[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
[Relevant document: Sixth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2014-15, Voter engagement in the UK: follow up, HC 938.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered automatic registration in UK elections.
This issue came to my attention during the run-up to the EU referendum, when an appalling situation left many voters unregistered when the Government’s registration website failed. However, that is not the only source of my frustration. The introduction of individual electoral registration saw hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland wiped off the electoral register without their knowledge. The UK Government failed to properly engage with the public to explain the transition, which led to the EU referendum voter registration deadline becoming a total shambles.
In light of that chaos and the consequences of the transition to IER, the UK Government should consider introducing automatic registration for voters. I intend to show not only that automatic registration is a worthwhile consideration with many benefits, but that it is supported by key organisations from across the country. The system is widely used in various parts of the world; some of the best examples come from our very good friends in Europe and beyond, and they are far richer for it.
Following our most recent referendum, the EU and Europe might be a useful starting point. Although this debate is not about the result as such, one point is perhaps bittersweet in its relevance. If the EU referendum has taught us anything, it is that people’s votes matter. Voting and engaging in elections and referendums can have radical consequences that alter the policies and direction of Governments both at home and abroad. There are many lessons to be learned from the recent referendum, most notably that we should be careful what we vote for.
There are many reasons for people to be disappointed, and not just by the vote to leave the EU. For election geeks like me, the demographics make for interesting reading. It was clear throughout the referendum campaign that different societal groups had different opinions, with a particularly notable variation in voting intentions between different age groups. It was in a similar vein to the Scottish independence referendum—the 16 to 24-year-old bracket, at least on average, is pro-European and pro-independence. Voters in older age groups are more likely to be pro-Brexit and pro-UK, which has led to disappointment and frustration among young people, at least for the 26% who turned up to vote in the EU referendum.
It is disappointing that young people did not turn out in the EU referendum, with many being bombarded with negative messages and others feeling disfranchised by out-of-touch politicians. For many, registering to vote was a barrier in itself. There will be many vigorous debates about engaging young people to vote, and organisations such as the National Union of Students have been pursuing the issue with a view to understanding it. The NUS is campaigning heavily to ensure that its members are informed of why they should vote.
The NUS, among many others organisations, has led a number of fantastic campaigns to encourage young people to vote. However, according to Ipsos MORI, only 43% of 18 to 24-year-olds turned out at the 2015 general election, compared with 78% of over-65s. The issue of young people and students not turning out can be attributed to their mobile lifestyles, with many moving home every year. The challenges for transient young people in particular present a strong case for voter registration to be integrated into the university and college academic enrolment process. Such a system was successfully developed by Sheffield University for the 2015 general election and has been used by a number of other institutions. The model could easily be further developed and rolled out across other institutions.
Additionally, the change to individual electoral registration has had dramatic effects on young people’s ability to vote. Groups such as Bite the Ballot raised concern about that at the time, rightly warning that there would be a decline in voter registration among young people. The change to the system led to a reduction of nearly 190,000 14 to 17-year-olds who will reach voting age during the time in which the register is used. That equates to a 40% reduction in the number of young people registered to vote. Given the implications of referendums, it is critical that everyone’s say is heard, particularly that of young people. They are the future of our countries, and we must make sure they have a voice.
It is quite a conundrum that Government policies often affect the people who are least likely to vote. Although a number of organisations are leading the charge to encourage engagement, we as parliamentarians must take the lead and be bold where we need to be.
There is a similar story to tell about other marginalised groups. Women continue to turn out to vote in lesser numbers than men. Between 1992 and 2010, there was an 18% shortfall of women voters. The inclusion of women in politics has been proven to enhance the turnout of women in general—interestingly, in constituencies where women are elected as MPs, the average turnout of women tends to be about 4% higher than the average turnout of men.
That shows the importance of encouraging women to participate in politics and become engaged with the political system, which begins with women being registered to vote. We need only look outside today to see just how much women care about politics. Political decisions can have huge implications for women and their families, and I applaud and support the actions of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign outside Parliament this afternoon.
The views of people with disabilities are also not represented sufficiently. Scope, the disability rights charity, found that 67% of disabled voters who attempted to vote encountered one or more barriers when they tried to exercise their democratic right. That is simply unacceptable and demonstrates the barriers that thousands of people could experience in simply registering to vote in the first place.
Mencap, another charity dedicated to promoting the rights of people with disabilities, established a helpline for people with learning disabilities for the 2015 general election, which was a fantastic move to help those who were already registered to vote. I am most grateful to Mencap, but we need to do more.
Voting turnout among black and minority ethnic people in 2015 was just 56%, in contrast to the 68% of people identifying themselves as white who voted. Just 56% of men from socially and economically deprived social classes turned out to vote, with the figure for women from that group only slightly higher at 57%. Automatic voter registration would cut many of the bureaucratic ties that hold back the participation of all those people, whose voices are much needed in our House, which is too white, too male, too old, too non-disabled and too exclusive.
In Scotland, we do elections well. In the Scottish independence referendum, turnout and registration reached unprecedented levels; more voters than ever before registered to have their say. However, the UK Government’s implementation of the individual electoral registration system undermined the Scottish Government’s efforts to ensure that there was maximum voter registration. There was a period of transition to the new system, beginning in June 2014. It was due to end in December 2016, but instead the UK Government brought the end date forward by a year to December 2015. That move was condemned by the Electoral Commission, which said there was
“a risk to the completeness of the register and to participation”.
The Scottish Government were absolutely opposed to shortening the transition period, which left electoral registration officers trying to minimise the loss of franchise.
A similar problem ensued across the UK. Essentially, a situation was created in which voters were effectively disfranchised. Combined with widespread voter disillusionment with politics in general, that was a disaster for democratic mobilisation and political engagement. The Government failed to engage properly with the public to explain the transition. They must start to mend the damage that has been done by the mistakes that have been made, and more than ever we need to re-engage people.
It will be incredibly difficult for voters to feel enthusiastic about politics again, having endured a remain campaign characterised by “Project Fear” scaremongering and a Leave campaign that used xenophobic rhetoric, such as the UK Independence party’s despicable “Breaking Point” advert.
In Scotland, the SNP ran a measured and positive campaign on the EU and focused on encouraging turnout. I am incredibly proud of my colleagues and of my own constituency of Midlothian, which overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU; I hope that it will indeed do so.
In short, there is much to learn from Scotland’s politics. With registration at 98% and an 85% turnout in the independence referendum, it is fair to assume that higher registration and higher turnout have at least some correlation. Our friends in Europe and beyond seem to be on the same page. Most European countries have ensured that their citizens are automatically able to vote using various forms of automatic registration. Other countries have been able to achieve far higher and more democratic levels of participation through such schemes. They remove a major hurdle in the election process and make elections as accessible as possible.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent case for improved voter registration. Does he agree that automatic registration would reduce the number of errors in the registration process, such as when multiple people are registered at a house but only one voter actually still lives there?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We could see many benefits, and the system could be greatly simplified if we introduced automatic voter registration.
Countries such as France, Sweden, Australia, Greece, Austria, Brazil and Uruguay, to name but a few, ensure that as many of their citizens as possible can exercise their free democratic right to vote without barriers. In the UK, many people think that they are already on the register because they pay their council tax and expect those running elections to know about them, but at the last election two thirds of polling stations turned voters away. People thought they were on the register, but they were not.
The last-minute rush for registration puts huge strain on devolved council registration offices, of which there are about 400 throughout the UK. The database is so fragmented that even the Electoral Commission does not know the extent of the problem. At nearly every election we see the same thing: a huge rush to register to vote in the day or two before the deadline. The day before the EU referendum deadline, 186,000 people applied to register to vote online, and at least 27,000 we still using the Government website when it crashed. On an ordinary day, the figure would have been about 10,000. Such an erratic and outdated approach to the right to vote is unique in the developed world.
If people have a passport, are registered for council tax and already have a national insurance number, surely there is enough information about them in the system to allow them to be automatically entered in a voter database. We do not have register to pay tax, so why should we have to register to vote? Many others agree. Earlier this year, the all-party group on democratic participation, of which I am a co-convenor, published the “Missing Millions” report, which presented tried and tested solutions that would keep the register up to date all year round.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the previous Parliament also agreed. On 14 November 2014, it published an interim report on voter engagement and invited the public to respond to several draft conclusions and recommendations. Following an extensive consultation, with more than 5,000 responses received, the Committee published a follow-up report based on the views of the public. That report recommended that the Government consider improvements to electoral registration, including by making registration automatic, prompting people to register to vote when they access other public services, and registering young people in schools, colleges and universities. The report also recommended that the Government introduce plans to target the groups that are currently least likely to be registered to vote, and that changes to electoral management be looked into and piloted, such as online voting, allowing people to register closer to or on election day, and holding elections at the weekend.
I note that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) agrees with me. I was disappointed that her ten-minute rule Bill on automatic electoral registration did not go further. I share her frustration, having also had a ten-minute rule Bill that failed to proceed further. I know that she and others are continuing to work on this issue to find out what other steps can be taken.
Whenever automatic registration has been proposed previously, the message from the Government has consistently been that it is a person’s own responsibility to register to vote, but now that we have seen catalogues of failures of the kind we saw in the run-up to a vote that will change lives forever, it is clear that we must ensure that such failures can never happen again. We must have a robust system, and we must break down barriers to voter registration. The Government must use common sense and take heed not just of my voice but those of the many expert organisations and groups that are calling for change—I hear that we are now listening to experts again.
Automatic registration would ensure that the enrolment system was more efficient and effective, while making voting easier for people and more democratic. It would remove the barriers faced by minority groups and others who are less likely to engage in the enrolment process, and it would mean that we could reach more old, young, disabled and disadvantaged people, regardless of their gender, background or race. That would promote inclusive and forward-thinking democracy for all. This is not about taking away from politicians the responsibility to engage young people. Voting is a fundamental right, and automatic voter registration would enable many disfranchised people from across our society to participate in a system that needs their voice.
Voting is a fundamental right, and automatic voter registration would enable so many disfranchised people from across our society to participate in a system that needs their voice.
It is an unexpected pleasure to serve under your chairmanship quite so soon, Mr Howarth, but I see that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) also has speaking notes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing the debate. I will offer a few reflections that are similar to his, and emphasise some points he made.
The debate is taking place in a political scenario where everything has “changed, changed utterly”—words written by W.B. Yeats 100 years ago about a slightly different kind of political upheaval, but political upheaval none the less. That is what we are undergoing here. The debate comes at the end of, unfortunately, a shambles of a referendum process.
The Government had the opportunity throughout the passage of the European Union Referendum Bill to take on board constructive proposals made by the Scottish National party and others, not least to extend to the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds and to put in place a four-nation lock so that no part of the UK would be taken out of the EU against its will. Now we face the prospect of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and London being taken out of the EU against their will.
The refusal to give ground when the Bill was passing through Parliament seemed to carry on throughout the dreadfully negative campaign—on both sides—south of the border, despite the best efforts of those of us in Scotland to raise the tone and raise the positive aspects. Perhaps that culminated in the website crash on 7 June, which led to this debate. There are lessons to be learnt from the referendum campaign in the round, but the difficulties that were faced by people trying to register to vote and to have their say gives us the opportunity to reflect on that particular bourach.
I will look in a little bit more detail at the problems with individual electoral registration and the case for automatic registration, and I will perhaps give some brief reflections on how that fits in with wider electoral reform to improve turnout and voter engagement.
Individual election is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. In fact, we could probably argue that a system of automatic registration is just an automated or enhanced version of that. We probably all agree that that is preferable to the household registration where everyone in a household is vouched for by one elector under the previous canvass system. The idea of individuals being registered is not necessarily at stake; it is the process by which they end up on the register.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian clearly demonstrated, the roll-out of the process has been botched massively by the Government, leading to significant confusion for many voters in the Scottish and European referendums about whether they were registered in the first place. The Minister admitted, during the emergency legislation and the statements after the website crash, that a lot of the registrations that came in at the last minute were duplicates because people were already on the electoral register but feared somehow that they were not because of the confusion and misunderstanding. That was undoubtedly compounded by the decision to bring forward the transition deadline to December 2015.
Of course, that may well have had an effect—[Interruption.] The Minister is asking me how. Well, not giving people enough time to consider and double check their registration status might have had the effect of making it more difficult for poorer and younger people to vote.
The Smith Institute reckons that up to 10 million people—perhaps 2.5 million dropping off the register and 7.5 million absent from any register at all—are not on the electoral register. That might have seemed like a good idea when the Conservative Government were worried about the mayoral and local government elections, but was perhaps less of a good idea when we look at the Brexit result, especially given that younger people, who will have to live with the decision much longer than any of us here, voted overwhelmingly to remain.
The Government really should have seen the website crash coming. As my hon. Friend mentioned, we had exactly the same situation in Scotland—it was just in a slightly more analogue form. On the day that voter registration closed before the European referendum, there were queues outside local authority registration offices until midnight. In fact, there was a wonderful party atmosphere as people wanted to ensure that they could have their say in that great exercise in democracy. Sadly, that once again stands in contrast with the way in which things were handled south of the border.
That brings us on to the case for auto-registration, which means a method that is simple and consistent. That does not conflict with the idea that people have the right not to vote—of course people have that right, and they could easily opt out if they were automatically registered—but it provides a level playing field at the one moment when we are all genuinely equal: when we cast our single ballot in the ballot box. That is a great social leveller, and a level playing field should therefore be provided for registration.
My hon. Friend looked at a whole range of different pilots and options. In preparation for the debate I read about motor voting in Oregon—when someone applies for a driving licence, they register to vote. The point is well made that the vast numbers of people who are on the council tax register think that they are therefore on the register to vote, and it stands to reason that there should be no taxation without representation. That is another possibility. Of course, in Scotland in days gone by people took themselves off the electoral register in order to avoid the unjust and punitive poll tax implemented by Thatcher and her Government—another democratic deficit that Scotland had to live with for so long.
I am sure my hon. Friend shared my experience during the independence referendum that people were afraid to go and register because they thought that that would catch up with them and tax would be found from them. That did dissuade a lot of people. We need to look at the reasons why people are declining to register as well.
That is a well-made point. Of course, the Scottish Government moved to reassure people that they would not be hounded for their poll tax because they were registering to vote in the Scottish independence referendum.
The case for auto-registration is well made. It must be placed in the context of wider and further electoral reform and the need to find a range of ways that can improve voter turnout and engagement, and younger people’s engagement in particular. Voting early leads to voting often, which has been borne out in the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish experience now that the franchise has been extended to 16 and 17-year-olds. Of course, 16-year-olds who voted in the Scottish election in May were denied a vote in the European referendum, but they will have another vote in a year’s time in the Scottish local authority elections. They might be 18 by the time of the next general election—who knows?
That also relates to the introduction of proportional representation, especially as it is clear that we have a five-party—at least—system here in the Houses of Parliament. We have the pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit Conservatives, the pro-Corbyn and anti-Corbyn Labour people and then the SNP as a voice of consistency, unity and leadership. We are possibly bigger than some of those groups, so we may or may not be the official Government or Opposition by the end of the week.
On the dates of elections, and the referendum in particular, one of the experiences of the Scottish independence referendum was that, because it took place in the autumn, we had the entire, glorious summer of 2014—admittedly rare in terms of the weather—with long days and good weather when people could really get out on to the streets and knock on the doors. That is something we ought to consider both north and south of the border. Rather than elections in May, which means that campaigns take place in damp, cold winter months, an autumn election cycle could help increase participation. Those are my reflections. I am trying to stick as closely as possible to voter auto-registration and the time available, so I will leave my remarks at that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this important debate. I apologise to you, Mr Howarth, and to other Members in the Chamber for having to leave early to get to a constituency event, but I wanted to make a contribution to this debate.
It is our job in this House to ensure that the citizens we represent can truly exercise their democratic rights, but British citizens in this country are being marginalised and excluded from the democratic process. The problem of electoral registration is less getting people to sign up to individual elections and more maintaining their registration. I have spoken in the House before about the 100,000 Londoners who disappeared off the electoral register just months before the mayoral election. Boroughs with the biggest falls included Redbridge, which witnessed a staggering 9% drop; Kensington and Chelsea, with an 8% drop; and Hackney, which recorded a 7% drop.
The national picture is just as stark. The parliamentary register that was used in the EU referendum has seen the loss of 1.4 million names since December 2013. To put that figure into context, just 1.3 million more voters voted for Brexit than remain. In other words, those who fell off the register in the past two and a half years could have swayed the decision on the EU referendum.
There is a stark variance in who is signed up on our register. Pensioners in the shires who own their own home have a 90% chance of being on the electoral register, but a young man from an ethnic minority background in private rented accommodation in a city has a less than 10% chance of being on the register. The fact that people from ethnic minorities are far less likely to be registered to exercise their democratic rights undermines the Government’s commitment.
When it comes to electoral registration, the picture is bleak across the country. Liverpool has seen a drop in its electoral register of 14,000. Birmingham has seen a drop of 17,000, and the drop in the London Borough of Lewisham was 6,000. Those are all areas that have had an increase in population. The situation is even worse in areas where the population is transient, such as university towns. Canterbury has seen a huge 13% drop in those registered to vote. Cambridge has seen a drop of 11%, meaning its electorate is now smaller than it was in 2011.
Let us look at the outcome of the EU referendum. We know that young people overwhelmingly voted to remain. Remain voters made up 73% of 18 to 24-year-old voters and 62% of 25 to 34-year-old voters. It is clear that in areas with a high proportion of younger residents, turnout tended to be lower. We do not have any cast-iron figures, but we know that turnout among the youngest voters was around 40%. Among the over-65s, turnout was well over 80%. That all amounts to the effective disfranchisement of that younger group of voters. If the Government are serious about combating social exclusion, they urgently need to review that dire situation.
Being on the electoral register is the closest thing to having a civic contract. If someone is not on it, they cannot participate in the democratic process. Automatic electoral registration provides the opportunity to both reduce costs and improve administration, cutting down on bureaucracy and enabling everyone to exercise their right to enfranchisement. It is simple common sense, proposing a cheaper, simpler and more effective model. It places a responsibility on the state to do everything in its power to ensure that the electoral database is full and complete. It imposes a duty on the Government and public bodies to work together.
Automatic electoral registration proposes to make the system truly convenient for the citizen by integrating both national and local data sets, meaning that an individual’s address details would be automatically updated according to trusted data sets. The trusted data sets would collate information at each point that a citizen interacts with the state, whether that is when they pay a tax, receive a benefit, use the NHS, claim a pension or apply for a driving licence. The walls between those data sets used to be sacrosanct, but they are falling away more and more as the Government emphasise security and anti-fraud measures.
These reforms would vastly improve registration and have been tested elsewhere. A very similar model operates in Australia with huge success. For instance, the state of Victoria has a population of 3.5 million and has 95% accuracy in its registration process. It does that at extremely low cost, employing just five members of staff who maintain the rolling register.
Rolling out this reform in the UK is timely for so many reasons. Greater Manchester has already submitted to the Cabinet Office its plans to pioneer the system of automatic electoral registration. It also has proposals for a pilot scheme. I sincerely hope that the Government support the plans and will introduce the primary legislation on data sharing necessary to ensure that the pilot can go ahead.
Voter registration should not be the responsibility of charities or NGOs, such as Bite the Ballot, despite their excellent work. It should be down to the state to do all it can and to ensure that everyone, especially the most marginalised, can access their democratic rights. The issue should be non-partisan. It is in all our interests to get more people signed up. Then we can all get on with our job, as representatives of political parties, to enthuse voters and to persuade them that we are worthy of their vote.
May I start by remarking on the fact that the Government Benches appear to be particularly denuded this afternoon? I hope that is because Government Members support the proposition under discussion. I ask the Minister to reflect on the fact that, so far, no one has spoken other than to support the principle of automatic voter registration, and that not a single Member of the House is so exercised to the contrary as to turn up—that alone might make him consider that this is an idea whose time has come. I hope that we will get a positive response from him.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on bringing the debate to the Chamber today. I endorse and support pretty much everything he said in moving the motion.
I want to highlight a couple of aspects of the problem, the first of which is its scale. In 2014, the Electoral Commission estimated that as many as 7.5 million people who are entitled to vote might not be on the electoral register. To get some more up-to-date figures in preparation for the debate, I asked the House of Commons Library for a list by constituency of the estimated over-18 adult population compared with the number of people on the register. I have the figures with me, if anyone is interested, and they show that the difference between the number of over-18s in the population and the number on the register is just over 6 million. That is not a direct comparison, because many people on the register will be double-registered. The largest cohort of those will be students, but there will also be people who have moved house and so on, and some over-18s are not entitled to vote anyway.
Those figures indicate that we have a considerable problem, and we have it in all parts of the country. In my constituency, which includes the biggest part of the centre of Edinburgh, with its big transient population, I have 23,000 more over-18 adults than are on the electoral register. That is a staggering number of people. Even in the Minister’s constituency of Weston-super-Mare, the figure is more than 10,000.
That is a problem for three main reasons. First, it is a democratic outrage. We cannot sit here and be content with the situation if our fellow citizens are not even eligible to vote on that scale. As the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) pointed out, not everyone is treated equally. Those suffering deprivation or oppression of one kind or another are less likely to be on the register than people who have a reasonably comfortable life, are literate and are settled in their situation. The people who face multiple indicators of deprivation are the least likely to be on the register. We have a somewhat ironic situation: the more awful someone’s life is and the more problems they face, the less able they are to do anything about it through the democratic process. We cannot possibly let that lie for much longer.
Secondly, apart from the democratic argument, the situation is an administrative nightmare. That was epitomised by what happened in the run-up to the registration deadline for the European Union referendum. The computer crashed because it could not cope with the demand. Why do we create a situation in which there has to be a rush before a deadline, mostly comprised of people checking whether they are on the register in the first place? It does not have to be done that way. If we had a process of continual automatic registration of the electorate, the problem would not arise.
The other problem, which has been remarked upon, is that a lot of people think they are on the register when they are not. That is one of the contributing factors to a general disillusionment and alienation with our democratic system, which we cannot allow to continue. For all those reasons, I very much support the campaign for automatic voter registration, and I hope the Minister will say something positive today.
The all-party group’s report has been referred to, and it was signed off by a Member from the Minister’s own party, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). It made 25 recommendations, some of them incredibly sensible. Which of them does the Minister think are good ideas that could be implemented? I have a copy of the report here. The final recommendation is that, because of all that has come before, we should move to a system of automatic voter registration. I think we have to do that.
I want to try to anticipate some of the arguments against automatic voter registration. The first would be, “Perhaps there is a data collection problem, and data that have been collected for one reason cannot be used for another.” Well, the Government should bring forward the legislative changes required to enable that use. Provided that we specify at the point of collection that the information will be used to allow people the right to vote, I do not see any particular problem, and that could be done almost instantaneously given that so many transactions happen online. It could be done within weeks. We do not have to wait years for it to happen.
The second argument that people will probably make is, “The computer systems do not talk to each other. We will have to get a new computer system and that will take a lot of time and cost a lot of money.” Don’t blame the technology—the computer systems do not have to talk to each other. All that is required is that human beings involved in the process of compiling the electoral register can use the other computer systems to put together one that deals with electoral registration.
The third problem to be raised might be, “There may be a concern about people being put on the register against their will. People should have the right to not be registered.” Of course they should, so the Government could automatically register them and write to them saying that that is what has been done. At that point they would have the chance to opt out.
The final problem that is raised is, “Perhaps there is a problem with security. How do we know that the person who paid this bill should be put on the electoral register?” That is a ludicrous argument. If someone applies for and gets a British passport, which is one of the main credentials a person needs to be able to take part in democracy, surely it should automatically follow that they get put on the electoral register as well. If someone buys a new house, it is a legal obligation not only to register the property but to register ownership of the property. Surely we should be able to put that person on the electoral register automatically.
Will the Minister say which of the 25 recommendations in the all-party group’s report can be implemented now and which he would like to look at over a bit more time? Will he come forward with proposals to allow automatic voter registration to happen? Bring us solutions, rather than problems.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing the debate, not least because, to my relief, his is a constituency that I can pronounce. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate and be part of moving the issue forward, as progress has been far too slow.
As has been said, this debate is incredibly timely because of the issues caused by the last-minute surge in voter registrations in the run-up to the referendum, which were discussed in the House earlier this month, and because of the general confusion about the entire registration process. Significant numbers of people simply do not know whether they are on the electoral register, whether they have to register every time or why they were not on the register for this important election. Many people just expect to be on the electoral register because they pay their council tax, because they interact with Government and because the Government know about them.
The debate is relevant today because, despite the recent surge, registration rates are still desperately low. We know the statistics from the excellent work that my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) did in bringing her ten-minute rule Bill before the House earlier this year. She mentioned the stark difference between pensioners in the shires and young men from ethnic minorities. I understand that a forthcoming study from the Electoral Commission will reveal that many millions of people are still missing from the electoral register.
I know the Minister will agree that we must do everything we can to encourage as many people as humanly possible to be on the register. That is why it was so important and so right to extend the deadline for registration in the run-up to the referendum, although perhaps some of us might regret that now. It is therefore perplexing that the Government have missed so many opportunities to improve registration rates. They were far too late to encourage the registration of students in university towns, despite having an excellent model on offer from Sheffield University. As far as I am aware, no action has been taken to deliver further pilots of online voting, as recommended by the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. We have had only a half-hearted commitment to reviewing e-balloting for trade unions, which would undoubtedly improve our industrial democracy. The Government are still proposing to use a completely out-of-date electoral register for the proposed boundary review.
I hope we can make significant progress with automatic voter registration. Significant work has already been done by organisations such as Bite the Ballot, which produced an excellent report, co-written by Oliver Sidorczuk and Dr Toby James, on the “missing millions” who have been mentioned. The Electoral Commission itself has put forward three credible options for automatic registration: automatically registering 16 and 17-year-olds, updating home movers’ details and confirmation matching. I state no preference for any of those methods today, but I urge the Government to explore them all and establish which will most significantly increase registrations while guarding against electoral fraud as far as possible.
As we know, automatic registration would bring many significant benefits. The register would be more complete, obviously: we would not see the peaks and troughs of registration that we currently have, which are a problem not only for elections but for statistical purposes and for exercises such as boundary reviews. There would be less confusion about whether people are on the register; the system would be significantly cheaper than the current one, as demonstrated by the example of Victoria, which has been mentioned; it would be more convenient for citizens; it would almost certainly be more up-to-date; and it would provide high-quality data that could be used by and shared with other agencies.
On that last point, devolution provides an opportunity to drive data sharing across the public sector and to deliver experimentation and innovation in our public services. It is right to devolve power down to local authorities so that they can take decisions as close as possible to where they are delivering services. We should seize the opportunity to finally break down some of the barriers between Departments and agencies, to ensure that whenever someone interacts with Government they are viewed as a whole person, not just dealt with in one Department’s silo. Automatic registration could play a major role in that. I completely support the comments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), and I press the Government to bring forward new data-sharing protocols.
There are obviously challenges, not least electoral fraud and the need for a clear opt-out from the open register, but they can be worked through by learning from Administrations who already operate such systems successfully. The Law Commission has published a thorough interim report on electoral law and plans to publish a draft Bill for Parliament to consider next year. Will the Minister update us on progress on that, and on the Government’s response to the Law Commission’s report?
Will the Minister also update us on the progress of the Greater Manchester trial? It is absolutely right that devolved authorities have the control and power that they need to drive registration, and I very much hope the Sheffield city region will be given the option to trial such a scheme. Will the Minister confirm what conversations or offers have been made to other devolved areas? Will he consider requiring local authorities to put information about polling stations online? It is frankly ridiculous that that information is not digitally available to voters on polling day.
The Law Commission has said that current electoral law is an “unworkable mass” and that it is “complex, voluminous and fragmented”. Devolution and the fallout from the referendum present a prime opportunity to review that situation and consider options such as automatic registration. I hope the Minister will grasp that opportunity with both hands.
The vote last Thursday revealed the deep dissatisfaction in this country with the political establishment and the status quo. Despite politicians’ best attempts to be as accessible and as grounded as possible, we are seen as exactly the opposite. We are viewed variously as corrupt, immoral and sometimes merely irrelevant. Tragically, that general attitude culminated in the brutal murder of one of our finest colleagues less than a fortnight ago. We in this House have a duty to fix that, to improve the climate in which we debate ideas and to reach out to those alienated by our political debate. The people who are excluded from the process as it currently stands are exactly those we need to prioritise and reach out to. Fundamental electoral reform is now an immediate necessity, and automatic voter registration must be a part of it.
It is a pleasure to have you looking after us this afternoon and to serve under your sure guidance, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on bringing forward this extremely important issue. It is tempting in such moments, when the entire world is running around with its hair on fire, worrying about all sorts of other admittedly incredibly urgent, big problems, to forget that there are some important critical pieces of democratic plumbing that need to be attended to, no matter what else is going on. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on not losing sight of that essential, fundamental truth. I will try to make sure I leave him with a couple of minutes at the end to respond or sum up if he wishes.
A number of important points have been made. I have always promised myself that if I ever start quoting my own speeches, I will know that it is time to leave. I promise not to do that, but hon. Members might want to have a look at a speech I made at Policy Exchange about a year ago. What I said was very much along the lines of some of the criticisms that have been levelled at the voter registration system. What we have is a system that is, to put it charitably, in transition. Some good work has been done. The system of online registration is new and, by any account, an awful lot better than what went before, even though it was so popular that it fell over rather embarrassingly just before the registration deadline. There have been changes, but we are still battling with the problem that a vast proportion of our registration process is designed for an analogue age. It is based on an old-fashioned approach that is paper-based and process-driven, rather than focused on outcomes and anything that is remotely digital. Clearly, as we have heard from right across the political spectrum, a huge amount needs to be done to update it.
I am delighted that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who speaks for the Scottish National party, pointed out that there is clearly a substantial cross-party backing for progress here. He is absolutely right. As a number of people have said, for this to work well, it will be best of all if it can be done on a cross-party, non-partisan basis. Voter registration is something that we all, as democrats, ought to be in favour of and ought to try to push forward. It works better, in combating voter disillusionment, which all hon. Members mentioned, if people can see that not just one party or the other is pushing this; otherwise, they will assume that that one party has a particular axe to grind. It is far more powerful if everybody says the same thing and sings from the same hymn sheet. I am particularly pleased that we are all on the same page.
I would like to talk a little about what we are already doing. I am delighted to tell the hon. Member for Midlothian that I think we are heading in a very similar direction. There are some definitional questions and important points of detail that we need to bottom out, but we are heading to a very similar destination. Last month, I introduced a statutory instrument in this place that began the very early steps in that process. It contained a couple of very modest proposals, which are actually quite significant, to begin to digitise our process. One of them was simply to make it possible to use emails, rather than having to send a snail-mail, old-fashioned paper letter, when confirming whether someone is being registered. That might sound like a really basic change, but it required a legal change in this place. We had to pilot an SI, which contained a number of other measures, to take it through. It will make a very significant alteration to the speed, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of registration. I hope that it gives everybody here an idea of where we are starting from and how much further we have to travel.
I can also confirm to the hon. Gentleman that a further SI is due to come to this place on Monday that will take us a couple more steps down the road. I am not going to over-claim on this, but it is moving in the direction in which everybody has said they want to move. On Monday, we will talk about changes that will be piloted, to begin with, in three local authorities: Ryedale, Birmingham and South Lakeland. Following up on the idea that localism and devolution are important sources of ideas, many of these ideas have been proposed by local authority electoral registration officers, who are on the frontline and understand which bits of the process still work and which are, frankly, a waste of time and cause them to chew their arms off in frustration because they are so slow and inefficient. They are the ones coming up with many of the most creative and practical proposals. We are encouraging them to submit ideas and are trying to take those forward. We will look at the issue in more detail in Monday’s statutory instrument debate. They are talking about changing from a household inquiry form arriving on the doorstep to check who should be registered to vote to something called a household notification letter that says, “We think the following people are in this place and should be registered; please tell us if not.” That change in the process would be far more efficient, would not require the same degree of response and could be done much more electronically.
In two of the three local authority pilot areas, we will be matching data using local data sources, so that we can focus effort and not require local officers to knock on doors when they already know who lives behind those doors, which is clearly a massive waste of effort and resources. Those resources could be better targeted on places where we do not know who lives there. If we know that somebody has been living somewhere for the past 20 years, there is no point going and knocking on the door to confirm it—why not take that time and effort and go and spend it in the block of flats at the other end of the road, where there are huge gaps in the register and there is much more of a problem? That is a step in the right direction—but it is only a step. We are still only in the foothills of the transition that hon. Members have been talking about, which I completely endorse.
We do need to be careful, because the idea of automatic registration is used, understandably, quite widely and loosely. We all mean slightly different things when we talk about it. Some of those things are crashingly obvious and desirable, and we should get on and do them tomorrow. Other things are potentially quite dangerous. Most people would agree that it is sensible to use more local data, as we are doing in a couple of the local pilots, to inform what we are doing on registration. Not only does that say an awful lot more about who is behind the door, because they are paying council tax or have a car-parking permit or a library card—there are many different forms of local data—but it allows us to focus efforts elsewhere, where we do not have data or there are significant question marks over their quality or veracity and we know there is further work to do to fill in the gaps.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East anticipated my likely objections to automatic registration, or to data-driven registration, if I can be a bit more specific about what we might collectively mean here. I am happy to say that I am not going to raise any of the issues he suggested. He ran through a sort of checklist of standard Whitehall excuses about why we cannot do things. It usually starts with, “It is too expensive.” If that is not true, people say that we are doing it already. The third is that the IT will not handle it—that is a common one. It is the equivalent, for Star Trek fans, of Scotty saying, “I cannae give you any more, Captain; the engines are going flat out already.” But those excuses will not work. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we can and jolly well should do more here.
Using local data is essential, but it is difficult to work out which bits are reliable. The principle is widely accepted, I think, but it is difficult to find out which specific fields in which database give a robust data set that confirms that we know this person lives here and is eligible to vote. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh East noted that we need to be careful not to end up registering people who are certainly living in a residence, but may not be eligible to vote, either because they are foreign nationals and are not eligible to vote in the UK, or for some other reason. That would end up switching from a problem of missing millions—false negatives in the jargon—to a problem of false positives, where we are enrolling people who should not be on the roll at all. We must be confident that we are using reliable local data. There is an awful lot of crashingly detailed but absolutely essential work to do to make that happen.
When we have reached the point where we all agree that data-driven enrolment is sensible, we come to the question of the degree of data-driven automaticity that we are willing to accept. At the moment, we have an opt-in system, where people have to exercise their right to register to vote. A fundamental principle about individual electoral registration that I think all parties sign up to is that it is essential in a democracy that people say, “I want to use my right to vote,” but if they have said it once, we do not necessarily have to ask them year in, year out for the rest of their lives. They are democratically entitled to change their minds, but if they have said, “I want to exercise my right to register to vote,” it should just be a question of tracking when they move house and ensuring that we have got the address changes correct. That is easy to say and extremely difficult to do, but there should not be a permission issue thereafter. We need to address that piece as well.
There is a difference between an opt-in system, where we say, “We know you’re living there, but do you want to register?” and an opt-out system, which is one possibility, or a “we’re not even going to ask you” system, which is a bit more dangerous. Whether that is really acceptable in a free society is a bit more questionable; it is tricky in some respects from a civil liberties point of view.
Those are the sorts of questions that I would be delighted if we were sophisticated enough and had updated our system enough to start worrying about. At the moment, we can make huge progress just by doing the data. The 80:20 rule applies: we will get 80% of the benefit from getting the data stuff done as fast as we can. That will not be easy, because it is so detailed. I will be delighted when we have got to the point where we can say, “Well, how much of an opt-in or an opt-out system do we want to have?” because we will have made huge progress, and as has rightly been pointed out, there are so many groups in our society where the picture of registration is uneven—in many cases, from a social justice point of view, unjustly uneven.
Interestingly, the group that is both biggest and least well registered has not been mentioned by anyone: expatriates. Several million expat voters are currently legally eligible to vote. Their registration rate is something like 5%, and there are therefore several million expatriates who are legally enfranchised but are unregistered. That is the biggest single democratic outrage—in the words of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East—that we have, but there are many others. Some BME groups have very high registration rates, but others do not. Some disabled groups have very low registration rates, but others have better rates. Many people who live in short-term rental accommodation, including students, have problems, too.
There is a huge amount that we can do. I hope that I have both reassured the hon. Member for Midlothian and perhaps tempted him a little as I have shown a little bit of ankle about where we are trying to get to and where we would like to take this issue. I think that we have a degree of cross-party unanimity on the direction of travel and the amount of work that we can do. I hope that that is reassuring. I will not go into the parallel but separate problem of individual electoral registration, on which I disagree with almost everything that has been said—that is a different conversation and a much longer debate—but on this issue we can and should make common cause, and with any luck, with a degree of cross-party unanimity, we will be able to make progress.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions on this important issue. It is particularly encouraging to hear agreement, at least in general terms, about the direction in which we need to travel to ensure that participation levels in elections of whatever nature across the country are as high as they possibly can be and that we do whatever we possibly can to remove the barriers that exist for so many people.
I am encouraged by the Minister’s comments that some steps are being taken. I would like to see that happen a lot faster, but I accept that if we start talking about pace, that will at least be an entirely different argument from the one about whether change should happen in the first place. I very much look forward to seeing what other actions and proposals come forward. Many of us want to get to the point of being able to debate what type of automatic registration system we have rather than whether we should have one in the first place. I welcome his comments and I hope that yet further steps forward will be taken in the weeks and months ahead and we will get to a point where we can make decisions that will benefit millions of people across the country.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered automatic registration in UK elections.