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EU Referendum: Voter Registration

Volume 771: debated on Thursday 12 May 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to emphasise the importance to citizens, particularly young people, of registering to vote to enable them to participate in the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union on 23 June.

My Lords, the referendum on membership of the European Union is a decision of fundamental importance for the future of the country. The Government are committed to helping ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote, particularly the young, is able to do so. That is why we have allocated up to £7.5 million for a range of voting registration activities. With the introduction of online registration, it is easier than ever to register to vote, and since 2014, 4.1 million people aged 16 to 24 have applied to register.

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. The outcome of the referendum will obviously be of the greatest and longest significance to the lives of the young generations. Will the Government therefore make major efforts, in addition to the commitments they have so far undertaken, particularly through the online communication that the Minister mentioned and through social media, to ensure that young people know that the final date for voter registration and for getting a postal vote is 7 June—less than four weeks from now? Does the Minister agree with me that this kind of information is especially vital when polling day coincides with the Glastonbury festival, the broadcasting of which could rather preoccupy the attention of millions of young people, whose votes are vital not only to their future but to the future of the country. It would be an awful pity if instead of voting, they were rocking.

My Lords, I think the answer is in the question—Glastonbury. The noble Lord should get a group of your Lordships together, appear on stage and sing, “No Satisfaction Unless There’s Registration”—I am sorry, that is an end of term joke. Ministers have written to universities and sixth-form colleges to encourage them to promote voter registration ahead of the deadline. In addition, the Government are working with organisations such as Universities UK, the Association of Colleges, Bite The Ballot, UpRising and other youth organisations to help ensure young people are registered in time for the EU referendum.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the council of King’s College London. I am so pleased that the Minister mentioned universities. Does she agree that it is particularly important that university students, who have the option of registering where they study or getting a postal vote from home, know how important it is that they get a vote for the referendum?

I could not agree more with my noble friend. Students are now able to register at both term-time and home addresses in just three minutes. It can be done, as we know, on a smartphone, PC or tablet device. Since June 2014, more than 4 million applications to register to vote have been received from people between the ages of 16 and 24, and 3 million of those were made online.

Will not least among the losses to the country if we leave the European Union be the ability of people in this country—this will particularly affect younger people and their prospects—to take part in Erasmus exchanges and to study and work in 27 other European countries?

In response to a previous debate, I worked with Bite The Ballot and got it into one of our church schools. The interesting thing for me was seeing not that people could not understand voting but that they did not know what difference it would make. Watching young people being taken through the process and the penny drop about the implications was fundamental. It seems to me that we need people to engage at the grass roots. What attempt is being made to use voluntary and charitable organisations, many of which—including the churches—have newspapers and all sorts of other publications and are in touch with millions of people, as a way of trying to raise the issue in the next month, as the noble Lord asked?

Indeed, and that is exactly why we have been giving grants to civic societies to engage with the young. There have been several initiatives, one of which was the Make your Mark ballot: nearly 1 million young people aged 11 to 18 took part in deciding on issues such as mental health, the living wage and tackling religious discrimination. It is now statutory to teach democratic participation in schools at key stages 3 and 4 of the curriculum.

My Lords, referendums give the opportunity for everyone to decide on issues which sometimes divide political parties. Voter registration is clearly important; so too is participation. Does the Minister agree that televised debates can be an excellent way of engaging people and precipitating participation? If so, can she explain why a Prime Minister committed to campaigning “heart and soul” to remain in the European Union, alongside passionate pro-Europeans on this side of the House, is so reluctant to engage in the debate with Leave? Is he perhaps just frit?

I understand where the noble Baroness is coming from, but there are lots of debates going on encouraging people to register and there will be debates on television and on the radio—I heard one this morning on Radio 4—so obviously that is a way of getting people to know what is going on.

Can my noble friend confirm that there are in fact 33 countries participating in the Erasmus programme and only 28 countries in the European Union?

My Lords, much mention has been made of universities, and it is absolutely right that they have a key role to play. I am Pro-Chancellor of the University of Bath and I have ensured that the administration of Bath University and the students’ union are working together on this. I urge all noble Lords who have anything to do with universities to do likewise.

That is an extremely good idea. We are writing to all universities to encourage them to engage with their students to advise them on how to register to vote before the EU referendum.