Voter Engagement (Westminster Hall Debate)

Westminster Hall Debate 5th February 2015

Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Davies. Today’s debate on voter engagement is timely, given that today is national voter registration day. That happy coincidence means that we are going to talk about something very relevant, and although few Members are in the Chamber at the moment, I suspect that many people will be watching our proceedings with great interest. I understand that there has been a tremendous amount of traffic regarding the matter on Twitter today, and that we have a lot of interest from people outside Parliament on this important topic. I was hoping that I could bring some detailed information with me about what has happened on Facebook and how many hits there have been on various websites—perhaps those figures will come to me as I speak—but there has certainly been a great deal of activity.

Last night, following the debate we had on the floor of the House on individual electoral registration, we had an event, sponsored by the House, during which an animation of a ballot box with ballot papers going into it was projected on to Big Ben. Members of Parliament from all political parties joined me on Westminster bridge; they were doing selfies, videos and little bits for their own constituents—press releases and so on. I would like to thank all those involved in the event. It was great fun, and a lot of passers-by got engaged with what we were doing and were very interested.

I particularly want to thank Holly Greenland and her team at outreach for all their support in getting the event organised, as well as Mr Speaker, who gave us permission to hold the event. It is the sort of thing that has to be treasured and done only occasionally, but when it is, I think it has great impact. Perhaps on similar occasions, the House might consider doing similar things.

There is also an immense amount of interest from a lot of organisations. I read the names of a few of them into the record yesterday, when I had my six minutes to speak in the debate on individual electoral registration. In relation to the subject of yesterday’s debate, I particularly want to mention on record Bite the Ballot, which is a small organisation that punches way above its weight. It has been a great pleasure to work with it; it reaches out to all Members of Parliament from all parties and makes a real difference through its efforts.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Allen: I give way to my hon. Friend, who is a distinguished member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.

Chris Ruane: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his leadership on the important issue of electoral registration. I also pay tribute to the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), but I am disappointed that no Minister has turned up for the debate.

I talked earlier to Bite the Ballot, which hoped to register 200,000 voters today. To put that in perspective, the Electoral Commission’s aim was to get 142,000 people registered in the two months before the general election. In paying tribute to Bite the Ballot, will my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North ensure that the Electoral Commission raises its game as far as electoral registration is concerned?

Mr Allen: I am happy to pay tribute to Bite the Ballot. I very much hope that it will reach that target, which, for a voluntary organisation, would be absolutely immense.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has reservations about the way in which the Electoral Commission has participated in raising the number of people on the electoral register. We feel that it should be much more ambitious in getting people on the register. We say that in our report, and we are not being churlish in doing so; it is an open comment that we have made directly to the Electoral Commission. At the heart of the matter is the fact that 7.5 million people are not registered to vote. That means that in your constituency of Shipley, Mr Davies, there are probably 10,000 electors who are not on the electoral register. I am talking not about the ones who are registered but do not vote—we will come to them in a moment—but about people who are not connected with our democracy at all. That is frightening, and I have to say that given the demography of my constituency, I would be absolutely amazed if the number of people who are not even on the register there was not half as much again. Those people have turned away from politics not because of any recent issues, but because they do not feel that it can do anything for them or that it is relevant to them. It is incumbent on all of us, whatever our political persuasion, to ensure that that disengagement is halted and reversed. Why? Because it threatens our democracy.

Some will say, “The more people you register, the more you help Labour”. But do you know what? If we do not have people participating in our democracy, the institution itself could be threatened. That is my big worry. I shall not repeat my remarks from yesterday, because my speeches from yesterday and today could be read together, but I alluded to the fact that political parties and party leaders have historically been so focused on winning the key 70 to 90 marginal seats that we are not doing what we should to keep our constituencies in good health on a nationwide basis.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Ruane: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Allen: I give way first to my hon. Friend.

Chris Ruane: It was myself who informed the Electoral Commission that 6 million people were missing off the register after I met with Experian, the credit reference agency. Initially, the Electoral Commission denied that, but it researched the matter and said, “Yes, you are right.” Experian told me that if I had all the missing voters in my constituency registered, my political chances of being re-elected would be diminished. This is not an argument about political benefit; it is an argument about democracy, as my hon. Friend said.

Mr Allen: That is a fundamental point. Regardless of anyone’s political persuasion, our democracy lives and dies by the participation of the people and the trust that people have in the system. If we do not maintain and cherish it, it can be diminished, not least because of what I called yesterday the corrosive drip-feed of cynicism from the media in all its aspects—and sometimes, my goodness, we have deserved the cynicism. It is incumbent on all of us to be a bit more optimistic, a bit more dynamic, and a bit more vital in refurbishing our democracy. If the current trend continues, I am afraid that our democracy itself could be threatened.

I will now gladly give way to the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—she might explain why the Minister is not with us this afternoon.

Dr Thérèse Coffey: First, I apologise on behalf of the Minister. For whatever reason, he has it in his diary that this debate starting at 2 o’clock—given that we changed the sitting hours of the House a couple of years ago, I am sure that he will make his own apology to the hon. Gentleman. I also want to make sure that all hon. Members realise that the civil servants will be taking notes, so that the Minister is fully up to speed with all the issues covered in the first part of this debate. He assures me that he is on his way.

May I come back to the point about turnout? The largest turnout in recent years was during the 1992 election. Then the turnout started to decline, but it rose again for the last election. I genuinely believe that the British public realise when there is something at stake, and turnout does increase. Even in my constituency, which some would consider to be safe—I never do, because I do not think any Member of Parliament should be complacent about their constituents’ views—the turnout was over 71%. I am therefore not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that just because the so-called marginal seats get a lot of political attention, the turnout there will be higher.

Mr Allen: I am not trying to diminish the hon. Lady’s helpful and valuable contribution, but part of the reason for turnout figures is that if large numbers of people are not registered, the group from which turnout is drawn is smaller. None of us wants to be in the situation at the ridiculous extreme where we have 100% turnout of one person.

Chris Ruane: On a point of order, Mr Davies. I listened to what the Conservative Whip said, but, in your time as a Chair, have you ever known a Minister not to turn up for such an important debate? Could an Officer or a Whip get a message to the Minister to tell him to get here right now to listen to the important words of the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee? We are discussing our second report in three months on the most important constitutional issue facing us. He has done an excellent job and the Minister’s absence shows disrespect to him, to the Committee, to you and to the House.

Philip Davies (in the Chair): The hon. Gentleman has made his point, but, as I am sure he knows full well, that is not a point of order.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr Davies. Could we not ask the House authorities to send a letter to Ministers’ diary secretaries so that they are fully aware of the times of the House and can ensure that Ministers have the right times in their diaries?

Philip Davies (in the Chair): I am sure that everyone is grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.

Mr Allen: They say that what we say in Parliament does not count for anything, but those two points of order have counted for a great deal, because I see that the Minister has now arrived, and very welcome he is too.

As I was saying, large numbers of people are very much engaged in the process, but we are almost at a crisis point. We are coming to the end of a five-year Parliament, and I think we have 91 days left before the election and 72 days left before the close of registration. Therefore, if we are to encourage the millions of people out there who are not on the register to get on to it, we have 72 days.

It is relatively easy to get on to the register these days, particularly for those who are online. It can be done in a minute, even by those who are not technologically adept. I managed to help my daughter to get on the electoral register on an iPhone, but there are still the normal ways to do it through post and telephone among others. However, the figure of 72 days should be sobering for all of us. Parliament has only 38 days of involvement left. I hope that those are not 38 days to bob, weave and not do anything, but 38 days of great action from the Minister in particular to encourage people to get on the register for the important election that is coming up.

Mr Spellar: Are we not dealing with symptoms rather than causes? Is not the fundamental issue—I hope my hon. Friend’s Committee will take this on board in time —that we need an effective system of national registration not just for parliamentary elections but for driving licences and national insurance cards? That would not be revolutionary, because for decades people in Holland have had to register with the local municipality within three months of moving. That registration is then notified to all other parts of government. That avoids various problems, and that information becomes the electoral register. If we did that, we would save huge sums of money and get a far more complete register as well.

Mr Allen: I talked yesterday about the reasons why people are disengaged with the process, which are deep and fundamental and need to be addressed at a political level. Today we are talking more about the nuts and bolts—the process. My right hon. Friend made a good point that it is not as if we are bereft of ideas. If we look around the globe, we will see that others do this better than us. That is not asking a great deal.

Governments of all parties need to get together to consider this matter It is no good just criticising the Government for inaction in the past five years or even previous Governments in the time before that—I am not making any partisan points. I look in a friendly way to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), when I say that. All parties need to be clear that what they say in their manifestos is what they will do, whatever Government is formed after May. Perhaps the ideas suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley and those in my Select Committee’s reports may help address that.

The point I was making was that we are crisis-managing at the end of a Parliament when a little pre-emptive activity earlier on might well have seen a steady flow of people registering and saved us a considerable amount of grief. Then we could have bitten into the 7.5 million people who are not on the register in a deeper way. Indeed, if we do get 200,000 people registered today as a result of national voter registration day, that will make a contribution, but almost that figure is needed on every single one of the remaining 38 days before Dissolution to make any serious impact on that enormous figure.

Chris Ruane: My hon. Friend mentions a figure of 7.5 million people who are missing from the register. In fact, it has gone up by 1 million in the past year to 8.5 million. Will he join me in asking the Electoral Commission to raise its stakes, because its 2014-19 plan says that it will be happy if 7.5 million people are still off the register in 2019? It will give itself a big fat tick for that.

Mr Allen: I have referred to that already and I am happy to refer my hon. Friend to the report that he helped the Committee to agree unanimously. I think page 61 says exactly that: the Electoral Commission needs much more ambitious targets. It needs assistance from this House, the Government and electoral registration officers throughout the land to make an impact.

Before I come to our report, I will first, and most obviously, thank the Speakers Commission on Digital Democracy, which I will refer to a little in my remarks. It has done excellent work and its report was published last week. Thankfully, most of its recommendations overlap almost inseparably with our conclusions. The Speaker is to be congratulated on taking that initiative. I think that such ideas will become common practice and, in 10 or 20 years’ time, people will say, “Why on earth didn’t they do that when they had the technology early on?” If banking can be done securely online, there is no reason why, with a little bit of effort, we could not do something similar. That is what we propose in our report, which I will come on to later.

I also want to thank the people who were involved in Parliament week. We are in real danger of Parliament doing something significant here in helping to build our democracy, with this place standing up for democracy in a way that does not necessarily mean that it is supporting or opposing the Government of the day. Parliament can have a will of its own. I was involved in Parliament week, which was a wonderful event that involved a massive amount of interaction with young people aged 16 to 24—the very group that we want to get involved. My involvement was over in the atrium of Portcullis House and the interaction was fantastic. We estimate that there were more than 1.3 million contacts and interactions during that week, which is an enormous number of young people for any campaign to reach. Members of Parliament took part in live chats and web chats with, we think, up to 4,000 young people and there were nearly 2,000 recorded tweets—my congratulations to Lee Bridges and his team in Parliament.

The idea that people in Parliament are somehow stuffy and getting in the way is not the case. We have bags of ideas in Parliament, as Members will see in the report. I come back to my point about the House’s involvement in general and the fact that we are leaving it very late. I must say to hon. Members that the Select Committee that they, as parliamentarians, elected, along with its Chair, have taken the issue very seriously: the report on voter engagement that came out a few weeks ago and the follow-up that we are launching today are the last two of seven reports on this issue from my Committee over the past five years. Anyone who says, “We didn’t know,” or, “Oh, what a shame we didn’t have that idea—why didn’t they tell us?” should go back to the first report we did and go through it: they will see some of the ideas that will help to build, strengthen and grow our democracy. We know how to do it—none of it is rocket science—and it is very important that we now start to take action.

Parliament is not an executive body. All it can do is tee up the opportunity. It can outline how things could go, draft Bills and clauses, and write resolutions of the House—and we have done. It is all there. The only thing we cannot do is execute. The Government have to do that. That is why, as we have gone through this five-year Parliament, we have honed our proposals until we now have six key ideas that could happen as soon as a Government—of any political complexion—show the political will. As soon as they want to do this stuff, it can be trialled.

The first proposal is about voting online. I have already referred to the fact that the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy has come out in favour of that idea. We have spent a considerable amount of time examining the possibilities and consulting people. In the time between the publication of the report that came out on 14 November and the publication of the follow-up that has come out today, 16,000 people have interacted with the Select Committee. I think that is a world record—I do not think that a Select Committee has ever engaged in that way before. Not only did we have written evidence and responses as normal, but we had external organisations putting out response forms on the proposals in the report. Those organisations include Bite the Ballot, Unlock Democracy, the Hansard Society, the Electoral Reform Society and many others—I hope I will be forgiven if I do not mention them all today. That is how we managed to get 16,000 interactions with people and distil the proposals in the earlier report into the document we have published today. That is a fantastic feather in the cap of the House and, if I may say so as an aside, an indication that Select Committees might get even more credibility by doing comparable exercises on issues of concern to the general public—I will leave it at that.

Voting online was one issue where there was an enormous response, and 60% of the responses were clear that it was something we should pursue. Instead of saying, “Yes, let’s go snap on this. It’s a wonderful idea —let’s do it tomorrow,” my Select Committee has said, “We believe that voting online is the way of the future, that people should have a serious debate nationally and that after the election in May a proposal should come before the House of Commons to discuss and agree the way forward on online voting.” We are not dictating that we should be doing it in the next few weeks or that it has to be done in a particular way, but exploring that issue. If, as I say, people are prepared to put their bank account online, why on earth can we not commission the right people and get the right reports written so that by 2020 we can have an election in which people can not only register but vote online? I cannot remember the exact number—he will know better than me—but I think in the debate yesterday the Minister quoted a figure of many hundreds of thousands of people taking the opportunity to register online, so why not have many hundreds of thousands of people voting online if they choose to? That deserves serious consideration by whichever party or parties form the next Government. Let us get on with that experiment so that we can put it into action; the Speaker’s Commission agreed with that view.

The next issue that the Select Committee reported on to the House is compulsory voting. That is always a sensitive issue, as there are clearly aspects that will make us all a little bit anxious. Telling people what they should do should not be in the vocabulary of anyone in this place. However, there are, again, examples from other countries where civilisation as we know it does not collapse when there is a desire to ask every citizen to carry out their democratic duty. In my view, it is a part of the social contract—if someone benefits from a society, they should interact with and be a part of it to some degree. The minimal amount of interaction, in my opinion, should be to vote. Most of us do it, but there are large numbers of people who simply cannot be bothered.

Chris Ruane: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way yet again. If, as the Speaker’s Commission has backed, we achieve online voting by 2020, all an individual will have to do is press a button. That is not too much to ask once every five years.

Mr Allen: From my own point of view, I have to say that I do not ever want to vote online except in particular circumstances—because I am not in the country, or some such other reason—because I actually enjoy the process of going down to the polling station. It is an unusual democratic activity, and, as we have seen in Scotland, can be the culmination of an interesting and exciting experience of democracy. I will always want to go down to the polling station as my first preference, although I might be away or want to use a postal vote, or whatever. But someone might choose to vote online. For me, the question is whether someone has chosen to vote. Let us put the customer first. If young people, in particular, find it much more convenient to vote online and will be happier if they can, we should facilitate that. Then the bogey of compulsion becomes a very thin spectre indeed, because many more people will have the facility to vote and will do so.

Chris Ruane: Does my hon. Friend agree that with compulsory voting it would be important to have on the ballot paper either “none of the above” or “I abstain”?

Mr Allen: My hon. Friend has rehearsed the arguments on the issue so much in the Select Committee that he is even picking out the lines I am about to come to in my speech. He is absolutely right. If someone wants to abstain, they should at least have the courtesy to the rest of society to do so in person, and not do so just because they are lazy. They should go to the polling station. At the moment they can spoil the paper, as some people do even today; but there may be room—this issue should be part of a wider consultation—for an abstention box or a box for “none of the above”. Frankly, if someone has taken themselves out of the house and gone to the polling station, I think that they should make a choice, instead of wanting a counsel of perfection, and thinking, “I don’t like any of them.” Sometimes politics is about the option people dislike the least—the one with whom someone finds a little more to agree on than the others. If I had the idea that every candidate and every party must completely meet my agenda, I would certainly not be in the Labour party. I cannot ask the elector to apply a test that I cannot pass myself. Of course, it is only on rare occasions that I disagree with the Labour party.

In answer to my hon. Friend, of course we should give people that option and allow them to express themselves. It is better to do it that way than to adopt a heavy-handed approach and put people in prison for not voting. We must excite and encourage people, and make voting relevant for all the reasons that I talked about yesterday, which I will not go into again now. We must make voting for a local representative important. In a devolved society, they will have more power to get on and do stuff, so it will be meaningful.

Perhaps we should ultimately have the fall-back position of a fine of some description, but, frankly, we will have lost the battle of encouraging people to vote if fines are our main weapon. They should be used sparingly. If people are fined, the organisation that brings the case—the local authority—should keep the proceeds, and should not be forced through the lengthy, expensive process of sending the fifty quid or whatever it is to central Government.

We should introduce a raft of incentives, which people can claim by right if they have voted. We all know who has voted—it is in the marked register, as plain as a pikestaff—so it is possible to create an incentive-based system. The Select Committee is saying that we do not have the system down pat, so we want people to look at it, consider it and deal with it seriously.

The third of the Select Committee’s recommendations is automatic registration. If we could think about registration with a blank piece of paper, we would think that registering to vote and then voting in a general election, or any kind of election, is a strange process. Members of all political complexions go knocking on doors asking people whether they have registered, sent in their postal vote or whatever. Why on earth can we not have a system of automatic registration? We are halfway there with the cross-referrals to the Department for Work and Pensions and other institutions. We can use that public information to say, “Mr Blogs lives at such-and-such an address”, and put it on the register.

It would be up to the political parties to take it from there—nobody is saying that this is a matter for the Government. I would like that information, because I would like to go knocking on people’s doors so that I can say to them, “You are on the electoral register and you are thinking about voting. What will make you vote? What do you think about politics at the moment? What are the local issues?” We all know the patter, because we all do it. It is about getting people to want to be part of our political society, our democracy and our civic society.

We must use all the means available to us. Technologically, it is a no-brainer to put people’s information on the electoral register when they register for something or interact with a public body. I do not think that that is the most controversial of our proposals. Again, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is wisely saying that the Government should consider and plan for automatic registration. They should consider whether and how it should happen.

Our next proposal—votes for 16 and 17-year-olds—might be a little more controversial. There was a very high turnout of 16 and 17-year-olds in the Scottish referendum. We saw on TV the energy, the vitality and the challenge that young people brought to that marvellous adventure in democracy. Again, there are different views about that issue. For example, my 17-year-old daughter said, “I wasn’t mature enough to vote when I was 16.” However, giving young people the option and engaging them has another advantage. It is not merely that they will be able to vote, but that at school they will be able to register, interact with people, have debates, hold their own elections and enjoy it.

We heard a lot about people going into old people’s homes, universities and other places to block-register people, which is a sensible idea that Governments should think carefully about. Certainly, it would be sensible to enable the officer in charge of an old people’s home to register everybody in the home. We would lose something if we forced individual registration at that point. Let us be sensible about it and allow people to be registered in the way that is best for them. Schools bring a captive audience, and teachers can get everybody to register. They can make it fun or part of an exercise. That is a sensible way to proceed.

Many people—particularly those in the charitable sector—have a lot more ideas. We should listen to them and be open-minded about encouraging young people to vote. We should get people involved early. It is statistically proven that if people are reluctant to vote up to the age of 30, they tend to remain reluctant to vote for the rest of their lives. We should get people interested and excited, but not in a stupid, “We can give you everything you want” sort of way. We must tell people that making decisions can be tough, and that they should choose the party that, by and large, accords with their views, but that they are never going to get perfection. That is part of growing up and being mature.

People should not say, “Unless they give me everything, I am not going to vote for them.” We sometimes get letters saying, “I am never going to vote for you because on this issue, you didn’t do what I wanted.” Rather than that immature response, people should say, “By and large, we think you are the better person.” It would be incredibly valuable to include that sort of personal growth in schools as part of personal, social and health education.

If we do not have the automatic registration that my Committee has proposed, how might we make registration better than it is at the moment? We have suggested that the period for registration should be up to and including election day. I am not proposing that there should be no other means of registration, and that 80,000 people in a constituency should roll up at the town hall on election day. However, many of us who have been to the United States will have seen that it is perfectly manageable to enable people to go to the town hall on election day, walk through the front door and be encouraged to register, then go round the back of the town hall to the polling booth and cast their vote. However, that must be managed to ensure that there are not blockages, and we must ensure that the main routes for registration continue to be those that we have now, with or without automatic registration.

We must tell people who want to vote that they have 72 days left. If they are among the millions of people who, unlike our good selves, could not care less whether there is a general election at some point in the future, they may wake up to the fact that they are not on the register quite late. There must be a means for those individuals to get on to the register if they want to exercise their right to vote. That makes a lot of sense to me.

The campaigns on encouraging people to vote that we have all been involved in over the past few days—some of us have been involved for much longer—may percolate down to people’s consciousness only closer to the election day. There is not a Member in this Chamber who has not had somebody say to them in the last couple of weeks before an election, “I want to vote. Where do I go?” Too often, we have to respond, “I’m sorry. I’ve checked your name and address, and you are not on the register.” We have all had that. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s opinion is that people who express a wish to register should have that wish granted up to and including election day. We have some ideas about the nuts and bolts, which the Government and officials may find helpful. May I take a moment to thank the Minister and his officials for the positive way in which they have considered our report and engaged with us? Indeed, they have accepted several of the principles in the report.

There are many other points that I would like to raise. We have produced seven reports on the matter, two of them in the past couple of months, so there is bound to be a lot that I have missed. If hon. Members want to prompt me, I am sure I can bring those things to mind. The final point that I have on my little list, however, is about weekend voting. That issue got a lot of responses in the consultation, and a lot of people would be interested in the concept. Add to that the ability to vote during the week before the election, perhaps at a given place or a number of given places, and we would start to engage people who, even of a weekend, may be away or unable to vote for some other reason. The bottom line, by which the Committee has been driven, is that we must try to engage people in our democracy and facilitate every possible means of engaging people in their right to vote.

I return to the key statistics. As I alluded to yesterday, half a million people who had postal votes no longer have them, because they have not filled out the forms necessary to re-engage with the process. Some people were all but promised a postal vote for the rest of their lives, but the system has changed and those people, if they have not done the right thing, will not vote. That is a large number of people in each constituency. Even larger is the number of people not registered to vote in each constituency; as I mentioned earlier, if 7.5 million people are not on the register, that is an average of 10,000 people per constituency. [Interruption.] I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), because I can see that he has a point to make.

Chris Ruane: No, no. I think I have intervened enough.

Mr Allen: My hon. Friend has missed his last chance, uncharacteristically.

The creation of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report on voting and voter engagement in the United Kingdom has been an excellent process. There has been massive public engagement and considerable engagement by Members of the House. There has been unanimity among the members of the Committee, which is, like most Select Committees—you will understand this, Mr Davies—made up of independent-minded individuals from all parties who do not reach a consensus easily. The fact that we have reached unanimity on those matters underlines the fact that our democracy needs to be polished, refurbished and maintained, and that the way in which we vote needs to be facilitated for the convenience of the electorate rather than that of anyone else. I hope that you and colleagues across the House will take the time to read the report, Mr Davies. Above all, I hope that those in government, and those who aspire to government, will act on it.