HC Deb 22 October 2003 vol 411 cc315-22WH

4 pm

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd)

I welcome this opportunity to raise the important issue of under-registration on electoral registers. I was first made aware of this issue some five months ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown).

I tabled a written question asking for a list of the 100 constituencies with the greatest fall in electorate, which I forwarded to the Minister. In my constituency, the drop was some 5.2 per cent., or 3,140 electors over a six-year period. I followed up the question with some research from the Library, which gave me a ward-by-ward breakdown of the loss in electorate in my constituency. The greatest drop occurred in the wards with the greatest social deprivation, and the greatest increase occurred in the most affluent wards.

In the West ward of Rhyl, which is the most deprived of 850 council wards in Wales, there was a 30 per cent. drop from 3,602 in 1997 to 2,489—1,113 electors were lost from the register. The ward contains hundreds of houses in multiple occupation, which may account for part of the drop, as it is very difficult for electoral or party-political canvassers to get beyond the front door of a house in multiple occupation, which may contain more than 50 people. Having said that, it was the case five years ago, too; the houses were there, and the people behind the doors still lived there, so why has the drop occurred?

The ward with the second biggest drop, of 15.2 per cent., or 210 electors, was Denbigh Central, which also contains a number of houses in multiple occupation. The South West ward of Rhyl had the third biggest drop of 13.2 per cent., or 492 electors, but that ward is of a different nature. It is a more settled, stable community; two-thirds of the residents are in social housing. My street-by-street analysis of the ward, which is where I grew up, showed that the streets with the greatest loss of electors, some with as much as a 30 per cent. loss in the electorate, were those with the most deprivation, and those with the greatest incidence of registration were the wealthier, more affluent streets.

Why do people forgo the fundamental democratic right to register and to participate in the electoral process? The Electoral Commission's excellent report on the electoral registration process summarises a number of possible reasons for the decline in registration, including disengagement from the political process and politics generally. People do not register because they are not interested in voting, but because that means that they are avoiding the authorities; the report states that that might be for criminal or other reasons. I am not sure whether that is the case; perhaps some research is needed on the matter.

Another reason may be the wish to avoid debt collectors. An official register is the debt collector's first port of call and if people's names are on it there is the risk that the debt collectors may come after them. I had dinner today with members of the North Denbighshire citizens advice bureau and we discussed that issue. By January next year, they will be able to tell me, on a ward-by-ward, street-by-street basis, where the people suffering from being in debt live. If it matches the non-electors, it may prove the case conclusively.

The report also states that the fact that the register is used for other reasons may be a factor in under-registration, although this may have been limited by regulation changes in 2002. Insufficient data-sharing of personal details between the authorities and resentment by some members of the public about supplying their details to different council departments at different times is cited as another reason. The report goes on to say that anecdotal evidence suggests that some members of the public believe that if they give their personal details to the council tax department, it will automatically relay them to the electoral registration department.

I shall examine a couple of the reasons put forward for non-registration by the Electoral Commission in the context of my constituency. Is under-registration a legacy of the poll tax? Do people think they have more of a chance of avoiding the council tax if they are not on the electoral register? In my county, the council had one of the worst records in Wales for collecting council tax and council rents. The council had a purge on non-payment and now has one of the best records in Wales. That has happened over the past three years. Is non-registration the public's response to this crackdown? I do not know, but research could help us to ascertain that.

Political disengagement was cited as another reason. People in these wards may feel disconnected from the political process. They may feel that they are not being listened to by their MP, their Assembly Member or their councillors. If that is the case, I take some of the blame. Unemployment in Rhyl West and Rhyl South West has been halved in the past six years but it still accounts for 40 per cent. of the unemployment in my constituency and 33 per cent. of the unemployment of the whole county. There are 33 wards in the county and two of them account for 33 per cent. of the unemployment.

A young person has eight times the chance of going to university in the richest ward in my constituency, Tremeirchion, which had the highest increase in electorate, than they do in the poorest, Rhyl West. Primary schools in the west and south-west of Rhyl receive as little as £1,300 per pupil compared with £6,000 per pupil in some of the smaller rural schools. That may illustrate why people feel disconnected from the political process.

Deprivation in my constituency has had an impact on registration. The three wards with the biggest drops are in the poorest quartile of council wards in Wales. There are 850 council wards in Wales. The three wards with the biggest increase in electors are in the richest quartile. What may be the case in my constituency will not necessarily be the case in all constituencies. Some hon. Members to whom I have spoken accept that the decrease in their electorates is down to rural depopulation or a Bight from the inner cities, but I believe that it should be a key focus of any research that is commissioned. One of the recommendations made in the document, "Turnout in Local Elections", issued in May 2000, was that immediate research be undertaken. That was also a key recommendation of the Electoral Commission's report on electoral registration published in May 2003.

There has been a three-year gap in which research has not taken place. I tabled a parliamentary question last week, which was answered last night. I asked what research had taken place and what research would take place. The Minister conceded that no research had taken place in the past three years but that research will take place and be completed next year. I am glad about that. However, when I rang the Electoral Commission on Monday it was a little unsure about that. It may take place at the end of the next financial year, perhaps not. Perhaps the Minister can clarify exactly what type of research has been commissioned and when it will report. I urge the Minister to consider commissioning this research urgently and to consult with the Electoral Commission, MPs and other elected representatives, as well as the electoral returning officers.

I also ask the Minister to take immediate action to increase the electoral registration and not just to wait for this report. Certain actions can be taken straight away to ensure that electoral registration is increased. Research has been carried out and best practice has been gleaned from around the country and there are a number of lessons for us to learn from that. There are wide variations between local authorities. Some have been highlighted in the document "Turnout at Local Elections", published in May 2000 by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The report states that there is a considerable range in local authority budgets for electoral registration, as measured by the amount spent per head. London boroughs with the best registration spent five times as much as those with the poorest.

In a parliamentary question last week, I asked for a list of the amount per head spent by each local authority, and the reply was that the information was not held centrally by the Department. I urge that it should be, so that it becomes possible to keep a finger on the pulse, and find out how seriously local authorities take the issue.

Another issue highlighted in the report is the design of the registration forms. Eighty per cent. of local authorities have changed the design in the past five years. Some were able to quantify the effect of those changes, and I urge Ministers to study the results, and perhaps to issue a standardised form to all local authorities, or, at a minimum, to remind electoral officers which forms are best, so that they can use them.

Some local authorities stress the importance of registration in obtaining consumer credit. People who want consumer credit, or want to start a bank account, need to be on the electoral register. A check is done automatically. That is being used as the worm on the hook to get people registered. It is a sad day when one must appeal to the electorate's consumerist tendencies, rather than their democratic tendencies, to get them on the first rung of the ladder, which is registration.

Other authorities have introduced an extensive training programme for their canvassers, and given them small, more manageable areas to cover. There are those who have paid by results: not necessarily by the number of houses that canvassers call at, but by the numbers signed up. Some authorities use telephone to contact non-responders, or leave a calling card.

A carrot and stick approach has sometimes been adopted. I believe that one authority says that if people fill in their electoral registration form they can have six months' free attendance at the local baths. Perhaps it should up the stakes to gain appeal, but at least lateral thinking has been used. That was the carrot. Other authorities have told people that if they do not register, they will take them to court, where they can be fined £1,000. Perhaps the carrot and stick approach should be considered more widely. Some electoral registration officers have said that, when they have taken people to court—something that takes up a great deal of officer time—only a £10 fine has been imposed, so it was not worth repeating the exercise.

Other sound advice offered in "Turnout at Local Elections" includes liaising with other departments in the council. Often, council departments are reluctant to share information, because of the Data Protection Act 1998. The Act is used by many officers—and others—as a reason for inaction. I urge the Minister to go into the specifics of the issue, and to set out guidelines on what is acceptable or unacceptable in the sharing of data between local authority departments.

The two streets in my constituency with the highest levels of non-registration are on a council estate. Both the housing department and the council tax department have the details of who lives at those addresses. Information exchange could easily lead to a rapid increase in registration, but the officers need guidance.

Another sensible suggestion is that local authorities should work in consortiums to encourage registration. They may want to engage in joint advertising. In north Wales four authorities have, I believe, clubbed together, and are advertising on the back of buses. We should also carefully consider the matter of anonymous registration. If people believe that they can register anonymously, they may be more willing. The relevant wording needs to be correct.

Many of the measures for improving voter registration that I have outlined have been aimed at local government electoral registration departments. I have spoken to several electoral registration officers and to MPs and listened to their point of view. The officers would like central Government, or the National Assembly for Wales, to help promote registration. Some felt that central Government could undertake more central advertising in the local as well as the national press. Many electoral registration officers are overworked. Do they have the time, the training or the budgets to hold seminars and training on best practice?

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on succeeding where I failed, in securing the debate. He and I would agree that one of the major issues that has led to the decrease in numbers on the register is legislation that was recently passed in this House. In 2002, Scotland lost 140,000 electors. I do not believe that the electoral registration officers were prepared for that legislation. Would he agree that we need to encourage electoral registration officers and their staff to ensure that there is a follow-up on every doorstep, as we do at census time?

Chris Ruane:

Yes, my hon. Friend raises some valid points that I have put to the Minister. He has written to me on the matter and has pointed out that the changes that we introduced two years ago allow local authorities a two-year carry-over: if a person registers in one year, he can stay on for two years. In the past, the law allowed only one year. I point out to the Minister that that might have been the law, but the common practice was that those people stayed on in that house until somebody new went into it. Law and practice need to be considered.

Some electoral registration officers feel that MPs, councillors and National Assembly members could play a visible role in encouraging the electorate to register. If I had been asked not long ago what role I or other hon. Members had played in helping to encourage registration, I would have had to say that I had done nothing. Since I have been made aware of the issue, I have put down parliamentary questions and sponsored this debate. We have an important role, and we have to be careful how we approach the electoral registration officers. They do a good job with limited budgets, and often do not have the status that they deserve; people are interested in them only at election time, then they fade into the background. We need to work in co-operation with them, and to recognise their professionalism.

I have mentioned data exchange between council departments. Will the Minister also look at data exchange between Whitehall Departments and local authorities? What information could be legitimately exchanged, for example, with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority? The United States has introduced "motor voter"—when one goes to licence a car one is automatically put on the electoral register. Could we adopt similar policies in this country?

The main areas of non-registration are, as I have mentioned in the poorest wards. Should the Benefits Agency give details to the electoral registration departments? Again, whenever such initiatives are mentioned, the blinds go down and we are told, "Data Protection Act; we cannot do anything." If the rules on data protection allow the exchange from certain Whitehall Departments to local authorities, please can advice and guidelines be issued to encourage those Departments and authorities to take it up? If the rules do not allow it, can the Minister ask Cabinet colleagues to review data protection legislation in order to allow it?

In summary, I ask the Minister, first, to commission research on electoral registration, taking into account key factors such as poverty; secondly, that he collate practices that he knows to have increased voter registration and circulate them; thirdly, that he carefully monitor key elements of electoral registration, such as budgets allocated to local authorities' electoral departments, electoral registration figures and the take-up of best practice; and fourthly, that he undertake a massive, centrally funded advertising campaign, especially in the constituencies that are known to have electoral under-registration, while urging MPs to get involved in that process.

Will the Minster also have a word with the Boundary Commission? That is key. It has freeze dates at which the electoral roll is recorded—the one in my constituency was last December, and there are now 3,000 potential electors in my constituency who have not been taken into account. Such figures should be taken into account. Finally, will he work closely with other Ministers to ensure maximum information exchange between Whitehall and local government? If all the above were successful, registration would dramatically improve and so would the democratic process

4.19 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie):

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) on securing the debate. He motored through myriad good and interesting suggestions and made important points that merit a lot of scrutiny. In the short time available to me, I shall try my best to answer some of those points. I thank him for being so assiduous and determined to pursue this issue through parliamentary questions and elsewhere, because it is a topic that does not often receive as much attention as it deserves.

My hon. Friend was correct to say, at the outset, that voter registration is the fundamental building block of the democratic process. That might seem obvious, but it is true, and it is the basis for all our other electoral processes. We fully recognise the importance of an accurate and up-to-date electoral register. Without being on the electoral register, a person cannot exercise their right to vote. A significant drop in registration levels, if it were due simply to eligible persons not, for whatever reason, registering to vote, would be a matter for serious concern.

Let us consider how the electoral registers are assembled. We recognise that local authorities have a key part to play in publicising voter registration arrangements and in ensuring that people complete and return voter registration forms. The Representation of the People Act 1983 requires electoral registration officers to compile the electoral register. Regulation 23 of the Representation of the People Regulations 2001 permits an electoral registration officer to require anyone to give information required for the purposes of his duties in maintaining registers of parliamentary and local government electors. My hon. Friend wanted to see those powers given to registration officers, and I am glad to see that they have been granted, at least in part, in more recent regulations.

It is an offence punishable on conviction by a fine not exceeding £1,000 to fail to comply with a request for information from an electoral registration officer, or to give false information. Prosecutions for non-compliance are initiated at local discretion. Although no central record is kept of such prosecutions, I understand that they are relatively rare—only a handful over the past year or so.

What are the possible reasons for the apparent fall that my hon. Friend mentions in the statistics that he has compiled through parliamentary answers? It is not clear what is behind those falls in registration levels. A decline in population may be one cause in certain areas; a number of constituencies involved are inner-city seats where there has been an established trend of a fall in population. Under-registration of certain categories of voters, such as young people and minority ethnic communities, may also be an issue, as might the general sense of disengagement from the political process. Differing promotional strategies adopted by electoral administrators have also been mentioned as a possible factor.

However, the laudable tidying-up of the electoral register, bringing greater flexibility and, more important, greater accuracy, following some of the new measures, may also have inflated some of that cyclical decrease. A newer register might be a more accurate reflection of the genuine position than the apparently larger, but older and more outdated register. In any event, we should take care not to prejudge the work being undertaken on registration issues by the Electoral Commission, which my hon. Friend asked me about, and which I shall talk about shortly.

What action are the Government taking on the important issue of voter registration? We have taken a number of steps to improve procedures. Following recommendations made by an all-party working group on electoral procedures in 1999, we introduced provisions for a number of changes in the Representation of the People Act 2000.

Those measures included rolling registration. That enables people to register at any time of the year, whereas previously electors had only one chance to register, which was each autumn. If they missed it, they had to wait until the next year before they could register. The change has been particularly helpful for people who move during the year, as they may now apply to register at their new address as soon as they take up residence. It also assists others who may have missed the annual canvass for whatever reason or who find that somehow they have been missed off the register. Rolling registration makes it easier for individuals to register to vote and for electoral registration officers to achieve more accurate and up-to-date electoral registers.

The 2000 Act recognised that registration officers should continue to be required to review the electoral register each year, to sweep up people who may have moved and not registered under rolling registration. In response to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown), I can tell him that there continues to be an annual canvass, which is conducted with reference to residence on a particular date—15 October is the current date—alongside rolling registration. The changes mean that, for the first time, people without a permanent address can register to vote by making a declaration of local connection. That formally separates the franchise from property for the first time. That means that homeless people, patients in mental hospitals and prisoners on remand can now register to vote.

The 2001 regulations also provide for electoral registration officers to retain a person's details on the register for an extra year when he or she has not returned the annual canvass form. That means that an elector can continue to appear on the register without any confirmation from them that they are resident and eligible to vote, if the electoral registration officer is satisfied that they should still be registered. Only if a person has not completed the annual canvass form for two consecutive years will that person's details be removed from the register. That contrasts with the previous arrangements, in which registration officers were required to remove a person's name after only one failure to renew.

Some concern was voiced about that change resulting in voters being wrongly removed from the register, but, as I have explained, we have relaxed the previous arrangement in which names were required to be removed after one failure to return the canvass form. We now allow persons to stay on the register for two years before they are removed. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd will agree that it is reasonable that after two years, the registration officer should require confirmation that a person is still resident at a particular address and eligible to vote before they are included on the register. That is a sensible measure, which was recommended by the all-party working group that I mentioned earlier.

My hon. Friend also mentioned data and data sharing and suggested that we should not rely only on electoral registration officers to find information. The new powers also allow electoral registration officers to inspect records kept by the local council that appointed them and those kept by a registrar of births, deaths and marriages to enable them to maintain accurate details on the register. That means that when, for example, an electoral registration officer suspects that a person should be registered but has not received a canvass form, he can confirm that person's residence by reference to other data.

The point about the poll tax effect and people being scared off registering to vote because it will make them eligible to council tax is not a concern. Regulations prohibit council tax officials from using the electoral register as a taxation base, so the idea that information will feed back should not deter people from registering to vote. Other changes, including those to service voter regulations, also mean that the electoral register can now be more accurate.

Under-registration requires attention, and some research suggests that certain people, especially younger people and minority ethnic communities, are concerned about registration. We will not be complacent and will continue to work on that. My hon. Friend asked about the Electoral Commission's research; it is reporting on several matters. It is independent of Government, and it is right for it to focus on different issues. It recognises that there is a problem with under-registration; it has a publicity strategy for long-term registration activities, and it is undertaking a lot of further research. I understand that it plans to complete its research early next year, and I will examine my hon. Friend's suggestion about the date of commencement. We welcome the commission's work.

Registration levels are central to the democratic process, and it is right that we should be interested in them. We must ensure that all aspects are understood and taken into account in deciding whether there is a genuine problem and, if so, in considering any solution. The Electoral Commission will no doubt assist in that, and I confirm that we will consider seriously any of its proposed solutions.

It being half-past Four o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.