On Thursday last week, the Government tabled a measure to bring forward changes to the electoral registers which provides the basis for conducting our elections and reviewing constituency boundaries. It probably hoped that nobody would notice that this change could remove nearly two million people from the voting registers by the end of this year. The independent Electoral Commission has recommended that Parliament does not approve the order permitting this to happen. My Lib Dem colleague Lord Tyler has already tabled a motion in the House of Lords to block this blatant attempt at “gerrymandering.”
The significance of the Government’s proposal, according to the Electoral Commission, is that it could remove approximately 1.9million people from the electoral rolls. This would in effect deny many people the opportunity to vote in the elections to be held in May 2016 to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the London Assembly and the local elections in England. There are already major problems with our electoral registers missing about eight million people who should be included on them and thereby enabled to vote. This problem would be exacerbated.
The proposed change would be of considerable long term importance because of its effect on the forthcoming review of constituency boundaries. The Boundary Commissions are under the present rules required to use the electoral registers as at 1st December 2015 for drawing up their proposals for new constituency boundaries based on roughly equal numbers of electors in each seat. The premature removal of up to 1.9 million voters will have a very distorting effect on this process. We know that the people currently missing from the electoral registers are disproportionately from those who are young, private sector tenants, people who are the most socially deprived and ethnic minorities. The proposed change will make this underrepresentation significantly worse.
The Electoral Administration Act of 2013 requires that people who are only on the electoral register as a result of the previous household registration system will remain on the list of voters until December 2016. The Government now wants to exclude them a year earlier. Once they are removed from the electoral register, there will be fewer parliamentary constituencies created in urban areas where these underrepresented groups are most concentrated. The Government’s motivation is not just to deny many people the right to vote next year, but to ensure that there will be fewer constituencies in future that are unlikely to return Conservative MPs.
In 2013, I worked with a cross party group of peers to block the introduction of new constituency boundaries on the basis that it had become clear that the electoral registers to be used were not fit for purpose because so many eligible voters were excluded from them. Amendments that I helped to negotiate to the resulting Electoral Administration Act specifically made provision to retain this large group of people on the register for the purposes of the 2016 elections and the next boundary review. We created provision for the Government to bring this forward if the process of electoral registration was so dramatically improved that it was safe to do so, and provided that neither House of Parliament objected. The Electoral Commission says that it is not safe to do so. The Government plan is an abuse of power and must be opposed.
The Electoral Commission statement opposing the Government plan is here