Written evidence submitted by Chris Ruane
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
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 advantageit 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 forthe 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 deathan 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
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
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
registration will influence the shape and make up of any seat
( and neighbouring seats) on a regular five year basis.
incomplete register will hinder the ability of political parties
to communicate with the electorate.
will narrow the base for jury selection
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
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.