[Relevant documents: Fourth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2014-15, Voter engagement in the UK, HC 232, the Government response, HC 1037, and the Sixth Report from that Committee, Session 2014-15, Voter engagement in the UK: follow up, HC 938.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered voter engagement and the franchise.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.
I have the great privilege of representing an area that, throughout history, has served as a hotbed for new and often radical ideas about democracy, justice and representative government. Mary Wollstonecraft lived in Islington for many years and established a school for girls at Newington Green. Thomas Paine began writing his “Rights of Man”—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear”]—at the Angel in 1790. And Lenin—let us also have a cheer for Lenin, please—worked in Clerkenwell Green during the early 20th century, publishing several issues of his communist newspaper from the site now occupied by the Marx Memorial library.
My constituency has often been described as a citadel for constitutional reform, and it is not hard to see why. One of my predecessors as MP for Finsbury, Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, presented the second, and by far the largest, Chartist petition to Parliament in 1842. The petition is said to have been signed by 3,315,752 people and was so large that it could not fit through the doors of Parliament without being unrolled. The Chartists sought radically to reform the way that hon. Members were elected to this House and called for an extension to the franchise, a secret ballot and the abolition of property qualifications so that wealth was no longer a precondition to vote. Of course, the Chartists called only for the enfranchisement of men, but we have since moved on.
Unfortunately, Islington’s recent history has, at times, had a more troubling side, and its elected officials have not always taken such an expansive view of the franchise. During the many years in which the local authority was under Liberal Democrat control, the council tended to draw most of its support from more affluent voters. Registration remained stagnant in the most deprived parts of the borough, where many ethnic minority people, in particular, live. In 2006, the Labour group tabled a motion asking the council to do better, and particularly to work hard to ensure that black and minority ethnic voters register to vote and are included on the electoral register. The Liberal Democrat majority voted down the motion and, after the vote, one of the leading Liberal councillors shouted across the council chamber, “That’s how we win elections!” Fortunately, there has been a significant improvement in voter registration over recent years, which is largely attributable to the proactive measures taken by the Labour majority that took the council in 2010. Islington has gone from being the area with the second-worst voter registration rate in the entire country to being a model for other local authorities that seek to maximise registration.
Voter registration is not a partisan issue, or it should not be. Anyone who wholeheartedly supports a healthy democracy should start from the principle that both registration and turnout should be as close as possible to 100%. Our current system is wholly inadequate for making that aspiration a reality. We have had a lot of counterproductive talk over the years from politicians of all parties who suggest that the vote is some sort of privilege that should be proactively seized by voters on an individual basis. That tendency was markedly on display when the coalition Government introduced the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, now the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, in the last Parliament. They announced their intention to implement individual electoral registration, dropping the existing plan for a phased introduction purely as a cost-saving measure. Ministers in the last Government spoke of giving people the opportunity to register to vote and of people being removed from the roll only if they failed to do so. On Second Reading in the other place, the Bill’s sponsor, the noble Lord Wallace of Saltaire, claimed that its goal was
“to give people greater ownership of their own registration”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 July 2012; Vol. 739, c. 616.]
It is as if what was needed at the time was for people individually to seize their right to vote, but the Bill did not address the fact that more than 6 million people who were entirely eligible to vote were missing from the electoral register.
Who are those 6 million people? Members may be familiar with a report produced by the Electoral Commission in July 2014. The report lists the groups who are most likely not to be on the electoral register. This list will not surprise hon. Members: young people under the age of 35, especially students; private tenants; black and other minority ethnic groups; Commonwealth and EU nationals; and those classified as social grades D and E or, to use plain English, low-skilled and unskilled workers and the unemployed. If the Government have a genuine interest in maximising participation in the political process, I would have thought they would see that as a serious problem and seek to address it, but that is not happening—the exact opposite is happening. It is abundantly clear that the excessively hasty introduction of individual electoral registration has had an even more detrimental effect on voter registration and engagement, particularly among those groups, and we should all be alarmed.
It is appropriate at this point to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), under whose chairmanship the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform produced a report on this vital issue, “Voter engagement in the UK”. The report stated that the 5.5 million voters who were not transferred to the new register following the initial implementation of individual electoral registration included “disproportionate” numbers from particular groups: private tenants, students and attainers—16 and 17-year-olds who will attain the age of 18 before the date of the next general election. The Committee recommended that
“every effort is made by Electoral Registration Officers to reach all registered voters who have not been automatically transferred to the new register”.
I do not understand why people are not automatically registered. If we are all true democrats, we should wish for everyone who has the right to vote simply to be on the electoral register. Putting unnecessary hurdles in the way of people exercising their democratic right to vote is entirely counter-democratic, and I do not understand it.
My hon. Friend, like me, is a London Member of Parliament, and she will know that in recent months there has been a significant increase in the number of people evicted from their property because of the impact of benefit capping, which has resulted in people moving from one London borough to another. People are moving to my outer-London borough of Redbridge from Westminster, Kensington and other inner-London boroughs, and our own people in Redbridge are now being placed in bed-and-breakfast hotels in Hounslow, Staines, Heathrow or other parts of England. What can be done to ensure that those people do not lose their democratic rights?
It is particularly important that such people exercise their democratic rights, because many of the difficulties that they face are the direct result of decisions made by politicians. Such people should make it clear what they think about those decisions, so they must be able to exercise their democratic right to vote. They must be able to make their views clear about such decisions, and the chaos among certain groups in London, with people having to move around because of caps on benefits and the shortage of social housing, is yet another reason why we should be proactive.
When the Chartists handed in the petition, my predecessor was asking for every man living in Finsbury to have a vote. This is not my party’s policy, but he would be turning in his grave if he knew that more than 8,000 people in my constituency are on the electoral register for European and local elections but are not allowed to vote in general elections. They are here, they pay taxes and they play a full role. A man came into my surgery last Friday who was very exercised by the fact that his Japanese wife, who has lived and paid taxes here for seven years but cannot get dual nationality for cultural reasons due to her Japanese background—I do not understand it, but they are firmly of the view that that is the reason—cannot vote and will not be able to vote. At what stage do we reach a tipping point? In an increasingly international world, and particularly in a world city such as London, what proportion of the population can be excluded from the ballot before we lose our identity as a democracy?
At the moment, there are perhaps 12,000 or 15,000 adults in my constituency who cannot vote. They turn up at my surgery and want a proper service from their Member of Parliament, but they do not count because they are not allowed to vote. The title I originally wanted for this debate—I understand that it is not the sort of title that one is allowed to have, but it seems to me entirely the right title—was: “Who counts?” In a democracy, who counts? Who is and is not a citizen? Whose voice should be listened to, and who should be flatly and determinedly ignored?
We are so proud of this city of London, and one of the things that we are proud of is that we have a mixture of people from all over. I would like to represent the whole of my constituency and everyone in it, and I do my best, but it seems profoundly wrong that those people are not allowed to vote. They might all vote Tory. We might end up with a Tory MP in Islington—I would take that on the nose—but they should be allowed to vote. They are here, they are people and they participate. They walk our streets, use our services and pay their taxes. Why are they not allowed to be involved in decisions about how politicians act on their behalf?
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recommended that electoral registration officers make every effort to reach all registered voters who have not been automatically transferred to the register. In the absence of anything resembling leadership on this issue from the coalition, local authorities have been left to their own devices. Of course, results have been decidedly mixed. To its credit, Islington council has made strenuous efforts to get as many people on the electoral register as possible. This year, EROs in Islington went knocking on doors of unregistered households right up until election day. They did four rounds of door-knocking, more than any other borough. Thanks to those efforts, turnout in my constituency increased from 54% in 2005, when I was first elected with a majority of just 484 votes, to 65% this year, when my majority grew to 12,708 votes, more than the total number of people who voted for me in 2005.
I applaud the hard work and dedication of those EROs, and it is welcome to the extent that registration and turnout reached much higher levels this year than they would have if the council had been as complacent as Ministers in Whitehall have been, but there is something perverse about it. My local authority is suffering enormous cuts. It will lose nearly half its budget in the next few years, yet we have spent £326,000 and who knows how many hours of public servants’ time knocking on doors again and again. Would that money not be better spent on public services? Would it not be a better use of public servants’ time if, instead of knocking on doors trying to get people to register to vote, they visited the elderly, the marginalised and the vulnerable, who are often not seen enough?
It seems to me to be the wrong way to do things. We should have automatic registration, including for students. Why are student halls of residence not included? There are many thousands of British students living in my constituency. Why must they all register individually to vote there? It is perfectly obvious where they live. The university knows and the council knows. There is no possibility of fraud, so why are they not on the voters’ register? Why must we knock on their doors individually and get them to register to vote? If we are true democrats, what is the problem?
We know what the problem is: the fear of voter fraud. However, we must consider the difference between perception and reality. The Minister formerly responsible for this issue, when asked about it, referred to reports saying that some 30% of the population believe that election fraud is a real issue. Perception is one thing, but reality is something else: the total number of people who have been prosecuted successfully for voter fraud is, I believe, three. However, in order to counter the perception that there is voter fraud, we are creating obstacles to people’s exercise of their democratic right. More voter fraud may be occurring, and more work should be done on that, but it does not seem to me that we are starting from the right place by beginning with, “We are worried about election fraud, so we’re going to make sure we make it very difficult for a lot of people to come to the ballot and vote.” That seems wrong. It is about time that we addressed that point.
The constituencies affected most by the changes to individual election registration are those such as mine: inner-city seats where, although there might be a lot of differences between people, on the whole they vote Labour. I am sure that there is no conspiracy, but the fact is that, if we get a shrinking Labour vote at the same time as the Government keep redrawing the boundaries to reflect so-called fair constituencies, Labour constituencies will shrink, there will be fewer Labour MPs, there will always be a Conservative majority and we will always have a Conservative Government. That would not be democratic, because we would be excluding large numbers of people.
We would also end up in a situation where our Members of Parliament did not know their constituencies. For the past 10 years, I have been putting down roots in my constituency in order to be the MP for the south of Islington. Everybody knows me. I go everywhere; I am at everything. Open an envelope and I will be there. Everybody knows who I am, and I am absolutely honoured. However, if I believed that every five years my constituency would move from here to there to somewhere else, my engagement with my area as a Member of Parliament would change.
Are the Government going to proceed with the so-called fair constituencies or not? If so, are we talking about 650 constituencies or 600? That is important to know—the newspapers have given completely contradictory reports—so I would be grateful for the Minister’s answer. We need to know where we are going on this issue. We need to stop the nonsense about people seizing the opportunity to vote, ensure that they can vote and make it easier for them. It is not right to put barriers in the way of people’s exercise of their democratic right.
Hon. Members will forgive me if this is too radical, but maybe we could do this with boundaries: we could take the decisions out of the hands of politicians and give them to another group that could not be criticised for exercising self-interest, for instance a non-partisan group of experts. We could call it something like “The Boundary Commission”, and we could ask it to look at communities and take an objective view about what the most sensible divisions might be throughout the country to ensure that communities are properly reflected.
We could have had such a body since 1944, and of course we have. It is indeed called the Boundary Commission, and that is what its job is. The Conservatives want to take a partisan view of the issue and introduce a strict cap of 600—or not; who knows? They want to make a rule that the population cannot deviate more than 5% in either direction. Will that be the new plan? Will fair constituencies be less than 5% one way or the other? When the Conservatives tried to introduce that in the last Session, as they will remember, it resulted in complete chaos.
Removing the Boundary Commission’s historical ability to take local authority borders and other natural dividers into account resulted in bizarre constituencies, such as the infamous Devonwall constituency with Cornish voters, over which a few hon. Members were up in arms. I was to represent the City of London, which I was happy to do—I thought that “Islington upon Thames” had a certain ring to it, and that it was about time that the bankers were represented by somebody radical; they had not been represented by anybody radical since John Wilkes—but unfortunately the City of London had a different view, which I thought disappointing and not very open-minded.
The issue has serious ramifications as well, as changes have added up to a system that simply stacked the decks against Members representing densely populated urban areas with highly mobile populations and large numbers of people from overseas, who tend to be represented by Labour. The truth is that allowing the Boundary Commission some latitude in determining the shape and size of constituencies is necessary, precisely because it allows the commission to take into account the huge variations that exist up and down our country.
Let me take one example at random; let us compare my constituency with Weston-super-Mare. Weston-super-Mare has a population of 105,300, compared with 105,820 in Islington South and Finsbury. So far, the two constituencies have much in common. However, in my constituency the electorate is only 68,127, whereas in Weston-super-Mare it is 80,309. Guess whose constituency falls within the magic 5% of the electoral quota and whose does not?
Of course, there may be a number of reasons that might account for the difference between the two constituencies. We know that the level of electoral registration is significantly higher among older people, and there are more older people in Weston-super-Mare than in my constituency, forming 19% of the population there compared with 9% in my constituency. However, I also represent a much more diverse constituency than the Minister does, with 48% of Islington residents identifying themselves as white British, compared with 97% of people in north Somerset. More than a third of my constituents were born overseas and many of them are not on the electoral register because our current law does not allow them to be. They would love to be on the electoral register; they are terribly political and I can tell you that they are not invisible to me.
Therein lies the most insidious implication of the boundary rules, as they stand. The rules quite literally tell every single person who is not on the voters’ register that they do not count, and that for the purposes of determining who represents them in this place they do not matter. I hope we all agree that we should show our constituents, regardless of their backgrounds, more respect than that.
It seems to me that the current Government have kicked this can down the road in this Parliament, but we want answers to some of the questions that I have put today. I hope that I have helped the Minister by preparing a series of questions that I would like him to answer if possible. I have copies of the questions for other Members and I have left helpful gaps at the bottom, so that we can fill them in with the answers that the Minister will hopefully come up with this afternoon.
The questions are as follows. First, at the next general election, how many constituencies will be contested—600, 650 or some other number? Secondly, what does the Minister mean when he says that the Government remain committed to equalising the size of constituencies? Thirdly, will the size of a constituency’s electorate be allowed to deviate by more than 5% from its quota? What would happen if it deviates by 8%, or 10%? Fourthly, how about the Government just doing us all a favour and putting the question back in the hands of the independent Boundary Commission, where it has always belonged? Fifthly, does the Minister recognise the “manifest unfairness”, to borrow a phrase from his own party’s manifesto, of basing the size of constituencies so closely on the number of electors as opposed to the number of people?
There are countries around the world that divide up constituencies on the basis of the size of the population and not just those who are on the voters’ register, and given the number of difficulties and issues that I have raised today—simply in relation to my constituency—surely it is fairer for us to start thinking about constituency sizes based on the size of their population. Does the Minister appreciate that not doing so would put MPs representing diverse, inner-city populations, the majority of whom just happen to be members of the Opposition party, at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to their ability to do their job? Finally, can the Minister explain how on earth reducing the number of MPs to 600
“would result in savings to the public purse of £13.6 million a year”,
as he has claimed, without there being a serious decline in the standards of service that our constituents can expect to receive?
As I am sure Members here can tell, I have a lot to say on this subject and I could say a great deal more, but I will drop the rest of my speech and sit down so that other Members can contribute.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Turner, for calling me to speak; it is a pleasure to contribute to this debate with you in the Chair.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on securing such an important debate so early in this Parliament. She has covered, very ably and in great detail, the wide range of issues involved in voter registration and the prospective boundary review, and she struck an important note by saying that we should be able to discuss these issues on a non-partisan basis. That is certainly what I hope to do as I focus on student registration. I raise the issue as I represent more students than any other Member of this House—some 36,000, according to the last census —and because I chaired the all-party group on students in the last Parliament. I point out to anybody who is interested that we are relaunching the group on 13 July, so they can put that date in their diary.
Many students live in two homes, but the place where they study is effectively their primary residence. They spend more time there, and many of us who represent areas with large numbers of students make enormous efforts to integrate them into the local community and make them feel that the area is their primary home. That is as important in electoral registration as in anything else.
Members and the Minister, whom I welcome to his post, will know that prior to the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 many universities, though not all, block-registered students living in university accommodation, effectively acting in their role as head of household. I remain disappointed that the Government rejected amendments to that Act that would have allowed that block registration of students to continue, because it was an established and secure method of ensuring that students got on to the register, and that their identity was validated.
I wonder whether, in retrospect, the Government regret their decision to reject those amendments, given that in the run-up to the last election they spent an awful lot of money through the Cabinet Office pushing student registration, which I welcome. However, they were playing catch-up because they were behind the game. I welcome the fact that £380,000 was allocated to the National Union of Students, which shared it out among student unions across the country, to promote voter registration. That was a good spend; the money was used effectively, and it had a real impact on the number of students registered. We will need to look at that sort of spend in the run-up to key elections in the coming year. There will be many of them. Indeed, that applies to referendums, too; clearly, one referendum is not far away. Will the Minister say whether there are plans to continue that funding in the run-up to the elections and referendums in the immediate period ahead? I ask because that money was used effectively; it could be used again effectively, and it is certainly needed.
The Cabinet Office has worked very effectively on this issue, but I ask the Minister to consider the development of better approaches. When the 2013 Act was passed, it struck me, as someone who represents many students, that there would be an opportunity under individual electoral registration to reach beyond the number of students who registered under the old system of block registration if we could successfully integrate student enrolment and electoral registration.
Many universities have been quite willing—even enthusiastic—to promote the idea of registration, but I thought that we could take a step further than that. I talked to both the universities in my constituency—Sheffield University and Sheffield Hallam University—about the ways in which that might be achieved. We agreed between us that, for the 2014 entry of students, Sheffield University would pilot an integrated system, and that we would have as a benchmark alongside it Sheffield Hallam University, which would simply point students to the Government’s portal. We did all that with a view to introducing the Sheffield University system, if it proved worth while. The project was very successful indeed, thanks to the commitment of the staff at the universities and our local electoral registration officer, John Tomlinson, to whom I pay tribute. We developed a system that went live, as planned, last September. I also thank the Cabinet Office for its support and limited funding for that process.
The system requires students, when registering and enrolling with the university, actively to decide whether they want to register to vote. It was hugely successful, with 64% of eligible students indicating their wish to register to vote in Sheffield. The system then took people to another step, requiring them to give their national insurance number. At that point, two thirds of those enthusiastic, willing voters dropped out of the system because they did not have immediate access to their NI number and did not want to delay their university registration. The situation was looking a little bit bleak, with only 24% of students registered, despite more than double that number wanting to do so.
Again, I pay tribute to the Cabinet Office, which stepped in with new guidance issued in December, which allowed electoral registration officers to use their discretion to verify an application using any data source that satisfactorily established the identity of the applicant, including student enrolment data. That is sensible, because those data are a good verifier of identity. That meant that all those students who did not have their NI number and were not on the register—some 7,000—were added during December and January. It would be far simpler if, rather than having to seek national insurance numbers at all, we had a simple system, such as that put in place by the Cabinet Office, enabling EROs to register students on the basis of their indication that they wished to register, with their identities verified by their student status. Could not we dispense with the requirement for universities to collect NI numbers? That would make it simpler for everybody, and we would still have the verifiable data.
Whatever the Minister’s answer is, it is important that we press ahead with trying to get integrated systems. I have been working, as the Cabinet Office has, with Universities UK and the National Union of Students to encourage universities to make that decision. The Minister will know that many universities are grouped together by the fact that the same system provider writes their student enrolment programmes. The largest provider covers 82 universities, Sheffield Hallam being one of them. This happens across the country. There is an opportunity to get those system providers—I think there are three in all—to rewrite their software with a simple fix, before the September 2015 entry, so that there is an integrated system of electoral registration in the student enrolment procedures. I think active consideration has been given to this, but will the Minister positively consider the Cabinet Office funding these changes, including the rewrite of the software for many universities? Apart from anything else, if that happened the Government would save a lot of money, because we would not need the kind of retrospective funding that was needed when we were playing catch-up in the run-up to the 2015 general election.
Another positive initiative from the Cabinet Office was the establishment of projects trying to co-ordinate voter registration work for the Student Forum, which brought together the NUS, Universities UK, GuildHE, the Association of Colleges, the Academic Registrars Council and electoral registration officers, nationally and regionally. That organisation did some productive work. I hope that the Minister will commit to continuing those projects and forums.
I hope that the Minister recognises that there is a wider lesson to be learned from the experience of student registration, which shows that, with commitment, creativity and resources, IER can be introduced successfully. We can transfer the lessons of Sheffield’s system, which is aimed at students, beyond higher education to schools, colleges, housing providers, residential homes and other organisations that collect the data that the Government need to verify identity. We need to make it as simple as possible to get people straight on to the electoral roll. Much more needs to be done before we have a register that is fit for purpose, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Without that, we cannot proceed to a credible boundary review or the elections that are to take place, or to the crucial decision we will be making about our membership of the European Union.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. We shared the experience of sitting on the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, which lasted for one Parliament only. The Committee had many enlightening evidence sessions on this matter.
It might be as well to record that in our last meeting with the Electoral Commission, it gave special praise to electoral registration officers in two constituencies—mine and the Vale of Clwyd—for their energetic activity after Christmas until the election date. The result in my constituency was interesting, with a swing of 0.0%, so what it lacks in volatility it makes up for in consistency. The sad effect in the Vale of Clwyd was the removal from Parliament of the person who knew more about electoral registration than anyone else—Chris Ruane, who is greatly missed in this Chamber.
Democracy was started in Greece 2,500 years ago and it has come to us on the instalment plan, in stages and imperfectly. It is still possible to buy a place in the House of Lords and still possible to buy influence and privilege from Governments by putting money into the pockets of lobbyists. We have done virtually nothing to reform that system. It is still possible for retiring Ministers, generals and civil servants to prostitute their insider knowledge to the highest bidder when they leave this place, to get a lucrative retirement job and buy their hacienda in Spain. That is going on and we are doing very little to limit it. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is a bit of a joke. It is not the Rottweiler it should be; it is a pussy cat without teeth or claws. We have an imperfect democracy.
The Government’s only argument for redrawing constituencies is arithmetical tyranny: doing it entirely on the basis of population. Let me give one example of how things do not work that way. A main area of our work in my constituency office is immigration. In the local authority area I serve, there are at this moment 439 asylum seekers—that is just one group; there are others as well—all of whom require a great deal of work. There are also language difficulties. It is a huge burden on an MP’s office. Where is the fairness in this, when in the constituencies of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary, there are a grand total of three asylum seekers?
We could talk about many other examples of the unfair burden of work in different constituencies. The Government are planning, again, to undermine the number of constituencies and disturb the system. There certainly are arguments for bringing the system up to date, but there is no argument for doing so at a time when the Government are awarding places in the House of Lords to people who are unelected. Sometimes places are given because of cash.
There is certainly a link between contributions to parties—all parties—and places in the House of Lords. There are also links between those, such as Ministers, whom the Government wish to reward for failure, as a consolation. That is normal now. We have a system of political awards set up by the present Prime Minister. The system has existed only since 2011; it is entirely new. Why should anyone want an award? People lust after the same honour that Sir Jimmy Savile and Sir Cyril Smith had. Why anyone would want to be tainted with such a thing is beyond me.
There was something of a triumph in the last election for the Electoral Commission, which gave us evidence on many occasions, as you will recall, Mr Turner. The result of the election showed some remarkable changes. We spent many hours in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee looking at how we could encourage people to register, particularly those groups that were largely under-registered. Organisations such as Bite the Ballot did a great job on that. Sadly, in spite of my repeated requests, we never had Russell Brand along to give us evidence. We wanted to get hold of him and say, “You realise how badly young people are treated by all politicians. They look after rich pensioners such as me very well indeed, because we are the group who vote.”
Young people have had a terrible deal from the coalition Government and previous Governments because they are not viewed as being of any consequence. Russell Brand made that foolish statement to his 9 million followers on Twitter—rather more than you or I have, Mr Turner—telling them not to vote and not to take part in the election, but instead to march around the streets making demands. He tried to get 1 million people on the street outside here a few months ago; he managed about 200, I think. He took those people out of the electoral process. Although he eventually recanted under the wise advice of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), it was too late for them to register and get on the electoral roll again. I wish we could have had him before the Committee, where we could have persuaded him that his view was counter-productive and not achieving his aim.
The Electoral Commission reported a record-breaking 469,000 people in one day registering online to vote in the 2015 general election. That is an incredible number. There were 2,296,000 online applications to register to vote from when the campaign began last year on 16 March to polling day. Those are enormous figures. Voting habits have changed. The public are ahead of us in many ways in their willingness to use electronic media to register and to vote, and we have to take into account the fact that people have got into the habit of voting for television personalities and so on in that way. We should look at the success of the Electoral Commission and such organisations as Bite the Ballot, which have done a great deal to maintain the number of people voting.
In my campaign, I spoke to many thousands of voters. I found the contempt for politics distressing; it has not improved since the screaming nightmare of the expenses scandal. One party managed to sell itself as being close to the voters. The man in the pub with a fag and a pint was who they related to, not politicians. That party made inroads in my constituency, but it did not affect my vote in any way, because the sensible Lib Dems deserted their party and voted for me. However, some 6,000 people in my constituency, which has been wise enough to elect me since 1987, voted UKIP.
There is all the other stuff about Europe and so on, but part of the reason why people voted for UKIP—they repeated this again and again—was contempt for the political system and this House. We are trying to do something about it, but we put on a pantomime every Wednesday—a national embarrassment of exchanged insults and unanswered questions. In one of the last Prime Minister’s questions before the election, the Prime Minister was asked a question on immigration, and in his answer he mentioned nine other subjects, not one of them immigration.
Last week, the Prime Minister asked the Leader of the Opposition four questions, which is almost more than she asked him. I have usefully suggested that it would be helpful to change the name from Prime Minister’s questions to Prime Minister’s answers, just to give him an idea of what is expected of him and to let him know how the system should work.
The system used to work. We did not like the answers that Margaret Thatcher gave, but she always referred to the question asked. If I asked the Welsh Minister a question about tidal barrages and he told me the price of cabbage in Cardiff on that day, the Speaker would rightly call him out of order, but that does not work with the Prime Minister. Prime Minister’s questions are an object of derision for politics and the system. People show contempt for us, and that contempt is to the advantage of such parties as UKIP. Prime Minister’s Question Time reduces our chance of restoring the trust and confidence that the public used to have in the political system.
A great amount of reform is needed, and it is a lot more urgent than changing the constituency boundaries. The Government wish to do that, and it is to their electoral advantage, but I have always been in favour of proportional representation. We stand in contempt of the country because all parties reach their conclusions on PR based on their party interest. The Conservatives and the Labour party benefit from the current system. The Lib Dems have always taken a principled line on PR, and now we find it coming from UKIP and other parties, such as the Greens, that suffer greatly under the current system. It is a travesty to suggest that the system we have represents the public view, because it does not.
We did a splendid report in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee last year. One of its suggestions was to have a democracy day, which is a magnificent idea. In my constituency of Newport West, the Chartists lost at least 20 members when they were killed raiding a hotel to release a prisoner, Henry Vincent. They were protesting on principle about the cruel treatment they were receiving and asking for the vote. Every year on 4 November, there are celebrations and commemorations to mark that day, and it is a great way of getting the meaning of democracy across to schoolchildren. Lord Tredegar held the one vote in the town. He decided everything and the working people had no votes at all. We should have a democracy day to celebrate the joys of democracy.
In this place, we have at least 1,000 depictions of royalty. They are everywhere, and include paintings, statues and a tower. What has royalty done for democracy? It has obstructed almost every advance in democracy. It could be argued that they donated one head, but that was grudgingly.
The difference between us and royalty is that we have been elected. [Interruption.] That is slightly off the subject, I agree, but where are the tributes to the heroes of democracy, who are the reason why we are here and the reason why we exist? Thanks to Mr Speaker, there is a tiny exhibition about Chartists on the top corridor, and that is welcome. There are a few tributes to suffragettes around, but mostly they are outside this building.
The Putney debates were a great celebration of democracy. They were hugely important, but they are hardly known. We hear about Magna Carta, but not about the Putney debates, which took place in 1647 between late October and early November and laid down the whole basis for the Bill of Rights. The Women’s Social and Political Union—the suffragettes—had a notable occasion in 1903.
If we are to win back public trust and belief in democracy, we must energise people in the same way as the young people of Scotland were energised when they voted so strongly in its referendum, which was a magnificent piece of democratic action and an awakening of responsibility among young people. It showed them the strength of the vote and the democratic process.
We have a long way to go, but as beneficiaries of the democratic system we should be working towards a system that is by far the best in the world. It is not at the moment. The mother of Parliaments is now a disgraced hag heading for future scandals; we must do something to improve it. We have done nothing to improve our status since the expenses scandal. People do not believe us and they do not trust us. Virtually every story about MPs that appears in the papers is negative. We are being blamed for a pay rise that none of us asked for or wanted.
There has to be a serious campaign by all parties to improve the House’s status. That can be done only by changing radically how we behave and appear to the public. Prime Minister’s Question Time is the House at its worst. We put on a national embarrassment show every week—it is time we reinvented it as an event that, although still robust and full of questions, is nevertheless conducted in an atmosphere of calm, dignity and mutual respect.
I want to discuss young people’s voter engagement and registration, but first I will quickly say something about boundary changes, particularly the 5% deviation. My constituency, Workington, is in Cumbria, where the 5% deviation is a challenge, bearing in mind the geography and the population. Cumbria has a very large area and a very small population —I know that geography and population in constituencies are taken into account in Scotland. The other issue with Cumbria, in addition to its size, is its height, which, if taken into account, would also make a difference. The last time the Boundary Commission looked at Cumbria, it did not seem to realise that a short six-mile walk included going over the top of Scafell pike and down the other side, which makes things a little more tricky. I would be grateful if that could be taken into consideration.
I am here because improving voter engagement is crucial to democracy in this country—I think we would all agree. We have talked about the decline in turnout in recent years. Turnout in Workington at the general election was 65.6%, whereas as recently as 1992 it was more than 80%. In fact, going back further, it was over 80% more often than not, so something has happened since the late 1990s. I see it as an important part of my role as an MP to engage properly with local people so that they want to take part in the political process. We also need to demonstrate that taking part and voting actually makes a difference. People say all the time that it makes no difference, so we must demonstrate that it does.
One of the most worrying and disappointing responses I heard on the doorstep—this was not unusual—was when a young person told me that they were not registered. Often, they were not registered because they did not know that they had to register, because they had no idea how to go about it, or because they did not think that it was something they should be getting involved in. They felt that it was nothing to do with them—they knew nothing about politics and did not feel qualified to take part and vote. The changes to voter registration introduced by the previous Government have only added to that feeling. It is not good enough for a Government to make such fundamental changes while neglecting young people coming into the system, who do not really understand practically what the changes mean for them.
Important civic duties such as registering to vote and voting should be brought into the school curriculum. That way, children and young people will be given the confidence and understanding required to register and take part, as well as to understand why that is important and the effect on their daily lives. That should be true at all democratic—not just parliamentary—levels. Children and young people should understand the importance of voting in local elections; for police and crime commissioners, and so on, because it all affects them and their families directly.
One of the things I enjoyed the most during the election campaign was taking part in school hustings. I did a number of them and was really impressed by the knowledge and passion that young people had for the subjects they were particularly interested in and cared about. We saw how passionately involved young people were in the Scottish referendum and the difference in turnout there; as the Minister knows, the voting age was reduced to 16 in that referendum, and it was very successful. That has convinced me that the voting age should be reduced to 16, along with the active introduction of children to politics at school, through the national curriculum.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if a young person can be encouraged to vote, so long as they have voted once, they will continue to do so? The challenge for us all is to ensure that they vote the first time. That is perhaps another argument for allowing kids to vote at 16 and 17.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s point, and there is evidence to show that once someone gets into the habit of voting, they are more likely to continue. One problem is that the children I saw at the hustings were so engaged and excited, but then so disappointed that they could not participate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, if they go to university, there is the further challenge of getting registered. Young people all too easily slip out of the system and out of the habit of voting, so that is an incredibly important point.
I urge the Minister to introduce children to politics through the national curriculum and to reconsider the position on reducing the voting age to 16, because children and young people are interested and want to get involved. Such steps should be part of the solution to increasing both voter registration and participation. I urge the Government to look at this issue ahead of the EU referendum.
Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Turner, and for your immense patience in understanding that the 90% of Scottish National party Members who are new are finding our feet with regard to parliamentary procedure.
This is an extremely important conversation, and I thank the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) for bringing it to the attention of the House. In Scotland, we have just come out of a referendum process where we had massive engagement. There are huge lessons to be learned about how that process was conducted. Perhaps the House should consider the level of engagement in Scotland.
Our electoral system leads to issues with parliamentary democracy and legitimacy. I am delighted to be here, but, as a democrat, I find it somewhat problematic that the SNP has 95% of Members with only 50% of the vote in Scotland. To me, that is a legitimacy problem. The Tories are in government with the votes of 35% of the overall UK electorate. The system is set up in a very binary way, so that we have a big, strong Government, but that leaves a majority of people voiceless as regards representation. If we are honest with ourselves, as democrats in this House we need to look at why people feel voiceless and why that stops them from getting engaged in the democratic process. I am not a fan of the UK Independence party, but many people voted for it and they have only one Member of Parliament.
In Scotland, we need to have a conversation about the link between poverty and exclusion from society, which is manifested in lower turnouts in areas of multiple social deprivation. My constituency, Glasgow East, is one of the most deprived in the whole UK. The turnout in Glasgow for the Scottish referendum was 75%, compared with 91% in East Dunbartonshire, one of the richest constituencies in Scotland. Work must be done to encourage people in such areas to vote.
There is definitely a link between indebtedness and being on the electoral register. People are terrified about putting themselves on the register if they are worried about debt catching up with them, so if we want to increase participation in democracy, we must make it safe for people. That requires education, but that also leaves a burden on us as parliamentarians to go out and speak to people in our communities and engage with them. If the Scottish referendum showed anything, it was that going into communities and having legitimate, open conversations is a way of encouraging people.
We should have events that allow people to come along and question politicians, because the problem with politics, which was exemplified in the expenses scandal, was the sense of them and us. It should not be them and us; we are all together and there should be no division between the people and their representatives. We have to come from the people and be among the people in order to represent them. That is the type of legitimacy that we get from considering and really engaging with people at community level. In that way, we will grow democracy.
In my constituency, the turnout in 2010 was 52%, but in 2015, following the referendum, it was eight percentage points higher. That is not a huge amount of people coming out, but there is a distinct upward trend that is not replicated in the rest of the UK. We therefore need to use that as a lesson.
The referendum was a binary choice: people understood what they were voting for. Whether they voted yes or no, they knew what the consequences were. We do not necessarily have that in party politics, so people do not feel as engaged in that or the manifestation of that in one person. That needs to be addressed going forward.
We need to look again at the electoral system and be really honest with ourselves. Are we keeping first past the post because it suits the Government of the day, or the Opposition, or is it because people truly believe that to be the best democracy that we can have? I do not think that it is and I strongly recommend that we look again at the type of country that we want to live in and the type of representation we have for people in the House.
It is a pleasure to speak to you as Chair of the debate, Mr Turner. I thank the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) for bringing the debate to the House. Two topics that have the utmost relevance are the franchise and voter engagement.
When we consider those issues, it is important to recognise the journey we have been on for a number of years, not least given the pivotal role that the suffragette movement played in ensuring that women not only have the vote, but are adequately represented in the great Chambers of this House. We still have a great deal of work to do to ensure that we continue to promote the most talented and capable women into these Chambers as well as boardrooms and throughout every walk of life.
Thankfully, there is more to the debate than the suffragettes and giving the franchise to women. We have moved on. However, one issue is close to my heart, and I am grateful to the hon. Members for Islington South and Finsbury and for Workington (Sue Hayman)—Cumbria’s first female Member—for bringing it up: votes at 16. In Scotland last year, that brought to light the real opportunity we have to engage our young people. We witnessed a political movement unlike any other across these islands and the securing of votes for 16 and 17-year-olds was key to opening up a real conversation on the role of politics and the part that young people can play in shaping their futures and voicing their aspirations and hopes as well as their fears. We must allow them to continue to engage.
Votes at 16 for all elections is the starting point and I thank the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury for addressing that. If we start to give our young people a voice and opportunity, we can expect them to continue to vote and remain part of the process. They will take their vote seriously and—correctly—they will hold us to account. That is exactly what every Member should hope for and aspire to not just for our young people, but for every citizen in our constituencies.
Sadly, that right was not granted to young people for the general election and it has not been during the ongoing debate on the EU referendum. It is vital that our young people are given an opportunity to have their say on that important decision that will not only shape their futures, but have significant consequences for their lives. Their future decisions about their studies and work and their rights and responsibilities as citizens will be affected.
The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury spoke at great length about the disparity in engagement between affluent and more deprived areas. That is also crucial. We can begin to engage our young people, but life dictates that circumstances change. Debt can take hold of people’s lives and that can disengage them from a process that they may once have been a part of.
Most crucially, engaging all our young people may be the key to ensuring greater and continued participation in our democratic process. Young people bring dynamism and energy and they have proven that they have the ability to understand and communicate politics in a language that many politicians can only aspire to.
I welcome hon. Members’ comments on student participation. We should remember that students are mostly young people—though they are not all young—who take part in this process when in a transient position in their lives that does not fix them to an abode where they can become regular voters. We must find a way to engage with students and young people and, crucially, those who live in areas that are in the main neglected owing to deprivation and poverty and who, understandably, do not feel the need to engage with a process because perhaps at times it may be the least of their concerns.
Edinburgh University highlighted the fact that giving a vote to 16 and 17-year-olds has been a proven democratic success. It is worth noting that 4.29 million Scots were registered to vote, which accounts for 97% of the Scottish population, and 80% of them voted in last year’s referendum. If that is not an indication that by giving the widest franchise we can engage our young people and citizens in the process, I do not know what is.
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Ms Black), our youngest MP and the youngest Member of this Parliament, is a prime example of a young person who was engaged with the political process. She is now a product of that process who can rightly sit in her place in this Chamber. We must ensure that the views of many more people are reflected in our Chambers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I welcome the Minister to his place and wish him well with his new responsibilities in the Cabinet Office. I also join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on bringing this extremely important matter to Westminster Hall so early in the new Parliament. We have had an excellent debate, with contributions from across the House. I will seek to address some of them before I focus on questions about the main two issues raised by my hon. Friend: individual voter registration and boundaries.
The theme running through every speech this afternoon has been how we can increase participation in our democracy. Frankly, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) has done sterling work on student representation and I will return to that in a moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) spoke brilliantly today, reminding us about the loss of Chris Ruane, who did so much work in this House to promote voter registration, as well as about the work of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform in the previous Parliament on which he served under the able chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen).
Votes at 16 was raised by most speakers in the debate, and that issue will not go away. We have already heard about the hugely positive experience in Scotland; I think I am right in saying that surveys suggested that 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds participated in the Scottish referendum. The Minister should address this issue. I and the Labour party want 16 and 17-year-olds to be able to vote in the European Union referendum and in all future elections.
In the run-up to the general election, I paid a number of visits to schools, colleges and youth organisations and discussed votes at 16. Frankly, there was a range of views—some 16 and 17-year-olds did not agree with the idea—but a common response was that it would have to be accompanied by better education on the matter in schools. I therefore warmly welcome the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman). I am a long-standing campaigner for citizenship education in schools. Some schools do it well, but they are a minority. We need to emphasise the great importance of effective citizenship education.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) made an incredibly powerful speech. I personally agree with her on electoral reform, although I am speaking from the Front Bench so should say that that is not Labour party policy; there is a range of views in the party and mine is, frankly, in the minority. I hope that politicians in all parties will consider the statistics she cited on the representation of different parties.
The hon. Lady rightly reminded us that turnout varies and that a major factor in determining turnout is relative poverty or affluence. As she said, there is a real risk of a “them and us” culture becoming entrenched in our politics. Her colleague, the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), spoke about the importance of women’s representation in this place. We have seen further improvement on that, but we are still a long way from achieving the 50% that we all aspire to.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury raised two main issues: voter registration and the linked issue of constituency boundaries. The scandal of under-registration is nothing new. As she reminded us, the Electoral Commission has provided a number of estimates on how many people are missing from the register; its most recent estimate, from last year, is 7.5 million eligible adults. That figure predates individual voter registration.
I echo what my hon. Friend said about the incredibly hard work put in by electoral registration officers and local authorities throughout the country to try to maximise registration over the past year, but, as has been said, there are a number of really important elections next year—for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, local government across the country and, in London, for the Mayor and the London Assembly—so it is vital that that work should be sustained and built on over the coming year.
I will discuss the three key groups—attainers, students and those who rent in the private sector. I echo those who paid tribute to the amazing work of organisations such as Bite the Ballot, Operation Black Vote, Operation Disabled Vote and the National Union of Students. Online registration is a welcome reform by the Government —one that we supported—that has undoubtedly enabled a lot of people to register who might not otherwise have done so.
I would like the Minister to consider the experience in Northern Ireland, where the schools initiative resulted in a higher number of attainers on the register after individual registration was brought in. Under that initiative, a duty was placed on schools and colleges to work with electoral registration officers to deliver high levels of registration. That is a good system and should be adopted across the rest of the country.
Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central spoke about what has been done in Sheffield. He made an important case. Will the Minister consider whether we can work closely, on a cross-party basis, with Universities UK, the NUS and others to see whether the system adopted in Sheffield could be adopted by universities across the country? Numbers of students on the register might then be higher even than under the old system.
Thirdly, we know that private renters, given the nature of their life, move around more. Will the Government work with large letting agencies and others to include reminders to register for new tenants, for example? I want the Minister to address those three specific points in his response.
My final point about individual voter registration is that we are awaiting a report from the Electoral Commission in which it will recommend whether the Government should bring forward full individual voter registration to this year or should stick with the legislative timetable and introduce it next year. If the commission advises the Government not to bring the transition forward, will they accept that advice? That is an important point, partly because we should ensure that we have the best possible register, with the maximum involvement for all the elections happening next year, and then for the EU referendum, and partly for the reason given by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury. As she said, the next boundary review will be conducted on the basis of the register put together this year; if that review is based on an incomplete register, our political boundaries will not be properly representative of the population as a whole.
My hon. Friend put a number of questions to the Minister about the boundaries that I will not repeat—we all have copies of them now—but I will say that the Opposition never supported the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600. We did not think that a case had been made for it, and from the point of view of respect for natural communities and historic traditions, sticking with the number of MPs we have at the moment seems to us to make sense. If the Government are changing their position on that, they will have our full support.
On constituency size, we felt that the 5% variation requirement was simply too tight. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington made a good argument based on the example of Cumbria; others can be made. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury spoke about some of the odd constituencies that would have been created under the proposals the last Government put forward. In Merseyside, the Boundary Commission’s initial proposal contained a constituency, Mersey Banks, on two opposite sides of the River Mersey.
Professor Ron Johnston of Bristol University has done some brilliant work on this issue and recommended that the Government simply amend their own legislation so that the 5% variation became 8% or 10%, to avoid many of the difficulties that were created by the process that was aborted in the previous Parliament. I ask the Minister to consider that. Professor Johnston also suggests —although this is a matter more for the Boundary Commission than for the Government or Parliament—that the Boundary Commission for England should split wards, as happens in Scotland. It has been reluctant to do that previously; were it prepared to consider doing so, we might not have some of the manifest problems that arose during the boundary review in the previous Parliament. Will the Minister address that point?
My preference—and the view that the Labour party has taken consistently—is to move away from a variation of 5% to one of either 8% or 10%. Were we to do so, we would avoid ward splitting on any serious scale. Professor Johnston’s argument is that we could perhaps do both and that an element of ward splitting might be required in certain communities. I am interested to hear the Minister’s response to those ideas.
These are important issues for hon. Members to address, and it is excellent that we have had an early opportunity to do so. We must all be driven—all Members who have contributed so far have said this—by a desire to increase the involvement in our political processes and the accountability of this place. If we get registration and boundaries right, we might be able to do that.
It is a pleasure to have you in charge of our proceedings this afternoon, Mr Turner. As others have, I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on securing this debate on a very important topic. It is a cross-party issue; every democrat surely must believe that it is vital that we maintain the integrity, balance and transparent fairness of our electoral system, to make sure that this place and other elected assemblies have the credibility that is essential for the continuing health of our democracy.
The hon. Lady’s local area has a proud tradition for her to follow. She mentioned the Chartists, who were crucial democrats, and Thomas Paine, a particularly important and well known radical. I was not quite with her on Lenin, but I appreciate that he has played an important part in the past. She also mentioned important initiatives being undertaken by her local electoral registration officer and others around the country.
The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) spoke about some of the things that are happening in Sheffield in relation to university students. It is worth while pausing to note the different and, on occasion, radically divergent ways of encouraging registration around the country. There are excellent examples of tailored practices that are designed to address particular local issues. Some of those practices may have a much wider national application, despite having started out as local solutions to local problems, and could profitably and promisingly be shared more widely to drive up registration around the rest of the country. There is a great opportunity to share best practice and copy the examples of Sheffield and Islington.
I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for his welcome and I look forward to debating with him, unless he is spirited away from us by the House’s decisions on Select Committee Chairmen. As he said, the Electoral Commission is shortly due to publish a report, which will be tremendously important for all of us in this room, because it will provide us with an authoritative analysis of what has been going on in registration over the course of the past year or so. It will show which parts of the country are ahead and which are behind. It will provide a fresh update on the hard-to-reach groups that we have heard about during this debate, some of which are particularly low registrants and some of which are particularly high. Importantly, it will shed light on whether the situation is changing and will tell us which groups are getting better and which are falling back, either because they are in different parts of the country or due to demographic trends. It will therefore equip us with vital facts on which we can base our decisions on how to go forward.
Most of us—although perhaps not the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury—agree that individual electoral registration has been a success and has made it easier for people to register to vote online. It has become much simpler as a result of IER to register to vote. The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) quoted some impressive figures—I have my own suite of figures, but it broadly overlaps with his—on the truly impressive rate of online registration that was achieved through IER in the run-up to the general election. The system held, and it worked. Although some may have been re-registrations or duplications, that showed that it is possible to reduce the barriers to registration and to make it simpler, particularly for younger folk, who are used to living their entire lives online, but also for the rest of the population. Registration is made a great deal more accessible by allowing us to do it online, and we are all becoming used to doing things online in other walks of life. It would be bizarre and perverse if we did not allow or encourage that to continue. The facts are emerging—we hope they will be confirmed in the Electoral Commission’s report—but it looks as though this has made a major improvement to registration and has got rid of some of the barriers in people’s way.
The Minister may have misunderstood me. I have no problem with making it easier for people to register to vote, and I acknowledge that online voter registration has made it easier for a lot of people. I started from a different standpoint. It is not that we should encourage people to reach out and grasp their right to vote, but that we should ensure that they simply have the right to vote in as accurate a way as possible. It is then for them to decide whether they want to vote or not. They should not need to take two steps, although they may need to sometimes. As a general rule, we should try to have automatic registration, so that we are all going for the goal of 100% registration.
I was about to come to examples of where that has been achieved already with some success. In the case of IER, about 87% of those who were already enrolled were seamlessly moved across, without their having to do anything. They were automatically verified, and their registration was moved across straightforwardly and simply.
There is a great deal that can be done, which brings me on seamlessly to the points made by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central about other opportunities to prompt people. He used the example of students, but there are many other examples. The shadow Minister mentioned private letting agents, which provide an obvious gateway or portal. There is a prompting moment when people move house. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central talked about universities, and the example of Northern Ireland was mentioned, where work has also been done in schools and colleges.
My point was that it is not simply about the opportunity to prompt—that is what we had at Sheffield Hallam, where it produced a 15% student uptake—but the opportunity to integrate systems in which data are already being collected to verify voters. There should be a seamless process of automatic registration. That is what we did in the other university, where we got 64% registration. That applies more widely than to institutions of higher education.
I agree with most, but not all, of what the hon. Gentleman says. There are huge opportunities to make it easier to verify people’s identity, to prompt them and to confirm them as legitimate voters. There are many opportunities, at points at which people intersect with other parts of Government data, when we can do that very effectively indeed.
The hon. Gentleman said that if students were asked to provide their national insurance number and did not happen to have it to hand, they would be discouraged, but there are alternatives, which were exploited in Sheffield. There are other trusted data sources, such as university enrolment data, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Providing the university has the right information—he said that there was an opportunity for software improvement—it could be used to provide the automatic confirmation of people’s eligibility to vote.
Where I gently but fundamentally part company with the hon. Gentleman—although I stay in contact with the shadow Minister—is on the notion of IER being part of a conscious choice for people to enrol. Moving away from the old system of household enrolment is a major step forward. I am sure that I am preaching to the choir when I say that the old system of household enrolment was a little patriarchal, if I can put it that way. Expecting people who want to vote to register is not a great thing to ask.
I do not think we are really at odds. What we are saying is that the system we developed at Sheffield requires people to make a decision, but it does not direct them to what that decision is; that is the critical thing. It is about more active engagement.
We are as one on the idea that there is a great deal more that can be done. With any luck, the Electoral Commission’s report will equip us with more facts that show us which avenues it will be most profitable for us to pursue first. It will allow us to prioritise them and make progress.
The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury was extremely organised and asked a series of questions. I do not have time to get through them all, but I will endeavour to. Before I move on, I want to mention the comments of the hon. Members for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley). I am probably misquoting the hon. Member for Glasgow East, but she said—this was a vital comment—that there should be no division between representatives of the people and the people themselves. I am sure that everybody here would echo and agree with that statement.
On the issue of whether the bands around boundaries should be 5%, 8% or 10%, the point is that constituency size must be based on registration to ensure we have genuinely equal representation in this place. The wider the bands, the less fairness there is, in terms of the power of an individual’s vote. If there was a 10% band, there could be a 20% difference between the number of people it takes to elect me and the number of people it takes to elect the shadow Minister. That would be getting too wide for comfort.
I am down to my last 27 seconds, so I really cannot.
That is not an acceptable approach. It would not provide the kind of connection with our voters and the transparent fairness that we are all aiming to achieve in this vital area of our democratic life.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered voter engagement and the franchise.