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House of Commons Hansard
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Automatic Electoral Registration
03 February 2016
Volume 605

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to impose certain duties upon Her Majesty’s Government to ensure the accuracy, completeness and utility of electoral registers; to make provision for the sharing of data for the purposes of electoral registration; and for connected purposes.

As I am sure all hon. Members will agree, it is our job in this House to make sure that the citizens we represent can truly exercise their democratic rights, but, as we speak, British citizens in this country are being marginalised and excluded from the democratic process.

The problem is less about getting people to sign up and more about maintaining people’s registration. The people who are being excluded from the process are exactly the people we need to be prioritising. According to recent trends, we are witnessing further marginalisation of already marginalised groups, including those from poorer backgrounds, those who are disabled and those from ethnic minorities. Research published just yesterday showed that pensioners in the shires who own their own home have a 90% chance of being on the electoral register, whereas a young man from an ethnic minority background in private rented accommodation in a city has less than a 10% chance of being registered. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has launched an important drive against “overt, unconscious or institutional” racial discrimination, in university admissions, the justice system and the police. However, the fact that people from ethnic minorities are far less likely to be registered to exercise their democratic rights undermines the Government’s commitment.

When it comes to electoral registration, the picture across the country is bleak. I celebrate the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), who has raised the issue of voters dropping off the register. Since the introduction of individual electoral registration, a staggering 800,000 people—1.8% nationwide—have dropped off the register. To put those figures into context, Liverpool has seen a drop in its eligible register of 14,000, Birmingham 17,000 and Lewisham 6,000, and those are all areas that have seen an increase in population.

The situation is even worse in areas where the population is transient, such as in university towns. Canterbury has seen a huge drop of 13% in those registered to vote. Cambridge has seen a drop of 11%, which means that its electorate is now smaller than it was in 2011. Those drops are the result of the absurdities of the current system. I ask Members to imagine what it would feel like if, every time they started a new job, they needed to apply for a new national insurance number and to prove to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs again and again that they were eligible to pay tax and NI. They would find the process cumbersome, costly and repetitive—just as the process of IER is.

In sum, these developments mean that British citizens, particularly those who are on the sidelines, are being disfranchised and denied their democratic rights. It also means that, as the pool of potential voters decreases, our political status quo becomes more limited. If the Government are serious about combating social exclusion, they urgently need to review that dire situation. Disfranchisement is marginalising the already marginalised.

Being on the electoral register is the closest thing that we have to a civic contract. Those who are not on the register will not have access to mainstream loans, and they might not be able to get a mortgage either. They also cannot serve on a jury and be part of our justice process. Most fundamentally of all, if a person is not on the electoral register, they cannot participate in the democratic process.

Our present system of electoral registration is fundamentally flawed, and it is not cheap, with IER roll-out costing at least £108 million, but it does not have to be that way. Automatic electoral registration provides the opportunity to reduce costs, improve administration, cut bureaucracy and enable everyone to access their right to enfranchisement.

The Bill is a statement of common sense, proposing a cheaper, simpler and more effective model. It places a responsibility on the state to do everything in its power to ensure that the electoral database is full and complete; imposes a duty on the Government and public bodies to work better together; and proposes to make the system truly convenient for the citizen by integrating national and local datasets, which will mean that an individual’s address details would be automatically updated according to trusted datasets. The trusted datasets would collate information at each point that a citizen interacts with the state—whether it is when they pay a tax, receive a benefit, use the NHS or claim a pension.

The walls between datasets used to be sacrosanct, but they are falling away more and more as the Government prioritise security and anti-fraud measures. For instance, the housing benefit Department already uses the electoral register to find households that are claiming the 25% single-persons council tax discount, but that have more than one voter registered there. That demonstrates the huge potential when Government Departments and public bodies communicate with one another.

These reforms would vastly improve registration, and have been tested elsewhere. A very similar model operates in Australia, with huge success. For instance, the state of Victoria has a population of 3.5 million people and a 95% accuracy in its registration process. It does that at extremely low cost, employing just five members of staff to maintain the rolling register. Rolling out this reform in the UK is timely for so many reasons.

Greater Manchester will submit to the Cabinet Office next week its plans to pioneer that system of automatic electoral registration, and its proposals for a pilot scheme. I sincerely hope that the Government will support those plans and introduce the primary legislation on data sharing that is needed to ensure that the pilot can go ahead.

I am sure that Members are aware that this is the week of Bite the Ballot’s national voter registration drive. Last year’s drive saw almost half a million people register to vote, making it the most successful voter registration campaign ever. I hope that the results this week will match that achievement. In the long run, though, voter registration should be the responsibility not of charities or non-governmental organisations, but of the state, which should do all it can to ensure that everyone, especially those who are most marginalised, can access their democratic rights.

I hope that Members will consider this a non-partisan issue and agree that it is in all our interests to get more people signed up. Then we can all get on with our job, as representatives of political parties, to try to persuade and enthuse voters that we are worthy of their vote. At a time when social exclusion is getting worse, voter turnout is declining and IER has caused registration to deplete, automatic voter registration has never been more important. Voting is the backbone of this House, and it is one of the most important interactions between the citizen and the democratic state. It is a fundamental symbol of engagement, as it signifies that you are not on the margins of society, but part of the majority. No longer can we accept a system that excludes and marginalises potential voters, not least because they are exactly the groups with which we need to engage to end social exclusion.

I do not think that it is controversial to argue that voting is not just for the elite; it is something that we should all be able to access. That is why, for the sake of our democracy and of social cohesion, I hope that the Government will support my suggestions, and make registering to vote more, not less, a way of life.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Siobhain McDonagh, Ian Austin, Dawn Butler, Rosie Cooper, Jim Dowd, Jim Fitzpatrick, Mr George Howarth, Chris Leslie, Marie Rimmer, Joan Ryan, Mr Virendra Sharma and Ruth Smeeth present the Bill.

Siobhain McDonagh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 February, and to be printed (Bill 127 ).