Representation of the People (Postal and Proxy Voting etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2024

Tuesday 23rd January 2024

(3 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Considered in Grand Committee
17:38
Moved by
Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn
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That the Grand Committee do consider the Representation of the People (Postal and Proxy Voting etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2024.

Baroness Penn Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (Baroness Penn) (Con)
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My Lords, this instrument makes changes to correct minor errors in the Representation of the People (Postal and Proxy Voting etc) (Amendment) Regulations 2023—or the 2023 regulations, as I will refer to them—in relation to how the transitional arrangements for the new rules concerning proxy voting are displayed on poll cards.

The Elections Act 2022 set out a wide range of changes to numerous aspects of the electoral system. This included changes to the rules surrounding the number of people for whom an individual can act as a proxy when voting. The changes were implemented by the 2023 regulations that I have just referred to and are supported by new offences. They came into force on 31 October 2023.

The new arrangements limit the number of electors for whom a person may act as a proxy to four, of which no more than two can be domestic electors—that is, an elector who is not registered as an overseas or service voter. The 2023 regulations also updated all relevant prescribed forms, for example poll cards, to make sure that the new limits are clearly explained to electors.

To ensure a smooth change of rules, the 2023 regulations set out a transition period, which would allow proxy arrangements that had been set up prior to the new rules coming into force to continue until 31 January 2024, and longer if a poll were already under way on that date. This was to avoid a cliff edge where all pre-existing proxy arrangements were cancelled simultaneously, which could create administrative issues and could leave insufficient time for electors to reapply for new proxy arrangements.

The change in proxy rules also needed to be reflected in the information provided on elections forms, such as poll cards, and these needed to be updated for polls held during the transition period as well as for polls held after it. The 2023 regulations provided the necessary updates for the forms used for any polls for which notice was given prior to 31 January 2024—that is, until the end of the transition period. The forms for postal poll cards and proxy postal poll cards for any polls held after the transition period are set out in a different set of regulations: the Representation of the People (Postal Vote Handling and Secrecy) (Amendment) Regulations 2023. However, these forms do not come into force for any polls where the day of the poll is prior to 1 May 2024. There is therefore a gap in the transitional provisions for any polls for which notice is given on or after 31 January 2024 and the day of poll is on or before 1 May 2024 where no transitional provision has been given. Any polls taking place during this time would have to use the postal poll cards and proxy postal poll cards used prior to the 2023 regulations coming into force, which would provide incorrect information on the rules and offences surrounding proxy voting.

The same gap applies in respect of postal signing petition notices and proxy postal signing petition notices for any recall petition for which the Speaker’s notice is given on or after 31 January 2024 and for which the beginning of the petition signing period is on or before 1 May 2024.

This instrument will correct the error in the 2023 regulations by adding updated information about the new voting offences for persons voting by proxy to postal poll cards and proxy postal poll cards for polls that are commenced and held during this gap. This will ensure that the proxy voting changes are clearly explained to electors and so avoid any confusion.

The instrument also amends two minor typographical errors in the 2023 regulations. I beg to move.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, the Minister need not fear that I will ask any particularly difficult, tricky or awkward questions on this legislation. There is a simple explanation for that: I could not think of any. I looked at the proceedings in Committee in the other place, and nor could anyone there, so I will confine my remarks simply to a question and an observation. The observation is that we seem to have had a lot of changes to election law in the year before a general election. Does the Minister accept that there may be a greater risk of an error in the conduct of our elections as a result of the large number of changes to election law being made in the year before a general election, and with local elections in May? Could she tell us—perhaps she will write to us in due course—how many pages of legislation are in the secondary legislation instruments brought before us in the last 12 months? It seems a lot of pages.

Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this statutory instrument. It corrects very minor errors in a previous statutory instrument. We are pleased that the Government are correcting the errors and understand why this instrument must be introduced. The Minister outlined the huge task as a result of the changes made in the Elections Act. I have sympathy with her in the task of introducing so many complex changes in electoral statutes. If there are other mistakes in the Elections Act that the Government want to rectify, we are happy to support them.

I have a few questions for the Minister. Is the department now examining instruments relating to the Elections Act to ensure that all other transitional arrangements are correct? Do the Government plan to lay any further regulations relating to the Elections Act prior to the elections in May? Has the Minister discussed the regulations with those responsible for implementing them?

Another concern on these Benches is that we have already stretched electoral administrators up and down the country, who are getting their heads around the changes that the Government are making, sometimes rectifying errors. This is deeply concerning. Will those electoral officers be further resourced? How will they be strengthened to deal with the impacts and changes that have been outlined today? The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, spoke about this. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

17:45
Baroness Penn Portrait Baroness Penn (Con)
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My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their succinct contributions to the debate. As noted, this statutory instrument makes minor changes to correct an error in previous ones. However, both noble Lords noted the changes that we have made through the Elections Act and those we are bringing forward through secondary legislation. When it comes to this statutory instrument, electoral law is complex and highly detailed as a result of the need to ensure that all processes are carried out in a specific fashion consistently across the country. When drafting legislation in a complex area of law such as this, small errors can occasionally occur. Through the regulations we are debating today, we are able to correct that error before it has any impact.

We are conscious of the changes that we have brought forward through the Elections Act, but we have worked carefully to sequence their implementation. Both noble Lords asked about the number of changes being made and the support and engagement we are giving to those implementing them. We are engaged carefully with those implementing the changes; we receive constant feedback from them. As I said, we have carefully sequenced the changes that we are seeking to make, conscious that we may be coming up to an election year. Of course, there is an outside chance that 2025 could be the election year, and recent experience tells us that elections can be called earlier than we may anticipate, so there is not necessarily a good time to make these changes. We also have to take into account the regular drum beat of local and mayoral elections.

On the question of resources, we have done a new burdens assessment and assigned additional resources to local authorities to make some of the changes, and they are able to apply for further funding where needed.

On the question of whether there will be any more regulations stemming from the Elections Act before the elections in May, my understanding is that there will be no further statutory instruments. As to whether we have looked at related changes that may need to be made in other statutory instruments, my understanding is that some of these provisions in relation to local elections and others were made through negative SIs, and we have already reviewed and amended them where necessary to reflect the changes that we have had to make through this correction.

Finally, I do not know whether anyone has counted the number of pages of secondary legislation, but I will go to find out, and if I can provide an answer for the noble Lord, I will certainly write to both noble Lords with that figure. With that, I commend these regulations to the Committee.

Motion agreed.
Committee adjourned at 5.48 pm.