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Voter Registration: Nottingham North

Volume 632: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered voter registration in Nottingham North constituency.

This is the first time I have served under your chairship, Mr Davies. I intend to take you on a journey to Aspley in my constituency via Athens. My topic is restricted to my constituency, but has wider applications to the rest of my city, and indeed to Shipley, Kingswood—the constituency represented by the Minister—and the rest of the country.

Our free and fair democracy is at the root of what makes us a special nation. We host the mother of all Parliaments, and in our participatory democracy we are treated all the same, whoever we are and wherever we come from. It is special, and it is to be cherished and, crucially, nurtured and developed. Democracy was established by the Athenians, but is frequently executed by people in Aspley. Democracy is strong only when it is truly participatory, which tells us something about voter turnout: if next to no one voted, the validity of the contest would be undermined. Voter participation ought to be of interest to us all, but this debate is about one specific part of participation: voter registration. Perhaps mercifully, discussions about turnout and extending the franchise will have to be left to another day.

I secured this debate to state publicly a belief of mine to see whether the Government share it. It is a simple but important statement: I believe strongly that the Government ought to prioritise the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register. That might sound like a broad statement, and it might sound uncontroversial or even facile, but it is none of those things. It is a crucial statement about our democracy, and if we accept it, I think it will act as a call to action. I will talk about some actions later, but first I want to talk about some of the challenges relating to voter registration that we face in my community and the reasons for the current situation; then I will move on to what we might do about it.

Let me start with the very basics. This is a discussion about voter registration in my constituency, Nottingham North. We know that we do not have a complete register of voters, but we do not know how incomplete it is. We do not know who or how many voters we are missing. To prepare for this debate—I have been putting in requests for many weeks, perhaps even months, since I was elected—I have been tabling questions to the Cabinet Office. The Minister may recognise them; others in the Chamber definitely will. I tabled one on 3 November to ask for the Cabinet Office’s estimates of how short we are on the electoral register in Nottingham North. I was given a holding reply on 15 November and heard back this morning—25 days later—with the answer I suspected I would get, which is that the Cabinet Office does not know. That lack of knowledge is not born out of disinterestedness or discourtesy, but it is a pretty good demonstration of where we are as a nation on this issue.

We do not know how many people are not registered; instead, we draw on global estimates. The House of Commons Library estimates that about 6 million people are missing from the register across the UK. On an even distribution, that would mean that more than 9,000 are missing in my constituency, but when it comes to those not on the register, distribution is not even. People from poorer backgrounds in a working-class community such as mine in the north and west of Nottingham are much less likely to register to vote, so it stands to reason that in my community the number of missing voters is much higher than 9,000. That is a significant proportion stacked against the 70,000 registered to vote at the latest update. That situation significantly weakens our democracy, so it is right that we are concerned about it.

It is hard to find out the current position. I drew on the resources of our excellent local authority in Nottingham. Every year, all electoral services teams in the country are required by law to conduct an annual canvass of every property in the electoral area to ensure—we are all keen on this—that the information on the register is complete, accurate and up-to-date, but that means that local authorities are forced to spend time and resources chasing households in which the number and identity of the residents have not changed. In Nottingham, the council sends a household enquiry form. If it is unreturned, it is followed by a further letter, and if that letter is not returned, by a visit from a canvasser. Only then can the council send an invitation to register, which again if it is not returned, is followed up by a second letter and by a canvasser after that.

That process does not strike me as very efficient. It is very challenging and it succeeds only 74% of the time in Nottingham, so it is both hard and not particularly effective. The council told me that the expense of printing and posting letters and training and paying staff is substantial, and that the administrative time it takes to process all of the responses is phenomenal. It is a real challenge. Despite all the effort that goes into it, since the introduction of individual electoral registration the Electoral Commission thinks that about 87% responded in 2017, as opposed to 93% in 2013. It is expensive, it is hard to do and it is not getting better.

An eminent individual I will name shortly said:

“Currently the annual canvass costs around £65 million to conduct every year—it is too high and we must take advantage of new and emerging technology to make the process more efficient where we can.”

As I say, those are not my words. The Minister may well recognise them, because they are his. I hope he shares my view that the annual canvass is too expensive. It does not produce fully accurate registers. It is time to make changes.

The solution that the Cabinet Office offers to local authorities is to use a phone and emails as a different way of contacting households. That is sensible, but I would like us to be much more ambitious, because the consequences are significant. We know that voter registration rates remain particularly low among young people and those who live in privately rented accommodation. About three quarters of 18 and 19-year-olds and 70% of 20 to 24-year-olds are registered, compared with 95% of the over 65s. There is a real imbalance.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on making such a powerful case. Does he agree that one of the issues we face in Nottingham is the under-registration of students? It is clear that, since the university no longer automatically registers students who live in halls, let alone all those who live in houses in multiple occupation in their second and third years, large numbers of young people have not been able to exercise their right to vote.

I share that view. Later, I will talk about block registration, which was a recommendation of an excellent report that I intend to draw on. For a long time, my hon. Friend and I have been out on doorsteps, carrying around our forms, desperately trying to get people to register when we meet those who have not. I think there might be a better way to do it.

The differences are even starker when we look at housing tenure. Only 63% of private renters are registered to vote—far from the 94% of those who own their own homes. Access to the ballot box ought to act as the ultimate leveller, but at the moment it does not.

Low registration can lead to a rush to register, which is the last thing that hard-pressed local authorities need. On the registration deadline before the EU referendum, the Government website crashed due to the number of people trying to register late, which led to the deadline having to be extended. I remember that that was very controversial. Similarly, people do not want to miss out, so although they may assume that they are already on the register, they may send in duplicate applications anyway. Electoral registration officers’ estimates of the proportion of duplicate applications ahead of the 2017 general election ranged from 30% of the total submitted in some areas to an incredible 70% in others. People who have registered and done the right thing are fine, but they do not know that and do not feel they can check, so they put their registration in again. That is not a sign of a healthy system. If the registration does not work, people get turned away from polling stations. At the 2015 general election, two thirds of polling stations turned away at least one person. Unsurprisingly, the most common reason for that is that they are not on the register. Again, that is not good for confidence in our democracy.

Finally—I have left this last for emphasis—all of us may have noticed the upcoming boundary changes. The electoral register has an even more crucial role in that process, because it forms the basis of our country’s electoral map. We are therefore in the process of setting new parliamentary boundaries that we know are based on flawed assumptions. We are trying to tackle imbalanced constituencies in a way that will only produce further imbalances. It is a fool’s errand. We need a really good register so we can set our boundaries properly.

What can we do about it? It will probably not be a revelation to anyone in the Chamber—especially if they have been following me on Twitter in the last 20 minutes—that I believe in automatic voter registration. I am not the only one who is enthusiastic about that idea. For several years, both the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators have been calling for automatic registration, as did the now-dissolved Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which was chaired by my predecessor, Graham Allen. I promise hon. Members that there is not a gene in Nottingham North Members of Parliament that makes us interested in constitutional affairs. I am particularly interested in this one, but I cannot match the breadth of my predecessor’s interests. When I was preparing for this debate, I half-expected him to intervene at some point to clarify something. That has not happened yet, so I will carry on, on my own. His Committee, which he led with distinction, conducted the largest public consultation ever achieved by a Select Committee, and it recommended the introduction of automatic registration. The all-party group on democratic participation recommended it, and so did the Electoral Reform Society, Bite the Ballot and Operation Black Vote. The list goes on and on, but it is not just experts: according to the Electoral Commission, 59% of people support the idea of automatic registration, and it is even more popular among younger age groups, with two thirds of 18 to 34-year-olds voicing support.

Automatic voter registration would make two transformative yet simple changes to voter registration: first, eligible citizens who interact with government agencies would be registered to vote unless they decline; and, secondly, agencies could transfer voter registration information electronically to election officials. Those two changes would create a seamless process that is less error prone and more convenient for both voters and government officials. Such a policy would boost registration rates, clean up the rolls, make voting more convenient and reduce the potential for voter fraud, all the while lowering costs.

The end game is to achieve full participation in our democracy and, as I say, an accurate system is a better way to do that, but this is not simply a theoretical exercise, something I have dreamt up at home and asked Ministers to go on, on the back of my ideas—it is already happening. In the US, they are way ahead of us. In March 2015 the state of Oregon became the first to pass a breakthrough law to register automatically eligible citizens who have a driver’s licence, but with the choice to opt out. Registration has increased since the policy was implemented, and last November voter turnout in the state was the highest for decades, and one of the highest rates in the country. Since then nine other states have followed suit and 32 of the remaining 40 are considering similar legislation.

Automatic registration is not just about the registration rate, but about accuracy and saving money. Delaware estimated that it saved $200,000 in the first year alone of implementation. We could do that too. We should unleash the collective knowledge of the state—whether of the Departments for Work and Pensions and of Health, or the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency—to wire up a system that makes a complete and accurate register.

We could build in other areas, too. Bite The Ballot and Dr Toby James, with the all-party group on democratic participation, published an outstanding report with 25 recommendations to reform our voter registration system. Published more than a year and a half ago, it was welcomed by the Government and praised by the Minister as a publication that will

“go down in history as helping to evolve the UK’s electoral registration system”,

but so far only two of the recommendations have been implemented. Today I hope to hear about more, in particular the one on block registration in care homes and halls of residence. That recommendation could be introduced quickly.

We know there is emphasis on voter fraud. That played out during Cabinet Office questions last week, when there was plenty of discussion about voter fraud. Certainly, voter fraud is something that the Cabinet Office is interested in. It is a criminal offence and ought to be treated seriously—it is another way to undermine our democracy—but the evidence tells us that electoral fraud is exceptionally rare. In the past 20 years in Nottingham, exactly zero cases have resulted in people being prosecuted. In 2016 in the UK more broadly, of 260 cases of alleged electoral fraud, only two led to convictions, while 138 cases were dropped with no further action. Stand that against nearly 34 million people voting in the EU referendum and we are talking about fewer than one in 10 million people being convicted of that offence—stacked against 6 million missed off the register. Both issues are important, but I am arguing that one ought to have considerably greater emphasis placed on it by Ministers.

I hope that I have demonstrated the real challenges to registration in my constituency, the sterling efforts of our local authority, despite the considerable pressures on it and the weak hand it has been dealt, and outlined a better, evidence-based approach for Ministers to follow in the future. I am sure that the Minister will forgive me for drawing on his previous comments, and I look forward to hearing more from him.

Thank you for your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am grateful that you are presiding over this debate, because you too take a personal interest in electoral matters and I am sure you enjoyed the contribution from the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) as much as I did.

It is striking that although we sit on opposite sides of the political divide, I agree with much in the hon. Gentleman’s speech on electoral registration being a matter of social justice. I will touch on that later, but I am determined that, as a Government, we will look at the burning injustice for those people who are unable to access the ballot box for whatever reason. Next year, it will be 100 years since women got the right to vote, but now many people do not vote because they do not wish to—that is their freedom—although many people who want to vote will still be unable to do so. I will talk about what the Government have been doing and intend to do to improve access to registration and, therefore, to our elections.

The hon. Gentleman paid tribute to his predecessor Graham Allen. In July 2016, two days into my job as a Minister, I was here in Westminster Hall to respond to Mr Allen’s debate on the issue of a constitutional convention. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is following in the proud footsteps of his predecessor by taking up the matter of voter registration. It is incredibly important for that issue to be raised in the House and I thank him for securing the debate. As is evident from his recent parliamentary question to the Cabinet Office, which he mentioned, electoral registration is of interest to him, and I commend him for that.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the issue of data. To consider what we do and do not know, at the moment we do not have the accurate data to be able to track movements of people within certain locations. I am passionate about changing the nature of the electoral registration conversation from focusing only on top-line national issues.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the “Missing Millions” report, which I commend for highlighting the number of people missing from the register, but what we do not know is who those missing millions are and whether they are all actually missing or have gone off and registered in a different location. I am absolutely determined for us in the Government to do the work on the much finer-grained detail to achieve a more accurate picture of where we need to focus our resources. I will talk about that in connection with our democratic engagement programme for the future.

We need to move away from the national conversations on voter registration and talk about democratic inclusion versus democratic exclusion and where the democratically excluded are. The hon. Gentleman mentioned certain target groups that had traditionally under-registered and were under-represented, such as home movers. He mentioned the Electoral Commission report that highlighted the number of renters who are not on the electoral register. For me, one of the most significant statistics is that only 28% of renters join the electoral register in their first year of moving into a property. We are looking at trying to tackle that churn.

I will have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman in his passion for automatic voter registration. I am equally passionate about the system of individual electoral registration, which is here to stay. More than £70 million has been invested in putting the system in place and in enabling the successful transition to individual electoral registration. At the core of that system is the conviction that individuals should own their own registration status. When it comes to our democracy, voting and registration, I am a passionate believer in voting being not only a right but a responsibility. Gone are the days of the old head-of-the-household system, in which one individual registered numerous others; now it is the right and responsibility of each and every individual to decide when and where they want to be registered.

Individual electoral registration has proved not only more responsive to the needs of electors, but a success in making the system more robust and in driving up the accuracy of the electoral registers. The Electoral Commission report on the 1 December 2016 registers provides the best and most recent full assessment of the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers across Great Britain.

The Minister may be wedded to individual registration, but will he not accept that there are some groups he needs to work much harder with? That might be those who have poor language skills or learning disabilities. They might want to register but find the process difficult. Will he commit to put in extra measures to ensure that those people who want to vote but find the existing process difficult can access it effectively?

The hon. Lady is clearly as passionate about this issue as I am—only last week, she asked a question during Cabinet Office questions. As a Government, we are absolutely determined to ensure that by the next general election in 2022 we will have made our elections the most accessible ever. Clearly, 100 years on from women getting the right to vote, there are still those who are unable to vote. We want to be able to change that. Looking at the whole process—the journey through our democracy—from registration through to turning up at the polling station, we need to do more.

We had a call for evidence, and 260 people have responded so far. In the spring, we will publish a report on actions the Government intend to take forward. I have already managed to make certain changes—for example, with the certificate for visual impairment—on data held at NHS level. Last year, there was a consultation. I wrote to the Health Minister to make the case that that data should be shared with local authorities and electoral registration officers, so that when a certificate exists for those who are blind or visually impaired, it should be possible to use it to contact people in the local authority area, perhaps with forms in Braille—although it is not frequently used nowadays, and it is important to keep up with the technology when it comes to access to elections—or large print. It is about establishing who the vulnerable people are who need the extra effort and attention.

Again, it is about data and about ensuring from an early position that we can act as a Government. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady that we need extra investment in those certain groups, but we also need knowledge of those under-registered groups. We have run a knowledge and capability review to try to understand people’s needs. Since becoming a Minister, I have been touring every area and region of the country to try to understand the needs of the most vulnerable.

When it comes to individual electoral registration, the completeness of the register is stable at around 85%, but its accuracy has now increased to 91%. There is more to do. I share the hon. Gentleman’s vision of having as complete and accurate a register as possible, although I perhaps disagree about the methods to achieve that. Since 2014, 30 million people have registered to vote using the IER system, and 75% of those did so online. During this year’s general election, nearly three quarters of the 2.9 million applications were made using the register to vote website. I am sure he will join me in welcoming the fact that electors across Nottingham have engaged with this new system, mirroring the trend we have seen nationally. Since 2014, 197,042 applications to register to vote have been submitted to Nottingham City Council—79,314 of those were from 16 to 24 year- olds—and 24,978 applications were submitted to Nottingham City Council ahead of the 2017 general election, from 18 April to 22 May.

The hon. Gentleman also touched on the issue of duplicate registrations, which the Association of Electoral Administrators has raised with me. In a way, that problem is part of the success of the register to vote website—the opportunity and flexibility that it gives to individuals to register—and the side effect is duplicate applications. At the 2017 general election, we added a page to the website that said that if people were already registered with their local authority they would still be on the register, which we believe screened about 5% of applications. However, as a Government we are determined to look at the issue. I am not convinced that a centralised database is necessarily the way forward, but we are continuing our work and we want to work closely with the AEA and the Electoral Commission on those barriers.

I addressed the AEA conference in Brighton earlier this year and I committed the Cabinet Office to holding an annual electoral summit, which will take place on 11 December, with representatives from the AEA and from the Electoral Commission, so that we can plan out the registration and democratic engagement strategies for several years. We are launching a democratic engagement programme, which will be published this side of Christmas. It is the first Government electoral engagement strategy and we are determined to ensure that, rather than focus on electoral events, when money is invested suddenly in the run-up to an election, we can plan across a five-year cycle where we need to focus our attention to help the most vulnerable people and to drive up the completeness and accuracy of the register. I will be delighted to share that work with the hon. Gentleman when it is published and to have a separate meeting to talk him through the Government’s plans.

As part of my tour, I visited the British Chinese Project in Nottingham, and I attended a round table with electoral service managers in Gedling. The hon. Gentleman is fortunate to have passionate electoral service managers in his local area who do good work. I learned a lot from my conversations with them, which I hope will be reflected in the strategy.

On the annual canvass, again, we do not disagree in principle. The annual canvass is a 20th century process—an analogue system in a digital age. We have already seen the modernisation of IER and the register to vote website, but the annual canvass process is in the past and it needs to catch up. It is a significant cost for local authorities, of between £60 million and £65 million. I am determined to try to enable permanent change to reform that system, but what does permanent change look like?

I am determined that we make measured and evaluated changes to the annual canvass that do not risk upsetting the existing system, so that when it comes to preserving the completeness and accuracy of the registers, we do not move simply from one system to another. That is why we established a pilot process. We had three pilot areas in 2016 and we have 24 across the UK in 2017. All the pilots are being evaluated by the Electoral Commission and that evaluation has to be published by the end of 2018, I think. I am determined that we go forward with permanent change to the annual canvass. The pilots so far have tried to give local authorities greater flexibility over the canvassing process.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the endless number of letters that can go back and forth, the paper that is wasted in that communication process and the canvass itself, which can cost £1 for every door knocked on. Legislation may require people to return to a particular address, on occasion up to nine times. Although the canvass procedures are in primary legislation and we are looking to make changes to that, we will shortly lay a statutory instrument that will aim to make further improvements to the registration process within the existing canvass, and which will be debated early next January. The hon. Gentleman might want to speak to Labour Whips or the Committee of Selection because we would be delighted to have him on the Committee to continue these discussions.

The statutory instrument will aim to make further improvements to the registration process by streamlining the deletions process and rationalising correspondence that electors receive in the registration process. The same statutory instrument will also seek to improve the anonymous registration system to ensure that it is accessible to those escaping domestic abuse who need to register in such a way.

The hon. Lady mentioned vulnerable groups; one of the vulnerable groups that I have been determined to help, particularly in view of next year’s 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote, is those women who are survivors of domestic violence and who might be residing in refuges, who are unable to register to vote without risking their identity being revealed. They have to sign up to an anonymous registration system by going to either a director of social services or a chief constable of police. We will lower that attestation process to domestic refuge managers. There are 12,000 women in domestic violence refuges, but only about 2,300 women use the anonymous registration scheme. I hope that for the May elections we can demonstrate that change and give those women back their voice in the democratic process.

I passionately believe that voting is more than just a cross on a ballot paper. Voting is the end point: there is a process by which we need to re-engage communities, but there are some people who might not want to engage in the electoral registration process to begin with. How do we work with organisations such as the British Chinese Project, which I mentioned and which sees the low levels of literacy among first generation Chinese people, for instance? How do we engage people to make them understand that that registration process and having their say are equally important and vital for them to take part in our democracy?

I am determined to look at that, through reflecting on the democratic society. There are civil society organisations and groups that do a fantastic job helping to register vulnerable people. One of my first visits was to Birmingham, where I met Uprising—a charity that went around with tablets to help people to register to vote.

What can we do as a Government to try to engage those groups with the wider community and to try to provide them with opportunities? I have announced the first National Democracy Week, which will take place next year on the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act. When we think about our democracy, we think of Magna Carta and parliamentary sovereignty, and think of ours as being one of the oldest democracies in the world, but it is remarkable that it has been just 90 years since women got the equal right to vote.

In celebration of that moment, I want to set out a week’s programme, and the hon. Gentleman will be more than welcome to involve the people of Nottingham. I want to make sure that events take place across the country. How can we ensure that we look at the state of our democracy 90 years on from the Equal Franchise Act and what can we do over the next 10 years, to 2028, to ensure that we have as complete and accurate a register as possible?

There are other events taking place next year, including the suffrage celebrations, with £5 million set out for that. A key part of it will be investment in education and democratic participation. The week before last, I met the National Citizen Service to look at engagement models for young people.

I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that although we differ on the point of principle, it is a point of principle. I understand that hon. Members feel passionately about automatic electoral registration. I believe that individual electoral registration is here to stay, but in that context we are determined to ensure that we register as many people as possible. This is a social justice issue and we will publish our democratic engagement plan shortly.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.