All 34 contributions to the Elections Act 2022 (Ministerial Extracts Only)

Read Full Bill Debate Texts

Tue 7th Sep 2021
Elections Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading
Wed 15th Sep 2021
Wed 15th Sep 2021
Thu 16th Sep 2021
Thu 16th Sep 2021
Mon 20th Sep 2021
Wed 22nd Sep 2021
Wed 22nd Sep 2021
Tue 19th Oct 2021
Tue 19th Oct 2021
Thu 21st Oct 2021
Thu 21st Oct 2021
Tue 26th Oct 2021
Tue 26th Oct 2021
Mon 17th Jan 2022
Elections Bill
Commons Chamber

Report stage & Report stage
Wed 23rd Feb 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading
Thu 10th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage: Part 1
Thu 10th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Committee stage: Part 2
Tue 15th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage: Part 1
Tue 15th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Committee stage: Part 2
Thu 17th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage: Part 1
Thu 17th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Committee stage: Part 2
Mon 21st Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage: Part 1
Mon 21st Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Committee stage: Part 2
Wed 23rd Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage: Part 1
Wed 23rd Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Committee stage: Part 2
Mon 28th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage: Part 1
Mon 28th Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Committee stage: Part 2
Wed 6th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Report stage & Report stage: Part 1
Wed 6th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Report stage: Part 2
Mon 25th Apr 2022
Mon 25th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

3rd reading & 3rd reading
Wed 27th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments & Consideration of Commons amendments
Wed 27th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Commons Chamber

Consideration of Lords amendments & Consideration of Lords amendments

Elections Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
2nd reading
Tuesday 7th September 2021

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Elections Act 2022 Read Hansard Text

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Elections Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I look forward to a thorough and thoughtful debate across the House. Indeed, our work in Parliament is a key pillar of our democracy, a democracy that is underpinned by free and fair elections. Like many public services across the UK, our electoral services have not been untouched by the pandemic. Earlier this year, we faced unprecedented challenges in delivering the most complex combination of polls in memory during a pandemic. Many suggested we should postpone the elections for a second time, but I was not willing to deprive people of the chance to have their say without having done everything in our power to try. That was why the Government provided an additional £32 million of funding, sourced over 5,000 volunteers to support electoral teams and took creative steps to ensure that people could cast their vote. I am proud of the ingenuity and determination displayed by so many to ensure that our citizens were able to exercise their democratic rights. That is no less than I would expect, given the passion and capability of what is often a small number of election staff in our local authorities, to whom I pay tribute today. We cannot take them, or the system, for granted.

We are the stewards of a fantastic democratic heritage. We committed in our manifesto to secure the integrity of elections, restore constitutional balance and defend our democracy against increasingly sophisticated threats. This Bill keeps our elections secure, fair, transparent and up to date. Part 1 of the Bill is about getting the basics of our elections right by updating the security and integrity of the ballot. That is why it introduces new measures that will stamp out the potential for voter fraud from our elections. There are some who suggest that this is not a problem, but I would like to disagree.

Interlinked types of fraudulent criminality are a very real threat to the integrity of our elections. Clear evidence of this was seen at the 2014 election scandal in Tower Hamlets, where the mayoral contest was declared void due to corrupt and illegal practices. The judgment in the case and the witnesses who spoke at the trial tell a story of harm and fraud that struck at an entire community and fatally undermined democracy. Recalling crowds harassing voters, one witness reported:

“I got into conversation with an elderly lady who was frightened to go in and vote and said that she had decided not to vote as a result of the intimidation.”

Another witness described her experience of having her vote stolen by a campaigner for a candidate she did not support. She recalled:

“They came to me and took my signature and then took the blank ballot paper from me. I normally go to the polling station. I told them I was used to doing it myself and didn’t understand why it was different this year.”

Crucially, although it is much harder to identify and prosecute, we know that personation was also one of the corrupt and illegal practices that took place in Tower Hamlets. The Electoral Commission has noted that

“the majority of people in communities affected by electoral fraud are victims rather than offenders.”

This is unacceptable. Why should criminals get two votes, or even more, and their victims lose their voices?

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Would the Minister accept that, while some of these measures might be necessary, we have only a 30% turnout in some of our elections and this could make turnout even lower due to the added bureaucracy and the added information that people will need to provide in order to cast their ballot?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am pleased the hon. Lady has made that point so early in the debate. I join her, as I want everyone here to do, in welcoming turnout and in wanting to raise registration and participation in our elections.

I will more precisely address the points that the hon. Lady understandably makes because, no, I do not think these measures will damage turnout. The point is that the vulnerabilities in our system let people down. The 2016 report on electoral fraud by Sir Eric Pickles, now Lord Pickles, leading international election observers and the Electoral Commission all agree that those vulnerabilities are a security risk. As the noble Lord Pickles said,

“our well-respected democracy is at threat from unscrupulous people intent on subverting the will of the electorate”.

We must do our utmost to guard against that, and we must have measures in place to discourage and prevent it.

Part 1 of the Bill therefore introduces what many would consider to be an obvious requirement—the requirement to prove that the vote a person is casting that day is theirs and theirs alone.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North) (Lab)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the Minister agree that voter ID is actually voter suppression, and that this Bill misses an opportunity for real engagement in not giving 16 and 17-year-olds the opportunity to vote? Does she agree that this is the perfect time to do that?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The short answer is no, no and no, and I am happy to explain why. I am sure we will get on to this in the debate, but the point about voter identification is that it is not voter suppression or voter disenfranchisement, which is a word we occasionally hear thrown around. In fact, I look forward to Labour Members explaining why their reasoned amendment suggests that people will be removed from the franchise for general elections. Where in the Bill is the clause that does that? They will not find it, of course, because it is not there. The Bill does not do that, and we should be careful with the words we choose to use, such as “voter suppression” and “disenfranchisement.”

We already have an election check, but the check is so outdated and unfit for purpose that many have forgotten it. People already identify themselves when they go to the polling station, but it is a Victorian test of saying their name and address. The world has moved on, and we need to move with it. Showing photo identification is a reasonable and proportionate way to confirm that a person is who they say they are. Many people would question why it is not already the case.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

A pensioner can bring their bus pass as identification, but the Bill disproportionately disadvantages young people who cannot bring their student card or university or college identification. Will those young people not be disproportionately affected, and should we not expand the range of identification that is recognised by the Bill, as a minimum?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is getting into the detail of what is actually being proposed, which is excellent. He makes the important point that schedule 1 has a widespread and broad-based list of identification. In fact, 98% of the population hold those forms of ID.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

These proposals were trialled in 2019, and during that trial 2,000 people were turned away for not having the correct form of identification. Of those 2,000, 700 did not return to vote. Whether it is voter suppression is a question of semantics, but it is hardly encouragement, is it?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Under this Bill, as is clear in the impact assessment and the associated documents, there will be a widespread public communication campaign to ensure awareness so that people know what to bring with them to the polling station, which is only right. That is exactly what we would expect, because we want people to be able to take part in our elections.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister is making an excellent speech introducing the Bill. There is another side to this issue, as pointed out by the Electoral Commission’s research showing that two in three people would feel much more confident in the security of our voting system if there were voter ID. Surely that has to be taken into consideration by those who have been intervening.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. Friend makes my next point for me, and she is right. It is important that we think about what will increase confidence in our elections, and I would love the message to go out loud and clear from the Chamber today, and from the reporting and discourse on this Bill, that we all want participation and we want to talk up our election system rather than talking it down.

I understand there are genuine concerns about this change and our plans to implement it, which is why I have met many organisations that represent voters from different backgrounds to understand what challenges it may present. I will continue to listen and to benefit from their wisdom.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was concerned to hear the Minister imply that concerns about voter suppression are somehow party political. Does she accept that the cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, found that the

“introduction of a voter ID requirement may have a discriminatory impact on certain groups with protected characteristics who are less likely to hold…photo ID, including older people and people with disabilities”?

Inclusion Scotland backs up that concern. Given that cross-party finding, what plans do the Government have to mitigate any discriminatory impacts on these groups?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It might not have been the intention of the hon. and learned Lady to assist me in making this case, but she does because she allows me to make the critical point that this scheme is underpinned by a free local voter card. I have already mentioned that 98% of people already hold the identification that will be asked for by the scheme. For those who do not, we are making sure there is the free alternative of a local voter card.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

When we cut through the noise, is it not true that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that we cannot have definite security in our elections if we do not have photo ID? Is it also not the case that we are being asked to continue a practice that puts us outside international standards?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is exactly the case. Indeed, countries around the world already operate this system with ease, and not only other countries. This policy is already successfully and easily operated inside our own United Kingdom, and we need to learn from the Northern Ireland experience.

Ronnie Cowan Portrait Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister alludes to Northern Ireland, which already has this in place. What analysis, if any, have the Government made of the situation in Northern Ireland? Can she tell me that the scheme has not had a negative impact on voter turnout in Northern Ireland? What analysis has there been, and by whom?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There is a considerable evidence base on what has happened in Northern Ireland, and the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), would be only too happy to respond further to that point later in the debate. Both he and I are happy to say that there is not a clear direct link between turnout and this scheme, because turnout can be influenced by lots of different factors. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) will accept that, especially when he thinks about how much turnout he would like in a future referendum, for example.

We need to put in place a scheme that commands confidence, that aids people’s confidence in elections and that will not be discriminatory. In answer to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), the work we have done through our pilots, modelling and analysis, through the Northern Ireland experience and through working with organisations shows us we can be sure that, with the free local voter card, there will be an opportunity for everybody who is eligible to vote to continue to do so. That is fundamental to the concerns that have been expressed.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am pleased that the Minister is taking fraud seriously and has come forward with sensible proposals. Is it not the case that, in a world of mass fraud, we are all getting used to having to provide ID and digital identification? Is it not the case that many employees, including Members of Parliament, need a photo pass even to go to work?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will make two points on that. The first is that we show identification in everyday life, and reasonably and proportionately so. For example, we show it when we pick up a parcel or apply for a range of other services. Let me give a word of reassurance to my right hon. Friend and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who is sitting behind him: what we have with this scheme is not a form of ID database, beyond, of course, that which is already there in the electoral registers. I offer that reassurance in response to an alternative argument that may come out in today’s debate compared with what we often hear from the left.

I am surprised that I need to use the words of a former Labour Government to say this, but I cannot do it plainer than this. When they introduced this policy in Northern Ireland in 2003, they said:

“If we believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because of this measure, we would not be introducing it at this time.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 April 2003; Vol. 646, c. 1248.]

The Electoral Commission also states:

“Since the introduction of photo ID in Northern Ireland there have been no reported cases of personation. Voters’ confidence that elections are well-run in Northern Ireland is consistently higher than in Great Britain, and there are virtually no allegations of electoral fraud at polling stations”.

Let me make some progress and set out what else is in this wide-ranging Bill. I must stress that it is not just in-person electoral fraud that this part of the Bill will combat, and that is important because criminals use all kinds of corrupt behaviour together, as we saw in Tower Hamlets and, sadly, elsewhere. Voting by post or by proxy are essential tools for supporting voters to exercise their rights, and they must remain available options for voters who may not wish to, or cannot, vote at a polling station. So this Bill also introduces sensible safeguards against the abuse of postal and proxy voting.

Mark Fletcher Portrait Mark Fletcher (Bolsover) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the Minister agree that often the victims of postal vote harvesting are those who come from many of the groups that the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) mentioned, including those who do not have English as a first language, and that this is a good protection for them and for our democratic process?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I fear that that may be right. I know that my hon. Friend and others have experience, for example at council level, where they may have seen this happening at first hand. Today, I want to allow a Bill to make progress that will give confidence that a person’s vote is theirs alone, and that is vital. Did we not see that before when we introduced individual electoral registration? Voices were saying that it, too, would never work, but did we not see that it was about reducing the influence of the head of the household on who was allowed to register? That is an important point to remember.

The part of the Bill on postal and proxy voting includes new limits on the number of postal votes that may be handed in by any one individual, and a limit of four on the total number of electors for whom a person may act as a proxy. In order to tackle “vote harvesting”, the Bill is also making it an offence for political campaigners to handle postal votes issued to others, unless they are family members or carers of the voter.

Of course, stealing someone’s vote is not always done by personation or by taking someone’s ballot physically. As I mentioned, an equally sinister method that we have seen is people using intimidation, or pressuring people to cast their vote in a certain way or not to vote at all. That is known in the law as “undue influence”. The existing legislation on undue influence, which, again, originated in the 19th century, is difficult to interpret and enforce, so we are providing greater clarity, ensuring that there can be no doubt that it is an offence to intimidate, deceive, or cause harm to electors in order to influence their vote.

I have touched on the ways in which the Bill will combat the silencing of democratic voices by those seeking to influence or steal an individual’s vote, and I will now touch upon more ways in which the Bill will empower our citizens.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister will be aware that loud claims of personation were made by the Trump campaign in the United States, which were completely without any basis or evidence, and which led to an assault on the Capitol building in Washington that suspended democracy itself. Does she think that as a Minister she should be promulgating an evidence-free claim that personation is a widespread problem that needs solving, with the cost being to deny millions of people their vote?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does the hon. Gentleman, as an experienced Member of this House, think he should be promulgating such nonsense? I do not think so.

One of the truest pillars of our democracy is the trust that we place in our citizens’ choices and the respect we give their decision. While we make voting in elections more secure, we also want to ensure that voters who may still require additional support to navigate that system, such as those with disabilities, have that support. This is why we are introducing key changes from our call for evidence on access to elections, extending the requirements on returning officers to support a wider range of voters with disabilities and extending the definition of who can act as a “companion” to anyone aged 18 or over.

In the same spirit, looking a little further afield, part 2 of the Bill will ensure that the voices of British citizens across the world can be heard, and their vote taken into account on matters that do affect them, by removing the 15-year limit on voting rights of British citizens living abroad.

Bambos Charalambous Portrait Bambos Charalambous (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On people with disabilities, clause 8 talks about people who are blind and about

“such equipment as it is reasonable to provide for the purposes of enabling, or making it easier for, relevant persons to vote”.

Blind people still find it difficult to have this access through existing legislation. Does the Minister not consider that that measure actually weakens the provision that blind people have? Will she meet the Royal National Institute of Blind People and listen to its views, because it has serious concerns about the clause?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman makes that point, because I know a number of hon. Members care about it, and rightly so. I can reassure him and everybody here today that I have been working with the RNIB for months and indeed years to make the improvements we need to the system for allowing blind and partially sighted voters to cast their vote. In answer to his specific question, I do not think that the measures in this Bill weaken that support; I think they strengthen it, by ensuring that a wider range of voters with disabilities—or, should I say, a wider range of disabilities—may be properly supported at the polling station. That is important, as we would not wish some to be unsupported by a phrasing in legislation that is now outdated and overly narrow—that is what our reform seeks to tackle.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On the Minister’s point about empowering citizens, she will be aware of reforms in Wales and Scotland whereby any legal citizen, no matter their nationality, can vote in our respective parliamentary elections and local elections. This Bill seems to be limiting the ability of European nationals to vote in local elections in England and in Westminster elections. Why is Westminster going on a totally different path from Wales and Scotland?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point, because there are two things to be said. The first, which I shall come to shortly in my remarks, is about how we are updating the franchise to reflect the position of EU citizens. The other important thing, which is worth making clear at this juncture, is that parts of the devolution settlements apply to electoral policy and so it is important to be clear that in this Bill we are looking at measures that will apply UK-wide—a full analysis is available, of course, in the Bill documents. That means we will have consistency at parliamentary elections, but a natural consequence of devolution is that there may be differences at other levels. I think we would both accept that and seek to work to make those arrangements a success for voters who may experience both sets of arrangements and for the hard-working election staff who may administer both sets.

As I have completed my remarks on overseas electors, I shall carry on moving through the Bill. At this point, I wish to address the Liberal Democrats’ reasoned amendment. It may come as little surprise that, regrettably, they take two opposite positions in one amendment: on the one hand they would like British citizens to participate more—indeed, that was their manifesto position—and on the other hand they do not. The official policy of the Liberal Democrats is to support votes for life, and the policy paper that they published in July 2019 said:

“There is no reason why”

expats

“should be treated any differently to those who continue to live in the UK.”

I agree. The Bill puts in place tougher measures against foreign interference and foreign money, but overseas British citizens are just that—British—and are therefore able both to vote and to donate. There is a long-standing principle, originally recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1998, that permissible donors are those on the UK electoral register.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister references the Committee on Standards in Public Life; why has she not included in the Bill any of the Committee’s recommendations on campaign finance?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I shall come to campaign finance shortly, but is that all the right hon. Gentleman has to say on overseas voters?

Let me turn to the voting rights of EU citizens, an important subject that has been asked about. Part 2 of the Bill updates the voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens who reside in the UK and moves to a more reciprocal model that fits our new arrangements. We stand by our commitments to those EU citizens who were resident here before our exit from the EU, so any EU citizen who was a resident before the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020 and has legal immigration status will retain their voting and candidacy rights. That goes beyond our obligations under the withdrawal agreement. For EU citizens who have moved to the UK following our EU exit, local voting and candidacy rights will be granted on the basis of bilateral agreements with the individual EU member states that will reciprocate arrangements for British citizens who live there.

We all want to make progress this afternoon, so let me move on as fast I can through the rest of the Bill. I have set out the ways in which the Bill will bolster the security of our elections; let me move on to the enforcement of electoral law. A critical part of our electoral system is and must continue to be effective, independent regulation, and the Electoral Commission has a vital role to play. Lord Pickles found that the

“current system of oversight of the Electoral Commission—by the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission—does not provide an effective third-party check on its performance”,

so we think it is right for Parliament to have an increased role. The Bill will introduce a strategy and policy statement that will provide guidance to which the commission will have to have regard in the discharge of its functions. It will be subject to statutory consultation, parliamentary approval and regular review.

We will also improve the parliamentary structures that hold the regulator to account. The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission currently has a limited remit; the Bill will therefore give it the additional power to examine the commission’s compliance with its duty to have regard to the strategy and policy statement. That will allow Parliament to better scrutinise the work of the commission. Together, the reforms will facilitate parliamentary scrutiny of the Electoral Commission’s work while respecting its independence.

It is a shame that Her Majesty’s Opposition’s reasoned amendment misrepresents scrutiny by Parliament and misunderstands—or again wilfully misrepresents the fact—that the commission remains governed, in law, by its commissioners. We are also clarifying that the Electoral Commission should not bring prosecutions, and that prosecutions should remain with the existing prosecution authorities.

Let me move on to political finance, which right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned. We already have a comprehensive regulatory framework for campaigning that is rooted in the principles of fairness, transparency and the importance of a level playing field. We want to ensure that our electoral law continues to uphold those principles, which is why part 4 of the Bill will update and strengthen our political finance laws to restrict all third-party spending to UK-based entities and eligible overseas electors; to increase transparency around third-party campaigning at elections and the registration of new political parties; and to prohibit parties and campaigners from unfairly expanding their spending limits. The Bill will ensure that campaign spending can come only from sources that have a genuine and legitimate interest in UK elections, by restricting all third-party spending to UK-based entities and registered overseas electors, above a £700 minimum threshold.

On the regulation of third-party campaigners, it is right that those who campaign at elections and seek to influence voters are subject to transparency requirements and rules that maintain a level playing field. Those principles already apply. The Bill seeks to balance the burden of regulation, relative to the level of campaign spending, with the importance of a thriving and diverse public debate.

The Bill will not change the definition of what constitutes controlled expenditure for a third-party campaigner. The Electoral Commission already provides guidance, developed with third-party groups, on what constitutes such expenditure. To ensure that any other legitimate categories of third party that may emerge in future are not significantly restricted in their ability to campaign, a power will be given to the Secretary of State to amend the list of legal entities eligible to register as campaigners under section 88(2) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Any change to that list made via a statutory instrument will be subject to the affirmative procedure and therefore subject to parliamentary scrutiny in both Houses. The Opposition amendment is simply wrong: the last time I checked, democratic parliamentary procedure on an SI is not “unilateral” change by a Secretary of State.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister talks about third-party involvement in our elections. Is she satisfied that the proposed legislation complies with the recommendations from the Russia report from last summer?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes, I am. What we are doing in the Bill, as I have already explained, is moving undue foreign influence out of our politics. We are doing that with this new category of campaign regulation that we are introducing. I have just referred to it and it includes an above £700 minimum threshold. It ensures that campaign spending can come only from sources that have a genuine and legitimate interest in UK elections.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

indicated dissent.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady shakes her head, but that is what it does, and that is important.

Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

We discussed this matter in Westminster Hall back in 2019. As one of my colleagues reminded us, in 2019, the Conservative party received £400,000, with one donation coming from the household of a former Russian Minister under Vladimir Putin eight months after the Salisbury poisonings. There was also money from a personal friend of the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Does the Minister not agree that this does not go far enough to stop this happening again?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have three points. First, this Bill does the right thing, as I have just explained. Secondly, the Conservative party does the right thing with regard to our donations, as I am happy to explain and defend at any time. Thirdly, I am already having to pass through so many pages in my briefing to find the bit about the SNP because there are quite a few points about how it handles its donations as well. I do think it is important that a person gets their house in order before they accuse others.

Let me move on to the important matter of notional expenditure. We are talking here about measures that will deliver better transparency for voters and candidates. I am sure that many in this House will welcome the clarification of the law on notional expenditure that is included in the Bill, which will ensure that candidates and their agents can continue to conduct full campaigns without the fear, as found by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee,

“of falling foul of the law through no fault of their own”

and inadvertently causing candidates to exceed their spending limits.

I will go on now to the new electoral sanction of intimidation. A free choice for voters means that anyone entitled to stand as a candidate must feel able to do so. Without a broad range of candidates for voters to choose from, we diminish representation in this country. I am sad to see a rising number of incidents of people trying to exclude others from the debate through violent or illegal behaviour. Voters do not expect violence in our elections. People should not be fearful of expressing their views or standing up in public service. That is why the Bill introduces an additional sanction that will bar an individual found guilty of intimidating a candidate, campaigner or elected representative from running or holding office for five years on top of their sentence.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If the hon. and learned Lady would like to come in at this point I will give way, but I think that that may be one of the last interventions that I take because I need to make some progress.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am just concerned that the hon. Lady has moved on from dealing with part 4, which deals with regulation of expenditure, before answering the question put by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), which is: what will the Government do about the recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life? The Committee published a very full report after a year of work on 7 July suggesting a number of recommendations—I think that it is 47 practical steps to modernise and streamline the way in which donations and spending are reported regularly to then enforce. Will she tell us which if any of those recommendations she will bring forward as Government amendments.

--- Later in debate ---
Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall try to be as quick as I can in concluding my remarks.

The answer to the hon. and learned Lady is that, first, we will be responding in full to what the CSPL said. There are some very good points and ideas in there that we are already able to deliver through the Bill, such as diminishing the extent of foreign influence through political finance in our system. There is also much more that has been drawn out over many years by other bodies. I am talking about the Select Committees here, Members of the Lords, the Association of Electoral Administrators and many, many others. There is a lot of discussion and debate about how we should keep our electoral system safe. I am proud to introduce a Bill that does the most important and pressing of those, and which will have the overall effect of keeping our elections safe, modern, transparent, fair and inclusive.

Part 6 of the Bill introduces a new digital imprints regime, which will be one of the most comprehensive in the world. I think that Members on both sides of the House will welcome that, because we all agree that voters all, rightly, want to know who is talking. The Bill will require digital campaigning material to display a digital imprint explicitly showing who is behind it—all year round and wherever they may be in the world. This provision will deliver on recommendations made by many to improve public trust and confidence in digital campaigns at future elections and referendums.

David Morris Portrait David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Would this measure translate to websites fronted by political activists masquerading as members of the public concerned about a different cause?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Political and election material will be included. I look forward to discussing the finer details as we work through the Bill. It is incredibly important that we have that transparency so that voters can make their choice as they think best.

Before I close, I need to deal with the Labour party’s amendment and its position—or, should I say, its many positions? It is a mystery to me why the Labour party seems to think that identification is good enough for its own members, but not for the British electorate. One person, one vote: it is a really simple formula. Why would anybody believe that criminals should get two? This is not what we ought to believe. Why does the Labour amendment say that the Bill restricts the general election franchise? I do not think that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) will be able to explain why, because it does no such thing. Why would the Labour party be doing this? Because it has its own murky interests in making it up and misrepresenting the Bill. Perhaps the other parties—

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Until this point, the debate was going quite well, but that allegation is a disgrace. I ask you to withdraw it, Minister. Everyone in this Chamber works very hard in elections and it is in everyone’s interests to have elections that are well run and well respected. That kind of insult makes people denigrate our democracy, which we fight day in, day out to protect, and which we cherish—

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Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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Order. The point of order should be addressed to me, rather than to the Minister. I can assure the hon. Lady that if anything had been said that was disorderly, I would have advised the Minister that it was disorderly.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I do hope that the other parties who supported today’s amendment have those high standards to which we all aspire. They will be able to judge clearly where they see politicking at play. I also hope that the House can judge that as clearly as was set out in the judgment of the Tower Hamlets case, which stated that the convicted perpetrators

“spent a great deal of time accusing their opponents…of ‘dividing the community’ but, if anyone was ‘dividing the community’, it was they.”

The judge went on to say,

“The real losers in this case are the citizens”.

As I have set out, the Government’s vision for UK democracy is a system that is secure, fair, modern, inclusive and transparent. We have a strong history; a robust constitution; a model of democracy that is copied around the world; a thriving tradition of campaigning and passionate public participation; and the highest standards of security, fairness and transparency.

The improvements in the Bill will raise confidence even further in our elections. They are reasonable, proportionate and carefully planned measures that command support and come from common sense. I commend the Bill to the House.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Alberto Costa Portrait Alberto Costa
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Not at the moment.

I understand that the Government are open to further such agreements with other EU member states, and that is a most welcome prospect. It would mean that their residents and British citizens could benefit from future voting arrangements. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Greece, I recently met the secretary-general of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Demiris, in Athens, and informed him of the UK Government’s offer to enter into bilateral agreements with EU states on the granting of mutual franchise rights in municipal elections, as envisioned in this Bill. I would welcome the Government writing to me to explain what measures they are taking to proactively encourage uptake of their offer to enter into such bilateral agreements.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

indicated assent.

Alberto Costa Portrait Alberto Costa
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think the Minister is nodding to suggest that she will write to me on that matter.

But the Government have gone further still. EU nationals who do not fulfil the qualifying criteria set by the Bill—for instance, those who have come to the UK post the implementation period completion date of 1 January 2021 and do not hold settled status, but who were elected into a public role as defined by the Bill in schedule 7—have the protection afforded by the provision of part 4 to continue in office for the period of their elected term. Again, this is a sensible, welcome measure to protect the rights of those EU citizens. I will be supporting the Government’s Bill, and I very much look forward to seeing these important rights finally enshrined into law.

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Robin Walker Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Robin Walker)
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I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed this afternoon. It is a pleasure to once again take part in a full debate in this Chamber. May I take the opportunity to welcome the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green)? I congratulate her on a very gracious maiden speech and the kind tribute that she paid to her predecessor, who was a dear friend of so many on the Government Benches.

I welcome the opportunity to close this debate as the Minister with responsibility for elections in Northern Ireland, a part of our United Kingdom where photographic ID has been used successfully to support the integrity of elections for a number of years and where, thanks to legislation introduced by the last Labour Government with cross-party support in both Westminster and Northern Ireland, there is a higher degree of confidence in the integrity of elections than in any other part of the UK. One of the hon. Members from the SNP, who is no longer in his place, intervened to ask the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution about the evidence from Northern Ireland, and I want to talk a bit about that.

As we have heard, voters in Northern Ireland have first-hand experience of one of the measures at the heart of this Bill: the requirement to show photographic ID at polling stations. That requirement is an accepted and non-controversial part of elections in Northern Ireland that has been in place for decades and enjoys cross-party support. Although turnout in Northern Ireland is, historically, usually lower than in Great Britain, in the first election after the introduction of photographic ID, turnout in Northern Ireland was unusually higher than in England, Scotland or Wales.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We have heard a lot of spurious arguments today about voter ID. Was that not exemplified just now by the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who said that low turnouts favour the Conservative party? There was a 59% turnout in 2001. I would like to erase the history of Tony Blair, but I believe that he had a 166 majority.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Certainly, in my experience, the higher the turnout in my constituency, the higher my majority has turned out to be.

This measure in Northern Ireland has helped to prevent electoral fraud, and it has not affected participation. Labour Ministers said at the time of its introduction—I want to quote this in full—that the measures

“will tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters,”

ensuring

“that no one is disenfranchised because of them.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 April 2003; Vol. 646, c. 1248.]

They added that

“the Government have no intention of taking away people’s democratic right to vote. If we believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because of this measure, we would not be introducing it at this time.”—[Official Report, 10 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 739.]

I do not always agree with pronouncements from the Front Bench in the era of Blair and Brown, but in this case they were 100% right. There is no evidence that ID has negatively impacted turnout. Levels of satisfaction with the electoral process are usually slightly higher in Northern Ireland.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I endorse what the Minister has said. We as a party will be walking through the Lobby with the Government tonight to support the Bill. Photo ID has been a success for Northern Ireland. We can vouch for that. It has stopped fraud and corruption. I had a discussion with the Minister earlier. The RNIB has expressed some concerns about the legislation. Will he agree to meet the RNIB to discuss those concerns?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am certainly happy to offer that meeting. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution mentioned earlier that she has had a number of meetings with the RNIB already and has been working with it, but she will continue to meet it as the Bill progresses, because that is vital. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s illustration of the support for this measure in Northern Ireland.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I want to address some of the evidence that the hon. Gentleman’s party asked for. One survey conducted just a few years—

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is on that point.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will address the point that the hon. Gentleman’s party raised. One survey, conducted by the Electoral Commission in 2009 under the last Labour Government, just a few years after the introduction of photographic ID in Northern Ireland, found that 100% of respondents in Northern Ireland experienced no difficulty with presenting photographic ID at polling stations. As part of its post-election questionnaire in 2019, the Electoral Commission reported that 83% of voters in Northern Ireland found it very easy to participate in elections, as opposed to 78% across Great Britain, including, of course, Scotland.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can I just clarify whether the Minister is drawing a clear and direct parallel between the situation in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and the situation in the United Kingdom in 2021? Is there a clear and direct parallel that joins the two that explains this legislation?

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Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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The hon. Gentleman should want us to learn from what works in one part of the UK for the whole of the United Kingdom. I am very pleased to see the United Kingdom aligning further, with Northern Ireland leading the way as Great Britain takes forward a measure to protect the integrity of elections, which has been tried and tested to great effect in Northern Ireland.

Some of the wider claims we have heard in today’s debate are simply not borne out by the experience of Northern Ireland. They echo some of the scaremongering when this Government successfully introduced individual electoral registration. Many Opposition Members cried that that would result in mass disenfranchisement, but we saw the effect in the last UK general election, when a record number of people were registered to vote. The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, one of the hardest working Ministers with whom I have had the pleasure to work and herself no stranger to Northern Ireland, excellently articulated the reasonable and considered approach we are taking across the Bill.

We heard a number of very powerful speeches in support of these measures from my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), my right hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Mr Baker), for Southport (Damien Moore), for Leigh (James Grundy), for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) and for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), and my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Tom Randall), for Keighley (Robbie Moore), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew).

I want to try to answer some of the points that have been raised and some of the questions that have been put to me in Members’ contributions. Before I do, however, I think it is worth reflecting on the work undertaken to get to this point and the long pedigree of some of the measures in the Bill. This is not just a product of the Government or the Cabinet Office; it has been inspired, informed and enhanced by the input of a wide variety of organisations and individuals. We are grateful to a number of parliamentary Committees, many of whose thoughtful contributions are reflected in the measures and some of whose Chairs we heard from in today’s debate. To highlight just a few individuals, the important contribution of Lord Pickles has been critical in understanding the very real risks and challenges our electoral system faces. Similarly, the reports by colleagues in this House, as well as by the House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, have highlighted key considerations, from the need for more transparency in areas of digital campaigning to political finance.

Along with the valued contribution of the electoral sector experts, I know the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution has been meeting a wide range of organisations in the voluntary and community sector, which have raised some important points and will play a vital role in ensuring that the detail that will be developed in secondary legislation will meet the needs of all those who manage and use our electoral services. In particular, she is committed to continue engagement with people with disabilities, other minority groups and some of the key groups of vulnerable people who have been all too often, as my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe and for Bolsover pointed out, the major victims of electoral fraud.

I want to turn to some of the specific questions that have been asked. The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and her colleague the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) asked about an impact assessment. I would direct them to the 21-page equality impact assessment and the 120-page impact assessment published alongside the Bill.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) asked about the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I welcome the report published by the Committee in July. As the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution said, the recommendations will be given full and proper consideration, and the Government will respond. In fact, I should point out that we are bringing forward measures in the Bill which are closely linked to recommendations made in that report, such as a new requirement on political parties to declare their assets and liabilities over £500 on registration, and a restriction of third-party campaigning to UK-based or otherwise eligible campaigners.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made a powerful speech, as he always does. Like many on the Government Benches, I happen to disagree with him on this particular one, but let me point out that the Government research he quoted also found out that 98% of people across the age groups have access to accepted forms of photographic ID already, 99% of people from ethnic minority groups have that level of access, and 99% of those aged between 18 and 29 already have an acceptable form of photographic identification.

The hon. Members for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) asked about important issues of engagement with the devolved Administrations. Devolution means that we already have different arrangements for devolved and reserved elections. We do engage regularly and I can offer him the reassurance he sought that the strategy document will not undermine the partnership between the Electoral Commission and the devolved Administrations.

There are many other points that I would like to address, but I will not have time. Let me conclude by thanking hon. Members for all their valuable contributions. The Bill will place British citizens’ participation at the heart of our democracy and will keep it modern, secure, transparent and fair, so that our democracy can continue to thrive. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution will do an excellent job of steering it through Committee, and I look forward to a lively debate in the next phase of its passage. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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18:59

Division 60

Ayes: 230

Noes: 329

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 62(2)), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
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19:14

Division 61

Ayes: 327

Noes: 228

Bill read a Second time.

Elections Bill (First sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage
Wednesday 15th September 2021

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Elections Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 15 September 2021 - (15 Sep 2021)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Elections Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you. Minister, would you like to ask the first question?

Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I would. First, may I welcome our witnesses? It is an absolute pleasure to have you here. You begin our day with the highest quality.

Richard, you highlighted in your judgment on Tower Hamlets and elsewhere how we see interlocking types of fraud that all together create broad criminality. Would you be able to talk us through the extent of that?

Richard Mawrey: Tower Hamlets was a particularly bad example. There, you had a political culture where winning and retaining power was everything. If there were rules, they were to be, at best, circumvented and, at worst, broken. Not only was there electoral fraud in the sense of false votes—almost all postal votes—but the system developed so there was misuse of public funds, which I later decided was bribery, largely as a result of Lord Pickles’ initiative to employ a top firm of accountants to investigate the doings of the council, from which it appeared that large sums of money had been diverted for political purposes.

In Tower Hamlets, the trickiest thing of all was manipulation of voters by religious means. That operated within one community: members of the Bangladeshi community, at the instance of the Mayor and his cronies, were being induced by their religious leaders to back one lot of Muslin politicians against another lot of Muslim politicians. It was not, as you might expect, Muslims versus the rest. They were saying, “If you are a good Muslim, you will vote for Lutfur Rahman and his chums. If you are not and you vote for someone else, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, you are beyond the religious pale.” Clearly, that was unacceptable, therefore I made my findings of undue religious influence.

There were also other things, such as the provision in the Representation of the People Act 1983 whereby you cannot make false statements about the personal characters of the other candidates. You may remember the case of Phil Woolas up in the Manchester area. If you go beyond that limit and go public saying, basically, that your principal opponent is a racist who supports racists organisations, when it is totally untrue, that is, again, unacceptable.

You have virtually the whole catalogue of offences laid down by the 1983 Act; they were almost ticking the boxes, one by one, as they did it. That is what happens when you have a political culture that gets corrupted, in all senses, into the belief that, “The rules don’t apply to us. We do what we want in order to get the results.” That is the danger that one perceives. Of course, Tower Hamlets was an extreme case.

The other cases that I tried were largely cases of straightforward voter fraud using postal votes—misuse of the actual votes themselves: stealing them, altering them, and that sort of thing—or putting on the register people who had no right to be there, either because they lived somewhere else or because they did not exist at all. Those are the problems that I have seen, although I must emphasise that my experience is entirely with local authorities, naturally, because parliamentary elections are tried by proper judges, so to speak.

However—I think that Lord Pickles will agree with me here—local authority elections are the easiest to manipulate. You have relatively small electorates, a relatively small geographical area, and communities, although not necessarily racial or religious communities, that can operate as a sort of support mechanism in any frauds that you are perpetrating. I do not expect a large amount of fraud in parliamentary elections, referendums, or anything like that, but it is a serious problem in local elections. I do not think that Lord Pickles would disagree with that.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Across a selection of your cases—Tower Hamlets, Birmingham, and Slough—we see the range of corrupt practices, also known as crimes or elections fraud, including, as you say, postal voting practices, proxy voting practices and personation, notably, in Slough.

Richard Mawrey: Not so much proxy. Proxy votes are very rare, and proxy fraud is very rare. It is mostly personation, of both kinds: putting the wrong people on the register—what the Australians call “roll stuffing”—and misusing genuine votes for genuine people by diverting them, altering them, or, in some cases, simply destroying them.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you. Two questions, if I may: would you agree that, where one of those avenues may be cut off by the law, criminals might turn to others? Criminals, by nature, are able to use a range of techniques, and, naturally, wish to do so. Secondly, may I ask for your assessment of who the victims of such crimes are? Where does the harm fall?

Richard Mawrey: I think the harm falls on the community as a whole if you have someone who is elected as a councillor, let us say, but has no right to be because the votes cast on their behalf are false. Take Birmingham, for example: in the two wards that I tried—although it was actually fairly common in all the wards with a substantial Muslim population—approximately half of the votes cast for the winning candidates were false. That is serious. The winning candidates got between 3,000 and 4,000 votes each. It was three per ward, so they got that, and their rivals got 200 or 300 below.

Of those 3,000-odd votes, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 were completely bogus. They were votes that had been harvested in various ways—not, funnily enough, by putting bogus people on the register. They had stolen voting papers. They had applied for votes to be sent to the wrong address. They had gone down streets collecting the voting papers from houses in multiple occupation—they would get themselves in and there was a huge pile of voting papers. They knew they would be there because they had applied, without the knowledge of the voters, for those votes to be postal votes. They went in, there was a pile of postal votes and the inhabitants of the block did not know. They collected the lot and filled them in.

If any of the people living in those houses went to vote in person, they were told, “Oh no, you voted by post,” much to their annoyance, as you might imagine. I had witnesses called before me who said, “I went down to the polling station expecting to vote, but they said, ‘I’m sorry, Mr Jones, but you’ve already voted.’” He said, “No, I haven’t,” and they said, “Oh yes, you’re marked: we’ve got your ballot paper.” So they, of course, are the losers.

The other thing is that if you have a culture of political corruption, it seeps into all other life. I think of the money in Tower Hamlets that could have been spent for the benefit of Tower Hamlets but that was actually being spent on providing, in effect, free meals for voters—which is what they were doing, among other things—and subsidising organisations that had not asked for a subsidy. Tower Hamlets is not a borough that has money to spare or to throw around, and I felt that the people who had lost out—I said this in my judgment—were what I might call the rank-and-file members of the Bangladeshi community that they were claiming to represent. They were the losers. If they were looking at it in any sort of tribal way, they were doing down their own kind—the people they were claiming were their power base. That is not tolerable.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Eric, you then had the opportunity to follow up on Richard’s work and to say what ought to be done about it. Is it still your view that something ought to be done about all of those things?

Lord Pickles: Yes. In terms of vulnerability, there might be the odd seat in the House that is vulnerable, but this is about local government. I think it would be a big mistake to say that this is just about voting, democracy and elections. It is actually about power and money. A place like Tower Hamlets has a budget of £1 billion. Many of the large cities have budgets of large sums of money. Even a small district council has considerable ability to dispose of assets and to make appointments.

The reason I put commissioners in Tower Hamlets was, like many things, based on quite a small thing. I looked at the small grants that were available to many organisations, some of which could be distributed by councillors. They were there to relieve poverty. I had a map that showed me where the grants had been distributed and another map that showed me where the deprivation was, and there was no relationship between the two. Then, I looked at the number of decisions that had been overturned by councillors and the number of decisions they had granted without a business plan. It was on that basis that we decided to put the thing through.

I was asked to look at it and we started taking evidence on the types of fraud. I have been involved in politics for a long time and have seen most things on the street, but I was quite shocked by some of the frauds that were being committed. Richard will be able to tell you about warehousing. There was a warehouse in Birmingham, I think, where they were literally changing the ballot papers on an almost commercial basis. There were things like carousel fraud, where a ballot is palmed—a fresh ballot is taken out, filled in and given to another person and it is palmed—as a way of controlling the election; landlords insisting on seeing a photograph of their ballot being completed; and people suddenly finding out that their landlord has registered six or seven people at their house just before an election, only for their names to disappear afterwards.

It is really important to understand that that is not endemic within the system; it is an example of how vulnerable the system is. If Tower Hamlets represents the future, we have to ensure that that future is terminated. We probably will not be burgled, but we lock our houses. The measures in the Bill are moderate and reasonable, and they ensure at least that we will not find some of our large cities run by kleptocrats—this is about rewarding friends; it is not necessarily about politics. Sorry, I went on a bit there.

Richard Mawrey: Could I just come in here on what Lord Pickles has said? The Bill addresses something that was a real problem in Tower Hamlets: the registration of political parties. The Electoral Commission blithely signed off Tower Hamlets First as a party, but it was a joke. It had no premises, and it had—as I discovered to my amazement by asking questions—no bank account. I said to Lutfur Rahman, “If I want to give a donation to your party, do I have to come along with an envelope of used non-consecutive fifties?” Obviously, he was dying to say yes, but that would clearly have been the wrong answer. You can see the levels to which it has come. If anyone can just say, “I am a political party,” and give themselves a name, you lay yourself wide open, particularly once they are registered and can say, “I am a registered political party and have all the rights of a registered political party.”

Lord Pickles: The system is vulnerable. To misquote John Major, it is about old maids cycling to evensong and drinking warm beer, and in most places, that rather twee, gentle system kind of works. When I was a councillor, in gentle rural villages in my own wards, it was fine, but where there is money, we have to protect the integrity of the ballot and of governance.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Richard, can I start with you and the Tower Hamlets examples that you have already outlined? Thank you for that. You said that in Tower Hamlets there was a wide range of different types of electoral fraud that was used to try to manipulate. I was particularly struck by what you said about public funds being diverted for political advantage. Does anything in the Bill prevent public funds being diverted for political influence?

Richard Mawrey: The Bill, as I read it, does not make any particular changes to the laws relating to bribery. The laws relating to bribery, in actual terms under the 1983 Act, are quite clear. The problem is that bribery was a common law offence, and it then became a statutory defence under the Victorians. Before the secret ballot, the Victorians had a system whereby you voted in public and everyone knew how you voted. Rich candidates would simply put money in the hands of the electors, who would not be very large in number, to pay them to go and vote. That was the principal thing that led to both the secret ballot and the introduction of electoral courts in the 1860s.

We have moved on from that now. Very few candidates have the sort of money that allows them to put fivers in people’s pockets, so to speak, but they do control public money. The answer is not necessarily electoral law, but better control, particularly in local authorities, of local authority finance. It is better auditing and more independent scrutiny. The law is clear; it is policing it that is the problem. You don’t need to change the law; you need to change the policing of it. Would you agree?

Lord Pickles: Yes, I think I almost certainly would agree. When it starts to go wrong, it is a terrible thing. I do not think I am betraying confidences, because I am sure they would be happy for me to say this, but the two Labour Members of Parliament within the borough came to see me and laid out all these various things, and said that basically the Electoral Commission was ignoring them, that the police were ignoring them, but there was something deeply wrong within the administration, and they urged me to take action.

Obviously, a Secretary of State can only go in on a reasonable basis, and I went in on a reasonable basis because it seemed to me that the way in which grants were being delineated for every small thing was entirely wrong, entirely arbitrary and not based on fact. So the point is that this Bill is about just tightening up and trying to make the system reasonably proof in terms of personation and various other things. It is not going to cure corruption and it is not going to stop bad people being elected; it just reduces the chances of a community being abused.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q If I may follow up on that, my question to you, Gareth, was going to be slightly different. It is on the policing of electoral fraud, particularly in relation to overseas voters. With regard to overseas voters making political donations that are unlawful, or voter fraud, what powers does the UK have to detect infringements and prosecute?

Assistant Chief Constable Cann: With regard to any infringements that might be committed overseas or by non-UK citizens, for example, our powers to deal with that are very limited.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I welcome all three witnesses. I have one question for each. Councillor Golds, thank you for giving us your time today. Can you tell us a little about the experience on the ground of how people might have been victims of electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets, and perhaps how difficult it can be for some of those stories to come forward?

Councillor Golds: I have been studying it. I have been involved in elections in the borough for 20 years. I should quickly declare that over the years, I have been an election agent in 13 general elections. In fact, I have been an election agent for every kind of election we can have in this country, from Parliament and European Parliament to GLA, GLC and local council, and I have never seen anything like what I saw in Tower Hamlets.

The thing that always upsets me, and that I find terribly disappointing, is that ordinary people’s votes were effectively stolen. When I knock on a door, somebody will say to me, “Mr Golds, my father used to vote for Mr Attlee.” I smile at them, and then they say, “But what’s the point of voting now?” The problem is that, as both Mr Mawrey QC and Lord Pickles said, those are the people whose votes have been stolen. Most of all, however, there are our Bangladeshi voters, who sometimes come forward and say to me, as their local councillor, “Can you provide this information?” I say, “But you have to go on record, otherwise it is hearsay,” and they will then say, “I’m frightened to do so.”

That is a very intimidating situation, and I have to say it is not only in Tower Hamlets. Mr Shelbrooke read what had happened in Batley and Spen. A few years ago I took a friend of mine, who had contested an election in Calderdale, to meet the Electoral Commission. It was a waste of his time, because the Electoral Commission, as it so often is, was completely uninterested. He had a dossier as large as the one I brought with me today, which he handed to the Commission; as far as I know, it is probably still sitting in an archive, gathering dust.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q As a brief follow-up, could you please explain what types of fraud people may have encountered? Be specific; is it personation, postal votes or other types?

Councillor Golds: In the election petition, I submitted eight witness statements and approximately 2,000 pages of backing documentation, covering as much as possible. That includes, for example, where we tracked fraudulent postal votes using postal vote returns in the election data. You can see how things were marked on postal voting.

Tracking personation is much more difficult, but I will give you an interesting example. In the 2010 mayoral election, when Lutfur Rahman was first elected, I wrote one of my many unanswered letters to the Metropolitan Police. At 7.15 on polling day, I was present at Christ Church Primary School polling station in Brick Lane. A man entered and approached the desk where electors from Brick Lane were being processed. He had in his hand a poll card and envelope. However, this poll card was dated May 2010, was issued by the London Borough of Enfield, and referred to the Edmonton general election constituency. He tried to give a name and address in Brick Lane but was unable to accurately do so, by which time he was leaning over to the council staff and trying to point at an electoral register in front of the council and say, “That’s me, that’s me.” Eventually, the council officer started to ask questions, and he left the polling station.

I would add that outside there were supporters of Tower Hamlets First with copies of the electoral register. They mark on the electoral register what we all know exists: the vote return. They know if people vote. They have a list of people who may not regularly vote, and people were coming up, talking to them and effectively being given names to go into the polling station.

If you want another extraordinary example—one that made all sorts of press—it was the incident in the 2006 by-election in the Shadwell ward where a figure, about six-foot-something tall, dressed from head to foot in traditional Islamic gear but with huge red trainers, entered a polling station. An hour later, the same figure entered the polling station, and then an hour after that they entered the polling station.

The Conservative and Labour polling agents then compared notes, rang their agents and were told that the one thing they could do would be to ensure the presiding officer asked the statutory questions. When this person came for the fourth time and the statutory questions were put, he merely hooked up the clothing he was wearing and fled down Bigland Street. Everybody asked the policeman on duty what he was going to do, and he shrugged his shoulders and just said, “Nothing. It’s nothing to do with me.”

Those are two particularly extreme examples, but I can give you examples of cases, exactly as Mr Mawrey said—I have them recorded—where for houses that were boarded up, names appeared on the electoral register and votes were cast, or where people turned up only to discover that their votes had been stolen. Staggeringly, on 6 May this year, Francis Hoar, the barrister for the election petitioners in Tower Hamlets, went to vote in Lambeth and unfortunately his vote had already been cast on his behalf. That is what went on.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you very much indeed. I have a brief question for both Gillian and Assistant Chief Constable Cann. Gillian, thank you very much for joining us; it is good to see you again. We have done some work together, because Peterborough was part of early pilots on how to tackle electoral fraud, and you took forward measures about postal and proxy voting. With reference to the measures in the Bill—for example, clause 6, introducing the requirement of secrecy for postal votes—could you explain to us the problems you encountered, how you tried to deal with them and how you think the Bill will affect that?

Welcome and thank you to ACC Cann, as well. Given that electoral law can be a relatively niche area within policing, can you tell us how the wider profession works to ensure that the right knowledge, training and capacity are in place in local forces to enable them to play the role that is needed from the police?

Gillian Beasley: I will start by saying that we have a very close relationship with the police in Peterborough and our electoral integrity plan is co-produced between us and them. Our police, as well as our electoral services team, have a really good and detailed understanding of the electoral offences in law. There is a lot of co-operation there, which has helped us to home in on where integrity is at risk.

First, I would say that we have seen less personation in polling stations in the recent past. Probably our last prosecution was some years ago, and that is because there are some tight measures not only in polling stations, but around ensuring that we have a good electoral register. We go through our electoral register very carefully, removing duplicate names, and we visit a lot of premises where there are a number of people registered or where we are told there is an empty property, to ensure that they are the right people and that they are real people. Of course, the individual voter registration division has helped tremendously with that.

Where we have issues, as the Minister knows, is in postal voting. That is where our concerns are. The allegations we tend to get are around harvesting. They are allegations of people going into properties where people live—they are proper voters who have applied for a postal vote—and getting that person to make a declaration and signature with date of birth, but not fill the ballot paper. Those are then taken away and the proxies put against the relevant candidate. Those are the allegations. We get allegations about those being taken from properties, and where we get those allegations, we work together with the police in joint operations to visit those premises and make it absolutely clear that there is no tolerance for that and that those properties will be raided. We have never had any prosecutions for that, but we have made a clear statement about not tolerating that kind of behaviour.

The provision on not handing your postal vote to a campaigner is welcome. We will use that as a good communications tool to say to people, “Your vote is your vote. It is important that you post your vote or take it into a polling station.” The restrictions on how many postal votes can go into polling stations is a good provision, and documenting who is going in with those postal votes is important. Harvesting those votes will now be an offence, and although it will be difficult evidentially to get people to make those allegations, to stand by them and to go to court, nevertheless as returning officers we can do some important publicity around that fact: “This is your vote, you must keep it and it is a criminal offence if somebody takes it from you.” I see some strength there, and I support those provisions.

The other area I think is interesting is around undue influence. That is by far the most difficult; we hear allegations, but it is difficult for people who are subject to whatever form of undue influence or intimidation it may be to feel confident to come forward, give evidence and take that through to a court process. We encourage people to do that, but it is still difficult for them.

The change in the provision on undue influence, where you induce or compel somebody not to vote at all, is important; that covers the point that was made about collecting votes where they have not even been marked. My issue as a returning officer is that I send out thousands and thousands of postal votes, and we get them carefully delivered to the correct premises, but what happens behind those closed doors? It is about getting people to confidently give evidence if they are subject to undue influence or somebody comes and tries to take their vote. As I say, we have a really good relationship with the police, who are prepared to take forward and understand the offences. There is a joint communications plan between us and the police telling people that we will take it seriously, take cases forward and investigate every single allegation that is made, but it is still very difficult to get people confident enough to come forward with those kinds of allegations.

Assistant Chief Constable Cann: In terms of developing police knowledge and capacity, I like the description of electoral law being a niche area. I think that is accurate. The RPA is not a widely known piece of legislation among police officers.

One of the reasons that the national portfolio that I lead was created was to raise awareness through some degree of central co-ordination and training across police forces. One of the first things that we recognise is that we are not on our own with this. Gillian has spoken very well about the importance of partnership working between the police, the Association of Electoral Administrators, administrators more locally, the Electoral Commission, the CPS, the parties themselves and Royal Mail. We form strong partnership relationships with a whole range of people, which helps to build capacity and capability within the police service generally.

More specifically, we have established a network of officers, one in every force. We have SPOCs—single points of contact—who are the lead for that force for electoral-related matters. They are knowledgeable in electoral crime and procedure. They usually sit within economic crime teams, but not always. We have created a bespoke training course that is run through the City of London police, which holds particular expertise of its own in this regard. We hold an annual conference for all those single points of contact and a number of other people. There is a very strong, successful partnership from that conference particularly with the Electoral Commission, and with people such as Gillian and other electoral administrators.

We have developed the scope of the portfolio over the last 10 years or so to cover matters of policing the election itself—not just preventing and detecting any fraud, crime or malpractice, but policing the election, so matters of public order and wider security. We have developed guidance in relation to policing elections, which is available on the College of Policing’s website. It is called “Authorised Professional Practice”, and it is about the way police doctrine is expressed and made available to officers up and down the country.

I like to think that, certainly over the last 10 years or so, we have raised the consciousness in the service of electoral malpractice. It is taken extremely seriously and we have some extremely capable and knowledgeable people involved in the work, but it is fair to say that it is something of a niche area. Most officers will not come across it, and in any event the law is slightly difficult to navigate, even for those who have a particular interest and specialism.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good morning to the witnesses. I have two questions to ACC Cann. Do you think the penalties for those committing electoral fraud are sufficient to deter the bad actors?

Assistant Chief Constable Cann: I think the penalties vary, because there is a blend of a civil and a criminal regime at play here. I do not know, because I am not an elected person, a candidate or anything like that, but I imagine that the harsher sanction will be around matters such as being disqualified from holding office or taking part in future electoral matters, rather than a specific fine or a direct sanction. In that regard, there is some significant deterrence there. Generally speaking, when matters go to the courts, it is generally felt that the courts are quite keen to address the seriousness of the matter before them and hand down a suitable penalty.

Elections Bill (Second sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage
Wednesday 15th September 2021

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Elections Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 15 September 2021 - (15 Sep 2021)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Elections Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you. Minister, would you like to ask the first question?

Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q As this is such a short session, I will ask one question each of our two witnesses. Mr Campbell, it is nice to see you here today; thank you for giving up your time. The Government’s call for evidence on the accessibility of elections showed that one of the main barriers to voting can be the definition of “companion” in legislation. Do you agree that the expansion of the definition of who can act as a companion will be of benefit and will support more elderly voters and voters with a disability in being able to vote in person?

Fraser Campbell: Yes, absolutely. Anything that can be done to make voting easier is to be encouraged. That is why, I suspect, more Members will have questions about some of the provisions that make voting more difficult, but I will not get on to that until I am asked.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Moving on to Mr Howarth—David, if I may—you have been a Member of Parliament, so welcome back; it is nice to see you today. You are a former Liberal Democrat Member, and it is great to have your particular intersection of experience. Knowing Parliament as you do, and knowing how, at its best, it can be a place for scrutiny, debate, insight and experience, do you think it is a positive addition to the accountability and governance of the Electoral Commission that we have a greater role for Parliament coming in? Or do you think that the work of the electoral commissioners and the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission as it currently stands is sufficient?

Professor Howarth: First, may I say that it is good to be back? It is just my luck to be giving evidence during a reshuffle. All I can say is, “Chloe, good luck,” and I will understand it if you will be glancing at your phone.

The accountability of the Electoral Commission is twofold. First, there is accountability to the Speaker’s Committee. That is useful, but it is limited, and should be limited, to the use of resources; it is related to the estimate under which the commission is funded. Secondly, on individual decisions the commission is accountable to the courts. That is to say, if it issues a fine or some sort of order against an individual or a party, those organisations or people can appeal to the courts. I think this afternoon you will hear from someone who successfully appealed a fine that had been imposed by the commission. It might have been helpful to hear from people who have been fined and failed in their appeal, or chose not to appeal.

There are two lines of accountability, and I think the danger in the Bill is getting them mixed up. The line of accountability to the courts should not interfere with Parliament, and the line of accountability to Parliament should not interfere with the courts. Secondly, what the Bill actually does is make the commission accountable to Parliament in terms of direction or guidance issued by a Minister, and then obviously agreed to on the nod in the usual way of statutory instruments by the Commons, and they would not trouble the Lords. Nevertheless, that is not accountability to Parliament; that is accountability to the Government—

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

May I interrupt? Professor Howarth, we are having trouble hearing you. Could you turn your microphone up, please?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am really sorry, Ms Rees. I could hardly hear any of that answer.

Fraser Campbell: I wonder whether I may say a word on the Minister’s question. My view on parliamentary accountability is that of course it is very important. It has to be balanced against the independence, and the perceived independence, of the commission. To the extent that the Bill wishes to introduce scope for the commission to be given a statement of principles and objectives, I think the question arises whether that will be useful and, if it is, to whom.

Based on the Minister’s statement from 17 June this year, which talked about the content that that statement might have, there was an indication that it may lay down principles for the Electoral Commission in terms of impartiality, accountability, value for money, proportionality and consistency. I wonder how useful that would be, because the Electoral Commission, whatever one thinks of its performance, presumably does not think at the moment that it is proper for it to provide poor value for money or be partial, unaccountable, disproportionate or inconsistent.

The question arises, to make a difference, what difference it will make. My concern—Professor Howarth has expressed this in the press—is that there is a danger of an arm’s-length independent body being pressured by the majority in the House of Commons, and the party of Government, to prioritise things that may be perceived to benefit that party and to deprioritise other things, or even to seek to intervene and give guidance on individual cases. If that were done, there would be the potential for very real damage to the perceived independence of the commission and a sense of people who are elected—by definition, the victors of elections—to some extent regulating themselves. I think that would be the intention with the overall aim of the long-established Electoral Commission.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you. Professor Howarth, could you try repeating your answer to see whether we can hear you?

Professor Howarth: I will try. Can you hear me now?

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Yes, that is much better.

Professor Howarth: I started by wishing Chloe good luck in the reshuffle. The accountability of the Electoral Commission, as Fraser just said, is an important matter, but the commission on individual matters is accountable to the courts, not to Parliament. There is an appeal process. I think there is a witness later this afternoon who appealed successfully against a commission judgment. There are many others who have failed in their appeal or withdrawn it.

It is important not to mix up the legal accountability of the commission to the courts with the accountability to the Speaker’s Committee, which is basically to do with its financial responsibility. The commission operates under an estimate that does not go through the Government. The accountability on the spending side is to the Speaker’s Committee. Where the Bill goes wrong, I think, is in mixing those two things up and subjecting the commission to policy guidance by the Government. The accountability that has been proposed to Parliament is on the basis of the Government’s guidance to the commission and then to Parliament. That reduces the autonomy not just of the commission but of Parliament in holding the commission to account on what it wants to hold it to account on, not what the Government tell it to.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I have one follow-up question, on your time as an electoral commissioner, which as we all know is very different from the election commissioner role, on which we heard from Richard Mawrey earlier today. From your time in that role, David, could you give us examples of when you think there was effective governance and ineffective governance between the commission’s proposals or plans and the SCEC?

Professor Howarth: On the whole, every year there is a useful discussion between the Speaker’s Committee and the leadership of the commission on budgetary matters—issues to do with how much money would be suitable for a particular year. I should really add in parentheses that that will be far more difficult if and when the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 is withdrawn, because it will not be clear whether there will be a general election in any particular year. There is a balance between the ongoing expenditure of the committee on base and the exceptional expenditure that comes about because of the number of electoral events in the year. Over the years, the fact that there were two parts of the budget has been cleared up between the committee and the commission. I think that operates well. It was starting to operate not well by the end. I think that is an example of both.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Professor Howarth, if I can interrupt you, we are having trouble hearing you again.

Professor Howarth: Oh right! I thought I had fixed that.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Could you also lift your head up so we can lip read?

Professor Howarth: The temptation when on a computer is to bend down towards the microphone. I shall try to let you lip read.

I agree that there is a problem with clause 23. The power to add groups that can campaign as third parties is obviously justifiable. The delegated powers memorandum gives no justification for the power to remove or the power to redefine. Those are powers that could be abused.

There is also a change in clause 20 that to most people looks logical, but there needs to be a replacement provision. It is the proposal to end the possibility of parties acting as third-party campaigners. The Electoral Commission’s guidance says that is the main way in which parties can act together in electoral alliances and pacts. If clause 20 remains as it is, with no replacement provision, then parties will not really be able to operate in electoral pacts or alliances. They will be limited to £700 of expenditure if promoting a national campaign of another party. There needs to be a specific provision for pacts that is fair. Obviously, those provisions would have to apply to canvassers campaigning on common ground, but this is too restrictive.

On the question of what ought to be in the Bill, there is a massive Law Commission report on all the problems identified in electoral law, which should be part of this Bill. That report is now gathering dust, as too many Law Commission reports do.

I go back to the Constitutional Affairs Committee and Justice Committees before 2010, which came to an agreement on the crucial issue in electoral reform, which is donations. Should there be a cap on donations? We got a Committee to agree on a very high cap, but also to the principle that there ought to be a cap. If you do not have a cap on donations, the whole system is open to the accusation that it is just there for rich people to buy elections. That is the most important problem in the way we allow elections to be run. We need to get the system on to a completely different basis of small donations by ordinary people.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Professor, you asked where this idea of the statement of principles and the policy framework for the Electoral Commission has come from. I hope you were able to hear the evidence in this morning’s sitting, particularly that from Councillor Golds, who gave damning examples of where evidence of widespread fraud was taken by him and others to the Electoral Commission and, in his words, ignored.

Professor Howarth: Let me explain. The Electoral Commission does not have a role in legal contests about individual cases of electoral fraud. It has an overall supervisory role, but its regulatory powers are aimed at parties and their national campaigns. For example, on the spending returns of individuals in parliamentary elections, the commission has a power to look at them, but no power to enforce the law. That is all done by individuals and by the police.

The commission’s power has to do with the national spending limits of the national parties. If you think the commission should be doing more on that, you need to change the commission’s powers so that it can. What the Bill does instead is remove the commission’s power to instigate prosecutions, which makes the situation even worse.

--- Later in debate ---
Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I have one final question for Ailsa Irvine. The Electoral Commission reports to and is funded by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd, as well as the UK Parliament. How do you think the changes in the legislation whereby the UK Parliament can set the strategic direction will impact the way in which the commission engages with the devolved nations?

Ailsa Irvine: In general terms, we have concerns about the commission relating to the strategy and policy statement and the impact that that may have on the commission’s independence, going as it does beyond scrutiny and accountability, and potentially into providing guidance about how we carry out our functions on a day-to-day basis.

Specifically on our accountability to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Parliament, which is as important as our accountability to the UK Parliament, looking as we do in those three different directions, it is really important that there is consultation with those Parliaments. At the moment, the legislation focuses on consultation with Welsh Ministers and Scottish Ministers, but we are actually accountable to those legislatures through the Llywydd’s Committee and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, so it is important to be able to ensure that they are also consulted and involved in the process in an equivalent way to the Speaker’s Committee.

When those consultations take place, whether with the Speaker’s Committee or with the devolved legislatures, it is really important that we are able to see what feedback is provided on any consultation on the statement, so that—assuming that the provisions go through—when it is presented to Parliament, given that it is presented as an all-or-nothing decision, there can be absolute clarity on what those who have been consulted have fed back and on their views on the operability of the statement.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good afternoon to our three witnesses. Thank you very much for joining us. In our various ways, we know each other well from much work done over the years, so it is good to have you with us.

I will start with a couple of questions to Virginia about the concepts of turnout, fraud patterns and confidence, each of which is important in what we are looking at, particularly for voter identification. I am sure we would all agree that turnout is not a linear trend—it can be influenced by wider political factors—but can you confirm that in the first general election after photographic identification was introduced, the 2005 election, turnout in Northern Ireland was higher than in each of England, Scotland and Wales?

Virginia McVea: I am sorry, but we do not retain those records within the Electoral Office. I can certainly provide the answer to the Committee as a follow-up.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you. I apologise; I meant in no way to put you on the spot. We have a note from the House of Commons Library that contains those figures, so I just wanted to give you an opportunity to expand on them.

I will turn instead to the evidence of fraud, which is perhaps the meat of the issue in some of what we are doing on voter identification. Has photo identification been effective in stopping personation, and does it function effectively as a deterrent? In other words, does it prevent the crime from being able to take place in the first instance?

Virginia McVea: Views across Northern Ireland will not be uniform in relation to the provision of photographic identification. What I can tell you, from looking at the tendered ballots for June 2017, for example, is that 24 were issued across all of the constituencies in Northern Ireland. In 2019, there were 18. Broadly, it would be fair to say that there is a public perception that photographic ID is helpful. We all know that there is a fear of fraud. The data that I hold, and the evidence that is available to me, does not bear out any kind of systemic fraud in Northern Ireland.

We are in a position where we provide those details in relation to the tendered ballots. When our polling station reports are returned—the poll staff are able to document all kinds of things that have occurred during the day—that is not something that occurs in our reports, nor is it something we hear from our polling station inspectors, who travel around. That said, some parties will raise concerns with me, and we are always trying to provide—through data analytics on the number of people who are used as proxies, or on absent votes generally—as much evidence as we can, to be as transparent as possible, because the evidence that we have does not bear it out.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Yes, indeed. I quite understand that. Without wishing to be facetious, for the benefit of the Committee, do you agree with me that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence?

Virginia McVea: Absolutely, but our purpose is to try to inquire as far as we possibly can, so we are now able to lift that out through increased analytics opportunities. Tendered ballots are an opportunity. Feedback from polling stations, and across the board with polling station inspectors, is very helpful. Issues are raised with me; political representatives will contact me throughout polling day, for example. That is not something that is raised in every constituency in large numbers. There will tend to be higher levels of concern in certain areas among certain representatives. Either in situations where people have wanted to move on or where we have thought it necessary in relation to certain polling stations to pass information to the police, there have been no prosecutions.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you so much for sharing your insights. Ailsa, the Electoral Commission’s analysis across various years—I am looking at some from December 2015—concluded that voters’ confidence that elections are well run is consistently higher in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain. Can you say a word about what you know about that from your records? Could you also please explain to the Committee why it is that for many years the Electoral Commission has advocated the introduction of voter identification in Great Britain?

Ailsa Irvine: We do see high levels of public confidence, not only in Northern Ireland but across the whole the UK. We saw that borne out in the elections that took place in May in Great Britain—there were high levels of public confidence in and satisfaction with the processes of voting and registering to vote. It is important to bear in mind that we are starting from a high base of public confidence. Having said that, we know that concerns about electoral fraud are in the mind of the public. From our public opinion survey work, we have found that two thirds of electors said that they would be more confident in the process if they were required to show a form of photo ID at the polling station. So that is relevant and a consideration for some voters.

Essentially, we recognise that, in the polling station process, no safeguards are in place to check anybody’s identity before they are issued with a ballot paper. That stands out quite strongly from other parts of the process. If you are applying to register to vote, your identity is verified beforehand, and if you are casting a postal vote, your identity is verified through that process. It does mean that there is a vulnerability in the polling station process with no check on the identity of voters—as has been found.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you very much.

Peter, thank you very much for joining us. On a different topic, may I pick your brains on supporting voters with disabilities at the polling station? We have a measure in the Bill that will widen the existing law, which includes a highly specific requirement for support for voters who are blind or partially sighted, into support for any disability. What are your thoughts on that, and how would you expect your members to respond to it?

Peter Stanyon: We welcome less prescription. One of the biggest challenges presented in polling stations at the moment is the prescription brought in by the tactile voting device. It works in itself, and there is nothing wrong with it, but it is the one thing available to work with under the legislative framework. The widening of the ability to use alternative methods has to be welcomed, as long as there are base standards that the returning officer is expected to follow. That is not to remove the TVD from polling stations, but to add in additional potential mechanisms that will be of assistance to individual voters.

You may have seen the evidence I gave to PACAC last week. We are making the point that this is the sort of area in which people in the third sector with experience will be able to advise returning officers of the best solutions to allow individuals to vote independently in the polling station, whether they have visual impairment or are there as a regular voter. The key point of the whole process is to give them that ability, and if that means that they are able to use something that is suitable to them—that the returning officer is aware of and that does not break secrecy or introduce risk to the process—we would fully support that. It is about having that ability to provide the flexibility for local circumstances. That said, there does need to be a minimum base standard that any voter walking into a polling station will be able to expect, if they require that level of assistance.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you, Peter; that is so helpful. Might the standard that you refer to reasonably be something that would be provided in guidance and training?

Peter Stanyon: I think so. It is the sort of thing that may come into such things as performance standards, which the commission oversees. It will come down to what sorts of things returning officers should be considering, and ensuring that staff in the polling stations are au fait with the options available to them. That will come with a number of strands to it, rather than being the very tight prescription that we have at the moment, which can fail as a result of its not being used correctly.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good afternoon. My first question is to Virginia. What advice would you offer the Electoral Commission with regard to the implementation of voter ID and how to communicate it to the public, based on your experiences in Northern Ireland?

Virginia McVea: Most of the comments from Northern Ireland will have to be heavily caveated. All present will be aware that the context in which this change was brought about in Northern Ireland was very different from that in which the discussions are taking place here. That must always be borne in mind. There are some practical difficulties, which colleagues have mentioned, in terms of being ready for this. There is the initial cost. Funding was provided, as I understand it, for the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland, but the costs were considerable at a point in the early stages where, for example, the cost of card production was well over £100,000 back in 2004.

There is the cost factor, and there is also the time factor. We may have been able to reduce the cost down now to just over £2 per card, including the postage, but the time factor becomes relevant, and the fact that the photographic ID can be used for other things. People will approach us not for voting purposes, and outside election periods. For example, in January 2019 we had 517 and then 537 applications. The fact that ID cards serve other purposes for members of the public has to be borne in mind in relation to the administrative impact and the time that is taken in terms of staffing—ensuring that your process is watertight, essentially—so that there cannot be further issues in relation to fears among the public about the process itself.

There have been huge efforts in Northern Ireland to ensure that the administration works, but cost and time are big factors. We do not, unfortunately, have records. I have picked the brains of those who have gone before in relation to the difficulties experienced. The passage of time can dim some memories, but it is my understanding that it was not an easy process without its challenges and challengers. However, it is now largely accepted. It has to be borne in mind that we are talking about an almost 20-year process. We do not get conflict in polling stations or challenges in relation to the provision of ID. We do not have a lot of problems in polling stations with people bringing the wrong ID. It happens occasionally, but it is generally not a problem. The bigger teething issues will be, as Peter says, to ensure that the authorities are prepared for it, and have proper processes, sufficient funding and some expectation of the demand that is projected.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Minister, would you like to ask the first question?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I am happy to go first. Good afternoon and welcome to both our witnesses. It is great to have you with us; thank you for giving up your time in all the ways that you do, including a sliver of that this afternoon.

Rob, if I may start with you, this question goes on from the conversation we have just been having, which I think you were listening to, about the ins and outs of voter identification. As you mentioned in your introduction, regrettably in Birmingham there is that history of having had a major fraud event. I am interested, first, in your reflections on leading a council out of and onwards from that, because it cannot have been easy to do that, and how you might go about trying to give confidence to the city’s citizens that they can trust in their elections.

If you need a moment to draw your breath, I will give you my second question as well, which is to invite you to provide some insights into the work you have been doing with other leaders of councils to look at what might be needed to implement voter identification—for example, training of polling staff, particular support that might be needed at polling stations and the many detailed questions that I know you have begun to give thought to.

Rob Connelly: I will take the first question to start off. As you say, Birmingham hit a low in 2004 with the various fraud cases that were going on, which resulted in a number of election results being set aside. I joined the elections office in 2009 in the capacity of a deputy returning officer, but even after five years we were still struggling to move away from those issues. I think it was not until 2018, when we had our last all-out elections, that I felt we were able to put the ghost of 2004 to bed for the final time.

When I joined in 2009, the biggest issue for me was not so much fraud itself, but the perception of fraud that remained. When allegations of fraud came up, they would be investigated; we were very lucky that West Midlands police took it seriously and had their own specialist unit that helped us with that. We would obtain evidence in polling stations and, if allegations came up about personation, for example, we would challenge it by asking, “What is your evidence?”

I remember something that put it into context for me. I asked a senior politician at the time what evidence he had of personation, and his response was, “I haven’t actually got any, but I just know it goes on.” That was not very helpful for me or West Midlands police in challenging it, so we decided to be quite “aggressive” in challenging people back: “Why do you think that? The data from our polling stations, which we get from our staff at the frontline, would actually paint a very different picture. There are very few allegations in that particular area of personation.”

We would start to understand why people could not vote—maybe because they were marked as a postal voter. What happened there? Again, we have started to establish slowly over time, certainly for our elected members, that we could be trusted, and it is about restoring that integrity. I think this is part of that road trip.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q As a follow-up, if my memory serves me correctly the judgment in the Birmingham case—we had Richard Mawrey with us this morning—included quite a few scorching comments that you do have to look for such things. It is not enough to look away and claim that it is not plausible that it could be taking place, and therefore never be prepared to look for such evidence. In fact, he said you would have to be ostrich-like to not want to look for the evidence and make it better, as clearly you were seeking to do.

Rob Connelly: Absolutely. We cannot rest on our laurels simply because we do not know about it—that does not mean it cannot happen. Again, it comes back to that working partnership with West Midlands police, but also with all the political parties at a local level, because we often have post-election reviews with them. I go to my oversight committee, any issues are raised with me there and then, and we will take those away. If they have concerns and if we can improve things, we will work with them to implement those changes.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Yes, indeed. You are doing that to give residents confidence. Do you get a measure of that back from residents?

Rob Connelly: I suppose the way we get that is from the number of complaints about the process and, bearing in mind our electorate, we get very few. A lot of complaints come via members or MPs. We assure them about the processes, and we can have confidence that we have done everything we are supposed to do. I think that process does take time.

We have also been subject to a couple of reviews by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, where they have looked at it completely afresh and picked up a couple of issues, which we then dealt with. One of the biggest issues they came up with was, as an example, people in some communities go in and huddle together in the polling booth. We picked up on that very quickly and we sorted out giving instructions to all our staff on how to deal with it. We put up extra notices in polling stations saying only one person is allowed in at a time.

I also appointed some independent observers, such as former police officers and council employees, to go around independently—I would not know where they were going—to give me a warts-and-all impression of what it was like in our polling stations. I have nearly 500, so it is very difficult for me to know the ins and outs of every single one. That is why we put in extra resources—totally independent of me. The report is done and I then share that with my political groups, so they have it uncensored and we can work together to make those improvements.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you. Would you be able to turn to my second question?

Rob Connelly: When we learned about IDs potentially coming in, we set up a working group based on a number of authorities, mainly core cities. One of our concerns with the pilots was that they did not reflect a large urban area, such as Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool. We had some very basic concerns about how it would work. I caught the tail end of the evidence of the previous session. We have the same issues: how can we do this? It has been calculated that about 2% of people have not got ID. That is the equivalent of 15,000 people in my electorate.

If they all come in during the election period, how can I make sure that no one will be disenfranchised? That is quite a big task, and that is the same across the board. We are working closely with Cabinet Office officials. We have the opportunity to put those questions to them and help them understand some of the issues we have at the coalface. That is sort of progressing. We are not just looking at voter ID. We are looking at all elements of the Bill. We have to be careful because it is not just about voter ID, but the impact of the whole Bill together and the impact that will have on administrators and our ability to deliver the election. There is an awful lot there, and it will impact us at a very particular time in the election process.

I have additional concerns from a Birmingham perspective, because potentially the first time this is introduced could be at a parliamentary election in 2024, as we will not have elections in 2023. That in itself would be a major concern for many. I do not think I am alone in that; there may well be other areas that will have that concern.

We meet monthly with the Cabinet Office. We take an element of the Bill, dissect it and feed back, and we are starting to get that information out. We have now started expanding. We have more authorities coming on board, who are very different from Birmingham and are more rural. How will they cope? We have asked the AEA and the Electoral Commission to start looking at it, so we have a joined-up look at how we can do this and give feedback to all administrators, to make sure they understand the implications and they can start planning now.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

May I ask one more question to Louise and then I will hand on to other colleagues?

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Of course.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Louise, thank you so much for joining us and welcome to the Committee.

Acknowledging the breadth of what your members will be involved in, and I imagine you will be able to tell us a bit about how in many cases that spans from the registration process all the way through to delivery of polling day and much more, there is often discussion that says, “Well, let’s just get this done in our elections, let’s get that done. Let’s add a scheme here, add a scheme there.” I acknowledge that that can add up to a lot of asks on you and your teams, and those of your members.

With respect to overseas electors in this Bill, could you give us an insight into what has to be done at present to support the participation of overseas electors? What more do you think members will be doing to support a larger group of overseas electors being involved? Might you also make a comment about the number of days that you end up doing that during the election itself?

Louise Round: I would probably be right in saying that overseas electors is one of the areas that takes the most resource and the most ongoing year-round resource for most election teams. In many teams, there will be one person who is more or less dedicated to contacting overseas electors and reminding them to renew their registration. The proposal in the Bill to extend the period of time for which they can be registered without having to renew is welcome, in terms of reducing that burden.

As with all these things and a common phrase that you will hear us using, most registration events are driven by elections. We can do lots and lots of reminding, and we would, but it always tends to be the case that as soon as an election is announced, particularly a general election, suddenly people remember to renew their registration. It is a full-time, ongoing programme that takes an awful lot of time and energy.

During the run up to the election, when suddenly there is a whole load more work to do, it obviously diverts people who are also dealing with all the other many aspects of the election. The time by which people can register makes that particularly challenging, added to which you have the issue of postal votes. Naturally, the further away someone lives, the longer it takes for their postal vote to go out to them and the longer it takes to get back. There is an awful lot of trying to make sure that voters are enfranchised and have a vote, but also dealing with fall out and complaints when it gets to election day and their postal vote has not been received.

Yes, it is a huge amount of work and the proposal to extend the number of people who can be registered as overseas voters will obviously create even more work, but the idea that you can be registered for a bit longer now is welcome. I could not say how many days and I probably could not put a price on it either, but it is a lot and it will depend on how many overseas electors any particular registration officer has.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Picking up on a recent debate in Parliament, Louise, would I be right in thinking that you would not like to see the electoral timetable reduced from 25 working days?

Louise Round: I think that would make what is already a very difficult task nigh on impossible.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you very much for your insight. Is there any more that you would like to say about the particular processes that will be required to support overseas electors in demonstrating their connection to the constituency they are registering in?

Louise Round: As with all these things, some of the detail will come out in secondary legislation. At the moment, it is really tricky because registers are not nationally open. If someone has to show that they have not been on a register apart from in the constituency in which the particular registration office is operating, there is no way really of registration officers checking that, so in a sense it is taken on trust. There is no way for them to check the register even of a neighbouring constituency, let alone one at the other end of the country.

The obligation to be satisfied that someone has a local connection is obviously really time consuming, and it depends how well prepared the person wishing to register is and what evidence they can adduce. At the end of the day, the registration officer has to be satisfied. There is wording in one of the clauses around whether, had they applied a long time ago, they would have at that point been able to demonstrate a local connection, which all begins to get a little existential, almost, and very theoretical. We are not trained detectives, so there is a balance, as in all registration activity, between not wanting to make the requirements so tight that no one can ever be registered and ensuring that we are not registering people who are not entitled to be registered and might be constituency hopping, as it were, to find the most convenient place to register for a particular election depending on what is going on there.

--- Later in debate ---
Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Good afternoon to all three of our witnesses.

I will try to ask a question or two of each. Kate, sticking with you to start—very good to see you—will you give us an insight into the international picture of digital imprints? My understanding is that it is not a very long list of countries that have yet been able to address this and put it in place. I acknowledge your point that it has been a long time coming but, in turn, you will appreciate that is because we have taken time to do technical consultation quite comprehensively, which is needed here. Given that context, is it not the case that not very many other countries have managed to do this yet and we stand a chance of being in the lead?

Dr Dommett: You will have to forgive me, in that my research focus is largely the UK, so I cannot speak with as much authority here as I would like. There is some precedent for this around the world. What I am most familiar with is not national Government efforts, but the efforts made by social media companies in this area, where we have seen it rolled out at scale very successfully. As in a number of areas of electoral law, the UK is leading the way in terms of transparency, so I certainly agree that this is something that would help set a good standard, but there are certainly improvements that could ensure that this specific intervention marks a gold standard for what is done.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you, that is helpful and one of the things that we will be aiming to do. Will you also recap for us the goal, or the problem, that you think the absence of a digital imprint gives rise to that needs to be solved? We did not start with principles, but went straight into the details of how we might improve the idea.

Dr Dommett: From my perspective, it is interesting to read the Cabinet Office’s ambitions for this particular goal. They are extensive and varied. Primarily, this is about aiding electoral oversight and making it clear which actor is responsible for campaign materials, therefore providing a trail in order to determine whether any of the existing regulations have been violated.

In addition to that—this is where there is less evidence, interestingly, but where emphasis is often placed—this is about public transparency and increasing confidence and trust in the electoral process. In current debates, an awful lot of weight is placed on the ability of imprints to advance that goal. I would question whether we had the evidence that that is actually the case. It is something on which we have current live research ongoing here at Sheffield. We are looking at the relationship between seeing an imprint and a resulting increase in public trust. The primary goal, however, has to be that important one, which is providing a clear steer on where that information is coming from. That is vital because, from the public perspective, it helps. We all use cognitive shortcuts, so it helps us to orientate and understand the motive with which that actor is placing the content, which is very important.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Yes, indeed. May I quickly pick up on the third-party campaigning definition question which you have just discussed with Cat Smith? Will you confirm for the Committee that there is already a provision in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 —namely, section 88—that allows for a list of categories of entities that are able to give a notification or, in other words, to register with the Electoral Commission as a third-party campaigner? That already exists in law and as a concept.

Dr Dommett: I am afraid that I am not an expert on PPERA, so I will not be able to comment.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Not to worry, we will pick that up later. Thank you so much for joining us. I turn now to Professor Fisher—welcome—and the notional expenditure part of the Bill. You have kindly already supplied some evidence to the Committee in which you say that you endorse the Bill’s approach to that question.

Professor Fisher: The question of notional expenditure has exercised electoral law since the introduction of PPERA 2000. Essentially, before that we had no national expenditure as such. It has caused some difficulty with questions surrounding the role of national parties and their targeting strategies, and the accusation has been that candidate expenses are bypassed.

There are a number of ways one can look to solve the problem, but having looked at all the ones that have been suggested, it seems to me that they would cause more problems than the current situation. I welcome the Bill’s attempt to bring clarity to that situation; for example, the notes around the Bill talk about the “leader ‘soapbox’ visit”. In the research I have done on campaigns, I came across a slightly ludicrous situation in the last campaign where a candidate needed to hide from their party leader to ensure that the expenditure did not fall on the candidate.

However, in recent years there have been a number of cases that were distressing for those investigated and, in one case, the investigation led to a prosecution. The prosecution that followed the case in the 2015 election was very interesting, in that the person who was prosecuted was from the national party, rather than the responsibility falling on the agent or the candidate.

I welcome the attempt to clarify that; I have some concerns about the wording in the Bill, which refers to being “encouraged” to engage in some activity. It seems to me essential that the candidate, the candidate’s agent and the relevant member of staff in the national party should be protected from any false accusation and that, therefore, there should be a proper documentary trail. That being so, the word “encouraged” leaves one open to misunderstandings and difficulties. It would be better for the principle to be in line with the acceptance of donations, where everything has to be on paper.

Coupled with that, it would be sensible for there to be a responsible person at the national party headquarters for authorising party expenditure in a constituency. There is no suggestion that that has happened, but it would perhaps protect junior members of party staff from taking the blame for something that had been authorised further up.

While I endorse the Bill, there need to be some safeguards, because in the past there have been suggestions that perhaps candidates and agents have had to take the blame for the actions of national party headquarters. Indeed, that is precisely what happened in a tragic case in 1997, and in a number of the cases I referred to that did not reach the court in 2015, there was some suggestion that candidates and agents were left rather more exposed than was necessary. I endorse the Bill. This is a difficult area, but on balance I think this is the best approach. It recognises both the electoral system and the traditions that we have in this country—but there should be some tightening of the language in it.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you. That is a very thoughtful reflection. I have always been struck by the need to continue to allow grassroots activists, volunteers and people who are not steeped in electoral law to be involved. Do you agree that there is a way here to encourage people to get involved without overbearing legal risk?

Professor Fisher: Definitely. In some ways, this refers back to the questions posed to Dr Dommett. I have some concerns about the over-regulation of elections. We have to accept that there is some activity that we simply cannot regulate, and one cannot have a situation where people who voluntarily engage in politics, which is a good thing—the vast majority of electoral agents are volunteers, and we would not want to prevent them from getting involved—find themselves on the end of a legal investigation as a result, perhaps, of a misdemeanour of which they were unaware. That is particularly true of electoral agents. The vast majority of them, more than 80%, are volunteers. It is some job to stand up and take on that role, in the knowledge that you could find yourself in prison.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you. I am sure there may be some other questions around that later on, perhaps bringing in our other guest who also has experience there. Sticking with you, Professor Fisher, I want to ask about the provision on third-party campaigner registration—the new lower tier for registration—and the Bill’s aim to restrict third-party campaigning to UK-based entities. You say that both of those make good sense, and hope that they serve to enhance transparency at an election. Can you explain why you take that view?

Professor Fisher: It seems to me that any piece of electoral registration around finance should be principally about transparency and trying to have an equal playing field, as far as that is possible. The tier for registration in England is out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom, so it makes good sense to harmonise that.

There is a real danger of third-party expenditure from outside the United Kingdom. It is right that the Bill seeks to regulate it, but I think that we must recognise that we will never be able to prevent it entirely. The internet falls outside of UK jurisdiction; we can deal with imprints, but it would be very difficult to stop a concerted campaign on Twitter or Facebook by a foreign actor. The principle is absolutely sound, and is something that has been practised since PPERA was introduced in 2000. The attempt to keep foreign activity out of elections is a problem that is found across the globe. This is a step in the right direction, as long as we recognise that we will not be able to stop all of the activity.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you so much. I will turn to Darren. Thank you for giving your time this afternoon. I am going to adopt the tone of Professor Fisher about the need to consider how much regulation is too much regulation, and how to encourage grassroots activists to be involved. Perhaps this is an area you might make a comment on?

Darren Grimes: Absolutely. I agreed with everything that Professor Fisher said. Briefly, as someone who was just a volunteer, and who does not know much about laws or statute books, I will set out why it is right for the law to make it easier for people to be part of the democratic process. Looking at what happened to me and others, a key concern for me is that if there were to be another referendum—and God help us if there were—people would be unwilling to put their heads above the parapet and be a responsible person for a registered campaign. I think that is a pretty damning indictment of where we are at in our democratic process.

Ultimately, as you have all said, a democracy that relies on volunteers would be left wanting if it was to be unable to recruit them. We would be poorer for the loss of their contribution. I have to say, with my hand on my heart, I would certainly not put myself forward as a responsible person in an election ever again—for as long as I live. It is not worth all the money in China for me to do that. That is pretty sad, and we should do anything that we can to make the process easier and more transparent, and for the Electoral Commission’s role in dealing with those registered to be permitted participants in elections role to be much more transparent. Anything we can do to make the process much more streamlined, much more transparent, and much clearer will be beneficial for a volunteer-based democracy.

Professor Fisher: May I comment on that? So that there is no misunderstanding, I think we have to protect volunteers, but a difference emerges once you start spending money. I think that is a very important distinction.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Understood.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

For the benefit of witnesses, there is about to be a vote in the Chamber, so I thank the witnesses for their evidence, and the Committee will meet again here at 11.30 am to take oral evidence.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(David Rutley.)

Elections Bill (Third sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee stage
Thursday 16th September 2021

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Elections Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 16 September 2021 - (16 Sep 2021)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Elections Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

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None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Heather, would you like to add anything to that?

Heather Harper: Yes, I would. Electoral law regarding donations to political parties is set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which already allows British citizens on the electoral roll to donate to any party. UK nationals living overseas are not foreigners, and they should not be conflated with foreign donations. I do not see any significant effect on donations. It may increase our membership, which is £25 a year—quite honestly that is hard enough to get most of the time. Conservatives Abroad is not an organisation that solicits large donations; our emphasis is on engagement. There is already a robust a legal framework in place that bans foreign donations—I do not see any significant increase there. What is important now is to increase the awareness of voter registration.

Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

A big welcome to our two witnesses. George, it is lovely to see you again in person, and Heather it is very good to see you again. Is it the case that Anne is still unable to join us?

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Unfortunately, we have no news, so we have to press on.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Not to worry, but in principle, it is great to have a cross-party panel to discuss this part of the Bill. Picking up on Heather’s theme of British citizens abroad not being foreign: do you think they should be treated differently in any way to citizens here in the UK? There will be a few logistical differences, but do you think we ought to endeavour to treat them as similarly as possible to other kinds of citizens on the electoral register?

Heather Harper: I think they should be treated exactly the same. One of our expatriates in France said,

“We want to be able to live our lives not as some kind of second-class citizens denied our right to participate in the democratic processes of our country, but as fully capable and fully recognised citizens of the UK.”

Minister, our British citizens have a long history of living and working overseas, starting with explorers, engineers, teachers, scientists, hospitality workers, sportspeople, financial services and health workers. Many of them return to our country with a new-found wealth of knowledge and experience that they gained overseas. They should be treated exactly the same as every British voter. We are one of the few democratic countries in the world that actually denies, and puts a time limit on, their citizens’ right to vote. In answer to your question: they should be treated equally.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you, that is very clear. George, if I could pull up this theme with you, can you describe a few ways that British citizens abroad do have a legitimate interest in politics here? For example, I know that you have a specialism in foreign affairs—there is one heading to start with. Perhaps, you can go from there?

George Cunningham: First up, I have to say the Liberal Democrat party has long campaigned for the abolition of the 15-year rule and for establishing the institution of overseas constituencies, which we feel is the best way for people to have their voices heard. Perhaps we will come back to that. The commitment to both of these is featured in our 2017 and 2019 general election manifestos. We support the Bill’s aim to abolish the 15-year rule as an important first step for British citizens having equal rights, to be properly represented and to have their voices heard.

With that in mind, we have the unfortunate—from our perspective—situation of the referendum in 2016, which showed that a lot of people who had lost their vote were not able to participate in something that would fundamentally change their lives in Europe. That is the most prominent thing that has happened, but there are many other things that, if we had MPs representing overseas constituencies, are issues of concern to overseas voters regarding the UK. For instance, unfreezing pensions; in Australia, Canada and in many parts of Africa where, if there is not a reciprocal agreement, people’s pensions are not increased, meaning that they receive something like a quarter of the pension received by UK citizens here. This is an important campaigning issue. Another is NHS access. We have a member who is very sick at the moment, and it is not possible for him to access the NHS because he has not been living in the UK for a while. There are many issues there that are of great importance to us.

Our voice will be heard so much more. Many of those who will have been abroad for more than 15 years when the rule is, hopefully, abolished are of course pensioners, who are the most affected by these things, which have to be addressed. Those are some examples of issues that are of concern to UK citizens abroad in terms of the importance of treating everybody equally—all citizens being equal in front of the law.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you so much. I have one last question to both witnesses. Members of the Committee will know that I am very keen on the correct use of terms in this area. When we say “disenfranchise,” we should talk very specifically about the ability to be registered to vote or not to be registered to vote. This area of the Bill actually is one of the narrow areas where that is a relevant concept, because of course it seeks to enfranchise more. Currently, there is disenfranchisement happening for citizens who have been abroad for more than 15 years. I wonder whether you might have some examples or anecdotes from your members or friends of how that feels—on the day that one has lived abroad for more than 15 years, one is suddenly kicked off. Perhaps you might have some examples of how that feels from your members’ perspectives.

Heather Harper: I have many examples; I have just mentioned Christopher from Paris. My inbox is full of people from around the world who are so angry about their right to vote because they basically feel that they are not valued. I do have to say, though, that this is not a party political issue. This is about granting the right for all British citizens to register to vote, so I have to acknowledge the fact that Harry Shindler, of the Labour party, has been campaigning for his right to vote for the last 20 years. I have been working hard—with support, indeed, from Labour International—to represent all the people who have been disenfranchised. Harry, by the way, says,

“I fought for my country”—

he is 100 years old

—“and I feel that I have been fighting for my right to vote, why should I be denied that?”

The Bill will improve the House significantly. It will get people to actually register, and it will encourage people who have fallen off the register because of the difficulties that they have faced: they come up to the 15-year rule and think, “No, I can’t be bothered, because I am going to be disenfranchised,” or they face difficulties in having to annually re-register.

Minister, removing the 15-year rule and treating everybody equally removes the uncertainty about who can and who cannot vote. By making the registration last for three years, the process is less cumbersome and more people will be encouraged to engage with it. By introducing the prior residency criteria, the Bill is going to help, in particular, younger family members who have not previously been registered in the UK.

The Bill addresses so many of the issues that actually have stopped overseas British citizens from registering to vote. I hope that that goes some way to answering your question.

George Cunningham: Two things come to mind. One is Brexit and the impact that it has had on our citizens in the European Union. This is an ongoing issue that has not been resolved. They are very frustrated about the fact that many of them had no say, and then were left in the lurch in many respects. To give them the vote will perhaps push more of an interest within Parliament to protect their interests and see ways in which the situation they face can be alleviated.

It does depend on the country within the European Union and the reactions towards our citizens, and I am happy to say that many countries have tried to be as helpful as possible concerning our citizens, albeit in terms of residency rights that is a bit of an issue. There will be a voice for those who are in pain because their pensions have been frozen, and perhaps it would then become more of a political issue. Certainly in our party we would be encouraged to put some overseas issues into the manifesto for elections, and I think that would be very helpful to them. I actually see positive things.

Of course, if there are no overseas constituencies, it would be so much simpler to register. If a person has a British passport and is above the age limit, then surely they would be able to vote for a constituency, which has a geographical limitation. This would help, for instance, where a child has not been living in the UK—at the moment they continue to be disenfranchised, even if they are British citizens. This would overcome the problem.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Before I bring Patrick Grady in, we have good news and bad news. The good news is that the technical fault is nearly resolved; the bad news is that we are not quite there yet. Minister and Cat Smith, would you be content to repeat your questions to Anne Wafer once she joins, if we have time?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am happy to, as long as it does not take time away from colleagues.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Is the Committee content with that?

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you, Anne. We are running out of time, so I would just like to squeeze the Minister in.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Anne, welcome. It is lovely to have you with us and thank you so much for your time. If I may start with a reassurance for you personally, given what you have been saying, the Bill includes exactly what you are arguing for: that you should be able to prove either last residence or registration, which are the two tracks that answer your concern.

Anne Wafer: I did see that, but I was not quite sure how that would work in practice. I did see something—maybe not in this Bill—about how if you had left before you were old enough to register, then you could prove residence. Hopefully it is not just limited to that but is extended to everyone.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That’s right, Anne.

Anne Wafer: Can you assure me of that? It might have been a preliminary discussion—

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q We think the Bill as constructed covers, if you like, children in both categories—those who were born abroad and those who were born in the UK and moved. We think we have got that covered with the residency and registration idea. May I just—

Anne Wafer: Does it cover oldies like me, though—the residency?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Absolutely, yes.

There are three questions I put to the witnesses previously. I will ask them swiftly. I asked, first, whether witnesses thought that British citizens overseas should be treated as equally as possible with British citizens in the UK. Secondly, I invite you to suggest what kinds of policy topic matter to overseas citizens. In other words, what are their interests in UK politics? For example, pensions are one interest, but there might be others. Thirdly, I wonder whether you have examples from your membership, your friends or your network of how people feel when they get, effectively, kicked off the register —disenfranchised, in the proper sense of the word.

Anne Wafer: Can you ask the first question again?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Of course. Should British citizens overseas be treated as equally as possible with those in the UK?

Anne Wafer: Yes, I think so, although even as members we are not treated completely inclusively. Of course, we cannot stand candidates in Britain, but other than that, in our party we are equal to any other constituency Labour party that is in Britain. We send delegates to conference and everything else, so I think as citizens that should be the case as well, because we still have an interest in our country and the regulations still affect us. Many of us are getting pensions, and some of us will want to return at some stage. I thought of returning, but I couldn’t afford it—it is too expensive there.

On policies, my members are interested in a huge range, not just ones that affect us directly. Climate change is a big one. That is a huge one for us. Reversing austerity—all the Tory cuts to all sorts of things; we want to reverse them. We have family members—for example, I have a sister who is disabled. My father is 97. I have nieces and nephews who are disabled. I have nieces and nephews with children and new babies. We are all concerned for everybody in Britain and that they have better lives.

As I say, climate change is a big one. One of our motions at conference will be on proportional representation, which a lot of our members think would be a good idea—changing the electoral system. Reform of the House of Lords is one we would be concerned with.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Those are great examples. Thank you so much—they are a bit broader than we might normally discuss. That is really helpful.

Anne Wafer: One would be the education system. We are very much against tuition fees for universities. We want to be rid of those. We are very concerned about what has happened to people during the pandemic, and we need the green new deal and regeneration of jobs, but those need to be green jobs because of the climate crisis.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Anne, we have just one minute left. May I ask you the third question to finish the set? In this area, without reform, people are essentially kicked off the register a day after they have been 15 years abroad. How does that feel?

Anne Wafer: Most people are not happy about it. Some people get citizenship when they get voting rights in their own countries, where they live, so maybe they are less upset in that case. We can vote in local elections in the countries we live, or we used to be able to. I have not checked whether I still can since Brexit. But yes, we are not very happy about being kicked off the register for sure. We would like that changed. We finished on hearings on that one.

We are also not happy about—

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you, Anne. Unfortunately, we have come to the end of our time. May I thank all the witnesses for their evidence this morning and the Members for their questions? We are now going to move on to the next panel.

Examination of Witness

Maurice Mcleod gave evidence.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you. Minister, would like to come in first on this question?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Welcome, Maurice; it is good to have you with us this morning. Can you explain first of all whether you feel that the policy of having a free local voter card to accompany voter identification, so that is for the 2% of people we anticipate may not have the ID that is being asked for, will be a good thing and whether there may be any points that you suggest would need to be taken into account in its design?

Maurice Mcleod: Hello, thanks for having me. It is not a bad idea to make it free and allow local authorities to give out these passes. The problem is that it ignores what it feels like to be part of that group without any voter ID—part of that group that is reticent even to cast a vote.

Probably everyone in this room and everyone listening sees the value of voting and feels like it is an important part of their democratic rights and that they can affect things if they turn up and vote. When you are talking about people who often do not feel very connected, do not feel very engaged, do not feel very empowered within society, yes, you can say “This is only a small hurdle, you just need to apply to your council and they will give you a free voter ID,” but that is just another hurdle that gets in the way, though. It is just one more step away from them feeling that they can engage with our democratic process. So I think it is a good thing. If we are going to have voter IDs—I would strongly argue that we do not—at least give people access to getting them for free, sure. I just think that does not solve the problem.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Okay, thanks for that initial view. In that case, would you join me in letting the message go out from this Bill Committee and witnesses that we all want to encourage as many people as possible to register to vote and to participate?

Maurice Mcleod: I absolutely agree with that. I would go further. I do not really understand why you are not automatically registered. I remember turning 18; you get your national insurance number because going out to work and paying your national insurance and your tax are important rites of passage. I do not know why we do not do the same with voting. You should not have to apply to register to vote; you should be automatically registered.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you Maurice for your time this morning. We have seen American civil rights groups campaigning quite strongly about the introduction in some US states of ID requirements to access the ballot. They have found that, when it comes to providing ID, some groups are finding it harder to prove their identity than others. In this country it has been very difficult for me to find out what level of ID people hold based on their race; it is not data that is held by the DVLA with driving licenses, nor the Home Office with passports. Can you share with the Committee your understanding of what groups are less likely to have photo ID?

Maurice Mcleod: You are right that part of the problem is that this data is not always readily available. The data I have found—the Government’s own data—says that while 76% of white people hold a form of relevant photo ID, such as a driver’s license or a passport, when it comes to black people, about half do: 47% do not hold one of those forms of ID. There are 11 million people in Briton who hold no form of photo identification. That drastically discourages people from voting. You are adding an unnecessary extra burden on people who we want to turn out and vote.

Elections Bill (Fourth sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage
Thursday 16th September 2021

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Elections Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 16 September 2021 - (16 Sep 2021)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Elections Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you. Minister, would you like to open the questioning?

Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think it is Cat Smith’s turn to go first.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

It looks like an empty chair.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Shall I bring in other members of the Committee? Patrick Grady, would you like to ask a question? [Interruption.] Oh, hang on.

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None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Minister?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have no further questions but I am very grateful to Mr Millar for giving his time.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Thank you. Jerome Mayhew.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

We have until 3.30 pm for this panel. Minister, would you like to start with the first question?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you so much for joining us today, Ms Hadi; it is great to have you with us. An important element of the Bill deals with accessibility, which is obviously an area of expertise for your organisation. The Bill introduces a new statutory duty on returning officers to support all voters with disabilities—the widest possible range—and that duty is to be supported by guidance from the Electoral Commission. What would you like to see reflected in that guidance, and what are your biggest concerns about the current process of voting for people with disabilities.

Fazilet Hadi: I will briefly give a bit of context before answering that question. Some 14 million people in the UK are disabled, or one in five of the population, so we are a very big group and very diverse. About 45% of older people and 19% of working-age adults have a disability. As you and colleagues will know, that can range from sensory impairment to learning disability, mental health and mobility issues, so we face a wide set of challenges.

There are some real challenges in voting, so it would be good to see rigorous standards applied and enforced by Government, because voting should not be a postcode lottery; it should be equal wherever we are in the country. A couple of issues in the Bill concern me, particularly photo identification and the provisions on equipment, which seem to be turning the clock back a little, particularly for blind and partially sighted voters.

Coming back to your question on standards, the standards start even before the electoral officers—for example, in the way that local authorities produce information on elections and whether reasonable adjustments need to be considered for electors who have disabilities. Even for those first letters, people should already be thinking, “Can this person read the letter? Do they need an easy-read, audio or electronic version?” I think it starts very early, and it then moves through all the stages of postal voting, through to the actual physical buildings in which elections are held, the devices we are given to enable us to vote independently, the height of the desks where we cast our vote and wheelchair accessibility. It is almost like walking through the customer journey from beginning to end, ensuring that reasonable adjustments are made at every point, because I am sure the Government want to ensure that those 14 million people have a voice in the same way as everyone else.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Absolutely right, Ms Hadi. I am really grateful to you for laying that out, because I could not agree more about the need for that thinking at every stage of registration and onwards through to voting. Indeed, for what it is worth, I am sure that also applies to many other services from local authorities, so I hope there is good working across councils that can be shared.

As you rightly say, we all want to see disabled voters, or voters with any condition or extra accessibility need, able to take part fully. What do you think ought to be focused on in communicating the changes encapsulated in this Bill? How could that be done with your members, for example, or others?

Fazilet Hadi: The provisions on photo ID will need a lot of communication, but they should not be communicated in isolation. Going back to what I said before, if we take something out of context, it presupposes that the electorate get everything else and know all the other things that are in place, and disabled people may not know about the other adjustments that are available. On photo ID, that does pose particular issues, and when there were trials, my recollection from colleagues at Mencap is that it took quite a lot of education, face to face, as well as written information, to communicate to people with learning disabilities what the change meant.

There will be an education imperative for the whole public, of course, but for particular groups of disabled people, some of us maybe do not access information so easily—British Sign Language users, people who access through audio or braille, people who need easy read, and people whose literacy skills are low. There is quite a communication challenge in actually getting across that photo ID is required, and that has to start well in advance of it being required.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q I agree, and the plans published alongside the Bill put money and time towards doing that, which we would all agree is the right thing to do.

May I draw on your experience of voting as a blind person—as a person with a visual impairment? I would guess that you have used the tactile voting device. Could you describe to the Committee what it has been like using that device? What are its drawbacks and advantages?

Fazilet Hadi: I have not actually used it. I have voted through the post, and I have voted with the assistance of the electoral staff—

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I apologise for making an assumption.

Fazilet Hadi: Not at all. I should have tried the template. My understanding is that it does not allow completely independent voting. If people can imagine, it is like laying a template over a piece of paper. You would probably have to memorise what was on the paper, which could be tricky. I suppose you would not have complete confidence, because you cannot check back. I think it was a device of its time. As I understand it, a judicial review said that it did not allow a completely secret ballot.

What the device should be is not a straightforward issue, but I worry about the provision in the Bill taking away the wording of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which says that the device should be prescribed by the Government. Whatever the device is, and whatever its limitations—hopefully we can improve on the current device—it should be available without question and without any decision making being needed from local electoral staff. It should just be made available because the Government says that it should be. Under the Bill as it is framed at the moment, there is a danger with that kind of wording being removed and a much looser wording about reasonableness being inserted instead.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q When in your experience a thing goes out of date or could be superseded by innovation and new ideas, how do you think that could be accommodated in law? Having listened to your words, I think we have got a really good example here of one of the core issues; as you say, the device was of its time some decades ago now, but it is prescribed in law. We have a problem of it being out of date, yet prescribed. How do you think innovation, which you may have used elsewhere in your life—maybe you can share your insight—can be provided for in law?

Fazilet Hadi: In this particular instance, I am not sure whether the Act envisaged a tactile template, but I think the wording means that the Government can prescribe “it” and update what the “it” is in guidance. The thing is to get to the principle that it is set down and must be provided. That would be the way to do it, not saying exactly what the “it” is. Indeed, the “it” will change as digital technology changes, with things like 3D printing. I am not a great technologist, but I think that the Act can get across the mandatory nature of the equipment that must be used. For people across the country who are registered blind, any sense that you could go to a polling station in one local authority area and get one device, and go to another elsewhere and get another device, would be a retrograde step.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you. This is my last question, just to complete the set, if you like. I understand your point that there could be difference across the country, but clause 8 seeks to make support mandatory. Do you think clause 8 and making it mandatory is sufficient?

Fazilet Hadi: No. I am not an expert on the Elections Bill, but it seems very much to put it down to the individual electoral officer to decide what is reasonable. I accept that we could be talking in a much wider sense about what is reasonable for any disabled person. As I said earlier, some people might need a slightly higher or lower table in the polling station, depending on whether they are standing up or in a wheelchair. Some people might need a fatter pen because they have dexterity issues, and some people might need some sort of tactile device. In that sense, it is good that the Act tries to cover a broader range of equipment. Nevertheless, I still think that the Government need to specify those types of equipment in guidance and standards. As I said, voters would expect that consistency across the piece. At the moment, the language needs hardening. If the Government’s intention is to make this mandatory, I do not think that that comes across.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is very helpful that you close with the point that it must be specified through guidance, because that is indeed what the intention is. It is also what one of our witnesses yesterday agreed was where much of the work should be done.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Fazilet, welcome to the Committee and thank you very much for the contributions you have made so far. I have a couple of questions.

You opened your remarks by describing how you felt that the legislation is turning back the clock, particularly for voters who are blind or partially sighted. If I understood correctly, that is because the 1983 Act wording would be rescinded and there would be much more flexibility for local authorities to have potentially quite different ways of supporting blind and partially sighted voters. That would create something of a postcode lottery. What would the challenges then be for voters with a disability or impairment who have perhaps moved house to a different local authority area and might then get a different level of service or a different system to facilitate their needs? Would that be an additional barrier to voting for disabled people?

Fazilet Hadi: I like the words in the Representation of the People Act 1983, “prescribed equipment”. Obviously, guidance can say at any point what that prescribed equipment is for. There might be prescribed equipment for people with other impairments. It is not just tactile devices; it could be adjustable tables or pens that people can grip.

The Government signed up to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which says that there must be full participation in political and public life for disabled people. It specifies that there must be materials, facilities and procedures that are fully accessible and appropriate. It specifies that there must be a secret ballot. It specifies that there must be assistance from whoever the disabled person chooses. The Human Rights Act 1998 talks about the right to vote and how we all need to have the ability to express our opinion through voting. The Equality Act 2010 puts a public sector equality duty on the Government and local government––any government––to think about what they are doing to promote the interests of, and make reasonable adjustments for, disabled people and others. We have all these laws and a stated intention that this Bill should make things better for participation by disabled people, but it cannot be better for the equipment to be different in different polling stations. For me as an elector, it is about not knowing exactly what I am entitled to, so that I can try to enforce it if I do not get it. Leaving arrangements to the 152 local authorities in England, and I do not know how many in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is totally unacceptable.

--- Later in debate ---
Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q You said that the Electoral Commission is also accountable to the Welsh Senedd and the Scottish Parliament; it is also funded by both those Parliaments. Could you say what consideration the Committee should give to any change due to a strategy and policy statement driven by a UK Parliament, and what tensions that could potentially create within the Union?

Dr Renwick: It could potentially create very great tensions. The proposal would clearly require a legislative consent motion in order to be compatible with the Sewel convention. The Counsel General—the Minister in the Welsh Government—has already indicated that he does not recommend that a legislative consent motion be passed on this matter, and I presume the Scottish Parliament will do the same.

This part of the Bill envisages that Ministers in the UK Government, subject to affirmative procedure, would be able to specify guidelines for devolved matters and that Scottish and Welsh Ministers would only be consulted—and, indeed, would only potentially be notified—in the case of amendments to the statement. That seems wholly contrary to the principles of devolution that have been established, and I cannot see any justification for it. The Sewel convention indicates that Westminster will normally not legislate in matters that have been devolved. There is nothing abnormal here, there is nothing unusual and nothing has changed since these matters were devolved to Scotland and Wales—those devolution changes did not take place very long ago—so it seems very problematic.

That also heightens an issue that already exists with the governance of the Electoral Commission: the commissioners themselves are all appointed on the recommendation of the House of Commons, and that on the recommendation of the Speaker’s Committee. The Speaker’s Committee has, in recent appointments of commissioners with responsibility for Scotland and Wales, either consulted the Presiding Officer or the Llywydd, or included a representative of those people in the committee responsible for shortlisting, but that has been entirely at its discretion.

There is a need to review the arrangements for governance of the Electoral Commission in light of the recent devolutions of electoral matters in those areas. The last serious review of this question, conducted by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2007, said at that time that the current governance arrangements were appropriate because those matters were not devolved. These matters have been devolved now, and therefore there is a need for a review.

My impression is that this point has not been thought about terribly much. I do not detect that either the Scottish Government or the Welsh Government have done much detailed thinking on this, but some consideration is needed of how to ensure that the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd are properly represented in these processes.

One final point I should make in this area is one that has been made by others: the fact that the Speaker’s Committee has a majority from a single party is simply indefensible against the principle of independence of electoral processes. That has never happened before—it did not happen when there were large majorities for Governments in the early 2000s; at that time there was no majority for that party in the Speaker’s Committee—but it has been allowed to happen now, which suggests that conventional constraints on the improper exercise of power are not working, to be honest. Legislative action is needed to ensure that there is never a single party majority on the Speaker’s Committee.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you very much for joining us, Dr Renwick; it is very good to have your expertise. May I make use of that expertise with a relatively simple starting question? Clause 14 deals with membership of the Speaker’s Committee, and every so often we hear a misrepresentation—I think I just heard the hon. Lady from the Opposition doing this—suggesting that there will be an extra Minister of the Crown added to the Speaker’s Committee. Could you help us to confirm that concurrent powers, which is what clause 14 contains and which, as you will recall, comes in the history of having made a transfer of functions order before, mean that this will be a question of a substitute Minister—essentially a junior when the senior is too busy?

Dr Renwick: I am not a lawyer, so I wondered when I looked at those words exactly what they meant, but if they mean what you have described them as meaning, they do not trouble me. It was always the intent of the PPERA legislation passed in 2000 that the Minister with responsibility for elections and the Minister with responsibility for local government should be members of the Speaker’s Committee, and if the change is simply intended to ensure that the Minister who has responsibility for elections can participate, but there are only two Ministers participating, then that change does not seem to me problematic.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you. It is really helpful to get that on the record. It is worth noting that, as well as Ministers, there are shadow Ministers on the Speaker’s Committee—there is Front-Bench involvement on both sides. Going to the Back-Bench members of the committee, can you confirm that under existing law, which is not changed by this Bill, the Speaker may appoint the five Back-Bench members of the committee—that is his power to do?

Dr Renwick: That is absolutely correct. I do not know what went wrong in this case. I cannot see an argument against the view that something has gone wrong in the current composition of the Speaker’s Committee; it is wrong that it has its current composition. If you look at the 2007 Committee on Standards in Public Life report, there is a quotation from evidence provided by the Speaker’s Committee saying that the convention has been applied and that the Speaker’s appointments will be made such that there is no single party majority. That convention was understood in 2007, and the CSPL at the time recommended that it should be formalised. This has not taken place. Somehow, things went awry at the start of the present Parliament, and I do not know what happened or what went wrong. However, given that it has gone wrong, legislative change is now needed to ensure that it does not go wrong again.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q How would you change what is, therefore, extant in legislation: that the Speaker would have the ability to appoint five Back-Bench members?

Dr Renwick: I would suggest simply a stipulation that that power be exercised subject to the constraint that there shall never be a majority of MPs from any one party within the membership of the committee.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you. That has given us some food for thought, and a very helpful historical recap, as well.

Your points about the Sewel convention were interesting. I wanted to have your written evidence in front of us, as well as what you have just said. In your written evidence you say the proposed strategy and policy statement violates the Sewel convention. Your words just now were accurate in saying that the Sewel convention says that this House will not normally legislate for affairs that are devolved without consent. You have clarified in your words here today that it is the existence or otherwise of an LCM that would violate the Sewel convention. For absolute clarity, can you confirm that the strategy and policy statement does not, in its own right, violate the Sewel convention, but instead, the behaviour and procedure around it is where you direct those comments?

Dr Renwick: I intentionally changed my comments because what I wrote in my evidence was somewhat inaccurate. What I should have said was, if there is no legislative consent motion on this aspect of the Bill, then the inclusion of the strategy and policy statement as currently set out would violate the Sewel convention. It seems very likely that there will not be a legislative consent motion; that was the presumption I was making, but it was a presumption that I should not have made without clarification.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q It is really helpful to have been able to do that today. From your experience monitoring many of these Bills and exchanges, I am sure you would say that it takes a little time for that position to emerge, both in terms of what the intention of the Executive is in any one of those legislatures, and then what the intention of the legislature is. It takes some time. There is not yet necessarily a moment in this Bill where you could have made a statement saying this violates the Sewel convention.

Dr Renwick: Absolutely. The Welsh Minister in his legislative consent memorandum indicates that he is in conversation with you, which I am very glad to hear, and I hope you will take your normal constructive approach in seeking a solution to this issue.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q That is good to have confirmed. My final question is about the strategy and policy statement and its procedure in Parliament. You gave the view that it would be wrong for the Government to produce that statement, and I think I am quoting you, “without the appropriate degree of scrutiny.” Can you explain what is not appropriate about the statement being approved by both Houses of Parliament?

Dr Renwick: It would be subject to much less scrutiny than primary legislation and it would not be amendable. As far as possible in this area, the principle should be applied that the rules are made in a reasonably consensual cross-party manner. I realise that is very difficult and it is not guaranteed by the primary legislative process, but at least there is a process for proper scrutiny and discussion of the proposals in a cross-party forum. The procedures around the strategies, policies and statements that are indicated in the Bill do not enable that degree of scrutiny, which I think is simply not appropriate.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q But Parliament—in the Chamber twice—does provide for a debate as you have described.

Dr Renwick: There is the kind of detailed scrutiny that we are having today, for example, in which there is an opportunity for detailed discussion of the proposals to take place. Also, of course, part of what we are doing here today is bringing in the views of a variety of people from beyond Parliament as well. It is essential that the processes of accountability for the Electoral Commission should be both cross-party and non-party. Those two features are essential for ensuring that electoral integrity is maintained for the simple reason that, as a member of the Committee alluded to earlier this afternoon, however wonderful MPs are—I have great respect for MPs; I know some of you on the Committee and I genuinely think you are great people—you have a vested interest in these issues. We are talking about a body that regulates some of the activities of MPs. In that context, it is essential to ensure there is a process that brings in voices from outside Parliament, and the primary legislative process allows that to a much greater degree than does a simple affirmative resolution.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q Thank you for that very helpful perspective. Essentially you argue that this measure ought to be subject to the full primary procedure. May I ask one last clarifying question, and then I will get the Executive to shut up and hand over to the Back Benchers, which is, I am sure, a principle you agree with, Alan. Can you confirm that the Bill’s measures leave in place, do not affect, and take nothing away from the governance structure and statutory provisions for the Electoral Commission’s board and commissioners, which include party figures, cross-party figures and non-party figures, as you desire?

Dr Renwick: Yes. The changes introduced in 2009 with the introduction of party members of the Electoral Commission was a desirable step in ensuring that all voices are properly represented in the governance of the Electoral Commission, and those structures are not changed. As I have indicated, in some respects the governance structures need to be changed, particularly regarding the composition of the Speaker’s Committee and the question of how we reflect the devolved arrangements, but yes, I agree that the arrangements you mentioned are not changed.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Alan. As always, it is good to debate with you and really good to have your expertise.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Q We have spoken to various witnesses, including a former electoral commissioner, over the last couple of days about the statutory policy statement. No one seems to have been aware that this proposal was coming. Were you aware of it being trailed or discussed privately with either the devolved Administrations or in academic circles, to see whether the changes would enhance and improve the independence and the working of the Electoral Commission?

Dr Renwick: No, I was not. I would not expect to have been aware necessarily of all the consultations that might have taken place, but I do not recall being aware of the proposals before they were announced by the Minister in June. To be honest, that is problematic. I have expressed concerns about the substance of the proposals, but procedurally there is a difficulty here as well because of the point that I have already alluded to. With the best will in the world, and with full respect to you as MPs, the fact that you have a vested interest in this issue means that it is incumbent upon you to proceed with particular care when you are thinking about electoral matters generally, and particularly the governance of the Electoral Commission.

I think the procedure that ought to be followed in such a case is that there is an independent review before any recommendation such as those that have been introduced here are put forward. That was the case in 2000; the introduction of the Electoral Commission stemmed, if I remember correctly, from the Fifth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The changes in 2009, introducing, among other things, the partisan commissioners, reflected recommendations made in, if I remember correctly, the Eleventh Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. There has been no comparable process in this case. I do not think that that is an appropriate way to introduce significant changes in the governance of the Electoral Commission.

Elections Bill (Instruction)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Instruction
Monday 20th September 2021

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Elections Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Notices of Amendments as at 20 September 2021 - (20 Sep 2021)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Elections Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Before I call the Minister to move the motion, I should confirm that the amendment has not been selected.

Christopher Pincher Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Christopher Pincher)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That it be an instruction to the Elections Bill Committee that it has power to make provision in the Bill about the use of the simple majority voting system in elections for the return of—

(a) the Mayor of London;

(b) an elected mayor of a local authority in England;

(c) a mayor of a combined authority area; and

(d) a police and crime commissioner.

The motion seeks to widen the scope of the Bill to provide for these measures to be introduced. I do not intend to outline the purpose and effect of the proposed amendments in detail, because the House will be well versed in parliamentary procedure and will doubtless remind us that this debate focuses on the motion before us. If the motion is agreed tonight, we will have the opportunity to debate the substantive issues fully as the Bill progresses through Committee and its other remaining stages.

However, it may help hon. Members if I briefly set out the Government’s reasons for the change, without prejudice, of course, to the outcome of any substantive debate we may subsequently have on the amendments themselves.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I congratulate the Minister on his achievement in arriving at the Dispatch Box to move this instruction motion. Will those of us who are on the Committee enjoy the pleasure of his company as we seek to scrutinise the Bill, or will one of his hon. or right hon. Friends be taking that spot?

Christopher Pincher Portrait Christopher Pincher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman thinks my eloquence, or otherwise, would be of benefit to the Committee. I assure him that the Committee will have sufficient expertise to properly scrutinise the Bill, not least because he is also on the Committee. Her Majesty’s Government speak with one voice.

Supporting first past the post is a long-standing Conservative commitment. It is in our manifesto and it reflects the view of the British people, as expressed in the 2011 referendum, when 67% of them voted for first past the post. The House will of course want to know that in my constituency of Tamworth 77% of electors voted for it. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced in March that the Government intended to introduce legislation to change the voting system for all combined authority Mayors, the Mayor of London and police and crime commissioners to first past the post, as soon as parliamentary time allowed. We now have before us an opportunity to consider and make this change in its proper context—the wider electoral law system. The amendment I propose to make to the Elections Bill will, for consistency, also extend the change to include directly elected mayors of local authorities in England. I am therefore today inviting the House to agree that parliamentary time be allowed for this important measure and by agreeing to the instruction before us, that it may make provision in the Bill about the use of the simple majority voting system in elections for the return of the Mayor of London, an elected mayor of a local authority in England, a mayor of a combined authority area and a police and crime commissioner. I commend the instruction to the House.

--- Later in debate ---
Christopher Pincher Portrait Christopher Pincher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

With the leave of the House, I will respond briefly to some of the points that right hon. and hon. Members have made.

I remind the House that this motion to instruct is to make a technical change to the Elections Bill Committee to allow it to consider the options before it. It is for Members of the House, across the House if they so wish, to bring forward amendments to the Committee that it can consider. I have no doubt that there is sufficient expertise on the Committee to consider these questions, which are pretty well-aired: they have been in the Conservative party manifesto, one way or another, over three consecutive elections. I think the Committee is properly disposed and well able to consider these matters, and if it feels it is not, there are other parts of parliamentary procedure that the House can employ. We will have Report stage. We will have Third Reading. There will be ample opportunity for the House to consider these matters.

It is rather rich for the SNP, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and Labour to say that we are abusing democracy. I might remind them that in 2011 the country voted for first past the post by 67%, and yet the Greens seem to want to ignore that. I remind them that in 2016 the country voted to leave the European Union, but the Opposition parties tried every trick in the book to undermine the decisions of the British people. We will support the view of the British people that a simplified first-past-the-post election system is best, and we want the House to consider it. The House and the Committee will be able to consider it in the normal way. It is for the usual channels to determine whether further time might be given to the Committee for consideration. However, I am confident that when all is said and done, this House will have the opportunity to debate these matters frankly and fully, recognising what the Home Affairs Committee said in 2016—that first past the post is the best way to elect police and crime commissioners. With respect to the Opposition, I commend this simple technical motion to the House.

Question put.

--- Later in debate ---
20:49

Division 80

Ayes: 309

Noes: 186

Elections Bill (Fifth sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage
Wednesday 22nd September 2021

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Elections Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 22 September 2021 - (22 Sep 2021)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Elections Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I can only repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. That is a perfectly fair point, and if the hon. Gentleman wishes to table an amendment to that effect, I am sure that the Government will listen very closely. I am completely in the hands of the Committee.

We will start with clause 1, and the question that it stand part of the Bill. Members will note my grouping and selection, and that several detailed matters relating to voter ID will be covered in debates on amendments later today. Clause 1 introduces the schedule on voter ID. I would be grateful if Members could please restrict their remarks to the principles of the proposals. That is quite important. I am sure that we can have a very wide-ranging debate that will be more like a Second Reading debate, but remember that there are loads of amendments later, so there is no point in getting into detail now. We will have plenty of time to discuss the detail.

Clause 1

Voter Identification

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Kemi Badenoch)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to progress the passage of the Bill. I pay tribute to my predecessor, the Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), for her great contribution to the proposals in the legislation. I ask the Committee’s forgiveness if I am not as sharp as she has been on the details. This is very new to me, following my taking on this position, but I look forward to taking the Bill through Committee and the upcoming stages.

I begin by introducing clause 1, which delivers the Government’s manifesto commitment to introduce photographic identification for voting at polling stations. I will first focus on the principle behind the measure, and why it is essential to the protection of our democracy. The details of its operation will be addressed later, when discussing the contents of schedule 1. I am sure the Committee will agree that it is paramount that we protect the security and integrity of our ballot, so that our elections will remain secure well into the future. The process for voting in polling stations in Great Britain has had no significant changes to security since the Ballot Act 1872. A system used in the Victorian era, when everybody was well acquainted with their neighbours, is simply not fit for the 21st century.

As my predecessor set out many times, there are undeniable vulnerabilities in our system that let people down because they can lead, and have led, to votes being stolen by unscrupulous individuals. We cannot sit idly by and tolerate that. Where there is the opportunity for fraud, we must act, particularly when we have the power to stamp it out with such a straightforward, simple policy. Just because someone is not regularly burgled does not mean that they stop locking their front door. Showing photo identification is an entirely reasonable and proportionate way to confirm that someone is who they say they are.

Many people would question why a requirement to show identification at polling stations is not already in place. In fact, the majority of the public—66%—have said that it would make them more confident in the security of the voting system. To suggest that specific groups, such as young people or those from an ethnic minority background, would automatically not be able to access the freely available voter card, based on assumptions about the work that will be done, is to unfairly diminish the agency and desire of those groups to participate. I will be unambiguous in setting this out: anyone who is eligible to vote will continue to have the opportunity to do so.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I welcome the Minister to her place, and appreciate that she is obviously quite new to this area. I wonder how she feels able to back up what she just said about different demographic groups not having any trouble accessing free ID. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency does not hold data on the ethnic background of people who hold a driving licence, and the Home Office does not hold data on the ethnicity of those who hold passports. Given that those are the two main forms of ID, how is she confident that any particular ethnic group will not be disproportionately affected by the policy?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am happy to answer that question. As we produce guidance, we will be able to give more details on the specifics, but the fact is that it is an insult to say that someone from an ethnic minority background will have difficulty procuring ID. That is nonsense.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On that point, will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, no—I have given way. I am also, as the hon. Lady will know, the Minister for Equalities. I have spent a year working on the disproportionate impact that covid has had on people. Being able to collect data is critical, but assuming from the get-go that people are disadvantaged on the basis of their background is stigmatising, and denies them their agency.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way? I wish to correct the record.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Let me finish. I do not know the conversations that the hon. Lady has had with other people. I think that she will find that on this issue I will be very robust, and I will not stand in this House and have ethnic minorities denigrated with the assumption that they need the Labour party or the liberal left to hold their hand in order to vote. We have had pilots, and there is a lot of evidence to show that this policy does not discourage people from voting.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On that point, will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will not give way any further. We have oral questions—

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On a point of order, Sir Edward. I never said anything about ethnic minorities in my intervention on the Minister. I said that data on different ethnic groups was not collected. I never made any comment about ethnic minorities. I just wish to make that clear for the record.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

The hon. Lady has made her point, and I am sure that the Committee will have heard it.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady talked about the DVLA not collecting data on the ethnic background of people, so we know the point that she was making. As I said, I will be unambiguous in setting this out: anyone who is eligible to vote will continue to have the opportunity to do so. I hope that for the rest of the Committee we will be able to have a civilised debate, and not one where we bring in issues that are not pertinent to the matter at hand.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I share the Minister’s distaste at the suggestion that people do not have that access and that agency. Is it not the case that the existing elements of voter fraud in the system fall disproportionately on ethnic minority populations, as we saw in Tower Hamlets in the Bangladeshi community?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I completely agree, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.

I want those listening to the debate to be clear that we will work with them, and for them, to ensure that the implementation supports their participation, and I hope that on that principled point the Opposition will stop their negative and discouraging narrative on the future of the measures. Voter identification is a simple, proportionate and effective means to strengthen the integrity of elections. For those reasons, I urge that clause 1 stand part of the Bill.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I welcome the new Minister, the new Government Whip and the new member of the Committee, the hon. Member for Devizes. They missed out on the pleasure of the four evidence sessions that we enjoyed last week, but obviously those evidence sessions—I will make the point again, Sir Edward—were not sufficient to cover all the clauses due to the instruction motion that was passed on the Floor of the House on Monday evening.

It is incredibly disappointing and bad form on the part of the Government to approach the House with a constitutional Bill that fundamentally changes huge swathes of how we vote and exercise our democratic rights as a society without that level of scrutiny. The instruction motion included a change to the voting system that previously happened only under referenda. I note the alternative vote referendum that we had about a decade ago. If we are to change our voting system in this country, not with referenda and not even with consideration on Second Reading or in Committee evidence sessions, I question the accountability to which hon. Members feel they can hold themselves.

Clause 1 requires voters to show photo ID at elections. I believe that in a democracy it is right that voters choose their leaders, but in the Bill we see a reversal of that: it appears that the leaders are trying to choose the voters who participate in elections. There is no doubt that requiring photo ID at a polling station is an additional barrier to voting. No one can argue—I welcome interventions from Government Members—that putting an additional requirement on a voter before receiving their ballot paper is anything other than likely to drive down turnout. If we wish to strengthen our democracy, as the Opposition wish to, one of the best ways that we can do that is to drive up turnout, because bad actors thrive when turnout is low. I wish the Bill were about encouraging participation in elections and democracy, and driving up turnout, because that would make it harder for bad actors to manipulate and twist our election results.

--- Later in debate ---
Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Government’s own research showed that 2 million people did not have ID, and 17% of those people said that they would not apply for a locally issued identity document. A further 23% said they were not sure that they would apply. Does the Government’s own research not prove that we risk disenfranchising millions?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think the hon. Lady is confusing two different things. Those 2 million people are not necessarily 2 million people who are on the electoral register and are not necessarily 2 million people who would have voted anyway. Is she not mistaking correlation for causation and confusing the issue? My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland showed what actually happens when he cited evidence of an improvement in the participation of ethnic minorities and other groups in the electoral process.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am a little confused by the Minister’s intervention. There was a petition on the Parliament website about using digital IDs to access things online. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport responded to that petition using the statistics that I have used today. If one Government Department is using one set of statistics and the Cabinet Office—or presumably now the Department for Levelling Up and whatever it is—is using different statistics, does that not just show that one arm of Government is apparently not speaking to another arm of Government?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very happy to respond to the point the hon. Lady has just made. Different pieces of research are used for different outcomes. My argument was that she is confusing two separate things. The point my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland was making was specifically related to voter ID, and we should not mix and match different petitions and different polls that are used for different purposes as evidence, when the questions being asked are not pertinent to the matter being discussed.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister is right to say that there is a lot of different research done on who holds what ID, and it appears that there is no central understanding in Government about who holds what. That leaves us, as a Committee, high and dry in terms of knowing what impact this policy will have on different communities.

The Committee heard evidence from Gavin Millar QC, who pointed out that if Tower Hamlets was the reason for introducing voter ID, it would be

“an example of a hard case making very bad law, and I would counsel against that.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 16 September 2021; c. 108, Q165.]

--- Later in debate ---
Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have been trying, both on Second Reading and in Committee, to tease out where the Northern Ireland comparison comes from and how the Government believe that the situation we have in the United Kingdom in 2021 in any way resembles that in Northern Ireland in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, which led to the change. Nobody has managed to give me an answer to explain what the similarities are and why the Northern Ireland example is being used to advocate this change.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can I come in on that point?

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Order. We cannot have an intervention on an intervention.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute is right. Hundreds and hundreds of people lost their vote in the general election in, I think, 1982—it was before I was born. [Interruption.] It was in the 1983 general election. As a response to that, legislation came forward to require forms of ID, which were initially not photo ID, to protect the integrity of the ballot in Northern Ireland, where quite clearly organised crime was being used to disenfranchise literally hundreds and hundreds of voters in constituencies across Northern Ireland and, arguably, to skew election results.

Does the hon. Member for Darlington want to make the case that that is happening right here, right now? I would be very interested to hear whether he thinks that, in his constituency, hundreds and hundreds of voters have had their votes stolen through personation—perhaps at the general election in which he was elected. If he thinks that that is the case, I would be very interested to hear him make the case, but I do not think we can draw a direct comparison from Northern Ireland in the 1980s to England, Scotland and Wales in 2021. Does the Minister still wish to come in on that point?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very interested in the shadow Minister’s points, because she is saying that what happened in Northern Ireland in the 1980s is very different from what is happening here now, yet she is advocating keeping the rules the same as they were in 1872—150 years ago. That is extraordinary. We have not changed anything since the 19th century, yet she is saying that what happened in the 1980s is not applicable now. That is quite extraordinary.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am really thrilled that the Minister has made that point, because I have been the shadow Minister for democracy and elections for the Labour party since 2016 and I think that, in every single speech, I have made the case that electoral law in this country is fragmented and confusing. In fact, we heard from witnesses that we need to solidify—

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

And now we are making it more uniform.

--- Later in debate ---
Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think we have to assume that they were. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] Because of all the evidence that we heard as a Committee. I make no apologies to the Minister—she was not here for the four evidence sessions. We did not hear convincing evidence that this is a widespread problem. That is just not what we heard from the witnesses. We know the statistics on how many people were turned away and did not come back.

Rob Connelly from Birmingham raised concerns that the pilots did not reflect the community that he represents:

“One of our concerns with the pilots was that they did not reflect a large urban area, such as Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool… It has been calculated that about 2% of people have not got ID. That is the equivalent of 15,000 people in my electorate.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, Wednesday 15 September 2021; c. 56, Q85.]

That is in Birmingham alone. A huge number of people—thousands, or tens of thousands—in cities up and down the country will have to go through the process of applying for this free voter ID card, on which there is no detail in the Bill. How can we be expected to vote for something on which there is no detail?

Returning to where I was before I took quite a lot of interventions, I think Ministers and Government Members are living in some kind of alternative reality. Perhaps they are watching too much Fox News. Our elections do not lack integrity. We consistently hear that in reports from the Electoral Commission and when our elections are observed from overseas. I am proud of our British democracy, and of the way we do elections in this country. I am confident that every Member of this House, whether I agree with them or whether we wear the same colour rosette at elections, and everyone who is sitting in this Committee Room was elected legitimately and got the most votes in their constituency. If any Member wishes to question whether they were legitimately elected to this House, I would be very happy to hear them say that they think they won unfairly.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think the hon. Lady is confusing the purpose of the Bill. It is to protect the voter, not to ensure that our election results are kosher. I was elected with more than 25,000 votes. Anyone who was unable to vote lost their right. It would not have affected the legitimacy of my winning. The fact that she is saying that shows that she is still missing the point that many people lose their right to vote because another person has voted on their behalf. When I stood for election in 2010, I saw it happen at first hand. It is not reported, and a crime of deception is very difficult to see. She needs to acknowledge that point.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am a little confused by the Minister’s intervention. That would be reported because the person would have a tendered ballot and that information would be available. The point is—we heard it during evidence—that this policy has been brought in for UK Parliament elections with large electorates and we did not hear one witness say they thought a major election had been swung by mass fraud.

On the example of referendums, I campaigned in the EU referendum for remain, but I do not question that leave won because it would be unthinkable to enact personation fraud on such a scale.

Elections Bill (Sixth sitting)

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
Committee stage
Wednesday 22nd September 2021

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Elections Act 2022 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Public Bill Committee Amendments as at 22 September 2021 - (22 Sep 2021)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Elections Act 2022 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Question (this day) again proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Kemi Badenoch)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

To say that this has been a lively debate would be seriously understating the passion and arguments made by Members on both sides of the Committee. Speaking as a former Treasury Minister, it is a refreshing change from annual Finance Bill Committees, where I am used to saying lots of things to silence and often bemusement from Back Benchers. That has been a real change and I have very much enjoyed listening to the arguments.

I want to thank all Members who participated in the debate for making so many interesting points. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme, for Peterborough, for Heywood and Middleton, and for Gedling, as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell for making brilliant points in their speeches, with which I wholeheartedly agree. They all said things far better than I could, given how new I am to the brief. I also enjoyed the interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington, the hon. Member for Glasgow North, my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. I did not agree with the Opposition Members’ points, but they were well argued. I still think that they are wrong but I admire the passion of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. This is clearly a brief she knows very much about and it is nice to see that level of engagement with the topic. However, a few points were made in the debate that I wish to reply to; I will not speak for very long.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North talked about weaknesses in the research. I know the moment has moved on, but I want to emphasise that the Cabinet Office’s research is the most comprehensive to date and is nationally representative. It shows that 99% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds surveyed owned an accepted form of identification. It seemed from his speech that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute felt this was a Bill about introducing a new voter ID card. Yes, that is part of it, but it is mainly about photographic identification. I felt that there was often conflation between people not having photographic identification and needing a voter ID card as opposed to everybody else needing one. That is not the case. I remind the hon. Gentleman that only those without existing documents need a voter card.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood talked about this being a new case for identity cards. I remind her that the coalition Government scrapped the last Labour Government’s plan for ID cards in 2010 and we have no plans for identity cards. The 2018 and 2019 voter identification pilots were delivered with a voluntary, locally issued notification. There is no compulsion here and that same model of an optional free voter card is what we are going to introduce.

Finally, I just wanted to reject completely the accusation from the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood of voter suppression. This is a political topic; we are talking about elections and MPs get very lively. We enjoy having these discussions, but it is important not to alarm people when a simple procedural Bill is being put through. People are disenfranchised if their vote has been used by someone who should not be doing so. It does not seem to be something that is of concern to Opposition Members, but we take that very seriously. As I said in my opening speech, just because someone’s house has not been burgled does not mean they should not lock the door. We can take precautions for things, even if their likelihood, depending on geography, is more or less. We should also have something uniform in bringing in this sort of Bill. We cannot just do something for Tower Hamlets and then wait until something happens in another borough.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Would it be appropriate at this point to ask some specific questions? I hope the Minister can respond about the application process for the voter ID cards. Obviously, it would be administered by local councils, but will there be a core standard of expectations of, for instance, the hours councils will be expected to offer the service? Will people have to apply in person,

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I think that those are things that we can work out as we progress. We all know that those sorts of details would not end up in a Bill such as this one. We also need to be able to give flexibility. What we can say is that we want to encourage as many people as possible to take up these cards, and we will do whatever we can to ensure that that is the case.

Let me go back to the point that I was making about voter suppression. We hear again and again, particularly from Labour, that any change to boundaries or elections is all about keeping voters away and gerrymandering. I completely and utterly reject that. I was not a Member in 2014, but I remember that Labour claimed that the roll-out of individual voter registration in the country was going to suppress voters. Labour Members said that it was terrible, that we should not do it and that we should instead allow the head of household to register everyone. As we said earlier, that was about bringing things into line with Northern Ireland, and it is worth mentioning that the electoral register in the 2019 general election was at its highest-ever level. The last thing that Labour said was going to be suppressing voters did not do that, and I am absolutely confident, given all the evidence we have seen and heard, that this will not do so either.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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On voter registration, what plans does the Minister, who is responsible for this policy area, have to ensure that the missing 3 million electors find a way to register and appear on the electoral roll?

--- Later in debate ---
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but she is deviating from the point I am making about voter suppressions. The point I was making is that the last thing we did, which Labour claimed was going to suppress voters, turned out not to do so. We have never heard any acknowledgment from the Opposition that it was actually a good thing to do and strengthened our democracy. On the point about registration, the hon. Lady will know that I have just come to this brief. We can deal with the Government’s plans, and what I will be doing over the next few years, outside the debate on clause stand part.

The claims about voter suppression are bogus. They have been shown to be false by the Northern Ireland experience and the 2018-19 pilot. There is no reason why we should not go through with this, which is why I urge all Members to let the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

0

Division 1

Ayes: 9


Conservative: 9

Noes: 6


Labour: 4
Scottish National Party: 2

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
--- Later in debate ---