[Relevant documents: Voter engagement in the UK, Fourth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, HC 232, and the Government response, HC 1037; and Voter engagement in the UK: follow up, Sixth Report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, HC 938]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Davies. Today’s debate on voter engagement is timely, given that today is national voter registration day. That happy coincidence means that we are going to talk about something very relevant, and although few Members are in the Chamber at the moment, I suspect that many people will be watching our proceedings with great interest. I understand that there has been a tremendous amount of traffic regarding the matter on Twitter today, and that we have a lot of interest from people outside Parliament on this important topic. I was hoping that I could bring some detailed information with me about what has happened on Facebook and how many hits there have been on various websites—perhaps those figures will come to me as I speak—but there has certainly been a great deal of activity.
Last night, following the debate we had on the Floor of the House on individual electoral registration, we had an event, sponsored by the House, during which an animation of a ballot box with ballot papers going into it was projected on to Big Ben. Members of Parliament from all political parties joined me on Westminster bridge; they were doing selfies, videos and little bits for their own constituents—press releases and so on. I would like to thank all those involved in the event. It was great fun, and a lot of passers-by got engaged with what we were doing and were very interested.
I particularly want to thank Holly Greenland and her team at Outreach for all their support in getting the event organised, as well as Mr Speaker, who gave us permission to hold the event. It is the sort of thing that has to be treasured and done only occasionally, but when it is, I think it has great impact. Perhaps on similar occasions, the House might consider doing similar things.
There is also an immense amount of interest from a lot of organisations. I read the names of a few of them into the record yesterday, when I had my six minutes to speak in the debate on individual electoral registration. In relation to the subject of yesterday’s debate, I particularly want to mention on record Bite the Ballot, which is a small organisation that punches way above its weight. It has been a great pleasure to work with it; it reaches out to all Members of Parliament from all parties and makes a real difference through its efforts.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his leadership on the important issue of electoral registration. I also pay tribute to the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), but I am disappointed that no Minister has turned up for the debate.
I talked earlier to Bite the Ballot, which hoped to register 200,000 voters today. To put that in perspective, the Electoral Commission’s aim was to get 142,000 people registered in the two months before the general election. In paying tribute to Bite the Ballot, will my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) ensure that the Electoral Commission raises its game as far as electoral registration is concerned?
I am happy to pay tribute to Bite the Ballot. I very much hope that it will reach that target, which, for a voluntary organisation, would be absolutely immense.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has reservations about the way in which the Electoral Commission has participated in raising the number of people on the electoral register. We feel that it should be much more ambitious in getting people on the register. We say that in our report, and we are not being churlish in doing so; it is an open comment that we have made directly to the Electoral Commission. At the heart of the matter is the fact that 7.5 million people are not registered to vote. That means that in your constituency of Shipley, Mr Davies, there are probably 10,000 electors who are not on the electoral register. I am talking not about the ones who are registered but do not vote—we will come to them in a moment—but about people who are not connected with our democracy at all. That is frightening, and I have to say that given the demography of my constituency, I would be absolutely amazed if the number of people who are not even on the register there was not half as much again. Those people have turned away from politics not because of any recent issues, but because they do not feel that it can do anything for them or that it is relevant to them. It is incumbent on all of us, whatever our political persuasion, to ensure that that disengagement is halted and reversed. Why? Because it threatens our democracy.
Some will say, “The more people you register, the more you help Labour”. But do you know what? If we do not have people participating in our democracy, the institution itself could be threatened. That is my big worry. I shall not repeat my remarks from yesterday, because my speeches from yesterday and today could be read together, but I alluded to the fact that political parties and party leaders have historically been so focused on winning the key 70 to 90 marginal seats that we are not doing what we should to keep our constituencies in good health on a nationwide basis.
It was myself who informed the Electoral Commission that 6 million people were missing off the register after I met with Experian, the credit reference agency. Initially, the Electoral Commission denied that, but it researched the matter and said, “Yes, you are right.” Experian told me that if I had all the missing voters in my constituency registered, my political chances of being re-elected would be diminished. This is not an argument about political benefit; it is an argument about democracy, as my hon. Friend said.
That is a fundamental point. Regardless of anyone’s political persuasion, our democracy lives and dies by the participation of the people and the trust that people have in the system. If we do not maintain and cherish it, it can be diminished, not least because of what I called yesterday the corrosive drip-feed of cynicism from the media in all its aspects—and sometimes, my goodness, we have deserved the cynicism. It is incumbent on all of us to be a bit more optimistic, a bit more dynamic, and a bit more vital in refurbishing our democracy. If the current trend continues, I am afraid that our democracy itself could be threatened.
I will now gladly give way to the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—she might explain why the Minister is not with us this afternoon.
First, I apologise on behalf of the Minister. For whatever reason, he has it in his diary that this debate starts at 2 o’clock—given that we changed the sitting hours of the House a couple of years ago, I am sure that he will make his own apology to the hon. Gentleman. I also want to make sure that all hon. Members realise that the civil servants will be taking notes, so that the Minister is fully up to speed with all the issues covered in the first part of this debate. He assures me that he is on his way.
May I come back to the point about turnout? The largest turnout in recent years was during the 1992 election. Then the turnout started to decline, but it rose again for the last election. I genuinely believe that the British public realise when there is something at stake, and turnout does increase. Even in my constituency, which some would consider to be safe—I never do, because I do not think any Member of Parliament should be complacent about their constituents’ views—the turnout was over 71%. I am therefore not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that just because the so-called marginal seats get a lot of political attention, the turnout there will be higher.
I am not trying to diminish the hon. Lady’s helpful and valuable contribution, but part of the reason for turnout figures is that if large numbers of people are not registered, the group from which turnout is drawn is smaller. None of us wants to be in the situation at the ridiculous extreme where we have 100% turnout of one person.
On a point of order, Mr Davies. I listened to what the Conservative Whip said, but, in your time as a Chair, have you ever known a Minister not to turn up for such an important debate? Could an Officer or a Whip get a message to the Minister to tell him to get here right now to listen to the important words of the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee? We are discussing our second report in three months on the most important constitutional issue facing us. He has done an excellent job and the Minister’s absence shows disrespect to him, to the Committee, to you and to the House.
Further to that point of order, Mr Davies. Could we not ask the House authorities to send a letter to Ministers’ diary secretaries so that they are fully aware of the times of the House and can ensure that Ministers have the right times in their diaries?
They say that what we say in Parliament does not count for anything, but those two points of order have counted for a great deal, because I see that the Minister has now arrived, and very welcome he is too.
As I was saying, large numbers of people are very much engaged in the process, but we are almost at a crisis point. We are coming to the end of a five-year Parliament, and I think we have 91 days left before the election and 72 days left before the close of registration. Therefore, if we are to encourage the millions of people out there who are not on the register to get on to it, we have 72 days.
It is relatively easy to get on to the register these days, particularly for those who are online. It can be done in a minute, even by those who are not technologically adept. I managed to help my daughter to get on the electoral register on an iPhone, but there are still the normal ways to do it through post and telephone among others. However, the figure of 72 days should be sobering for all of us. Parliament has only 38 days of involvement left. I hope that those are not 38 days to bob, weave and not do anything, but 38 days of great action from the Minister in particular to encourage people to get on the register for the important election that is coming up.
Are we not dealing with symptoms rather than causes? Is not the fundamental issue—I hope my hon. Friend’s Committee will take this on board in time —that we need an effective system of national registration not just for parliamentary elections but for driving licences and national insurance cards? That would not be revolutionary, because for decades people in Holland have had to register with the local municipality within three months of moving. That registration is then notified to all other parts of government. That avoids various problems, and that information becomes the electoral register. If we did that, we would save huge sums of money and get a far more complete register as well.
I talked yesterday about the reasons why people are disengaged with the process, which are deep and fundamental and need to be addressed at a political level. Today we are talking more about the nuts and bolts—the process. My right hon. Friend made a good point that it is not as if we are bereft of ideas. If we look around the globe, we will see that others do this better than us. That is not asking a great deal.
Governments of all parties need to get together to consider this matter It is no good just criticising the Government for inaction in the past five years or even previous Governments in the time before that—I am not making any partisan points. I look in a friendly way to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), when I say that. All parties need to be clear that what they say in their manifestos is what they will do, whatever Government is formed after May. Perhaps the ideas suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) and those in my Select Committee’s reports may help address that.
The point I was making was that we are crisis-managing at the end of a Parliament when a little pre-emptive activity earlier on might well have seen a steady flow of people registering and saved us a considerable amount of grief. Then we could have bitten into the 7.5 million people who are not on the register in a deeper way. Indeed, if we do get 200,000 people registered today as a result of national voter registration day, that will make a contribution, but almost that figure is needed on every single one of the remaining 38 days before Dissolution to make any serious impact on that enormous figure.
My hon. Friend mentions a figure of 7.5 million people who are missing from the register. In fact, it has gone up by 1 million in the past year to 8.5 million. Will he join me in asking the Electoral Commission to raise its stakes, because its 2014-19 plan says that it will be happy if 7.5 million people are still off the register in 2019? It will give itself a big fat tick for that.
I have referred to that already and I am happy to refer my hon. Friend to the report that he helped the Committee to agree unanimously. I think page 61 says exactly that: the Electoral Commission needs much more ambitious targets. It needs assistance from this House, the Government and electoral registration officers throughout the land to make an impact.
Before I come to our report, I will first, and most obviously, thank the Speakers Commission on Digital Democracy, which I will refer to a little in my remarks. It has done excellent work and its report was published last week. Thankfully, most of its recommendations overlap almost inseparably with our conclusions. The Speaker is to be congratulated on taking that initiative. I think that such ideas will become common practice and, in 10 or 20 years’ time, people will say, “Why on earth didn’t they do that when they had the technology early on?” If banking can be done securely online, there is no reason why, with a little bit of effort, we could not do something similar. That is what we propose in our report, which I will come on to later.
I also want to thank the people who were involved in Parliament week. We are in real danger of Parliament doing something significant here in helping to build our democracy, with this place standing up for democracy in a way that does not necessarily mean that it is supporting or opposing the Government of the day. Parliament can have a will of its own. I was involved in Parliament week, which was a wonderful event that involved a massive amount of interaction with young people aged 16 to 24—the very group that we want to get involved. My involvement was over in the atrium of Portcullis House and the interaction was fantastic. We estimate that there were more than 1.3 million contacts and interactions during that week, which is an enormous number of young people for any campaign to reach. Members of Parliament took part in live chats and web chats with, we think, up to 4,000 young people and there were nearly 2,000 recorded tweets—my congratulations to Lee Bridges and his team in Parliament.
The idea that people in Parliament are somehow stuffy and getting in the way is not the case. We have bags of ideas in Parliament, as Members will see in the report. I come back to my point about the House’s involvement in general and the fact that we are leaving it very late. I must say to hon. Members that the Select Committee that they, as parliamentarians, elected, along with its Chair, have taken the issue very seriously: the report on voter engagement that came out a few weeks ago and the follow-up that we are launching today are the last two of seven reports on this issue from my Committee over the past five years. Anyone who says, “We didn’t know,” or, “Oh, what a shame we didn’t have that idea—why didn’t they tell us?” should go back to the first report we did and go through it: they will see some of the ideas that will help to build, strengthen and grow our democracy. We know how to do it—none of it is rocket science—and it is very important that we now start to take action.
Parliament is not an executive body. All it can do is tee up the opportunity. It can outline how things could go, draft Bills and clauses, and write resolutions of the House—and we have done. It is all there. The only thing we cannot do is execute. The Government have to do that. That is why, as we have gone through this five-year Parliament, we have honed our proposals until we now have six key ideas that could happen as soon as a Government—of any political complexion—show the political will. As soon as they want to do this stuff, it can be trialled.
The first proposal is about voting online. I have already referred to the fact that the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy has come out in favour of that idea. We have spent a considerable amount of time examining the possibilities and consulting people. In the time between the publication of the report that came out on 14 November and the publication of the follow-up that has come out today, 16,000 people have interacted with the Select Committee. I think that is a world record—I do not think that a Select Committee has ever engaged in that way before. Not only did we have written evidence and responses as normal, but we had external organisations putting out response forms on the proposals in the report. Those organisations include Bite the Ballot, Unlock Democracy, the Hansard Society, the Electoral Reform Society and many others—I hope I will be forgiven if I do not mention them all today. That is how we managed to get 16,000 interactions with people and distil the proposals in the earlier report into the document we have published today. That is a fantastic feather in the cap of the House and, if I may say so as an aside, an indication that Select Committees might get even more credibility by doing comparable exercises on issues of concern to the general public—I will leave it at that.
Voting online was one issue where there was an enormous response, and 60% of the responses were clear that it was something we should pursue. Instead of saying, “Yes, let’s go snap on this. It’s a wonderful idea —let’s do it tomorrow,” my Select Committee has said, “We believe that voting online is the way of the future, that people should have a serious debate nationally and that after the election in May a proposal should come before the House of Commons to discuss and agree the way forward on online voting.” We are not dictating that we should be doing it in the next few weeks or that it has to be done in a particular way, but exploring that issue. If, as I say, people are prepared to put their bank account online, why on earth can we not commission the right people and get the right reports written so that by 2020 we can have an election in which people can not only register but vote online? I cannot remember the exact number—he will know better than me—but I think in the debate yesterday the Minister quoted a figure of many hundreds of thousands of people taking the opportunity to register online, so why not have many hundreds of thousands of people voting online if they choose to? That deserves serious consideration by whichever party or parties form the next Government. Let us get on with that experiment so that we can put it into action; the Speaker’s Commission agreed with that view.
The next issue that the Select Committee reported on to the House is compulsory voting. That is always a sensitive issue, as there are clearly aspects that will make us all a little bit anxious. Telling people what they should do should not be in the vocabulary of anyone in this place. However, there are, again, examples from other countries where civilisation as we know it does not collapse when there is a desire to ask every citizen to carry out their democratic duty. In my view, it is a part of the social contract—if someone benefits from a society, they should interact with and be a part of it to some degree. The minimal amount of interaction, in my opinion, should be to vote. Most of us do it, but there are large numbers of people who simply cannot be bothered.
From my own point of view, I have to say that I do not ever want to vote online except in particular circumstances—because I am not in the country, or some such other reason—because I actually enjoy the process of going down to the polling station. It is an unusual democratic activity, and, as we have seen in Scotland, can be the culmination of an interesting and exciting experience of democracy. I will always want to go down to the polling station as my first preference, although I might be away or want to use a postal vote, or whatever. But someone might choose to vote online. For me, the question is whether someone has chosen to vote. Let us put the customer first. If young people, in particular, find it much more convenient to vote online and will be happier if they can, we should facilitate that. Then the bogey of compulsion becomes a very thin spectre indeed, because many more people will have the facility to vote and will do so.
My hon. Friend has rehearsed the arguments on the issue so much in the Select Committee that he is even picking out the lines I am about to come to in my speech. He is absolutely right. If someone wants to abstain, they should at least have the courtesy to the rest of society to do so in person, and not do so just because they are lazy. They should go to the polling station. At the moment they can spoil the paper, as some people do even today; but there may be room—this issue should be part of a wider consultation—for an abstention box or a box for “none of the above”. Frankly, if someone has taken themselves out of the house and gone to the polling station, I think that they should make a choice, instead of wanting a counsel of perfection, and thinking, “I don’t like any of them.” Sometimes politics is about the option people dislike the least—the one with whom someone finds a little more to agree on than the others. If I had the idea that every candidate and every party must completely meet my agenda, I would certainly not be in the Labour party. I cannot ask the elector to apply a test that I cannot pass myself. Of course, it is only on rare occasions that I disagree with the Labour party.
In answer to my hon. Friend, of course we should give people that option and allow them to express themselves. It is better to do it that way than to adopt a heavy-handed approach and put people in prison for not voting. We must excite and encourage people, and make voting relevant for all the reasons that I talked about yesterday, which I will not go into again now. We must make voting for a local representative important. In a devolved society, they will have more power to get on and do stuff, so it will be meaningful.
Perhaps we should ultimately have the fall-back position of a fine of some description, but, frankly, we will have lost the battle of encouraging people to vote if fines are our main weapon. They should be used sparingly. If people are fined, the organisation that brings the case—the local authority—should keep the proceeds, and should not be forced through the lengthy, expensive process of sending the fifty quid or whatever it is to central Government.
We should introduce a raft of incentives, which people can claim by right if they have voted. We all know who has voted—it is in the marked register, as plain as a pikestaff—so it is possible to create an incentive-based system. The Select Committee is saying that we do not have the system down pat, so we want people to look at it, consider it and deal with it seriously.
The third of the Select Committee’s recommendations is automatic registration. If we could think about registration with a blank piece of paper, we would think that registering to vote and then voting in a general election, or any kind of election, is a strange process. Members of all political complexions go knocking on doors asking people whether they have registered, sent in their postal vote or whatever. Why on earth can we not have a system of automatic registration? We are halfway there with the cross-referrals to the Department for Work and Pensions and other institutions. We can use that public information to say, “Mr Blogs lives at such-and-such an address”, and put it on the register.
It would be up to the political parties to take it from there—nobody is saying that this is a matter for the Government. I would like that information, because I would like to go knocking on people’s doors so that I can say to them, “You are on the electoral register and you are thinking about voting. What will make you vote? What do you think about politics at the moment? What are the local issues?” We all know the patter, because we all do it. It is about getting people to want to be part of our political society, our democracy and our civic society.
We must use all the means available to us. Technologically, it is a no-brainer to put people’s information on the electoral register when they register for something or interact with a public body. I do not think that that is the most controversial of our proposals. Again, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is wisely saying that the Government should consider and plan for automatic registration. They should consider whether and how it should happen.
Our next proposal—votes for 16 and 17-year-olds—might be a little more controversial. There was a very high turnout of 16 and 17-year-olds in the Scottish referendum. We saw on TV the energy, the vitality and the challenge that young people brought to that marvellous adventure in democracy. Again, there are different views about that issue. For example, my 17-year-old daughter said, “I wasn’t mature enough to vote when I was 16.” However, giving young people the option and engaging them has another advantage. It is not merely that they will be able to vote, but that at school they will be able to register, interact with people, have debates, hold their own elections and enjoy it.
We heard a lot about people going into old people’s homes, universities and other places to block-register people, which is a sensible idea that Governments should think carefully about. Certainly, it would be sensible to enable the officer in charge of an old people’s home to register everybody in the home. We would lose something if we forced individual registration at that point. Let us be sensible about it and allow people to be registered in the way that is best for them. Schools bring a captive audience, and teachers can get everybody to register. They can make it fun or part of an exercise. That is a sensible way to proceed.
Many people—particularly those in the charitable sector—have a lot more ideas. We should listen to them and be open-minded about encouraging young people to vote. We should get people involved early. It is statistically proven that if people are reluctant to vote up to the age of 30, they tend to remain reluctant to vote for the rest of their lives. We should get people interested and excited, but not in a stupid, “We can give you everything you want” sort of way. We must tell people that making decisions can be tough, and that they should choose the party that, by and large, accords with their views, but that they are never going to get perfection. That is part of growing up and being mature.
People should not say, “Unless they give me everything, I am not going to vote for them.” We sometimes get letters saying, “I am never going to vote for you because on this issue, you didn’t do what I wanted.” Rather than that immature response, people should say, “By and large, we think you are the better person.” It would be incredibly valuable to include that sort of personal growth in schools as part of personal, social and health education.
If we do not have the automatic registration that my Committee has proposed, how might we make registration better than it is at the moment? We have suggested that the period for registration should be up to and including election day. I am not proposing that there should be no other means of registration, and that 80,000 people in a constituency should roll up at the town hall on election day. However, many of us who have been to the United States will have seen that it is perfectly manageable to enable people to go to the town hall on election day, walk through the front door and be encouraged to register, then go round the back of the town hall to the polling booth and cast their vote. However, that must be managed to ensure that there are not blockages, and we must ensure that the main routes for registration continue to be those that we have now, with or without automatic registration.
We must tell people who want to vote that they have 72 days left. If they are among the millions of people who, unlike our good selves, could not care less whether there is a general election at some point in the future, they may wake up to the fact that they are not on the register quite late. There must be a means for those individuals to get on to the register if they want to exercise their right to vote. That makes a lot of sense to me.
The campaigns on encouraging people to vote that we have all been involved in over the past few days—some of us have been involved for much longer—may percolate down to people’s consciousness only closer to the election day. There is not a Member in this Chamber who has not had somebody say to them in the last couple of weeks before an election, “I want to vote. Where do I go?” Too often, we have to respond, “I’m sorry. I’ve checked your name and address, and you are not on the register.” We have all had that. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s opinion is that people who express a wish to register should have that wish granted up to and including election day. We have some ideas about the nuts and bolts, which the Government and officials may find helpful. May I take a moment to thank the Minister and his officials for the positive way in which they have considered our report and engaged with us? Indeed, they have accepted several of the principles in the report.
There are many other points that I would like to raise. We have produced seven reports on the matter, two of them in the past couple of months, so there is bound to be a lot that I have missed. If hon. Members want to prompt me, I am sure I can bring those things to mind. The final point that I have on my little list, however, is about weekend voting. That issue got a lot of responses in the consultation, and a lot of people would be interested in the concept. Add to that the ability to vote during the week before the election, perhaps at a given place or a number of given places, and we would start to engage people who, even of a weekend, may be away or unable to vote for some other reason. The bottom line, by which the Committee has been driven, is that we must try to engage people in our democracy and facilitate every possible means of engaging people in their right to vote.
I return to the key statistics. As I alluded to yesterday, half a million people who had postal votes no longer have them, because they have not filled out the forms necessary to re-engage with the process. Some people were all but promised a postal vote for the rest of their lives, but the system has changed and those people, if they have not done the right thing, will not vote. That is a large number of people in each constituency. Even larger is the number of people not registered to vote in each constituency; as I mentioned earlier, if 7.5 million people are not on the register, that is an average of 10,000 people per constituency. [Interruption.] I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), because I can see that he has a point to make.
My hon. Friend has missed his last chance, uncharacteristically.
The creation of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report on voting and voter engagement in the United Kingdom has been an excellent process. There has been massive public engagement and considerable engagement by Members of the House. There has been unanimity among the members of the Committee, which is, like most Select Committees—you will understand this, Mr Davies—made up of independent-minded individuals from all parties who do not reach a consensus easily. The fact that we have reached unanimity on those matters underlines the fact that our democracy needs to be polished, refurbished and maintained, and that the way in which we vote needs to be facilitated for the convenience of the electorate rather than that of anyone else. I hope that you and colleagues across the House will take the time to read the report, Mr Davies. Above all, I hope that those in government, and those who aspire to government, will act on it.
Before I call Mr Ruane as the only Back Bencher to make a speech, it may help if I indicate to him—I have no idea how long he intends to speak for—that I would like to get to the shadow Minister by 2.35 pm, to give time for the Shadow Minister and the Minister to speak and for Mr Allen to wind up the debate briefly.
Thank you, Mr Davies; that should be ample time. I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), for his dedication to and focus on the question of electoral registration and voter engagement. As he has said, we have had seven reports in five years, and two in the past three months. The personal attention and focus that the Chair has given to the subject has enabled us to bring forward a raft of eminently sensible suggestions. I congratulate the staff of the Select Committee, who are in the Public Gallery and who played an excellent part in drawing up this report. I congratulate civic society, including organisations such as Bite the Ballot, Unlock Democracy, the Electoral Reform Society and dozens of others that contributed. I congratulate academics from around the country, MPs and other elected politicians, and the professionals involved in electoral registration. I have been hard on some of the poorer-performing electoral registration officers, but there are some excellent ones out there and I pay tribute to them for their work.
The report is chock full of eminently sensible suggestions. I want to give a flavour of how big the problem of under-registration is. There were 3.5 million people unregistered in 2004. That went up on Labour’s watch to 7.5 million in 2010, so we do not have clean hands. My concern is that the coalition Government said in 2010 that they hoped to introduce the biggest constitutional changes that the world had seen since 1832, but even though they knew that those changes were coming, they did absolutely nothing to reduce the number of unregistered individuals before introducing the changes. Labour proposed in 2009 to introduce individual electoral registration after the 2015 election, and to work in the interim five years on reducing the 7.5 million unregistered people, so that when IER was implemented we would have a perfect picture of how it was impacting on democracy. The cross-party consensus that we had in 2009 was shattered, however, and it has not returned. The issue has been polarised.
As I said in my speech yesterday—I will not go over it—I believe that that was deliberate. The Government did not say, “Oops, we have made a mistake.” That was carefully plotted. Some of the measures that the Government tried to introduce would have made being on the register a lifestyle choice instead of a civic duty. That would have resulted in a drop in registration of 35%, according to the Electoral Commission, on top of the 15% drop that had already occurred. The Government wanted to get rid of the annual canvass before the introduction of IER, knowing that the decrease would have been even greater. I believe that that was deliberate, but that was an argument for yesterday. I want to move on to other issues that are actually in our report.
Under-registration is a massive issue; 7.5 million people were not registered in June of last year, and 8.5 million people are not registered today. It is possible that there will be 14 million people not registered in June of this year, and if the Government’s original proposals had gone ahead, we would have been looking at a figure of 23 million. Yesterday, I called it a “constitutional coup”, because that is what we would have had if the Government had gone ahead and introduced those proposals.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby, our Front-Bench spokesman, for highlighting the problem of the 1 million lost voters. He did his research and found out where they were, and many were in his own constituency. They were in university towns. That is just a flavour of what is yet to come, and when the Electoral Commission finally releases its figures next week, we will see exactly where the impact has been.
One of our recommendations, which has caused some excitement in the media, is compulsory voting. Our cross- party Committee has recommended that the Government —whether it is this one, which failed to heed our advice from last November, or a future one—should at least look at the positives and negatives of compulsory voting, because there are positives. In Australia, 100% of people are registered to vote, and 90% participate in elections. It is not just about democracy; it is about the impact that non-voting has on those who are off the register and those who do not vote. Those are the people who have been hit the hardest by austerity cuts.
I cite the specific example of young people. Thirty years ago, the disparity between young people and old people, and between rich people and poor people, in terms of voting and registration was marginal. Now, those differences are major, and the biggest sufferers have been young people. In England, only 25% of young people participated in the last general election. Some 55% registered, 44% of whom went out to vote, so just 25% of all young people participated. Among pensioners, 96% registered and 85% voted. When the cuts came, the Government asked, “Where shall these cuts fall? Well, we’ll take away the education maintenance allowance from 16-year-olds—we’ll get rid of that—and we’ll triple tuition fees.” That is where they came. After the election, 250,000 students and young people stood outside Parliament, but the horse had bolted. They should have been on the register before the election, and they should have voted. I hope they heed their mistakes, and hopefully we will see 200,000 young people register today because they have realised that being off the register and not voting does not help them. It is easy to express: no vote, no voice.
The Committee took evidence on compulsory voting, which was not conclusive. Half the witnesses said that voting should be compulsory, and the other half said that it should not be compulsory. The Committee members themselves were split on the issue, but they unanimously recommended that the Government should at least explore the issues. Compulsion to raise turnout was just one of the Committee’s recommendations.
Another recommendation was greater access to postal voting. In my opinion, the Electoral Commission views postal voting as something corrupt that politicians try to manoeuvre to maximise their political turnout, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are agents for democracy, and I cite the specific example that the highest postal voting turnout in the whole country was in Tatton, the Chancellor’s constituency. Ninety-six per cent. of people with postal votes turned out to vote, which is fantastic. I take my hat off to the Chancellor, his electoral registration officer and his party for registering those people, because 96% of people voting is an aid to democracy. We should consider greater access to postal votes.
The Chair of the Select Committee raised the issue of digital voting, and again I pay tribute to the role of Mr Speaker and the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. In the 21st century, it is eminently sensible to have access to online voting. If people can vote with the push of a finger, they can exercise their electoral and civic duty.
My hon. Friend is talking about all things digital, and it may be because people knew he was going to get to his feet, but there have been more than 3,700 tweets using #nvrd in the past couple of hours, which adds to the 13,000 tweets using the same hashtag over the past 30 days. Of course, people can intervene—just as I am intervening on him—using that hashtag to participate in this debate, as the Committee intended in its broad consultation.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I should have started with this, but today is national voter registration day, an idea pioneered by Bite the Ballot—not by the current Government, not by the previous Government, not by the Electoral Commission but by a group of young people who are concerned about the registration and turnout rates among young people.
I intended to raise this in my speech, but the Minister was not here so, out of courtesy, I did not. He has listened to the Select Committee’s recommendation that additional moneys be deployed on electoral registration, for which I am genuinely grateful. Yesterday, he published a list of bodies that will get that funding, but my hon. Friend reminds me that Bite the Ballot, which has been foremost in this process, does not appear to be on that list. If Bite the Ballot does indeed recruit an additional 200,000 people to the electoral register, it will deserve not only a medal but a fair share of the additional money that the Minister has made available. Will my hon. Friend give way to the Minister so that he can answer that question?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene so that I can set the record straight. We acknowledge and recognise the good work of Bite the Ballot, with which we have opened discussions on the grant funding, as we have with a number of organisations. The Government operate with those organisations in a uniform way, and historically we have funded “Rock Enrol,” which Bite the Ballot has updated and is using in schools, but we have not been able to come to an agreement with Bite the Ballot—that is why Bite the Ballot is not included —although we want to involve it in this process.
I thank the Minister for that response. I will give him some statistics that prove how efficient and economic Bite the Ballot is. The Electoral Commission judges success on registration by the number of registration forms that are downloaded from its website. The commission is given millions of pounds by this Government to increase registration, as it was by the previous Government. For the European parliamentary elections in 2009, there were 137,000 downloads, with each download costing the Government £64. At the 2010 general election, the cost went down to £16 per download, and at the referendum it went up to £41. At the Scottish elections it was £38 and at the English local elections it was £12. Bite the Ballot can get a young person registered for 25p. Is that not a strong reason for his Department to help Bite the Ballot financially? Some might say that, because Bite the Ballot has hopefully registered 200,000 people today, it is embarrassing the Electoral Commission and the Government and must therefore be silenced. During the last election, the Electoral Commission had a target of registering 142,000 people in the two months before election day. That is 142,000 out of 7.5 million people who are not registered, which is 1.8% of the missing millions. Bite the Ballot has done that in one day. Is that not a strong reason for aiding Bite the Ballot financially and making it a partner of the Government and the Electoral Commission?
I think Bite the Ballot is being ignored out of political spite because it is embarrassing the Government and the Electoral Commission with its performance. Bite the Ballot can walk into a sixth-form college and get 100% of pupils to sign up by doing role play, by getting them involved with an emotive issue and by saying at the end, when they are all fired up, “Now we are going to have a vote, but you people aren’t registered to vote. You have no voice.” There is 100% take-up when Bite the Ballot then asks, “Would you like to fill in the registration form?”
I know the hon. Gentleman is a great fan of conspiracy theories, but I make it clear that we all recognise the good work of Bite the Ballot in this area. Also, Facebook is partnering the Electoral Commission to reach pretty much everyone in this country who is online and on Facebook to help them register to vote. Bite the Ballot was not part of the announcement yesterday because it came to the Government—we have opened discussions—with its own strict legal criteria. We need to seek legal advice before we can engage, but it is Bite the Ballot’s legal criteria that are hindering any funding.
In times of austerity and cutbacks, when every penny counts, Bite the Ballot should be out there and recruiting those young people at 25p a shot, instead of at £44 a shot through the Electoral Commission.
Moving on, because I have only five minutes left, the other recommendations mentioned by the Chairman of the Committee include weekend voting, which is eminently sensible, and citizenship education. As I just said, Bite the Ballot does citizenship education in a fantastic way and gets a lot of traction with young people. On registration, it is a sensible suggestion to have automatic registration when a citizen interfaces with a public body, whether it is the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Department for Work and Pensions or housing benefit organisations. Whatever public institutions are out there, if they interact with the public, they should have a form for people to sign. There should also be block registration for pensioners living in homes, and definitely for students living in halls.
The issue is important. As I said, a decision will be taken in June—possibly by the Minister, if he is still in power—whether to drop the additional 5.5 million unregistered people from the register altogether. It will have a massive impact on the boundary freeze date of 1 December 2015, because that 5.5 million will be added to the 7.5 million to make 13 million people missing from the register. The Government-recommended 75,000 people per seat is almost the equivalent of 200 MPs missing from Parliament. That is the nature of the game. We will become a laughing stock. That is why I say it will be a constitutional coup if that decision is made.
I questioned the Minister yesterday on what his guiding principles were. I will ask him again, because when I asked him yesterday, he said:
“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”.—[Official Report, 4 February 2015; Vol. 592, c. 365.]
Is he saying that if the Electoral Commission says, “Don’t drop these people off the register,” he will say, “We won’t”?
It is not a hypothetical question; it is the Minister’s own words from 24 hours ago. The hon. Gentleman said yesterday—I will read it again if he wants—that if the Electoral Commission says, “Don’t drop these 5.5 million missing people off the register,” he will not do so.
The hon. Gentleman’s question involves many assumptions. Nobody has deliberately dropped anyone off the electoral register. A proper assessment must be made at the time of the state of the register: who is on it and who is not, what more can be done to maximise the register and, in view of that, what decisions need to be taken at the next boundary review. It is not a binary question of whether or not I would drop them off, so the question is inappropriate, which is why I cannot answer.
In conclusion, I turn to the performance of the Electoral Commission—I have mentioned it before—and its total lack of ambition to get unregistered people registered. That is one of its two main duties: securing the vote by removing people who should not be on the register, and ensuring that we have the maximum number of people possible on the register. Its ambition is virtually non-existent.
I have highlighted the Electoral Commission’s targets in each of the past five elections. It has massively overshot each target that it has set. In the 2009 European elections, it wanted 50,000 electors, but overshot and got 137,000. That is fantastic, but a target is supposed to be reviewed regularly so that more difficult targets can be set, for constant improvement. The Electoral Commission did not do so. For the general election, it set itself a target of 142,000 people. It overshot and got 466,000. Is the Electoral Commission not fantastic? No, it is not, because again it did not review the number. In the 2011 referendum, the target was 75,000, just 1% of unregistered people—that shows a lack of ambition—but it got 131,000.
The Electoral Commission has overshot every target that it has set. It needs to give itself more difficult targets so it can test itself. That is the commission’s record over the past five or six years. Its future target—to have 7.5 million people registered in five years’ time, which is exactly the same as today—is woeful. There is a complete lack of ambition, and I am pleased that the Committee raised that as a specific point.
With very little time left, I will say that there are good electoral registration officers out there. We need to work to that best practice. I particularly congratulate Gareth Evans, the electoral registration officer from my constituency, who has done a fantastic job. Of the 12,000 postal voters in my constituency, we have lost only 25. He has had a 93% transfer rate from household to individual registration; he is doing a fantastic job. We need to spread that best practice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), on the brilliant work that they have done throughout this Parliament, including the report that we are debating. As they both said, it is timely that we should be debating the report on national voter registration day. I echo what they said about Bite the Ballot—a truly fantastic organisation, to which I will return in a moment.
As the Chairman of the Committee knows, my plans today had to change. I was going to be in Liverpool with the brilliant organisation UpRising, which, as part of national voter registration day, is at City of Liverpool further education college as we speak, talking to young people about the importance of registration. It is great to see so many of those activities happening in colleges, schools and youth organisations across the country, thanks to Bite the Ballot and similar organisations.
At the beginning of his remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North had an exchange with the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) about the context. She spoke about turnout and how it had increased since 2001, but the reality is that it has been in long-term decline. In general elections from the second world war until 1997, turnout was always above 70%. We have not come near that since the 1997 election. Not only is turnout often higher in marginal seats, as my hon. Friend reminded us, because elections there are closely fought; turnout tends to be higher in more affluent areas of the country. There is a social class dimension to the debate about voter engagement, as well as the youth dimension that we have rightly focused on yesterday and today.
I will say a little more about individual voter registration, without repeating the debate that we had on the Opposition motion yesterday. From the research that we have undertaken, which has produced the figure of about 1 million in further fall-off from the electoral register, it is clear that the areas of largest fall-off are those that have significant numbers of university students, which is unsurprising for reasons that we debated yesterday; and those that have large numbers of people in the private rented sector, which is again not surprising, as that is an inherently transient population. However, a disturbing feature, which we focused on yesterday, is the decline in the number of attainers—young people who will reach 18 during the period of the current electoral register. That is the challenge that we face.
We support the principle of individual voter registration. It was the previous Labour Government who introduced it in Northern Ireland and started the process of extending it to England, Wales and Scotland. Online registration has been a hugely welcome innovation and, as I am sure the Minister will remind us, many people have taken advantage of it. Those are welcome changes, but the concern that we have expressed—my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd in particular expressed it powerfully yesterday—involves the speed of implementation through this Parliament. I press the Minister to respond on the issue that my hon. Friend raised.
The Minister said rightly both yesterday and today that whoever is in government will decide the timing of full individual voter registration, based on the independent advice of the Electoral Commission. It would be interesting to hear from him whether, if he is still Minister and the advice is clear that we are not ready to move to individual voter registration, he will then simply accept that advice. Our view, based on the evidence that we already have, is that we will definitely not be ready for the implementation of full voter registration in 2015. We may not even be ready in 2016.
Our overriding concern is to have a register that is more complete than the one that we have at the moment, which is why I share the frustration of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd about the Electoral Commission’s modest ambitions for improving the completeness of the electoral register. We need to explore all available options. The Committee report that we are debating talks about automatic registration, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), who was with us earlier, talked about the experience in the Netherlands; we can also consider the experience in Australia.
However, the underlying objective must be to get a register that is far more complete—in comparison with not just where we are now, but where we were before, under the previous system of household registration. That is why we tabled our motion yesterday for legislation to implement the Northern Ireland schools initiative in England, Scotland and Wales, which is supported by the National Association of Head Teachers and the Association of School and College Leaders. It is also why we would like to see block registration allowed again for certain classifications, notably halls of residence and adult care homes.
Let me press the Minister to address two issues when he responds. First, in the debate yesterday—
Can the shadow Minister explain how he expects block registration to work in the context of individual electoral registration? Is he saying that those students would not have to provide their national insurance numbers or personal details to be verified? If they had to provide them, we might as well have individual registration.
We believe that there are very clear categories where an exemption can be made: where there is a residential character to people’s accommodation. Halls of residence are the most obvious example, but adult residential homes are another example.
The Minister’s intervention links directly to the question that I want to ask him, originally put by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) yesterday. Under the Cabinet Office guidance, Sheffield university has been able to achieve remarkably high levels of registration using individual voter registration but without the requirement for the national insurance number. The assurance of the university saying, “These are students who have registered to be students at Sheffield university” has proved sufficient under the new guidance. I welcome that, and I welcome the role that the Cabinet Office has played in that.
Will the Minister say whether he would be willing to write to all the other universities to ask them whether they can adopt the practice that Sheffield university has adopted? Frankly, if the Sheffield experience was typical, we could achieve even higher levels of registration of higher education students in the future than we did under the previous system.
Let me also press the Minister on the issue of Bite the Ballot and its relationship with the Cabinet Office. I welcome the extra money announced yesterday and I thank him for clarifying the position with regard to the Cabinet Office’s discussions with Bite the Ballot. However, I absolutely share the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd about the fantastic and efficient approach of Bite the Ballot. I urge the Minister to reopen discussions with Bite the Ballot to explore whether it could share in some of this resource; I am confident that it would do the job of increasing voter registration well.
Perhaps the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend’s point in his closing remarks. I am conscious that I have only a couple more minutes left, so I will try to be brief in addressing the other issues.
Let me address the issue of votes at 16. I welcome what the Select Committee’s report says on that. Labour’s policy is to move the voting age to 16 as an early legislative priority if we win the election in May. The research from the Electoral Commission on Scotland is absolutely fascinating, showing that 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds voted in the Scottish referendum compared with 54% of those aged between 18 and 24. That is very similar to the experience in Austria, when votes at 16 were introduced there. Austria found that 16 and 17-year-olds turned out in larger numbers than 18, 19 and 20-year-olds in its elections. It is an idea whose time has come.
Finally, I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said in welcoming the work of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. We want to see a further opening up of the democratic process to ensure that as many people as possible are involved, and we support the piloting of a number of the measures referred to in the Select Committee’s report—same-day registration, for example. I know that there are concerns among electoral registration officers about some of the practical issues, but in principle my hon. Friend and his Committee are right to say that we need to look at same-day registration. In those parts of America where it has been used, there is strong evidence that it has increased turnout.
We also think that Government agencies should have a duty to raise the issue of voter registration whenever people come into contact with them. Some local authorities already do that, but it should be uniform across local government and central Government agencies, such as the Passport Office and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.
We also welcome the Committee’s support for considering the possibilities of extended and weekend voting, or even voting on public holidays. We want to ensure that the experience of voting is as easy as possible, to increase turnout. That is why we want to consider trialling voting in advance of polling day, holding elections at weekends and online voting, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North spoke.
In conclusion, I very much welcome this report and the work of the Committee. It is, of course, a new Committee that was established after the 2010 election. I will finish by once again paying tribute to my hon. Friend for his very effective leadership of this cross-party Committee. I hope that we can take forward the excellent recommendations of its report, ideally on a cross-party basis.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for calling me to speak. First, I offer my apologies for my slightly late arrival. I was at Chilwell barracks in Nottingham to launch the military’s voter registration day. It is very interesting that, although our armed forces fight all over the world for freedom and democracy, in the Army specifically at least a third of people are not registered to vote. I was there today to let people know about online registration and how important it is for our people in the Army to register to vote. That was why I was slightly delayed; my apologies.
That brings me on to a much wider issue. When we consider under-registration, we see that it affects young people but it also affects some ethnic minority groups and some people with disabilities. There are a whole range of people who are under-registered and not engaging with the electoral process in the way that they should, so Government policy should seek to get all of those people to engage with the political process.
I would like to draw a distinction between the process that Government can do something about and enthusing people to vote. I believe that getting people to the polling station and excited enough to vote, is the job of us politicians; making sure that the system works is the job of Government. In that context, obviously the first and most crucial step to engage people in the political process is the registration system. It is great that we have national voter registration day today, and I echo the comments made earlier to congratulate Bite the Ballot on its efforts in increasing voter registration. However, as I said in an intervention, organisations such as Facebook, which is in partnership with the Electoral Commission, can really help to make an impact across the entire country, which is what we want to do on a day such as this.
I also thank the Select Committee for its report. It has done a lot of work in this area and it contributes a lot of good ideas, some of which I am sure will find their way into the manifestos of some of the parties, come the election in just over 90 days’ time.
First, I will talk about what the Government are doing and, secondly, I will deal with some of the recommendations in the Select Committee’s report. Without rehashing the arguments from yesterday, the issue of under-registration goes back to the previous Government. Individual electoral registration, which I am glad the shadow Minister said the Opposition are not against, was introduced by Labour in government and has been taken forward by this Government.
What I counsel against is taking a snapshot within any one month of what is a two-year process, and then concluding that somehow IER, as a method of getting people to register to vote, is not working. I speak a lot to electoral registration officers on the ground. Furthermore, I was at the Association of Electoral Administrators’ conference on Monday—I spoke to a lot of people and asked them, “What do you need that you’re not getting from Government?” They all said that they were getting whatever they needed from Government in terms of resource and that they did not see the problems that some politicians stand here and say are happening with IER and the transition to it. In other words, the people on the ground accept that we are going through a transition process and to take a snapshot in any given month, and then generalise about the process, is the wrong approach.
The Minister said that we are at the beginning of a two-year process for the introduction of IER. Does he not think it would have been better to have started that two-year process after the general election, and after the freeze date for the boundary review, as was originally planned? Can he tell us one more time why IER was brought forward by one year, when all this impact on the general election and the Boundary Commission could have been avoided? Why did he bring it forward by one year?
May I reject the hon. Gentleman’s premise that somehow the transition to IER will result in a negative impact on the general election? Nine out of 10 electors have been transferred to the new system. More people than we expected are registering online to vote, including some 900,000 18 to 25-year-olds. May I correct a second thing as well—the idea that somehow we can sort out the register, but not have online registration? Online registration is very much part of dealing with the long-standing deterioration in the register that happened under the previous Government.
The Minister rightly reminded us that the position now is a snapshot, but our understanding is that that snapshot shows 1 million fewer than the snapshot a year ago. Is he confident that we will see 1 million people added to the register between now and 20 April so that overall there is no fall in numbers? Is that what he is telling the House?
The Electoral Commission has a target of 1 million people being registered to vote in the final weeks running up to 26 April. It met its target last year, so I expect it to meet the target this year as well.
I have only 10 minutes left, so I will race through the rest of my speech. Yesterday we announced a further £10 million towards continuing to maximise the register. We have to recognise that the very act of getting people to register to vote is a bottom-up process. Politicians in Westminster, dressed in our suits and ties, do not get people to register to vote. What is needed is electoral registration officers writing to people, knocking on doors and speaking to people to get them to register. That is why the bulk of the funding is going to local authorities and why it has been weighted to local authorities where there are higher rates of registration.
I am sorry; I can take no further interventions.
We also recognise that a number of national organisations do great work in getting people to register to vote. Bite the Ballot has been mentioned, but the British Youth Council also does good work, as do UK Youth, Mencap, Operation Black Vote, Homeless Link, Citizens UK and Citizens Advice.
The work of those organisations and of the local authorities will help us to reach the very groups that the Opposition have identified as being at risk of falling off the register. If some grand conspiracy were going on, we would not be investing money with those groups and with the National Union of Students to get people on the register. There is nothing cynical going on and no conspiracy. Whenever we introduced IER, at some point we would need a cut-off date and an effort to maximise the register. We cannot get away from that fact.
Of the points made in the report, the first I will deal with is the one about electronic voting, which comes up over and over again. I am sure that some time in my lifetime we will have electronic voting, but it took us long enough to deal with registration. We have to recognise some of the practical difficulties, however. Furthermore, the introduction of increasing process into the electoral system, whether electronic and weekend voting or same-day registration, does not address why people are disillusioned with politics.
Scotland had a huge turnout in the referendum without electronic voting. The reason was that people were motivated, excited and engaged with the issues. Introducing more electoral innovation might make voters’ lives easier, but it is not a substitute for us politicians doing our work to connect properly with people, to engage with them and, after all, to get them to turn out to vote for us.
Countries where electronic voting has been introduced—France has it for overseas voting, for example—do not necessarily achieve an increase in turnout, but, rather, an increase in turnout among certain groups of people. Overall, electronic voting does not drive an increase in turnout. That is not to say that it is not a good thing to explore—it is—but, practically speaking, in the UK we would need a system of authentication. When people turned up to vote, we would have to be able to identify them and instantly verify that so that they could vote. We do not have identity cards in this country. Some countries that have introduced electronic voting have ID cards, which is why they have been able to implement it. There are big practical challenges.
Votes at 16 also came up over and over again. There is significant scope for debate about that, especially given what happened in Scotland. Among the reasons why there is scope for debate is that 16-year-olds can join the armed forces. However, they cannot fight without parental support, and nor can they get married—there is a lot that they cannot do. If we were to give 16-year-olds the right to vote, we would have to ensure that, for example, they did not have to ask their parents which way to vote; only with parental permission can a 16-year-old serve in the forces.
I made this point in the debate yesterday, but it is striking that the very party that wants to give 16-year-olds the vote is the one that does not trust them to navigate the vagaries of individual electoral registration and says that somehow they would not have their national insurance numbers or—[Interruption.] It is a serious point. If the Labour party believes that 16-year-olds are old enough to vote, it has to believe that they are old enough to register themselves to vote in the first place.
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
That brings me on to some of the registration techniques suggested in the report, such as block registration. The Government’s guidance to universities strikes the right balance between giving EROs the information that they need—that is, enrolment data, so that they can go after students, because they know who they are and can chase them, write to them, knock on doors and get them on to the register—and preserving the fundamental tenet of individual electoral registration, which is that individuals have to register themselves.
If we cross the line where people end up on the register, but they have not been engaged in the process—that is, they do not even know that they are on the register, because the warden of the college put them on it—we breach the principle of individual registration. If we breach it for first-year students, what about ethnic minorities, or—
Thank you for prompting me to sum up, Mr Walker.
What about ethnic minorities—those who do not speak English or those who have not worked and so do not have a national insurance number? We could make so many exceptions. That is why, whatever we do, we should not breach the fundamental principle.
The work of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is excellent and welcome. I also welcome the fact that the Committee continues to look forward to ways in which we can renew our democracy.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr Walker.
I will not detain the House for too long, and nor will I make any partisan points, because it is a matter of shame for everyone in the Chamber and in the House that we have 7.5 million people not on the electoral register. That is an average of about 10,000 people per constituency, and some of us will have more than the average.
In addition, at the previous election, 16 million were on the register but chose not to vote. I agree with both the Minister and his shadow, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). We are talking not about the techniques of electoralism, but about re-engaging people who feel disenchanted with and disengaged from our political process. If people feel disengaged from democracy, ultimately they feel forced to engage with other types of political systems. That is the threat that we all need to confront today.
Unfortunately, we have not taken our duty seriously enough—all parties, all Governments—but we now have a chance to do something about it. After seven reports over five years from my Select Committee, it is now possible to see a consensual way forward on how we can improve the way in which we vote, although it will not answer the engagement question, which is a broader one; I touched on that in my remarks on the Floor of the House in yesterday’s debate.
We now have a number of ways forward. I hate to sound apocalyptic, but the next general election is an important one, because a lot of the pieces will be thrown up into the air and we will no longer have a lot of the traditional loyalties and means of expressing support. Possibly, it will be the last election in which we can make a serious effort to re-engage what is now more than a third of the population who do not play a part in our democracy. That is an onerous responsibility for those in government, for those who aspire to it and for the rest of us as elected representatives. I hope that we take that responsibility seriously.