Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab)
15 Nov 2017, 1:49 p.m.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to impose certain duties upon Her Majesty’s Government to ensure the accuracy, completeness and utility of electoral registers; to make provision for the sharing of data for the purposes of electoral registration; and for connected purposes.
Voting for our representatives is one of the fundamental rights of citizens in a democracy. We are fortunate in this country to be able to hold free and fair elections and to have millions of people participating in the democratic process, voting for representatives to this place, to the devolved national legislatures and in regional and local government. There is, however, a real problem with our current system. Millions of people are missing from the electoral register. They are being marginalised and excluded from the democratic process. Although it is an individual’s decision and responsibility to decide whether to vote, I and many others believe that the Government have a duty to make it as simple and as convenient as possible for citizens to have their say in elections.
Individual electoral registration has, unsurprisingly, not achieved what we were told it would achieve. Millions of people are still missing from the register. Even if people initially register, maintaining their registration is problematic and ineffective. Studies have shown that a large percentage of the missing people are young people or those from minority ethnic backgrounds. Those groups being excluded from the registration process are exactly the groups of people whom we should be prioritising, because this disenfranchisement is marginalising already marginalised groups.
The roll-out of individual electoral registration has been very costly—estimated at some £120 million—and yet it remains an ineffective and inefficient system. At the 2015 general election, 12,800 people were turned away from polling stations, unable to vote as they were not on the register. In June’s general election, the figure was more than 10,000. Taking into account the nature of the most marginal constituencies, that number of votes is enough to swing an election result. Can any of us in this place be satisfied that this situation is acceptable?
Many non-governmental organisations and charities, such as Bite The Ballot and HOPE not hate, regularly undertake voter registration drives, but voter registration should be the responsibility not of those organisations, but of the state, which should do everything it can to ensure as complete an electoral register as possible.
Not being on the electoral register has implications that extend beyond the inability to vote. Those not on the register will have their credit rating disadvantaged; they may not have access to mainstream borrowing; they may not be able to obtain a mortgage; and they cannot undertake jury service and play their part in our justice system. Most people are aware that registering to vote is compulsory, and that they risk being fined for not registering to vote, but still we see enormous gaps in the register. Putting the onus of a complex system on citizens, and leaving underfunded local authorities to chase them, is clearly not the most efficient or cost-effective way to ensure the completeness of the register. That is why a change is necessary and why the state can and should step in.
My Bill would make a change that would implement a common-sense, straight forward and cost-effective system. It places a responsibility on the state to do everything in its power to ensure that the electoral register is complete; imposes a duty on the Government and public bodies to work better together; and proposes to make electoral registration as simple and as convenient as possible for citizens. That is achieved by integrating existing trusted national and local data sets, such as national insurance, tax, pension and Department for Work and Pensions data that already contain individuals’ names and addresses, and by adding citizens to the electoral register at the age of 16, when they are issued with a national insurance number.
At each point a citizen interacts with the state, those trusted data sets would collate relevant information for the electoral register—for example, when tax was paid, a social security payment was received, a driving licence or passport was issued or updated, a pension was claimed or a TV licence was purchased. The Government are already prioritising anti-fraud and security measures and, in doing so, using data sets from different public bodies. In the age of big data and “digital by default”, it is time that the Government adopted those principles for electoral registration.
At this point, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) who introduced a similar Bill to this House in February 2016, and to Baroness McDonagh who has recently introduced an Automatic Electoral Registration Bill in the other place.
It is clear that this is a pressing issue and that there is widespread support for modernising our electoral registration system, including from the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Electoral Reform Society. The cross-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee—predecessor to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee—supported automatic electoral registration in its 2015 report on voter engagement in the UK.
There are examples in many countries across the world of the successful implementation of automatic voter registration systems. In Canada, for example, electoral information is continually updated with information from other Government sources, such as the Canada Revenue Agency, immigration and citizenship services and drivers’ licence agencies. It is also possible in Canada for electors to continue proactively to update their information with the electoral registration administrators.
In Chile, a move to automatic registration in 2013 has seen more than 4.5 million new voters added to the nation’s electoral register, most of them under the age of 30. Clearly, that was a significant improvement in enfranchising young people in that country. Closer to home, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Sweden also add to their electoral registers automatically using various different Government-held data sets.
A database that would hold the UK-wide register was proposed by the last Labour Government. The Co-ordinated On-line Record of Electors, or CORE system, would link up with existing information and keep the register up to date. The cost of building the CORE system was estimated to be £11.4 million, and then £2.7 million per year to run thereafter. In 2011, when it was scrapped, the coalition Government claimed that it was not cost-effective. Yet the switch to IER has cost £120 million and we still have an incomplete register. Building the CORE system and running it annually from 2011 to today would have cost just over £20 million, according to the estimated figures, and we would have had a much more complete register of electors.
The Welsh Labour Government are currently consulting on electoral reform in Wales following the devolution of powers in the Wales Act 2017. Their consultation includes options on data sharing and the possibility of moving to a more automated system. I hope that we will very shortly see voters in Wales automatically added to a national electoral register and being able to vote from the age of 16 onwards.
With recent general elections hanging on such tight margins, it is obvious why a full and complete register is essential. Mere handfuls of votes swing constituency results and did do so in the general elections of 2015 and 2017, so it is clear that every vote really does make a difference. Automatic registration would ensure that any boundary reviews carried out in the future would do so on the basis of the most accurate register possible.
Opponents of automatic registration will say that registering is a personal responsibility. I disagree. It is a personal responsibility to vote and the state should make it as simple and as convenient as possible for every citizen to discharge that responsibility and not put barriers and bureaucracy in their way. That is why it is imperative that automatic electoral registration is implemented as soon as possible so that everyone can have their say. I commend this motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Siobhain McDonagh, Cat Smith, Chris Elmore, Vicky Foxcroft, Rachael Maskell, Wes Streeting, Louise Haigh, Jim McMahon, Stephanie Peacock, Chris Ruane and Daniel Zeichner present the Bill.
Jo Stevens accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 January 2018, and to be printed. (Bill 127).