UK Politics

People failing to register to vote could be fined as part of shake-up

People who repeatedly fail to fill in forms registering to vote could be fined as part of a shake-up of the British electoral system.

At the moment, the head of a household fills in the details of those living in a property but ministers want people to register individually to combat fraud.

Those refusing could be issued with a "parking-style" fine by local councils.

Labour said fines could only be justified if they were an incentive to register and they must be "reasonable".

The potential sanction is included in the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill being debated for the first time in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

'Careful consideration'

Through the legislation, ministers want to move to a system of individual electoral registration in England, Scotland and Wales for new voters by the time of the next Westminster election in May 2015.

Those already on the electoral register will have until 1 December to comply with the new rules.

Ministers argue that individual registration is simpler and less open to abuse than the current arrangements.

But critics suggest the change could see millions of people effectively disappear from the electoral register, changing the complexion of many constituencies, particularly those in inner cities with more transient populations.

Labour say the new system is being introduced too fast and is designed to advantage the Conservatives.

The government said on Wednesday it had rejected calls to make failure to register a criminal offence. Instead, it will give local authorities the power to issue fines.

"We didn't think it appropriate to criminalise people who simply didn't register to vote," constitutional reform minister Mark Harper told MPs.

"After careful consideration with key stakeholders and listening to members of this House, we do think it is appropriate to create a civil penalty, akin to a parking fine, for individuals who after being required to make an application by a certain date, have failed to do so."

Ministers say penalties will be fixed and announced at a later date after a consultation.

Mr Harper said he hoped the powers would be used sparingly: "The intention is that only those who refuse repeatedly can be fined. We do not think it is particularly helpful to democracy if we start fining hundreds of thousands of people."

'Breakneck speed'

The last Labour government wanted to phase in individual registration from 2015 onwards but the coalition is proposing to bring this forward.

For Labour, Wayne David said the idea was "sound in principle" but he was concerned about the "breakneck" speed in which it was being introduced and suggested it was timed to influence the next review of parliamentary boundaries in December 2015.

"As we are all aware, if there is a decline in the number of electors in a certain constituency, for whatever reason, the Parliamentary boundaries will have to be redrawn," he said.

"Surely it would be most unfortunate for the government to give the impression they are seeking to gain political advantage because it introduced individual voter registration at the end of a period when the size of the electorate could be temporarily diminished."

Labour colleague Frank Dobson said the changes would make it "more complicated for the law abiding majority to get on the register" and this would be the first move in more than 150 years to reduce the franchise.

But Conservative MP Eleanor Laing said Parliament had been discussing the issue since 2003 and "people were being given a power they do not have at the moment".

While noting that there was a duty on local authorities to help disabled or elderly people to register, Mrs Laing was scathing about Labour's suggestion that young people would "face an increased risk of being unregistered" under the government's proposed changes.

"If a young person cannot organise the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they do not deserve the right to vote," she declared.

The House of Commons rejected Labour's amendment, which complained about the pace of change, by 283 votes to 223, a government majority of 60, before backing the bill at second reading by a similar margin.

Individual voter registration was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2002. Critics say it led to a sharp fall in numbers registered but ministers say any decrease was broadly in line with the rest of the UK and the register was considered more accurate as a result.

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