Much of the current spotlight on the UK Parliament is focussed on the Scottish devolution proposals, which were debated fiercely in the Commons, yesterday. This has spearheaded a much needed public discussion about devolution and I welcome these new opportunities. However, as well as being an important issue for Scotland, these debates are equally vital for Wales.
Today’s second Committee Stage debate of the Wales Bill signifies an important step towards easier, engaging and more accessible voter registration in Wales. Today, the Lords will be debate amendments 19 and 20, tabled in the names of Baroness Morgan of Ely, Baroness Grey-Thompson, Lord Tyler and myself, that have the potential to spark youth engagement with politics never seen previously in Wales.
For, as proven by the intense and informed youth participation witnessed during the Scottish Independence Referendum, young Britons are a powerful and enthusiastic voter-base – and one that has so far been neglected. As put forward by my Voter Registration Bill earlier this year, we need to ensure that young people in the UK are both informed and inspired. Never again should they be the group least likely to appear on the Electoral Register (49% of 16-17 year olds are currently missing) and never again should they be the least likely demographic to want to participate in our democracy (a mere half of all young people plan to vote at the next General Election).
These problems are particularly severe in Wales. Only 35% of registered 18-24 year olds voted in the last Welsh Assembly elections – the lowest of all age groups. The Welsh Assembly have been doing some excellent work in this area but as electoral powers are not devolved, it’s left to Westminster to pass meaningful legislation if we’re set on revitalising Welsh democracy.
What we are proposing is two-fold, and represented by amendments 19 and 20: first, data-sharing to facilitate the creation of ‘tick-box’ registration – similar to the Organ Donor register on an ‘opt-in’ basis and inspired by the US ‘Motor Voter’ Act (i.e. registering to vote when filling in a driver’s licence application). Second, I propose a duty on Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) to increase the number of ethnic minorities, disabled people and young people on the register. These groups have been specifically identified by The Electoral Commission as under-registered. As a key part of this, the amendments require EROs to organise voter engagement sessions in local schools and colleges to engage young people in the importance of making every voice heard and becoming ‘votes worth winning’ (ending with an all-important invitation to register to vote).
These changes haven’t been plucked from thin air. They are built on almost five years’ worth of ‘lessons learnt’ by youth democracy organisation, Bite The Ballot. Amendment 20 draws heavily on the proven and successful ‘Schools Initiative’ in Northern Ireland, responsible for adding 50% of this age group to the register in four years. Indeed, when I met with the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland, he called it a ‘no-brainer’: I’m rather inclined to agree.
Yesterday, the Western Mail published a letter co-signed by Carwyn Jones AM, Andrew R. T. Davis AM, Leanne Wood AM and Kirsty Williams AM expressing all-party support for both these amendments. Wales’ leaders have also written to UK Government ministers, united in support of the measures. Moreover, on 24 September, the Welsh Assembly itself (by an overwhelming majority) voted in favour of these principles.
It is evident that Wales undoubtedly wants these amendments to be passed. Now is the time to ensure that we make Welsh voter registration as straightforward, accessible – and crucially – engaging, as possible. I strongly urge you to join #TheAmendment (here) so that together, we can persuade the UK Parliament to improve Welsh democracy for generations to come.