Skip to main content

EU Referendum: Voter Registration

Volume 773: debated on Wednesday 8 June 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now report in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office to an Urgent Question in another place on voter registration in the EU Referendum. The Statement is as follows.

“Whatever your view on the question, or whatever anyone else’s view, the EU referendum is a very important moment in our democracy. My strong view, and the view of the Government, is that anyone eligible to should be able to register to vote. Over the past three months, 4.5 million people have applied to register to vote. Very high levels of voter registration have been successfully handled over the last month. In the last week alone, more than a million people have applied.

Yesterday, 525,000 people successfully completed their applications. This is a record. At its peak yesterday, the website was handling three times the volume of applications compared to the previous record peak, which was just before the general election last year. Unfortunately, due to this unprecedented demand, there were problems with the website from 10.15 last night. To give an idea of the scale of the demand, the peak before the 2015 election was 74,000 per hour. Last night, the system processed 214,000 per hour at its peak before it crashed. Many who applied to register before 10.15 pm were successful, but unfortunately many were not. The problems with the website were resolved around midnight.

We are urgently looking at all options and talking to the Electoral Commission about how we can extend the deadline for applying to register to vote in the EU referendum. The website is now open and working, and we strongly encourage people to register to vote online. Anyone who has already registered does not need to submit a fresh application. We are also offering resources to electoral registration officers to cover any extra administrative costs.

A huge amount of work has gone into encouraging people to register to vote in a timely fashion. We began a registration drive ahead of the May elections. From 19 April, we began in earnest to promote voter registration from government departments, local authorities and civil society organisations to boost voter registration ahead of this important decision for the British people. I want to pay tribute to the work of the many people—everyone from Idris Elba to Emma Watson—supporting this drive. We have been targeting under-registered groups and have seen consistently high numbers registering throughout the last few weeks, particularly in the last week. It is in all our interests to ensure that as many people as possible are able to vote on 23 June at one of the most important moments in our democracy for over a generation”.

That concludes the Statement made to the other place. However, it might be helpful to your Lordships if I explain that since the exchange in the other place—following discussions with the Electoral Commission and given the strong cross-party support expressed in the other place—we have decided to introduce secondary legislation to extend the deadline for voter registration until midnight tomorrow. Having taken the decision today, we think it is right to extend the deadline to 9 June to allow people who have not yet registered time to get the message that registration is still open and to get themselves registered.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement and for updating the House on more recent developments.

I understand that the Minister has a good memory, so I ask him to cast his mind back to 27 October last year—the date on which, against the advice of the Electoral Commission, the Government forged ahead with individual electoral registration. On that day, nearly nine months ago, he assured your Lordships’ House that,

“people have been given ample opportunity to register on the new system”.

He added:

“The Government believe that we are past the tipping point. Remember, 96 out of every 100 electors have successfully registered”.—[Official Report, 27/10/15; cols. 1123-27.]

Clearly, that is not the case because, as the Minister has just said, there were 1 million such people in the past week and 4.5 million over the past few months. We had the chaos last night of the Government’s own website being unable to cope. Does the Minister now regret persuading your Lordships’ House, despite all warnings to the contrary, to rush the introduction of individual electoral registration, on which the new constituency boundaries will be redrawn?

The deadline of midnight last night was made for a reason—and we welcome the extension. Is the Minister now satisfied that the system is robust enough to cope with any applications made between now and midnight tomorrow? Can he assure your Lordships’ House that support and resources will be provided to local government to ensure that they can process all those applications, so that nobody loses the right to vote?

First, I begin by thanking the major parties in both Houses for their support on where we are now. The Government are extremely grateful for that. I understand the considerable passions raised in this House last year about the move to IER and our removal of carry-forwards. I remind your Lordships why we did so. Those removed from the register in 2015 had failed to respond to nine contacts from their electoral registration officer encouraging them to register individually before 2015. Not removing them would have led to an inaccurate register, which would have distorted the boundary review, this May’s elections and, potentially, the referendum. The register used for the boundary review was, as set out in the legislation agreed by both Houses, the register as at 1 December 2015. That was following a full annual canvass, and in a general election year. It is necessarily a snapshot, and the register has always continued to change while the review is taking place.

As to whether the system is robust enough, that is a fair point. We are looking urgently to ensure that it is because, clearly, we want to avoid what happened last night. Forgive me—I have forgotten the noble Baroness’s final question.

My final question was whether there were resources and support for local government to process the applications.

That is another fair point. We are indeed going to ensure that we cover reasonable costs for the EROs.

My Lords, I am not going to go back to the memories of 27 October. Perhaps the noble Baroness might remind some of her colleagues who failed to vote for my Motion that night. Obviously, what happened last night was damaging, and particularly for young people who for the first time were hoping to register to vote. Can the Minister confirm that, as of midnight last night, we were all well aware that something had gone wrong? Why was Section 4 of the European Union Referendum Act 2015 not then immediately put in motion? A draft SI could have been submitted to the two Houses today under the super-affirmative process and we could have dealt with this immediately. Does the Minister not recognise that, even as a result of the discussions in another place, which I followed carefully, there is still some real confusion as to what is going to happen with postal and proxy votes, which also have a deadline? No Statement has been made in your Lordships’ House or the other place on that matter. There is lots of confusion here, and it should be cleared up very quickly.

I think we all wish to learn the lessons from what happened last night—I totally heed that point. However, the Government need to move with haste and ensure that what they do is legally watertight. That is entirely what we are aiming to do. After all, the Government are rightly called to account by your Lordships on whether we legislate in undue haste, and to ensure that we do things in a proper way. As for postal votes, that is an entirely separate system of registration, and nothing is changing there.

My Lords, will the Minister send a signal to all UK posts abroad, as there are plenty of people who are already extremely concerned about the outcome of this situation, which we do not want to exacerbate as a result of their inability to be involved in this process?

We have continued to ensure that those who live overseas are fully aware of their rights regarding the referendum and registering to vote.

My Lords, is it not clear, even to the Liberal Benches, that it is perfectly rational for any individual to leave his registration until something closely approaching the deadline? Of course, it is equally rational for the system to assume that most people will not be that silly, so what has been done now is correct. It is a proper response to a problem which could not reasonably have been foreseen. I am grateful to my noble friend for the action that he and his colleagues have taken.

I thank my noble friend for that. There was extensive testing of the website, but I remind your Lordships of the unprecedented demand which, as my noble friend said, we now need to remedy.

My Lords, I hope I can detect in what the Minister has just said that he is not quite as complacent as he once was about the Government’s approach to electoral registration. While welcoming the measures he has announced today, I ask him specifically: will he make the funds available for a major push on the social media that are so important in reaching many of those people who were unable to register last night, and make it clear to them that there is the opportunity until midnight tomorrow to register?

The noble Lord makes an extremely good point. I will ensure that we are thinking about that right now. I am certainly not complacent.

My Lords, I welcome Her Majesty’s Government’s decision, but are they certain that all the calls to register were genuine and were not to disrupt the system in any way?

My Lords, does the Minister accept that part of the problem is that many people think the system is automatically registering them when it is not and it should be? A significant part of the recent problem is that people cannot tell immediately whether they are registered. We urgently need an online system by which people can check whether they are registered. Only then will they know whether they need to complete the process.

The noble Lord speaks with a lot of experience on these things and makes a good point. I agree wholeheartedly with the principle that reducing the number of duplicate applications would certainly ease the burden on citizens and electoral administrators. We are open to all options for reducing duplicate applications. That said, we must guard against any solution which results in whole swathes of data unnecessarily being held centrally.

My Lords, will the Minister now relook at the problem of registration in terms of the boundary review? We have been told that many more people are now registered, yet the figures are the old figures. We know that many are still not registered. Surely, it is wrong to press ahead with the boundary review when registration has caused so many difficulties.

My Lords, on last night’s “” problem, late surges are now a common phenomenon. Will the Minister take back to his department that when we were legislating to require a statutory instrument, we did not vest any discretion to take a quick decision so that in the event of technological problems, the Electoral Commission—or, in other circumstances, some other neutral body—could extend an important time limit so that communication is got out there immediately?

My noble friend makes a good point. Clearly, there are going to be many lessons to learn from this upset.

When the system was contracted for, whether software, hardware or a computer service company, was the volume specified more or less than the quarter of a million per hour at which it broke down? In other words, was the system adequately specified but it broke down, or was it inadequately specified?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. We need to look at the specifications and at the surges that took place. I am absolutely not complacent about this. We need to look at exactly that kind of question.