A bill was introduced by Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh in the Commons last Wednesday which has received surprisingly little attention. In an attempt to boost the number of registered voters, McDonagh’s idea is to make voter registration a requirement for anyone trying to claim benefits. She describes her scheme as a kind of trade-off: “[You get] the rewards of living in a democracy in return for signing up to a democracy.” There’s a smattering of detail in McDonagh’s speech about how the electoral register helps fight crime and is a symbol of our democracy. But the key message to take away from the bill is that benefits are a public service reserved only for those who engage in national politics (ie voting). And voting is “a civic duty”. Unfortunately, she’s wrong on both counts. Benefits are just another public service the state provides, within its capacity to help and provide for all citizens wherever there is such a need. There’s no political reason or agenda behind it: the idea is simply to help people who are struggling to get by. (Of course, whether or not it’s effective, and how it should be distributed, are separate issues.)
So it follows that if political agendas and ideas have no bearing on the principle of benefits, no political agenda should restrict their availability to recipients. McDonagh’s aim to expand the electoral roll and thus “increase participation in society” is a political aim – and should not interfere in the provision of benefits.
In fact, I’d say that this interference would positively go against British values. For example, we give aid to refugees – individuals who, by nature of their status as refugees, can have no political role or representation in the country. Values like this require politics and aid to be completely independent.
There’s a greater issue at play here, however. The bill would, in effect, force people to register for a vote. Many rely on various benefits to get by, such as disability and unemployment benefits, carer’s allowances and childcare grants. As I suspect McDonagh intended, it’s going to be pretty hard for a large part of the population to avoid registering.