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Democratic Participation

Volume 608: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2016

Some elements of participation, such as polling day turnout, lie far beyond the powers of mere Government and depend on the importance of the poll and the brilliance or otherwise of the campaigns. However, Governments can help things such as voter registration, where we are about to begin canvassing pilots to make the registration process quicker, cheaper, and more digital. We are also working with groups such as the British Youth Council, Operation Black Vote and Universities UK to encourage under-registered groups to sign up, and partnering with our embassies abroad and the Electoral Commission to run registration drives in the run-up to the polls on 5 May and 23 June.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer. Nevertheless, in the week before the Scottish Parliament elections and the elections to the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, this Government have overseen the disenfranchisement of over 770,000 people by the introduction of self-assessment in terms of the registration process. How can this Government hold their head up and say that they are increasing participation?

The registers are being reduced by the entries of people who have moved house or who have died and are not therefore likely to turn up and vote. There is, however, a parallel problem of the missing millions of people who have never been on the register and need to be found. We cannot cross them off because they are not on it, but we all collectively, on a cross-party basis, need to get out there and sign these people up. If the hon. Gentleman wants to join in a cross-party deputation to do so, I would be only too delighted to help.

Does my hon. Friend agree that equally important as ensuring that those who are entitled to vote are able to vote is making sure that genuine candidates are not disenfranchised by people who get on to the electoral register who ought not to be on there because they are there through fraud?

Absolutely. It is crucial that we have a register that is both complete and accurate. I therefore look forward with great anticipation to the report on electoral fraud by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), where I am sure he will cover this, among other things.

What specific work are the Government doing with students and young people to ensure that they are registered to vote?

We are taking a number of different approaches. First, we are working with Universities UK and the Association of Colleges. A great deal of work is being done in universities themselves. We are also examining very closely the work that is being done in places such as Sheffield University to sign up students when they first arrive and enrol. We are doing a great deal, but there is probably more as well.

I congratulate the Government on driving up democratic participation in the EU referendum by publishing their leaflet, which I understand is up for the Pulitzer prize for the best work of fiction. Does the Minister agree that that is driving more people to take part in the EU referendum because they are so cross and want to leave?

I am glad that my hon. Friend enjoyed the read. I point out to him that some 85% of the population say that they want to hear more about the issues from the Government. If that serves to drive up participation among either remainers or leavers, then I am sure that both he and I will be pleased.

There is much concern about the Government’s new proposals for public appointments in that they might decrease social mobility. Sir David Normington has gone so far as to say:

“Grimstone’s proposals would enable ministers to set their own rules; override those rules whenever they want; appoint their own selection panels; get preferential treatment for favoured candidates; ignore the panel’s advice if they don’t like it; and appoint someone considered by the panel as not up to the job.”

Would the Minister like to answer that?

Before the Minister does so, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the appointment process in the context of the drive to increase democratic participation.

Indeed, Mr Speaker—yes. Social mobility in public appointments is very important for democratic participation.

I am not sure how I link any kind of answer to democratic participation, but I none the less point out that we adhere consistently to the Nolan principles in everything that we do in this area.

I appreciate the Minister’s answer to my creative question. I do not believe everything that I read in the papers, but this week it was revealed that the Culture Secretary had recommended five candidates for the position of trustee at the National Portrait Gallery. Three were Tory donors and one was a former Tory Minister. Is that a way of improving democratic participation for Tory cronies?

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is trying to raise a serious point, but this is an example of the principle of if you are in a hole, you should stop digging.