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Electoral Registration: National Voter Registration Day

Volume 752: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support National Voter Registration Day on Wednesday 5 February, which seeks to encourage new, especially young, people to register to vote.

My Lords, the Government are committed to doing all they can to maximise registration, including among young people. The innovation project, which the Cabinet Office announced today that it will support, reinforces the aim of National Voter Registration Day. For example, the funding awarded to the Scottish Youth Parliament will help it to develop peer education training and outreach programmes to increase democratic engagement and registering to vote. The Government also fund UK Youth, which will help to develop online tools for engaging young people in the democratic process, including registering to vote.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. I am sure that he will acknowledge, as I do, the dedication and the sometimes sacrificial commitment of a handful of youngsters, who are so concerned that only one in four young people votes in this country that they are having a National Voter Registration Day tomorrow, to try to encourage thousands more—hundreds of thousands, if possible—to register and become part of the democratic process here in the UK. Will the Minister consider evaluating whether what happens tomorrow, on the national registration day, could become an annual fixed event with full-scale government support?

My Lords, National Voter Registration Day is an independent initiative to which the Government give their full support, but it is not a governmental initiative. We are all aware, as we move towards individual elector registration and deal with the problems of underregistration, particularly among young people, that the Government cannot do it all on their own and do not have all the answers, so we enormously welcome the engagement of as many voluntary groups of this sort as possible.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the success of the schools programme in Northern Ireland in increasing the numbers of young people who are registered to vote. Will the Government consider introducing that programme more widely?

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that Bite the Ballot has developed a schools programme, Rock Enrol!, which is now also on the website. We are encouraging schools to play that with 16 and 17 year-olds. We are also encouraging schools to continue the citizenship education programme; there will be a new element of that for the national curriculum this September. We are all conscious that PSHE has never been quite as good as we all wanted it to be. However, it is there and we very much hope that schools will be taking this further.

My Lords, the Minister has just announced that there will be a substantial grant for this purpose through the Government of Scotland. How will he ensure that it is expended in a politically neutral way?

My Lords, once you support other bodies you can never be entirely sure that they will do exactly what it was that you wanted. There are five organisations for which the Government have today announced funding. In addition to those two which I have mentioned the Hansard Society, in partnership with Homeless Link, Gingerbread, which works with young people, single parents and social housing tenants, and Mencap, which works with people with learning disabilities, have also received grants.

My Lords, the Church of England is involved in the education of more than 1 million young people and we want to play our part in supporting this. Will Her Majesty’s Government talk with the department to see if, in future, they will write not only to schools but to the 43 statutory diocesan boards of education, many of which employ full-time schools workers, and to dioceses? My diocese has an average of 30 to 40 full-time paid youth workers and many volunteer ones. We would be delighted to use our communication resources to support this sort of initiative.

My Lords, the Government recognise that they alone cannot do everything in this regard. We welcome conversations with all other organisations. I wondered whether the right reverend Prelate was going to promise that the Church of England would give sermons on the subject. Once, when I was a parliamentary candidate, I was taken by a young woman called Liz Barker—the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, as she is now—to the Methodist church in which her father had been a minister. The sermon came as close as possible to suggesting that the congregation might like to vote for me.

My Lords, the Prince’s Trust reported recently that more than three-quarters of a million young people in this country believe they have nothing to live for. How will the Minister seek to motivate those young people to engage with the formal processes of our democracy?

My Lords, that is a huge question which engages—or should engage—all of us in political parties and beyond. We recognise that alienation, of the younger generation in particular, from conventional politics is a problem which has developed over the last 25 years or more and it will take 25 years or more to reverse that trend. It will take a whole host of initiatives including, I suggest, some changes in our constitutional arrangements.

My Lords, in light of the regime coming into effect in September, what will my noble friend the Minister do vis-à-vis free schools and academies, which do not have to teach citizenship at all? What will the Government do about the decline in teacher training in citizenship and the take-up of citizenship exams, given that this flies in the face of the ambitions of all of us that young people should vote?

My Lords, we are very conscious of the problems of teaching citizenship in schools. According to the School Workforce Census, in January 2012 there were nearly 9,000 citizenship teachers in publicly funded schools in England and Wales. I am going to duck the question of how far the national curriculum should be extended to free schools and academies.

My Lords, I welcome what the Minister said about grants to Mencap and Gingerbread because they target specific groups. However, what are the Government doing to target young people from ethnic minorities throughout the country?

My Lords, the noble Lord will know of Operation Black Vote, which has targeted people in that area. The statistics suggest that members of ethnic minorities are not as underregistered as some other target groups. However, young people of all groups are a problem and we all need to do as much as we can, locally and nationally, to cope with that.

Is my noble friend aware of the valuable work done by the Lord Speaker’s outreach programme in this context? I declare an interest as a member of that programme.

My Lords, I am well aware of that, and when I step down from this post I think that I might volunteer. I am not quite sure how people in our age group enthuse 16 year-olds to take part in the political process, but that is something that we will all have to deal with.