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Voter Registration

Volume 778: debated on Wednesday 25 January 2017


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to increase the number of citizens registered to vote.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley, and at her request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper. I refer the House to my registered interests.

That is a request the noble Lord was not in a position to refuse. The Government allocated £7.5 million to promote registration prior to the EU referendum, and a record 46.5 million people are now registered to vote. Online registration has made it easier and faster to make an application to register, with 75% of the 23 million applications made since the introduction of individual electoral registration using this method. The Government aim to further streamline the annual registration canvass and to work closely with the electoral community and civil society organisations to remove barriers that deter underregistered groups from joining the register.

My Lords, significant local elections are taking place this May, and millions of people are still not registered to vote. What are the Government going to do about this? Their response to date has been feeble, ineffective and lacking in any policy perspective other than to do as little as possible.

With respect, I would reject the accusations that we have done very little. As I said, we allocated £7.5 million last May, ahead of the EU referendum, for a whole range of voter registration activities, and we now have a number of targeted initiatives for those who are underregistered—black and ethnic-minority groups, social tenants, tenants in the private rented sector, young people and students. We are developing those initiatives in order to drive up the numbers registered, which, as I said a moment ago, now stand at a record level.

My Lords, what would be the problem with amending the letter sent to young people informing them of their national insurance number so that it also told them how to use that number to register online? What would be the problem with extending across Great Britain the system successfully used in all Northern Ireland schools whereby the electoral registration process is undertaken at schools, or with extending across all universities in the UK the system used at Sheffield University for combining electoral registration with registration at the university, thereby ensuring that 76% of its students are registered to vote, compared with only 13% in other HE institutions of a similar size? Are the Government not simply dragging their feet on voter registration for young people?

My Lords, there were three questions there. On the first, I am all in favour of what is called the nudge, so that when people get notified of their national insurance number they are also encouraged to vote. As for Sheffield, two weeks ago, on the Higher Education and Research Bill, we had a very good debate on the Sheffield initiative, which was part-funded by the Government. We are in the process of analysing that initiative to learn the lessons from it, and when we have done that we will be in touch with other further and higher education institutions to see whether that is the right model for them, or whether there are other models that might work even better. We are determined to do all we can to ensure that no individual is left behind and no community is unregistered to vote.

My Lords, I ask my noble friend a question that I have asked his predecessors many times. What is the logical case against compulsory registration, particularly bearing in mind that it is technically an offence if you do not register?

I understand that, technically, it is not an offence if you do not register. It is an offence if you do not reply to some correspondence from the electoral registration officer. I am sorry to disappoint my noble friend, but I will give him exactly the same answer that he received from my noble friend at the Dispatch Box a few weeks ago. We have no plans to introduce compulsory registration.

My Lords, could we do away with all this nonsense by introducing ID cards? Would that not resolve this problem and many others?

Will my noble friend look at the Northern Ireland schools initiative mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, which has been commended in this House across parties on a number of occasions?

Yes, I am aware of the initiative in Northern Ireland. The advice that I have received is that the EROs are already free to work with local schools and colleges in their areas. Many already do so. Northern Ireland registration is different from the rest of the UK, so the schools initiative may not necessarily translate across to the rest of the UK.

Does the Minister agree that Northern Ireland gives us another reason to think about compulsory registration? The Government have maintained that the common travel area will continue after Brexit. I do not see how that can be done except by people having ID cards or passports that are biometrically sophisticated and carried by all of us. It is no good just saying, “Let the illegals identify themselves”.

That goes way beyond my negotiating brief and takes us into very difficult territory about the future of the common travel area in Northern Ireland. I repeat that we have had a debate about ID cards and the Government have made their position clear. We are not minded to introduce them in the UK.

My Lords, have the Government done any calculations about the demographics of the electorate in coming years? Can the Government give any idea of the number of people aged 18 who will be joining the electoral register and the rate of attrition among older people who will be leaving the electoral register?

The short answer is no. But the noble Baroness will be pleased to hear that, since IER was introduced, 5.7 million people between the ages of 16 and 24 have joined the register, so we have had some success in getting that end of the register backfilled. So far as the other half of her question is concerned, I will have to write to her.