The electoral roll must not be used to catch dole cheats

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The modest proposal of the Labour MP Phil Woolas that those who refuse to register to vote should lose state benefits is deceptive. There is a strong argument in favour of it, which is that anyone who wants to exercise their civic right to state support in times of need has a corresponding civic duty to take part in the democratic process.

The modest proposal of the Labour MP Phil Woolas that those who refuse to register to vote should lose state benefits is deceptive. There is a strong argument in favour of it, which is that anyone who wants to exercise their civic right to state support in times of need has a corresponding civic duty to take part in the democratic process.

There is a stronger argument against it, however, which is that information collected by the state for one purpose should not be used for another. This is a basic safeguard against the abuse of state power. As with the argument for identity cards, the law enforcement argument is initially beguiling. If you have nothing to hide, what can you have to fear from such a measure? This is a question that assumes, however, that the intentions of those in authority are benign. Even if they usually are, the liberty of citizens can only be measured by what happens when things go wrong. And for many of the poor, the marginalised or the plain awkward, the agencies of the state are not perceived to be on their side.

It is, in any case, iniquitous in principle that one arm of the state should be used to enforce obligations to another. Mr Woolas's plan is akin to saying that anyone who parks in a bus lane should not be allowed to see a doctor on the NHS.

It is right that people should be required to register on the electoral roll. If people do not want to vote, that is up to them, but in a democracy everyone should be at least capable of voting. But it is a form of double jeopardy to punish people twice for not registering, which is already an offence carrying a fine. Furthermore, it would in practice be discriminatory, because the second punishment ­ withdrawal of benefit ­ would only be felt by the poor.

The argument that this is a measure against benefit fraud, meanwhile, is specious: if that is the aim it should be pursued directly, not in association with another policy objective, namely increasing the level of electoral registration. That will only lead to confusion between those who simply do not want to be on the electoral roll and those who are claiming benefits to which they are not entitled.

Mr Woolas says the "only objection" to his proposal is on civil liberties grounds. That should be the only objection a free, democratic society should need. The battle against benefit fraud and the war on voter apathy must be kept separate.

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