Representation of the People (Franchise Amendment and Eligibility Review) Regulations 2023 Debate

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Wednesday 18th October 2023

(5 months, 4 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Mott Portrait Lord Mott (Con)
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My Lords, in moving the Representation of the People (Franchise Amendment and Eligibility Review) Regulations 2023 I will speak also to the Representation of the People (Franchise Amendment and Eligibility Review) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2023.

This Government are committed to protecting the integrity of our democratic processes and we have delivered on that commitment. Last year, Parliament passed the Elections Act, which includes changes to ensure that UK elections remain secure, fair and modern. Today, I am delighted to bring forward two statutory instruments which flow from that Act. The changes made by these instruments are very similar, so I intend to talk through both in parallel. Taken together, the instruments provide a single package of measures covering non-devolved elections in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Elections Act amended the franchise to reflect the UK’s new relationship with the EU and protect the rights of UK citizens living in EU countries. This moved us to the principle of a mutual grant of rights, through agreements with individual EU member states. Qualifying EU citizens from EU member states that have bilateral agreements with the UK will have the right to vote and stand in relevant elections. We also preserved the existing rights of all EU citizens who chose to make the UK their home prior to the end of the implementation period. As such, EU citizens with retained rights will continue to have the right to vote and stand. The long-standing voting rights of Irish citizens remain unchanged. Likewise, the voting rights of Maltese and Cypriot citizens, as Commonwealth citizens, are not affected by these changes.

These instruments provide for a new registration process for EU citizens which includes clear information about the new eligibility criteria for electors. Persons applying under the retained rights criteria will have to make a legal declaration that they have been legally resident in the UK since the end of the implementation period. Registration officers will be able to accept this declaration as sufficient evidence of eligibility or, if they deem necessary, will be able to require further information and evidence from the individual to make a determination.

Electoral registration officers have a legal duty to ensure that the electoral register remains accurate, so the instruments require them to conduct a one-time review to determine eligibility of all registered EU citizens. It may be helpful to note that the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland is the registration officer for the whole of Northern Ireland, and therefore this process will be conducted by them. This bespoke eligibility review process is designed to be fair and transparent for review subjects and to minimise burdens on registration officers. As far as possible, it has been based on and benchmarked against existing practice and processes.

Initially, registration officers will use data already available to them to confirm an elector’s continued eligibility without the need for an elector to take any action. Where a registration officer is unable to confirm eligibility using existing data, this instrument requires them to contact the elector to request the information necessary to determine eligibility. In the event of no response, a registration officer must make at least three attempts to contact the elector in writing, and at least one attempt to contact them in person, before they may determine them to be ineligible. All those reviewed will be notified of the franchise change and the review outcome, with the contents of all review communications prescribed for consistency. Where a person is deemed ineligible and removed from the register on the basis of non-response, they will be invited to reapply if they believe they are eligible to do so. We anticipate that the end-to-end review process will take up to three months to complete. Registration officers will have a nine-month implementation window from 7 May 2024 to 31 January 2025 to undertake the one-time review.

Finally, the SI requires registration officers in England and Wales to report on the operation of the review process to the Electoral Commission upon completion. The Secretary of State will write to the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to request similar data.

This franchise change will apply only to polls which are non-devolved. These instruments cover all local elections in England, and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales, as well as local and Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. Secondary arrangements to implement candidacy changes in England are being taken forward in other statutory instruments. The changes will update nomination forms to reflect the new qualification criteria for EU citizens. Candidacy changes for Northern Ireland were implemented in the Elections Act. In practice, candidacy processes at local and Assembly elections will not change significantly. I commend these regulations to the House.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, our debates on the Elections Act last year highlighted a number of inconsistencies with the franchise. The rights of Irish citizens, and, for example, Maltese and Cypriot citizens as members of the Commonwealth, are protected, but the rights of some EU citizens who live and work here and pay their taxes here, and who may do so in future, are not properly respected. It is time to look fundamentally at the issues of the franchise, as we are now going backwards with post-Brexit changes.

The Government estimate that under the new criteria around 2 million EU citizens will be verified and remain on the electoral register, but around 160,000 EU citizens will be removed from that register and will lose their right to vote in local elections in England and Northern Ireland. EU citizens moving here in future will never have such rights. It seems to me that permanent residency should really be the basis for voting, at the very least in local elections, and that we need to look at the rights of all EU citizens in the same way as we do for Irish and qualifying Commonwealth citizens.

The franchise is increasingly inconsistent, and therefore confusing, in different parts of the UK, and none of these measures provide any more clarity on these issues. Will the Minister accept that there should be a proper government-led consultation on the principles of the franchise for voting at different levels?

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
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My Lords, in the previous debate, I referred to a letter that I had written to my noble friend Lady Scott where I raised a number of electoral issues. I mentioned this when we debated other SIs in the Moses Room a few weeks ago, when I said that I had received replies to questions that I had not asked. One was on a subject covered by this statutory instrument.