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Electoral Registration

Volume 760: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to identify areas with underperforming electoral registration officers, and to issue directions to ensure the maximum possible number of eligible electors are registered.

My Lords, the performance of electoral registration officers is monitored and reported on by the independent Electoral Commission. The commission’s most recent assessment, in June 2014, showed that the large majority of EROs are performing well against the performance standards set. Where problems are found, the Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission work closely with the EROs to ensure that they are implementing their public engagement and implementation plans for the transition to individual electoral registration.

My Lords, did my noble friend see that, yesterday, the chair of the Electoral Commission reported to the Select Committee in the other place that 2 million applications to register have been received since 1 December? The position is improving. But I hope he agrees that the situation is very mixed locally. Given those circumstances, are the Government looking at the proposal from the Electoral Commission that it should be in a better position to monitor and instruct electoral registration officers locally? The commission recommended:

“Should any ERO decide not to undertake such activity, the Commission will make a recommendation to the Secretary of State to issue a direction to require them to do so”.

Is it not time for the Government to respond to that recommendation? Indeed, is it not time to name and shame those local authorities and those EROs who are simply not doing their job?

My Lords, the evidence that a large number of EROs are not doing their job is not there. Five of the six EROs who were rated last year as not having achieved their performance standards were in Devon and Somerset, rather to my surprise, and not in Labour-held areas—in Devon and Somerset, it tends to be either Liberal Democrat or Conservative seats. The question of training is one that we are well aware of. The Electoral Commission works with the Association of Electoral Administrators and others to ensure that EROs are well trained and do their job as well as they can.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the best way of ensuring that we have full registration is a compulsory ID card with a biological identifier, which would then allow all people to be registered from the word go and to then vote electronically as well with that card? That would ensure the fullest participation in registration and in the election.

I agree with the noble Lord that there are some very large questions about how much data the Government already have about people who are or are not registered and how much they are allowed by current law to pull those data together. I very much hope that, in the new Parliament, we shall debate actively what changes in the law we need for that. Moves towards compulsory registration and the sort of unique individual identifier that he suggests—a lighter form of ID card—may be coming, but that is something that we all need to discuss very carefully.

Are the instruction and the training given to EROs of the more modern and imaginative type, as we have seen in relation to certain youth organisations in recent months?

My Lords, I have to say from having met a number of EROs during the past three years that they are a subculture of their own. I think that some of them would jib a little at the thought that they were entirely modern. They are committed to their task, which they find increasingly difficult. Gated communities and rapid turnover of people in rented housing make their lives more difficult. The refusal of people to answer letters when they are canvassed and the difficulty of canvassing on a house-to-house basis are all problems that they face, but all the evidence that I have is that most EROs are doing their job extremely well.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair of the All-Party Group on Voter Registration. What is so frustrating about the Minister’s responses to these questions is that he repeatedly gives the impression that it is all fine and that there is nothing to worry about. When will the Minister and the Government accept that we have a crisis with people dropping off the register? Just over a week ago, the Electoral Commission reported that 1 million people had gone missing from the register up to 1 December last year. The closing date for registration is 20 April. The Government have about six weeks to do considerably more than they are doing at present. They have the power; they need to get working on it straightaway.

The Government are not complacent: we do not have a crisis. The figures for last December show that, under the transition, we are roughly at the level that we were at three years ago. That is not good enough—there were already 7.5 million people missing three years ago. We are continuing to work, and everyone here should be continuing to work, to encourage people to register. I saw in this morning’s Daily Mirror that it is running its own its own campaign with a bus, the cast of “The Only Way is Essex” and various others to encourage particularly vulnerable groups to come on board. We all have to work on that, and I am still confident that many of the missing young people will actually use their mobile phones to register online in the last two or three weeks before the deadline.

My Lords, whatever the case may be against compulsory voting—and frankly, I am moving in that way myself—what is the case against compulsory registration?

My Lords, we are asking some large questions about the relationship between the citizen and the state. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, might stand shoulder to shoulder with the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, on a number of these issues.

In one of the Minister’s earlier answers—I think it was in answer to his noble friend—he used the phrase “much to my surprise”. Will he tell us what evidence he has that caused him to have such a surprise?

I apologise if there was a slip of the tongue. We are, of course, very concerned that this process should go through successfully, and we have been working very hard to make it go through successfully. I pay tribute to all those involved in National Voter Registration Day, which led to nearly half a million registrations coming in in one week. We all have to work extremely hard. I suppose that the origin of my surprise is that I meet—as I am sure we all meet—a great deal of voter disengagement and unwillingness to engage with politics. Those are the people who do not register to vote. We have to get out there and persuade them to vote. I trust that all parties, and all of us as campaigners—those Peers who go into schools and into universities—are getting this message across all the time.