How 10 million UK voters could be lost

Reform to voter registration could have a far more wide-ranging effect than the boundary changes.

The head of the Electoral Commission has called it the biggest change to voting since the introduction of universal franchise. Boundary changes? No. While Westminster and the media have focused on proposed changes to constituencies, another reform could have an even more profound effect, allowing as many as 10 million voters -- predominantly poor, young, and likely to vote Labour -- to fall off the electoral register entirely.

The government wants to introduce individual voter registration rather than household registration, before the 2015 election. Essentially, this makes it an act of choice rather than civic duty to engage with the political system. This is compounded by ministers' surprise proposal that it should no longer be compulsory to co-operate with electoral registration officers when they compiling the register. Refusing to comply is currently an offence which can carry a fine of up to £1,000.

There are several obvious problems. There are clear incentives for people not to register, as the electoral roll is used for jury service and to tackle credit card fraud. But more importantly, it is difficult to see any justification for further removing already disenfranchised communities from the political process.

According to the Guardian, which appears to be the only paper to report this story today, MPs on the political and constitutional reform select committee have been interviewing experts this week about the implications, and are "genuinely shocked" at their findings.

The testimony of experts simply follows steps of logic, so it is difficult to see why the MPs are so surprised. Jenny Russell, the chair of the Electoral Commission, explained:

"It is logical to suggest that those that do not vote in elections will not see the point of registering to vote and it is possible that the register may therefore go from a 90 per cent completeness that we currently have to 60-65 per cent."

It is highly likely that this will vary greatly between areas. John Stewart, chairman of the electoral registration officers, predicts that the drop-off will be around 10 per cent in "the leafy shires", but 30 per cent in inner city areas.

This means that the fall-off will be disproportionately focused on the young, the poor, and ethnic minorities. This could have significant political impact, as all of these groups are more likely to vote Labour when they do vote. The greatest effect will be in 2020, as the boundaries for that election will be based on the voluntary individual register compiled in 2015. If 30 per cent of voters in inner city Labour areas have disappeared, the Boundary Commission will have to reduce these seats, because its sole objective is to equalise the size of the electorate -- the number of registered voters, not the number of people -- ignoring natural borders.

However, these party-political concerns should be secondary to the profound implications this could have for democracy in the UK. Already, 3 million people eligible to vote do not register, despite the fact that co-operation with electoral officers is compulsory. Huge swathes of our society are already disenfranchised, as this summer's riots painfully showed. This is not the time to compound that disconnect.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for historical child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.