Education, the electoral roll and access to benefits

Should access to benefits and public services depend on inclusion on the Electoral Register? This idea is being considered in the Electoral Register (Access to Public Services) Bill 2013-14, which  is expected to have its second reading debate on 28 February 2014. Did you know about it? There’s a summary of the Bill’s proposals and progress here, with a partial screen shot shown below.

Elec Roll

Democracy has been a hot topic this week, with a new national campaign urging people to ‘Bite the Ballot” and, in twitter-speak, to #takepower. February 5 was designated as National Voter Registration Day, although it’s not too late to register. The WEA supports the Bite the Ballot initiative with enthusiasm as we’ve been committed to education for democracy for over a century. There’s more information on the WEA’s website here, where you can see a short animated step-by-step guide on registering to vote and a film of Dr Finn Mackay talking about the importance of democratic engagement. Finn is a WEA Ambassador, founder of the London Feminist Network and reviver of London Reclaim the Night.

Much of this week’s media debate has been about voter apathy and disillusionment with politics and politicians – but we should be aware of other aspects and impacts of Parliamentary action on voter registration.

Part of the WEA’s educational work and campaigning is to raise awareness and understanding about how Parliament and local government works on our collective behalf, whether we have voted for our elected representatives or not. We put this into practice recently by drawing people’s attention to the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee’s Inquiry on adult literacy and numeracy. The WEA’s written response to the Inquiry was based on collated views from students, tutors and others across the Association following some in-class discussions about the Select Committee, its workings and its call for views.

Our involvement in active citizenship and political education over the years has highlighted some of the difficulties that homeless people have in registering to vote if they have no fixed address. We have explored some of the issues that people face if their personal details become relatively easily available online when they join the Electoral Roll and it’s been enlightening to hear testimony from political refugees who have been denied the right to vote and been persecuted by ruling regimes in other countries.

It’s debatable whether we have a functioning democracy if voter registration and the turnout at elections is low and we should make people aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens. There are many powerful, but not apparently sufficiently compelling, reasons to use the right to vote. People, including the WEA activist and suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who campaigned and died so we could have this right – but should access to benefits and public services be linked to compulsory registration to vote?

Whether this is ‘Civics’, ‘Active Citizenship’, ‘Practical Political Education’ or any other labelled learning, it’s an important area of education for social purpose that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention in what should be an educated democracy.

Thoughts?