The government has voted down an amendment to the parliamentary constituencies bill that youth organisations and campaigners have said would “help bring in the missing millions” not currently on the electoral register.
After considering House of Lords amendments to the legislation this afternoon, MPs voted by a majority of 80 to reject the proposal that Labour said would “radically improve the number of young people registering to vote”.
The change to the bill would have allowed the government to add 16-year-olds to the register, or provide them with information on how to apply to join the register, when they receive their National Insurance number.
Commenting today in support of the proposal put forward by the upper chamber, Labour’s youth affairs spokesperson Cat Smith MP said: “It would mean our constituency boundaries are representative of younger voters.”
The shadow minister for voter engagement added: “Indeed, the 16- and 17-year-olds that are considered when it comes to drawing constituency boundaries are likely to be the electors at the subsequent general election.”
Voter registration among eligible 16- and 17-year-olds was estimated to stand at 25% in 2018, representing a significant fall from 45% in 2015. In contrast, 94% of those over the age of 65 were estimated to be registered.
When the transition from individual voter registration took place in 2014, voters whose details could not be matched to the Department for Work and Pensions database of National Insurance numbers had to provide additional identification.
An estimated one million voters fell off the register with the change, and the burden was placed on cash-strapped councils to find individual voters not registered. Young people and renters were particularly badly affected.
Following the introduction of individual electoral registration, the number of attainers (16- and 17-year-olds who will reach electoral age within the life of the electoral register) fell from 471,000 in 2013 to 306,000 by 2019.
Leader of the House of Commons and Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg argued against the amendment this afternoon, telling parliament: “Recent elections have been run on the largest ever electoral registers.
“This is despite the removal of one million ghost entries from the register when the transition to household registration to individual registration was completed…
“The government believes that every eligible elector who wants to be included should be on the electoral register but that it should be up to each individual to decide whether to engage in the democratic process or not.”
Electoral Commission figures revealed last year that 25% of eligible Black voters are not registered to vote, along with 24% of Asian voters and 31% of people with mixed ethnicity. The nationwide average for those not registered to vote is 17%.
John Spellar MP said: “We had the Conservative-Trumpist philosophy read in tooth and claw… Talking about ghost voters on the register yet at the same time they reject any attempt to make it a more rational registration process.”
The Labour backbencher accused the Conservative government of attempting to make it more difficult to vote despite a lack of evidence of voter fraud “in the same way that Donald Trump has been trying to discredit the American election”.
Spellar declared to the the chamber during the debate: “The reality is that in neither country has there been a shred of evidence of fraud in postal voting, or indeed particularly on impersonation at the ballot box.”
He added: “We urge councils to spend large sums of money to try and track them down and get them to register. Why not take a course of action that is very straightforward, cost effective, cheap in order to ensure that they are registered?
“Please don’t wrap it up in some great constitutional issue about the divine right to register. Whether people choose to vote is another matter, but on registration this is naked party political advantage and it’s the same in the US.”
Commenting ahead of the vote, director of the Electoral Reform Society Dr Jess Garland said: “Simple changes like adding people to the private electoral register when they receive their national insurance details would go a long way over time to closing Britain’s shocking registration gap.
“Without simple but vital reforms, parliamentary constituencies will exclude swathes of young people when they’re drawn up. There are many things that can be done to address political inequality in the UK, but this would be a good start.”
The government also voted down, by a margin of 89 votes, an amendment designed to ensure the impartiality of the review process through deputy chairs of the commission being appointed by the Lord Chief Justice rather than the Lord Chancellor.
The current Lord Chief Justice is cross-bench peer Lord Burnett of Maldon. The Lord Chancellor is sitting Conservative MP Robert Buckland, appointed on the recommendation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in July 2019.
On the amendment, Smith said: “This bill allows ministers to have undue influence over their [deputy chairs] appointment. The government’s track record on appointing their close friends to positions of public authority speaks for itself.
“And I simply don’t trust a government that has shamelessly appointed its mates to run the BBC, Ofcom, NHS test and trace and other major bodies.”
Tory peer Dido Harding was appointed by the government to run the NHS Test and Trace at the start of the Covid crisis earlier this year and has continued to oversee its underperformance. She is married to Conservative MP John Penrose.
The government also voted down amendment seven from the Lords this afternoon by a majority of 79. This change sought to widen the variance allowed between the size of constituencies from the original 5% proposed in the bill to 7.5%.
MPs highlighted guidance from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Venice Commission standards, which state that the electorates of single-member districts should be limited at a variance of 10%.
The OSCE advised that up to a 10% tolerance can be applied for geographic considerations, such as those related to transport and communication or to facilitate the representation of indigenous populations or national minorities.
Commenting on the minimal variance allowed for in the bill, Smith said: “International best practice recommends that flexibility should be baked into the system in order to allow for consideration of geography and community ties…
“UK experts who gave evidence to the bill committee recognised that the tight 5% quote will force constituency boundaries to cut across communities, ward boundaries, rivers, lakes, mountains and of course motorways in order to engineer the right mathematical numbers.”
The government recently abandoned plans to slim down the size of the Commons from 650 MPs to 600. Proposals published in 2018 had recommended scrapping 32 seats in England, six in Scotland, 11 in Wales and one in Northern Ireland.
Cat Smith argued that by failing to increase the variance while having U-turned on the decision to cut the number of seats, the commission will have fewer electors to work with – around 3,000. The average urban ward is around 8,000 electors.
She finished by saying: “The Labour Party fundamentally rejects the government’s attempt to end the parliamentary approval of the new constituency boundaries and we ask that members think hard about the impact of this restrictive 5% quota.”
The parliamentary constituencies bill dictates that recommendations put forward by the boundary commission no longer need approval from, nor allow change by, either parliament or government ministers.
Both Labour and the SNP objected to the removal of parliamentary oversight over the process, with Smith telling MPs at the second reading of the legislation that this represented “yet another attempt to diminish scrutiny over executive power”.
An amendment was tabled to retain parliamentary approval on the outcome of a review. The issue had been considered at committee stage and was rejected. It was rejected on report by 339 votes to 237.