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Electoral Law Reform

Volume 614: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2016

The Government are committed to ensuring that our electoral system is as transparent, accurate and effective as possible. We are working closely with the Law Commission to consider what reforms might be brought forward in the light of its report on electoral law published earlier this year. The Government are also considering the review by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) of electoral fraud, and we will respond to his proposals in due course.

Smaller parties received almost a quarter of the votes cast in the 2015 election. While once 97% of the country voted Labour or Tory, that number is now less than 70%, and indeed falling, but none of that is reflected here. Is it not now time for a very serious and mature discussion on how we can make every vote count in UK general elections?

The Government believe that first past the post is the best system for electing a Government at the same time as ensuring that the vital constituency link between a Member of Parliament and their constituents is retained. This is clearly in line with the public mood, reflected in the overwhelming majority support for first past the post at the referendum held in 2011.

Many 16 and 17-year-olds feel disfranchised by Westminster. In 2007, Austria lowered its voting age to 16, and has found that turnout among 16 and 17-year-olds is higher than for older first-time voters. Will the Minister now commit to seriously examining the evidence for extending the franchise to our young adults?

The Government believe that it is absolutely vital to our democracy that young people should be engaged in the democratic process, and we will continue our commitment to increasing participation. The current voting age of 18, however, is widely recognised as the point at which one becomes an adult and gains full citizenship rights. I note that the question of lowering the voting age has been debated in this House on several occasions, when it has been repeatedly defeated, including three times during proceedings on the European Union Referendum Bill. The Government therefore have no plans to reduce the voting age.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box, and I thank him and his predecessor for the help that they have given in the compilation of my report. Is my hon. Friend alarmed by the fact that it is harder to take out a library card or collect a parcel from the post office than it is to vote or obtain a postal vote in our trust-based system? That places our ballot boxes at a peculiar risk. When will the Government respond?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he has undertaken in producing his report on electoral fraud, which was published in the summer. It made an excellent summer read. The Government take electoral fraud incredibly seriously. His report highlights that important issue, and as a result we are currently considering his proposals and will formally respond to his report in due course.

I join in warmly welcoming the Minister to his new position. In the EU referendum The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Moore voted twice, spoiling the ballot paper from his second home, to show how the system could, in theory, be cheated. As the Minister considers proposals to strengthen electoral law against voter fraud, would he therefore also consider a new legal requirement for people with more than one residence to choose one of them in advance as the only place where they wish to be legally registered to vote?

I hope you do not mind, Mr Speaker, but I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor for the work he has undertaken. He has left me with a rich inheritance.

The incident involving Charles Moore is the subject of an investigation, and therefore it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it. I note, however, that the Law Commission report includes recommendations on electoral residence, which the Government will respond to in due course.

I welcome the Minister to his position, and I look forward to working with him. I think there has been a frightening complacency in the answers to this question so far. The Prime Minister spoke recently on the steps of Downing Street about the disfranchised. Does the Minister not realise that the voting system itself disfranchises many of our citizens, particularly 16 and 17-year-olds and those who vote for minor parties? Will he now commit, in this new Government, to reviewing our system to make it more fair and democratic?

The Government are committed to ensuring that we have a democracy that works for everyone. Already, the introduction of individual electoral registration has made it easier to register to vote than ever before, with 20 million applications to register to vote online since 2014. The Electoral Commission’s report from July 2016 found that thanks to IER, electoral registers are not only more complete than ever before, but, critically, more accurate than ever. The Government recognise that there is always more to do, and we are committed to a programme of boosting registration among certain vulnerable groups in order to build a more engaged democracy.