Voter registration row over threat of £80 fine

A FIFTH of the Scottish electorate is being threatened with fines unless they re-register to vote in future elections as part of a controversial UK government scheme that was postponed until after the referendum.

Votes are counted at last months referendum. Picture: Michael Gillen

Voters have been ordered to provide their national insurance details to local authorities within a fortnight for a new registration process, or face £80 penalties, despite them already being on the electoral roll.

The Scotsman has learned 20 per cent of the 4.29 million people who were registered to vote in the referendum are to be sent the notices.

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The bulk of those receiving the notices, a number of which have already been sent out, are unemployed people, benefit claimants, students and people who have moved home recently.

Many registered for the first time on the electoral roll ahead of the independence referendum in order to take part in the poll. A total of 118,640 electors joined Scotland’s electoral roll in the final month before September’s vote.

The request for national insurance details is intended as a security check to prevent electoral fraud. The details are checked against records held by the Department for Work and Pensions.

Scots who have lived at the same address for a long period of time and have been on the electoral roll for a number of years are less likely to have been sent the letters.

Scottish politicians last night described the idea of a fine as “draconian”, with both Labour and SNP politicians warning the move could be seen as threatening to people, many of whom have become engaged with politics in Scotland for the first time.

The letters come just weeks after First Minister Alex Salmond moved to block plans by some Scottish councils to pursue people for poll tax debts, after it emerged some authorities planned to cross-check the names of those who registered to vote for the first time, to see if they had outstanding bills.

Shadow business minister Ian Murray, the Labour MP for Edinburgh South, said the letter’s demands would be “counterproductive”.

He said: “This is a pretty extreme approach. We can’t put draconian penalties in place like this that will just be counterproductive for people, who, after all, were encouraged to take part in the referendum in a big way.”

SNP deputy chief whip James Dornan, the MSP for Glasgow Cathcart, attacked the plan to fine voters and compared the UK government’s scheme to the councils’ plan to pursue newly registered voters for poll tax arrears.

He said: “We should be celebrating the increased numbers of people on the register, not threatening them with £80 fines.”

Colin Keir, the SNP MSP for Edinburgh Western, said: “It’s a bit of a shocker to me, as people need to know they are safe to vote.

“The First Minister explained it all very well when he acted over the poll tax issues, as he didn’t want there to be a barrier to people coming forward and registering to vote in the future.

“Threatening people in order to get them registered is not the right thing to do.”

Ministers at Westminster said the shake-up was needed to prevent electoral fraud and ensure voters were signed up individually, rather than registered in a household.

The scheme, known as Individual Electoral Registration (IER), replaces the household registration system – that has existed for almost a century – with a requirement to register individually, a key part of UK government reform.

It was introduced in England and Wales earlier this year.

The scheme will see about 80 per cent of registered voters receive a letter informing them that their details will transfer automatically to the new system. The remaining 20 per cent will receive notices demanding to know if someone has changed their name in the last year or moved house recently, and also asking for national insurance details.

The letter says if people fail to provide the information by the end of this month, they could be fined £80.

The UK government views the fines, which will be enforced at the discretion of council officials, as a way of encouraging people to re-register through the new system.

The Electoral Commission, which backs the controversial shake-up, has launched a public awareness campaign about the changes.

A spokesman said that fines were likely to be imposed only if someone “wilfully ignores” the request to state their national insurance details and date of birth.

A UK government minister defended the change, saying the system was in need of reform. Constitution minister Sam Gyimah said: “By moving to IER, we’re ensuring that we have an electoral registration system fit for the 21st century.”