Hands up if you know your National Insurance number. If you are telling the truth much less than half of you actually do. Does it matter? Well in two years time, if you don’t, you won’t be eligible to register to vote.
Some of you may have been vaguely aware that the Coalition Government has announced its intention to move towards individual voting registration by 2015. In the modern world it is perhaps better to place this responsibility on individuals rather than heads of households. However individual voting registration is one thing, making it a requirement to provide a National Insurance number is quite another. Apart from the fact that some people have never had an NI number, a much larger number would be unwilling to provide it for a reasonable fear that when combined with a date of birth (which is also been requested) it could lead to identity theft. Ben Page (the polling guru) estimates that barely 25% of the population know their NI number. It does seem bizarre that you can open a bank account without providing your national insurance number but soon won’t be eligible to vote. The problem of not having a NI number is particularly acute amongst the unemployed, adolescents who have not been sent one, the retired who have moved house and citizens who have emigrated and returned. The independent Electoral Commission have estimated that 73% of the electorate would be concerned if they were asked to provided their NI number and that 15% of the electorate (or 6 million voters) will be deterred from registering to vote by the requirement to provide a NI number.
So how have we arrived here? As always there is a conspiracy and a cock up theory. The conspiracy theory is that this is a form of voter suppression more commonly associated with the American Deep South. Certainly all the evidence suggests that it will predominately be those under 30 who will fail to register to vote in the new regime. The cock-up (or ‘omnishambles’) theory is also relevant. When the individual voter registration was discussed in the Commons there was no suggestion of a National Insurance requirement – only a signature. When it got to the Cabinet Office it was realised that this would be a barrier to online registration. The instant solution by Whitehall’s finest was the National Insurance option. Except it isn’t a good idea for all the reasons outlined above. As for Ed Miliband’s idea of mass voter registration? F orget it. Who is going to give their date of birth and National Insurance details to a random stranger on a dark doorstep?
The tragedy is that Britain has a proud record of effective voter registration. Thanks to the unsung efforts of council electoral registration officers throughout the land we have built up a internationally respected form of civic registration. Of course it could be modernised and online registration is the way forward but not in the way that the Cabinet Office (who have little experience of the practical issues relating to voter registration) have suggested. If the government really wanted to do something about improving voter registration it could find a better way of helping single person households than the current single person council tax discount. That really is a form of voter suppression with millions of households having to choose between democratic rights and a financial saving.
We are facing the collapse of our electoral register with all the implications for democratic participation which will also have profound implications for the future composition of juries (jury lists are compiled from current electoral registers). At the final hour the heavy guns have got involved. Liverpool Council has scheduled a debate at its next council meeting calling on the Local Government Association to campaign against this change up to and including a Judicial Review. Graham Allen MP, the formidable Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, has written to every Peer asking them to register their concern as the proposed legislation receives their scrutiny from October 29th. In the modern world it seems we have to rely on unelected peers to protect the franchise.
Paul Wheeler is Director of the Political Skills Forum which exists to promote the role of local politics and councillors