Voter Registration

Opposition Motion on Electoral Registration 4th February 2015

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 the 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 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.

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 are 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 their 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.

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

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 they have got, 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 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.