Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Chris Ruane MP

1.  The current Government's attitude to constitutional change needs to be set in the context of previous constitutional change. In 1997 the Labour Government introduced a whole raft of change.

2.  Labour was elected with one of the biggest mandates in modern times yet it introduced constitutional and political change that would weaken its own political control.


3.  The previous Conservative Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major had relied heavily on quangoes to reinforce central power at a local level. This conferred massive power to unelected bodies. The practice was to fill these positions with those who "were one of us". Labour promised and delivered open appointments for these places.


4.  After years of formal and informal discussions, constitutional changes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were introduced. Not in a rushed, politicised manner but with lots of thought and preparation involving all political parties, the churches, unions and the rest of civic society. Labour's parliamentary majority was sufficient to push through this legislation on its own terms building in political advantage—it chose not to do so. PR, not first past the post, was the chosen method for election. All of this was ratified with maximum involvement of the people and tested through a referendum.


5.  Labour introduced PR to the European elections which had a devastating effect on its power base. In Wales Labour went from five MEPs to two.


6.  Backbench Labour opposition to individual registration was based on the known fact that its introduction would result in a drop in registration and the more identifiers asked for—the greater the drop. Without proper support and back up measures up to 10%, or an extra 4½ million, could be left off the register. Opposition was also based on the fact that those who would be left off the register would be the poorest and most marginalised in society. Individual registration was supported by the other two main political parties and the Electoral Commission. Internal Labour opposition was overridden and consensus was gained between the Labour Government and the opposition parties. A deal was struck that would ensure that the timescale was sufficient to allow maximum registration before individual registration was introduced. This would enable careful monitoring of the impact and allow remedial action to be taken to reduce its effects.

7.  Contrast the above with the approach of the current Government handling of constitutional issues.

8.  Instead of preparing two separate bills to lay before the House one on AV (to please the Liberals) and Equalisation of Parliamentary seats (to please the Conservatives) they were rolled into one bill so that if one went down the other would. It would be a dance of death—an act of political convenience. The whole process has been geared not towards proper scrutiny and consultation but with desperately fitting into a tight deadline that all parts of the legislation must be finished by the next election to gain maximum political advantage. Indeed the date of the next election was declared (beyond the norm of four years) to ensure sufficient timescale for these constitutional changes to be bedded down.

9.  There are a number of specific measures that have been introduced which I believe are highly politicised:

10.  The freeze date for the electoral register on which the equalisation of seats would be calculated was 1 December 2012. Just six months after the new Government was elected, allowing no time for any of the new measures to improve registration to show results. Consequently 3.5 million people are not included in the calculations for the equalisation of seats.

11.  An MP's caseload is quite often composed of those with the most difficult problems such as housing, benefits, ill health. These are the very people who are unregistered. Some MPs will have an electorate of 76,000 registered constituents and up to another 15,000 unregistered constituents. Individual registration drops could add a further 9,000 to this. These constituencies are quite often in the most deprived areas that are already suffering high unemployment. They are also quite often in areas where the employment which is available is in the public sector which will be cut severely in the next few years.

12.  I have met the credit reference agency Experian which has the best databases in the country. They informed me that the figure for missing electors was nearer to 6½ million. Again the profile is the most marginalised in society.

13.  Having between three and a half and six and a half million missing electors who are deprived, workless and have little stake in society has serious consequences for a properly functioning democracy. There have been many views on the reasons for the riots but political alienation must be a factor, especially in times of rapid economic and political change. It would be interesting to see how many of the rioters were registered to vote. I have both the Minister and the Electoral Commission to conduct research into this.

14.  In my own constituency, the Vale of Clwyd, the electorate has gone down from 56,000 in 1997 to a low of 48,000. It is now back up to 57,000. This was achieved by a strong pro active approach by the ERO and the Chief Executive. The Electoral Registration Forms in Denbighshire were strongly worded and include the sentence "If you do not reply by 23 November 2010 then you face prosecution and a fine of £1,000" in a bold red box.

15.  If there was a non return the Chief Executive sent out a strongly worded letter which finished "In order for me to fulfil my legal duty I am therefore requesting that you complete the enclosed information sheet and return it to me in the envelope provided. If you fail to supply the information requested within 14 days I will have no option but to pass the matter to the Councils Legal Department".

16.  On top of this, door to door visits to non responders are made on a number of occasions as is required by law. These measures have had dramatic results when properly enforced especially in the poorest ward of Rhyl West. Rhyl West is the poorest ward in Wales. Out of approx 1,900 Lower Super Output Areas LSOA (parts of wards) in Wales, Rhyl West had number one and three positions making it the poorest ward in Wales and one of the poorest in the UK. It is composed of hundreds of Houses of Multiple Occupation HMOs, with one door leading to as many as 20 flats. Functional literacy is very low and transience is one of the highest in the country with 49% turnover in pupils in a year in the catchment primary school. The ERO was able to take registration from 2,500 to 3,500 in one year by using these methods.

17.  The Government wish to reserve the right to end the annual canvass. Why make this provision if the annual canvass is known to have had a dramatic effect on registration rates, especially in poorer areas with low literacy rates.

18.  The need to register will no longer be required as a civic duty but as a personal life style choice. Electors will be able to tick a box asking not to be further reminded to register to vote.

The tradition in this country has been that registration is a civic duty. I strongly believe this. If this is to be changed we need careful consideration, not just by the political class but by wider society. The right to register and vote was a fiercely won democratic principle. To undermine this by underplaying registration and nudging people to deregister can only be deemed as an anti democratic measure, being pursued for party political advantage. The effects of de-registration will be felt in other areas of civic life:

—  —  Non registration will influence the shape and make up of any seat ( and neighbouring seats) on a regular five year basis.

—  —  An incomplete register will hinder the ability of political parties to communicate with the electorate.

—  —  It will narrow the base for jury selection

—  —  It will impact on the ability of the individual to access to credit

19.  I give credit to the coalition for listening to representations on the impact of the drop in electorates as a result of the individual registration registers in February 2015 12 weeks away from the 2015. There will be a carry over to the 2015 register of all those who failed to individually register. Voters will be able to vote in the General Election.

20.  The freeze date for the next boundary commission however will be in late 2015 and no such provision will be made for any carryover. All those who do not individually register will be removed from the register at the beginning of the new boundary review.

21.  The Electoral Commission informed a cross party meeting of MPs that individual registration under the current proposals could possibly lead to a slow decline of registration from current levels of around 90% to levels possibly as low as 60%. This could lead potentially to 18 million unregistered voters. How can a democracy function with so many of the poorest voters off the electoral register?

22.  The proposals were described by the Electoral Commission as the biggest change in electoral law since the introduction of the universal franchise. I believe the vast majority of MPs, media, general public or civic society are not aware of the impact of these planned changes. I urge greater discussion and debate not just within Parliament but beyond.

23.  To tinker with the basic building blocks of democracy in such a blatantly cavalier and biased way will make us the laughing stock of the democratic world. This will not promote a Big Society but a banana republic.

September 2011

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Prepared 4 November 2011