Chloe Smith speech on Individual Electoral Registration

The Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform discussed the process and benefits of implementing Individual Electoral Registration.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Chloe Smith MP

Thank you for your warm welcome.

I’m really pleased to have the opportunity to address the Association of Electoral Administrators today.

In the UK we have a long and proud history of democratic participation.

We’ve come to take free and fair elections for granted. But you only have to switch on the news to see that many countries – whether under the grip of a dictator or with a long history of democracy - still grapple with electoral administration.

Think of the rancour unleashed in the USA 13 years ago by Florida’s hanging chads - or voters being turned away from polling stations in Zimbabwe only last month.

It isn’t easy. Democratic participation doesn’t come about by chance. And elections don’t run themselves.

They happen because of the planning, organisation and hard work of people like you. Because of the collaboration between local and central government, the political parties and the electorate. Each must play its part.

So thank you for your professionalism, your commitment and your hard work.

The Association of Electoral Administrators has put together a varied and focused programme today to help you prepare for the most critical phase of the biggest reform of our electoral administration for generations.

I want to share with you my convictions about the benefits Individual Electoral Registration (IER) will bring to the UK and how the government is determined to work with you to ensure it is successfully implemented.

I’m pleased to be joined by Colin Dingwall, the Cabinet Office programme director for IER and the Cabinet Office team. In the best spirit of democratic participation, we’re not just here to talk – we want to listen, and to answer your questions too.

I am very aware that there has been some recent disappointing news for the AEA as a training supplier and for a number of you in the first round of bids for additional delivery funding for maximising registration.

Let me assure you that I am as committed as ever to ensuring you receive the support you need to implement IER. I am not here to flannel you, it would be an insult to the way in which we work. There will be moments when more is required from all of us to ensure IER is the success we all want.

I don’t take any decision lightly and I place great value on the IER programme’s relationship with electoral administrators.

Let’s be up front about it - the AEA has been awarded the training materials contract and another organisation the delivery one.

As a minister, I am responsible for decisions that stand up to scrutiny. We used a rigorous commercial competition in this case.

Demand for the maximising registration funding far outstripped supply by quite a long way and difficult decisions had to be made. I know that many of you would have put additional funding to good use but my task has been to ensure the budget for this work has been allocated to best use, where it will generate most value. The full amount of phase one funding will be awarded shortly.

I am sorry to disappoint those of you who worked hard to succeed but please don’t be discouraged from putting in bids under phase 2 - deadline 1 December - and in the future. My officials are here today and will delighted to discuss future bids and the criteria against which they will be measured. I wish you success in them. You know I’m looking for the best quality in those bids.

I hope everyone can leave today reassured that that I’m fully committed to supporting you in making IER a reality. To be your best, do different, as we say in Norfolk.

Turning back to the meat of today’s discussion, I’d also like to congratulate the AEA on their choice of venue. It’s great to be in Birmingham.

England’s second city is inextricably linked to the development of modern democracy in Britain.

Birmingham gave rise to radical reformers like Thomas Attwood and John Bright and played a pivotal role in the 2 great electoral reform acts of the 19th century.

Back then, knowingly or otherwise, they were making the first tentative steps on the road to universal suffrage.

In some ways, we’re here today to finish what they started.

The principle of the universal suffrage now underpins our electoral system, and in some ways our registration system has not kept pace.

For too long, Britain has remained one of the few countries in the world to rely on the system of household registration.

We’ve clung to the old-fashioned notion that you give the responsibility to one person in the household to register everyone else.

That’s frankly out of date and those of you who’ve heard me speak at previous events will know that I am passionate about the “I” in IER.

3 years ago we set out to deliver a more secure and more modern way of registering to vote.

I’m looking for a system that celebrates and promotes the right of each individual to play their own role in the democratic system.

I’m looking for a system which will ensure that the public has even greater confidence that our elections are legitimate and fair.

I’m looking for a system that speaks to individual members of the electorate and says: “Your vote counts”.

Currently, as you will know, at least 85% of people who are eligible to vote are already registered.

That’s a good record – but it could be better and, indeed, it must be better. And that why we’re all engaging in this programme.

We want everyone to have a say in the running of the country, both at national and local level.

Yet 93 years after property restrictions on the right to vote were first lifted, research shows that almost half of those in social housing and private rented housing aren’t currently on the register.

The current system also works against people like students who move around a lot.

And indeed, those in shared housing might not even realise that a form has been delivered to their home.

And 42 years after the vote was extended to 18 year olds, almost half of young people aged 18 to 24 aren’t registered to vote – the same is true for 16-and-17-year olds who will be able to vote for the first time.

And it’s time to put that right.

IER then gives us the opportunity to make the register more accurate than ever before and to ensure everyone who is entitled to vote, can vote.

For the first time, as you know, everybody will be contacted and everybody will be empowered in that way, for the first time, to take responsibility for being on the register.

And because we will ask for identifying information including date of birth and NI number, we will be able to verify that everyone on the register is who they say they are and to remove redundant entries.

This is vital to creating a register in which everyone can be fully confident.

We have that good record in delivering elections which are free and fair. But it is essential that we tackle those weaknesses in the system, address the risk of fraud and promote public confidence.

It’s also high time that we took advantage of technology.

There is no reason why people shouldn’t be able to apply to go digital in the electoral system and register to vote over the internet.

The internet isn’t new. It’s been a part of most of our lives for over a decade.

People use it to do our banking, pay our bills and to book our summer holidays. Councils use it to communicate with citizens already.

So from June 2014 when IER is introduced, people will be able to register to vote online for the first time. I think that is quicker, easier and more secure. And your work can get easier too if you and your council embrace that.

Let me look then at progress to date.

Much has been achieved in the past 3 years when we started the journey to IER. You’ve been with us every step of the way: at branch meetings, workshops, expert panels, AEA conferences, just like this one here today.

For the past 2 years we’ve been testing out the new elements of the service. We’ve learnt a lot from these pilots – as much about how not to do things as how to do them successfully and your contribution has been critical. It will remain so. Most recently we successfully completed the confirmation dry run and tested a significant element of the future IER digital service. A large part of that success is due to your willingness to work with us developing confirmation as a principle, refining the algorithm that sits behind it and getting every authority in Great Britain connected to the IER Digital Service.

And we’ve benefitted from, and continue to benefit from, extensive direct engagement with local authority chief executives, Electoral Registration Officers and Regional Returning Officers. You’ve never held back in telling us what you think. That’s healthy and we are the better for it.

Together, Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission have been providing extensive support to you in your preparations and planning for IER.

More recently we’ve been working very closely with you – through delivery managers and county leads – to prepare for implementation.

And we’re committed to maintaining that close relationship as we move towards live running.

The Cabinet Office’s delivery framework of experts in electoral administration is well established and I note you have some delivery managers speaking at this conference today. This framework is intended to ensure that every one of your local authorities is supported and resourced in a way that meets its requirements.

We’ve already seen some of the positive results of this cooperation and partnership. I’m impressed with how well the Confirmation Dry Run went. That’s thanks to your valuable work in keeping to schedule, contributing your time and resources to get registers uploaded and downloaded. And from my side, I saw how professional and committed my team is to making IER work when I visited the control centre we’re running in Westminster. The CDR showed us that we can work together to a tight deadline and get things done. That when there are problems we work together to solve them.

I’m really looking forward to hearing Laura talk next about how local authorities can use their confirmation dry run match rates to inform their planning for IER implementation next year. Those match results are also integral to the funding formula that we will use to calculate the funding for transition.

We are working with electoral administrators to ensure that we understand the ‘real world’ impact of IER and there will be plenty of number crunching and process crunching in the coming weeks with electoral administrators to ensure that the indicative figure we give each of you next month starts from a realistic and credible position.

It gives me a lot of confidence to begin with that the dry run results suggest that we can match almost 78% on average of existing electors automatically against DWP records. I know that many of you can also do more using your local records. That is a great place to start from.

In a few months’ time we reach our next milestone, when we will assess the readiness to go live with Individual Electoral Registration in 2014.

Everything I have seen to date tells me we are on track to meet our timetable but now the finishing line is in sight we need to keep going. Undeniably it will not come easy, it has been hard demanding work. We have encountered and overcome problems; we will need to do so again. You have every support we can offer.

So please, take advantage of that support that’s available from the Electoral Commission and the Cabinet Office and indeed from AEA. Please make the most of whatever works for you – the team of CO delivery managers, your county leads, the AEA’s place at the table, the Cabinet Office expert panel of your colleagues – my officials here today.

Look at what more you can do to boost the completeness and accuracy of your register before the transition starts.

And please - seriously - consider bidding for phase 2 funding from the Cabinet Office: there is a significant pot of funding still remaining for targeted canvassing and registration and a genuine desire from me to support you in this important work throughout.

In November I want to give a green light where good quality bids show what you can do and I have every confidence that you will be ready.

My team will be there to ensure that you have all the support you need. Talk to them today about what we can do to support you and the successful implementation of IER.

Our electoral system is one of the most critical structures we have as a democratic society.

Previous generations have laid down their lives to defend it – and risked everything to see it improved.

It’s our opportunity now to do our bit to bring electoral registration up-to-date, reflecting the way we live in the 21st Century.

All your hard work over the past 3 years and over the next few months is paving the way for this significant and powerful change. It really is my privilege to be able to work with you to make this happen.

Thank you very much.

Published 11 September 2013