Anxiety over voter fraud must not stifle electoral registration

By rushing the implementation of the new scheme, the government risks leaving millions off the register.

This week, the Electoral Commission released proposals to clamp down on electoral fraud, requiring voters to show photographic ID at polling stations. Sensible measures to tackle fraud are welcome, but we should be careful not to further exacerbate the already woefully low levels of democratic engagement. There is real concern that the government’s current plans will make things worse. 

The Electoral Commission themselves say there is no evidence to suggest that electoral fraud is widespread in the UK and there have been only a handful of convictions. Yet, we know that at the last general election, only 44% of young people voted. Millions of eligible voters are not even on the electoral register, which means they can’t vote and are not represented in the drawing of political boundaries. The 2011 Electoral Register, the last that can be directly compared with census data, showed the huge disparity in representation for different groups on the register. Around half of 19-24 years olds were not registered, compared to 6% of those aged over 65. Fewer people from BME communities were on the register compared to white people. 56% of people living in private rented homes were counted, compared to nearly 90% of homeowners.

Inevitably, there is a balancing act between protecting our elections from potential fraud but also encouraging as many people as possible to go out and vote. Most of the serious cases of fraud have been linked to the exploitation of postal voting, and the rules have been tightened. It’s important we don’t stifle electoral registration in the midst of understandable anxiety about fraud.

The last Labour government legislated for the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration, which is an important step in modernising the way we vote and protecting the system from exploitation. The change means individuals themselves will need to join the electoral register, instead of a single member of a household filling out the form for all inhabitants. Labour's approach was that the changes would be phased over a number of years, with numerous checks and balances to ensure levels of registration were high. 

Yet the government are rushing the implementation of the new scheme, ignoring widespread concerns that by doing so, they risk leaving millions off the register. Individual Electoral Registration has now been piloted by the government, attempting to match people with data at the Department for Work and Pensions. The results only emphasise our fears. 8.7 million of the electorate could not be matched against the records held. Urban areas are losing out. An astonishing 26% of voters in London may not be eligible to vote in the Mayoral elections in 2016. Our young people will also suffer as the figures at our universities were remarkably low. In Lancaster University – an electoral ward – just 0.1% of the current electorate could be matched to the DWP database. All the statistics and evidence suggests that if we continue as we are, young, urban populations will be disproportionately affected by these dramatic changes. Yet the government continues to go ahead. 

Labour has called on the government to delay the implementation process, giving local authorities, universities and electoral registration officers more time to ensure as many people as possible are involved and represented. It’s a good example of the importance of striking a balance when it comes to reforming our democratic processes. The move to Individual Electoral Registration is the right thing to do, and will help tackle fraud. But it must be delivered with care and by adopting a phased approach, to ensure as many people as possible are involved. 

The electoral register performs a hugely important civic function. Beyond allowing our citizens the ability to vote, the register affects the wider political settlement and enables the selection of juries. We should try to ensure as many people as possible are registered, whilst maintaining vigilance about potential fraud. 

Voting slips are emptied out of the ballot box during the South Shields by-election on May 2, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.