Just before the Summer recess, the House of Lords began formal consideration of the hugely significant Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. Among other things this introduces Individual Electoral Registration (IER) for Great Britain. The system has been in operation in Northern Ireland since 2002.
I was closely in involved in working with other Liberal Democrats to change the proposals first put forward in the Government’s white paper which could have had the effect of significantly reducing the levels of voter registration in Great Britain. Mark Williams wrote about them here .
Since then, there has been a great deal of movement in the ways that we wanted. In particular, the Government has abandoned its plan to permit an ‘opt-out’ from electoral registration; this was an idea that would have led the disaffected inexorably to disenfranchisement. They have also conceded that there must be a continuing penalty for failing to register.
Our guiding light as we deal with the legislation in its more final form will be to ensure that the Bill has at its heart the objective of preserving and adding to the completeness of the register, as well as improving its accuracy. Contrary to Labour’s protestations, the existing system of registration is very poor at ensuring everyone who should be on the register is on the register. When the Draft Bill was first published, the most recent Electoral Commission research suggested the present household registration system succeeded in enfranchising around 92% of those who are entitled to vote. Since then it has emerged that the figure is in the order of only 82%. With nearly one in five people in a democratic ‘Bermuda Triangle’, the new system should be ambitious in improving the state of play.
In my second reading speech I emphasised the need for greater uniformity in the way electoral registration forms are laid out. Some local authorities simply do not make the warning about a legal obligation to register, and a fine for not doing so, prominent enough on their forms. But there are good examples to follow. Paul Tyler referred to Hounslow, which apparently has an excellent record. They go to great lengths to get residents on the register, sending out five separate forms and making three personal visits with ever increasing warnings of the fine which is likely if people don’t respond. This year, their entreaty “REGISTER NOW OR RISK PROSECUTION” was brought to life; they pursued prosecutions against ten of their most recalcitrant residents. Denbighshire, too, has shown best practice in emphasising the legal obligation to register. Ministers should ensure that all electoral registration forms follow these models in future.
The Government presently thinks it can register about two thirds of those who are entitled to vote without asking them to fill in an individual form. DWP databases could assist them in carrying people over from the present household-based register to the new individual one. This would be a big help, but we are encouraging Ministers to think bigger still. Leading credit reference agencies tell us that their databases – unlike those of DWP – are over 95% accurate. Their records could assist in possibly removing people who do not really exist and are on the the register by accident and most importantly in adding those who should be. Clearly there would have to be safeguards – ensuring access for returning officers is to name and address information only and not to any credit, personal or financial information – but there is great potential here to enfranchise many of the 6 or 7 million people who have ‘disappeared’ from the lists of people entitled to vote.
Other ideas include registering service personnel in their bases, registering 16 and 17 year olds in advance at school, using the Student Loans Company to invite students to register, and using the Deposit Protection Service to invite tenants on Assured Shorthold Tenancies to do likewise. Those in private rented accommodation are among the most likely not to be registered, so this is a group the Government really must focus on.
There will be time in the Lords to make further improvements to this legislation, and doing so is vital to maintain and reinforce the basic building blocks of our democracy. If you have any further ideas about how we could get more people on the register, please contact me direct on [email protected]. We’ll collate the emails just before Parliament returns, and draw on the best for potential amendments to the Bill and more particularly for the important regulations that will follow the Bill and deal with detailed implementation.
* Chris Rennard is a former Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats. He has led for the Party in the House of Lords on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill