Claimants not on electoral register may lose benefits

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The Independent Online
Anyone who refuses to go on the electoral register would face the loss of all state benefits under controversial plans to tackle voter apathy in Britain's inner cities.

Anyone who refuses to go on the electoral register would face the loss of all state benefits under controversial plans to tackle voter apathy in Britain's inner cities.

The proposal, which is due to be put before ministers by Labour MPs, aims to root out benefit fraud while boosting turn-out at both local and general elections.

Phil Woolas, Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth and a ministerial aide to Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, a Transport minister, will bring a private member's Bill before Parliament to make membership of the electoral roll a precondition of entitlement to benefit. Under the plans, state aid such as jobseekers allowance, working families tax credit and even housing benefit would all be withdrawn from anyone not registered to vote.

The idea follows a steady decline in turn-out at local, parliamentary and European elections across Britain in recent years. In local elections, turn-out has fallen from 38 per cent in 1995 to just 31 per cent in 1999, with a record low of 28 per cent in 1998.

Labour in particular is worried that continued voter apathy among its traditional supporters will cost it up to 80 seats at the general election.

However, the party is just as concerned that many of its natural core voters are simply not registering, rendering redundant any attempts to persuade them to turn up at the polls.

Government funding is also linked to per capita population and many councils in the North have suffered in recent years from a fall-off in their electoral rolls. Young men in particular are the most difficult group to persuade to vote, particularly those living on council estates in some of the most deprived parts of Britain.

Some men are absent fathers who have more than one family and avoid signing the register to escape the Child Support Agency. Others make a living on the black economy and want to remain anonymous.

Even though a failure to register is a criminal offence, latest figures from the National Statistics Office suggest that registration is running at 95 per cent of the adult population.

Labour MPs believe the "missing" 5 per cent of voters could make the difference in many close contests for marginal seats that determine the outcome of a general election. Just as importantly, they believe that anyone who claims benefits has an even stronger civic duty than the rest of the population to turn up to vote.

Many fraudsters claim several benefits by offering false names and addresses and rely on the fact that councils and the Department of Social Security do not cross-check their records sufficiently.

By forcing claimants to sign the electoral register, the DSS and council housing benefit officers could easily check their address and eligibility.

Mr Woolas said: "This fits perfectly with our message that with rights come responsibilities. We are not a 'something for nothing' Government. It would also be a very good way of rooting out benefit fraud. It's good for politics because it encourages people to vote. The only objection to it is on civil liberties grounds but people already have to provide a national insurance number whether they like it or not. They also have to be on the census."

Both the Home Office and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions have tried hard since Labour came to power to devise innovative means of improving voter turn-out. However, experiments with Sunday voting and polling stations in supermarkets have failed to tackle the problem and in some cases even led to a fall in turn-out.

The only concrete success from a series of pilots launched last year was postal-only voting in some wards.

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