I led a debate on the importance of a full and accurate electoral register in Westminster Hall on the 15th of January 2013. The full text of the speech is below.
Follow this link to watch a video of the full debate: http://news.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/hi/house_of_commons/newsid_9784000/9784917.stm
Westminster Hall Debate on Electoral Registration (14 January 2013)
Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Owen, for chairing this important debate.
Democracy is deep in the DNA of my constituency, Blaenau Gwent. Growing up there, I learned about its rich social history, including how it provided leadership for the Chartist movement, which did so much to secure the vote for working people. From the caves in the village of Trefil, where they are said to have stored pikes before the march on Newport in 1839, to Nantyglo, where Zephaniah Williams, the Newport rising’s leader, lived, Blaenau Gwent has long been at the centre of democracy building in the UK.
Although the battle for the vote has been won by working people, to exercise their vote, people must first be on the electoral register. That leads us to the dry, but crucial topic of how to get the best register possible. Free and fair election machinery is one of the most fundamental services the state can provide for its people. From it, our democracy thrives. The electoral register is, as the Electoral Commission says, the bedrock of our democracy.
As we all know, the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill—the ERA—is in the Lords, following consideration in the House of Commons. We know, too, that Labour legislated to introduce individual electoral registration—IER—so there is no disagreement amongst us about the principle. For background: as of December 2010, the Electoral Commission estimated that the register was 85% to 87% complete, which means that 6 million people were missing from it. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who is responsible for political and constitutional reform, may have more recent figures, and it would be interesting to hear the Government’s latest estimate. I want the effective introduction of IER. I want many more, not fewer, people on the electoral register. I am worried about the Government’s proposals for IER in the future.
With all our different sources of identification, the megabytes of data available and the contact channels in use through modern media, a complete and accurate electoral register should be deliverable. Crucially, I want to see the annual canvass maintained. An individual knocking on a potential voter’s door is still probably the most effective way to get people registered. Face-to-face contact is as important as ever in our digital age. The Minister told me that the annual canvass will continue to be used as long as it remains the best way to register voters. That is good.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): When the changes to electoral registration were introduced in Northern Ireland in 2006, under a Labour Government, the need for an annual canvass was removed. Over the past five or six years, registration rates have gone down to 71%. Does my hon. Friend think that the figures from Northern Ireland have a bearing on the debate today?
Nick Smith: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I want to cover later. The decline in registration in Northern Ireland is an important warning for the debate today and for the future of IER.
To return to the annual canvass, I am with the Electoral Commission: it should be a permanent feature. Also, surely the full implementation of IER should wait until the evaluation of all the current data-matching and data-mining pilots is complete. As we know, the first set of pilot schemes took place during the annual canvass in late 2011. The Electoral Commission found that the pilots had been both time-consuming and costly. Councils said that they lacked sufficient skilled staff to carry out the data input and matching. The pilots were funded by the Cabinet Office, so given the squeeze on local government, it must be doubtful whether councils can do the data matching without more money for such important work. Given that, the Electoral Commission says that data matching should be tested further, and I am glad that further pilots are taking place.
Data matching trials with the Royal Mail and the Student Loans Company are also under way. They will be helpful for groups of people who have historically been difficult to register, which include younger people, people from black and minority ethnic communities, and people who rent from private landlords. I am sure we all want to reach such people.
Until now, we have considered data matching only with publicly held information, but I think it could be helpful to include private sector databases, such as credit reference agencies and tenancy deposit schemes. Privacy concerns must of course be addressed, but home addresses for contracts or purchases of, say, mobile phones, cars and personal finance can identify where voters live and so could be on the electoral register. Having said that, caution is essential.
Last November, the Electoral Commission, published a report, “Continuous electoral registration in Northern Ireland”. Its conclusion is stark: there has been a considerable deterioration in both the accuracy and the completeness of the electoral register in Northern Ireland over the past four years. From a register estimated in 2008 to be 83% complete and 90% accurate, the latest appraisal found one that is only 71% complete and 78% accurate. That is very worrying.
Chris Ruane: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on that point. He is right about the 71% completeness, as of last year, but does he think that it will have a knock-on effect on the redrawing of boundaries? If the boundary change proposals are successful, they will go through in Northern Ireland with 29% of the population missing from the register.
Nick Smith: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. That is why the Electoral Commission called the electoral register the bedrock of our democracy: it decides how many people are in each constituency and where those constituencies are. It is essential that we get this right.
The management of continuous registration has not been able to cope with two important things: people moving home and people becoming eligible to vote. That is where it needs to be improved. The Electoral Commission has called for urgent action to remedy the situation and a more flexible form of annual canvass, so that households as well as individuals can update the register.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that continuous electoral registration will at least be easier in Northern Ireland than in some parts of our cities, particularly London, where population turnover is a good deal higher and there is much more diversity?
Nick Smith: That is a very powerful point. The churn in London and our cities is much greater than it is outside.
Chris Ruane: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way a third time. Does he agree that churn is great not only in our cities and student towns, but in seaside towns? There are 52 principal seaside towns in the UK that have high levels of transience, and their registers will be down too.
Nick Smith: My hon. Friend has helpfully corrected me. He points to the difficulties of churn in many parts of the UK. I have been to the lovely town of Rhyl, and I know of the difficulties there in getting a complete register.
Last week, the Minister said that
“continuous registration is working for the majority of the population in Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 142.]
Registration of 51% would be a majority, but surely that is wordplay and shows a lack of ambition; after all, 71% completion is failing nearly a third of the eligible electorate. The Government must up their game. Electoral registration needs to be professionally marketed and administered in all Government contact with the public, and perhaps with private sector data as well. Given concerns about under-registration, there should be a full carry-forward of postal or proxy votes for the 2015 general election. If that does not happen, the Government must ensure that sufficient resources are provided, so that as many postal voters as possible are verified and able to vote.
As a constructive critic, the independent Electoral Commission must have an absolutely central role in the switch to IER. I hope that the Minister will tell us today when online voter registration will be ready for launch. The Government must invest in and develop accessible online registration with greater speed. If the internet is used successfully for banking and payment systems, surely it can be developed for voter registration.
Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way during this important debate. Does he agree that this plethora of initiatives—they are absolutely essential, as he is arguing—should include one by the Electoral Commission aimed specifically at people with literacy problems? I believe that they are under-represented on the register, and they certainly are in voting. Obviously, for that initiative to reach them, it needs to be delivered through audiovisual advertising.
Nick Smith: My right hon. Friend makes a good argument, and I hope that that will be included in the studies taking place. It is essential that as many people as possible can to register and vote.
As we know, changes to electoral registration will be made at a time when local authorities face significant cuts. Expenditure in this area should be prioritised, because our democracy is too important to be whittled away by a thousand cuts.
Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): As a Newport MP, I very much enjoyed my hon. Friend’s earlier reference to the Chartists. We put a huge burden on our electoral administrators and, as he says, electoral registration is not immune to the big local authority cuts. Does he agree that, with more elections than ever before and given that burden, it is even more important that we resource election administrators properly?
Nick Smith: I agree. Election administrators rightly complain about the amount of resources they are given to do their important job. They should be supported both locally and nationally.
I believe that it is the responsibility of the state, not of political parties, to secure maximum voter registration, so I hope that the Minister that will commit herself to that and give priority to those hard-to-reach voters, particularly the young. Voting is a habit best acquired early, and one that we should all strive to promote. The Government need to show much more ambition on voter registration. Let us get the 6 million people who should be on the electoral register signed up and able to vote in the future.