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Improving our Democratic Process

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PARLIAMENT
PA

Ahead of the 2015 General Election, the country will register to vote with a new system that is not only fit for the 21st Century, but that also protects better against fraud.

Instead of one person registering everyone in their household, every individual will be responsible for registering themselves. England, Scotland and Wales have long been lagging behind on this and the reform, which undoubtedly has widespread support, will bring us into line with almost every other democracy in the world.

How we implement this change is currently open for consultation and the Government has considered very carefully how to move to this new system without losing voters from the register. When Northern Ireland adopted the system a few years ago the number of people on their registers reduced by 10 per cent, but we are taking action to stop this being repeated here.

Stephen Twigg, writing for the Huffington Post on Friday, accuses the Government of including 'deeply disturbing proposals' in our consultation that will cause people to become disengaged and disenfranchised. This is hyperbole at best, and scaremongering at worst.

No Government wants an electorate that takes no interest in politics and doesn't bother voting. Of course there are challenges, as Northern Ireland's experience teaches us, but we have learnt from their experience.

Firstly, the transition to Individual Electoral Registration (IER) will not happen overnight. It begins in 2014, but we will keep the existing registers until after the May 2015 General Election so that names are not lost if people fail to re-register under the new system. Where there is evidence people have moved, electoral registration officers will be alert to this. In all cases where responses have not been received the officers will be required to chase to get a response, contrary to Mr Twigg's assertion that this obligation will be removed.

Before then, we are working to see what else we can do to make the register both more accurate and more complete. A pilot scheme with local authorities is underway to cross-check names on the electoral register with other public databases, to identify missing names and inaccurate entries. If it works, the scheme could be rolled out nationwide. Making it easier for people to register is also important, so we're consulting on things like online registration.

The changes won't happen quietly - we are working with the Electoral Commission to plan publicity so that people are well informed about how the registration forms will work.

Finally, I want to address accusations that the Government is offering an 'opt out' from the electoral register. It is not an offence not to be registered under the current system, nor will it be under the new system. However, it is an offence not to provide an Electoral Registration Officer with information about who lives in a property, and this offence will remain under Individual Electoral Registration.

The Government strongly encourages everyone to register to vote, and indeed to use their vote, but, ultimately, we continue to believe these decisions are for voters to make for themselves.

The move to Individual Electoral Registration is about improving the way we participate in our democratic process, not about destroying it.