Thursday, 27 October 2011

Electoral Registration - Lords Questions

Lord Bach: To ask Her Majesty's Government what are the reasons for their policy of making individual voter registration voluntary.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, the Government's approach reflects the fact that it is not an offence not to be registered under the current system. This will not change under the new system. The offence of not providing information to an electoral registration officer-for example, when making a household enquiry-will be retained. It will not be extended to require an individual to apply to be registered.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer, as far as it goes. He will know that at least 3 million of our fellow citizens, and probably more, already are not registered to vote at all. The independent Electoral Commission is of the view that if registering to vote becomes a voluntary activity, as the White Paper proposes, the result could be that up to 10 million people will fall off the electoral register, and that rates could fall in some areas from 90 per cent down to 65 per cent. Up to 35 per cent of the adult population could be disenfranchised. Is such a consequence acceptable in a mature democracy? Does the Minister agree that if such an event were to happen, no longer could we claim to the world, as we can today, that in Britain we live in a democratic country?

Lord McNally: My Lords, of course it is not acceptable; but neither is it acceptable for a mature political party to go round shroud-waving on a conclusion which involved joint deliberation by the parties that the old system had become increasingly distrusted and that voluntary registration-which would eliminate, or do a lot to eliminate, fraud, and create greater public confidence in the system-should be the way forward. The way forward proposed in the White Paper gives enough guarantees and assurances to show that the kind of language that the noble Lord has just used is, quite frankly, scare tactics which are not worthy of him or his party.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, coming from a country where voting is compulsory, I can understand why it should be compulsory to be on the register. However, as voting is voluntary in this country, what is the difference between not wishing to vote and not wishing to register? Can the Minister please clarify?

Lord McNally: Unlike in Australia, not wishing to vote remains an inalienable right of the British people. Registering is a civic duty and we hope that it will increasingly be seen as such. I certainly hope that over the next few years all the political parties will embrace the idea of an individual register and use their influence to ensure that people exercise their right. Of course, once people are on the register they will retain their right not to vote.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, on the question of shroud-waving, will the noble Lord explain to us why, when this stupid system was introduced in Northern Ireland, the registration of voters totally collapsed? Why did that happen?

Lord McNally: Perhaps someone from Northern Ireland will intervene, but, again, the language is not borne out by the facts. It did not totally collapse. In this gradual process that we are bringing forward, we are learning from the examples and lessons of the Northern Ireland experience, as well as looking at some of the practices that are going on there now. Northern Ireland votes are a standard joke but we are now learning lessons about voluntary registration and its success in Northern Ireland.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames: My Lords, the existing system, whereby householders can in theory be prosecuted for failing to return their registration forms, has not worked, largely for the simple reason that no one can tell who the responsible householder is in households with more than person. Therefore, does not individual registration offer a good opportunity at least to consider a meaningful compulsory system, and is that not important, given that the electoral register determines not just the right to vote but also the call-up for jury service?

Lord McNally: Those are very valid points. To put the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, into perspective, I again emphasise that the annual canvass will continue to support the maintenance of the electoral register. Significant work, including public awareness campaigns by the Electoral Commission, will be funded in 2014-15 to manage the transition to individual electoral registration. In both those years, door-to-door canvassing will be used by electoral registration officers as part of a wide suite of powers to encourage people to register to vote. This is a step forward against electoral fraud. Instead of making emotional interventions, it would be good if the Labour Party would endorse it and get on with encouraging people to register.

Lord Wills: My Lords, all the evidence that I saw when I was the Minister responsible for these matters in the previous Government suggests that the introduction of individual registration, no matter how desirable for other reasons, is going to carry with it severe risks that millions of otherwise eligible voters will fall off the register. That is why, when the previous Government introduced this measure, they locked it into the achievement of a comprehensive and accurate register.

It is also why the Conservative shadow Minister at the time said on the Floor of the other place that, "we agree with the Government that the accuracy, comprehensiveness and integrity of the register ... is paramount ... I do not intend to vote against these Government amendments because ... I believe that it is right to take this matter forward carefully and step by step".-[Official Report, Commons, 13/07/09; col. 108.]

The Liberal Democrats also supported this approach. Can the Minister please tell your Lordships what new evidence he has seen that has persuaded him that the careful approach adopted by the previous Government and supported by both main parties in opposition is now wrong?

Lord McNally: We are going forward by learning from the lessons and experience of Northern Ireland.

Noble Lords: Answer the question.

Lord McNally: I am answering the question. From some of the questions, you would not believe that we will be having a two-year period in which we will be taking a belt-and-braces approach with the present system running in parallel and with every opportunity for democratic organisations and others to persuade people voluntarily to go on the electoral register and exercise their civic duty. The answer is that we have decided on a belt-and-braces approach, which will allow a smooth transition to a new scheme. It is a perfectly sensible approach, which draws on some of the experiences of the previous Government. I think that the Labour Party is being disgraceful on this. It should get on with recruiting members and persuading people to register to vote instead of using these scare tactics, which, quite frankly, are not worthy of it.