Elections Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Elections Bill

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Excerpts
Monday 25th April 2022

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
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My Lords, I welcome the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, to highlight the importance that provisions relating to electoral law are consistent with accounting practice. I know that the noble Baroness speaks with great experience and expertise in this area, having served as the president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, as well as holding various senior positions in the accounting and finance area.

Specifically, these amendments focus on the registration of parties and the declaration of assets in relation to this process. It is crucial that the individuals and groups participating in elections are fully transparent in their practices—a point which these Benches have consistently raised during debates on amendments in previous stages of the Bill.

I hope the Minister can provide assurances that PPERA and other legislation governing political activities are already consistent with accounting practice, but I would also appreciate if she could use this opportunity to provide a more general update on how the evolving governance of accountancy and reporting will relate to political finances.

Finally, the Minister will be aware that the Financial Reporting Council is preparing to transition to become the audit, reporting and governance authority. Can she confirm whether the Government expect the new authority to play any role in overseeing finances relating to elections? I look forward to assurances from the Minister.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, Amendments 51, 52 and 53 were tabled by my noble friend Lady Noakes, whom I thank for sharing her considerable expertise in and knowledge of this topic. Her constructive engagement with the Bill, particularly this clause, has been gratefully received in order to ensure that the law works effectively and as intended.

Asset declarations upon registration as a political party is an important matter. In answer to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in Committee, I say that this measure was recommended by the Electoral Commission in its 2013 and 2018 reports—A Regulatory Review of the UK’s Party and Election Finance Laws, and Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters. This led to the Committee on Standards in Public Life making the very same recommendation in its 2021 report Regulating Election Finance.

Clause 22 introduces provisions that will require new political parties to declare whether they have assets or liabilities in excess of £500 when they register with the Electoral Commission as a political party. Those with assets or liabilities in excess of £500 will be required to give a record of them as part of their registration. This will provide an increased level of transparency regarding a political party’s financial position at the point of registration. As part of the registration process, new political parties are not currently required to submit a declaration of the assets they own or liabilities they have. This information only becomes available in their first annual statement of accounts, published on the Electoral Commission’s website, which may be up to 18 months after registration.

The central policy aim of Clause 22 is to ensure greater transparency regarding the financial situation of new political parties. It is my and the Government’s view that my noble friend Lady Noakes’s technical amendments make this clearer and easier to understand for political parties registering with the Electoral Commission. These amendments will remove the requirement to add together the assets and liabilities, therefore bringing this clause into line with the more standard accounting practices that my noble friend has shared with us. I will read Hansard tomorrow and make sure that the noble Lord has a written answer to the questions that he asked. Therefore, I am pleased to say that the Government support this amendment, and I urge the noble Lords to do so too.

Amendment 51 agreed.
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Viscount Stansgate Portrait Viscount Stansgate (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 64, so ably moved by my noble friend. It is an inoffensive amendment. The reason I rise is to say that I look forward to the Minister’s reply, because in my bones I feel that the answer we are going to hear from the Dispatch Box opposite is that there is a reason why the Government cannot accept it. I look forward to hearing what that reason or reasons may be, because one would be hard put to object to anything so inoffensive; it does not even have a timetable. Nevertheless, I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, the Government agree in principle that there is a strong case for the consolidation of electoral law, and we have noted the interest expressed in this Chamber and in the recent PACAC report. However, as previously noted in Committee, we must acknowledge that the process of consolidating electoral law will be a long-term project that will take significant consideration and policy development. It is not something to rush, and it is not something for which the Government should commit to firm deadlines in a timetable at this stage.

The changes brought forward by the Elections Bill are part of a large programme of work, which will include secondary legislation and practical implementation matters. As such, it is the Government’s view that the implementation of this work should first be completed before work on the consolidation of electoral law can begin. For this reason, the Government cannot support this amendment.

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Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, for his excellent introduction to this amendment. It is worth focusing on the fact that the Minister has, on numerous occasions, stressed the impracticalities of some of the amendments that have been considered today, saying “We can’t do this because it’s impractical”. Yet, without any thought, the electorate can be increased from 1 million to 3.3 million, as we heard from my noble friend earlier, without any infrastructure or effort to manage the implications.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, talked about other countries. Other countries have different voting systems, such as list systems and regional systems. But our democracy is fundamentally based not on a party system but on the constituency system, where an individual MP represents the people of that constituency. With what is being proposed, we could suddenly have, as my noble friend said earlier, 7,000 or 8,000 people being allocated to a constituency who, according to the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, have never lived there. And we will not even make any attempt—or there will not be any practical way—to verify people’s entitlement to vote.

In this Bill, we have said that if a resident in a constituency turns up at a polling station but fails to produce photographic evidence of their entitlement, they will not be given the vote. But someone who lives abroad can get a vote in a constituency and be sent it without any proper checks. It is absolutely crazy that the Government are not taking the time to look at the practical implications of this. It comes back to the point: why is it being done? It does not really appear to be being done to defend and enhance our democracy. I know I have said it before, but all this effort is going into people who have left this country, who have never lived here or who have lived here for a very short period of time—we are extending the vote to them—but people who have lived here for 27 years, and paid tax and national insurance, will not be given the vote. It is crazy.

This amendment is absolutely right. It would ensure that the Government pay proper attention to the practical implications of their policy and do so in a timely fashion. It is not as if we are trying to say, “Don’t do this”—even though I agree with my noble friend and would prefer that the Government did not do it. The amendment is saying, “Okay, if you’re going to do it and if it’s a principle you support, do it properly. Understand the consequences, particularly the consequences for our democracy”. This side wholeheartedly supports this amendment.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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My Lords, I will first answer the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. I am sorry that he did not get as much information as he needed, but I will have to hold the House a little longer to give him more detail.

On candidature, anyone who wants to be a candidate in an election in this country needs to be a resident of this country and to have proof of residency. So, nobody living abroad can be a resident of this country—that is the first thing.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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May I remind the Minister that it is part of the responsibilities of our consuls abroad to look after the interests of British citizens when they are in foreign prisons? So it is not the case that we will not have information on these. Our consular network should have the information relevant to this, but perhaps the Foreign Office has not been consulted.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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Then we come to somebody who was born in the UK and has been here only a short time. The current system allows citizens who have left the UK while still too young to vote the ability to register based on their parents’ or guardians’ previous registration, but this is subject to an arbitrary 15-year limit from when they left the UK. The Government want to remove this arbitrary time limit placed on British citizens who have resided here, and we have no intention to replace one time limit with another arbitrary time limit requiring a British citizen to have been resident here for a certain amount of time before they can register.

The Bill will permit children who are UK citizens and who have resided in the UK to be eligible to vote based on their previous residency here. They would apply in respect of their last place of residency. This approach is consistent with the principle of individual responsibility, which underpins individual electoral registration and ensures that voting rights are not conditional on choices made by others in the past.

Additionally, British citizens born outside the UK must have previously resided in the UK to become eligible to register to vote. In practical terms, someone who left the UK at a very young age or who was present in the UK only for a short period will find it difficult to demonstrate their residency at a particular UK address to the satisfaction of a registration officer. I would also question whether anyone who lived in the UK only for a very short period would have any interest in voting in our elections. I hope that gives a little more substance to my letter.

I now turn to the amendment as tabled. The purpose of this amendment would be to delay the commencement of Clause 13 of the Bill for two years, and the extension of franchise for parliamentary election for British citizens overseas. The amendment would require three conditions to be met before regulations could be laid to bring into force the provisions. The Government have set out much detail on the intended registration and voting process in their policy statement Overseas Electors: Delivering ‘Votes for Life’ for British Expatriates. Referring to the condition whereby the Secretary of State must publish guidance for EROs on determining residentiary requirements of overseas electors, further detail on residency requirements will be set out in secondary legislation.

Electoral registration officers will require British citizens who have been resident, but not previously registered, to demonstrate to their satisfaction that they were resident at a specific address. Section 5 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 already lays down the general principles regarding residence for electoral purposes which a registration officer must consider and apply in deciding whether a person is resident at a particular address for those purposes. The same approach to residency must be applied within these boundaries and, as now, registration officers will be supported in this by guidance from the Electoral Commission, with whom the Government will work closely.

As for reporting on documentary evidence, the Government intend to align closely with the existing exceptions process for those domestic electors for whom an ERO considers that additional evidence is required to verify their identity. This is a system that administrators are already familiar with, and we will continue to work closely with stakeholders to develop this process. It will be set out in secondary legislation and be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and to parliamentary approval.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, brought up the issue of how we will help expatriates—the people who want to vote from abroad—to actually be able to vote. I think we had a discussion on overseas constituencies, and it was made very clear that the Government are not supporting that idea. However, the Government have already improved the delivery and return of ballots to overseas electors by working with Royal Mail and the British Forces Post Office, expediting dispatch abroad, and funding the use of the international business response licence that expedites the return of the ballot packs from overseas in a large number of countries, as well as covering any postage costs that might otherwise be incurred.

This Bill will also introduce an online absent vote application service that will allow overseas electors more easily apply for a postal vote.

Lord Stunell Portrait Lord Stunell (LD)
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Will the Minister develop her point about the repayment of postal charges? Perhaps she could explain to noble Lords a little more fully what that implies. To my knowledge, a number of local authorities are quite clear at the moment, that they will not post postal votes overseas because of the additional expense. I do not know if there is an element of guidance needed in those cases, but there might be an element of finance. If one had a constituency with the projected 4,000 or 5,000 overseas electors, it would be a significant additional sum. I wonder if she could say something about the Government’s financing of that additional outlay.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I cannot at the moment. It may be part of the burdens that will be financed for local authorities, but I will get the noble Lord a complete answer on that and make sure it is absolutely correct.

The introduction of votes for life is a manifesto commitment. The framework for the previous Overseas Electors Bill 2017-19 was subject to a full public consultation and has formed the basis for this refreshed policy. Since then, we have worked very closely with the electoral service managers and administrators on the design of the processes, and the practical implementation of these measures. On this basis, it is unnecessary to further delay the extension of the franchise, and I hope the noble Lord will feel able to reconsider and withdraw his amendment.

Lord Stunell Portrait Lord Stunell (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for her reply and for the much greater level of detail that she has provided on this occasion, which I very much welcome. She has indeed answered some of the points that I raised, although I think she skirted over the possibility of amending legislation so that some account could be taken of imprisonment overseas. As I say, that is a matter that could easily be covered by an extension of the existing declaration that candidates make.

I am not satisfied with the answer that I have had but at this time of night I certainly do not intend to force my view upon the House. I just say to the Government that I think some of these matters will come back to haunt them, and at that moment I hope to be present to witness the haunting taking place. With that said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.