral process. But that does not matter as far as Labour is concerned. Its ersatz view of quantity seems to trump the importance of quality in the elector register. At the end of the day, it is the quality of the electoral register that is most important. If it is not honest, people will lose faith.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) made the point that we can drive up the number of people properly on the register through the excellent initiatives of the Electoral Commission. We do not need the specious arguments of the Opposition to do that. We can have safe and secure electoral registration and sensible campaigns to increase voter registration.
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once. I want to make a little progress as I have little time left.
My own local authority in Bromley has made great progress with its individual canvasses and maintaining the roll-over on to the register; it can be done. Frankly, we have had nothing but crocodile tears from the Opposition. I have not seen so many crocodile tears since General Nasser built a dam across the River Nile. They should not be detaining the House in the way that they are doing. The Opposition motion is a shambles and a disgrace.
Let me first out myself as someone who, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), was completely opposed to individual electoral registration. I accept that I have lost that argument and that we have to move on from where we are now. Where we are now was entirely predictable, but we must now get to a better level of registration.
I wish to let the House know what is happening in the London borough of Merton, which is at the halfway stage in the transfer to individual electoral registration. Merton has a very effective electoral registration organisation and high levels of registration but is still experiencing difficulties. I would like publicly to acknowledge the long-standing work of our electoral registration officer, Mike Bentley, who recently retired, and welcome Andrew Robertson, who faces his first general election in May.
As of 1 December 2014, a total of 146,567 people were registered to vote in Merton, compared with 149,615 in 2013, so there has been a drop of about 3,000 over the past year. However, that masks a much more worrying fact. Experience shows that voter turnover in Merton is usually about 23,000. In other words, about 23,000 move out of the borough and leave the register, and roughly another 23,000 move into the borough and join the register. However, in this transition year only 7,000 have joined the register and 10,000 have left. Have fewer people moved, or is the register inaccurate? I believe that about 10% of the electorate are inaccurately registered, based on past movement.
Of the 149,615 on the register at the end of 2013, only 128,000 could be verified. That left about 21,000 unmatched on any of the registers currently used. Using a variety of techniques, the electoral registration department has followed up as many of the 21,000 as it can and brought the number of unmatched voters down to about 6,500—about 5% of the electorate. As we all know, if a voter is unmatched for this year only, they would still be allowed to vote in person. The problem is that a significant number of those unmatched people were previously postal or proxy voters. Many of those people are elderly or disabled. They believe that they have a lifetime entitlement to a postal or proxy vote.
I am giving this information to the House not to help me in the election, because most of those people have historically voted Conservative. I still want them to have the same opportunity to use their postal or proxy votes to vote for somebody else, because this debate is not about party politics; it is about the essence of our democracy. If we cannot get people to register to vote, we will have an enormous and growing alienated community in our society, and that will not benefit any of us. All of us, of whatever party, whose hearts sink when we hear criticisms of politicians and politics need to do everything we can to get those people on the register, irrespective of who they are or whom they intend to vote for.
We are only halfway through the process in Merton. In 2016 we face a mayoral election in London. Our community is far more mobile and diverse than Northern Ireland could ever be. It is possible that we will lose huge numbers of people from the register. Some of the alternatives set out in the Opposition’s motion could help, but for me they do not go far enough. I might unite everyone in opposing my suggestion, but I will still continue to make it. I believe that if someone accesses a public service, they should be required to register to vote. If they want the benefits of an advanced welfare democracy, they should sign up to be on the electoral register. If they need to be on the register to get a mortgage or credit card, is it not reasonable for them to need to be on it to get a driving licence, access tax credits or join a library? All those things are about a social contract: something for something, not something for nothing. Whether people vote is up to them, but it is our job to persuade them to do so. The sheer act of citizenship needed to be on the register should be required if someone is to access the services of the state.
I am somewhat disappointed by the motion, because it over-eggs the pudding to some degree. It does not recognise that this process was started by the previous Government but has been picked up and progressed by this Government. Labour Members began the whole process—I welcome that and have congratulated them on it many times—and we are now successfully delivering on it. That is a good thing.
There is still a lot of work to do before the 2015 election and before IER is fully introduced. The motion calls for more to be done to tackle under-registration, without any recognition of how much effort and money has been put into doing that. It is curmudgeonly not to recognise that that effort has been made. The conspiracy theory that this is all about removing poor people from the register is not compatible with that huge effort and with the funding that has been made available to ensure that they are given the opportunity to be put on the register.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Government are missing important sources of voter data? For example, if they used information from credit reference agencies such as Experian, they could boost registration considerably. Does he accept that that would be a worthwhile thing to do?
The pilots have identified the best ways of getting the most people registered, although the system can always be refined and made better. There seems to be an assumption that the previous registers were perfect, but in areas of high fraud that was simply not the case.
Eighty-seven per cent. of people have successfully been moved on to the electoral register. Yes, plenty still needs to be done, and that is why I agree with many parts of the motion. We need to tackle registration for the hard-to-reach groups and to make sure that EROs are doing the very best they can to ensure that as many people are on the register as possible. The reduction in the voting age that I hope will happen in future means that we need to do many of the things suggested in relation to schools and colleges. That work is being done through the all-party group on voter registration.
Part of the reason for implementing the new IER procedure was to increase the accuracy of the register. Those who represent an area like mine will know just how necessary that was, particularly in helping to deal with voter fraud. In many cases, not even the new system will bring about changes to the voter fraud that takes place as a result of certain behaviour and the failure of political parties to impose strong discipline on their own activists. In Bradford, 88% of people are automatically registered under the data-matching system, yet we are still likely to have problems with postal vote fraud in particular. The problem we have experienced is not that people are not legitimately registered to vote in a household, but that postal votes are collected and filled out on behalf of constituents or that unacceptable pressure is put on individuals to vote in a particular way, as court cases have identified.
As well as ensuring the accuracy of the register, we need to ensure that the police take seriously and investigate cases of fraud that are reported to them. Too often, the thought in the mind the police has been, “Well, they’re all at it,” and it has not been taken as seriously as it should be. In Bradford in the past, candidates of all parties have been required to sign a pledge stating that they will not take part in voter fraud. That is how serious the situation is in places like Bradford.
Between now and the election, work needs to go on. Bite the Ballot has been mentioned and I will be on a bus—which we are paying for, not the Government—going around the constituency tomorrow for national voter registration day. Last summer, we took the bus out and registered 250 young people in our constituency. That is where the effort should be going. That is the effective way of ensuring that we get people on a register that we can be satisfied with and that is more accurate.
Let me make it quite clear that the Labour Government introduced the notion of individual electoral registration and the motion before us in no way backtracks from that, no matter how much bluster we hear from the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and the Minister for the Constitution, who should look at the detail of how his Department is working. By falling back on the Electoral Commission, the Minister is making a big mistake.
I accept the argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). The original idea behind the process was to drive down the register, and we do not need to look too far to see where the Conservative party got it from. In the United States, the Republican party is doing exactly the same thing.
The hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) rightly emphasised what is being done to try to get people, particularly young people, on the register. I commend all those efforts, but it is not about working harder, to use the old BT phrase, but about working smarter. The Government are not doing that and I am afraid that the Electoral Commission is not doing it either.
The Minister asked why the focus was on young people, and I can give him the answer. According to the House of Commons Library, only 56% of 19 to 24-year-olds are registered to vote, whereas 94% of those aged over 65 are. I want to refer to one issue, which is the responsibility of the Minister and the Electoral Commission—he cannot get away from it—and that is the drop in the number of 18-year-olds who have been registered, particularly attainers.
In my constituency in 2012, there were 619 attainers on the register. In 2013 there were 701, in 2014 there were 632, and this year there are 114.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who was the MP who discovered the drop in the number of attainers. Is he aware that 87% of attainers were registered nationally last year whereas this year the figure has gone down to 52%?
I am, and I shall explain why.
The drop in North Durham is quite clear and we must ask why it has happened. We all know that 1997 was a very strong and passionate political year for this country. We could put the fall down to a drop in the birth rate in 1997—clearly there was a lack of passion in North Durham!—but that is obviously not the case. I wrote to my local returning officer about this, and I must pay tribute to Durham county council for the work it is trying to do to get through the minefield laid by the Electoral Commission and the Government. The response I received says that under the old system, where the head of household registered, a section of the form asked for the name of anyone who was 17 and would attain the age of 18 within the next year to be added. The new letter that was sent out to verify who was in the household included a sentence asking for the name of anyone it was thought should be registered to vote, but there was no reference to 17-year-olds. The Minister likes to hide behind the Electoral Commission, but, frankly, on occasions I find the Electoral Commission completely incompetent. On this occasion, it is.
I have raised the question directly with the Minister outside the House. I accept that he has given extra money for registration to councils such as Durham, but that is no good. When I went to county hall last Friday, I saw all the boxes of new letters ready to go out. I looked at the letter, and it does not cover 17-year-olds. When I asked the returning officer why not, he said that the council had to use the letter agreed by the Minister and the Electoral Commission. This was a missed opportunity to correct a basic problem.
In my constituency and other parts of the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd has shown, the problem will lead to hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of 17-year-olds not being registered, although they will attain the age of 18 this year and would be entitled to vote. That is a scandal, but something that could have been sorted out quite easily. Frankly, it is due to a combination of the Minister and the Electoral Commission. I am not surprised by the Minister because I do not think he has a great grasp of most the subjects for which he is responsible, but one would expect a bit more from the Electoral Commission.
There is an opportunity to put this matter right. Most local authorities know their 16 and 17-year-olds, because they are registered with them for education purposes. I challenge the Minister to instruct all local authorities, with money behind this if necessary, to use such data to ensure that 17-year-olds who will attain the age of 18 this year are actually registered. That must be done, otherwise many 17-year-olds who will turn 18 before 7 May will assume that they will get a vote, but will not get it.
I make no criticism of the hard work that has been done by a host of organisations to try to get young people registered. I have written to my local schools and publicised the issue locally to ensure that we can get as many as possible of those 17-years-old on the register.
In a democracy, it is important to ensure that the register is as accurate as possible. That was why the Labour Government brought in the process, which I support. It was done on a cross-party basis, and that consensus should have been maintained. When the Conservatives came to power as part of the coalition, they shattered that consensus and departed from it for their own reasons. We have heard a lot of guff about fraud. I love the idea that the only reason we have not had many fraud cases is the time limits, but my answer would be, “Well, change the time limits.”
I refer hon. Members to the Electoral Commission’s own evidence. In 2004, we had an all-postal ballot in Durham as part of the pilot.
Surely you would trust the Electoral Commission.
I do not trust the Electoral Commission on occasion, but in this case I do. Its report said that there was no evidence of major fraud in the administration of postal votes. In a local council by-election in my constituency, the change resulted in a turnout of 67%. A problem of turnout was highlighted in certain communities, but that was not a reason for binning it entirely. However, the Conservative party and the Daily Mail frothed at the mouth about postal voting being open to widespread fraud, for which there was no evidence whatsoever.
I ask the Minister to address the issue of 17-year-olds, which I have previously raised with him. We have missed the opportunity of doing so in the recent letters, but something needs to be done before registration closes on 20 April.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who is an agreeable chap. I can only assume that his conspiracy theory arises from his upbringing in the murky world of Labour and trade union politics in the north-east. Like his friend the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), he sees a conspiracy round every corner.
I have been in politics for 30 years, but for Labour Members it is always about politics, not about what is in the national interest or what is right. Even when they start off by doing what is right, proper and decent to address an issue, they turn around a few years later and say, “We don’t agree with it any more, because it does not suit our narrow partisan interests.” How do they have the gall?
The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd trooped through the Lobby to vote against fair and equal boundaries. Along the coast from his constituency, Arfon has an electorate of 49,000, while my next-door constituency of Cambridgeshire North West has almost 100,000 electors. He considers that to be democratic, but it is not.
When making seats equal was being railroaded through, 7.5 million people were missing from the register, which would be the equivalent of 100 extra parliamentary seats.
I am not wholly convinced that the Labour party has ever taken electoral integrity as seriously as it should have done. The hon. Gentleman talks about the criminal cases over the past few years. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) alluded to the fact that we simply do not know how much electoral registration stuffing there has been, because EROs and local authorities have not had the capacity to check that across the country. Under the Labour party, we saw electoral malpractice and criminal activity in Pendle, Derby, Birmingham, Bradford, Slough and Peterborough, to give just a few examples.
Let us be honest: this debate is a wasted opportunity for the Labour party. It is inviting us to conclude that an impact assessment of its Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, in which individual electoral registration was originally contained, would have shown no reduction in the number of people registering. Of course that is not the case. I was in the House at the time and we all knew that there would be a reduction after the first major change for many years.
The Labour party now comes back and says that this is an evil, wicked Tory plot to drive poor people off the register. The crocodile tears were not flowing when it blocked servicemen and women—people who were fighting and dying for our country—from coming back, casting their ballots and using the universal franchise. Labour Members were not worried then. Now they are full of crocodile tears and faux outrage over the patronising notion that their voters are not on the register.
The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) bemoans the situation with older people and postal votes. Does she think that people who are older are so stupid that they cannot fill out forms? Before the 2001 changes, older people and pensioners were able to fill out forms in cases of ill health, if they were working away or if they were in other circumstances. More to the point, the turnout was much higher.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way to the hon. Lady.
You named her.
I named her, but I have named a lot of people in this debate.
The Labour party’s problem is simple: it is useless Labour councils. Those useless Labour councils are being given a lot of taxpayers’ money to do the job properly. They should be canvassing, registering people, ensuring that the right people are on the register and ensuring that there is electoral integrity in the register. If Labour Members have problems in Bristol, County Durham and the London borough of Merton, all of which are controlled by the Labour party, they should take them up with local people.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
I cannot give way, I am afraid, because I have little time.
If this were a plot, we would not be putting so many public resources into the process. There has been £500,000 to boost confidence in the electoral system, £2.5 million has been spent on students and overseas voters, £6.8 million has been given to local authorities by the Department for Communities and Local Government for physical canvassing for registration, and there has been work on universities and housing associations as part of the Cabinet Office’s £9.8 million funding.
We accept that some people will be missed in the DWP data-matching. In the central ward in my constituency, about 40% of people were missed. We understand that, but it is ultimately the responsibility of local authorities to find the missing voters by physical door-to-door canvassing. In that way, we will have a full register with integrity.
For most of the time, the previous Labour Government were content to see the potential for electoral register stuffing.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I have two more brief points to make. In considering this issue, the Minister should look again at bespoke funding to investigate improprieties and criminal activities in respect of election fraud, because it is difficult for a small constabulary to cope with such matters. We must look again at the Representation of the People Act 1983 in respect of ID at polling stations and the ability to challenge voters in cases of impersonation. That is an important issue.
Finally, the Government have done an excellent job—largely, I admit, with cross-party support—on postal vote integrity, which is still an important issue. For example, Peterborough city council threw out one in five applicants for postal votes in Central ward in May 2014. Fraud is still a problem and we must be vigilant and protect the electoral integrity of our political system. We should ensure that the right people are on the electoral register and have the opportunity to vote. That is above party politics, and it is a shame that the Labour party cannot rise above partisan point scoring in the national interest.
I would like to say that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), but after that nonsense it is not, so I will not.
I represent more students by far than any other Member of the House—36,000 according to the latest census. They are not the only group that contributes to the enormous churn in the electoral register in my constituency, but I will concentrate my remarks on them. I am worried about their disfranchisement not simply because of the coming election, but because of the impact of their exclusion from the register on the next boundary review, which we know will be conducted on the basis of the register as it stands in December 2015.
The hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) challenged Labour Members on the principle of the equalisation of constituencies. We would embrace that principle but it must be on a legitimate basis, and the current register already contains deeply inequitable constituencies. There are many worse examples, but if we compare my constituency, Sheffield Central, with that of the Deputy Prime Minister next door in Sheffield Hallam, we see that the number of registered voters seems broadly comparable—the difference is about 5,000 people. However, 17% of households in my constituency have nobody registered, but that figure is just 4% in Sheffield Hallam. Sheffield Central has a population of 115,000 people, and Sheffield Hallam just 89,000—a variation of 26,000, which will only be made worse by the way the Government are dealing with IER.
Students are not the only group but they are a significant one, so to avoid that situation locally I worked with both universities to integrate electoral registration into the student enrolment process. We developed a system at the university of Sheffield for the 2014 entry which, if successful, will be rolled out to Sheffield Hallam university in 2015. I am sorry that the Minister misinterpreted my earlier remarks to attack Sheffield Hallam university for its low level of registration. Changing systems are complicated and we sought to work with Universities UK and the National Union of Students to encourage higher education institutions across the country to adopt a better system.
I am grateful for the support of the Cabinet Office for the pilot that we have been developing in Sheffield. The system requires students to make a positive decision about whether they wish to register to vote as a required step in their enrolment. Last September the scheme was successful, with around 64% of students choosing to register, as the Minister highlighted. The system then took people to the next step, which required them to fill in their national insurance number. At that point, two thirds of people dropped out of the system because they did not have ready access to their NI number and did not want to halt their enrolment. The situation looked bleak with only 24% of students registered, despite more than double that number wanting to register.
Again, credit is due to the Cabinet Office, because new guidance issued on 10 December allowed electoral registration officers to use their discretion to verify an application using only student enrolment data. Therefore in late December and January, our EROs added 7,000 students to the electoral register, even though they did not provide their NI numbers. That is sensible because universities have clearly collected significant and substantial information to verify student identity as part of their registration process.
The Minister said earlier that he is looking at ways of using data collected for other purposes to construct the register, so will he answer one specific question? It would be simpler to roll out this system across universities than to seek national insurance numbers in the first place, especially given that the Government are clearly happy for people not to have them. Would it not be better, therefore, to have a simple system in which we ask students, “Do you want to register to vote?” and then use the information the university has collected as sufficient verification?
I see the Minister nodding. If he will confirm that in his winding-up speech, it would be a significant step forward in encouraging student registration across the country.
Finally, there is a wider lesson to be learned. With commitment, creativity and resources, IER can be introduced successfully. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, we need to transfer those lessons to other organisations, such as schools, housing providers, residential homes, doctors’ surgeries and so on, to widen the register.
I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). I want to pick up where he left off—on young people.
One of the worst things about the big fall in the number of people on the register is the massive reduction in the number of young people. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) said, if young people do not get the habit of voting when they first can, they are highly unlikely to take it up later in life. In a written parliamentary question, I asked the Minister, who is not quite in his place,
“how many people have been informed that their application for inclusion on the…register was not valid because their national insurance number was not provided”.
“Failure to provide a National Insurance number does not result in an application being declared invalid.”
He does not know what is going on. I have a letter from an ERO in response to a young person’s application to register to vote. It read, “Thank you for your recent application to register. Unfortunately, I am unable to process your application because it was incomplete. The following information is required and was incorrect or missing: national insurance number.”
There are 440,000 young people still at school who turned 18 between 1 September and 1 May. The person that letter was sent to could not register because she did not have her national insurance number. I do not know how many hon. Members spend a lot of time with teenagers, but a letter with a young person’s national insurance number arrives before they are 16, and we are suggesting that two years later teenagers will know where that letter is and have kept it in a safe place. I cannot think of anything more naïve. How many young people will have lost it?
What about the parents?
Yes, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the “ring mum” solution before. How outrageous. What about young people in care? What about young people estranged from their families? What a disgraceful attitude to large numbers of young people.
We rang the council to find out what to do. It suggested that the person bring their passport, which costs £72. It suggested a driving licence, which costs £34. These are all things that young people do not have.
They don’t have passports?
I tabled a PQ to the man who is commenting from a sedentary position now asking how young people were supposed to know what their national insurance number was. His answer was: payslips and correspondence with HMRC and the Department for Work and Pensions. The truth is that 18-year-olds who are still at school do not have payslips or correspondence with HMRC or DWP. The Government have not thought this through.
The other thing the council asked for was a council tax bill. No 18-year-old gets a council tax bill. This is completely incompetent. Ministers have not thought this through. I went to the website to find out what to do. Nobody can get their national insurance number on the website. That is not how it works. They can, however, ring a very nice man on: 0300 200 3500. They will get a very nice man with a lovely Lancashire accident, and he will put their national insurance number in the post.
The suggestion that we have heard from Ministers that this information is readily available is totally naïve. The DWP Ministers who are responsible for giving people their national insurance numbers and informing them cannot even be bothered to turn up and sit on the Bench for this debate. They have a central role. The truth is that it displays all the attitudes of DWP Ministers to young people: they want to take the housing benefit off 18 to 21-year-olds; now they want to take the vote from those very same young people. It is a total disgrace. [Interruption.]
Has the hon. Lady completed her speech? We are grateful to her.
It is good to contribute. First of all, right hon. and hon. Members, including the Minister and the shadow Minister, have been very kind in referring to Northern Ireland’s experience. It provided an important example for the rest of the United Kingdom. If I may, I would like to provide a little more of the Northern Ireland perspective.
On electoral registration, our aim should be to have an open, honest, transparent and, more importantly, accessible system so that those who want to vote are able to do so without difficulty. We do not need any more reason to deter or make difficult the process of voting, and there are obvious worries that the plans for individual voter registration will let many slip through the cracks. We also have to protect our democracy from fraud, and individual voter registration is one way of doing that, as many Members have suggested.
Before the Northern Ireland initiative, it was evident that, as the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland reported, there had been a significant and worrying decline in both the accuracy and completeness of Northern Ireland’s electoral register. On 1 April 2012, post-general election, the register was 78% accurate, with one in five entries relating to people who were no longer resident at the address. An estimated 400,000 people were not registered at the correct address. Understandably, we had an ambition to address that issue.
It is valuable to have discussions in the devolved Administrations and the Northern Ireland Assembly in particular in the hope that through our respective Governments we can learn from each other about what makes for best practice.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best initiatives in Northern Ireland has been the voter electoral identity card? People can apply for it, and it is free. It has a photograph and other identity marks on it, and it allows people to carry that credit card into the electoral booth to prove who they are and maintain their vote without molestation.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. Yes, that is another example of something that was done in Northern Ireland, and it is important to note that it provides a free opportunity to get voter identification.
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that one reason the registration effort in schools has been so successful is precisely that the electoral ID card is a strong incentive. It is not necessarily that pupils are overwhelmingly committed to voting for our party!
I would not necessarily go with that opinion, because when the pupils congregate for the cards and we help them to go and get them, I think we will gain from that. I am ever the optimist, as you know, Mr Speaker, and I am sometimes referred to as a “glass half full” person. I am conscious of the time, so I will continue.
It is important to address fraud. There have been examples in west Belfast in the past where up to half a dozen people were living in blocked up houses. I do not know how they got in there. If one had four legs, it was easy to get in, but not so easy for those with two legs. That is all I can say. It is acknowledged that we are likely to have a higher volume of voters in the general election—the contest to watch—so for that reason we need accessibility along with accurate data.
In 2012, Northern Ireland had an accuracy of 78% in its electoral registers. That clearly showed what we could do. The electorate of Northern Ireland grew by 9.8% between 2007 and 2012, in comparison with only 2.8% for United Kingdom and the rest of the mainland. Big steps were taken; we moved forward very quickly.
It is now a given that we must talk about technology in all strategies for engaging with and reaching the public. The online system is one thing we have introduced and it has been successful, although I think we could do more with it. Over 90% of responders gave positive feedback, so there have been issues that we have been able to deal with.
The system of voter registration in Northern Ireland for those at further education colleges has been good. There needs to be leafleting and marketing in our universities and colleges and our local businesses, and at grass-roots campaigning levels. Visuals and sign-up drives are also very important.
I urge Ministers to bear it in mind that, in the light of the upcoming elections and the fact that the nation’s eyes will be on how we run the votes, we should be ready for scrutiny and accountability.
Today’s debate comes at an important time. There are just 92 days until the general election. As we were reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who has done fantastic work throughout the current Parliament and before, the Electoral Commission estimated last summer that 7.5 million eligible adults were missing from the electoral register. Our estimate, based on local authority information, is that a further 1 million people have fallen off the register since then.
Throughout the debate, the Minister and Conservative Back Benchers have shown extraordinary complacency. It has been a case of “Blame the local councils”, “blame the Electoral Commission”, “blame the universities”, or “blame the voters themselves.” Conservative Members have wanted to blame everyone except the Government, whose rushed timetable has led to the present position, as the Labour party has said consistently ever since the Government introduced legislation earlier in this Parliament. It is simply not good enough. It is scandalous that, in the 21st century, people will turn up at polling stations and be turned away. We all have a responsibility to do more to ensure that our democracy is not undermined in that way.
Let me be fair: the Government have taken some steps that we welcome, and which are welcomed in the motion. Online registration is hugely welcome, as is the opening up of new data sets for electoral registration officers and new guidance on student registration. Today the Minister announced the provision of £2.5 million, and we welcome that as well. However, I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will tell us more about how the money will be allocated, and, in particular, will tell us whether fantastic organisations such as Bite the Ballot will be eligible to bid for it. I think that such organisations know better than any of us how to reach the young people who, as has been pointed out today, are falling off the register.
Bite the Ballot has done amazing work. Anyone who has observed its work in schools—as I have, in both England and Scotland—will know that students walk into the classroom apathetic and uninterested, and walk out debating the rights and wrongs of the death penalty or priorities for public spending. I greatly welcome its efforts, and specifically welcome tomorrow’s fantastic national voter registration day, of which we were reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). As I said, the Electoral Commission estimated last summer that 7.5 million people were missing from the register, and we estimate that a further 1 million are missing from the new register.
As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), students in higher education are disproportionately affected by the change. That is why, in the motion, we suggested allowing universities and colleges to block-register students in halls of residence. I pay tribute to the remarkable work that he has done, working with his local authority and the universities in Sheffield.
And the Cabinet Office.
I was about to say that. If the Minister had been a little more patient, he would have heard me say that I welcome the new guidance from the Cabinet Office, which allows electoral registration officers to register certain individuals if a national insurance number is not or cannot be submitted, and has been verified by data that are within the Government’s guidelines. As my hon. Friend told us, Sheffield university has been able to add 7,000 student electors to the register as a result. However, although it is hugely welcome, the guidance came very late. It would have been so much better if the excellent practice at Sheffield university could have been shared by every university.
As the motion says, we believe that the Government should allow universities to register students en bloc, but, at the very least, will the Government write to all vice-chancellors reiterating the new guidance and, in particular, offering that excellent case study of Sheffield university, so that, even at this late stage, we can boost registration in time for the election in May?
Perhaps the most significant and disturbing development is the one that was cited by my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman): the apparent massive decline in the number of attainers—17-year-olds who will reach the age of 18 during the coming year. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) reminded the House of the figure for Liverpool. Last year, there were 2,300 attainers on Liverpool’s electoral register; this year, there are just 76. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham described this as a scandal. It is indeed a scandal. The Minister said, rightly, that we should learn from Northern Ireland. One thing we can learn from Northern Ireland is this: the schools initiative in Northern Ireland sees electoral registration officers visiting schools and colleges in their area to encourage young people to register, and requires the schools and colleges to give information to the electoral registration officer so they have the data on school students that can then be used for registration purposes.
In Northern Ireland, when the previous Labour Government began the transition to IER, we saw a massive fall in the number of attainers on the first register—it was very similar to what we have seen in England, Scotland and Wales this year. It fell from 10,000 to 244, which is an even more dramatic fall than the one we have seen in Liverpool. After the schools initiative was introduced, the number of attainers registered went up dramatically to a higher level than was achieved under the household register. My understanding is that on the latest register in Northern Ireland, two thirds of attainers are now registered. That is actually higher than the proportion under the old system of household registration.
In Northern Ireland, registration rates plummeted to about 11% when IER was introduced. In the UK, nine out of 10 have automatically been transferred to IER. The two situations are not similar. The reason we have managed to achieve that is that we have focused on the annual canvass, which Northern Ireland did not.
We are talking about the very specific issue of attainers: those who will reach the age of 18 in the current year. The drop-off in Liverpool, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham referred to, also happened in Northern Ireland, and perhaps even more dramatically, according to the figures I was given. My point relates directly to the motion. If we adopt the Northern Ireland schools initiative in England, Scotland and Wales, we can reverse this. That is no reversal of IER. It is still individual registration, but it is about going into schools and colleges. [Interruption.] I am delighted to hear the Minister say, “Do it.” Will Ministers stand up and commit to introducing the legislation immediately? We will support it. Please, bring forward the legislation to enable England, Scotland and Wales to achieve what has been done in Northern Ireland.
EROs, who are responsible for maintaining the register in their local areas, can go to schools and talk about registering. They do not need legislation to do that. The only thing legislation will do is increase the burden on schools, which we do not want to do.
The whole point of the schools initiative is that the duty is on the schools and colleges, as well as on the electoral registration officers. That is why it has worked in Northern Ireland and that is what we would need here. I repeat what I said—perhaps the Minister’s colleague, the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons can respond to this in his closing remarks. If we share a concern across the House on this, it is not too late—it is quite late, but it is not too late—for us to pass legislation for England, Scotland and Wales that matches the schools initiative in Northern Ireland, and reverse that appalling, scandalous and dramatic fall in the number of attainers on the electoral register.
We are in a position where emergency action is urgently needed. From a position that was far, far from perfect previously, with 7.5 million not on the register, we have seen a further drop-off. We have until 20 April: two-and-a-half months. We are proposing two very straightforward changes that could make a real difference: allow live-in institutions to block-register their residents; and immediately introduce the schools initiative so that we can boost youth participation. Those two changes alone could see hundreds of thousands of people added back on to the register. Tomorrow is national voter registration day. We cannot, surely, afford to have a lost generation of young people disconnected from our democratic process. We are arguing for two very, very simple reforms. If the Government join us, we will support them in implementing those reforms. I urge them to do so today.
The debate has been important and wide ranging. We have heard many analyses of the issues we face and a number of possible solutions. The problem of under-registration did not happen overnight, and it will not be fixed overnight. Its causes are complex and are linked to increased population mobility and disengagement from traditional party politics. It is nonsense to suggest, as I am afraid many Opposition Members did, that this Government do not take the issue of under-registration seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As the Minister for the Constitution made clear, the Government are committed to enhancing both the accuracy and the completeness of the electoral register. That is why I cannot support the idea of block registration. The whole purpose of individual electoral registration is that it is individual; it is not block registration. It is not people being put on a register who do not know that that has happened.
The decline in the completeness of the registers between 2000 and 2010—in other words, under the last Government—has been arrested. The most recent research by the Electoral Commission shows that levels of electoral registration have stabilised since 2011. I hope we can all welcome that, but it is of course not enough.
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. The figure was 7.5 million under Labour and it is 7.5 million now. Is he aware that the EC’s aim is still to have 7.5 million people on the register by 2019? Does that not show a lack of ambition by the EC?
I think that Members on both sides of the House would like the Electoral Commission to achieve much more than that, and of course that is why the Government have set out £14 million of spending, which I am going to come to, to boost registration.
We have taken a number of vital and novel steps to transform electoral registration in this country. Online registration, which has been welcomed by everyone, was introduced for the first time last year and makes registering to vote easier than ever. Of course young people in particular, who spend a significant percentage of their time online and are very familiar with using systems online, will be able to use that very easily. It is easier, too, for people to encourage others to register, simply by sharing a link to the gov.uk website.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) showed how difficult it is for young people to know their national insurance number. What action are the Government going to take to ensure that 16 to 18-year-olds know their NI number so that they can register to vote, and thereby deal with this problem?
First, as the hon. Gentleman may know, EROs can advise on alternative sources of that information, and I am sure that best practice in helping young people in that respect will be disseminated. I should also say that given that the Labour party supports, as I do, the idea of young people being able to vote at 16, I am a little worried that Labour Members seem to think that young people are completely incapable of keeping any records themselves.
Last month the Government announced a further package of funding of up to £10 million to support activities to maximise registration.
I will make a little more progress.
That was on top of the £4.2 million invested last year. The Labour party has rightly wanted to know some of the detail of that, and I will come on to that. Most of this money has already been distributed to EROs, to support their work. Earlier today we announced how the rest of the funding will be used to encourage traditionally under-registered groups to register. If this was part of a Government conspiracy to stop either young people or poorer people registering, as has been suggested by some Opposition Members, then I do not understand why we would have spent £14 million over the last two years on trying to boost registration.
The funding will be provided to a number of national organisations, including the British Youth Council, Citizens Advice, Citizens UK, Homeless Link, the National Housing Federation, Mencap, Operation Black Vote and UK Youth. Many of these organisations work directly with the groups of people the Labour party has suggested the Government are trying to deny the right to vote.
I acknowledge the money being given to councils such as Durham to send out “cleansing” letters, which they are doing next week, but why was reference to 17-year-olds missed off those letters? That was not up to Durham county council; that is the letter it had to use, which the right hon. Gentleman has agreed and the EC has used.
My understanding is that the Electoral Commission provides guidance that the EROs then act on, but they do have some leeway in how they interpret it. Given that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue four times today and clearly wants a response, I will ensure that he gets a written reply.
I have listed the organisations that are going to work very actively on promoting voter registration among the people they work with. They have direct experience of working with unregistered groups and insight into what works. The £2.5 million campaign is funded from the £10 million announced in January to increase voter registration rates. From this we will also be funding student bodies, including the National Union of Students. As I said earlier, if the Government intended to stop students registering, as some of the more overheated Opposition Members have suggested, we would hardly be funding the NUS.
Will the Minister congratulate Sean Goulding, John Treacy, Nathan Coe and Mitchell Murdoch—from Carshalton Boys Sports college, in his constituency—who, unfunded, are running their campaign for first-time voters, which can be found on Twitter at #ftvote?
I am of course very happy to support that initiative, as I am indeed doing.
As a number of Members have highlighted, national voter registration day, organised by Bite the Ballot, which I have worked with, takes place tomorrow. Events will be held up and down the country and I urge everyone here in the Chamber to do what they can to support this and similar initiatives. Of course, we all have at our fingertips the ability—through the many tweets Members send out, through Facebook postings, through the e-mails we send out—to encourage young people to register to vote, and we should all be participating in that.
Tomorrow, the Electoral Commission’s overseas voter registration day marks the launch of its activities over the coming months to encourage British citizens overseas to register and to vote. The Ministry of Defence will also be launching its annual information campaign for the armed forces tomorrow—the start of a range of activity to encourage service personnel and their families to ensure they are registered to vote ahead of the general election.
As well as having a publicity campaign with the telephone number for national insurance numbers, why does the Minister not change the letter so that when people get it, they know that they will need it when they register to vote? No mention is made of that at the moment.
I am very happy to take that point on board and see whether it can be acted on.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee will be publishing its report on voter engagement, and it will no doubt include a range of thoughtful recommendations for the future. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) suggested that the use of photo ID might be appropriate, but the PCRC has recommended that the Government do not adopt the Electoral Commission’s suggestion that people take photo ID to the polling station.
There will be things the next Government can do further to modernise electoral registration in this country.
In the time left I will try to respond to some of the specific points that were made. This is all about ensuring that the electoral register is accurate. That is what the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) wants, and that is what we are trying to do.
On attainers in Liverpool, I have concerns that the best practice that exists in some local authorities is clearly not being picked up by others. My own local authority has successfully exchanged census information from schools with the ERO to ensure that a very significant percentage of young people at school are now on the register. The small number who are not are being individually chased by local authorities to ensure that that happens. So it can be done, and in fact an EROs conference is taking place today at which I am sure some of these issues will be debated.
Yes, we should give special focus to young people, but it is worth pointing out that we will not support the proposed legal requirement for EROs to go into schools. Of course, there are local authorities such as mine where the issue is not registering young people to vote but ensuring that older people in care homes are registered. Forcing EROs to go into schools, where there is not a problem, would tie down resources, which could result in there being insufficient resources to enable them to focus on the areas that they need to focus on. Clearly they have the ability to go into schools now; there is no need for the law to be changed to enable them to do it. We would of course encourage all schools to be participating in this regard. As I have said, there are things that the next Government—
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Main Question accordingly put.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This afternoon, the Serjeant at Arms confirmed to me that the former Member for Eastleigh, Mr Chris Huhne, had applied for and been granted a parliamentary pass. Given the low esteem with which many Members of this House are held by our constituents in regard to poor behaviour, is there any method that we can use to rescind that application to ensure that someone who is a convicted criminal cannot freely walk around the Palace of Westminster?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. He has put his concerns on the record. That said I will, if I may, make two points. First, these are matters dealt with by an established process under the auspices of the Serjeant at Arms, and although I do not cavil at the hon. Gentleman having an opinion on the matter, we do not discuss security related matters on the Floor of the Chamber. Secondly, I put it on the record that, although the hon. Gentleman has a view that he has expressed with great alacrity, there is also the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which is on the statute book. I note what he says and I understand his concern and no one will deny him the right to his point of view, but we will leave it there for tonight.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I inquire whether there is any way within the rules of order that I can draw attention to a possible misprint on the Order Paper to the House of Commons relating to the cross-party early-day motion 757 on defence spending, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff), along with the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) and about a dozen others including me? It reads as follows:
“That this House believes that the UK faces a growing and ever more complex range of current and future threats…and supports the UK devoting at least 20% of its gross domestic product to defence.”
When I signed the early-day motion, I was under the impression that I was supporting 2%. It is beyond even my wildest dreams to have 20%, but a figure in between would not be unacceptable.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. He inquired whether there was a mechanism within the rules of order. As he well knows, there is, and he has just used it. It was 31 years three months ago that I first met the hon. Gentleman. All I will say about him tonight is that once a propagandist who seizes his moment, always a propagandist who seizes his moment.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. There is a serious point underlying this matter, which is that the 2% figure is indeed what the UK Government have encouraged every other NATO country to contribute of GDP to defence. This 2% figure is essential both to UK national security and to our international reputation.
The hon. Gentleman has reaffirmed the 2% point.
If Sir Gerald Howarth really must make a point of order, I suppose that we must hear him.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I put it that there needs to be an investigation? Clearly, the Table Office is under the impression that those right hon. and hon. Members have suggested 20%. I have to say that I could not possibly cavil at that. It seems to be the very minimum that we should be spending on defence in view of what has been suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), the Chairman of the esteemed Defence Committee. Will you, Mr Speaker, confirm with the Table Office that it has accurately recorded that which right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have tabled?
I have always known that the hon. Gentleman is no great advocate of increased public expenditure, but defence tends to be an exception. He has made his own point in his own way.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You talk about the main act, but is this not an appropriate overture for the main act? After all the Scottish people are determined to stay in the Union precisely because they want to maintain Trident.
That may be so. We will leave it there. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.