Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it should have been Lord Shutt of Greetland standing here today. As noble Lords will know, my noble friend, David Shutt, very sadly died in October 2020. As the other Liberal Democrat member of the Electoral Registration Act 2013 post-legislative scrutiny committee, I have been asked to present the findings of our committee to your Lordships’ House today. I know Lord Shutt would have wanted me to begin by warmly thanking the committee staff: Simon Keal, Katie Barraclough and Breda Twomey, as well as the specialist advisers, Professor Maria Sobolewska and Professor Stuart Wilks-Heeg, for all their hard work and dedication during the inquiry and in drawing up report.
Simon Keal, the committee clerk, told me:
“Lord Shutt was exceptionally good to work with. An extremely dedicated and professional Chair, with a real commitment and passion for the subject matter and determination for the Committee to make a difference.”
In looking again at the various obituaries for Lord Shutt in preparing for today’s debate, I was struck by the frequent use of “straight talking” and “decent” to describe him. But he also had a wonderful twinkle in his eye. He liked to tell it as it was. He enjoyed a bit of gossip over a cup of tea but was always extremely kind.
As director and later chairman of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, Lord Shutt was able to promote political reform and help community projects, particularly for young people. It is telling that his very last political act in Parliament was to promote the rights of young people to vote, and indeed he won the support of your Lordships’ House, through an amendment on automatically adding young attainers, 16 and 17 year-olds, to the electoral register. This was a subject that he felt extremely strongly about and which he was able to explore in more depth during the work on this committee inquiry.
As I am sure the other noble Lords present today who were members of the committee will testify, Lord Shutt chaired the committee in his own inimitable style, allowing people to have their say but, as ever, telling it as he saw it as he summed up a discussion. He continues to be very greatly missed.
The timing of this committee inquiry against the backdrop of the Covid pandemic, the 2019 general election and the early—and ultimately reversed—Prorogation was deeply challenging in terms of planning and continuity of the committee work for staff and Members alike. The committee inquiry ran from May 2019 to July 2020, held 16 evidence sessions and received a total of 42 written-evidence submissions. The committee also held seminars with electoral registration officers, including in the aftermath of the 2019 election, and visited the London Borough of Tower Hamlets to speak to election officials and politicians regarding the operation of the registration system there. As well as looking at the Act itself and its implementation, we took the opportunity to assess wider issues around electoral administration, including measures to tackle fraud.
Some of the committee’s recommendations have now been passed by events in the 20 months since it was published, not least as a result of the Elections Bill, but today I shall highlight a few issues raised by the report that I believe are still highly relevant. The first is the question of resources. Implementing electoral reforms requires administrators to be properly trained and resourced. We heard during the course of the inquiry that when it comes to resourcing this is certainly not always the case.
Our report found that intolerable burdens are often placed on administrators during times of multiple elections, such as we saw from 2015 to 2019, with three general elections and the EU referendum in fairly rapid succession. We believed that the Government should consider a scheme of financial support or compensation for election-related registration activity because of the very high volume of online applications to go on the register being received in the run-up to those elections. These applications were on a scale that the 2011 reforms did not really anticipate. In their response, the Government stated that the Cabinet Office has “launched a project” to identify and put in place measures to mitigate impacts on electoral administrators. Can the Minister say a little more today about how that project is going?
The second area of particular concern raised during the inquiry was the completeness and accuracy of the registers. This was an area of particular concern to Lord Shutt. The committee was keen to explore ways of improving the registration levels of underrepresented groups and to study best international practice on these matters. Canada was seen as a particularly positive example in this regard. I believe that there has been no further general study of accuracy and completeness of registers since the committee published its report. What action have the Government taken since the publication of this report to improve the completeness and accuracy of the registers? What evidence do they have, if any, that completeness and accuracy are improving?
A third area examined during our inquiry was the simplification of the registration process. Anecdotally, I should mention that it was only because of my membership of this committee that I learned that making an application online, just to be sure that I am correctly registered, actually results in staff having to check online applications for duplicate entries and therefore takes up a considerable amount of staff time that could be usefully used elsewhere. That is why the report calls on the Government to explore the options for an online checking tool, which I believe could save time and money in the long run, even though there would initially be cost implications. I believe that this is a very important recommendation of our report. An online checking tool would also make it easier for electoral administrators to identify whether people were registered in two different locations—sometimes legitimately, sometimes not—and make it easier to transfer an elector from one district or constituency to another if they move house.
In their response, the Government stated that they are
“sympathetic to the potential benefits”
of an online registration checking tool but stated that issues around security, cost and implementation
“would need to be analysed”.
They indicated that they were “prioritising other interventions” to modernise the system that they believe will be more useful and other interventions to reduce the burden of duplicate applications. I would be grateful if the Minister could expand a little on these “other interventions” in his response.
The Government noted in their response the long-term nature of the process for consolidating and simplifying electoral law. However, as the House of Lords Constitution Committee, of which I am currently a member, noted in its report on the Elections Bill:
“The consolidation of electoral law is necessary and overdue, but it would be a significant undertaking. We recommend that the Government takes steps to consolidate electoral law before the next general election.”
In reality, the Elections Bill is yet another Bill containing a range of miscellaneous election provisions.
I will not say much about the issue of voter ID, as I am sure that issue will be much debated in the Elections Bill in the weeks to come, but our report called for voter ID not to be first introduced at a general election, instead suggesting that it should be rolled out first at a local election and a full evaluation conducted afterwards.
I have two final points in conclusion. First, our committee was set up in particular to assess the implementation of IER, which faced a multitude of electoral tests shortly after its introduction. While the implementation of IER proceeded successfully, thanks in no small part to the dedication of the administrators, it has not resolved some of the wider concerns relating to the electoral registration system. There remain particular concerns regarding the completeness and accuracy of registers, and about multiple registrations and the rules surrounding these. There also remain concerns about the negative impacts of this Act on, for example, student and attainer registration as well as those from other underrepresented groups. To date, the Government have not yet indicated that they are minded to tackle any of these issues as a matter of priority.
Secondly, I stress the importance of post-legislative scrutiny itself. I have had the privilege of working in many developing parliaments throughout the world, including four years ago in the Verkhovna Rada in Kyiv. In that work, we have regularly promoted the use of effective post-legislative scrutiny. It is a very positive feature of the Westminster model that we use post-legislative scrutiny to examine the impact of legislation in reality through speaking to experts and practitioners on the ground several years after the legislation has been passed. However, for post-legislative scrutiny to be truly effective it requires the Government to listen. It also requires them to acknowledge the findings of inquiries like ours and be prepared to make changes. I beg to move.
My Lords, I echo the comments from the noble Baroness in relation to Lord Shutt. I do not want to duplicate anything that was said but in not doing so, I do not want it to be underestimated that he was a superb chairman. This was not an easy issue to have covered, given the political differences we will be seeing on the Elections Bill in the next few days. To produce a report with unanimity throughout is therefore a reflection of the superb chairmanship of Lord Shutt. The report is a testimony to him and his ability.
Perhaps I may also make a personal observation: I once chatted privately for a few minutes to Lord Shutt about a place called Skircoat Lodge. I doubt if anybody else in this Chamber knows about Skircoat Lodge but it was a care home for kids in Calderdale, which is well recorded in a book called Damaged, written by Chris Wild. As a child, he was admitted there aged 11, and at age 12 he ran away to live in a heroin den, until he was 14, because it was safer to live in that den than it was in the lodge. That is an indication of the conversation I had with Lord Shutt—you felt that he really felt the pain. The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to his work with the Joseph Rowntree Trust, and I will remember him for that sort of caring empathy, as well as for his chairmanship.
I want to pick up one issue that is covered in the report, as the noble Baroness has done, in relation to electoral rolls—referred to in paragraph 48 onwards—and the number of people who apply and the burden that is imposed on electoral registration officers, which is enormous. During Second Reading on the Elections Bill, I referred to the fear that, sooner or later, an election is going to crash because of the burden that we impose on local councils in one form or another.
There are two big burdens: one is postal votes and the other is registration. In evidence, we heard—I quote here from paragraph 50—that
“between … (29 October) and the registration deadline (26 November), 3,850,859 applications were made”
to register, of which 659,000 were made on the final day. About a third of those were recorded as duplicates, to which the noble Baroness has already referred. The Government say that the cost to the local authorities is between £0.4 million and £1.2 million. I am sorry, but I just do not believe that figure. I also do not believe that the estimate on the cost of installing a system is as identified in the evidence we received. If Ireland can run an effective online registration-checking system then I am sure this country can as well, and it would reduce dramatically the burden. Again, that is identified in the contrast referred to in those sections.
We are talking about 1 million people being taken out of the registrations but a large number being added, whereas in Canada—as recorded at paragraph 58 —because it has an online system, 80,000 were added. There is a huge contrast between our system, where people make false applications, not malignly but because they do not realise they are already registered, and that in Canada, where people can check for themselves.
The point is that I believe the Cabinet Office is looking at this on a national basis, as it wants a national system. But we actually register on a local authority basis, and therefore, because of all the other records, it should be possible to implement easily a local authority checking system.
I make those comments in relation to this report. I know that it covers part of what I was going to raise on the Elections Bill. As a result, I can promise the Minister that I will not re-raise them in a few days’ time.
In conclusion, as I said previously, I thought Lord Shutt was an excellent chairman and I enjoyed serving on the committee. I also thank the staff, as there is so much in the report that is worth considering and will no doubt be quoted in full when we get to consideration of the Elections Bill.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is participating remotely and I invite him to speak now.
My Lords, I was a member of the electoral registration ad hoc Select Committee, so ably chaired by the late Lord Shutt. The tributes will be many and, if I might say so, well deserved. He was a man who I learned to greatly admire for his political integrity. He was, more than anything, down to earth and ever conscious of his roots. He never forgot them.
I turn to the issue of electoral registration, recognising the burden that recent changes to registration and voter ID will impose on local authorities. Lindsay Tomlinson, the electoral registration officer for Allerdale, in Cumbria, in my former constituency, gave evidence to the committee, and I asked her to summarise her views and those of her colleagues across the country on the reforms now under way, following the session where she gave evidence. This is what she sent me the other day—Ministers should take close note of it:
“We would appreciate some reassurance from the government that early clarity will be given over process and implementation details for Voter ID. This is particularly important for those authorities, such as in Cumbria, who are currently going through local government reorganisation and who will need to have their voter ID arrangements for the new authorities in place before those new authorities come into existence. This will have implications for example in terms of which Electoral Registration Officer has responsibility, how the government online registration service will integrate with the existing and new authorities, how electors will understand which authority they need to apply to etc.
We would therefore request an assurance from government that EROs and electoral administrators have early guidance and clarity so that they can start to put plans in place for voter ID and can communicate from an early stage and with appropriate detail with local electors.”
Will the Minister reply to me in writing, in detail, on each of the issues that she has raised? I am sure she will want to circulate those notes among her colleagues around the country and, equally, to the administration officers.
In the sad absence of the former chairman, I want to flag up some of the comments in our report on mandatory voter ID, a subject which I know caused our chairman some concern. First, as we say in our report:
“We are concerned about the potential impact voter ID could have on the participation rates of BAME groups, young people and students”.
Can we have a response on that matter from the Government?
In paragraph 335, we state:
“The Electoral Reform Society described itself as ‘strongly opposed to the introduction of mandatory voter ID’ arguing that it risks ‘undermining the principles of fair and equal representation that have been at the heart of British democracy since the adoption of universal, equal suffrage in 1928’. Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society … told us that voter ID as a means of tackling personation fraud was like using ‘a sledgehammer to crack a nut’ and said the Government should be making policy based on evidence and not ‘on things that people think might be a problem, even though the data and the evidence tell us that they are not’.”
What are the total estimates by the Government on reduced turnout, which will be the real measure of whether this works?
In paragraph 271, we said:
“The Electoral Commission told us that there was no evidence from police data in recent elections of widespread attempts to commit fraud.”
In that light, what is the Government’s estimate of the level of fraud?
For the Conservative Party, Alan Mabbutt told us:
“Most allegations of fraud appear to be based on hearsay rather than fact”—
and he is a supporter of the Government. He continued:
“It is likely that most fraud takes place within the confines of a household where a … person tells everyone in the house how to cast their postal ballot.”
Was Mr Mabbutt asked to give evidence or meet Ministers, even in private, prior to this legislation being introduced?
The electoral registration officers then told us in their evidence that they all agreed that a national ID card system would make voter ID requirements easier to administer. They were supported by Richard Mawrey QC, who said that a national ID system would be an effective means of tackling certain types of electoral fraud and could be used both to register an individual and to check people at the polling station, adding that
“electoral fraud of the kind we have had here … is almost unknown in continental countries”
that have a national ID card system. I had the feeling throughout the inquiry that ID cards were the answer to the problem, and we could save millions of pounds in the event of their being introduced.
They are just some of my comments and those of others, drawn mostly from the evidence that we were given by our witnesses. I hope that the Government are listening. I believe that this whole agenda is being driven for the electoral advantage of the Conservative Party at the ballot box, and I find that quite deplorable.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is taking part remotely and I invite her to speak now.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and a director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, which gives grants to bodies seeking to improve democracy, including improving electoral registration and engagement. In past years, JRRT has supported Operation Traveller Vote and Votey McVoteface, which I shall refer to later. I am also a patron of the Traveller Movement.
I congratulate my noble friend Lady Suttie and the committee on an excellent report and want to remember the extraordinary work of Lord Shutt, who joined the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in 1975 and was chair in the run-up to 2010. He kept the trust focused for decades on the purity of elections, including voter registration and party funding reform—causes that remain central to the work of JRRT today. This report is testimony to Lord Shutt, who is much missed as a campaigner, a reformer and a friend.
In my brief contribution, I will focus on combating registration fraud and how that balances with the accessibility of the registration process for two of those communities who are traditionally least likely to register to vote.
Chapter 4 of the report focuses on electoral fraud and the evidence of the level of fraud, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, has outlined. It then considers the Government’s intention to deliver what they describe as anti-fraud measures. Paragraph 271 states:
“The Electoral Commission told us that there was no evidence from police data in recent elections of widespread attempts to commit fraud … Natalie Bodek from the Cabinet Office reported that ‘in 2017, there was a conviction for electoral fraud, and eight suspects accepted police cautions.’”
Witness after witness to the committee said that the real issue was fear of fraud rather than widespread fraud.
The report also talks about the importance of ensuring that registration reaches those who are least likely to think about it. As I have mentioned, in the past, JRRT has provided grants to the campaigning group Votey McVoteface, which represents canal and narrowboat residents—“boaters”—who often do not register because they live on the move. As with the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community, the barriers because they have no fixed address mean that registration for elections has been very difficult.
The Votey McVoteface campaign over a number of elections reaches out to the boater community and explains to them how they can register in a community and how to respond if they face electoral registration staff unfamiliar with those who have no fixed address but who are not homeless. It is a small community, but the work of these campaigners has been important in empowering those whose homes are on our canals and rivers to have the right to vote. For those who say that it is too easy for it to be abused, the Votey McVoteface website is very clear, stating:
“Please make sure that you do have a genuine local connection with the constituency that you vote in. Voting in a place where you've never had a connection could be constituted as electoral fraud which has serious legal repercussions.”
It then links users to the section of the Crisis website that provides support for homeless people in registering.
The Traveller Movement also runs registration campaigns and offers advice and guidance for its community. There was a moving account by Cassie Marie McDonagh on her first experience of voting, encouraged by Operation Traveller Vote. She said:
“Some Travellers don’t vote. But ask yourself this, would you vote when the only time you hear politicians speaking about your community it’s in a way that is disrespectful at best and racist at worst?”
She is right, but what is even worse is when marginalised members of our society—our UK community—are discouraged from using their right to vote. There must be cultural change, and those campaigns are helping with that, but also legislation changes to ensure that everyone who is entitled to can register to vote.
Both Operation Traveller Vote and Votey McVoteface say that most EROs but not all front-line staff are helpful. Staff need to be fully trained to understand the rights of these communities. More burdens on registration will impact these communities and, while registration needs to be robust and fraud proof, it must also be accessible to all our communities, especially those who have been discouraged in the past.
Campaigns such as those that I have described are vital. I agree with the report that our current registration system needs updating, and I commend it for its clear recommendations that overall legislation is now due.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. I want to say something that I have said before, at Second Reading of the Elections Bill. I think that noble Lord, Lord True, has heard it all before, but I am sure he will be patient and listen to me again.
I find the entire election system strangely out of date. It fails to take lessons from the world out there, which has done a much better job of giving people the right to vote. As far as I am concerned, the right to vote is my right to vote in the United Kingdom. It may happen that I have to vote in a certain constituency, but we must make a separation; the right to vote is a universal right, regardless of where you live and whether you move from one area to another—I recently moved from Camberwell to Lambeth, which is nearer to Westminster. I do not have a right to vote in general elections, but I do not want to lose my right to vote in local elections.
Why should it be so difficult for people to exercise their vote? Reference is made in the report to a five-day gap between online registration and the electoral registration officers, or whoever it is, recognising that you are registered. I can order a birthday cake online for a friend in New York in about five minutes and it will be delivered. We are so backward in using technology in terms of politics. As soon as it comes to politics, we have to be 17th-century, we have to have crowded, uncomfortable parliamentary Chambers, and, until recently when got PeerHub to vote on, we had antediluvian voting systems—and we are very proud of that. In India, where the size of the electorate was 900 million at the last election in 2019, every voter has an ID card. Most people have an ID card. It is not rocket science; it is very simple. It is an attitudinal problem, because we are not proactive towards the voter. We still have the idea that giving somebody the franchise is giving them a privilege and not a right.
Again and again, I am very surprised when people say, “Oh, you know, ID cards are going to be very difficult because of the poor BAME. They can’t understand what an ID card is, because it is so peculiar and so white. You have to be white to understand ID cards”. It is deeply insulting to say this. Everyone always turns to talking about BAME people. I feel sympathetic to them because I am BAME, but I do not understand this argument. People have smart cards and smartphones, and children can go online much better than grown-ups. Yet, somehow, we still think that we must have elections where we need to go to a booth, take a pencil and a paper vote, mark it, and put it in a box. Why do we not have electronic voting machines, as is the case in India? They are so easy to use to count votes.
The whole problem of fraud has been completely exaggerated and we should forget about it. Fraud is not the problem; the problem is our patronising attitude towards voters. We are still not a fully democratic system in which we actually consider voters our masters. We think that they are supplicants to the political system. Read the debate on the Great Reform Act 1832. More or less, it was the elite giving something to the poor. Both the Elections Bill and this very good report are here, and we ought to take this chance to totally revolutionise our election system and bring it, at least, into the 20th century, if not the 21st. We must use electronic equipment and online tools to make our elections simple and joyful exercises to carry through.
My Lords, as a member of the committee which produced this report, I too will add my personal tribute to the late Lord Shutt. He combined his deep knowledge of the subject of our discussion with relentless common sense. It was a very enjoyable mixture, and a privilege to serve alongside him. I also add my thanks to the staff and advisers who contributed so much to the report.
The report examines what may be seen as a narrow piece of legislation concerning electoral registration but, as we all know, it is absolutely essential because it lies at the heart of our democratic system. As others have, I will focus on only two issues: the worrying number of those not on the register, and resourcing the electoral registration machinery. As we have heard, the Committee concluded that the 2013 Act brought much-needed reforms to the registration system, but more needs to be done. We found that these reforms had helped with the accuracy of the registers but their completeness had not noticeably improved. Estimates vary for the so-called missing millions. We did not put a figure in the report, but the Electoral Commission mentioned an estimate of between 8 million and 9 million in its 2019 report. More recently, others have reported that the problem is getting worse. By any standard, this is a staggering number and a serious problem. However, it is not an impossible problem. Other countries with comparable electoral systems—we have heard about Canada—have managed to do much better than us.
The report mentions various steps to take. I will briefly touch on three: automaticity, assisted registration and better data sharing. There are many options for automatic voter registration. The Government’s general objection appears to be a matter of principle as much as practice, resting on the principle that it is the citizen’s civic duty to register. May I gently challenge this thinking? It is a citizen’s civic duty to vote, and registration is part of that process. Therefore, it is the Government’s duty to make that process as easy, accessible and robust as possible. It may be that automaticity is appropriate. A particular example of this is the automatic registration of attainers. If this is too far for the Government, then I would urge them to continue to look at assisted registration—namely, to take every opportunity to give that behavioural nudge to people to register or to update their details when they access other public services, such as applying for driving licences or renewing passports.
Finally, as we have heard, there is surely greater scope for using more digital techniques to continue to bring the registration processes into the 21st century. Online voter registration has been introduced but, as has been said, there is no online look-up function. More can be done to allow EROs to mine other public service databases to verify—or help them verify—the accuracy of their registers while respecting privacy issues.
This brings me to my second point: the cost and administrative burden on electoral registration officers. During the committee hearings, we heard evidence of what seemed to be something of a hand-to-mouth process of ensuring adequate resources for funding EROs. In the Elections Bill, we now have other additional requirements being made on the system with voter ID cards and the registration of more overseas voters. I hope that the Minister, in summing up, will assure us that the adequacy of resourcing our election machinery, and this issue of increasing registration, are government priorities.
My Lords, I will add my tribute to Lord Shutt. We both cut our teeth politically in the town of Pudsey, between Leeds and Bradford, where birds fly backwards to keep muck out of their eyes. He was somewhat older than me, although we fought the same elections. He started young but I started even younger. I recall that he had the advantage of a large Liberal hall to operate from, whereas we had the caravan of the church Sunday school superintendent, Tony Rogers. Tony celebrated his 91st birthday very recently, so I am pleased that he still going strong. We altered the balance because we had a whole operation of sending our voters in the rather luxurious Liberal Party cars to the polling station—a practice which survived for at least 15 years. Lord Shutt is sorely missed.
Without straying into future business, I will make the brief point that the Labour Party ought to be celebrating—they might be surprised by this—at how outdated the paradigm of the Conservative Party machine is in understanding voters today. Voter ID at the next general election will cost the Labour Party very little, but it will cost the Conservative Party an awful lot, including red wall seats and red wall voters. I know what the attitudes will be, and that the voters for the Conservative Party won red wall seats for the first time. As an observation, I merely say that the Conservative Party does not know what it is doing with this in relation to the next election. I will be proved right when it is analysed afterwards: the Conservative Party will lose votes because of the Bill. I merely throw that in as a factual piece of information.
I have a question for the Minister in relation to ID; it would be helpful to have clarification now, or perhaps even a government amendment, if what I am told is accurate. The practice of party agents and candidates standing inside a polling room has crept in. I have challenged that, and I am told that the law allows them to do it—not to canvas, that is forbidden, but to stand the entire day in a polling room with a rosette on, saying nothing. I think that is intimidating the voters. However, voter ID is an entirely different concept, as people’s personal data can potentially be discussed in the polling station—voting of course is done privately, but not necessarily the dialogue over identification. Is it therefore good practice to allow party candidates or agents—including those wearing rosettes—to stand in a polling room on election day? If it is, which is what my returning officer informed me in ruling out my objections to this practice, will the Government bring forward an amendment to make it illegal? It seems to me that it is highly inappropriate.
The issue of disabled voters and other vulnerable voters is one I want to home in on. Disability can be defined in many ways; returning officers do not seem to be using their powers—perhaps those powers should be strengthened—to define who are vulnerable voters, in particular in relation to assistance with postal voting. There is a remarkably high wastage rate among that section of the electorate on postal votes. Almost by definition, it is impossible to say which party that affects; I imagine that, overall, it balances out over the country. The kinds of people who get it wrong, however, tend to be those with, for example, very low levels of literacy; those with a learning disability; elderly people whose eyesight is not as good as they would like to admit; and people whose manual dexterity, otherwise known as “writing”, is not as good as it needs to be for the signature required. Their votes often get ruled out.
There ought to be a duty on returning officers to consider that and to make available far more election officials who can assist in completing a postal vote, and specifically the verification of a postal vote. That could be at town halls or in other local authority venues, or in care homes or people’s homes—particularly in people’s homes. I think, indeed I know, that would increase the actual turnout of votes counted, as opposed to the number of votes submitted. While it is a small number, in a general election it can be many hundreds. I do not know whether this was totally within the rules, but I recall one returning officer who, on opening wrongly filled-in verification forms early, used to return them to the voter explaining what they had done wrong and giving them a second chance to vote. That kind of intervention, if necessary by additional law, would be extremely helpful. Literacy and other such issues are often overlooked. However, as the Government are very concerned about the propriety of postal voting, such an intervention would also further ensure that postal votes are completed in the way in which the voter wished them to be.
As we all know, the reality is that, if a 95 year-old with failing eyesight and a trembling hand is trying to fill in a vote, they will tend to call in a relative to assist—and hopefully get the vote that they wish. Their ability to bring in an official, or the ERO themselves, would be quite a significant improvement. I am aware of cases where people have objected to their family standing over them and pressuring them on their postal vote, but do not have a route out of that. While those cases of pressure small in number and concern precisely the people who would never complain—certainly not to officialdom, although perhaps to a candidate who has been denied a vote—it seems that this could be an enhancement of the system, and one that would be relatively easy to make by giving a further duty to EROs to consider this.
I have two final points to make. The first is that I do not understand why we allow more than a single registration. I do not mean that it should be illegal for someone not to have removed themselves from one register as they move to a second house, but the principle that people—people like us—can vote in two different locations seems fundamentally anti-democratic. Why should someone with two homes choose where they vote, whereas someone with one home cannot? I understand the principles historically in terms of local government and finance but, with the myriad elections we have today, why should someone be able to choose which mayoral election they vote in or, as the law allows, vote in two mayoral elections on the same day? That seems fundamentally flawed in logic. Such a change would also discourage people from jumping around, because some of the registrations and where people claim to be living can themselves be dubious. If we are looking for something dubious in the system, that is a dubious part—I will finish in a minute.
I thank the Whip for the prompt.
My final point is on early voting. Early voting ought to be encouraged, and the way to do that is to allow returning officers the power to bring in early voting for five days before an election at a town hall. Small business people in particular would benefit greatly from that.
My Lords, the members of the Select Committee are to be congratulated on their report. I am sure that their recommendations benefited from the presence of so many members with substantial experience of election campaigns, including of course my late noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland, who stood for my party in seven general elections, as well as many local ones. The Motion to take note of the report was very ably moved by his colleague on the Select Committee, my noble friend Lady Suttie, with whom I worked closely in what proved to be the most successful general election campaign that our party has ever fought.
The committee’s work demonstrated the value of looking again at legislation which, with hindsight, had left much room for improvement. At the heart of the issues it considered was the fact that there is no right to vote without being registered to vote. As the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, noted, the Electoral Commission’s most recent estimate indicated that between 8.3 million and 9.4 million people in Great Britain who are entitled to vote are not correctly registered, and around 400,000 people in Northern Ireland are in the same position. As he said, the situation may be worse than that.
The Select Committee rightly drew attention to the priorities of improving both accuracy and completeness in the electoral register, but the Government’s response was to sound as though they agreed with the principle while agreeing to do nothing significant about it. When individual electoral registration was introduced, Parliament agreed that complying with the registration process would remain a legal requirement and that failing to comply could result in a fine of up to £1,000. The Government’s response to this report says they believe that registering to vote is no more than a civic duty and claims the Government
“encourages all eligible citizens to do so”.
Perhaps the Minister might tell us later of any example he can find of a legal requirement which is fairly described as simply a civic duty, an entirely voluntary action. Where else can you be fined if you do not do something which is a supposedly voluntary action?
The report takes up the point that I made strongly in my evidence to it. I pointed out:
“Some councils send letters and forms specifically mentioning the possibility of fines if people do not co-operate with the process, whilst others make no mention of it. Whilst prosecutions are very rare, the reference to a legal obligation to comply with the process is very important and makes a difference to the rate of response to such communications.”
Awareness of the possibility of being fined increases significantly the rate of response for forms requesting registration. The committee asked the Government
“to provide greater guidance in this regard”.
If the Government really wanted to see more people registered, they would ensure that the obligations and potential fines are made clear, specific, and prominent in all written communications, not just where an individual electoral registration officer or local council chooses to do so. This is necessary because research conducted by the Electoral Commission showed some years ago that 60% of people think that the electoral registration process is automatic—this is why many people do not reply to communications about it.
The Government do not show much sign of genuine interest in maximising registration. How can I justify saying that? It took four years from when a Minister first agreed with me that it should be possible to include information about registering to vote when young people are notified of their national insurance numbers before the Government acted, and then in a minimal way—four years to add six words to a document letting young people know of a website through which they could find out about voting. And the information on the form about voting is just about the least pressing invitation to register that could be imagined.
I raised the issue of many young people being missing from electoral registers in the recent debate on a Private Member’s Bill about the voting age. In response, the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, praised the efforts of the voluntary organisation Bite The Ballot but seemed to be unaware that that organisation had to close more than two years ago. This was because the Government withdrew funding for its excellent initiatives, such as organising a national voter registration week. So, will the Minister say today what the Government will do to restore funding for such initiatives?
My Lords, I rise to speak in the gap. I come late to this, having not been part of the committee but knowing that there is much more to do in the electoral system. As noble Lords may know, I come from an education background and one of the things we often talk about as teachers in discussing our pedagogical approach is that, if we want to inculcate good habits in young people, we have to catch them early. By “catching them early”, I mean not just immediately before they are required to register to vote. I regret the fact that the primary schoolchildren who were previously in the Gallery have now left, because it is my contention that, although I know the national curriculum to be overburdened and that teachers have many responsibilities wished upon them, actually there is a proper place in the primary, let alone secondary, classroom and curriculum to make sure that young people understand about the process of registration and voting.
To follow on logically from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, I know very large numbers of young people who genuinely believe that registration to vote is automatic. I have actually been at polling stations where young people whom I have met have turned up to vote in the full belief that they could vote, although they were in fact unregistered. So, while I do not wish to add to the burden of my colleagues who are teachers, I do believe that it is important for the Government to consider what further role there might be for schools. In my experience, there are a number of teachers who are enthusiastic about this, who definitely regretted the loss of Bite The Ballot, and have sought, in their own small ways, to carve out space in the curriculum to make sure that children, who, of course, will not be voting any time soon, and young people in secondary, who might very well be, are actually fully informed of what their rights and responsibilities are as engaged and active citizens. This is clearly a very good report, as all Members have said, but there is clearly “more to be done”.
My Lords, I am taking advantage of the flexibility of the rules of the House to intervene briefly in this debate, although I am not on the list. Moreover, I was not a member of the committee like many other noble Lords who have spoken already, but I just wanted to say a couple of words. I was here yesterday when the Minister was replying to the debate on the Elections Bill, and here we are today and he is replying to the take-note debate. It is a pity that it is that way round: we should have had a debate on this report before the Elections Bill came to the House.
When I was young, part of my political apprenticeship, I suppose you could call it, was to go on a voter registration drive in the constituency in which I grew up, North Kensington. I remember very well going to the Golborne ward and as a young political activist I was astonished at the numbers of people I discovered in the course of that exercise who were not on the register and should have been. That is an impression I have been left with ever since. Of course, the data of that constituency was such that there were many people in transient surroundings, multiple occupation and so on, but it was a lesson I learned at an early age. That is why, when the Minister comes to reply, I would be very grateful if he would address at least a few remarks to recommendation 2 of the committee, which includes
“piloting automatic registration for attainers”.
If we are going to change the culture of registration and the ability, I think that is a good place to start. Therefore, I have used my brief moment in this debate to bring that to the attention of the Minister and the House.
My Lords, first, as other noble Lords have done, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and her committee for the work they have done to produce the report for debate here. I also pay tribute to Lord Shutt. I knew him well; I used to enjoy our conversations in the House; he was liked and respected by everybody in the House and we all miss him. We are all poorer for him not being with us and the tributes we have heard today from across the House, and the tributes to the work he did on this report, just show the affection in which he was held by all of us and the good work he did. I want to record that tribute to him.
There are many excellent points raised in the report that I think the Government should reflect upon, not only in their response to the report in 2020 but on the back of this debate. It is ironic that we are putting the economic crime Bill through the House at this very moment—it will be law next week—in which we are seeking to deal with all sorts of issues, including dirty money coming into the UK and so forth, and then we have what was formerly called the electoral integrity Bill, now the Elections Bill, which makes it legal for people to donate money to political parties even when they departed our shores 20, 25 or 30 or even 35 years ago. I think there is some irony in that.
In my previous roles as a full-time official for the Labour Party and as an Electoral Commissioner, I have dealt with government departments, Ministers in the coalition and Ministers in the Labour Government and commission officials. My overarching intent always has been that we have clean and fair elections in this country—I want to win elections, but I am happy to lose an election if it is clean and it is fair. The electoral register has to be as complete and as accurate as possible, so that the people of the United Kingdom can go out and vote for the party that they want to form the next Government. When changes are made to electoral processes and procedures, there must be as much buy-in from all the political parties as possible. The state should be doing everything that it can to facilitate well-run elections and complete and accurate registers.
I like the noble Lord, Lord True, very much and he is a very good man—a man of integrity and a man of principle—and I always enjoy our conversations outside of the House. But today, I make a plea to the Minister, with the opportunities that the Elections Bill offers and the issues there, to get around the table to discuss the serious concerns that I and people in other parties have about aspects of that Bill and to work with us. It is totally wrong that we end up passing legislation that whole sections of this House think is totally wrong. We must, where we can, have changes to electoral law with as much buy-in as possible from everybody. So I hope the Minister will do that when we get on to the Bill again next week—I am sure he will.
As others have mentioned, the Government introduced the Electoral Registration and Administration Act to reduce opportunities to commit electoral fraud through the registration system. In June 2020, the committee published the report that we are debating today: An Electoral System Fit for Today? More to be Done. The committee’s view is that the new electoral system introduced by the 2013 Act has worked well, but it has also brought challenges: particularly the administrative burdens of managing the system at election times and maintaining accurate and complete registers. The committee also set out further steps that should be taken to prevent electoral fraud as a matter of urgency and made some key recommendations.
The government response in September 2020 welcomed the report and outlined other steps that the Government have since taken to improve the registration system, as well as their future priorities such as the introduction of voter ID. The Government responded to each recommendation of the paper except for those that fall within the responsibility of the Electoral Commission or devolved Governments. Despite the recommendation of the committee, the Government refused to bring forward targets to increase the number of people who are registered to vote—which I think is very disappointing.
We know that the Elections Bill is bringing forward voter ID and other measures, but I fear that, as other noble Lords have said, we are seeking to solve a problem that is very limited in its scope. There is not widespread evidence of electoral fraud—there has been one or two; I accept that entirely—but, as I mentioned, there was only one prosecution from the 2019 election. Regarding these plans, I worry about the risk of denying people their right to vote. I accept the point that the Government are going to make available cards for voter ID, but I worry that people—particularly elderly people, those on low incomes, ethnic minority voters and others—are at risk of losing their vote. I look forward to the Minister setting out what the Government are going to do to ensure that I am wrong and that is not the case. Voter impersonation, as I have said, is not the issue that some people have suggested it is in our country: there was one person in 2019. You are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be a victim of electoral fraud.
I cannot think of a single election that we can point to that has been undermined due to mass fraud. So why are the Government spending millions of pounds to fix this problem? Can we also see what the Government are doing to ensure that we have the most complete and accurate electoral register as possible? I look forward to the Minister setting that out for us.
I also want to look carefully at a number of points that other noble Lords have made. I agree with the points that the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, made about the pressure burden on electoral registration officers. I think that he is absolutely right: there are huge pressures, as the report mentions, particularly at the time of elections. Maybe it is time for us to have a conversation about how we organise that service—there should be a different way of doing it. It has obviously grown up as something delivered by local authorities, so maybe we should ask if that is right for the future. Should something different be done? We should have a conversation about that.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, quite rightly drew the attention of the House to how, in many respects, our processes are still quite Victorian and that, with all these fantastic changes we have in technology, very few of them are actually applied to electoral registration. That is something that maybe we need to look at as well. I certainly think we should look at the question of technology.
My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours again made a point about fraud, and I agree with him.
I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, who talked about the citizen’s civic duty, which is absolutely right—it is your duty to go out and vote. It is the duty of the state to facilitate you getting on to the register to enable you to do that, so I feel that is a very good point.
The point about the use of data is really important as well. Are we sure that we are doing everything that we possibly can, within legal confines, to make use of the data that local authorities and government agencies hold to get people on the register? Let us be clear: we all accept, I think, that there is an underregistration problem in this country, not an overregistration problem—no one has ever suggested that. There are millions of people who should, and could, be entitled to vote but who are not on the register, so we need to make sure that we get that right.
My noble friend Lord Mann gave the House important ideas on how to get people who want to vote and how they could vote—what about disabled people? Again, I am sure that the Minister will take those points back.
Again, that goes back to the point that I made earlier about resources. How are we going to ensure that the electoral registration service is properly resourced and does not get itself into difficulties with all the other pressure that local government is under?
I said earlier that I was a member of the Electoral Commission—I was for four years—but I am going to be a bit critical of the Electoral Commission now, because I do not think the commission has done enough to stand up for the registration process. It could have done more, and it should do more. I was always a bit frustrated that the commission would often send out these forms to the EROs, which was a tick-box thing. It should do more, and I hope it will do more to add its voice to the defence of the electoral registration system and ensure that we get more people to vote—it has not done that, but I hope that it will do more in the future. I think that is the right thing to do.
I have made this plea from the Dispatch Box before—and I know other noble Lords have as well—but reform of electoral law is long overdue. We are going to pass another Bill in the next few weeks that will bolt another piece of legislation on, but the whole system is desperately in need of reform, review and consolidation. I live in hope that we will see that in the next Queen’s Speech. Certainly, the Government need to get a grip on this because bolting other bits on all the time is not the way to do it. We are desperately in need of a review there, as we are for the simplification of the electoral process—the committee talked about options such as an online checking tool—and the inefficiencies we have heard about in the debate today. I certainly read the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and others about what we need to do there.
Reference was also made in the debate to good international examples, and I think we should always be prepared to look at what goes on abroad and learn from there. Canada was mentioned as a place where good practice is taking place. We should look at the good practices there and be able to take that on board.
I thought my noble friend Lady Blower made a really important point about young people. She is absolutely right: young people, at an early age, should understand the voting system, your duty as a citizen to participate in the electoral system and how to get on to the electoral register, so that when they reach the age to vote, they know exactly what their rights and responsibilities are. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and my noble friend Lady Blower, I regret the fact that Bite the Ballot lost its funding. I have sat in this Chamber and heard government Ministers rightly praise Bite the Ballot, but the Government then took its funding away. That is a ridiculous situation to be in, so I hope that that will be looked at and that, in future, we will get to a situation where either it is brought back or another organisation like it is funded to work specifically with young people so that they understand their rights and responsibilities.
I will leave my remarks there. I think this is a very good report. My plea to the noble Lord is sincerely meant; I really am worried about the Elections Bill. I hope we can get around the table and look at those issues, because whenever we make changes to our electoral system or processes, getting the most buy-in from the parties is paramount. Our democracy is precious, and we should insure and protect it.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. Before I forget, I should take up a point made by the noble Lord opposite—about whom I would reciprocate his kind personal remarks—on the Elections Bill, which is obviously not the business directly before us. Of course, as I have said on that Bill, my intention is to meet and listen to as many people as I can. That process is ongoing. Indeed, after this debate I fear that I am not going for a plate of bangers and mash; I am having a meeting with four noble Lords on issues of concern to them soon after 1 pm, so I had better not speak for too long. I give that commitment to the noble Lord and, through him, to the rest of the House.
I also endorse the remarks made by so many about our former well-loved colleague and friend, Lord Shutt of Greetland. I think I said soon after his death that it had been a privilege to have him as my Deputy Chief Whip, as a matter of fact, in the coalition days. I have to confess, not always having stood at this Dispatch Box, that I was occasionally a little bit rebellious; I saw that he had an extraordinary and unforgettable charm and manner, but, yes, he could be direct on occasion—I will confirm that.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for bringing this debate forward. As I so often do, I agree with the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate: it would have been desirable if we could have had this debate before the Elections Bill. I will stand corrected, but I was certainly lined up to respond to a debate on the report, which I think was deferred because of the first emergency debate on Ukraine. So, it was neither the Government’s intention nor the intention of those around the House that this should have happened, but I take his point. It is a frankly pretty minor—but important for this House—outcome of the ghastly war in Ukraine. I also thank those speakers who served on the committee. It was an important and thoughtful committee, and I think the Government gave a full response to it.
Obviously, I have listened very carefully to everything that has been said in the debate. As noble Lords will know, these matters are no longer a responsibility of my department but the responsibility of DLUHC. That does not mean that I can shuffle off the duty of responding to your Lordships’ House on the matter here; people who stand at this Dispatch Box answer for the whole Government. But in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, if I cannot answer some of the many specific points raised, I will personally ensure that the answers are given, and I will refer everything raised in this debate to my colleagues.
We agree with everybody who has spoken that our country’s election and electoral registration systems must be modern and fit for purpose. As expectations of what represents a modern and inclusive democracy evolve—perhaps not as far or as fast as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, would like—so must the systems that underpin it. While I accept that getting to a consolidation Bill is an ideal, that does not mean that one must, if you like, give up the duty of dealing with some of the things that are before us. I am not necessarily going to refer to things about the Elections Bill that we are going to disagree on, but there are things such as the novel challenges of digital imprints or postal votes and potential fraud there. These are things that I think the whole House would agree should be addressed.
Indeed, it was in seeking modernisation that we had the introduction of individual electoral registration, a major change brought about by the coalition Government in 2013. That was an important milestone for our democracy. We believe it better serves the needs of electors and more effectively supports EROs in their critical role. I agree with all those who have praised EROs and shown understanding for the pressures on them. They are truly remarkable—I speak as a former local authority leader—in their critical role of administering our electoral registers.
The Government provided a full response to the committee’s report, but I will try to add a little on some of the points raised if I can. The Government have made a number of significant advances, such as the register to vote website, which has revolutionised the ability of electors to participate. We have continued to refine and adjust the way that the digital system has worked to improve the security of the system, increase resilience to any service outages and enhance the speed of uploads and downloads. These adjustments have made the digital system more user-friendly. It is very widely used and that is gratifying.
Ensuring that our electoral system is secure, fair, modern and transparent has been a consistent aim of this Government. That was a key commitment in our 2019 manifesto and some of the material in the Elections Bill follows from that commitment. We are delivering on commitments which, as the noble Lord opposite said, not everybody agrees with, such as removing what we believe is the arbitrary time limit on overseas electors’ voting rights and delivering important integrity measures.
I can assure noble Lords that this will be done in a thoughtful and thorough way. We have sought to consult widely on the measures and will work closely with those involved in the conduct of elections as we develop detailed processes and prepare for implementation. A lot of specific instances have been raised. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Mann—this will no doubt come in the reply—I do not believe it is acceptable or accepted for political tellers to go inside polling stations. I have told alongside some pretty pushy tellers, I can tell you, from other parties that I will not name. As tellers, they should not go into polling stations.
This is one of the many challenges that our outstanding teams of people involved in the conduct of elections have to confront. They show extraordinary dedication. It is important to put the last couple of years in context. Many who spoke referred to the Covid events. The elections and electoral registration systems have experienced huge challenges in response to the pandemic. The fact that the local elections last year went as smoothly as they did was by no means guaranteed—consideration was given to deferring them. It required herculean efforts from hundreds of electoral administration officers and staff up and down the country to make that work and we all thank them.
To continue responding to the points that were made, of course resources are important, and a number of people have understandably raised that issue. Obviously, this is a matter for the Secretary of State, DLUHC and the Chancellor going forward, but we accept that effectively delivered reforms must be properly resourced. We believe that that has been the case. The new burdens doctrine requires all government departments to justify why new duties should be placed on local authorities and to explain where the money should come from. Certainly in the case of individual electoral registration, the Government committed to fully funding EROs for that new system.
When it was the body responsible, the Cabinet Office provided funding through two mechanisms: the initial allocation early in the financial year, and the justification-led bid towards the end of the financial year. This provided EROs with almost £8 million of funding between 2015 and 2020. Indeed, local authorities have had the costs associated with IER met by more than £100 million. So there is a track record there, but we hear what the Select Committee and noble Lords have said on this subject and do understand that elections should be properly funded. Issues can arise with unscheduled polls and so on at different times of the year, and the Government have agreed to consider relevant payments in appropriate cases.
A lot of noble Lords referred to voter identification; the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, did so mildly fiercely, if there is such a concept, when he opened this issue up. The reality is that one of the Government’s key objectives is to make our electoral registration system more secure. Photographic voter identification is used across the world, including in most European countries. It is not even a novel concept here in the United Kingdom because, as noble Lords know, to vote in Northern Ireland, people have had to show identification since 1985 and photo identification since 2003, when it was introduced by the last Labour Government. People say that this will lead to lower turnout but, in the first election after the introduction of photographic ID, the percentage turnout in Northern Ireland was higher than in England, Scotland or Wales. It has helped to prevent election fraud and maintain confidence in democracy. We have drawn from this experience and the successful pilots done in a variety of local authorities, and we are working with the electoral sector on plans for implementation. We believe that those proposals should go ahead; no doubt we will have extensive engagement on this subject in and outside the Chamber during our debates on the Elections Bill.
Comprehensive, targeted communications and guidance by the Electoral Commission will raise awareness of voter identification. We have worked, and will continue to work, with charities, civil society organisations and others across the UK to ensure that voter identification works for all voters and that all groups are aware of the new requirements. I repeat: we are committed to ensuring that local authorities have the necessary resources to deliver our elections robustly and securely. An impact assessment was published alongside the Elections Bill and the Government will meet the costs of the new burdens that flow from the implementation of the Bill’s policy, in line with long-standing government approaches.
Some noble Lords expressed concern about the potential impact of this measure on turnout, particularly among underrepresented groups. I share the view of all those who have spoken that increasing participation is vital. Cabinet Office research shows that 98% of electors already own a photographic document, in-date or expired, that would be accepted under the Bill’s proposals. The suggestion that thousands of young people or people from ethnic minorities will not be able to vote is not supported by the evidence. Indeed, our research shows that 99% of those aged 18 to 29 and 99% of people from ethnic minorities own an accepted form of identification.
I will not follow the noble Lord, Lord Mann, or those who put the opposite view on what effect this change might have, but the fundamental intent of the Government is that everyone eligible to vote will continue to have the opportunity to do so. That is why a broad range of documents will be accepted, including those which are no longer current.
The system did not negatively impact on participation in Northern Ireland. Research by the Electoral Commission found that, in Northern Ireland, 100% of respondents had experienced no difficulty with presenting photo identification at polling stations. More voters in Northern Ireland said that it was easy to participate in elections as compared to the rest of Great Britain.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, gave us some interesting suggestions on modernisation and, as always, I listened carefully to his speech. We have modernised in many ways. Since June 2014, over three-quarters—78.3%—of applications have been made online via the Government’s Register To Vote website, and over 15 million applications to register have come from those under 25. That is very welcome. It is testament to how easy the Government have made it to apply to register. It takes as little as five minutes on a PC, smartphone or tablet. Indeed, the user satisfaction rate with the online service is regularly over 90%.
The effect of online registration has been transformative. For the 2019 general election, 91.7% of the 3.85 million applications submitted between the day that the poll was announced and the registration deadline were made online. I understand what my noble friend Lord Hayward and other noble Lords have said about the potential impacts on electoral registration activities, but we are making progress in that area.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said in opening, the committee was right to emphasise the importance of the completeness and accuracy of the register. That lies primarily with EROs, but the Government will continue to support them in this, not only through IER but with reforms which were generally welcomed in the annual canvass. Previously the annual canvass process was widely recognised to be outdated, cumbersome and expensive. It was also paper-based, requiring electoral administrators to chase non-respondents with multiple letters and home visits. We have streamlined its operation to improve efficiency, meaning that EROs can now focus their efforts on hard-to-reach groups, which we all agree is very important.
In 2021, the Government published a report on the first year of the operation of the reformed canvass. This evaluation gives an overview of changes in satisfaction compared with the pre-reform canvass. The findings show that reform has reduced the electoral administrators’ workload, allowing them to run the canvass, despite Covid restrictions.
Many noble Lords referred to the hugely important issue of underregistered groups. The Government continue to work extensively with organisations that represent underregistered groups to develop solutions which ensure that as many people as possible can have their say at the ballot box.
One example is anonymous registration. Previously, the range of professionals who could act as a qualifying officer and provide an attestation was limited at best. Reforms have now extended very widely the range of people who can provide an attestation, including police inspectors, medical practitioners, nurses, midwives, and refuge managers, who may be dealing with those under domestic violence and female genital mutilation protection orders. All this is designed to help people—such as survivors of domestic abuse, for example—to register anonymously. The Electoral Commission has worked with Women’s Aid to produce guidance for refuge managers.
We are working to increase youth participation through initiatives such as the Student Electoral Registration Condition. The Government are working with higher education providers, and I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, that this strand of education is important.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was a little underwhelmed, but I did respond to his pleas to get something put on the form on the issue of the national insurance number. It might not be as good or as big as he would have liked, but we have made some progress. I will take his comments back to colleagues.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, raised the important issue of Roma and Traveller people. Anyone without a fixed or permanent address can register by means of a declaration of local connection, though not yet online. I will ensure that colleagues are aware of her points.
I was asked about duplication and duplicate applications; I will not go on to whether it is appropriate to register in two local authority areas. We are seeking to help EROs reduce the burden of potential duplicate applications. In February 2021 we implemented a new feature on the IER digital service, which identifies where an application is made that matches one previously submitted within the past 14 days. Believe it or not, some people forget that they have registered. This feature has been carefully user-tested to ensure that those who wish to resubmit can do so, but those who seek reassurance that their original application is being processed are given that reassurance without resubmitting. The initial metrics show that in 2021 it successfully deterred almost 20,000 unnecessary duplicate applications— 80% of the duplicates that were detected and flagged to the user. I assure the noble Lord that we are taking further steps in this area.
I will have to come to a conclusion. I say candidly that the Government simply disagree on the issue of automatic registration. There are amendments to the Elections Bill on this, and I anticipate a specific debate on the subject. We believe that automatic registration could lead, among other things, to less accurate electoral registers, especially if people have moved recently. I look forward to having a longer debate on that subject. I do not know on what day of the Elections Bill it is, but I think it is coming up pretty soon. In response to this report, I should not repeat at length what I will have to say in Committee on the Elections Bill, but I regret to tell those who would like to see it that the Government do not support this proposition.
In conclusion, I again thank the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, for calling this debate in the absence of the late lamented, great Lord Shutt. It is an important, well thought-through and compelling report, and we welcomed it. We will continue to reflect on the recommendations and on all the very important and interesting contributions made in this debate. I will ensure that a full response to points that I have not been able to take up in this wind-up is set out in a letter placed in the Library, and that those who have participated are directly informed.
I end where I started. My door remains open to any noble Lord who wants to join with the Government in modernising and securing our elections in the context of the Elections Bill. In that spirit of co-operation, I conclude my remarks with many thanks, again, to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his extremely detailed response and his kind words about my noble friend, the late Lord Shutt. However, I urge him to think again about several points in the report, not least the merits of an online checking tool. Although incurring an expense in the short term, it would save money in the medium and longer term.
I thank all noble Lords and noble friends who have contributed to this short but none the less important debate. It may seem like a highly technical subject, but making sure that our processes for electoral registration work effectively and that the register is as complete and accurate as possible is an extremely important element of our democracy. I am sure that many of the issues raised today will be returned to in the course of the Elections Bill.
Finally, I thank all noble Lords and noble friends for their warm words of tribute to Lord Shutt. Working with my colleague Humphrey Amos in the Liberal Democrat Whips’ Office, we shall make sure that Lord Shutt’s family is informed about the tributes made during the debate.