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House of Lords Hansard
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12 May 2016
Volume 771

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the proportion of registered electors turned away from polling stations as part of the recent devolved, regional and local elections, whether they have plans to enact the recommendations of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation report, Getting the ‘Missing Millions on to the Electoral Register, including the use of electronic poll books and registering young people to vote in school.

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My Lords, the Government welcome the interest from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democratic Participation. As noble Lords may be aware, the Minister for Constitutional Reform has set out an ambitious vision for reforming electoral registration in this Parliament so that it is more efficient, digital and convenient for the elector, building on the success of individual electoral registration and online registration.

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I hope the Government will give careful consideration to every one of the 25 recommendations in this important all-party report. In particular, will they note the very strong recommendation that every young person should be able—indeed, given every encouragement—to register to vote in school following the markedly successful initiative recently undertaken by the Northern Ireland Electoral Office, which surely should be emulated in every part of our country?

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EROs already work with local schools in their area but of course the Government continue to welcome ideas and views on meeting this challenge. We already have several initiatives in schools which I mentioned in my earlier Answer.

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My Lords, is not this important Question from my fellow historian, the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, an answer to the equally important Question from my noble friend Lord Kinnock on how to achieve greater democratic participation in the European referendum?

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Indeed; that is why, as I said, we are making huge efforts and have given quite a few grants to organisations that we feel are the best people to engage with those under-registered groups. They are working in universities, schools and online to try to get particularly the young interested in registering in time for the EU referendum.

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My Lords, perhaps I may raise once again an issue that I have raised many times: is there not now a case for compulsory registration?

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No, we really do not feel that there is. We live in a free, democratic society and it is up to everybody to make the decision on whether or not they want to register. All we can do is to give them the option to register and make it as easy as possible for them to do so. That is why it now takes only three minutes to register online. I think that that is the best way for us to go forward.

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My Lords, the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland has the highest rate of participation from young people, at 83%. It is an independent body but is now sadly under threat. The unions are currently balloting for strike action because of a proposal to close the six offices and retreat to one in Belfast. Thus, the schools outreach programme, which has been so successful, is being threatened in order to save a couple of hundred thousand pounds. Will the noble Baroness prevail on her right honourable friend in the other place to secure the future of this independent, highly respected body and ensure the highest level of participation rates among young people?

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Yes—I thank the noble Lord for his question—the Government are aware of this. I think I am right in saying that the strike ballot closes on 20 May. We understand that the Electoral Commission and the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland are in discussions and that everyone is working hard to ensure the smooth running particularly of the referendum.

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My Lords, I commend the work of the all-party group and also the way in which Bite the Ballot has been promoting registration. But would it not be sensible to reconsider the answer that the Minister gave to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack? With over a quarter of under-25s not registered and a massive 10% drop in those coming up to 18 who have been registered over the last year, there is a real crisis in ensuring that we have a true democracy where people both register and use their vote to ensure that their voice is heard, rather than leaving it to someone else.

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I can understand where the noble Lord is coming from, but as I said in my earlier answer, we feel that the best way is to work with civic groups to make sure they can make the young aware of how important it is to vote in all elections, not just the EU referendum. The grants we are giving to these civil society organisations are helping to make people aware of how important it is.

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My Lords, does the Minister accept that some of the problems with the administration of the elections last week and with the general election showed the need to update and modernise our electoral laws, the language of which is often more relevant to the 19th century than the 21st? Will the Government take forward the recent Law Commissions’ report, which has said how that law should be modernised? In particular, will they accept that we need to clarify the difference between national election expenditure and local constituency election expenditure so as to avoid any potential ambiguity being exploited unfairly in elections?

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IER certainly reduces the risk of all that, and it is why we have these very clear plans to clean up the electoral register. That is certainly supported by the international election watchdog, the election judges and the Association of Electoral Administrators.

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My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that we have a serious problem of under-registration in the UK?

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I do not disagree with the noble Lord. That is why we are working so hard and why we have provided £7.5 million to local authorities to make sure that we encourage people to get on to the register. As I said earlier, we have made it much easier to do that, and all we can do is to keep plugging and make sure that we succeed.

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My Lords, in these days when the web is considered to be so insecure and is so frequently hacked, are the Government confident that all these methods of voting will be legitimate? There was concern about postal voting, with in many cases the names of 30 people being sent in from a single house? Will this method of registration be more secure than that?

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Absolutely. The whole point about IER is that it reduces the risk of electoral fraud by ensuring that entries are confirmed as genuine. Last year’s election court judgment on Tower Hamlets exposed the real threat of fraud.