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Elections: Registration

Volume 731: debated on Monday 31 October 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the implications for the accuracy of the electoral register of the provisions of the White Paper on individual electoral registration.

My Lords, our intention in bringing in individual electoral registration is that the implications will be entirely beneficial. The Government are funding research to understand the current level of accuracy of the electoral register that will help us to understand better the way in which to move to individual electoral registration and what impact it will have. The Government remain absolutely committed to ensuring that the maximum number of people remain on the electoral register during the transition to individual registration and that the accuracy of the register is improved.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am slightly concerned when I read all the academics and psephologists on the subject, who believe that we are going to fall from best in class, from 92 per cent accuracy to the low 60s. Would the Minister be even slightly concerned if that were the outcome? Would our society be becoming bigger or smaller?

I would be extremely concerned if that was the outcome. Let us remember that the party opposite, when it was in government, started to raise the issue of individual registration—and even passed legislation—because, for the first time certainly in my lifetime, the integrity of the voting system was starting to be called into question. That is the origin of the exercise that we are undertaking, on which I hope we will have all-party support.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it really is necessary to carry out a thorough, door-to-door, face-to-face canvass in order to ensure both the accuracy and the completeness of the electoral register? Does he accept that failure to do so not only threatens the integrity of the democratic process but could also cause problems for people trying to obtain credit? Credit agencies check that people are on the electoral register to ensure that they can have credit, and failure to maintain the register in this way could mean that people are denied credit and businesses are unable to supply goods and services. That would be damaging to the economy and to social mobility.

That is an interesting point. If I may return to the central point of the question, yes, doorstep canvassing plays a vital role in ensuring that registers are complete and accurate. That is why in both 2014 and 2015 door-to-door canvassers will be used by electoral registration officers to ask people to register to vote.

My Lords, last Wednesday the Minister denied that there had been a collapse in electoral registration in Northern Ireland when this system was introduced. Can I change the word from “collapse” to “fall”? Was there a fall, and by what percentage?

It is of no use for the noble Lord to say “Ah!” as if he has found out something wonderful and unknown. I admitted that there had been a fall—yes I did—and what I went on to say is that both we and the Northern Irish had learnt lessons from that exercise and the mistakes made. I went on to say—and I hope my noble friend behind me has an opportunity to say this—that we all used to make the “Vote early, vote often” jokes about Northern Ireland, but people are now going across to Northern Ireland to study their success in getting people on the voting register. That is to their credit and is something that we are trying to learn from.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that bogus registrations are probably the largest avenue for fraudulent voting, that this has been a major problem in England for decades and that it is long past the time that it was cleared up and we got a more honest register—which I am happy to say we now have in Northern Ireland?

I am pleased to have that confirmation from my noble friend. Yes, I make the point again that that is exactly why the Labour Government raised this issue because, perhaps a little complacently, we got used to the idea that this kind of thing did not happen in England. We found out the hard way that that was not true. What we are trying to do—I emphasise this again—is to bring forward a process which is thorough and which will deal with some of the concerns that have been raised, and then move forward to a register that will have full public confidence.

Will the Minister agree that, if the further developments that the Government are considering—including voluntary registration rather than compulsory registration—are brought forward and passed, then all the exchanges about improving the register and getting a more accurate register will be for nothing, because we will get a much smaller register and a much less representative democracy?

This is where I hope that we can call on the experts in all parties to stop those misleading statements. I made clear last Wednesday that we have always had voluntary registration in this country, and that we are not—whichever party is in power, I suspect—going to bring in compulsory registration. But we will bring in a system that will encourage people to complete their civic duties by registering to vote. Rather than throwing barriers in the way, I suggest that all parties, NGOs and others get down to making this system as foolproof as we can, and then get people to register to vote. We can prove by this exercise that some of those fears are groundless. My right honourable friend Nick Clegg and my honourable friend Mark Harper are open to suggestions and are engaged in discussions, and we will do the best that we can.

My Lords, what impact might the opportunity to vote for an elected second Chamber have on voluntary voter registration?

I think that it would have them flocking to register in their millions. The opportunity and the excitement that that would generate would be almost boundless.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his Answer about voluntary registration, but I do not entirely understand it. As I understand it, it is compulsory to register at present—if only it also were to vote—and if one does not register to vote, I think that one can be prosecuted. My main question concerns local authorities: I wholeheartedly agree with the position taken by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, with which the noble Lord agreed. Can he assure me that local authorities will have the requisite amount of resources in order to ensure that they can undertake door-to-door registration?

Yes, I think that I can give that assurance. On voter registration, the compulsion is for the householder to register the household and not for the individual voter.

I suggest that noble Lords talk to some of the many experts on electoral registration. There is, always has been and always will be a difference. Voting is voluntary; the registration by households is compulsory. I suggest that noble Lords look it up.