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Individual Electoral Registration

Volume 600: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of individual electoral registration.

For Parliament, 2015 has been a year for celebrating our democracy. Across the country, in schools, festivals and in the media, people have joined us in celebrating a journey that started 800 years ago with the signing of Magna Carta and led to our sitting here today. However, this year could end with a body blow to our democracy that could have repercussions for years to come.

The transition to individual electoral registration should reach its end in December 2016; instead, it has been brought forward by the Government to December 2015. The effects could be disastrous. According to the latest projections from the Electoral Commission, 1.9 million people are at risk of being removed from the electoral register. That number will drop as canvassers go door to door this autumn. Nevertheless, reasonable estimates produced by the Labour party suggest that close to a million people will be dropped from the register. That is a million people whose voices will no longer be recognised and who will be ignored when the Government begin to redraw the political landscape with the new boundaries.

That move goes against the advice of the independent Electoral Commission. It will not be subject to a vote in Parliament nor, apart from now, will MPs be given a certain chance to debate the important issues at stake. That is why today’s debate is so important. We need a Parliament that represents all its constituents in all its constituencies, but instead my borough of Blaenau Gwent had lost 1,736 people from the register by the time of the general election. It is projected that Wales will lose 68,000 people from the register in December, and that is unacceptable.

When the Labour Government legislated for the move to IER we put in a transition period with strong safeguards, but we can see from the numbers squeezed off the register by the current rushed transition that the Conservative Government’s haste will soon leave many people repenting at their leisure. There might be a view that this was a safe time to finalise the transition, as we have just completed a general election.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an issue that is absolutely key to our democracy. Does he agree with me that if there is to be the change to IER, together with the forthcoming change to the constituency boundaries, the Government’s responsibility to increase the safeguards, rather than bring forward the date by a year—as has happened—will be reinforced?

The MP for my neighbouring constituency makes an important point, which gets to the crux of our discussion. May 2016 will feature big elections for the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Mayor of London. People’s votes, across the UK, will be vital in shaping the country once more, and the boundary review of 2016, on which my hon. Friend touched, will shape it on a much more fundamental level.

Those people who are removed from the register in December 2015 will not be counted for the purposes of determining their representation in Parliament. If the shape of a constituency is drawn based on its reduced number of voters, we will soon be faced with a distorted electoral map. Large urban areas with multiple-occupancy housing and regular home movers are the areas that are set to be hit and, on a party political level, the urban areas affected coincide with traditional Labour representation. I would like to think that the Government would not rush in the IER process to tip the scales in their favour for future elections. However, how can we have confidence in the boundaries, even in London, when Hackney faces a nearly 23% drop-off in the number of registered voters? The average loss in Britain is calculated at almost 4%. The 10 poorest areas in Britain face an average projected loss of 6.2%.

We are in danger of shrinking the voice of our poorer communities. For people in those communities, falling from the register has consequences beyond that of losing the vote. It means, for example, losing the chance of obtaining safe, affordable credit in areas where loan sharks may ply their trade. It means public service provision dipping even lower, affecting everything from school places to GPs. My major concern is that it is already too late to fix that problem before the December deadline.

The student population is a good example of my last point.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should note the Association of Electoral Administrators’ recommendation that legislative changes should be implemented to allow electoral registration officers to block-register people in institutions such as sheltered accommodation and university halls of residence?

My hon. Friend makes an important point on behalf of those people who do the hard yards in our democracy—electoral registration officers. They do not have a fashionable local government job, but they do their very best to boost our democracy and, as my hon. Friend says, they have been undermined in this instance.

To be fair, before the 2015 general election coalition Cabinet Office Ministers, the Electoral Commission and the National Union of Students sent a letter to university vice-chancellors across the UK asking for their support to ensure that students were registered to vote. Consequently, there was a big drive in universities to boost registration—fair do’s. We are now in a new academic year, however, with thousands of admissions to and departures from the universities, so the HOPE not hate group rang 54 universities asking about their work this year. Every university that responded said it was scaling down its efforts as there was no general election this year, with just four of them referring to plans to inform the new intake about voter registration in their welcome packs. That is a microcosm of the larger problem in high turnover areas. Without a sustained programme of action, any voter drive will work for a short period only.

Labour is doing its bit with the “missing million” push this weekend, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero). It is one of our biggest registration drives ever. Labour students will be around campuses, colleagues will be touring community groups and local parties will be going door to door. That sort of work cannot, however, be sustained by volunteers alone, no matter how committed they are. A lot of the push has had to come from local authorities, who deserve credit for working hard despite the wider cuts and the new demands of the IER system.

Although information such as dates of birth and national insurance numbers is a good protection against fraud, it places further demands on electoral registration officers and that is why we need to support them by using all the available tools to find as many voters as possible. That means Departments and local authorities linking up their information and streamlining their processes. On this side of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) deserves credit for doing that with his local university, the University of Sheffield, where they have integrated voter registration into the student registration process, leading to 64% of students registering to vote. That is a success story—fair do’s.

The more innovative methods we can use to take advantage of what we already have, the better. In my work on the Public Accounts Committee, I have seen some of the new ways in which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is working. Since 2012, it has been making use of credit reference agency data to good effect. It has checked addresses and other information to see if everything is up to date and correct. That helped HMRC to reduce tax credit losses by £280 million between 2011 and 2014. Further afield, in California, a Bill has recently been signed that allows residents to be registered to vote when they obtain or renew a driver’s licence or a state identity card. The point is that we need to use more good and accurate databases to increase voter registration to protect and build our democracy.

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to intervene in the debate. I compliment my hon. Friend; he was an excellent agent in Islington South in 2005 and has been an even better MP since for Wales.

Is it not right that we should all be democrats? We should all be trying to work to ensure that as many people as possible exercise their democratic right to vote. It is extraordinary, is it not, that the Government seem to be putting barriers in the way of people being on the register in order to exercise the power they should have simply because they are citizens?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She does a brilliant job of boosting voter registration in Islington.

The Government are rushing the introduction of individual electoral registration. Next year’s elections are important and the boundaries for future constituencies will rely on an accurate register. The Government say that they want to boost our democracy, but their action undermines it. How many times have we, in this place, around this room, knocked on doors come election time, to be greeted by a person who has lost their opportunity to vote because of a registration problem? I see lots of nods. Why do we want to reject hundreds of thousands of students across the country by squeezing them off the register and telling them that their vote does not matter? Why do we want to undermine our voting system and threaten to exclude private renters, people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, the unemployed and lower-paid workers?

The Government must listen. They must hear the genuine concerns and allow more voters on to the register; otherwise, they do our democracy a great disservice.

Order. It may help if I clarify for those who are new to 60-minute debates, an innovation in this Parliament, that the Chairman of Ways and Means has said that we should give the two main Opposition parties five minutes each and the Minister 10 minutes at the end. It is therefore my intention to get to the Front Benchers no later than 5.10 pm.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this debate. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on an issue that is of the utmost importance to many of my constituents.

The key question on individual electoral registration is why the Government appear set on ignoring the advice of the Electoral Commission, an independent body that has undertaken rigorous research in this field. It clearly stated:

“Taking into account the data and evidence which is available to us at this point, and the significant polls which are scheduled for May 2016, we recommend that Ministers should not make an order to bring forward the end of the transition to IER. We recommend that the end date for IER transition should remain, as currently provided for in law, December 2016.”

The reasons for the Electoral Commission’s concerns are twofold: concerns about the completeness of the register and about the lack of participation by eligible voters who will drop off the register, who total some 1.9 million. In one of the boroughs I represent, Lambeth, an estimated 7% of the current electorate will drop off the register in December 2015 according to the best estimate of the local authority.

What do we know about those most likely to be in that 7%? We know from experience in Northern Ireland that they will be young—students who have moved away but whose main home remains their parental home, who may be away at the time of the electoral register canvass visit and mailing, but who may be at home at the time of the next election. In the past, they have been able to rely on their parents completing the form on behalf of the whole household. We also know that the 7% will include people who move frequently, such as the 40% of residents of Lambeth who currently live in the private rented sector, which the Government refuse to regulate properly. As their tenancies come to an end, they are forced to move on. Registering to vote will often be the last thing on their mind in what is often a stressful situation.

We also know that the 7% will disproportionately include voters from black and minority ethnic communities. I commend the work that Operation Black Vote has been doing on individual electoral registration. I visited its well-equipped voter registration bus a few months ago. Despite that work, it will nevertheless remain the case that the 1.9 million voters who drop off the register will disproportionately be from minority communities. I am not clear that the Government have undertaken an equality impact assessment of the decision to bring forward IER. The decision will have significant equalities impacts and those should be properly measured and taken into account before it is implemented.

We also know that voters who will drop off the register will disproportionately be on low incomes. They are exactly those voters who by May 2016 will be suffering the impacts of the Government’s decision to cut tax credits, which is being debated elsewhere this afternoon. We know that for all those people the consequences of dropping off the register will extend beyond their disenfranchisement, affecting their credit rating and forcing them to borrow where they need to from more expensive and unscrupulous sources.

Voting is a universal right. It is not the preserve of residents whose housing has been settled for many years, who have higher incomes or who are older or white. The Government should be taking their responsibility to ensure universal voting rights seriously and follow the recommendations of the Electoral Commission to stick with December 2016 as the start date for IER. In the meantime, the Government should be resourcing local authorities to extend their canvassing work, particularly in areas with a high proportion of students or private rented accommodation and in areas of high deprivation.

One of the problems we have with local authorities is the resourcing to be able to support the process. Does my hon. Friend recognise that authorities such as York will next week be sending out their first tranche of people to canvass constituents? That leaves only a two-week window to get people on to the register, because it is now taking three weeks to process the family inquiry form to put people on the register.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I agree with her entirely. The resourcing for local authorities on this issue has been entirely inadequate.

The Electoral Commission report explicitly says that it does not consider the 1.9 million voters who would drop off the register to represent a high risk of fraudulent voting activity, so I do not think that a proportionate reason for bringing forward the introduction of IER when the risks of disenfranchisement remain so high. I remain completely baffled about why the Government are not taking the Electoral Commission’s recommendation seriously. I hope that they will look again at the risks and change their decision.

I thank the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing this debate. There is a sad irony to this issue. Individual electoral registration is to be adopted as a replacement for household registration, where previously one member—the patriarch, if you like, Mr Davies—doled out the franchise to his dependents. By bringing forward the transfer to the new system a year early, the Government will effectively maintain the electoral advantage and status of long-established households at the expense of transient and, in particular, young voters.

The measure could be interpreted as a cynical exercise in the further disenfranchisement of young voters, in urgent haste to influence the next round of elections in the Scottish Parliament, English local authorities and the Welsh Assembly. That approach to voter registration as a whole is bad news for democracy. More and more young people will either lose or never even have the opportunity to adopt the practice of voting. There is a real need for sufficient time and greater imagination and innovation to ensure that the new system works effectively.

I will make a few suggestions. A voter voucher could be sent to every 18-year-old—or even to 16-year-olds, when we come to that question—on their birthday to encourage them. We could have registration events in schools, colleges and universities. We have heard something about the activities that are already happening at some of them. Importantly, we could have citizenship on the curriculum. It is especially important to teach young people the nuts and bolts of how to vote and not to assume that people can do it automatically. People are shy of putting themselves in unfamiliar situations; they need to be helped to do that and supported along the way. There are wider questions about voting technologies and how to make the individual voter’s vote actually make a difference. There are also wider questions about young people’s engagement with democracy, voting for 16 and 17 year-olds, youth councils and youth parliaments.

I take this opportunity to decry how the Welsh national identity is ignored on election registration forms and to demand that the Minister makes good that archaism and commits to ensuring that people can record their nationality as Welsh, rather than British. Wales has a Welsh Government working on behalf of the Welsh people, and I am glad to say that we can record our nationality as Welsh on census forms. The Government do themselves no favours, however, with that lack of respect on registration forms. However inconvenient Wales may be, we cannot be defined out of existence.

It is worth emphasising that being on the electoral register is absolutely fundamental to democracy in this country, but for obvious reasons unless someone is on the electoral register they cannot decide whether they want to vote. Whether they wish to exercise their franchise is up to them, but to deny people that choice undermines the concept of British democracy.

Individual electoral registration is a sound principle and makes good sense. When the Labour party was in government, we brought forward the concept of individual electoral registration, which was subsequently taken up by the coalition Government. Individuals within a household should have responsibility for their registration, rather than relying on the head of household to do it for them. It is a good means of empowerment and of bestowing responsibility on individuals.

As I cast my mind back to the passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, however, I remember that we the Opposition expressed practical concerns about how the laudable principle of IER was going to be put into practice. Many of those concerns have been borne out by the passage of time. We had a concern that the Government were placing an undue emphasis on the suggestion that there was widespread fraud. As we all know, there are occasional instances of fraud, but, by and large, our system has been transparent, straightforward and honourable given how people have behaved under it. Instances of fraud are few and far between. We felt that that had been elevated into a principle to allow the Government to introduce measures that would make it very difficult for many people to register. That is worth bearing in mind in our discussion today.

Secondly, we were concerned about how the dovetailing of the present system would work with the introduction of a new system—the move from household registration to individual registration. We thought it important to have sufficient resources to ensure that that was done properly and also that there was a sufficient period of time for that to happen. My concern, therefore, is why the Government have decided, despite what was agreed by Parliament, that a full implementation date for IER would be December 2015. Why have they decided to bring it forward by a year? I will return to that point later.

Individual electoral registration is important for next year because we are concerned to make sure that we have as many people as possible on the register to participate in a whole raft of important elections. Also, it is possible that we will have the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. That is very important indeed. So there are good electoral reasons to make sure that as many people as possible are on the register.

My concern is about bringing forward the date for registration for the full implementation of IER from December 2016 to December 2015. Throughout the passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, we had a lurking suspicion, which reared its head frequently, that the Government were really interested not in democracy and full participation, but in political advantage. We had that concern all the way through the passage of the Bill. Occasionally, the Government blew the gaff and it was pretty clear what they were trying to do. It has to be said. There is no clearer example than when the Government tried to introduce full IER without the necessary preparation and safeguards for December 2015 so that it would happen to coincide with the boundary review beginning on exactly the same date. We all know the Boundary Commission takes as essential and fundamental to its work the state of the electoral register at the point it starts its work.

Is it simply a coincidence that the two processes are coming together? I suggest not. If we look at the work done by the Electoral Commission, we see clearly that despite the rhetoric and the warm words of the Government, many people will not be on the electoral register by December this year. The Electoral Commission says that the number could be as high as 1.9 million, although we accept that that number will deplete as we move closer to December this year. Other people have suggested the number will be slightly less. Some have suggested it could be as low as 1 million people. Nevertheless, it is true that a heck of a lot of people will not be on the electoral register—not because they have been on it fraudulently, but because, for reasons well explained by others, they have not been able to register and will therefore not be included on the register. They will not be able to vote and will not be taken into account when the next boundaries for the parliamentary elections in 2020 take place.

Why have the Government decided to ignore the objective and impartial advice of the Electoral Commission? There are plenty of instances where the commission says things that Labour does not like. It is not a Labour poodle, but an objective body. It has looked at all the information, analysed all the facts and figures, and come to the best conclusion. I will quote from its detailed report issued in June this year:

“If the transition ends in December 2015, there is a potential benefit to the accuracy of the register–with any retained entries which are redundant or inaccurate being removed”—

I accept that—

“but also a risk to the completeness of the register and to participation, with retained entries relating to eligible electors being removed...In contrast, if the transition continues to December 2016”,

as Parliament wanted,

“the main benefit relates to completeness–with entries for any eligible electors who are not registered individually retained on the registers”.

Surely we all believe in democracy and that there should be as many people as possible on the electoral register. We should not seek to manipulate this critical democratic process for party political reasons. I know the Government have decided to bring forward the date for full implementation, but even at this late stage I ask them to keep in mind the democratic principle that our election method should be above party political considerations. We are talking about the democracy of this country and, dare I say it, that is more important than the Labour party’s interests—or, indeed, the Conservative party’s. We are talking about democracy and that should be of concern to everyone.

It is a pleasure to make my first speech under your chairship, Mr Davies. There is no opposition from my party to the principle of IER. We can all agree it is high time to move away from the Victorian process of the patriarch registering the household and to individual registration. However, the process of transferring the responsibility from the state to the individual means that not all individuals are equal. We know that in many areas there have been problems with some groups being able to take advantage of their ability to join the electoral register: people who live in the private rented sector, students, and people who are recent migrants or who have no fixed abode in communities and are moving around. Also, there are people with various problems—poverty, addiction or other social problems—who are very much on the margins of society and, frankly, registering to vote in an election is not at the top of their list of priorities. Such factors do not affect all constituencies equally. I guess that is why we have an apparent imbalance of interest in the debate today. I guess there is a disproportionate interest the other way round in a debate on tax credits, but who knows?

In Scotland we have had an exercise in our recent history that I think has set the gold standard in electoral registration. During the Scottish referendum, we reached registration levels of 95% plus—previously unseen in these islands and lauded by everyone as a remarkable achievement. I recall asking the then First Minister Alex Salmond, now my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), what his most vivid memory of the entire referendum was, and he said the thing that stood out for him most was being in the city of Dundee in late August in the bright sunshine and having a queue of more than 200 people waiting in line around the block to sign up before the deadline for registration. Such was the enthusiasm of people wanting to participate.

We will wait and see what the effect will be in December in terms of the drop in the register as a result of moving to the new process, but the initial indications are not good. The interim register in April was 3.4% down on the register on which the referendum took place. That is in part because of the presence of 16 and 17-year-olds, but if we compare over-18s on the register, there is still a drop of 1.8%, which is a fairly significant drop. Hundreds of thousands of people could lose their right to vote.

It strikes me that we need to do two things. First, we need processes that are external to Government, but wherein the Government encourage people to take part in the electoral process to begin with. That should be done, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) says, through schools, through advocacy and through trying to educate people about the importance of their being on the register. We need state and local government-funded publicity campaigns to drive people towards that process.

Secondly, we need to look at the processes involved and how we can make them a lot simpler and easier. It is ridiculous that when a woman gets married and decides to change her name, she then has to provide two further pieces of identification in order to re-register to vote. Surely it is the state that is agreeing to the marriage and recording it in the first place; I would not think it beyond our wit, in the 21st century, to find a way to transfer that information to the electoral register.

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. The problem that I have is that because of his fear of patriarchy, he is saying that individual people should grasp their right to vote. That is putting the whole thing on its head. It should be everyone’s right to vote. It seems obvious to me that the state should ensure that people have the right to vote; it is then for the individual to decide whether they want to.

I agree, of course, that without question everyone should have the right to vote. I am trying to suggest that it is the state’s duty to promote the availability of that right and to encourage people and advocate that they take it up.

I agree completely with the points that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd made about identity. I asked my electoral registration officer why people could not indicate in the relevant place that they felt themselves to be Scottish—I represent the capital of Scotland. The electoral registration officer said that they would happily change the form but could not do so because it would need to be changed on the Cabinet Office portal. I wrote to the Minister on that on 3 September and am still awaiting a reply. I am not trying to bounce him into replying today, but I shall be grateful if he will speed up the process.

I do not want to pre-empt what the Government are going to say, but I guess they would say that they have brought the date forward because they are extremely confident that everything will be all right on the night and okay in the end. Surely the question today is: what if it is not? What is plan B? We need to be prepared. When the registers are announced in December, if there is a dramatic drop-off in some areas, it is the Government’s responsibility to take emergency action to ensure that people are not disfranchised in the elections and referendums that are coming next year.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on bringing the extremely important matter of individual electoral registration to Westminster Hall at this crucial time for our democracy. As he says, this change represents a potential body blow to our democracy, as 1 million people might be ignored.

We should all reflect on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), who pointed out that the boundary review is intrinsically tied up with the process of individual electoral registration, which could distort the electoral map. My hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) mentioned the Association of Electoral Administrators, which points out that the block registration of those in sheltered or university accommodation is crucial—so why has it not happened? My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) pointed out that in her constituency they are trying to do all this work in just a two-week window.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) made the point that we must all be democrats and should not be putting barriers in the way of democracy, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) asked an extremely important question, which I hope the Minister will answer, about whether an equality impact assessment has been conducted. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) pointed out that the issue is not the principle of IER but having a reasonable time to adjust to it.

In the short time remaining to me, I have some additional questions for the Minister. Will he tell us one good reason for the change of date, other than politicking to give the Tories an electoral advantage? The Opposition have suggested a number of common-sense solutions. Why have the Government refused measures such as the block registration of students this year? We also suggested that the Government work with letting agencies to take such simple measures as reminding new tenants to register and helping them to do so, but they have not carried out any of them. In my constituency 900 people are predicted to fall off the register, but look at Hammersmith and Fulham and we are looking at the loss of 8,000 people. Does the Minister agree that that would be unacceptable?

I will finish by coming back to the words of the Electoral Commission. It has said that the proposed change to the IER implementation date poses

“a risk to the completeness of the register and to participation”.

I remind the Minister that the Electoral Commission is an independent body set up by Parliament and has no partisan axe to grind. Why do the Government believe that their party political agenda should override the advice of a body that exists to increase trust and participation in our democracy? Will the Minister reconsider and stop this rush to implement a change that poses profound risks to participation and the completeness of the register? I urge him to heed the Electoral Commission’s sound advice.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time as well, Mr Davies. Thank you for guiding us safely through the debate.

Perhaps I will surprise the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) by saying that there is a great deal on which we can agree. In fact, there is a great deal on which all the speakers can agree. For example, I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) that the existing processes for sorting out registration and chasing after people in the under-represented groups leaves a great deal to be desired. Often, those processes are set in stone in an analogue age, and we are now in a digital world. They are long overdue for some updating and modernising.

If the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, or anyone else present, would like to come along to Policy Exchange on Thursday, I will be giving a speech on how we need to update and modernise our approach to registration, because I agree with the underlying tone of many of the remarks made today: we have a major problem with not all but some groups in society that are under-represented. We have heard a list of some of them today. People in the private rental sector are difficult to keep track of, as are young black males in particular but many ethnic minorities—it is difficult to persuade them to register, even if we can find them. Students have also been mentioned.

The group that is probably worst represented of all and has not been mentioned so far is expatriate voters. Even of those who are legally allowed to vote and are enfranchised—those who have been abroad for less than 15 years—only between 3% and 5% are registered to vote. That is after the previous Government threw quite a lot of money at the problem in the run-up to the general election and raised the proportion from a paltry 1% to a relatively risible 3% or 5%—that is all. That is a good, if extreme, example of a fundamental problem. We need to update and modernise what we are doing on voter registration.

Nevertheless, it is important that if, when and as we do that—I completely agree with the sentiments expressed: we need to do so—in the vast majority of cases we are going to find people who are not registered at all. A large number of people are missing from the registers entirely, either pre or post-IER. What we do to end the transition to IER will not affect the people who are not currently on the register. We need to update and modernise because it is right and democratic, but let us not fool ourselves that it will have a great deal of impact on the decision about when we end the process of individual electoral registration, because these people are overwhelmingly not on the register as it stands.

On that point, the Minister will know from previous exchanges on this subject that last year the University of Sheffield used flexibilities that his Department gave it significantly to improve the number of students registered. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) that that is not being repeated by other universities this year. If we had a further year—if the Minister had not brought this scheme forward by a year—we could have a much more complete register of students in a year’s time.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to come along and hear my speech on Thursday at Policy Exchange, where we will talk about not just that but other initiatives, which I will mention briefly in a minute. Even if we were able to extend what has been done successfully the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam to many other universities, given that the people we are talking about are not on the register, either before or after individual electoral registration, the date at which we end the transition to IER would make no difference to whether they are registered. This is something worth doing, regardless of whether we are doing IER and the transition. It is worth doing at all times, in all places, in any case. The transition date will make no difference to those people.

I completely agree that it is important that we roll out some of the exciting innovations that are being tried in places such as the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam for students. There are all sorts of other things we could do with the online registration process. It is now possible to register to vote online in less than three minutes—less time than it takes to boil an egg. It is an incredibly convenient and simple process.

However, we make it more difficult for people to renew their registration after they have been registered for a year. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East said, and I am sure we all agree, that there is a natural seasonality to electoral registration: registration rates tend to dip after a major electoral event, such as a general election or the Scottish referendum, because people are less interested and registration is less relevant to them if there is no poll in which they can vote in the next 12 months. Some of those people re-register nearer the time, but we should ask ourselves why we ask all those people to re-register every single year once they have made their individual decision to register to vote. We do not ask them to re-register for their tax credits, their TV licence or their benefit claims every single year.

Everybody in this room, except perhaps the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I am not sure whether she is in favour of this principle as a fundamental—accepts the noble cause of individual electoral registration and ensuring that people make an individual decision to register to vote. However, we need to ask ourselves whether it is necessary to ask people to renew that vow every year. Are we still being true to individual electoral registration if we relax it and make a decision on it every couple of years? That would allow us to deal with some of the natural electoral seasonality that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East mentioned.

There is a huge amount we can do, and there is a huge amount that I believe should be done. I hope, based on hon. Members’ comments today, that there can be some sort of cross-party agreement on some of these things, which could then be introduced. There may not be cross-party agreement on everything. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) gave a couple of examples, and we do not necessarily agree on all the detail.

I cannot, partly because I have not given the speech yet, and partly because, as I said to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), registering people who are not on the register needs to happen, regardless of when the transition from the old system to individual electoral registration ends, because the transition will not affect people who are not already on the register. It is a parallel process that needs to be done anyway.

That is missing the point entirely. We are asking the Minister to give us one good reason why it is better to introduce IER in December 2015, rather than December 2016. We are still waiting.

I was just coming on to that. I want to address the fundamental point about how we are going to deal with the problem of under-represented groups on our registers, which is crucial and underlies many of the concerns.

Let me move on to the timing of the transition to IER. As we have heard in many speeches today, there is a presumption that this process is going remove eligible voters from the electoral roll. I want fundamentally to question that presumption. During the course of a year a large number people on the electoral register—a very large number in some places, and in other places fewer people—move house. Some sadly die, and there are fraudulent entries in some parts of the country, although not in all—the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) rightly said that fraud is not an issue in all parts of the country. That is the natural state of any database. It is natural for any electoral register to contain such data errors.

We have to sort through the 1.9 million people whose entries are incomplete and who had not made the transition as of the general election date of May this year to find which are genuine voters with a pulse—people who are eligible to vote. We need to identify them, confirm their ID in the way that we have been discussing and ensure that they are confirmed on the electoral register. Then the only entries left will be the people who are no longer there—the people who have moved, died or were never there in the first place because they were fraudulent.

I will in a second. Let me finish this point.

That crucial distinction is absolutely central. It is not my intention—I am a democrat, like everybody else here—to get rid of any valid elector from any electoral roll anywhere.

I will give way to the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent first.

That is why we have made it so simple for people to register to vote and why by the end of the year, with the £3 million of extra funding we have introduced, the remaining 1.9 million entries on the electoral roll will have been contacted up to nine times over the past 18 months—in some cases, more. They will have had their doors knocked on and their phones rung, and they will have had letters and emails. At the end of that process, the chances of a genuine voter with a pulse who lives in a particular area being disfranchised are vanishingly small. Even if, by some terrible mischance, after all that effort they are genuinely disfranchised and should be able to vote, it takes less time than it takes to boil an egg to re-register.

It is good that people can vote online now, and I know it is a very efficient process. Of the 1.9 million people we are all worried about, what is the Minister’s assessment of how many will be registered after the numerous interventions he is talking about? How many extra people does he believe will be on the register?

I do not have that number yet because, as a number of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues said, the autumn canvass is still going on. Because by definition those people were, without getting too Rumsfeldian about it, known unknowns, we were not sure how many were genuine people with a pulse and how many were data errors. Nobody will know the answer to that question until the autumn canvass process is complete.

Given that over 18 months those people will have been contacted nine times—in some cases more—in a variety of different ways, the chances of genuine voters being disfranchised is tiny. The fact is that the only entries left on the register, which will then be deleted, are the ones who are no longer there, not real voters. I hope we can all sign up to that crucial distinction. I am sure—we have heard this from a number of colleagues—that we would all sign up to the principle of keeping a clean register, which underpins the health of our democracy.

If the transition is brought forward a year, that leaves less time to check out those 1.9 million people. That applies only to the people who were on the register in the first place. What about 18-year-olds and other people?

Look at the number of reminders we get about everything else in our lives. We do not remind people nine times about their TV licence or anything else, and we certainly do not take 18 months. With this process, we have gone not just the extra mile, but the extra 10 miles. Once the point has been reached at which the remaining register entries can only be people who have moved away or died or were fraudulently there—those who are not real voters—it seems pointless to wait.

Several comments were made about the Electoral Commission. Although that is an august body, I gently remind hon. Members that there is another body: the Association of Electoral Administrators. Its members are the people in charge of administering elections up and down the country and they are in favour of the change. This is not a one-way street. An awful lot of objective, independent non-politicians think that the idea is good because the transition is sensible and they are reminded of what happened in Northern Ireland, where the change was made in one day, not 18 months and let alone two and a half years. Northern Ireland has been using the system happily for several years.

I am grateful to the Minister for his generosity in giving way. He referred to Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns, but are not the unknown unknowns the bigger problem? I refer to the students who were not living at a university address last year, but are this year. Due to the lack of the focus that universities had last year, as previously described, fewer such students will be on the register. The Northern Ireland example is particularly relevant here, because schools and colleges there have a duty to work with the electoral registration officer to get 17 and 18-year-olds registered. We argued for that in the previous Parliament, but the coalition Government sadly did not agree to it. Would the Minister agree to that, even at this late stage?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the hon. Gentleman makes an entirely valid point about the importance of getting attainers and students on the register. We have already discussed some of the good examples going on in Sheffield that bear examination and could be copied.

As I mentioned before, because such people are not on the register at the moment, getting them on the register is something that we should do and is a challenge that will recur every single year forever as long as there are students, universities and colleges. It makes not a jot of difference, however, to the timing of the ending of the transition to IER if such people are not on the register already, because they cannot be crossed off and potentially disfranchised. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that fundamental piece of logic.

I understand the logic of the Minister’s argument, but universities have not had a lot of time to learn from the Sheffield experience. I know from talking to universities in Liverpool that they have not adopted the Sheffield system this year. With more time and a concerted effort from Universities UK, the Government and ourselves, we could get all universities doing it next year.

That is an interesting and intriguing idea on which I would welcome cross-party discussions if the Labour party is interested. It is just one example of a whole series of things that could be done. The hon. Member for Ashfield, the Opposition spokeswoman, mentioned letting agencies. I am unsure whether I agree with block registration, because it strays perilously away from the turf of individual electoral registration. Again, I am open to being convinced on that, but it is a potential danger that I might not want us to go near. There are many other such opportunities.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh East referred to data cross-matching. A large number of local authorities say, “Look, we have all this data from a range of other sources that we are itching to use.” We could effectively do nine tenths of the annual canvass automatically in a trice just by running some cross-matching between existing databases and the electoral register. We could prove that 90% of people have not moved and are in the same situation. We could then focus our annual canvass efforts on the 10% who do not match up and who are causing the problem, on under-represented groups or on places that seem to have empty houses when we know that people are living there.

With those points, I hope that the debate has begun to unpick the two important parallel but distinct issues. One is the question of how to get more under-represented groups to register. The other is how to deal with data errors in respect of the 1.9 million people, as of last May, and how we distinguish between real voters, ensuring that they are confirmed and not disfranchised, and the errors that need removing to guarantee the strength of our democracy.

It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. We have had a really good debate. I want to thank Opposition colleagues who have contributed and added value. Strong contributions included that from my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), who made an important point about the equality impact assessment.

I have just remembered that I did not answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes). There was indeed an equality impact assessment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) talked about the fundamental importance of registration for our democracy. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) had some good ideas about voter vouchers for 18-year-olds. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) talked about how exciting campaigns can boost registration, which is the gold standard for us all.

We want exciting campaigns that energise our voters and promote democracy. We had interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Neath (Christina Rees), for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell). My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) probed an important point about student registration.

In this important debate, I have tried to emphasise that bringing forward individual electoral registration at this time is a body blow to our democracy. Colleagues have highlighted under-registration in their constituencies, where key groups of people, such as those in rented accommodation and young people, are being squeezed off the register. The Minister made some constructive comments, and I look forward to reading his speech once he has given it in a few days. I would be grateful if he sent me a link.

All here present are good democrats who want to see progress in this area. Nevertheless, the Minister has failed to provide the Government’s assessment of how many of the 1.9 million people will be on the register after the Government’s intervention. It is a shame and a great pity that he failed to answer that important point. The Government have failed to listen to independent organisations such as the Electoral Commission and have done our democracy a disservice as a result. I hope that the Minister will take on board the messages of today’s debate, rethink the Government’s strategy and decide to build our democracy, rather than undermine it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of individual electoral registration.

Sitting adjourned.