4 Feb 2015 : Column 338

We have heard from my right hon. and hon. Friends about the good record of this Government. We have our record to be proud of, but Conservative Members also have a clear plan for the future. Unlike the Opposition’s proposals in the motion, our plan is fully costed and fully resourced.

Mr Byrne rose

Nick Boles: We will continue to improve the quality of apprenticeships through our Trailblazers programme by getting groups of employers to develop apprenticeship standards that deliver the skills that they need. We will also offer young people a clear choice: to earn or learn—to get a job or to go to university—or to combine earning and learning through an apprenticeship. It does young people no favours to let them start their lives in subsidised inactivity, neither earning nor learning, so we will restrict the benefits that young people receive and use the money saved from that and from the proceeds of a reduction in the benefits cap from £26,000 to £23,000 to fund 3 million high-quality apprenticeships between 2015 and 2020.

By contrast, what we have heard from the Opposition has been hopelessly vague. After the comprehensive demolition of the shadow Secretary of State’s policy on tuition fees by university vice-chancellors, he has clearly decided to try his luck with apprenticeships, but yet again we see that the right hon. Gentleman is better with atmospherics than with policy detail.

Mr Byrne rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. The Minister is not giving way, and neither did the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) when he was at the Dispatch Box. I must point out that the Front-Bench speakers in this debate have spoken for well over an hour, which is why Back Benchers have had very little time to speak. The right hon. Gentleman has had his chance. I call the Minister.

Nick Boles: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Opposition motion refers to an aspiration that there should be as many people starting apprenticeships as there are going to university. Treasury officials—not Ministers—have costed this policy and advised that it would cost £710 million in 2015-16. But when challenged about how they would pay for this, what tax they would put up, what other spending programme they would cut, answer came there none.

The Opposition motion also promotes the fantastically deluded idea that all apprenticeships should be level 3 and should last a minimum of two years. Treasury officials—again, not Ministers—costed this policy too. They advise that it would cost £680 million in 2015-16. Can the shadow Front-Bench team explain how they would pay for that, who would pay more tax, whose services would be cut? Of course not.

It is especially disappointing to see this policy soufflé survive the exacting inquiries of the Opposition’s very own Masterchef, the shadow Minister. He has a razor-sharp mind and a real zeal for reform, but I am afraid it is clear that he has been relegated to the sidelines, allowed out only on high days and holidays and, as we have just heard, forced to read from the Leader of the Opposition’s

4 Feb 2015 : Column 339

lazily profligate script. The flimsiness of the Labour party’s proposals for apprenticeships might be harmless enough in the early years of opposition. That, of course, is where the shadow Secretary of State has learned his trade. But in government, it would create chaos.

Employers, training providers and young people are making big decisions when they decide to invest in creating apprenticeships and in creating the training programmes to support apprenticeships and, as young people, deciding to commit to an apprenticeship. They need certainty and clarity if they are to have the confidence to make a long-term commitment to apprenticeships. They need a competent Government with a clear plan and a clear understanding of how much their plan will cost and how they will pay for it.

If there is a Conservative Government after 7 May, we will invest in apprenticeships, which will be jobs and will last more than 12 months. Every apprentice will have an employer. There will be 3 million of them between 2015 and 2020 and we will pay for them by reducing other areas of Government spending so that, as we have in this Parliament, we can increase our investment in the apprenticeships programme. I urge Members to support those parties that really understand how to grow apprenticeships, and to oppose the motion.

Question put.

The House divided:

Ayes 218, Noes 294.

Division No. 148]


4.28 pm


Abrahams, Debbie

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, rh Mr Douglas

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Ashworth, Jonathan

Austin, Ian

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Balls, rh Ed

Banks, Gordon

Barron, rh Kevin

Bayley, Sir Hugh

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Benn, rh Hilary

Berger, Luciana

Betts, Mr Clive

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, rh Mr Gordon

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Brown, Mr Russell

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Campbell, rh Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Caton, Martin

Chapman, Jenny

Clark, Katy

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Sir Tony

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

Darling, rh Mr Alistair

David, Wayne

Davidson, Mr Ian

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobson, rh Frank

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doran, Mr Frank

Dowd, Jim

Doyle, Gemma

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eagle, Maria

Efford, Clive

Elliott, Julie

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Engel, Natascha

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flynn, Paul

Fovargue, Yvonne

Francis, Dr Hywel

Gapes, Mike

Gardiner, Barry

Gilmore, Sheila

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Goodman, Helen

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hamilton, Mr David

Harman, rh Ms Harriet

Harris, Mr Tom

Healey, rh John

Hendrick, Mark

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Hermon, Lady

Heyes, David

Hillier, Meg

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Hopkins, Kelvin

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jackson, Glenda

Jamieson, Cathy

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Mr Kevan

Jones, Susan Elan

Jowell, rh Dame Tessa

Kane, Mike

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lavery, Ian

Lazarowicz, Mark

Leslie, Chris

Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Mr Khalid

Mahmood, Shabana

Malhotra, Seema

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCabe, Steve

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonald, Andy

McDonnell, Dr Alasdair

McDonnell, John

McGovern, Alison

McGovern, Jim

McGuire, rh Dame Anne

McInnes, Liz

McKechin, Ann

McKenzie, Mr Iain

Meale, Sir Alan

Mearns, Ian

Miliband, rh Edward

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morrice, Graeme


Morris, Grahame M.


Munn, Meg

Murphy, rh Paul

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

O'Donnell, Fiona

Onwurah, Chi

Osborne, Sandra

Paisley, Ian

Pearce, Teresa

Pound, Stephen

Powell, Lucy

Qureshi, Yasmin

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reeves, Rachel

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Mr Frank

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Dame Joan

Sawford, Andy

Seabeck, Alison

Shannon, Jim

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Sheridan, Jim

Shuker, Gavin

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, Angela

Smith, Nick

Smith, Owen

Spellar, rh Mr John

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thornberry, Emily

Timms, rh Stephen

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, Valerie

Walley, Joan

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Williamson, Chris

Wilson, Phil

Wilson, Sammy

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Woodcock, John

Woodward, rh Mr Shaun

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Ayes:

Bridget Phillipson


Julie Hilling


Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, rh Norman

Baker, Steve

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, rh Gregory

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Bellingham, Mr Henry

Benyon, Richard

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Brake, rh Tom

Brazier, Mr Julian

Bridgen, Andrew

Brooke, rh Annette

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burstow, rh Paul

Burt, rh Alistair

Byles, Dan

Cable, rh Vince

Cairns, Alun

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Carmichael, Neil

Cash, Sir William

Chishti, Rehman

Chope, Mr Christopher

Clappison, Mr James

Clark, rh Greg

Clarke, rh Mr Kenneth

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Crabb, rh Stephen

Crockart, Mike

Crouch, Tracey

Davies, Philip

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dorries, Nadine

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duncan, rh Sir Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Evans, Mr Nigel

Evennett, Mr David

Fabricant, Michael

Farron, Tim

Featherstone, rh Lynne

Field, Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fuller, Richard

Gale, Sir Roger

Garnier, Sir Edward

Garnier, Mark

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Gray, Mr James

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, rh Damian

Greening, rh Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Hague, rh Mr William

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, rh Matthew

Hands, rh Greg

Harper, Mr Mark

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Harvey, Sir Nick

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Hayes, rh Mr John

Heald, Sir Oliver

Heath, Mr David

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Herbert, rh Nick

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Holloway, Mr Adam

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Howarth, Sir Gerald

Howell, John

Hughes, rh Simon

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Hunter, Mark

Huppert, Dr Julian

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, rh Sajid

Jenrick, Robert

Johnson, Gareth

Jones, Andrew

Jones, rh Mr David

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Sir Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Lamb, rh Norman

Lancaster, Mark

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Dr Phillip

Leech, Mr John

Leigh, Sir Edward

Leslie, Charlotte

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Brandon

Lloyd, Stephen

Lopresti, Jack

Loughton, Tim

Luff, Sir Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Main, Mrs Anne

Maude, rh Mr Francis

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McPartland, Stephen

Menzies, Mark

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, rh Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Moore, rh Michael

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, rh Nicky

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Mulholland, Greg

Mundell, rh David

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Neill, Robert

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Nokes, Caroline

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

O'Brien, rh Mr Stephen

Offord, Dr Matthew

Ottaway, rh Sir Richard

Paice, rh Sir James

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Paterson, rh Mr Owen

Penning, rh Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Sir John

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Reid, Mr Alan

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, rh Sir Hugh

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Sir Bob

Rutley, David

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Shepherd, Sir Richard

Simpson, Mr Keith

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Smith, Sir Robert

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Stuart, Mr Graham

Stunell, rh Sir Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Swire, rh Mr Hugo

Syms, Mr Robert

Thornton, Mike

Thurso, rh John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Uppal, Paul

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vickers, Martin

Walker, Mr Charles

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Ward, Mr David

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, rh Steve

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Willetts, rh Mr David

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williams, Stephen

Willott, rh Jenny

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, rh Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Harriett Baldwin


Dr Thérèse Coffey

Question accordingly negatived.

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4 Feb 2015 : Column 341

4 Feb 2015 : Column 342

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4 Feb 2015 : Column 344

Electoral Registration

4.41 pm

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House recognises the importance of a complete and accurate electoral register to the health of our democracy; welcomes the fact that 1.8 million voters have registered using online registration, but notes that, according to the Electoral Commission, 7.5 million eligible voters are missing from the register; notes with concern that an estimated one million voters have left the register in the past year and that the shift to individual electoral registration could see millions more fall off the register; calls on the Government and the Electoral Commission to do more to tackle under-registration, including block-registering students in university or college accommodation and people living in adult sheltered accommodation and care homes, introducing a schools registration scheme, on the model of the Northern Ireland Schools Initiative, to boost registration in time for the General Election on 7 May 2015, and maximising the use of national and local data sets in securing a complete register; and further calls on the Government to set a clear goal to reduce the numbers of missing voters and to delay fully implementing individual electoral registration until this goal is met.

As the Government’s timetable has meant limited time for debating this important matter, I shall focus my remarks on the motion and how we can ensure that the general election in 92 days’ time is as fair as possible. We want the electoral register to be as complete and accurate as possible—something that I hope we all want. After all, it is the lifeblood of our democracy. If a person is not on the list, they cannot vote—it is as simple as that.

However, the electoral register also performs a much wider civic function. It provides the building blocks that the Boundary Commission uses to decide parliamentary constituency boundaries. One of the fundamental principles of our legal system—trial by one’s peers—depends on the register, as it provides the list of those who can be called for jury service. Those who are not on the register will find it more difficult, and maybe even impossible, to secure credit or a mortgage.

That is why it is so appalling that according to the Electoral Commission’s own research some 7.5 million people are missing from the register. We know what kinds of voters are more likely to be missing: young voters, students, those who have recently changed address, those who rent privately, the unemployed, those from ethnic minorities and those in socio-economic groups D and E—in other words, poorer members of society.

Some 95% of the over-65s are on the electoral register, yet estimates of the proportion of 18 to 24-year-olds on it vary from 56% to 70%. If that were not a big enough problem, we know that there is also considerable variation in the rates of those who actually vote. Just 44% of 18 to 24-year-olds voted in the 2010 general election, and the figure for the over-65s was pushing 75%.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): On 13 October 2011 the right hon. Gentleman said that 10 million people would lose the right to vote, but he has just said that the figure is only 7.5 million, so how has the situation improved since then?

Sadiq Khan: I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make—that 7.5 million is somehow more acceptable? He will appreciate, because he cares about these matters, that it depends on what figures are referred to. The Electoral Commission has done some

4 Feb 2015 : Column 345

estimates, as have other academics. It might be a laughing matter for Conservative MPs, but we think that it is a very serious issue.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way in this incredibly important debate. Does he share the concern of many people in Liverpool that the figures for attainers—the under-18s who still need to go on the register in anticipation of becoming eligible to vote—show a 97% drop in the number of 16 and 17-year-olds on Liverpool’s electoral register as a result of the introduction of the Government’s new scheme, from 2,635 to just 76? Is he as appalled as I am about those new figures?

Sadiq Khan: My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said, the register that will be used for the general election in 92 days’ time will have missing from it those who have just reached the age of 18 and should be taking part in general elections. It is estimated that there will be 3.3 million first-time voters on 7 May, and we are concerned that too many of them will be missing from the register.

Almost three quarters of those who vote are in socio-economic class AB—the wealthiest—yet fewer than two thirds of C2s and Ds do so. Our elections are being fought on the basis of a seriously skewed register, with key groups and communities under-represented.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sadiq Khan: In a moment.

Our election results are being decided by voters who are older and more affluent. This is an appropriate time for me to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr Chope: There are 47 countries in the Council of Europe, and individual voter registration is a basic minimum safeguard against fraud in every single one of them. Does the right hon. Gentleman not support that as a basic principle?

Sadiq Khan: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we introduced the measure in 2009, and he supported it. Under our motion, we would not get rid of individual voter registration but ensure that there were safeguards before the next general election.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I represent an inner-city seat where we shall see a significant reduction in the overall number of our electors, and I am concerned about the implications of that. Individual voter registration came in cheek by jowl with the concerns about electoral fraud that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) mentioned. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise the genuine concern about the fact that we can now have postal votes at will? The number of postal votes went up from some 920,000 in the 1997 election to over 6 million in the last election. It is the concern about the misuse of postal votes that makes individual registration so important.

4 Feb 2015 : Column 346

Sadiq Khan: The hon. Gentleman’s point is not relevant to the motion, but I will deal with it directly. If he has concerns about the misuse of postal votes, I advise him to report them to the police and to the Electoral Commission. He will be aware of the numbers of prosecutions that there have been over the past few years. We have to be quite careful about using parliamentary privilege to make allegations. If he has specific examples, I ask him to refer them to the police and the Electoral Commission.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): The constituency with the highest proportion of postal ballots is Tatton, with 96%. Is the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) aware that 93% of people transferred their postal ballots from household registration to individual registration? Postal ballots are valued by the voting public.

Sadiq Khan: That is a very important point. In some constituencies the number of people using postal votes is incredibly high. I am sure that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was not suggesting that the voters in Tatton are committing electoral fraud.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a complete red herring? The Electoral Commission’s report of 2006, when we had all-postal pilots—in my own constituency, for example—found that fraud was not an issue.

Sadiq Khan: My hon. Friend makes an important point. To be fair to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster, he was not suggesting that there was huge-scale fraud but pointing out the concerns that exist. He is nodding, so I think he accepts that.

Mark Field rose

Sadiq Khan: I will let the hon. Gentleman make one final point before I make progress.

Mark Field: I was suggesting not that there is widespread fraud but that the large number of postal votes makes it all the more important to ensure the sanctity and security of the electoral system. Taking the individual registration route was an important part of that. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman’s party, when in government, made it clear that we should go down this route. The concern that he is expressing about students and people from certain socio-economic groups is part and parcel of the individual registration process.

Sadiq Khan: I am grateful for that clarification, and to demonstrate what a nice guy I am, I shall give way one last time.

Chris Ruane: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way a second time. May I inform him and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) that there has been one successful prosecution for postal ballot fraud in the past seven years?

Sadiq Khan: I thank my hon. Friend for confirming the point that I was seeking to make a short while ago.

There is some good news. Many people out there are not prepared to put up with this inequality. I pay tribute to all those involved in registering people to vote—it is a

4 Feb 2015 : Column 347

tough job, but critical—from local authority electoral registration officers to political party activists of all parties pounding the pavements, and from the NUS to HOPE not hate, Operation Black Vote and our trade unions, who tirelessly work to get people registered. I also pay tribute to the

Daily Mirror

’s No Vote No Voice campaign, getting its readers and their families and friends registered to vote.

In particular, I want to pay tribute to and thank Bite the Ballot, the architects of tomorrow’s national voter registration day. Anyone who has been involved in one of their sessions with young people cannot fail to be impressed by the infectious enthusiasm of Mike Sani and his team. It is a real pity that the Prime Minister chose to snub their leaders’ debate, although it is perhaps indicative of how some in the ruling classes view younger voters.

To complicate matters further, the whole way we go about registering to vote is undergoing a fundamental change. Yes, it was the last Government who, in 2009, legislated to introduce individual electoral registration. That legislation was shaped by the experiences in Northern Ireland—when they moved to IER, there was an 11% fall in the numbers registered, so to counter that a transition period was put in place for long enough to prevent a repeat. Safeguards were also put in place at key milestones to check against any deterioration in the completeness of the register. Colleagues on both sides of the House welcomed that careful and considerate approach to moving to IER.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), now Madam Deputy Speaker, who in those days spoke for the Conservative party, said:

“I am very pleased to have the opportunity to put it on the record once and for all that we agree with the Government that the accuracy, comprehensiveness and integrity of the register and of the system is paramount. That is one of the reasons why we will not oppose the timetable the Minister has suggested this evening.”

The then Liberal Democrat spokesman said:

“I do not think that anybody was suggesting that the timetable be artificially shortened, or that any risk be taken with the comprehensiveness of the register.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 108-12.]

After the last general election, the coalition, in its arrogance, decided to rip up the cross-party approach supported by all sides in the previous Parliament. The coalition agreement contained a commitment to

“speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration”,

and the Government introduced the reckless Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which removed the voluntary phase and instead introduced compulsory individual electoral registration from July 2014.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): My right hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. He correctly predicted the drop-off in the electoral register, and the scrapping of the voluntary arrangement in the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 is the root cause of these problems. Does he share my concern that the loss of those electors will lead to the long-term deterioration of the electoral register?

Sadiq Khan: Absolutely. Having fewer and fewer people taking part in elections is a bad thing for all of us. The Government’s justification for getting rid of the voluntary

4 Feb 2015 : Column 348

phase was that it would save money, but it is right to remind the House that we warned that speeding up the process and stripping out the key safeguards was gambling with the completeness of the electoral register. We were not alone. Similar warnings were voiced by experts, academics, the Electoral Reform Society and the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who is in his place. We take no satisfaction in saying, “We told you so.”

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): Does the shadow Secretary of State not accept that anyone who was on the household register in July 2014 who is still in the same house remains on the new register today? Is that not a serious safeguard?

Sadiq Khan: I shall come to the data-matching shortly, but we have considered those on the register in December 2013 and those on the register in December 2014, after the data-matching. An estimated 1 million voters have dropped off the electoral register. For 1 million to be missing in a year is bad enough, but the trends in the groups that are unregistered is also worrying. Data coming in from local authorities are showing serious drops among students and those turning 18. In the patch of my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), the number registering fell from 630 to 114 in just 12 months. As has been said, the figure for attainers registering in Liverpool has slumped from 2,300 to just 76. Three areas with large number of students —Cardiff, Newcastle and Brighton—have seen drops of between 9% and 10.5% in the numbers registered.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I represent one of the youngest constituencies in the country, with an increasing number of young private renters—there are more private renters than home owners in the constituency—and people who move frequently drop off the register. I pay tribute to my borough of Hackney, which has put money and time into bringing the register up again. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the cost of doing so is also a problem for local tax payers?

Sadiq Khan: To give Members an idea of the scale of the challenge, local authorities now have to write to each individual voter rather than to each household, which is a huge expense. To be fair—because I like to be fair—the Deputy Prime Minister has finally woken up—

The Minister for the Constitution (Mr Sam Gyimah) rose

Sadiq Khan: A Tory Minister of course stands up when I mention the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr Gyimah: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for being gracious in giving way. Liverpool authority received £161,000, which was the third highest allocation for maximising registration funding in the country. If there is any question to ask about the drop-off in registrations, it should be directed towards the council.

Sadiq Khan: Let us get this right. Academics, experts, the Select Committee, the Electoral Reform Society and everyone else says “Slow down”, but the Government

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go ahead. We warn them that it will go wrong, but who do they blame when it goes wrong? Somebody else. They are the same old Tories.

Mr Kevan Jones: I must say that I take great exception to the Minister’s arrogance, because his letter—agreed with the Electoral Commission—missed off attainers, and that has led to the drop in the number of 17-year-olds being registered.

Mr Gyimah indicated dissent.

Mr Jones: The Minister shakes his head, but he should read that letter. Even the letter he has now sent out does not ask households to include 17-year-olds. He changed the original letter. It’s your fault!

Sadiq Khan: Perhaps Ministers do not realise what officials in the Cabinet Office are sending out, but they have accepted that it was their mistake.

To be fair to the Minister, his boss, the Deputy Prime Minister, has finally woken up to the mess that this Government made by speeding up the process. That must be why, last month, the Deputy Prime Minister announced £9.8 million to help with registering voters who are currently under-represented. He accepted that he had messed up. Will the Minister confirm that that money is ring-fenced solely for electoral registration activities?

Another critical factor is the extreme pressure on local authorities because of the cuts imposed by this Government. Local authorities have to write to 48 million individual voters, instead of 20 million households. Unlike the Minister, who criticises them, I take my hat off to local authorities, most of which are doing a remarkable job dealing with this massive change in our democracy, all against a backdrop of enormous pressures on council budgets.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): In Coventry, more than 8,000 people have not been registered, the bulk of whom are students. Coventry city council, alongside the students, has organised a registration day tomorrow at both universities. The situation is very serious, and it is no good the Government blaming everybody else but themselves when things go wrong.

Sadiq Khan: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I am sure we all agree it is outrageous that the Government are once again seeking to blame somebody else for cock-ups that they were warned about.

The electoral register is in a parlous state. It is just 92 days until the general election, and just 75 days until the deadline for registration on 20 April. We need action, and we need it now. Doing nothing is not an option. The main thrust of our motion is to propose a number of remedies to which the House should give its backing. A particular priority must be young people. All the evidence shows that if people vote when they first become eligible, they are more likely to vote for the rest of their lives, because voting becomes a habit. The opposite is also true: if people do not vote early in life, taking part in elections will never be much of an issue for them. There must be a greater onus on schools and colleges to provide focused activities.

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Mr Kevan Jones: The Electoral Commission and the Minister have not learned. Even though the issue of attainers has been raised with him, the letter that authorities are sending out, to which he and the Electoral Commission have agreed, does not refer to 17-year-olds being electors. They have not learned the lesson, even though the issue has been pointed out to them by electoral registration officers all over the country and certainly by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane).

Sadiq Khan: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I pay tribute to him and other colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), for working hard with the universities and young people in their constituencies to get young people on the register.

We need special provisions for this group of people. We should allow universities and colleges to block-register those who are in halls of residence, to meet the unique challenge presented by younger people, and students in particular. That could be done very quickly and in time for May. A similar case can be made for care homes and sheltered accommodation: large groups of people who are under the responsibility of an organisation, a local authority or a charity should be allowed to be block-registered.

A scheme in Northern Ireland called the schools initiative has proved to be successful in raising the registration levels of younger people. It places a duty on schools and colleges to provide the ERO with lists of those who are approaching the age of majority. The EROs then go into the schools and colleges with pre-populated registration forms and get the students to complete them. That is even easier now that online registration is allowed.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the two parties that form the coalition have a vested interest in keeping down the number of students and would-be students on the electoral register, because those two parties are the ones that put the fees up to £9,000?

Sadiq Khan: Many people will start thinking that, unless the Government take action. It is in all our interests for as many people who can vote to be on the register and to vote.

One of the brighter spots of the move to IER, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), has been the use of DWP data to verify those on the old household register in order to register them automatically on the new individual register. It is far from perfect and it has struggled with many of the under-represented groups, such as students and younger people, but it has taken the pressure off many millions of people who have not had to go through the rigmarole of registering individually.

That has showed how we can use data that are already in our possession to make the job easier. Why should we restrict that to DWP data? Why can we not look at registering people automatically if local EROs are confident that they are eligible to vote? That is covered in the later sections of the motion. The Government are in possession

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of considerable data about members of the public, including on benefits, social security and pensions and data held by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Passport Office and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Local authorities have data on council tax, council tenants, parking permits, school rolls, meals on wheels and so on. Those agencies should all be geared up to ask members of the public whether they are registered to vote when they come into contact with them. We could perhaps set up systems to notify a local authority if somebody applies for a new driving licence or changes their address with the taxman.

We should be more ambitious. We should be making better use of data so that people are put on the register automatically. I have had informal chats with some local authorities and they believe that they could construct a more complete register if they were allowed to use the data in their possession. We would, of course, allow people to ask to be removed from the register. The idea of maximising the information that we possess to populate the register has legs, and we will explore it in detail if we win in May. It would be useful to hear from the Minister why it is not being looked at and to hear what his objections are.

In conclusion, it is unacceptable that so many people are unregistered and are being deprived of their say in the way the country is run. I am disappointed that the Government and the Electoral Commission are so complacent about the bad news on the state of the register —bad news that grows by the day. We need a clear statement of intent from Ministers and a goal for the reduction in the number of missing voters, because we cannot afford to take risks with the register. A chronically depleted register, with missing voters concentrated in certain communities and parts of the country, will call into question the legitimacy of our democracy. Let us act now before it is too late.

5.4 pm

The Minister for the Constitution (Mr Sam Gyimah): This is an important debate. The right to vote has been hard won, and it is the duty of everyone in public life, including those in the Government, to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote is able to vote. It is also vital that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible. In pursuing that, it is my view that everyone who has the right to vote shares that right equally, including students, minority ethnic groups, forces personnel and British residents overseas. The Opposition speak as though some voters should be prioritised over others, but we believe that if someone is eligible to vote, we must take the necessary action to ensure that they are on the register.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I hope my hon. Friend will agree that the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) made an admirable case for political equality, and as he wrapped up his speech he spoke about the legitimacy of our democracy. Does the Minister agree how surprising it is that Labour Members are not insisting on the equalisation of constituency sizes?

Mr Gyimah: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I will not be tempted into that debate.

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Individual electoral registration was first introduced by the last Labour Government and has cross-party support—there is nothing sinister or cynical about the transition. As with academy schools in education, Labour was right to seek to modernise our electoral system by introducing IER, but once again we are seeing the measure through while Labour Members seek to disown it. I wonder what has prompted the change of heart on the Labour Benches.

Luciana Berger: The Minister talks about the importance of including everyone on the register, but in Liverpool we have lost more than 20,000 people from our electoral register. He said earlier that Liverpool had received a sum of money, but obviously that has not worked so far. What else will his Department do to assist Liverpool to ensure that we get those 20,000 people back on our electoral register?

Mr Gyimah: As I said, in addition to the £161,000 of maximised registration funding, Liverpool received £288,000 to help boost its register. If that money was not enough, the city can apply to the Cabinet Office for more funding using justification-led bids. Electoral registration officers have statutory responsibility for maintaining the register, so perhaps the hon. Lady will ask her EROs what they have done with the money.

What has prompted the change of heart on the Labour Benches about IER? Is it because the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) is trying to taunt the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) in their bids to become the Labour candidate for the Mayor of London? Could it be that the Labour party, rightly scared of the next election, has retreated to the comfort zone of opposition politics and scaremongering about the Government’s policies?

Chris Ruane: If the Conservatives win, and if the Minister is still a Minister in June, he will take the most momentous decision of his life: whether to let 5 million people drop off the register before the freeze date for boundaries on 1 December. What principles will guide him in that decision? When I asked him that in Committee, he did not have any.

Mr Gyimah: I will come to the details of the electoral register—[Interruption.] May I answer the question? There is a clear process through which the decision will be made about whether to end the transition in 2015. That will be down to the independent advice of the Electoral Commission, whoever is Minister and whoever is in government.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): In a democracy everybody should have the right to register to vote, but we must also get the correct people to register so that there is no fraud. Surely the Government must ensure that the register is correct.

Mr Gyimah: My hon. Friend puts his finger on it: IER is about ensuring the completeness and accuracy of the register, and as we do that some people will drop off and others will have to get on it.

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Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Can the Minister identify any case in the last 30 years of wrongful registration? Is this not a red herring?

Mr Gyimah: IER was the policy of your party to make the electoral process secure. The Electoral Commission has identified 16 local authorities at risk of electoral fraud. Just because you have not been able to point to it, it does not mean fraud is not happening. That is the point.

The same Labour party that introduced IER is now seeking to disown it. It is the same Labour party that said our long-term economic plan would lead to the disappearance of 1 million jobs. [Interruption.] Instead, 1,000 new jobs have been created every day of this Parliament. It said that reforming education maintenance allowance would increase the number of young people not in education, employment or training. [Interruption.] Instead, we have seen the biggest drop in the number of NEETs since records began.

Mr Kevan Jones: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am listening carefully to the rubbish the Minister is talking. It is quite embarrassing. We are discussing electoral registration, not the Government’s economic record, so could we get the Minister back on to the subject?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): That is not a point of order.

Mr Gyimah: I am making the point that the Opposition are scaremongering, rather—[Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op) rose

Mr Deputy Speaker: Just a second. The Minister was giving way to me, not you, Mr Twigg. I say to hon. Members that we have very little time, and shouting down the Minister does not help anybody trying to listen to the debate. Let us listen and show some courtesy to all Members.

Mr Gyimah: The Opposition said that our plan to ensure universities were properly funded would lead to fewer students going to university, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds. We now have record numbers of students, including from disadvantaged backgrounds, attending university. With this record, it is no surprise that the Opposition are seeking to create fear and uncertainty where there should be none.

Stephen Twigg: The Minister said that our motion sought to disown IER. Where in the motion do we do that?

Mr Gyimah: In practice, you either believe in IER, or you do not. Your motion talks about block registration—[Interruption.]—which is a deviation from the principle of IER—

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I am not responsible for the motion. I have let one or two “yous” go, but now I feel I am being brought into this debate. I also say to Members that the Minister is giving examples as he sees

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fit. It might not suit certain Members, but it is up to the Minister to make his speech as he wishes, and he is completely in order.

Mr Gyimah: Let me give the facts on the electoral register. The Electoral Commission’s research shows that, in 2000, 3 million people were missing from the register. In 2011, that figure had risen to an estimated 7.5 million. This is against a backdrop of an increasing population. Since 2011, the drop in registration figures has stabilised. For the 13 years Labour was in power, the state of the register deteriorated, and very little was done about it.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Will my hon. Friend explain why when in power Labour made sure the military had individual registration but now seems less keen on the idea for other people?

Mr Gyimah: My hon. Friend rightly points to the principle I laid out at the beginning of my speech: we have to treat all voters equally when it comes to the electoral register.

We all know that under the old system the register was inflated. Tenants and students moved on, but the register did not. People were registered at multiple addresses without their knowledge.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): In Blaenau Gwent over the past year, more than 2,000 people have dropped off the register. Does the Minister accept that being on the register is important in obtaining credit and getting a mortgage? What are the Government going to do to help the 8.5 million people who have fallen off the register to get a mortgage and to borrow money?

Mr Gyimah: The number of people on the register is increasing all the time. If we look at the register for December or for any month, we see that it provides a partial snapshot of a two-year transition process. We also know that the old system was susceptible to fraud. In one case, someone managed to register their dog to vote.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does the Minister not accept that many of these problems became apparent when this was introduced in Northern Ireland? The Government have chosen to ignore all that and press on anyway.

Mr Gyimah: That is contrary to the facts. One thing the Government did was to learn the lessons from Northern Ireland. Without going into all the detail, we preserved the annual canvass, for example. Electoral registration plummeted in Northern Ireland because it did not have the annual canvass. Since IER went live, however, nine out of 10 electors have been automatically transferred to the electoral register. No one on the electoral roll at the last canvass will lose their right to vote at the next general election.

Dr Offord: Much emphasis is placed on people missing from the register. The Minister said that people entitled to be on the register are on it for two years. When I asked my office to go through some of the people seeking asylum and indefinite leave to remain in this country, we found that 16 people not entitled to vote

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under the old system were on the register and that 10 of them continued to be so. I have duplications and people who should not be on the register. What provision will be made to remove them?

Mr Gyimah: My hon. Friend points to why we introduced IER. He should take the matter up with his local ERO, who is responsible for ensuring the integrity of his local register.

Online registration has made it simpler and easier to register to vote, and I am pleased to announce that 900,000 18 to 25-year-olds have registered to vote online. As I said, we have learned the lessons from Northern Ireland.

I can assure the House that every resource request, from electoral returning officers, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and the Electoral Commission has been met. I pay tribute to all the electoral administration officers and dedicated professionals in the Cabinet Office who are working to make the transition to IER a smooth one, but we are not complacent.

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): For the record, the Minister said that 900,000 had registered to vote online, but I think 900,000 might have chosen to register online—unless his announcement is much more significant than we all thought, and he is actually announcing today online voting, which many of us would welcome.

Mr Gyimah: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his correction; that number registered to vote online.

Despite the 900,000 young people who have registered to vote online, we are not complacent in our efforts. In January, we announced that an extra £10 million would be invested this year to maximise voter registration—in addition to the £4.2 million announced last year. Today, I can announce that £2.5 million of this funding will be used specifically to target groups that are under-represented on the electoral roll, including students, minority ethnic communities, overseas voters and members of the armed forces, while also tackling the issue of electoral fraud.

Mr Kevan Jones: The Minister keeps talking about money, but the issue is not about money; it is about the system that he is implementing. Why is it that, even though he and the Electoral Commission have been told about this, the latest letter Durham and other councils have to send out to households still do not include the old wording about registering 17-year-olds?

Mr Gyimah: The hon. Gentleman has asked that question three times—twice to his own Front-Bench spokesman and now to me. What we have is a system of individual voter registration. Under the old system, parents would have put the attainer’s name on the form; under the new system, people have to register themselves. That is why we are funding “Rock Enrol!” to introduce students to the registration process at school, and why we are carrying out a national awareness campaign to introduce people to that same process.

Mr Jones: Not only have I raised the point four times today, but I have raised it with the Minister outside the Chamber as well. The fact is that those who receive these letters need to know whether they will become

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attainers. Under the old system, it was possible to ask for anyone aged 17 who was is likely to attain the age of 18 in the next 12 months to be placed on the register. It would have been simple to make the change. The money that is now being spent on sending the letters would have ensured that 17-year-olds in those households were registered.

Mr Gyimah: The letter to which the hon. Gentleman refers was tested and approved by the Electoral Commission, and in terms of users. [Interruption.] I want to make some progress now.

The £2.5 million that I have announced will be delivered through a number of organisations, including the British Youth Council, Citizens UK, Mencap and Operation Black Vote, to ensure that as many people as possible are placed on the register. The right hon. Member for Tooting mentioned data-matching. There is much more that we can do in that regard. We are currently running pilots involving the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and there will be a report on them in September. Once IER has bedded in, we shall consider other ways in which we can use data that is gathered when people interact with other public services to help them to register to vote.

Sadiq Khan: Earlier in his speech, the Minister made the point that everyone should be treated equally. The fact that he is allowing data-matching means that every single person must fill in a form. If he accepts the principle that everyone should be registered in the same way, why will he not extend that people to allow block registration in halls of residence?

Mr Gyimah: The registration of students, and block registration in particular, is a key issue in the motion. In my view, you either believe in individual voter registration or you do not. You cannot have it both ways. Singling out any group of voters for block registration would be a step backwards to the old, discredited system of registration.

What is most farcical about the stance adopted by the Opposition today is that they want to give 16-year-olds the vote, but do not trust them to be able to register themselves, even once they are at university. Their whole approach is based on political gimmicks. That is why the Leader of the Opposition ended up making a speech on under-registration in Sheffield, although Sheffield university, which has piloted a registration system involving the use of data when people enrol, has one of the highest student registration rates.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): Will the Minister also note that Sheffield Hallam university, which has not reached that stage, has one of the lowest levels of student registration?

Mr Gyimah: It should be doing that. [Interruption.] It is not a case of blaming someone else. In 2013, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities wrote to all vice-chancellors and academic registrars, encouraging them to look at multiple ways of getting students on to the register. We have set up a student forum in which best practice can be shared. If any academic registrars are not doing that, Members

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should by all means let me know, and we will write to them again to ensure that they are engaging in best practice.

Let me now answer the question about block registration. Data-sharing between universities and local authorities is the key, and we are working to ensure that all universities share data. That will enable electoral registration offers to have students’ enrolment details, and to chase them to register. It also means that we can preserve the central tenet of IER, which is that individuals should be responsible for their own registration.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Bizarrely, there are more properties than there are electors on the register in the Newland ward in my constituency, where the vast majority of Hull university students live. Those students live in houses in multiple occupation. That strikes me as very peculiar. Will the Minister comment?

Mr Gyimah: Another point that has not been grasped by the Opposition is that students can choose where to register to vote. They can choose to register to vote at home or at their college premises, or, indeed both. That is entirely right. What we should move away from—and what we are moving away from—is the system whereby the warden of a college chose where the student registered. In some cases, people did not even know that they were on the electoral roll in the area concerned.

It is important that we debate this issue, but we have to be clear about what is happening today. This is not a genuine concern about a policy, because we know Labour is supportive of IER. Instead, it is an opportunistic attempt by the Labour party to con students that it is fighting for their interests when its own activists’ handbook advises it to ignore under-registered groups. That is why I urge the House to reject the motion.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Speeches have a time limit of six minutes.

5.25 pm

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): I begin with a happy announcement. If colleagues wish to go outside from about 6 pm, national voter registration day, which is tomorrow, is being celebrated this evening by a projection on to the Elizabeth Tower of an exciting animation showing ballot papers going into a ballot box. I thank the Speaker for facilitating my request to involve Parliament in national voter registration day. I am sure colleagues will avail themselves of the opportunity for a wonderful “selfie” from Westminster bridge.

More seriously, the elephant in the room is not the technicalities of voting and registration, but why people are disengaged from politics. We must facilitate people’s engagement with politics. The real reason people are not engaged with registration and voting is that they are disengaged from our democracy. They suffer a daily drip feed of corrosive cynicism, often very strongly politically biased, from the media. Our parties have atrophied. We have concentrated more and more on 50 to 100 marginal seats and not looked after our parties. There is immense ignorance, which none of us

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does much to dispel, around the idea that Parliament and Government have the same, rather than conflicting, interests. There is a failure, even in this place, to set out what a plural, devolved democracy of independent institutions might look and feel like. Add to that the chronic sclerosis of Whitehall and an over-centralisation that kills local creativity and responsibility, and we have a recipe of poor capability on electoral registration and bureaucracy around voting that can produce a poisonous mixture for the future of our democracy.

I am delighted we are seeking to address at least some of those difficulties today. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has reported seven times on this specific issue since 2011—seven separate reports by a Select Committee of this place to flag up what might go wrong with individual electoral registration. I have gone back through the reports today looking over the same difficulties. To the Government’s credit, they have addressed some of them, in particular on finance and on certain technical matters, and I am grateful for that. Fundamentally, however, many of the difficulties the Committee has outlined over five years are coming to pass, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) said from the Opposition Front Bench, with just 92 days to go before an election and 38 days to go before Dissolution. In our complacency, we have let these problems grow and we are finding immense difficulties in each of our constituencies.

On postal voting, about half a million people have been kicked off the electoral register because they failed to reregister. That is a misfortune for them. Many of us will have been on the doorstep and said, “Hello, I am your Member of Parliament. I can see that you might need a postal vote. Can we give you that postal vote? Can we get that registration for a postal vote for you?” The Member of Parliament has been there and almost given a guarantee that the constituent will have a postal vote, but some of those people will be the very people who will not now be eligible to vote—some may not be in the first flush of youth—because of all the technicalities. We need to make sure we get these messages over and get them over quickly.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): The hon. Gentleman will know that the universal postal voting regime was introduced to boost turnout. Why does he suppose that since 2001 turnout has been 59%, 61% and 65%, whereas in previous elections it was 75%, 73% and 78%?

Mr Allen: We live in a democracy and it is the sacred duty of every Member of this House of every party to ensure that as many people register to vote and as many people can vote as is humanly possible. To throw out this red herring of fraud when there has only been a handful of cases—[Interruption.] As my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) reminds me, only one case has ended in a successful prosecution. Denying millions of people the right to vote is the biggest fraud we are perpetrating in our democracy and we should not be collaborating on that.

Dr Offord: The reason there have been so few prosecutions could be, as we found out in the case of Nigel Kennedy, that there is a limited period in which a

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prosecution can be brought. That period may expire before the time it takes to get the evidence, and that determines that there will not be a prosecution.

Mr Allen: One case has been proven and taken forward. I want to give a couple of other statistics, and, sadly, there are a lot more zeros in them. Some 7.5 million people were not registered to vote at the last election. That works out at about 10,000 people in each of our constituencies. In fact, in deprived areas, such as my constituency, I am damned sure that it will be more than that—so more than 10,000 of my electorate are not even registered to vote, let alone not taking up the right to vote. Of those who did register at the last election, 16.5 million people decided not to bother to vote. If we add the non-registered to the ones who did not bother to vote, it comes to more than the number of those who voted Conservative and Labour combined.

This is a scandal. I am not blaming the Government for this; I am just saying that we as a Parliament need to take this in hand. We as a Parliament need to get people to register. We need to encourage people to vote not just because the techniques are right, but because they feel engaged in their system and believe that decisions are made not just at the Whitehall level, and because they feel they own their democracy and own decision making, particularly in own locality.

The point about EVEL—English votes for English laws—has been thrown into the debate again, but that is a procedural technicality for this House, rather than a question of how we devolve power, as they do in virtually every other western democracy, to people at the grass roots, to seize the opportunity to develop their own ways in their own areas.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP) rose

Mr Allen: I give way to my distinguished colleague from the Select Committee.

Mark Durkan: On the subject of English votes for English laws, does the hon. Gentleman recognise that if the Government continue with the current Act—the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011—the seat distribution to the boundary commissions in the next Parliament will be on the basis of reduced registration in England, so there could be fewer English seats in this House and more Scottish and Northern Ireland seats?

Mr Allen: Whenever a colleague in this House hears someone talking about EVEL and English votes they should be reminded that, unlike most democracies, we decide the size of our constituencies not on the number of people in them but on the number of people who are registered, and, as I have said, even at the last election 7.5 million were not registered. What a nonsense of a system that is!

I am going to give one last statistic, which is a slightly happier one. Some say, “People out there aren’t interested in this stuff”, but a world-record number of people replied to a Select Committee consultation on voter engagement. People out there are desperate; they are hungry for engagement. That is why there are so many organisations around. I have a list of a few of them here: Bite the Ballot, Unlock Democracy, the Hansard Society, the

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British Youth Council, Sky’s “Stand Up Be Counted” campaign, Catch 22, the National Union of Students, Involver, UpRising. They all wanted to grab that chance of saying to us that we have got to do better.

It is not good enough. Sixteen thousand people responded to our report, and the follow-up report, having listened to those 16,000, will be published tomorrow. There will be a debate in this House starting at 1.30 pm for those Members who are not able to speak in today’s debate.

We must do something about this. If people read the report tomorrow, they will see lots of ways forward on an all-party basis to involve our people in our own democracy.

5.34 pm

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who speaks with great expertise on this subject. He makes the case that we need to do all we can to get people to register to vote in this country, and I completely agree, but I believe we are doing that by all methods possible, as I shall come on to demonstrate. However, I completely agree with his wider point about engagement; we need to find new ways forward. I will read his report tomorrow with great interest.

Sadly, there always are and always have been a substantial number of people who do not register to vote—whatever the system, and in every democratic country—no matter what their persuasion. Different figures are bandied about because it is an imprecise science: we can count the people on the register, but we cannot count those who do not register. As of July 2014, before the shift to individual voter registration started, at least 6 million people were not on the register.

Chris Ruane: Seven and a half million.

Mr Streeter: I am talking about 2014.

Chris Ruane: So am I.

Mr Streeter: Goodbye.

The figure the hon. Gentleman gives is the snapshot of the number of unregistered people as of 1 December. I have to say that he ruins my weekends. He tables at least 400 written questions every week, and I have to spend my weekends reading through the answers. Of course, it is great fun. My wife is convinced that I am having some kind of illicit relationship with him. [Interruption.] Not a pleasant thought.

Chris Ruane: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify what he has just said?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I do not think anybody needs to clarify the relationship between you and Mr Streeter.

Mr Streeter: As I said, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is not a pleasant thought from my point of view.

The truth is that a vast amount of work is being done around the United Kingdom to get people to register before the general election, but it is important to remember that anyone who is already on the household register

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and is residing at that address has not been removed as a result of the shift to IER. The Electoral Commission is running a national campaign across the UK to encourage people to register to vote ahead of the 20 April deadline. It will reach all adults, with a focus on groups—already mentioned in this debate—that research has identified are less likely to be registered to vote, such as people who have recently moved home, those who rent their home, young people, and people from black and minority ethnic communities.

Some of this work is being undertaken with the support of organisations and private companies that represent these communities or have a special reach into them. For example—this is very good news—the Electoral Commission and Facebook have today announced that on national voter registration day, which is tomorrow, every person on Facebook in the UK who is eligible to vote will see a voter registration reminder message in their newsfeed. Some 35 million people use Facebook in the UK every month, which is more than the number who voted at the last general election. This is using innovative methods to reach people and encourage them to vote. We must keep returning to the point that people can now register to vote online. It takes 30 seconds, and the only thing they need is their name—[Interruption.] Yes, I have seen it done. [Interruption.] I was already registered; I was data-matched. People need their name, address, date of birth—most of us know those things—and national insurance number; ring your mum and find out what it is. If people have those four things, they can register; it takes 30 seconds. This is good news.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Ring your mum?

Mr Streeter: I do that every week. I don’t know what the hon. Lady is on about.

This builds on the important work the Electoral Commission is doing to get the message across that everyone should register to vote. I am also pleased that the commission is strongly supporting national voter registration day—an excellent initiative launched by Bite the Ballot last year—in a number of ways, including by re-launching the “Ballot Box Man” YouTube advert aimed at encouraging young people to register to vote. If you have not seen it, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is very entertaining and makes the point extremely well. A wide range of social media activity is being undertaken, including on Twitter and Facebook. A range of resources is being sent out to electoral administrators and the commission’s partners from across the voluntary, public and private sectors to help them get people registered. The commission is also supporting the launch of Operation Black Vote’s bus tour across Great Britain—that also begins on national voter registration day—to get more BME people on the electoral register.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and we must all celebrate national voter registration day and get involved in it. It seems to me that many of the Opposition’s arguments are not against individual voter registration and that they are about encouraging people to register under the new scheme. Does my hon. Friend agree with that?

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Mr Streeter: I do agree with that. We have not focused enough on the responsibility not only of individuals to register to vote but of electoral registration officers, whose job it is to encourage people to register. They are sending out letters, and they should be going door to door. They are being given extra resources to enable that to happen. I believe that a very substantial number of people will join the register between 1 December and 20 April. We would not be having this debate in three months’ time.

Oliver Colvile rose

Mr Streeter: I will not give way again if that is okay, as I have a lot to say in the next two minutes.

This week, on Monday 2 February, the commission’s new national advertising campaign launched a series of online display adverts to highlight the fact that anyone who is not registered will be unable to vote in the general election on 7 May. The adverts provide a direct click-through link to the gov.uk/registertovote page. On the same day, the commission also launched an online campaign across the 20 countries in which UK expatriates are most likely to live, to make expats aware that they might be able to vote and to encourage them to register to do so. The important point has been made several times by Government Members that everyone who is eligible to vote should be encouraged to register, and not simply those in certain groups.

The commission’s main national public awareness campaign for the UK parliamentary general election will begin on 16 March 2015 in Great Britain and will include television, catch-up TV and online advertising. The commission has set the ambitious target of 1 million additions to the register in Great Britain between 16 March and 20 April, with a further 10,000 in Northern Ireland.

Frank Dobson: We have had targets before.

Mr Streeter: Yes, we have, and the right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that the Electoral Commission hit its target in the run-up to the last general election. I am pretty confident that it will do so again.

Chris Ruane: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Streeter: I cannot give way again; I have only 29 seconds left.

I hope that the House will recognise that there is a great deal of activity already under way or about to happen that is likely to increase voter registration dramatically. We also have a responsibility ourselves to take our great communication skills to our constituencies and to get the message across to everyone out there: register to vote—don’t lose your voice!

5.42 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I shall start by making the bold statement that if the Conservative proposals on electoral registration had gone ahead in their original form in 2010 and 2011, we would have seen a constitutional coup that would have kept the Tory party in power in this country for a generation. There would have been a two-pronged attack that involved bringing the date for the introduction of individual electoral registration forward by a year. That simple act

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would have resulted in a total of 35% of the electorate dropping off the register, in addition to the 15% who were already missing from it. Those people would have been the most economically and socially marginalised in the country, and their marginalisation would have been complete with their vote gone.

The second prong of the attack was to have been the equalisation of constituencies at 75,000 electors per seat, plus or minus 5%. That change would have been carried out while 7.5 million people were missing from the electoral register—the equivalent of 100 missing parliamentary seats.

Meg Hillier: I am concerned that the number of people on the electoral register is used as a proxy for local government funding allocations. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a real concern, especially for the poorer constituencies, which are experiencing the greatest drop-off of all?

Chris Ruane: I agree with my hon. Friend.

I wish to probe more deeply into the machinations of that grand plan. It is only by looking at what has happened in the recent past that we can find out what would happen over the next few months if the Tories were to get back in.

Mr Gyimah: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Ruane: No, I will not give way.

Individual electoral registration was introduced by the Labour Government in 2009 with cross-party support. The issue was so sensitive that we sought that cross-party support. The deadline for its introduction was after the latest date for the next general election, which is of course this year. The reason for the long run-in period was that there were already 7.5 million people missing from the register, and we hoped that we could get them back on to it during that five-year period. The Electoral Commission was going to have marking points throughout the period, so that we could implement IER and assess its impact. This cross-party support, this cherished unity, was shattered, as one of the first aims of the coalition agreement, set out on page 27, was:

“We will reduce electoral fraud by speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration.”

What was this massive electoral fraud that so concerned the Conservatives? Why was it so important that a new IER Bill took precedence over virtually all other Bills at the height of the economic crisis?

Let us look at the facts and figures concerning electoral fraud. The fraud that so exercised the Conservatives was one case in 2008 and one in 2009. In the six years from 2008 to 2013 there were three cases out of 45 million electors. That was the size of the problem.

Mr Kevan Jones: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Chris Ruane: No. I shall make progress.

That was the size of the problem—three cases of electoral fraud in six years. The Government, backed up by the Electoral Commission, claim that it is not the numbers—

Mr Gyimah: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he explain to us why the Labour Government

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decided to introduce IER if not to deal with electoral fraud, which he says does not exist?

Chris Ruane: We introduced it because, although the old system had served us fairly well and quite a high number of people were registered, we thought it was patriarchal and registration should be down to the individual. We did it with cross-party support, cross-party unity.

Why did the Conservatives go to such trouble to shatter the cross-party support? They knew exactly what they were doing when they rushed the Bill through with undue haste. They hoped that even more poorer voters would drop off the register before the 2015 general election and increase their chances of winning it.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most appalling things that this Government did was to produce a White Paper which referred to voter registration as a lifestyle choice?

Chris Ruane: I am coming to that right now.

What the Conservatives proposed was not simply bringing forward the date by one year. They had a few more tricks up their sleeves. They wanted to replace the civic duty to register by making it a lifestyle choice. Electors could simply opt out of registering by ticking a box that would be supplied to help them on their way to political disengagement. The Electoral Commission warned that if this happened, it would be assumed that those who did not vote would not register and we would lose 35% of the electorate.

If the Tories had succeeded, nearly half the electorate would have been missing from the register. Those left off would have been the poorest. This was a blatant, deliberate political act to drive the poorest people off the register. There is a term for it used by right wingers in America—voter suppression. No vote, no voice: those people were being silenced. The Conservatives were leaving nothing to chance. They planned a few more measures to ensure that those electors were forced off the register. They proposed that there would be no annual canvass—the Minister mentioned this. We introduced an annual canvass. The Minister did not want to introduce an annual canvass, but he was forced to do so. To complete the stitch-up the Conservatives proposed to remove any sanctions for not registering to vote. All these actions together show beyond doubt that the Tories’ direction of travel was to disfranchise as many poor voters as possible.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) who, as shadow minister at the time, summoned civic society to fight this, and we managed to get the worst aspects of the Bill removed. The Lib Dems finally realised that they were being stitched up too. I pay tribute to the work of Chris Rennard in the Lords and others in the Lib Dem party who informed their Front-Bench team of what was going on.

We were able to stop the worst aspects of the Bill, but even though the Tories were defeated by a mighty alliance of those who wanted to protect democracy, they managed to squeeze one concession from their Lib Dem partners. The Tories proposed that they be given an opportunity, should they win the election, to make a political decision to drop off the unregistered in June this year, six months before the freeze date for the next

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boundary review. Five million electors would not transfer from household registration to individual registration. These voters would also be removed from the Scottish parliamentary elections, the Welsh Assembly elections and the local government elections. The Minister has already admitted that he has no guiding principles when he makes this important decision to smash British democracy—no such principles are in place. He failed to answer on this when I asked him at the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and he failed to answer today when I asked him. The press and the public are watching the Minister. Would he like to intervene on that? Where are his guiding principles?

Mr Gyimah: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that invitation to intervene. Whoever is the Minister, and whoever is in government, the decision they make will be taken on the independent advice of the Electoral Commission. That is pretty clear as far as guiding principles are concerned.

Chris Ruane: The Minister wants to have a word with his boss because I do not think he is thinking like that. The Minister was unable to answer this question about guiding principles, so I will tell him what the answer on the guiding principles will be. They will be what they were at the beginning of this Parliament: party political gain for the Conservative party.

5.50 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I will not follow the line of argument of the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who I suspect sees a conspiracy every time he walks past a bus queue. The reality is that this serious issue deserves rather better than the cynical treatment it has had from the Opposition today.

The integrity of the register is an integral part of our democracy, and that integrity means not only that those who should be on the register are on it, but that those who should not be are not on it. The level of complacency demonstrated by the Labour party towards that aspect of the equation is nothing less than contemptuous towards our electors.

Wayne David: The Electoral Commission has been quoted on many occasions, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that even it says that it is the perception of fraud, not the actuality of it, that Members are talking about?

Robert Neill: The report last week deals comprehensively with that, and there is another report to which I will refer the hon. Gentleman in a moment. Let me deal first with the important issue of why the Labour party really has adopted this attitude. I made an assumption about the backing away from Labour’s previous stance that we saw from the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). I am sorry he is not in his place, because I know he is a great fan of block votes and he is probably looking for a few in the London Labour party at the moment for the nomination for Mayor—I am sure we could pass that on to him. I assumed it was the normal reaction that we get from the Labour party nowadays. IER was, of course, introduced—[Interruption.] The

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hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) must contain himself for a moment. IER was, of course, introduced in 2009. What is that magic figure of 2009? Of course, Tony Blair was still around, so it is a legacy of the previous


The Labour party is anxious to forget everything that went before and the reason the previous Government come into it is this: the Labour party had a track record of being extremely flaky on adopting IER.

The Electoral Commission published a report in 2003 and the Labour Government responded to it in 2004, saying that they were sympathetic to the principle of individual registration but they were not going to implement it—that is the reality. Ever since then, Labour has had to be dragged kicking and screaming towards improving the quality of the electoral register. In the end, the experience in Northern Ireland, where IER certainly produced a reduction in the number of people on the register but also significantly reduced fraud, made it clear that Labour’s position was untenable. The people of Northern Ireland blazed the way for the rest of this country and we should salute the introduction of IER there. If it is good enough for Northern Ireland, it should be good enough for the rest of the UK as well, and it is no good the Labour party trying to row back from that now.

The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 made provision for this phased implementation of IER. Ironically, that was not originally in the Bill and it was put in only as a result of pressure from the then Opposition parties in the House of Lords. The Labour party was reluctant even to take that step.

Frank Dobson: It is often said that the country would be better governed if there was a consensus, but may I say that I have never been part of the consensus on IER? I thought it was stupid when it was suggested by the stupid Electoral Commission and it has remained stupid ever since. We have had the mad situation that in this democratically elected House we have knowingly voted to reduce the number of people entitled to vote—it has been a disgrace.

Robert Neill: I am delighted to see that the right hon. Gentleman is taking a hard-line stance, which is consistent with his political views. There is no doubt that he demonstrated that same consistency when he voted down changes to the boundaries that would have ensured that the electorate of his constituency was broadly more equal with that of mine, but we will not trouble him with that unfortunate matter.

The fact that the issue of electoral fraud has been dismissed so often by the Opposition suggests that they think it is irrelevant, but it is not. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) made an important point. The real difficulty that we have is proving cases, and the complacency shown by the Opposition on this matter is breathtaking. The reality is that the six-month time limit makes it particularly difficult to get the evidence required for this type of offence. I hope that, in the future, we will revisit that matter. We should extend the timeline for bringing prosecutions for election offences, and I hope that we can consider that in the new Parliament.

The very nature of the offence makes it difficult to prosecute, particularly when it involves the head of the household, as it has in the past, filling in forms on behalf

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of other people. It is also difficult to get people to stand up against members of their own family on whom they may be dependent. That is why there are fewer prosecutions than we would expect. That fact is borne out by the useful report, “Electoral Offences since 2010”, which has been issued by the Library of the House of Commons. Members might be interested in looking at it. It was published on 30 July 2014, and details, over a raft of pages, individual instances of allegations of electoral fraud. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon mentioned, it has been difficult to bring many of those cases to a successful prosecution, but the report is, none the less, really worth looking at.

In the London borough of Tower Hamlets, there have been repeated cases of fraud. Let me say here that I am not trespassing on the current court case. This has nothing to do with the election petition against the mayor. Historically, there have been repeated allegations of malpractice in Tower Hamlets, largely by abuse of the block registration of postal votes. In March 2012, Tower Hamlets removed 127 names from the electoral register. It was not possible to bring a prosecution in that case, but the names were removed because they should not have been on the register. Clearly, malpractice was going on. Some 550 people were registered in 64 properties in the borough. In some cases of registration, there were eight people to a bedroom. It was nonsense, but it is something that the Labour party regard as “fairly minor”. It says that it is a small price to pay. I say that it is not, because it demeans the electoral process. But that does not matter as far as Labour is concerned. Its ersatz view of quantity seems to trump the importance of quality in the elector register. At the end of the day, it is the quality of the electoral register that is most important. If it is not honest, people will lose faith.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) made the point that we can drive up the number of people properly on the register through the excellent initiatives of the Electoral Commission. We do not need the specious arguments of the Opposition to do that. We can have safe and secure electoral registration and sensible campaigns to increase voter registration.

Wayne David rose

Robert Neill: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once. I want to make a little progress as I have little time left.

My own local authority in Bromley has made great progress with its individual canvasses and maintaining the roll-over on to the register; it can be done. Frankly, we have had nothing but crocodile tears from the Opposition. I have not seen so many crocodile tears since General Nasser built a dam across the River Nile. They should not be detaining the House in the way that they are doing. The Opposition motion is a shambles and a disgrace.

5.59 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Let me first out myself as someone who, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), was completely opposed to individual electoral registration. I accept that I have lost that argument and that we have to move on from where we

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are now. Where we are now was entirely predictable, but we must now get to a better level of registration.

I wish to let the House know what is happening in the London borough of Merton, which is at the halfway stage in the transfer to individual electoral registration. Merton has a very effective electoral registration organisation and high levels of registration but is still experiencing difficulties. I would like publicly to acknowledge the long-standing work of our electoral registration officer, Mike Bentley, who recently retired, and welcome Andrew Robertson, who faces his first general election in May.

As of 1 December 2014, a total of 146,567 people were registered to vote in Merton, compared with 149,615 in 2013, so there has been a drop of about 3,000 over the past year. However, that masks a much more worrying fact. Experience shows that voter turnover in Merton is usually about 23,000. In other words, about 23,000 move out of the borough and leave the register, and roughly another 23,000 move into the borough and join the register. However, in this transition year only 7,000 have joined the register and 10,000 have left. Have fewer people moved, or is the register inaccurate? I believe that about 10% of the electorate are inaccurately registered, based on past movement.

Of the 149,615 on the register at the end of 2013, only 128,000 could be verified. That left about 21,000 unmatched on any of the registers currently used. Using a variety of techniques, the electoral registration department has followed up as many of the 21,000 as it can and brought the number of unmatched voters down to about 6,500—about 5% of the electorate. As we all know, if a voter is unmatched for this year only, they would still be allowed to vote in person. The problem is that a significant number of those unmatched people were previously postal or proxy voters. Many of those people are elderly or disabled. They believe that they have a lifetime entitlement to a postal or proxy vote.

I am giving this information to the House not to help me in the election, because most of those people have historically voted Conservative. I still want them to have the same opportunity to use their postal or proxy votes to vote for somebody else, because this debate is not about party politics; it is about the essence of our democracy. If we cannot get people to register to vote, we will have an enormous and growing alienated community in our society, and that will not benefit any of us. All of us, of whatever party, whose hearts sink when we hear criticisms of politicians and politics need to do everything we can to get those people on the register, irrespective of who they are or whom they intend to vote for.

We are only halfway through the process in Merton. In 2016 we face a mayoral election in London. Our community is far more mobile and diverse than Northern Ireland could ever be. It is possible that we will lose huge numbers of people from the register. Some of the alternatives set out in the Opposition’s motion could help, but for me they do not go far enough. I might unite everyone in opposing my suggestion, but I will still continue to make it. I believe that if someone accesses a public service, they should be required to register to vote. If they want the benefits of an advanced welfare democracy, they should sign up to be on the electoral register. If they need to be on the register to get a mortgage or credit card, is it not reasonable for them to need to be on it to get a driving licence, access tax credits or join a library? All those things are about a

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social contract: something for something, not something for nothing. Whether people vote is up to them, but it is our job to persuade them to do so. The sheer act of citizenship needed to be on the register should be required if someone is to access the services of the state.

6.5 pm

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I am somewhat disappointed by the motion, because it over-eggs the pudding to some degree. It does not recognise that this process was started by the previous Government but has been picked up and progressed by this Government. Labour Members began the whole process—I welcome that and have congratulated them on it many times—and we are now successfully delivering on it. That is a good thing.

There is still a lot of work to do before the 2015 election and before IER is fully introduced. The motion calls for more to be done to tackle under-registration, without any recognition of how much effort and money has been put into doing that. It is curmudgeonly not to recognise that that effort has been made. The conspiracy theory that this is all about removing poor people from the register is not compatible with that huge effort and with the funding that has been made available to ensure that they are given the opportunity to be put on the register.

Nick Smith: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Government are missing important sources of voter data? For example, if they used information from credit reference agencies such as Experian, they could boost registration considerably. Does he accept that that would be a worthwhile thing to do?

Mr Ward: The pilots have identified the best ways of getting the most people registered, although the system can always be refined and made better. There seems to be an assumption that the previous registers were perfect, but in areas of high fraud that was simply not the case.

Eighty-seven per cent. of people have successfully been moved on to the electoral register. Yes, plenty still needs to be done, and that is why I agree with many parts of the motion. We need to tackle registration for the hard-to-reach groups and to make sure that EROs are doing the very best they can to ensure that as many people are on the register as possible. The reduction in the voting age that I hope will happen in future means that we need to do many of the things suggested in relation to schools and colleges. That work is being done through the all-party group on voter registration.

Part of the reason for implementing the new IER procedure was to increase the accuracy of the register. Those who represent an area like mine will know just how necessary that was, particularly in helping to deal with voter fraud. In many cases, not even the new system will bring about changes to the voter fraud that takes place as a result of certain behaviour and the failure of political parties to impose strong discipline on their own activists. In Bradford, 88% of people are automatically registered under the data-matching system, yet we are still likely to have problems with postal vote fraud in particular. The problem we have experienced is not that people are not legitimately registered to vote in

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a household, but that postal votes are collected and filled out on behalf of constituents or that unacceptable pressure is put on individuals to vote in a particular way, as court cases have identified.

As well as ensuring the accuracy of the register, we need to ensure that the police take seriously and investigate cases of fraud that are reported to them. Too often, the thought in the mind the police has been, “Well, they’re all at it,” and it has not been taken as seriously as it should be. In Bradford in the past, candidates of all parties have been required to sign a pledge stating that they will not take part in voter fraud. That is how serious the situation is in places like Bradford.

Between now and the election, work needs to go on. Bite the Ballot has been mentioned and I will be on a bus—which we are paying for, not the Government—going around the constituency tomorrow for national voter registration day. Last summer, we took the bus out and registered 250 young people in our constituency. That is where the effort should be going. That is the effective way of ensuring that we get people on a register that we can be satisfied with and that is more accurate.

6.10 pm

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Let me make it quite clear that the Labour Government introduced the notion of individual electoral registration and the motion before us in no way backtracks from that, no matter how much bluster we hear from the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and the Minister for the Constitution, who should look at the detail of how his Department is working. By falling back on the Electoral Commission, the Minister is making a big mistake.

I accept the argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). The original idea behind the process was to drive down the register, and we do not need to look too far to see where the Conservative party got it from. In the United States, the Republican party is doing exactly the same thing.

The hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) rightly emphasised what is being done to try to get people, particularly young people, on the register. I commend all those efforts, but it is not about working harder, to use the old BT phrase, but about working smarter. The Government are not doing that and I am afraid that the Electoral Commission is not doing it either.

The Minister asked why the focus was on young people, and I can give him the answer. According to the House of Commons Library, only 56% of 19 to 24-year-olds are registered to vote, whereas 94% of those aged over 65 are. I want to refer to one issue, which is the responsibility of the Minister and the Electoral Commission—he cannot get away from it—and that is the drop in the number of 18-year-olds who have been registered, particularly attainers.

In my constituency in 2012, there were 619 attainers on the register. In 2013 there were 701, in 2014 there were 632, and this year there are 114.

Chris Ruane: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who was the MP who discovered the drop in the number of attainers. Is he aware that 87% of attainers were registered nationally last year whereas this year the figure has gone down to 52%?

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Mr Jones: I am, and I shall explain why.

The drop in North Durham is quite clear and we must ask why it has happened. We all know that 1997 was a very strong and passionate political year for this country. We could put the fall down to a drop in the birth rate in 1997—clearly there was a lack of passion in North Durham!—but that is obviously not the case. I wrote to my local returning officer about this, and I must pay tribute to Durham county council for the work it is trying to do to get through the minefield laid by the Electoral Commission and the Government. The response I received says that under the old system, where the head of household registered, a section of the form asked for the name of anyone who was 17 and would attain the age of 18 within the next year to be added. The new letter that was sent out to verify who was in the household included a sentence asking for the name of anyone it was thought should be registered to vote, but there was no reference to 17-year-olds. The Minister likes to hide behind the Electoral Commission, but, frankly, on occasions I find the Electoral Commission completely incompetent. On this occasion, it is.

I have raised the question directly with the Minister outside the House. I accept that he has given extra money for registration to councils such as Durham, but that is no good. When I went to county hall last Friday, I saw all the boxes of new letters ready to go out. I looked at the letter, and it does not cover 17-year-olds. When I asked the returning officer why not, he said that the council had to use the letter agreed by the Minister and the Electoral Commission. This was a missed opportunity to correct a basic problem.

In my constituency and other parts of the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd has shown, the problem will lead to hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of 17-year-olds not being registered, although they will attain the age of 18 this year and would be entitled to vote. That is a scandal, but something that could have been sorted out quite easily. Frankly, it is due to a combination of the Minister and the Electoral Commission. I am not surprised by the Minister because I do not think he has a great grasp of most the subjects for which he is responsible, but one would expect a bit more from the Electoral Commission.

There is an opportunity to put this matter right. Most local authorities know their 16 and 17-year-olds, because they are registered with them for education purposes. I challenge the Minister to instruct all local authorities, with money behind this if necessary, to use such data to ensure that 17-year-olds who will attain the age of 18 this year are actually registered. That must be done, otherwise many 17-year-olds who will turn 18 before 7 May will assume that they will get a vote, but will not get it.

I make no criticism of the hard work that has been done by a host of organisations to try to get young people registered. I have written to my local schools and publicised the issue locally to ensure that we can get as many as possible of those 17-years-old on the register.

In a democracy, it is important to ensure that the register is as accurate as possible. That was why the Labour Government brought in the process, which I support. It was done on a cross-party basis, and that consensus should have been maintained. When the Conservatives came to power as part of the coalition, they shattered that consensus and departed from it for

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their own reasons. We have heard a lot of guff about fraud. I love the idea that the only reason we have not had many fraud cases is the time limits, but my answer would be, “Well, change the time limits.”

I refer hon. Members to the Electoral Commission’s own evidence. In 2004, we had an all-postal ballot in Durham as part of the pilot.

Mr Gyimah: Surely you would trust the Electoral Commission.

Mr Jones: I do not trust the Electoral Commission on occasion, but in this case I do. Its report said that there was no evidence of major fraud in the administration of postal votes. In a local council by-election in my constituency, the change resulted in a turnout of 67%. A problem of turnout was highlighted in certain communities, but that was not a reason for binning it entirely. However, the Conservative party and the Daily Mail frothed at the mouth about postal voting being open to widespread fraud, for which there was no evidence whatsoever.

I ask the Minister to address the issue of 17-year-olds, which I have previously raised with him. We have missed the opportunity of doing so in the recent letters, but something needs to be done before registration closes on 20 April.

6.18 pm

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who is an agreeable chap. I can only assume that his conspiracy theory arises from his upbringing in the murky world of Labour and trade union politics in the north-east. Like his friend the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), he sees a conspiracy round every corner.

I have been in politics for 30 years, but for Labour Members it is always about politics, not about what is in the national interest or what is right. Even when they start off by doing what is right, proper and decent to address an issue, they turn around a few years later and say, “We don’t agree with it any more, because it does not suit our narrow partisan interests.” How do they have the gall?

The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd trooped through the Lobby to vote against fair and equal boundaries. Along the coast from his constituency, Arfon has an electorate of 49,000, while my next-door constituency of Cambridgeshire North West has almost 100,000 electors. He considers that to be democratic, but it is not.

Chris Ruane: When making seats equal was being railroaded through, 7.5 million people were missing from the register, which would be the equivalent of 100 extra parliamentary seats.

Mr Jackson: I am not wholly convinced that the Labour party has ever taken electoral integrity as seriously as it should have done. The hon. Gentleman talks about the criminal cases over the past few years. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) alluded to the fact that we simply do not know how much electoral registration stuffing there has been, because EROs and local authorities have not had the capacity to check that

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across the country. Under the Labour party, we saw electoral malpractice and criminal activity in Pendle, Derby, Birmingham, Bradford, Slough and Peterborough, to give just a few examples.

Let us be honest: this debate is a wasted opportunity for the Labour party. It is inviting us to conclude that an impact assessment of its Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, in which individual electoral registration was originally contained, would have shown no reduction in the number of people registering. Of course that is not the case. I was in the House at the time and we all knew that there would be a reduction after the first major change for many years.

The Labour party now comes back and says that this is an evil, wicked Tory plot to drive poor people off the register. The crocodile tears were not flowing when it blocked servicemen and women—people who were fighting and dying for our country—from coming back, casting their ballots and using the universal franchise. Labour Members were not worried then. Now they are full of crocodile tears and faux outrage over the patronising notion that their voters are not on the register.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) bemoans the situation with older people and postal votes. Does she think that people who are older are so stupid that they cannot fill out forms? Before the 2001 changes, older people and pensioners were able to fill out forms in cases of ill health, if they were working away or if they were in other circumstances. More to the point, the turnout was much higher.

Siobhain McDonagh: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Jackson: I will not give way to the hon. Lady.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): You named her.

Mr Jackson: I named her, but I have named a lot of people in this debate.

The Labour party’s problem is simple: it is useless Labour councils. Those useless Labour councils are being given a lot of taxpayers’ money to do the job properly. They should be canvassing, registering people, ensuring that the right people are on the register and ensuring that there is electoral integrity in the register. If Labour Members have problems in Bristol, County Durham and the London borough of Merton, all of which are controlled by the Labour party, they should take them up with local people.

Chris Ruane: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr Jackson: I cannot give way, I am afraid, because I have little time.

If this were a plot, we would not be putting so many public resources into the process. There has been £500,000 to boost confidence in the electoral system, £2.5 million has been spent on students and overseas voters, £6.8 million has been given to local authorities by the Department for Communities and Local Government for physical canvassing for registration, and there has been work on universities and housing associations as part of the Cabinet Office’s £9.8 million funding.

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We accept that some people will be missed in the DWP data-matching. In the central ward in my constituency, about 40% of people were missed. We understand that, but it is ultimately the responsibility of local authorities to find the missing voters by physical door-to-door canvassing. In that way, we will have a full register with integrity.

For most of the time, the previous Labour Government were content to see the potential for electoral register stuffing.

Mr Kevan Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Jackson: No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman.

I have two more brief points to make. In considering this issue, the Minister should look again at bespoke funding to investigate improprieties and criminal activities in respect of election fraud, because it is difficult for a small constabulary to cope with such matters. We must look again at the Representation of the People Act 1983 in respect of ID at polling stations and the ability to challenge voters in cases of impersonation. That is an important issue.

Finally, the Government have done an excellent job—largely, I admit, with cross-party support—on postal vote integrity, which is still an important issue. For example, Peterborough city council threw out one in five applicants for postal votes in Central ward in May 2014. Fraud is still a problem and we must be vigilant and protect the electoral integrity of our political system. We should ensure that the right people are on the electoral register and have the opportunity to vote. That is above party politics, and it is a shame that the Labour party cannot rise above partisan point scoring in the national interest.

6.25 pm

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): I would like to say that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), but after that nonsense it is not, so I will not.

I represent more students by far than any other Member of the House—36,000 according to the latest census. They are not the only group that contributes to the enormous churn in the electoral register in my constituency, but I will concentrate my remarks on them. I am worried about their disfranchisement not simply because of the coming election, but because of the impact of their exclusion from the register on the next boundary review, which we know will be conducted on the basis of the register as it stands in December 2015.

The hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) challenged Labour Members on the principle of the equalisation of constituencies. We would embrace that principle but it must be on a legitimate basis, and the current register already contains deeply inequitable constituencies. There are many worse examples, but if we compare my constituency, Sheffield Central, with that of the Deputy Prime Minister next door in Sheffield Hallam, we see that the number of registered voters seems broadly comparable—the difference is about 5,000 people. However, 17% of households in my constituency have nobody registered, but that figure is just 4% in Sheffield Hallam. Sheffield Central has a population of 115,000 people,

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and Sheffield Hallam just 89,000—a variation of 26,000, which will only be made worse by the way the Government are dealing with IER.

Students are not the only group but they are a significant one, so to avoid that situation locally I worked with both universities to integrate electoral registration into the student enrolment process. We developed a system at the university of Sheffield for the 2014 entry which, if successful, will be rolled out to Sheffield Hallam university in 2015. I am sorry that the Minister misinterpreted my earlier remarks to attack Sheffield Hallam university for its low level of registration. Changing systems are complicated and we sought to work with Universities UK and the National Union of Students to encourage higher education institutions across the country to adopt a better system.

I am grateful for the support of the Cabinet Office for the pilot that we have been developing in Sheffield. The system requires students to make a positive decision about whether they wish to register to vote as a required step in their enrolment. Last September the scheme was successful, with around 64% of students choosing to register, as the Minister highlighted. The system then took people to the next step, which required them to fill in their national insurance number. At that point, two thirds of people dropped out of the system because they did not have ready access to their NI number and did not want to halt their enrolment. The situation looked bleak with only 24% of students registered, despite more than double that number wanting to register.

Again, credit is due to the Cabinet Office, because new guidance issued on 10 December allowed electoral registration officers to use their discretion to verify an application using only student enrolment data. Therefore in late December and January, our EROs added 7,000 students to the electoral register, even though they did not provide their NI numbers. That is sensible because universities have clearly collected significant and substantial information to verify student identity as part of their registration process.

The Minister said earlier that he is looking at ways of using data collected for other purposes to construct the register, so will he answer one specific question? It would be simpler to roll out this system across universities than to seek national insurance numbers in the first place, especially given that the Government are clearly happy for people not to have them. Would it not be better, therefore, to have a simple system in which we ask students, “Do you want to register to vote?” and then use the information the university has collected as sufficient verification?

Mr Gyimah indicated assent.

Paul Blomfield: I see the Minister nodding. If he will confirm that in his winding-up speech, it would be a significant step forward in encouraging student registration across the country.

Finally, there is a wider lesson to be learned. With commitment, creativity and resources, IER can be introduced successfully. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, we need to transfer those lessons to other organisations, such as schools, housing providers, residential homes, doctors’ surgeries and so on, to widen the register.

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6.30 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). I want to pick up where he left off—on young people.

One of the worst things about the big fall in the number of people on the register is the massive reduction in the number of young people. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) said, if young people do not get the habit of voting when they first can, they are highly unlikely to take it up later in life. In a written parliamentary question, I asked the Minister, who is not quite in his place,

“how many people have been informed that their application for inclusion on the…register was not valid because their national insurance number was not provided”.

He replied:

“Failure to provide a National Insurance number does not result in an application being declared invalid.”

He does not know what is going on. I have a letter from an ERO in response to a young person’s application to register to vote. It read, “Thank you for your recent application to register. Unfortunately, I am unable to process your application because it was incomplete. The following information is required and was incorrect or missing: national insurance number.”

There are 440,000 young people still at school who turned 18 between 1 September and 1 May. The person that letter was sent to could not register because she did not have her national insurance number. I do not know how many hon. Members spend a lot of time with teenagers, but a letter with a young person’s national insurance number arrives before they are 16, and we are suggesting that two years later teenagers will know where that letter is and have kept it in a safe place. I cannot think of anything more naïve. How many young people will have lost it?

Mr Streeter: What about the parents?

Helen Goodman: Yes, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the “ring mum” solution before. How outrageous. What about young people in care? What about young people estranged from their families? What a disgraceful attitude to large numbers of young people.

We rang the council to find out what to do. It suggested that the person bring their passport, which costs £72. It suggested a driving licence, which costs £34. These are all things that young people do not have.

Mr Streeter: They don’t have passports?

Helen Goodman: I tabled a PQ to the man who is commenting from a sedentary position now asking how young people were supposed to know what their national insurance number was. His answer was: payslips and correspondence with HMRC and the Department for Work and Pensions. The truth is that 18-year-olds who are still at school do not have payslips or correspondence with HMRC or DWP. The Government have not thought this through.

The other thing the council asked for was a council tax bill. No 18-year-old gets a council tax bill. This is completely incompetent. Ministers have not thought this through. I went to the website to find out what to do. Nobody can get their national insurance number on the website. That is not how it works. They can, however,

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ring a very nice man on: 0300 200 3500. They will get a very nice man with a lovely Lancashire accident, and he will put their national insurance number in the post.

The suggestion that we have heard from Ministers that this information is readily available is totally naïve. The DWP Ministers who are responsible for giving people their national insurance numbers and informing them cannot even be bothered to turn up and sit on the Bench for this debate. They have a central role. The truth is that it displays all the attitudes of DWP Ministers to young people: they want to take the housing benefit off 18 to 21-year-olds; now they want to take the vote from those very same young people. It is a total disgrace. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Has the hon. Lady completed her speech? We are grateful to her.

6.35 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is good to contribute. First of all, right hon. and hon. Members, including the Minister and the shadow Minister, have been very kind in referring to Northern Ireland’s experience. It provided an important example for the rest of the United Kingdom. If I may, I would like to provide a little more of the Northern Ireland perspective.

On electoral registration, our aim should be to have an open, honest, transparent and, more importantly, accessible system so that those who want to vote are able to do so without difficulty. We do not need any more reason to deter or make difficult the process of voting, and there are obvious worries that the plans for individual voter registration will let many slip through the cracks. We also have to protect our democracy from fraud, and individual voter registration is one way of doing that, as many Members have suggested.

Before the Northern Ireland initiative, it was evident that, as the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland reported, there had been a significant and worrying decline in both the accuracy and completeness of Northern Ireland’s electoral register. On 1 April 2012, post-general election, the register was 78% accurate, with one in five entries relating to people who were no longer resident at the address. An estimated 400,000 people were not registered at the correct address. Understandably, we had an ambition to address that issue.

It is valuable to have discussions in the devolved Administrations and the Northern Ireland Assembly in particular in the hope that through our respective Governments we can learn from each other about what makes for best practice.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best initiatives in Northern Ireland has been the voter electoral identity card? People can apply for it, and it is free. It has a photograph and other identity marks on it, and it allows people to carry that credit card into the electoral booth to prove who they are and maintain their vote without molestation.

Jim Shannon: I thank my hon. Friend for that. Yes, that is another example of something that was done in Northern Ireland, and it is important to note that it provides a free opportunity to get voter identification.