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Electoral register reform brought forward despite watchdog warning

Published 16/07/2015

The reforms come ahead of various contests, including a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union
The reforms come ahead of various contests, including a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union

The deadline for the full switchover to a new system of electoral registration has been brought forward 12 months by the Government despite a watchdog warning many voters could be excluded from polls next year.

Constitutional reform minister John Penrose said anyone who had failed to sign up as an individual by December would be excluded until they did so - arguing further delay could "compromise the integrity" of elections next May.

The Electoral Commission complained that the truncated transition process would leave some of the 1.9 million people still listed under the previous household-based regime without a voice.

It expects a "significant number" of those to be brought over to the new system by an annual canvass operation taking place over the summer but believes the results of that will come too late to properly make a decision on when the cut-off should be.

But Mr Penrose, who has brought forward a parliamentary order to change the 2016 date originally approved by MPs, said allowing "carry forward" electors to remain eligible for longer " will pose an unacceptable risk to the accuracy of the register".

Ministers also argue that it risks skewing a review of parliamentary constituency boundaries which is back under way after being blocked by the Liberal Democrats during the last parliament as the result of a bitter row within the coalition administration with the Conservatives.

An additional £3 million would be made available to e lectoral registration officers in areas where at least 5% of their total electorate were still to switch to help them get as many registered individually as possible, Mr Penrose said.

In 2016 there are elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh National Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly as well as for the mayor of London and London Assembly, local elections in England and - possibly - a referendum on Britain's EU membership, promised by 2017.

"Retaining carry forward electors risks having an unknown number of redundant entries on the registers, which would distort the results of the boundary review, increase the risk of electoral fraud, and potentially compromise the integrity of those elections," he said in a statement.

"The Government does not agree that we should be making a choice between completeness and accuracy, given the importance of both elements in delivering a fair democratic system which commands the confidence and respect of voters.

"We need to be more ambitious. We can and should aim to achieve both, which is why the Government believes it is crucial that the registers used to conduct the Parliamentary boundary review and for next year's elections are as complete and as accurate as they can possibly be."

There was little excuse for people having failed to make the change, he suggested, noting that they had been contacted "at least nine times to encourage them to register individually".

The change of date will be laid before parliament and could be forced to a vote and Commission chair Jenny Watson pointed out that it had originally backed the December 2016 cut-off "in full knowledge of the forthcoming boundary review".

"The implementation of the new registration system has gone well so far," she said.

"But taking into account the data and evidence which is available to us at this point, and the scale and importance of the polls scheduled for next May, we still recommend that the end of transition should take place in December 2016 as set out in law.

"We are glad that the Government shares our ambition that the electoral registers should be as complete and accurate as possible and the work that is taking place now, as part of the annual canvass, will help to achieve this.

"It's for Parliament to decide when the transition to IER should end. When Parliament made its previous decision, it decided that the transition to IER should end in December 2016 in full knowledge of the forthcoming boundary review."

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