UK Politics

Councils taking 'lackadaisical' attitude to voter lists

Ballot box
Image caption Six million people have disappeared from the electoral register, says Mr Ruane

A Labour MP is demanding at least one council should be prosecuted for failing to visit voters' homes when it updates the electoral register.

Chris Ruane said a "lackadaisical" attitude by some councils had contributed to the loss of millions of people from the register.

Council officials are supposed to go door to door to make sure voter lists are as accurate as possible.

Mr Ruane said councils that repeatedly did not do so should face prosecution.

Since 2008, 90 council officials have failed in at least one year to meet the Electoral Commission's standards for door-to-door canvassing.

Five councils - Mid Devon, Torridge, West Devon, West Somerset and Taunton Deane - failed to meet the standard last year by carrying out insufficient door-to-door visits.

The duties of electoral registration officers - who are often the returning officers who run elections - are set out in law.

'Pivotal'

Mr Ruane, who sits on Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the House of Commons, told the Today programme: "[At least one of] the authorities that have failed for three or four times to go door knocking... should be prosecuted as a test to others."

He said: "As a result of this lackadaisical attitude towards door knocking which is pivotal to getting people on the register, six million people have disappeared off the electoral register."

Mid Devon Council carried out no house-to-house enquiries at all last year.

Its chief executive, Kevin Finan, said he did not feel house-to-house canvassing was an effective use of resources when local government budgets were being cut.

"It is imperative that we prioritise our spending to the best effect for residents," he said.

"In a substantially rural area of some 353 square miles house-to-house enquiries are both very time consuming and expensive."

Mr Finan said his council had achieved total return rates to its canvass of 94% in 2011 and 97% in 2012 with no house-to-house enquiries in either year.

Taunton Deane and West Somerset councils, which fell short of the Electoral Commission's standards, said they had found it difficult to find recruits to do the work in rural areas and their plans were affected by the sudden death of a member of their team.

Fraud

Voters in England and Wales will be able to register online this summer. Scottish voters will be able to do so after the independence referendum.

The government is switching from a system of registering voters by household in Great Britain to one in which people will be registered individually.

The change is designed to cut down on fraud, but critics fear it could result in fewer people on the register.

A spokesman for the Local Government Association said: "Councils up and down the country work tirelessly to make sure residents are registered to vote, and last year more than 80,000 voters registered in the weeks leading up to the local elections.

"The Electoral Commission has recognised the huge progress councils have made in preparing for the most significant change to voter registration in a century.

"Councils will continue to focus on the change to Individual Voter Registration in preparation and all councils will want to ensure their residents can take part in making decisions about their local area."

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