STUDENTS may be robbing themselves of the chance to vote in a misguided attempt to avoid paying council tax.
Although students are exempt from paying the tax, a conflict arises for those who share a house or flat with a person receiving income support - such as unemployed recent graduates. Recipients of benefits lose their full council tax rebate when sharing with others not on income support, but the rules do not discriminate between students and non-students.
The Government plans to rectify the anomaly in April - too late for students not on the electoral roll to register and therefore vote in the general election.
A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment, which is responsible for local government, said the problem lay with benefit regulations and that for students in this situation it was "immaterial" whether or not they registered to vote. However, Douglas Trainer, National Union of Students president, said many students were under the impression that they would get a council tax bill if they did register.
NUS will soon meet senior environment department representatives to discuss the issue.
The Labour party regards the Government's decision to wait until April to alter the regulations as an attempt to minimise the number of young people eligible to vote in the election.
"The Government has deliberately delayed and dithered and democracy has paid the price," said Hilary Armstrong, shadow local government minister.
According to NUS, about two million young people did not vote in the last general election. Nevertheless, Mr Trainer is convinced that many more under-25s will be on the new electoral register, to be released next month.
The student vote could be crucial to both main parties in the election.
To minimise its effect, some Tories favour going to the polls on April 10, when many students will be at home for the Easter holiday break.
The Conservative party has identified at least 12 seats where its MPs could be ousted by the student vote.
Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, clings on to Stirling by just 703 votes while Sir Derek Spence, the solicitor general, holds Brighton Pavilion by a slim 3,675 majority. The 7,000-plus students from Sussex and Brighton universities could ensure a Labour win.
Health secretary Stephen Dorrell was reportedly so concerned about the student vote in his seat of Loughborough, despite a majority of almost 11,000, that he switched to the safer Charnwood.
Other marginals where students' votes could unseat Tory MPs include: Portsmouth South, Luton South, Coventry South West, Leeds North West, Stirling, Oxford West and Abingdon, Exeter and Southampton Test.
Despite the support for April 10, Prime Minister John Major has publicly favoured May 1 as the poll date. But last week, there was renewed speculation of a snap election being called for March 20.