Labour conference: Harman attacks Tories over vote plan

Harriet Harman closed the Labour Party conference by telling delegates: 'Let's go for it'

Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman has accused the Tories of changing the way people register to vote to make it harder for her party's supporters.

Instead of the household head listing eligible voters, the plan is that everyone will register themselves.

ID is not required to register each voter in England, Scotland and Wales - ministers say they want to cut fraud.

Ms Harman said the plans would mean millions of voters, many poor, young or black, would "fall off" the register.

Under Labour there were plans to introduce individual voter registration in Britain from 2015 at the earliest but the coalition now plans to bring it forward to 2014 for new voters - which it says will save £74m.

Labour argues that accelerating the process risks disenfranchising millions and abolishing the safeguards in place.

'Eternal shame'

As she wound up the Labour Party conference in Liverpool later, Ms Harman said the week had been a "turning point" for the party, which she said had been "refounded" as "the force that changes people's lives".

She said the "political map" was changing and Labour's activists were mobilising across the country, to mount electoral challenges in "areas where we didn't think we had a chance".

But she warned that 10 million people - from groups more likely to vote Labour - could "fall off" the electoral register.

"The Lib Dems - to their eternal shame - were colluding with the Tories in changing the law on the electoral register.

Start Quote

We do not agree that moving to individual electoral registration will lead to millions falling off the register”

End Quote Cabinet Office spokeswoman

"What they plan to do in the White Paper is going to push people off the electoral register, deny them their vote, deny them their voice."

She added: "The Tories are hoping if they take away the right to vote from students, young people living in rented flats in our cities, people from ethnic minority communities... if fewer of them can vote it will help the Tories win."

Party leader Ed Miliband said earlier this week it was a "basic human right" to be able to vote and it should be made "easier, not harder".

But the Conservative minister for political and constitutional reform Mark Harper suggested it was a policy U-turn: "This week Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman attacked individual voter registration.

"But just two weeks ago Labour, in evidence given to Parliament, said it was in favour. It was also a commitment in Labour's last manifesto, written by Ed Miliband."

'Opt out' concerns

Concerns have also been raised about a proposal in the White Paper that suggests people could request not to register to vote during a particular year - currently there is a legal obligation on the head of the household to register all eligible voters.

John Turner, of the Association of Electoral Administrators, has suggested that many people might want to avoid being on the register, for example to avoid jury service.

And Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, which supports individual voter registration, told MPs this month: "It would be logical to suggest that those who don't vote in elections may not see the point of registering to vote and it is possible, therefore, that the register could go from around a 90% completeness that we currently have to around, say, a 60% completeness, 65% being the most recent Westminster general election turnout. I think that would be something that would concern us all."

Data-matching

Northern Ireland introduced individual registration in 2002 but in England, Scotland and Wales, one person is asked to name all those eligible to vote in their property.

The new system would require each person to register themselves and to provide more details - such as a date of birth and National Insurance number - which would then be checked with the Department for Work and Pensions.

Ministers say the current system is open to fraud and that, in an effort to get more people onto the electoral register, voters' details will be cross-checked with other public databases in a "data-matching" pilot scheme.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said legislation to introduce individual registration was first introduced in 2009, and the new system would "modernise the electoral registration system and help to combat fraud".

She said those already on the electoral register would not be removed if they fail to register during the transitional period ahead of the 2015 general election and the government was "committed to putting safeguards in place to stop people dropping off the register".

"We do not agree that moving to individual electoral registration will lead to millions falling off the register," she added.

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