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Electoral Status: Online Access

Volume 773: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the recent technical difficulties regarding online applications to register to vote, what plans they have to enable all eligible electors to check their electoral status electronically.

My Lords, we are conducting an investigation into what went wrong with the website last week. In the light of the findings, we will carefully consider the potential benefits of an online registration checking tool, but there may be other, possibly better, answers, such as filtering out duplicates with electoral management software, to consider as well.

My Lords, after the 2015 general election the Electoral Commission reported that there should be a system whereby people can check online whether they are already registered. Will the Government endeavour to make sure that such a system is in place by the May 2017 elections? In the meantime, will greater efforts be made to ensure that young people who are perhaps still at school are registered in the same way across Great Britain as they are in Northern Ireland, and that students are registered as part of the enrolment process at university, as successfully piloted in places such as Sheffield this year?

The noble Lord makes some very good points. My answer is yes to the second two regarding encouraging enrolment. As regards the first, I would like to wait for the findings of the investigation before I commit to a timeframe. Clearly, however, there is a need to look at the issue of duplicates, as raised by the Electoral Commission and as the Government have made clear on many occasions. I thank the noble Lord for his constructive comments to me privately about this.

My Lords, will the Minister spare a thought for the approximately 16% of the population who have no access to the internet, many of whom are probably elderly and not so well off, and people who have conditions that prevent them using it? For the next few years, foreseeably, there needs to be parallel provision.

The noble Baroness makes an extremely good point and it is one that I have raised with officials. Electoral registration officers are able to accept applications in person or on the phone, and Electoral Commission guidance encourages them to offer this service to those unable to make an online or paper application for any reason in order to meet their equalities obligations. As I said, the noble Baroness makes an extremely good point and it is one that I am convinced the Electoral Commission will heed.

My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my declaration of interests: I am an elected councillor for the London Borough of Lewisham. What plans do the Government have to ask organisations such as the Post Office, the Department for Work and Pensions, the DVLA and HM Passport Office to help people to get on to the electoral register by asking the people they come into contact with whether they are registered to vote and pointing out the benefits, such as an improved credit rating, with information on their forms and a link to the site to register to vote?

The noble Lord makes a good, practical point. I have had conversations with other agencies across government about precisely that, and we are actively considering how we can use the regular communications that government undertakes with individuals. However, I am told that, where this has been piloted in the past, there has been a problem with mixed messages—in other words, a call to action to do one thing can be confused with a call to action to do another. But the noble Lord is absolutely right and it is a matter that I continue to look at.

My Lords, I return yet again to the subject of compulsory registration. There are penalties for not registering. What conceivable logic is there in not having compulsory registration? It is not the same as compulsory voting, even though some of us might think that there is merit in that. Can we please look at this again?

I am sure that we will continue to discuss and debate this matter, but the Government believe that active engagement on registering to vote is preferable. The success of the new individual electoral registration system shows that it is making it easier to register to vote. Between the unfortunate downtime at 10 pm last Tuesday and the close of the registration period on Thursday night, for example, there were more than 453,000 applications.

My Lords, it is of course welcome that substantially increased numbers of people have registered to vote in recent weeks, but does that not have clear implications for the work of the parliamentary Boundary Commission? It is due to report in September but is now likely to report on the basis of substantially out-of-date electoral registration figures. If the Government can bring in emergency legislation to extend the period during which people can register, surely they must commit themselves—I ask the Minister to do this—to ensuring that any redrawing of constituency boundaries by the Boundary Commission is based on a totally up-to-date electoral register.

I am sorry to disappoint your Lordships, but I am not going to commit the Government to that. Without the implementation of these boundary reforms, MPs would, by 2020, end up representing constituencies that are drawn up on data that are over 15 years old for all of the UK.

My Lords, will the Minister please take very seriously the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack? There is a financial penalty, but it is not widely advertised. Would the Minister also accept our offer to work with him—he has been very generous in saying that he wishes to work on a cross-party basis—to examine the lessons of the last few weeks? This is a matter that concerns all Members of your Lordships’ House, and indeed the other place. In so doing, can we look at the particular issue of the potential discrepancy that the Electoral Commission anticipates between the 1 December register and the register next Thursday?

I am more than happy to work with the noble Lord and others on the practical consequences of the problems that we faced last week with the website and the lessons that can be learned as regards duplicates. As for the issue of automatic registration, I am sorry, but I have made the position clear.

How can the Minister ignore the question of my noble friend Lord Grocott? We have now perhaps as many as a million new people on the register arising out of what has happened with the referendum. Surely, people on those registers should now be taken into account in the setting of boundaries; otherwise, the boundaries will be false boundaries and not relevant. Is it not a fact that if the Government do not do this, they will be showing political bias?

I refute the final point that the noble Lord makes. Without defined data and a set of registers to assess, it is impossible to run a review. Registers for a boundary review are necessarily a snapshot. As regards the number of applications, it is the case that reviews have always been conducted like this. I say further that we need to wait for these registers to be compiled to see how many of those who have applied to register to vote are duplicates or not.