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Electoral Register

Volume 760: debated on Thursday 19 March 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to maximise the number of people on the electoral register before the deadline of 20 April by which people must register to vote in the General Election on 7 May.

My Lords, the Government have invested £14 million over two financial years to support activities to maximise the number of people on the register. In 2014-15, this includes £6.8 million divided among electoral registration offices across Great Britain according to levels of underregistration. Up to £2.5 million will be used to fund wider activity, including working with national organisations to reach underrepresented groups, such as young people, students, Armed Forces personnel and overseas voters.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Voter Registration. I hope the noble Lord’s response to my Question will move beyond the “We’ve all got a role to play” response that I often get from him. My Question asks specifically what action the Government are going to take in the next month to address the 7 million of our fellow citizens who are not on the register. How can we get those people on so that they can actually vote in the general election?

My Lords, it is up to all of us, not just the Government, to make sure. I was with the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, at UCL the other week. We all three made the point that it was extremely important that students both register and vote, and we should all be repeating that message each time we go to a college, university or school. The noble Lord will have seen the Electoral Commission’s announcement of its pre-election campaign earlier this week. That is another dimension of this. There will be advertising online and in the media. The Government are very happy that in February a million new applications came in to register. We expect there to be a similar surge in the last few weeks before the closing date, as there was in 2010. We are not at all complacent, but as the election gets closer, we expect interest to rise and we expect the 2.7 million applications which have come in since last December to be added to by, we hope, another million.

My Lords, as there are penalties for not registering, can my noble friend explain to me—he has failed to do so in the past—why we do not move towards compulsory registration?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, has also asked me this question on a number of occasions. We would be moving towards a different relationship between the citizen and the state. In Denmark, Finland and Germany, there is a national population register. If you are on a national population register, you are automatically also on a voting register. It is also used for welfare, taxation and a range of other questions. That takes us down the road towards national identification numbers and national identity cards. We will have to have that debate in the next Parliament. It is not the tradition in this country.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the backing he has given for organisations such as Bite the Ballot, of which I am the honorary president. I hope that the new voters exercise their vote on 7 May. After 7 May, it will be important to have a proper analysis of exactly what went wrong with individual registration as against the previous form. I am told that many constituencies have many fewer registered voters than in the past. Whichever Government are in office, will they urge the Electoral Commission to come to grips with this question very soon?

My Lords, after the election, the Electoral Commission, which is an excellent organisation, will of course examine the successes and weaknesses of the transition to individual electoral registration. We have guaranteed that this will come back to Parliament—there will be a report to Parliament on how the transition to individual electoral registration has gone. I emphasise that this has not been a failure. Applications are still coming in. Two-thirds of applications since last June have been online. We are doing everything we can to ensure that more people who have not yet registered, or who are registered in the wrong place, register before 20 April.

My Lords, the Electoral Commission has said that between March and December last year 920,000 people disappeared off the electoral register. This is clearly going to have an impact on the outcome of the general election. Will the Minister say what impact he thinks it will have?

My Lords, I have just emphasised that nearly 3 million have applied to register since December. There is movement on and off the voting register all the time, as the noble Lord well knows. We are doing everything we can to make sure that movement in the next few weeks, as over the past three months, continues to be positive.

My Lords, since this is all about establishing the identity of people who are eligible to vote, at this stage in the Parliament, five years in, will the Minister acknowledge that one of the numerous mistakes this coalition Government have made—it would take too long to list them—was the early decision to get rid of national identity cards, which would have solved this and many other problems relating to migration and other matters about which this Government have made such a mess?

I thank the noble Lord for his normally generous comments. The sheer heavy weight of the Labour Government’s ID proposals seemed to me and many of my colleagues to make it an unavoidable failure. There is a debate about the shift to a digital relationship between the citizen and the state, which we will have to have, and about convenience against privacy, which we need to have as we move forward. My right honourable friend Francis Maude and others working on the Government Digital Service have made a good deal of progress in that regard.

Does the Minister have any information about the growth in the number of 18 to 21 year-olds on the register?

Since 1 December, some 700,000 16 to 24 year-olds have applied to register. We do not have an exact figure on what proportion that is because the figures on how many 16 year-olds will be eligible to vote in the election are not exact because we do not have all their birthdays.

My Lords, do the Government have an estimate of the extent to which the reduction in the number on the electoral register as reported last December is due to a reduction in multiple registrations?

My Lords, it is highly likely that that is the case, particularly with students not being registered both at home and at university. That is one of many difficulties in assessing the completeness and accuracy of the register.