'Missing' 3.4 million voters put MPs at risk: Poll tax evasion could distort review, writes Rosie Waterhouse

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UP TO 3.4 MILLION eligible voters were missing from the 1991 electoral roll in England and Wales, according to figures published yesterday.

Some local authorities and academics believe that a proportion of the missing voters were trying to evade the poll tax and their absence may distort the current review of parliamentary seats being carried out by the Boundary Commission. This is based on the 1991 electoral register.

In London, one in five of the people eligible to vote failed to register, according to a survey by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. Across Britain as a whole, 7.1 per cent failed to register, while in England and Wales the proportion of people not registered is estimated at between 7.4 and 9 per cent - which the OPCS report shows to represent between

2.8 million and 3.4 million missing voters.

Separate OPCS figures for the estimated resident population aged over 17 in inner and outer London in mid- 1991 indicate that about 417,000 people in inner London and 345,000 in outer London were missing from the register. If the parliamentary boundary review underestimates the population it could result in parliamentary seats being wrongly merged or abolished. The Boundary Commission is re-drawing parliamentary seats with an average of 69,000 people in each constituency.

The OPCS survey on the coverage and quality of the electoral registers in Britain was carried out for the Home Office, the Scottish Office and the Department of Health. It compared numbers registered with the number of eligible voters recorded by the 1991 Census at private households. In England, Scotland and Wales 7.1 per cent of eligible voters were not included on the electoral register compared with 6.5 per cent in 1981.

In England and Wales, inner London had the highest non-registration rate of 20.4 per cent. Since most inner London parliamentary seats are held by Labour MPs, any abolition of seats as a result of boundary commission changes would hit Labour hardest.

The OPCS survey shows outer London had the second highest non- registration rate in England and Wales of 10.3 per cent compared with 6 per cent in other metropolitan areas and 6.3 per cent in non-metropolitan areas. It also shows that black and other ethnic minority voters were 'significantly more likely' not to be registered than whites. Non-registration rates were highest among men, people under 30, those who had recently moved and people living in privately rented accommodation.

A spokeswoman for the Association of London Authorities said: 'There is concern throughout London that there are a lot more people living here who will come back on to the register now the poll tax has gone, but since the boundary review is based on the 1991 electoral register a number of seats will disappear.'

Will Tuckley, head of policy, said there had been a large fall in people registering in inner London because of the poll tax and other factors. If this is not taken into account in the review many people will be disenfranchised.