Mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner Elections, Recall Petitions and Referendums (Ballot Secrecy, Candidates and Undue Influence) Regulations 2023 Debate

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Mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner Elections, Recall Petitions and Referendums (Ballot Secrecy, Candidates and Undue Influence) Regulations 2023

Lord Mott Excerpts
Wednesday 18th October 2023

(7 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Moved by
Lord Mott Portrait Lord Mott
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That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 6 July be approved.

Relevant document: 47th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Lord Mott Portrait Lord Mott (Con)
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My Lords, this statutory instrument is largely technical in nature and makes updates to the relevant electoral conduct rules to ensure effective implementation of measures in the Elections Act 2022 and the Ballot Secrecy Act 2023.

Undue influence is an electoral offence that criminalises behaviour which seeks, in various ways, to coerce a person to vote in a certain way or abstain from voting. The 2015 Tower Hamlets petition demonstrated that protection from undue influence remains highly relevant and important in 21st-century Britain. However, the offence originated in the 19th century and prior to our changes in the Elections Act 2022 was considered difficult to interpret and enforce.

The Elections Act updated the existing offence of undue influence for UK parliamentary and local government elections in England and all elections in Northern Ireland. The revised offence better protects voters from improper influences to vote in a particular way or not to vote at all. It also provides clearer legal drafting to assist authorities in enforcing it. The purpose of these regulations is to apply the updated offence to police and crime commissioner elections, recall petitions, local authority referendums and neighbourhood planning referendums.

Political intimidation and abuse have no place in our society, which is why Part 5 of the Elections Act introduced a new disqualification order aimed at offenders who intimidate those who participate in public life. The order introduces a five-year ban on standing for or holding public office. The Elections Act also extended the powers of returning officers to hold a nomination paper invalid where a candidate is disqualified under the new order and requires candidates to declare that they are not disqualified under it. These changes apply to Northern Ireland and to local and UK parliamentary elections.

The Act also amended the relevant vacancy rules, including for UK parliamentary elections, to reflect the timing of vacancies occurring as a result of the new order and ensure that those disqualified vacate office. This SI replicates these changes for nomination for police and crime commissioner elections as well as for local and combined authority mayoral elections, and updates the vacancy rules for combined authority mayors.

In addition, the Elections Act introduced a new measure to permit greater flexibility in the use of commonly used names by candidates on nomination and ballot papers. This change means that candidates can use their middle name as a commonly used name—an odd omission from previous legislation on this topic—and amends the existing rules for UK parliamentary elections, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and local elections in Northern Ireland.

This change clarifies the law for candidates and returning officers. We know that practice has varied on this at times and across local authorities. Therefore, clarification will also provide consistency. This instrument makes the same change to the conduct rules for local and combined authority mayoral elections in England and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales. It also amends the nomination paper completed by candidates at these polls to reflect the new provisions.

I turn to the provisions in the instrument concerning the Ballot Secrecy Act 2023 and pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Hayward for his work on this important new measure. The Act introduced two new offences: first, for a person to be with another person at a polling booth and, secondly, for a person to be near a polling booth while another person is at that booth, with the intention in both cases of influencing the other person to vote in a particular way or to refrain from voting. This Act, which applies to UK parliamentary elections and local elections in England, as well as elections in Northern Ireland, aims to provide polling station staff with a firmer basis on which to challenge suspected inappropriate behaviour in polling stations. This instrument completes the implementation of the Act by extending the new offence to police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales, MP recall petitions across the UK, and local government, council tax and neighbourhood planning referendums in England.

It is vital that these rules be updated in relation to the Elections Act and Ballot Secrecy Act measures to ensure consistency and fairness across electoral law. Applying these measures across the relevant election rules will modernise and strengthen the integrity of voting and offer necessary protection for electors, candidates, campaigners and elected officeholders. I commend these regulations to the House.

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Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
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My Lords, this instrument applies measures relating to undue influence to police and crime commissioner elections, as well recall petitions and local referenda in England. These provisions seek to provide greater clarity on this offence, including by specifically covering intimidation.

Undue influence and any practice involving intimidation have no place in our voting system. If we want to call our elections free and fair, we must act proactively to stop those who seek to unfairly influence how others vote. It is right that we update the definition of undue influence to accommodate a modern understanding of the phrase in the statute book. The current law was brought into force 40 years ago, and 100% of the respondents to the Protecting the Debate White Paper agreed that a clear definition should be adopted. We welcome this update of the definition of undue influence. It is clear language—not quite the heavenly language my noble friend Lord Jones referred to—and this point was well supported by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, who has been a great champion and campaigner in this area.

In addition, we welcome provisions to ensure that disqualification orders are effectively enforced and that those served with them cannot stand in relevant elections. We also support the implementation of the Ballot Secrecy Act to the elections covered in this regulation. Alongside that, we welcome clarity on whether a commonly used name can be used on nomination papers.

I want to press the Minister, given that these regulations include provisions relating to influencing individuals to sign petitions: can he explain how these will be applied to e-petitions and can he provide an update on the application of the broader intimidation offences under the Elections Act? Have any charges resulted from these new offences? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Lord Mott Portrait Lord Mott (Con)
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I thank noble Lords on all sides of the House who have participated in what is turning out to be a relatively short debate. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Jones, for his invitation to Wales; I would be more than happy to visit at any time, and look forward to the very warm welcome which he described. With regard to translation, which I think was the core point of what he asked, as per our existing practice, Welsh forms have been translated by Welsh translation services.

On the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, I guess that, a few years ago, we would have been in a very different place today, on the eve of two parliamentary by-elections. I think the point he made is incredibly important. It would be wrong for me to do anything other than say that I will come back to him, which I am very happy to do in writing.

My noble friend Lord Hayward also commented on the need to bring election law all together and update it. From a personal point of view, I am very much with him on that. Having had more than three decades in front-line politics, I am aware that there may well be a need for change going forward. I will come back to him in writing, because that is the right thing to do.

My noble friend Lord Hayward asked for clarification on there being no reference to general elections in this SI. For the record, let me make it very clear that the Ballot Secrecy Act 2023 applied the new offences to UK parliamentary elections and local elections in England, as well as to elections in Northern Ireland. These regulations ensure the effective implementation of the Act by extending ballot secrecy offences to police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales, recall petitions, and local government council tax and neighbourhood planning referenda in England. This is why the Explanatory Notes for the SI do not reference UK parliamentary elections.

Regarding the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Khan, I have not got that information in front of me, but I am more than happy to write to him with an explanation.

In conclusion, these regulations are vital to ensure that the changes already agreed in primary legislation are applied to the relevant electoral conduct rules as intended. Failure to do so would create divergence across reserved electoral law, creating confusion instead of clarity. It would be a negative outcome for electors, as well as for candidates, campaigners and elected office holders, as applying these measures to the relevant election rules will strengthen the integrity of voting and offer further protection to those who wish to take part in public life. I hope noble Lords will join me in supporting these regulations.

Motion agreed.