Strengthening our democracy: Annual Elections Conference keynote speech

Chris Skidmore set out his vision for a democracy that works for everyone at the Annual Elections Conference of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE).

Minister Chris Skidmore MP

Firstly, my thanks to SOLACE for asking me to give the keynote speech here today.

I’m pleased to be able to set out my vision for the work we need to undertake and deliver together and to start to engage in a conversation with you on how we can best support the work you do.

As the minister responsible for elections, I want to thank all of you here for the vital role that you play in ensuring that our democracy is one of the strongest in the world.

Delivering fair, secure and inclusive elections is critical to our society’s expectations and democratic identity. Without your hard work and dedication both as Returning Officers and as Electoral Registration Officers, and your willingness to take on personal responsibility for our democratic processes, this would not be possible.

I also recognise that elections represent a complex and ever-evolving challenge.

In 2016 that was highlighted by a unique electoral event - the EU Referendum. This placed new and additional pressures on local authority electoral services, not just in running another poll but also in the intense scrutiny of process and participation, particularly through social media, that came along with the referendum.

It is a tribute to your planning and professionalism, working with the Electoral Commission, that the integrity of the result is not in question: that may be easy to overlook but is essential to public confidence in the outcome, without which we would be unable to move forward.

Ahead of us lies a period of change and challenge - especially in May 2020. We need to work together to look at how we can make the registration system more streamlined, address issues of vulnerability and build resilience and capacity.

I believe that we must have a democracy that works for everyone and this aim rests on four key pillars.

 1. A clear and secure democracy

The first is to provide a clear and secure democracy. We need to be clear who can vote and how they go about it and that the systems they use to do so are robust and reliable.

 Tackling electoral fraud

In December, I was pleased to publish the Government’s response to Sir Eric Pickles’ review of electoral fraud.

This follows our manifesto commitment to “protect our electoral system” and “to safeguard our democracy” by “considering proof of ID to vote”.

The response offers a robust, comprehensive plan for preventing abuse of our democratic processes. It is an important step in meeting our commitment to address fraudulent activity, wherever it occurs in the UK.

Having responded to Sir Eric Pickles’ report, the government is now looking at how and when we will take these recommendations forward.

We will work on that - in conjunction with SOLACE, the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) and the Electoral Commission - in the coming weeks and months to be able to set out clearly the nature and timing of that work.

In his review, Sir Eric identified areas where electoral controls could be tightened, and the measures we have outlined are a positive response to the risks of electoral fraud.

We will work to make sure that voters are safeguarded against intimidation by activists and political campaigners when they attend polling stations; we will seek to end the harvesting of postal votes by political supporters; and, we will give careful consideration to using data (such as on nationality) to prevent fraudulent electoral activity.

Sir Eric found that the potential for fraudsters to commit personation (and other electoral offences) at polling stations leaves our electoral system at risk of abuse. Organisations like the Electoral Commission and the Organisation for Co-operation in Europe, when monitoring UK elections, have called for the introduction of ID in polling stations.

Northern Ireland has required some form of paper ID since 1985 and photo ID since 2003 and forms of ID are required in other countries such as Canada and The Netherlands.

These changes are about creating a fairer society and also tackling perceptions of fraud - which in themselves impact upon people’s willingness to participate. This will help to eliminate the potential for fraud and improper practices, which the Government believes are unacceptable at any level.

We recognise the need to introduce any such change in a considered fashion and without adverse impacts on legitimate electors.

To meet this challenge, we believe that piloting provides a proportionate approach to considering how this issue could be addressed and to evaluate it properly. We have used piloting for new features of electoral law in the past and are currently using pilots to trial new approaches to registration.

The government will look to run a number of voter identification pilot schemes at local government elections in 2018, to test the impact of asking voters to present a form of ID before they can receive their ballot paper.

We will be inviting local authorities to bid to be a pilot and we will carefully consider and discuss with local authorities how to configure the different reforms to be piloted.

Listing 18 areas ‘most at risk of fraud allegations’ in the annex to the government’s response was not earmarking them for pilots per se - although we do recognise that some of those areas may be interested in piloting.

Once we have the process and scope of the pilots settled we will make that available to all Local Authorities and relevant partner organisations.

The outcome of these pilot schemes will need to be analysed carefully, and if successful, we will look to introduce a voter ID system at polls across the UK, as an effective way to prevent electoral fraud. Our ultimate aim is to identify a means to shut off an avenue for fraud, long held up as vulnerability by critics, and to stop illegitimate votes undermining legitimate voters.

Overall we recognise that responding to Sir Eric Pickles’ recommendations will be a challenging package of work and we are keen to be inclusive in making plans to take it forward.

And even before the possibility of pilots in 2018 I know that many of you will be turning your minds to elections that you are running this year. Besides having county council and some other local elections in England, some of you, in seven areas, will be involved in polls for the new Mayors for Combined Authorities (MCA).

Watch this video to learn more about the new combined authorities.

Watch this video to learn more about combined authorities

2017 Mayoral elections

Mayors for Combined Authorities are part of the government’s policy of devolving powers to local administrations, helping communities take control of decisions that matter to them. The powers available to them will be specific to each devolution deal and include some transfer of powers.

For instance, the transfer of Police and Crime Commissioner responsibilities to the Greater Manchester Mayor. The deals are being negotiated by DCLG.

To ensure the smooth running of these polls we will be holding events in which Combined Authority Registration Officers (CAROs) can ask questions and receive guidance on how the Orders (establishing Combined Authorities) will work and what will be required in 2017.

A group has also been set up for the same purpose and the Electoral Commission will be issuing specific guidance on the 2017 mayoral elections to Combined Authority Returning Officers.

Based on the Fixed Term Parliament Act, we should assume that our attention will then be turning to the successful delivery of elections in 2020.

 Looking ahead to 2020 elections

2020 will be a uniquely busy electoral year that will see a UK Parliamentary General Election and a raft of polls including Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales, local authority elections (which may include parishes) and the second round of Mayors for Combined Authorities in some areas, as well as elections for the Greater London Assembly.

It is a responsibility on all of us to ensure successful elections in May 2020 and to make the most of the opportunities we have to improve our electoral system.

I also believe that a clear and secure democracy is a well-run democracy.

To that end we will continue to work with the Law Commission on how best to implement the recommendations of their review of electoral law.

As we prepare to leave the European Union, we must recognise that this is in the context of an unprecedented demand on parliamentary time and therefore, there will not be capacity for a discreet electoral bill to take forward those proposals requiring primary legislation in the near future.

We will, however, continue to explore options for implementing reforms that do not require primary legislation and I will endeavour to keep you informed of our progress. Where primary legislation is required, I am also working on clauses that can be introduced through other means.

We are already working with SOLACE and other partners, including the Electoral Commission and the AEA, to ensure our approach to 2020 is collaborative and reflects the needs of both the voters and those on the front line that deliver elections.

We are also looking at opportunities to reform and improve, spotting and delivering real benefits that can be achieved in time for 2020; whether that is making the voter journey better, the registration and voting process more resilient or increasing confidence in the delivery of elections.

I am sure with so much recent experience of elections and referendum fresh in our minds and time to work with, we have the momentum to deal with risk and deliver tangible improvement, agreeing what should be done better and what should be done differently.

I look forward to supporting close working between SOLACE and Cabinet Office over the coming three years to ensure the 2020 elections are delivered successfully, driving improvement and underpinning a clear and secure democracy.

 2. Equal Seats

The second pillar is to ensure that everyone’s vote is treated equally through the creation of Equal Seats.

The government believes that it is essential for the historic Parliamentary constituencies to be brought up to date and was elected on a pledge to make Parliamentary constituencies of more equal size by reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Otherwise, MPs would be fighting the 2020 General Election on data that is over 20 years out of date – and this cannot be right.

The current boundary review commenced under these terms in February 2016 and has made significant progress. The Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will submit final recommendations to Ministers in 2018 and the new Parliamentary constituencies will come into effect at the General Election in May 2020.

I know that an important issue for colleagues here today is the impact of the new boundaries on electoral administration.

Importantly, where a constituency boundary crosses more than one local authority area in Great Britain, it will fall to Ministers to designate the lead authority for running the poll in the constituency. This will need to be set out in a Statutory Instrument and we will consult the Electoral Commission, local authorities and electoral administrators before making this order.

 3. Votes for Life

The third pillar is Votes for Life.

Since I have taken office, I have set out how the government intends to implement our manifesto commitment to introduce votes for life for British citizens living overseas.

We live in an increasingly connected world. Modern technology and cheaper air travel has transformed the ability of expats to maintain strong links with their home country – through family, friends, investments and so on, and those who have retired overseas are directly affected by decisions on pensions and tax.

The government’s principle is clear: participation in our democracy is a fundamental part of being British, no matter how far you have travelled or when you left.

Our proposals, published in October, will give all British citizens who have lived in the UK a lifelong right to vote in parliamentary elections. They will ensure that all eligible overseas electors are able to register to vote and renew their registration in a convenient and timely fashion while maintaining the integrity of the electoral register and guarding against fraud.

The policy will allow British citizens previously resident in the UK but who were not previously registered to vote, or had registered more than 15 year ago, to register as an overseas elector - voters such as Harry Shindler, who lives in Italy and fought in World War Two.

We want to ensure that these people who have given something to our country are allowed to participate in our democracy.

The document goes further than ever before in setting out the envisaged process for registration. It sets out what types of documentation will be required to prove an overseas electors’ address in this country, and how to register as an overseas elector under the new system.

Now, I recognise the concerns of electoral administrators that overseas electors create additional administrative issues. While being clear that the Government is determined to deliver on our manifesto commitment, I am open to feedback on the detail of the published proposals. Above all it is important that we take time and consider how to get this right.

The next election in which overseas electors can participate is still several years away so there is an opportunity to refine the proposals in light of your feedback.

If there are changes which you believe could be made to the detail of the policy, which would reduce the burden by streamlining processes, then please do let the Cabinet Office team know.

4. Every Voice Matters

My final pillar is to make sure that across each part of the UK, every voice matters.

To reflect on the successful delivery of the 2016 polls, out of this huge democratic exercise comes another, less well noted result. With 46.5 million people currently registered to vote, our electoral register is the largest it has ever been. More people than ever before signed up to have their say in our democratic process.

Rather than rest on our laurels, this should spur us on. I recognise that voter registration is closely related to the electoral cycle. With fewer electoral milestones coming up, it is natural to expect the registration rate to dip in this forthcoming period. The two are closely related.

That’s why as part of my ‘Every Voice Matters’ tour I have been visiting various regions and hosting roundtables to gather insight on how we can encourage under registered groups to engage in the democratic process.

So when an election comes around, we have already put in the groundwork to support people from all walks of life to participate in a democracy that works for everyone.

This incredibly busy period for the whole of the electoral community in 2016 follows close on the heels of the transition to Individual Electoral Registration. This represents the biggest change to electoral registration in generations, and has brought registering to vote into the 21st century; each individual now has control and ownership over the process, and it is far more secure than it has ever been before.

Modernising electoral registration

The Register To Vote website, introduced as part of the transition to Individual Electoral Registration, has proved enormously popular. The website has consistently seen user satisfaction scores of over 90%, and of the 20 million applications submitted since the launch of online registration in 2014, over three quarters have been made online.

The electoral community has risen to every one of the challenges it has faced. But we do recognise that there is room for further improvement and reform aimed at:

  • building on the groundswell of political interest arising from the EU Referendum
  • consolidating the success of Individual Electoral Registration and online registration by ensuring a more user friendly system of electoral registration for both electoral administrators and citizens
  • fostering democratic engagement, including amongst those groups currently less likely to play an active part in the democratic process

I would like to reflect on each of these ambitions in turn:

First, maintaining the momentum generated by the Referendum.

It is clear that faith in the power of democracy to drive change is alive and well. Nearly three quarters of the electorate cast their vote and more people voted for Brexit than have ever voted for anything else in the UK. Maintaining this level of democratic engagement will require even closer working, innovation and creative thinking.

Second, that new ideas are needed to ensure further progress towards a more complete and accurate electoral register.

A combination of factors - such as a more mobile population that use increasingly diverse communications channels - are testing our current systems. We need to consider whether different approaches - to running the canvass for example - have the potential to make registration activity more efficient and sustainable.

Third, that to create a democracy that works for everyone we must remove the barriers that deter some groups from registering to vote. I believe that every voice counts, but many people continue to miss out on having their say, in particular people from Black and minority ethnic groups, those who move house frequently, young people, and those with a longstanding mental health condition or disability.

For me, inclusion is a central issue in creating a democracy that works for everyone.

Over the last few months I have heard first hand from more than 100 organisations and individuals on a tour that will visit every part of the United Kingdom. I have been hugely impressed by the commitment of the people I have met who are working to ensure that all those who are eligible, whatever their background or circumstances, are on the electoral roll. This means understanding the barriers that exist and how we can help to dismantle them.

As you know, this is not a simple task. The nature of these challenges means that no one sector has all of the answers. Solutions lie in partnerships between central government and local authorities; civil society groups and the private sector; public bodies and the wider electoral community. The centre must facilitate local solutions and support the best ideas so that they can be adopted by others.

Anonymous voter registration

In addition, I am working closely with Women’s Aid and other domestic violence organisations to review anonymous registration.

Last October, I met with representatives from these groups and heard accounts of survivors of domestic abuse who have been denied their right to express their democratic choice because the system of anonymous registration is too complicated; they don’t know who to speak to; or they are unable to provide the right information.

It is not right that these women whose voices have been silenced by others should be further silenced by a process that is meant to do the opposite; that is meant to give them the chance to express their freedom.

This is why we must work together to ensure that anonymous registration works for those that need it most. I also held a roundtable discussion in November with groups representing people with disabilities, such as Mencap and RNIB, to better understand the barriers to accessibility and explore possible solutions.

These conversations were the first step to looking at how the processes for registering and voting can be improved to remove barriers that prevent voters from exercising their democratic rights. I am determined to see this through and move a step closer to a democracy that works for everyone.

Modernising the Annual Canvass

Turning to modernising the registration process, we want to do all we can to make the Annual Canvass as effective and efficient as possible. The Cabinet Office has run pilots in three areas in 2016 - Birmingham, Ryedale and South Lakeland.

The canvass pilots were successfully delivered and we are in the process of analysing their impact and working up plans for further pilots in 2017.

We are already seeing some real positives emerge from the 2016 pilots like the fact that Birmingham reduced canvassing costs by over £100k. This shows that the annual canvass process does not need to be so prescriptive; alternatives exist which are just as effective and more cost efficient.

The government is committed to using taxpayers’ money efficiently. We demonstrated this by helping to ensure students can have their say by supporting and part funding a pilot project to promote voter registration at the University of Sheffield.

By providing a simple add on page to the enrolment process, the University had 76% of eligible students registered to vote in the 2015/2016 academic year.

Sheffield Council has calculated the cost per registration for a student at the University of Sheffield to be £0.84, this was in comparison to £4.44 at another local university.

We need to make sure that the hard-won benefits of innovation and change are embedded into the systems for running our elections going forward. I’m keen that we collaborate and share our knowledge and experiences so that the whole electoral community can learn and apply the lessons.

It is important that we identify what new approaches can be achieved within the constraints of the current legislative framework are well known and the scope of what we want to achieve is understood and agreed across the UK. As I have spoken with local authorities across the country the enthusiasm for new approaches to canvass activity and voter registration has been evident: over time this also needs to be reflected in delivering what works for elections.


You, as Returning Officers and Electoral Registration Officers, have a crucial role to play, in particular by helping to foster a culture where sharing good practice is integral to day to day business.

Recently I have been holding roundtables with electoral administrators across the country, discussing best practice and what we can do as a government to help. I want you to tell me what works for you. Tell me what you have discovered to help me to make the registration process the best it can be.

Over the past few years we have worked together to achieve much to ensure the systems that underpin our democracy are sound and forward-looking - Individual Electoral Registration in particular. But as we look ahead to 2020 it is clear that there is more yet to do.

In the public sector, we are all expected to deliver more for less, it can seem easy to justify not giving our strongest effort.

I believe that our democracy is too important for that; it always deserves our best endeavours.

I am confident that together the electoral community is in a strong position to meet the challenges that we face and continue to deliver a democracy that works for everyone.

Published 19 January 2017