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Voter Registration: Students

Volume 759: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the initiative in Northern Ireland, what plans they have to allow pupils to register to vote in schools, sixth form and further education colleges.

My Lords, the Government have no plans to legislate to require electoral registration officers or schools and colleges to provide for pupils to register to vote at school. EROs are free to arrange registration sessions in their local education establishments, and many already do. The Government have recently provided additional funding to encourage activities which promote the registration of young people among other target groups.

I note what my noble friend says, but, given the success of the initiative in Northern Ireland, is there not a case for having an independent evaluation to see whether it is worth using that scheme in the rest of the UK? The fact that 189,000 17 year-olds in college will turn 18 before the deadline shows even more clearly how we need to get the message across.

My Lords, we have, of course, evaluated the Northern Ireland experience. We were dealing with paper transactions then and we are now moving to online transactions. Since the beginning of February, there have been nearly 500,000 online registrations, so we are very much achieving what we want, and we look forward to seeing more coming. The Northern Ireland experience was useful at the time. However, it was not a great success in maintaining registration: that there was a very substantial drop-off after the first year of registration for 17 year-olds to the level of registration of 18 to 19 year-olds.

My Lords, first, I declare an interest as the chair of the All-Party Group on Voter Registration. When I asked the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, last week what the Government were doing to deal with the scandalous situation whereby, according to the Electoral Commission, 30% of 18 to 24 year-olds are not registered, he avoided answering the question, so I will give him another chance to do so today. What are the Government doing to deal with this serious matter, because from here it seems that they are doing very little to get these young people registered by 20 April to vote in the general election?

My Lords, the Government are doing a great deal. We have provided an additional £14 million over the last 18 months precisely to deal with help in those areas. Most of that has gone to EROs in local authorities, with the largest proportion going to those in areas with a substantial number of students. We have also just funded a number of groups, many of which work with young people and disadvantaged groups, to assist in this process.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that it sends at best a very weak message to young would-be voters if we do not equip them while at school to take their place as citizens in a highly complex society? Will he do something about the steady decline in citizenship education?

My Lords, that is a different question. However, as the noble Lord knows, I strongly support that and have worked to support it in government. I point out that young people are increasingly online. One of the things that government and local authorities are doing is to provide links to registration when you go into GOV.UK. For example, we have links for those inquiring about student jobs or paying tax, those looking for higher education courses who need to find and apply, those looking for tenancy deposit protection, a careers helpline for teenagers and so on to make registering to vote easier and to nudge people into thinking about it.

My Lords, does the Minister realise that in many areas of the country his answers will seem very complacent? Much of the problem arises because for many young people it is the first time that they are registering. I will give another example, involving, admittedly, not a young person but my husband. Having moved, he was asked to go to the town hall with his passport to prove who he was before he was registered. Most people will never do that, and that is one of the reasons why individual registration is proving very taxing in some areas.

My Lords, I am extremely sorry to hear about the difficulties of the noble Baroness’s husband in having to demonstrate that he existed, and I look forward to hearing more offline. In the last two or three weeks, the number of people registering has risen considerably. Part of that has clearly been due to the extra publicity around National Voter Registration Day, and I give credit to those who organised it. However, all of us have to help in raising the level of interest. For example, I took part with candidates and spokesmen of other parties in a packed meeting at the University of York on Friday evening. Some students came up at the end and said, “We had not been thinking about voting so far, but now perhaps we will”. We all need to get out there to encourage young people.

My Lords, there is a real problem with student hostels, where a number of young people live together and the delivery of post to individual students is not the easiest thing in the world. What are the Government doing to try to address the problem of group registration?

My Lords, we have switched from group registration to individual registration, but the Government are working with the Student Forum, which brings together universities, student organisations and representatives of FE colleges, to raise awareness through a whole range of activities for students arriving in universities. There were pilots in Sheffield and Manchester linking registration at university with registering to vote—so we are very active in this area.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for referring to last week’s National Voter Registration Day. As part of that, I went into Townsend School in St Albans with two dynamic members of Bite the Ballot, who were able to bring the whole thing alive in an interactive and very lively session. They handed out registration forms at the end and offered to take them back in—so they are already doing this sort of work. Have Her Majesty’s Government considered supporting that organisation and other similar ones that are already doing this work in a very creative way?

My Lords, I have played the game Rock Enrol!, and I hope that a lot of other noble Lords have done so, too. It demonstrates to young people how politics matters to them. I hope that that is going on all over the place. The Government have their own version of this, and Bite the Ballot has adapted another one. We are discussing with Bite the Ballot the question of support and we very much encourage what it and a number of other organisations are doing to bring young people back into being interested and involved in politics.