HC Deb 23 January 1997 vol 288 cc1057-8
1. Mr. Barnes

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what estimates he has made of under-registration on the electoral registers which will be used in the next general election; and if he will make a statement. [10547]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Tom Sackville)

Figures for the number of electors on the registers coming into force on 16 February are not yet available. In 1996, there were 42.8 million names on the electoral register in Great Britain, compared with an estimated resident population of eligible age of 45 million.

Mr. Barnes

Will the new registers operating from 16 February, which will be used in the next general election, be in a better state than previous registers which had millions of people missing from them? I have raised this matter many times before in the House. Can details comparing the registered and eligible populations in each constituency be published as soon as possible so that we can see what state the registers are in? Will every effort be made to put people on supplementary lists so that, even under the current inadequate system, as many people as possible are on electoral registers before the general election?

Mr. Sackville

We continue to spend substantial sums trying to encourage people to register through advertising and in other ways. As the hon. Gentleman knows, however, even after the obvious discrimination was removed from our electoral system, we retained an element of permanency of residence as a condition. That means that those who cannot claim to have been resident in a constituency on a particular date in the preceding October will not be registered there. It does not mean that we are not making the greatest effort to ensure the highest possible level of registration.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Does my hon. Friend agree that, by law, an electoral registration officer may not have his or her register up to date but that it must be at least five months out of date? Can serious consideration be given—perhaps not for the forthcoming general election, but for the one after that—to introducing a system of rolling registration so that people can be registered to vote at the place where they are resident?

Mr. Sackville

A rolling register would be expensive, bureaucratic and unlikely to achieve a higher overall level of registration. The current system of a register which requires people to prove residence in October has served us well.

Mr. Henderson

Does the Minister accept that if democracy is worth having it must be paid for? Is it not embarrassing to our democracy that some 3 million adults will be disfranchised in the election that will take place in a few weeks' time? Should that not be a matter of concern to the whole House? Should not the Government now consider establishing an all-party Committee of the House to see how best we can tackle the problem and enfranchise all our country's citizens?

Mr. Sackville

Obviously ideas can be put forward, but the hon. Gentleman should remember that we cannot force people to register if they cannot be bothered or simply do not wish to register. What we can do, however, is try to encourage all those who are prepared to take an interest to take the trouble to ensure that they are on the register.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

My hon. Friend referred to a degree of permanency of residence. In considering that aspect, will he bear in mind the question of constituencies with universities? Students are there for a very ephemeral time and yet they can affect the whole outcome. They need make no effort to get on the register; they are simply put on it by the university authorities. Could they not register in their home towns rather than in those where they are ephemeral students?

Mr. Sackville

Students can register in any place where they can establish a degree of permanency of residence. If any misdemeanours are taking place involving people being registered but not at their own request, my hon. Friend's electoral registration officer should look into the matter.

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