Written evidence submitted by Dr Stuart
Wilks-Heeg, Executive Director, Democratic Audit (PVSCB 06)
I am the Executive Director of Democratic Audit,
an independent research organisation based at the University of
Liverpool. This note supplements evidence already submitted to
the Committee by Lewis Baston on behalf of Democratic Audit and
focuses principally on issues concerned with the electoral registers.
My evidence draws principally on research I undertook during an
Economic and Social Research Council research fellowship with
the Electoral Commission from 2009-10. I am also a Senior Lecturer
in Social Policy at the University of Liverpool.
There are a number of concerning issues
associated with this Bill. They include: the conflation of a referendum
on electoral reform with reviews of constituency boundaries; a
seemingly arbitrary decision to reduce the House of Commons from
650 to 600 MPs; and the haste with which the Bill has been introduced.
It is not clear that the electoral registers
are "fit for purpose" in undertaking radical changes
to reduce and equalise constituencies. Recent research into the
completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers highlights
that there has been a sharp fall in registration levels over the
past decade, and variations in under-registration appear to be
1. Democratic Audit's view is that, measured
against the principle of pursuing constitutional reform via informed,
evidence-based policy-making, there are a number of serious deficiencies
in the Bill. In particular:
While there may be political reasons
for marrying the proposed referendum on the Alternative Vote with
proposals to reduce the total number of MPs and equalise constituency
electorates, there is no policy rationale for introducing the
measures in the same Bill.
The justification for reducing the number
of MPs from 650 to 600 has not been clearly made, particularly
in representative terms, and the target figure of 600 seems entirely
arbitrary. For instance, while the UK may appear to have a lower
ratio of MPs to electors than many comparable countries, it also
has far higher ratio of local councillors to electors than any
country in Western Europe.
The "reduce and equalise" objective
in relation to parliamentary constituencies is more far-reaching
and ambitious than anything attempted by previous boundary reviews.
Yet, the Bill has been introduced with much haste, militating
against expert consultation, proper pre-legislative scrutiny and
informed debateboth within and without the Houses of Parliament.
Recent evidence about possibly substantial
variations in the completeness of the electoral registers raises
important issues about the proposals to reduce and equalise constituencies.
Since constituency size is measured by the sole criterion of the
number of registered electors, there is a risk that areas in which
under-registration is currently concentrated will also become
"under-represented" in Parliament.
Key research evidence about the completeness
and accuracy of the December 2010 electoral registers (on which
the boundary reviews will be based) will become available following
the 2011 Census. Matching Census records against register entries
is the most reliable way of estimating the completeness and accuracy
of the registers and the opportunity to do so arises only once
in a decade. The current proposals do not appear to allow for
this evidence to be taken into account. It not unthinkable that
Census-based estimates, which will become available during the
period in which the new boundaries are determined, could serve
to undermine the credibility of the exercise.
The government has also indicated that
it intends to accelerate the introduction of individual voter
registration. A substantial change to the system of registering
electors and a far-reaching set of boundary review will therefore
take place simultaneously. Based on the experience in Northern
Ireland, it is likely that individual registration will result
in significant changes in registration levelsnationally,
regionally and locally. Since the boundary review process will
be based on the December 2010 electoral registers, there is every
chance that the more "equalised" constituencies in 2015
will come to exhibit greater variations in the number of electors
than among the constituencies they will be replacing.
The state of the electoral registers
2. The remainder of this submission is concerned
exclusively with issues concerning electoral registration. I was
the lead author on the Electoral Commission's 2010 report. The
completeness and accuracy of electoral registers in Great Britain.
3. Until very recently there was a serious
dearth of evidence about the state of the electoral registers.
Between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s, no research at all was
published on electoral registration. This meant that the opportunity
was missed to undertake detailed comparison of the December 2000
registers against the April 2001 Census of Population. The Electoral
Commission (EC) began to fill this research gap after 2005, beginning
with a retrospective study of the completeness and accuracy of
the 2000-01 registers. The EC's report on electoral registration
published in March 2010 is therefore the most detailed account
of the state of the registers for almost a decade.
4. The key findings from the EC's 2010 report
The completeness of Great Britain's electoral
registers remains broadly similar to the levels achieved internationally.
There is evidence of a gradual long-term
decline in the completeness of Great Britain's electoral registers
since the 1970s.
There was a particularly sharp fall in
registration levels from 2000-2005, since which time registration
levels have stabilised.
As in previous decades, under-registration
is concentrated among specific social groups, with registration
rates being especially low among young people, private renters
and those who have recently moved home.
There appear to be widening local and
regional variations in UK registration levels, with metropolitan
and unitary areas outside of Greater London experiencing the greatest
levels of decline.
While the vast majority of local registers
are likely to be more than 90% complete, a growing minority of
local registers are likely to be less than 85% complete.
The highest concentrations of under-registration
are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns
and cities with large student populations, and costal areas with
significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation.
Owing to population movement, the completeness
of local registers is likely to decline by an average of 10 percentage
points within the annual lifecycle of the electoral registers.
Case studies in eight local authority
areas revealed that variations in levels of completeness are mirrored
by variations in levels of accuracyin large part reflecting
the impact of contrasting local migration rates. Registers in
metropolitan areas tend to be both less complete and less accurate
because of higher levels of population movement.
There is scope for some immediate improvement
in electoral administration, mostly through the more effective
identification, dissemination and adoption of good practice among
local authorities. This would be likely to reverse at least part
of the decline in registration levels, most notably in metropolitan
areasbut there are limits to what Electoral Registration
Officers (EROs) can achieve under the current system.
In the medium-term, maximising the completeness
and accuracy of the electoral registers will require significant
reforms to the current system of electoral registration. Plans
for the phased introduction of individual elector registration
in Great Britain from 2011-14 represent a significant opportunity
to undertake such reforms.
5. Very little was known about recent trends
in registration levels before the EC research was published earlier
this year. The report established that there were clear grounds
for assuming that registration levels had fallen quite dramatically
in the period from 2000-05, pointing to a far deeper dip in registration
than had been associated with the introduction of the Community
Charge ("poll tax") in the early 1990ssee figure
TOTAL NUMBER OF REGISTERED UK PARLIAMENTARY
Source: ONS Electoral Statistics.
6. This decline in the number of registered
electors from 2000-05 occurred at a time when the notionally eligible
population continued to growsee figure 2. As a consequence,
the UK's notional registration rate (a relatively crude measure
of the completeness of the registers) fell from around 95% in
the late 1990s to 90.5% in 2006. In 1983, the notional registration
rate had been 97.8%.
7. The decline in register entries in the
early 2000s was also associated with a clear decline in levels
of household response to the annual canvass of electors. This
decline in canvass response appears to have been most marked in
metropolitan areasparticularly the areas covered by the
former Metropolitan County Councils in England. By way of illustration,
figure 3 shows how the registration rate declined alongside the
canvass response rate in England's largest local authority (Birmingham)
from 1999-2005, followed by a modest recovery from 2006-08.
GROWTH IN THE POPULATION AGED 16 AND ABOVE
AND GROWTH IN ENTRIES ON THE ELECTORAL REGISTERS, ENGLAND AND
WALES, 1991-2008 (1991=100)
Source: ONS Mid-Term Estimates; ONS Electoral
CANVASS RETURN RATE AND REGISTRATION RATE,
Sources: Association of Electoral Administrators;
Electoral Commission Performance Standards data; ONS Electoral
Statistics, ONS Mid-Term Estimates
8. This emerging evidence about the state
of the electoral registers is particularly important because the
proposals involve both reducing the number of constituencies and
equalising the number of electors in each. There are significant
concentrations of seats with smaller electorates in a number of
metropolitan areasnotably Merseyside, the West Midlands
and parts of West and South Yorkshire. Given existing registration
levels, it would appear inevitable that these areas will "lose"
representation relative to other area. Yet, based on existing
evidence about local variations in registration levels, it is
clearly conceivable that were a successful registration drive
to take place in these areas during the 2010 annual canvass of
electors tens of thousands of electors could be added to the registers
in individual metropolitan areas. Such a scenario would be likely
to bring a number of constituencies with smaller electorates significantly
closer to the arithmetic mean. This could, in turn, have profound
implications for the outcomes of the boundary review process.
9. The EC's research highlighted that the
rates of completeness of individual electoral registers (the percentage
of missing entries) tends to mirror the rates of accuracy of those
registers (the percentage of entries which are redundant or false).
It could be argued that this will mean that inaccuracy will tend
to counter-balance incompleteness, thereby producing electoral
registers which approximate quite well to the total number of
eligible electors. It will only be possible to test the validity
of this argument once the evidence is available from research
matching entries on the 2010 electoral registers against the 2011
Census records. However, based on the EC research, I would argue
that this assumption is likely to be flawed.
10. The EC research includes detailed case
studies of the registers in eight local authority areas, based
on surveys carried out by Ipsos MORI. These surveys demonstrated
that completeness and accuracy rates tend to mirror one anotherthis
is largely because the principal cause of both missing entries
and redundant entries is the same, namely population movement.
However, additional analysis of registration trends in the eight
areas suggests that the areas with lower rates of completeness
and accuracy were generally those in which the number of registered
electors has failed to keep pace with the growth in the notionally
eligible population over the past decade. This was particularly
evident in the case of Glasgow. Conversely, the areas which were
found to have the most complete and accurate registers tended
to be those where the registered electorate had grown at the same
pace as the adult population. This was well illustrated by the
case of Hambleton, a sparsely populated rural district in North
Yorkshire. Figures 4 and 5 highlight these patterns.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT ELECTORS AND POPULATION
AGED 16+, GLASGOW, 1999-2008 (INDEXED: 1999=100).
Estimated completeness of Glasgow register (September
2009): 74%; estimated accuracy of Glasgow register (September
LOCAL GOVERNMENT ELECTORS AND POPULATION
AGED 16+, HAMBLETON, 1999-2008 (INDEXED: 1999=100).
Estimated completeness of Hambleton's register
(September 2009): 89%; Estimated accuracy of Hambleton's register
(September 2009): 91%.
3 September 2010