My Lords, we have funded research by the Electoral Commission to discover how deep the problems with the existing system are. It shows that the register has become significantly less complete during the past 10 years. The register is around 85 per cent accurate and, as of December 2010, was 85 to 87 per cent complete, with around 6 million electors missing from the register compared to an estimated 3.5 million in 2000. The data show that the current system is not as good as many people thought it was. These findings show that now, more than ever, it is important that we take steps to improve registration rates as part of the move to individual registration. This includes looking at how we can most effectively reach those groups most likely to be missing from the register.
Does the Minister agree that we need talks between all the parties, the Electoral Commission and others so that we have confidence that we are handling the transition to individual voter registration in such a way as to ensure that many more people are not missing from the voter register in future? Given the consensus shown in this House in last Thursday’s debate, does he agree that the sanctions which currently apply to households and make most of them conform with the process should continue to apply to individuals?
My Lords, my noble friend asks several questions. We value the independence of the Electoral Commission as an umpire for this system. We recognise that the integrity of the system depends on the trust and confidence of all parties involved. We noted the calls from around the House, including from the noble Lord, Lord Wills, last Thursday, for a new all-party group to ensure that confidence is maintained. I have fed that in to fellow Ministers.
My Lords, I welcome the response from the Minister on cross-party talks and very much endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said. Does he agree with the assessment of the Electoral Commission that the approach being taken by the Government towards implementing individual registration risks even more millions of eligible voters falling off the register?
My Lords, the Electoral Commission’s estimate that there might be as many as 10 million electors missing was very much a worst-case analysis. We are proceeding from that basis and have to ensure that we achieve a much better result than that. As the noble Lord will know, experiments with data-matching have been achieved. We are considering how one might “nudge” people as they visit the benefit office or apply for a driving licence, and in various other ways, to think about their civic duty to register.
My Lords, the Minister mentioned various ways of ensuring that people stay on the electoral register. One of the groups missing comprises those in private rented accommodation. Will my noble friend the Minister take forward the specific suggestion I made in last Thursday’s debate: that we ask the Post Office to include on the application form for redirecting mail a question about whether customers want to go on to the electoral register at their new address?
My Lords, we took that on board and it is one of the many matters being considered. I stress that the people who fall off the register most rapidly are those who move. They are closely associated with people who are young, unmarried, students, and often those in private rented accommodation. That is the area on which all these efforts have to focus.
My Lords, did my noble friend note that in the debate on Thursday there was unanimous support from all sides of the House for the obligation to register and for a penalty if you do not do so? That strong view was also held by the Electoral Commission, which believes that if the signal is given that registration is no longer an obligation, without a proper penalty, there will be a disastrous fall-off from the register which is already woefully inadequate, as the Minister has already indicated.
My Lords, I was well aware of the sentiments expressed on Thursday. The Government are looking at whether the current offence of failing to return the form from the household should be extended to making it an offence for an individual not to register. We would prefer not to extend the offence, but that is a matter for consideration and no doubt for debate in both Houses.
Does the Minister accept that if any objective observer looked at our system of election registration in the way which we have the pretension of looking at the electoral systems of many other countries, we would find it very difficult to persuade them that the basis of a democratic election, the electoral register, constituted a free and fair election? Would the Minister consider consulting the international body, the Venice Commission, to see how it, on our collective behalf, advises newly emerging democracies to conduct elections using electoral registers that are much more significant than our own?
My Lords, the Electoral Commission has conducted a number of studies of international comparisons. I would merely point out that the OSC electoral monitors have criticised Britain for retaining household registration, and thus very strongly supports the move—as do all parties—from household to individual electoral registration.
My Lords, I am not sure how highly accurate the Australia system is. People move in Australia, too, particularly in cities, and young people tend to avoid these things. I am not sure that there would be sentiment for compulsory voting as a basis in Britain, but perhaps we will test that as we take the Bill through the House.
Is the Minister aware that a significant number of women living alone find themselves at risk by going on to the register? They can be targeted in certain circumstances by thieves and robbers. Could there not be a case for having a register where certain people have the ability not to have their address on the published register, but on one that is available to electoral officers in a polling station?
My Lords, I suspect that a great many Members of this House are registered in more than one property. I certainly am since we have lived both in Yorkshire and in London for a very long time. The questions of what is a second home and what is a holiday home very delicate. I am conscious that in south-west England this is a particularly sensitive issue.
My Lords, perhaps I may be precise and make it clear that the Government are not removing the offence. The offence is the failure to return the form for the system of household registration. If we were to make it an offence not to register on an individual basis, that would be extending the offence. We will return to this when the Bill is being considered in both Houses.