My Lords, Cabinet Office officials have continued to work with colleagues in HMRC on the inclusion of additional information on registering to vote in letters issuing national insurance numbers. I am assured that this change will be implemented by HMRC shortly—at the very latest, in October.
My Lords, I am delighted if progress is being made, but I remind the Minister that, on 8 October last year, the House voted overwhelmingly for the Government to consider further action to get more young people registered to vote. On 26 November last year, he said that this was happening, but it has taken eight months since then. Why has it taken so long for the Government to consider adding perhaps a dozen words to a form in order to encourage more young people to register to vote?
My Lords, the Government are committed to making registration as easy as possible, and we encourage everyone eligible to register to do so. I stand by those earlier statements. Due to internal processes, there have been delays in implementing the changes to the letter. There are HMRC processes in place to implement change that involve HMRC’s IT partners, but I repeat that HMRC has assured us that this matter will be implemented by October.
We read that the Government are so keen to encourage young adults to vaccinate that we are all to be threatened with domestic Covid ID. Can the Minister confirm that they are just as keen to encourage young people to vote? If that is the case, will the Government explore automatically registering them for the electoral register at the moment when an NI number is issued?
My Lords, the Government do not support automatic registration, but we certainly wish to see everyone register and exercise the right to vote, for which so many people have made sacrifices for so long. Our Register to Vote website is used by many young people, with almost 10.8 million online applications having been submitted by 16 to 24 year-olds since the service was introduced. I remind noble Lords that the number of people who have voted in recent elections has continued to grow, and that is hugely welcome.
My Lords, the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which was excellently chaired by my noble friend and much missed colleague, the late Lord Shutt of Greetland, called for the piloting of automatic registration for attainers. Further to his previous answer, would the Minister consider having such a pilot? Does he further acknowledge that removing barriers to registration would be a positive step forward in encouraging more young people to vote?
My Lords, we have spoken often about the great service of the late Lord Shutt. We are determined to see people exercise their right to vote, but there are numerous important practical reasons to oppose automatic registration, and that is the position of the Government. Automatic registration would likely require a single national electoral register and/or a centralised database, and the Government have no plans to move in that direction.
My Lords, I welcome the comments made by the Minister a few moments ago. I regard this as a substantial step forward in encouraging participation by attainers in elections, and it should be greeted as such. Progress can be made in encouraging people to vote and to register, and, like him, I do not believe in forced registration.
I thank my noble friend for his remarks. Each step is important. I acknowledge that this has taken time; HMRC has competing priorities—noble Lords will understand the situation that we have been living through—but we have been assured that this will happen by October. As my noble friend says, this is one small step, but we should all engage in the battle to get more and more people exercising the right to vote.
My Lords, can I pick up the noble Lord on the last point he made? It has long been conventional wisdom among politicians that we want to see an increase in those registering and, indeed, an increase in those participating in elections. Yet the Minister has set his face against automatic registration, when we also have coming before us at some point, when we return from the recess, the election integrity Bill, which some of us think of as the voter suppression Bill. Will the noble Lord rethink on both these issues—on that Bill, which will make it harder for people to vote, and on this issue of automatic registration?
My Lords, we will have many hours to discuss these matters on the Elections Bill. Time is short now, but I reject the view that that Bill is anything to do with voter suppression. I think the Labour Party has adopted a position on that which is contrary to the overwhelming view of the public that voter ID is sensible. So far as automatic registration is concerned, I can only repeat that the Government have no plans to introduce it.
My Lords, one person’s forced registration may be another person’s citizens’ rights. When I was the Lords’ Minister in the Cabinet Office, some years ago now, government digital experts were discussing the greater integration of local and central public data and the idea that digitisation might well extend to the electoral register. Is that still on the cards? Is this something that we may expect to be covered, either positively or negatively, in the Government’s digital strategy paper, when next it appears?
My Lords, I have indicated that the Government do not see attractions in producing a single national electoral register or centralised database. It is one of the aspects of our position that we should not move forward to automatic registration, and there are others. I have to disappoint the noble Lord on that score.
My Lords, I too welcome the news that my noble friend has given us. Would it not help to reverse the rather worrying trend in recent years that has seen the number of 16 and 17 year-olds on the registers, in readiness to vote at 18, fall by some 20%? Has any recent assessment been made of the effectiveness of the work done by electoral registration officers in schools, where Northern Ireland has had particularly marked success?
My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point and we will certainly look at the Northern Ireland example. As he and the House may know, we have been working to try to encourage enrolment through the universities, and an evaluation will be published today of Cabinet Office work looking at the effectiveness of the student electoral registration condition. These are all important areas where we need to continue to work.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is a fundamental difference between forced registration and increasing participation by young people in the democratic process? In the light of the comments from my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti, does he accept that increasing young people’s involvement with citizens’ rights and democratic processes is as good as mandating the vaccine for all care staff? I think that mandating young people to vote in the democratic process would be a really good thing.
My Lords, the Government do not support compulsory voting, and, in fact, it has very limited public support, but I agree with the need to encourage participation. We have the parliamentarian youth engagement toolkit, as well as the secondary schools’ resource, introduced in 2018. I hope that, following remarks from my noble friend Lord Lexden, these will be increasingly used.
My Lords, I welcome the proposal to remind young people to vote, but for those who somehow do not get an automatic national insurance number, Covid-19 restrictions have made it almost impossible to get one. Those waiting in the growing backlog, through no fault of their own, should not be further disadvantaged from registering to vote. I know that, at the moment, you cannot register online without a national insurance number. Has the Minister made an assessment of how many people have been affected in this way? What steps does he have to address this?