Loophole being `used to keep students off electoral roll'

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The Independent Online
A political row broke out last night over a legal loophole that may have prevented thousands of young people registering to vote in the general election.

It follows a decision by Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, finally to order a change in the law to exempt students from payment of council tax. The loophole, which made students liable to payment of council tax if they shared a property with someone on income support, is believed to have dissuaded large numbers of students from registering to vote.

Labour MPs accused the Government of delaying the changes to dissuade students from registering to vote in time for the election. The Government knew of the loophole more than a year but the change in legislation will not be introduced until April.

Rhodri Morgan, MP for Cardiff West, said: "Unless this is inexcusable ineptitude within the government machine I see no other reason for the delay other than an attempt to depress the number of under-25s who can vote at the next election."

The Independent revealed yesterday that nearly 2 million people who are eligible to vote are missing from the electoral roll. The problem has been exacerbated by the increased mobility of young people with the rise in the student population which now stands at 3 million. The row came as the National Union of Students prepared to launch a national campaign to get students to register to vote. Later this month, student parties will be held across Britain in support of "Rock the Vote", a celebrity-endorsed campaign which aims to redress the political apathy among under-25s.

Douglas Trainer, president of the NUS, said the council-tax anomaly particularly affected households where unemployed graduates on income support shared with undergraduates. "We are unconvinced that it is just a coincidence that this change will not take effect until it is too late for these people to be involved in the general election," he said. "We are staggered this has taken so long."

The change in the law was announced in the House of Commons on Wednesday after a planted question by David Evans, Tory MP for Welwyn Hatfield. In response, David Curry, the Environment Minister, described the situation as an "anomaly", and said it would be ended "as soon as we have an opportunity to amend primary legislation".

Mr Curry said that Mr Lilley had now decided "that where a full time student is jointly liable with a benefit recipient their presence in the household will be ignored in the calculation of council tax benefit".

Mr Morgan first raised the anomaly with ministers in August 1995 after two constituents who were full-time students at the University of Wales complained that they were being charged council tax because they were living with a man who was claiming income support.

Gwilym Jones, Under-Secretary of State at the Welsh Office, responded by saying: "A number of cases have arisen in England and Wales similar to that which you describe. This is under consideration by ministers." The changes which have now been announced are likely to come too late to redress the number of young people who fail to exercise their right to vote, in time for the election.