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Voter Registration

Volume 611: debated on Wednesday 8 June 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make a statement on the problems with the voter registration website just before the deadline for voter registration for the EU referendum.

I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the Government’s position. Whatever your view, Mr Speaker, or anyone else’s on the question on the ballot paper on 23 June, the EU referendum is a very important moment in our democracy. Over the past three months, 4.5 million people have applied to register to vote. Very high levels of voter registration have been successfully handled over the past month by the systems, and in the last week alone more than a million people have applied. Yesterday, 525,000 people successfully completed their application. That is a record. At its peak yesterday, the website was handling three times the volume of applications at the previous record peak, which was just before the general election last year.

My strong view, and the view of the Government, is that anyone who is eligible should be able to register to vote in the EU referendum. Unfortunately, because of the unprecedented demand, there were problems with the website from 10.15 pm last night. To give the House a sense of the scale of the demand, the peak before the 2015 general election was 74,000 applications per hour. Last night, the system processed 214,000 per hour at its peak before it crashed. Many who applied to register after 10.15 pm were successful, but many were not. The problems with the website were resolved around the deadline at midnight.

We are urgently looking at all options and talking to the Electoral Commission about how we can extend the deadline for applying to register to vote in the EU referendum. The website is now open and working, and we strongly encourage people to register to vote online. Anyone who has already registered does not need to submit a fresh application. We are also offering extra resources to electoral registration officers to cover any additional administrative costs.

A huge amount of work has gone into encouraging people to register to vote in a timely fashion. We began the registration drive ahead of the May elections. From the middle of April we began in earnest to promote registration. Departments, local authorities and civil society organisations have all helped to boost voter registration. I want to pay tribute to the work of all of them—everyone from Idris Elba to Emma Watson, and all others who have been involved. We are targeting under-registered groups, and consistently high numbers have registered throughout the past few weeks. It is in all our interests to ensure that as many people as possible are able to vote on 23 June at one of the most important moments in our democracy in a generation.

Last night, tens of thousands of people trying to exercise their democratic right to register to vote were told, “The computer says no.” I welcome the announcement today that people should continue to register to vote and that their applications will be valid. However, we are no clearer about exactly how the Government plan to make this happen and what the new deadline for registration is.

I want to offer the Government Labour’s complete support across both Houses to do whatever it takes to get through any necessary legislation. This should be done today. What legislative options are open to the Government, and is one of the options being considered a statutory instrument, which could be quickly and efficiently scrutinised today? What is the new deadline to register to vote? People need complete clarity on how long they now have left, and it needs to be well advertised. Last night’s chaos was totally unacceptable. What stress testing was done on the website in advance, and what provisions were made for the predictable rise in traffic?

What will be done about postal votes, given that the deadline for applications is 5 pm today but is available only to those who are on the register? Will the Minister confirm that this will also be extended? People would never expect to be turned away from a polling station despite being in the queue before the close of the polls. Those queuing up online last night must not be turned away. We need clear answers on how they can still make their voices heard.

First, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for Labour’s clear and unambiguous support for action—if necessary, legislative action—to put this right. The support of the Labour party in both Houses will be important if we need to get through emergency legislation. We are looking at legislative options, including secondary legislation, and I look forward to taking up such an option. We need to make sure that we get the details of any emergency legislation exactly right, since we will have to pass it at pace.

On the deadline that the hon. Lady mentioned, people should register to vote now. Those registrations will be captured by the system. We then have the legal question of whether captured applications can be eligible for 23 June, and that is the issue that we might have to deal with in legislation. [Interruption.] Labour Members are saying from a sedentary position, “What is the deadline?” I am absolutely clear: people should register now—today—and we will bring out further information as and when we can.

We did of course undertake stress tests, which the hon. Lady raised. We tested a significantly higher level of interest and of applications than at the general election last year, which is the best comparator, but, as I have said, the level of interest was significantly higher than the peak then and, because of the exceptional demand, the website crashed. Ultimately, the problem was born out of the fact that thousands and thousands—hundreds of thousands—of people want to vote, and the interest that that shows in expressing their democratic wishes is to be recommended.

May I first commend the Government and my right hon. Friend for so successfully engaging millions of people that they want to register and vote in this referendum? That is definitely a good thing. I am afraid the problems he has encountered are born out of the fact that the Government and the Electoral Commission were ill prepared for the surge of registrations. The Government spent millions of pounds on promoting registration, so they should have been prepared.

This issue now arises: there is a cut-off in our legislation because the register has to be finalised and published six days before the date of the poll for the referendum—there have to be five days remaining so that any name on the register can be challenged during the first five days it is on the register—which leaves very little time for anything like legislation.

May I advise the Minister that it is probably legal to keep the site open for a short period—a few hours, to capture those who did not have the opportunity to register yesterday—but any idea of rewriting the rules in any substantial way would be complete madness and make this country look like an absolute shambles in the run-up to the referendum, which is such an important decision? Will he bear those things in mind, or risk judicial review of the result?

Order. There is no entitlement in these matters for the Chair of a Select Committee to deliver an oration, and a short question is required. I have been mildly indulgent of the hon. Gentleman, because these are exceptional circumstances, but if people could be pithy from now on that would help.

We prepared extensively for a peak in registrations, but the extent of interest in registering was unprecedented. My hon. Friend mentioned the period for which registrations may be valid in future in any legislative measure that we bring forward. He suggested that that should be for a short period, and I agree. That is to rectify the problem of people not being able to vote last night, so we are likely to bring forward proposals with that short period in mind.

I do not think that we can understate the seriousness of the great catastrophe that has happened. If we consult the people of this country on such an important decision for the first time in 40 years, and deny tens of thousands of our citizens the ability to participate, that will tarnish and call into question the entire process. It is not enough to come to the House and say that registration is open and it is okay for people to continue to register; we need an assurance that people who register today and from now on will be able to vote on 23 June. I had hoped that the Minister would have come here today not just to say that there might be a need for legislation. We want to see it! The Government should bring forward the emergency measures, and they will have the support of the SNP.

Again, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support. On the question of bringing forward legislation, we are still in discussions with the Electoral Commission. It has stated that it would support a legislative approach, which I warmly welcome. It is important to remember that the unprecedented success of our registration drive led to the amount of people trying to register late last night, which caused the technical problems.

At 9 o’clock last night the Prime Minister debated with the leave side for an hour, which caused a surge at 10 o’clock in people wanting to vote. Extending the registration period for a short time would be far better than trying to bring through rushed legislation. Give it a few hours today, give people notice of it, and get on with it.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for a short extension, but any extension requires legislative action. That is our understanding of the law, as well as that of the Electoral Commission. Doing exactly what she proposes would require legislation.

Without any doubt this is an emergency. We are talking about a few hours of time being made available. If, for instance, the Opposition were prepared to allocate one half of their Opposition-day debate today, would the Minister guarantee that that half-day would be given back?

I am sure that those on the Opposition Front Bench are grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind offer. For people’s registrations to allow them to vote on 23 June, we would need to legislate. If that legislation takes place tomorrow, registrations made today will be valid for the vote on 23 June. Therefore, the clear message from the Prime Minister, and from me, is that if people have not been able to register to vote, they should do so now. It is incumbent on all Members of the House to continue to state that if people want to vote in the referendum on 23 June and they are not yet registered, they should register now.

I congratulate the Minister on the flexibility that he and the Government are showing, and I am pleased that so many people want to register, particularly young people who, as we know, are by and large very enthusiastic about remaining in the EU. It is clear that a short final deadline should not now be announced, in case the same thing happens again. The system must be able to cope with what might be another surge, and I suspect that a deadline of a few hours would be ill-advised.

As my right hon. Friend will imagine, we are putting in place measures to ensure that the system has yet more capacity, in case there is further high interest because of the news about the potential extension that we and the Electoral Commission want. On the deadline, the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee set out an important practical consideration, which is that from the closure of registration for the referendum, electoral registration officers must ensure that the electoral roll is correct, and it is important that there is enough time for that to happen. That is why any extension would be for a short time, rather than for a long time.

In 2014, we achieved 98% registration in Scotland and an 85% turnout, with no collapse of a website or registration, and no difficulty at the polling stations. However, we were not starting from a position where hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens had been effectively disfranchised by the process of individual registration and the lack of electoral canvass. The Government were not worried about that, because it mostly involved young people whom they did not think would vote for them anyway. Now the Minister is concerned, and he is standing in this House, hoist by his own gerrymandered petard.

It is a shame to bring a note of discord to what was otherwise a reasonably consensual discussion. If it were not for our online voter registration system, people would not be able to vote up to a midnight deadline at all. The website collapsed because of the success of online registration, and the huge demand for participation in this incredibly important referendum. The United Kingdom is much, much larger than just Scotland, and the scale of the challenge is more significant. That is why we are taking action to ensure that registration means that people can vote on 23 June.

I am proud to have been the Minister who introduced online registration, which I think has been a great step forward in our democracy. I fundamentally disagree with the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), who thinks that individual electoral registration is problematic, because I think that it is the right thing to do in our democracy. I chair the all-party group on democratic participation, and I urge the Minister and the House to consider some of the recommendations that we have recently brought forward to improve the state of the registers. It is important that as many people as possible are registered to vote, and I commend the Minister’s calm approach to the situation this morning.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and she is right to say that there is no link between IER and last night’s registration difficulties on the website. I will study her recommendations with great interest, and I understand that she will soon meet the Minister responsible for constitutional affairs to discuss the matter.

It would be an absolute scandal if people who tried to register before the deadline were deprived of a vote in what is the most important vote in any of our lifetimes. Will the Minister pull out all the stops until the last possible moment to ensure that people can vote? Will he also address the concern raised by my constituents who live and work abroad, and who have heard that there are problems with processing the huge numbers of postal and proxy votes that are coming back in at local level, and ensure that those votes are counted?

There are very high numbers of registrations for postal votes, and indeed of registrations by post as opposed to through the website. We are dealing with all those issues. The right hon. Gentleman asks me to pull out all the stops; believe me, we are.

Even before the failure of the electronic system we heard that thousands of polling cards had been sent inappropriately to people who do not qualify to vote. Given the great strain on the system caused by the surge, will the Minister explain exactly how that sort of mistake will not be made again?

That was an identified software fault, which has now been fixed. The Electoral Commission brought it to the public’s attention. It has been addressed and lessons have been learned.

I welcome the Minister’s statement, but I would like a wee bit more clarity on how all this is going to work, as that is the important issue. Last week I had a meeting with the electoral officer in my constituency, who informed me that demand for postal votes has been at unprecedented levels—she has never seen anything like it in her life—and that they were trying to do the processing as quickly as possible. Postal vote applications have been delayed, or sent in but not returned. Any delays in processing cannot be tolerated. What is being done to help those who have applied but whose applications have not been processed?

Work has been done to address the challenge of the incredibly high interest in postal voting, and resources are available to deal with those issues and make sure that everyone has the democratic right to vote. Ultimately, this is about making sure that everyone who is eligible and wants to has the opportunity to register to participate in this great festival of democracy.

It is very important that people have the opportunity to register to vote, but this issue has consequences not just for the referendum but for other elections. There are 4.5 million new people on the register; has the Minister thought about the consequences of that for the Boundary Commission’s drawing up of constituencies, as it will be doing so on numbers that are now completely wrong?

The Boundary Commission is continuing its work based on the drop-dead date agreed by this House. The two issues are essentially separate.

I am ambitious for my country, which is why, earlier today, I voted by post to remain. Everyone else who wants to do so should be able to. What estimate has the Minister made of the number of people who were able to register after 10.15 pm last night and, by extrapolation, the number who were not?

I welcome support from the right hon. Gentleman and the Liberal Democrat Benches. I hope that would be the case in the House of Lords, should legislation come forward.

The right hon. Gentleman is nodding, so I am delighted that there will be that Lib Dem support. The question he asked is about a very important matter, which we will take into consideration.

The Minister is clearly putting a great deal of energy into ironing out this particular glitch, but he needs to be seen to be fair to both sides, given the likely closeness of the result on 23 June. How much energy is he therefore applying to quantifying the number of non-eligible EU nationals who have been sent postal votes? Clearly, after the event some in the leave camp may call things into question if we have not quantified what correspondence was sent out in error.

We know that that number is less than 5,000, according to the Electoral Commission, and the problem has been fixed. By contrast, it will be impossible to know the total number of people—asked for by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake)—who between 10.15 pm and midnight last night tried to register but did not succeed, because some people tried again and succeeded. That is why seeing what we can do to extend the deadline—which seems to have broad support across the House—is the right way forward.

I am really proud that work by my former employer HOPE not hate has led to so many people registering to vote in the past two weeks. Will the Minister answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) about what will happen to the postal vote deadline?

There are no proposals to change the postal vote deadline. We want to make sure that we deal with the registration deadline appropriately. That might mean legislation. If that legislation is brought forward we will explain it in full to the House.

I welcome the news that thousands want to register for the referendum, and the extension will encourage even more people to do so. However, having seen at first hand long-standing failures of IT infrastructure such as the NHS connecting for health programme, it was little surprise to me that the IT infrastructure was not able to keep up with the volume of registrations. What lessons will be learned from this latest episode, and how will the Cabinet Office provide solutions for the age-old problem of IT infrastructure as it looks to pursue a new Bill on data later in this Parliament?

Believe you me, Mr Speaker, there will be a lessons learned exercise. Today, we are concentrating on making sure that everyone who wants to participate in the EU referendum and is eligible to do so can vote.

Clearly we all want as many people as possible to take up the franchise and vote. The news that more than 4 million people registered for the referendum in the spring is not a shock, because we raised that possibility with the Leader of the House and others in the aftermath of debates on the boundary review. Surely the fact that those 4.5 million people registered to vote in the spring calls into question the legitimacy of the foundation data upon which the boundary review is to be conducted.

I do not think that is the case. The House decided on the date for the work of the boundary review to start. It is very important that it begins, because we need to make sure that that independent review can come to its conclusions in good time.

Young people are disproportionately likely to be unregistered to vote. May I urge the Minister not only to extend the deadline as far as possible but, once that is done, to promote it as clearly as possible in places where young people are most likely to be, such as Facebook and other social media?

There has been a huge amount of support and communication, both on social media and more broadly, from the wide array of people I referred to in my statement. I encourage all those who have spent the past few days explaining to people that they have to register to vote, to get out there and encourage people to register to vote now—today—knowing that we are doing all that we can to make sure that those registrations will allow people to vote on 23 June. Huge numbers of people have been out there on social media doing that already, so I say to them: get out there again now and spread the word.

The Minister must surely accept that the surge in applications to vote reflects not just the interest in the referendum but the number of people who have, in effect, been disfranchised. Why is he content for the boundary review to go ahead on false figures, and why will he not make a commitment to the House today that the Boundary Commission will work on accurate figures rather than the dodgy statistics that we have seen previously?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The boundary review has to operate from an electoral roll on an agreed date. That date was agreed by this House. In the past, the review operated on a 10-year cycle, and the electoral roll was therefore 10 years out of date by the time it was reviewed. We are now moving to five-year cycles, so we have brought in more frequent use of electoral roll data by the boundary review. If we could not have a drop-dead date we could not have a boundary review at all.

The fact that someone has a national insurance number does not of itself establish that they are eligible to vote in the referendum. Will my right hon. Friend explain what checks are being done to verify that everyone who applies is genuinely able to vote in the referendum?

That is an incredibly important question. The eligibility requirements were debated extensively in this House. After someone applies to register online, the application is not taken at face value but is checked against Government data to make sure that that person meets the eligibility rules set by this House. That is one reason why there needs to be time between the deadline and polling day—to make sure that exactly the concerns that my hon. Friend raises are met.

The Minister keeps saying that yesterday’s significantly higher numbers were unprecedented. There were 525,000 applications yesterday and 485,000 on deadline day in 2015. Why then was the system not prepared and able to cope, and is it not now time for automatic registration?

The spike was much bigger than the hon. Lady’s figures, which are accurate for the whole day, I suggest, because there was an intense spike after 9 pm. The question for the system is how many people are trying to apply at once, and that figure was three times higher than in the peak before the 2015 general election.

The Minister is making a bad situation worse by refusing to give a clear answer on the deadline for registration. I want to ask him about the agile technologies that form the basis of online registration, and which were chosen for their very scalability when properly implemented and resourced. These are the same technologies as form the basis of other digital services, such as universal credit and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which might also be subject to unprecedented but entirely predictable surges. Will he commit, therefore, to laying before the House a detailed report on why a scalable technology was unable to deal with a predictable surge in demand?

The hon. Lady asks a reasonable question, which we will be looking at in the lessons learned exercise. I would pick her up on one point, though. On the issue of clarity around what people should do now, it is incumbent on all of us to get out there and say that people should register now. We will come forward with legislation, should we choose to—[Laughter.] I think the House can gather that it is highly likely. Should we choose to, we will come forward with legislation setting out the deadline, but what matters right now is that people get on the website, which is currently working, and register to vote. Let that message go out loud and clear.

What guidance would the Minister give to those who want to vote by post? I am still not clear what is happening with the 5 pm deadline this evening. If someone registers today and is informed tomorrow that they can vote, but only by post, will the Government not be open to judicial challenge?

No; the two issues are separate. If someone wants to register, or applied to register yesterday, but is not available to vote on 23 June, a postal vote could not be organised in time, but they can still vote by proxy. That opportunity is available, so that they can express their democratic wish.

The House has heard a “carry on” registration message from the Minister and the Prime Minister. Should people in Northern Ireland listen, given that online registration is not available there? There were separate difficulties in Northern Ireland arising from strike action over proposals to centralise electoral office services that affected those offices yesterday and last week.

This is an incredibly important concern in Northern Ireland, and any legislation will be absolutely clear about the position, which we will set out as soon as we can.

What additional support and help will the Minister give to local authorities unexpectedly having to undertake a great deal of verification work?

We have made it clear that if needed, we will make resources available, to a reasonable extent, to electoral registration offices to ensure that everyone can vote who wants to and is eligible.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), I remember the glorious sunny day in September 2014 when hundreds of people queued up outside their local authority offices to hand in their voter registration forms. Were any lessons learned from the surge before the Scottish independence referendum and the 2015 general election? Will the Minister confirm whether there is now capacity to deal with any further surge when the deadline is finally announced? As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) hinted at, will he also confirm that we are talking about online registration and that the paper registration deadline has passed?

We are absolutely working to ensure capacity to deal with any further surge, but I repeat that last night’s level of demand in such a short period was unprecedented, which is why we had the problems we did.

It is absolutely right that anybody who last night wanted to but could not register to vote be given the opportunity to do so, but given that the referendum result might be close, what legalities surround an extension of the deadline, and what advice has the Minister taken in case a close result, whether a yes or a no vote, is challenged legally?

We are consulting and working closely with the Electoral Commission and lawyers to make sure that anything we bring forward is watertight. We all want the referendum to take place on 23 June, and we all want everyone who wants to and is eligible to vote to be able to do so.

Clarity is key. When is the deadline for bringing forward legislation, and is there any reason why it cannot be done today?

We want to get the legislation exactly right to ensure that the referendum takes place on an entirely legal and unchallengeable basis, as I am sure the hon. Lady will accept, which is why we are being careful to get the details exactly right.

Following on from the question by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the industrial action in Northern Ireland, has further provision been made to allow people to register, including for a postal or proxy vote? The proposed closure of rural offices in Northern Ireland will only heighten the problem in future years.

As I said to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), this is an incredibly important matter in Northern Ireland. We are considering the options right now, and I would welcome the input of the hon. Gentleman and other Northern Ireland Members.

It appears that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been given a blank cheque from all parties in the House for any legislation tomorrow, but we still need the certainty of a date from when registration will not entitle someone to vote. If the message goes out today that if people keep on registering they will be able to vote, it will lead to problems either tomorrow or towards the weekend. Will the Minister indicate that if someone does not register by the end of today, their vote will not count on 23 June?

We will make that clear when the legislation, should there be any, is brought forward. My answer is absolutely precise: let us encourage people to register now. We are doing all we can to ensure that people who register now can vote on 23 June.

I would like to echo the comments of the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). The “Missing Millions” report made many recommendations, including on automatic registration. May we have a commitment today that following this example of poor practice and failure, automatic registration proposals will be brought before the House?

We will look into the use of alternative sources of data, but we are not yet persuaded on the case for automatic registration. Most importantly, right now we are concentrating on ensuring that people who want to and are eligible to vote will be able to.

The hon. Gentleman’s point of order arises, I believe, directly out of the matters of which the House has just treated, and therefore it is proper to take it now.

I am grateful, Mr Speaker. The Minister has said he thinks that emergency legislation will be necessary if we are to deal with the problem now facing us. I think the whole House has said it wants the matter dealt with, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) made clear, the Opposition want to be as helpful as possible. It would be difficult to bring forward legislation and carry it through today. If it is primary legislation, it would have to come to the Floor of the House, so I presume the earliest would be tomorrow. If it is secondary legislation, it would be difficult because a Committee would have to be set up before Monday. It would obviously be better to deal with it tomorrow. My mere suggestion is that if the Leader of the House could come to us later today with a business statement to make it clear what will happen tomorrow, it would be in the best interests of the House and voters, as well as the other House, which will have to deal with the legislation as well.

I am in the happy position of agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. It is certainly open to the Government to bring forward business tomorrow, and I have a sense that that would be widely anticipated and enthusiastically supported in the House. To have some advance indication from the Government that that is their intention would be useful, and a supplementary business statement would be the ordinary, though not the only, way of providing the information.

The Minister is all agog and in a state of great excitement. I wish him to feel satisfied before he pops.

Well, crikey, Mr Speaker. As I have made clear, it is likely that legislation will be needed, and I warmly welcome what the shadow Leader of the House said just now. We will work with him and through the usual channels to make sure that this is done as effectively as possible. I will take away the point about whether we should have a business statement today in order to facilitate that.

I know that discussions will take place between the usual channels behind the scenes. Given the normal courtesy of the Leader of the House, I would certainly expect to be kept apprised of the situation as the afternoon and events unfold.

I will take further points of order if they appertain to this matter. If they are on unrelated matters, they should come after the Standing Order No. 24 application. It is unrelated, so I save up the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash)—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman cannot have a commitment that is more important than the Chamber. He is the ultimate parliamentarian. We shall hear from him soon, and I am becoming increasingly excited about the prospect of doing so.

The Minister says “Me, too”, but I do not know whether he will feel the same way at the end of the hon. Gentleman’s point of order. That remains to be seen.

In a moment, I shall call the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) to make an application for leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Lady has up to three minutes in which to submit her application.