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Electoral Registration

Volume 752: debated on Wednesday 5 February 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps are being taken to increase the number of people who are registered to vote in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government have announced today that £3.6 million of additional funding will be distributed equitably among electoral registration officers and local authorities, according to levels of underregistration, to help with the costs of local activities for maximising registration. A further £215,000 is being used to fund directly a number of national organisations, as announced yesterday, to develop approaches to maximising registration among particular target groups. The Government welcome all initiatives that promote democratic engagement, such as Bite the Ballot’s National Voter Registration Day today.

My Lords, I welcome that announcement from the Government and I pay tribute to Bite the Ballot for organising hundreds of events with the aim of registering today thousands of young people to vote. The Minister spoke warmly yesterday of citizenship lessons but warm words butter no parsnips. I strongly urge the Government not to encourage but to ensure that an inspiring citizenship curriculum is taught in every school, including academies and free schools, and that every school should facilitate everyone of or near voting age to register to vote. Will the Government also consider enclosing electoral registration forms with all their official communications with young people, for example those regarding national insurance numbers and driving licence applications?

My Lords, the last point is one that I will take back, as we are certainly considering how best to encourage all this. The new citizenship programme for study, which has now been agreed to be taught from September 2014, stipulates that pupils should be taught about parliamentary democracy and the actions that citizens should take in democratic and electoral processes to influence decisions locally, nationally and beyond.

My Lords, I welcome the announcement by my noble friend. However, can he say how that money is to be distributed a little more precisely than he did to tackle the problem, as identified by the Electoral Reform Society, that some 800,000 young people are not registered to vote who are otherwise entitled to do so? Is the money to be directed towards the local authorities, which have responsibility for ensuring that people are registered? Will he indicate how the Government will check up on the effectiveness of what they are doing?

My Lords, the money is being allocated among local authorities according to the results of the confirmation dry run, which showed that we are getting up to an 80% level of confirmation, and indeed sometimes up to 85%, from data matching. However, there are a number of local authorities, including Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, where, because of the transient population, registration is much lower. Places such as those, where people move frequently, and others with a large number of students or private landlords will be granted large amounts of money to target those groups.

My Lords, will the Minister update us on the proposals to cross-reference the databank of the DWP with the electoral registration databank for the purposes of informing those who have not registered but are on the DWP databank, and to encourage them to register? What precedent does this cross-referencing of data from a government department set for information supplied by citizens to a government department for the exclusive use of that department and the purposes that it is meant to carry out?

That is a very good question on a very difficult and complex area. It raises questions of privacy as well as convenience. The DWP database has been used for data matching, but in one direction and with very careful procedures so that we were not transferring data, just checking their existence. There are a number of other local and national databases that have been used. It has been discovered, for example, that you can raise quite significantly your confidence that people are there if you use local databases, such as benefit boxes and council tax, as well as national databases.

My Lords, what can the Government do to ensure that people with a learning disability receive voter registration forms in the easy-read format so that they can participate in the 2015 elections?

My Lords, one of the five organisations that I was able to announce yesterday that the Government are funding to deal with target groups and vulnerable groups is Mencap. We ask Mencap in particular to have regard to that.

Could my noble friend comment on the initiatives being undertaken by the Hansard Society in conjunction with the Cabinet Office—initiatives that could have a marked effect on the number of young people registered to vote?

My Lords, the Hansard Society is working with Homeless Link on a project that is very much targeted at young people who are moving very rapidly or who do not have a settled address, who of course are one of the most difficult groups to reach.

My Lords, as the Minister is well aware, the Government generally allocate funds to local authorities for the purposes of electoral registration through the local government finance settlement. As he is also aware, these funds are not ring-fenced. Will the Government say whether they know, rather than hope or think, how much of that funding is spent for the purposes of electoral registration?

As the noble Lord knows from our previous discussions on this on many occasions, the Government are not in favour of extending ring-fencing. Having met a number of electoral registration officers, I have great confidence that they can look after themselves and ensure that the money is not siphoned off to other sources.

My Lords, noble Lords will know that churches and the ancillary buildings connected with them are often the places where hustings take place, and indeed are used as polling stations. This is a key way of engaging local people in the democratic process. With the recent passing of the transparency of lobbying Act, will the Minister reassure us that churches and such places will continue to be used and will not be affected by the passing of that Act?

My Lords, I cannot see any way in which the use of churches as polling stations, and indeed the role of the clergy in encouraging people to do their community and civic duty, will be adversely affected. I very much hope that the church will continue to encourage all those who are part of its community to take a full part in civic, social and political life.