Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 Debate

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Department: Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities

Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2023

Lord Rennard Excerpts
Tuesday 12th December 2023

(4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Khan of Burnley Portrait Lord Khan of Burnley (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction. These regulations implement the provisions of the Elections Act to remove restrictions on overseas electors. Overseas voting provides an important link for British citizens across the world. On these Benches, we are clear that those who have a strong connection to this country and their community should still have a say in how they are run. We do not oppose the principle of overseas voting and giving citizens who still have a strong connection to the UK a voice in our elections. That includes people who still have a strong connection to our local services and communities. But we need to consider this carefully and look at the potential impact on our democracy.

By repealing the 15-year residency limit, former residents who are now living abroad will be able to vote regardless of how long ago they left the UK. I am proud to have represented the community and region I grew up in as a Member of the European Parliament. Like many honourable Members in the other place, I know how important it is that those who live in our area, pay their taxes and are part of the community feel represented. As much as we support the rights of overseas voters, it would be wrong if people with little connection to this country—who may have moved a long time ago and not used any services or paid any taxes in decades—diminished the voices of constituents across the United Kingdom. We must consider how we strike a balance in our rules. There are voters who still feel a connection to the UK despite moving away 30, 40 or more years ago. But the policy of removing the cap on this important principle will undermine the balance between enfranchising those people and maintaining integrity in our democracy.

Although we do not think that there is a moral disagreement about some of the issues with votes for life, I fear that the risk of abuse of the system proposed by the Government is far too great. The registration rules proposed mean that some overseas voters require only the attestation of the identity and past location of another overseas voter. We understand that it may be difficult for legitimate overseas voters to verify their identity, but there seems to be a risk of manipulation of the system to allow those eligible for the scheme to have their pick of which seats they want to vote in.

As Florence Eshalomi MP outlined in the other place, some 30 seats were decided by fewer than 1,000 votes at the last general election. While I am sure that very few will attempt to abuse the system in that way, it could have a large impact on marginal seats when votes are added up around the world. Can the Minister assure me that there will be additional safeguards to prevent fraud? I understand that there is a tight limit on attestation and that those attesting for another voter will need to sign a declaration of their truthfulness, which is right—but those measures may not be enough to prevent people trying to abuse the system in a way that could impact the next general election.

Can the Minister stipulate what robust processes will be in place to verify an applicant’s identity and establish their eligibility to register at their qualifying United Kingdom address? What support are the Government putting in place to enable electoral registration officers in Great Britain and the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland to determine their eligibility under these new criteria? The Government should also be more open about how much this change will cost, given that they confirmed to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that there will be additional funding to cover the costs of registering new electors.

The new rules create a huge loophole in our donation laws. The current rules on UK donations mean that those who donate more than £500 must be on the electoral register. We must be honest and say that we cannot pretend that the current system is perfect, but it is an important safeguard against money flooding into our political system from foreign and hostile states. The Labour Front Bench first raised these concerns during the passage of the Elections Act, when my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock pointed out that the removal of the 15-year limit could create a loophole in donation law.

Furthermore, during debates on the National Security Bill, my noble friend Lord Coaker called for greater restrictions on political donations from overseas. In our current system, those on the register have a clear and recent link to the UK. We think that opening the electoral register as widely as the Government are doing today goes far beyond what our current donation rules were set up to do. It will allow those with tenuous links to the UK, who have spent most of their lives in states that may even be openly hostile to our aims, the right to massively influence our system. The reality is that it will be impossible to ensure that the huge numbers of potential donors in our system are not vulnerable to manipulation by hostile actors. There is already clear evidence of attempts by these actors to influence UK democracy, as we have seen in recent days. It will also make enforcement of our rules much harder, given the difficulties that we may face in challenging those who fall foul of donation laws while living in another jurisdiction. The Government know the risks that those hostile actors pose to the UK and our allies. Just this year, we saw the attack on Britain’s Electoral Commission. Has the Minister met with it following this incident?

This Government should instead look to proposals made by the Electoral Commission, which recommended introducing new duties on parties to enhance due diligence and the risk assessment of donations. Louise Edwards, a director at the Electoral Commission, recently commented that the current levels of transparency around donations are “not enough”. The Electoral Commission has called for more laws to help protect parties from those who seek to evade the law, as well as more checks on the identity of donors. It is beyond belief that the Government are seeking to risk opening our system at such a critical time for our world. What would a political party do if, for instance, it were offered a donation of £50,000 by somebody who lives and works in Moscow today? Will the Government introduce a new requirement on political parties to do proper checks on the source of funds?

Changes to the Electoral Commission’s powers under the Elections Act 2022 have left the UK without any body responsible for criminal enforcement of election finance laws. I particularly press the Minister on the fact that no one agency now has enforcement powers over electoral law. Do the Government consider it appropriate for the National Crime Agency to take these powers? If so, will they implement that without further delay? If not, is a department fulfilling this role?

I know that there are British citizens who still feel a connection to the UK, and they will welcome this rule change, but it will also be welcomed by those who want to undermine our democracy and funnel money into our politics. We must not allow that to happen. We must strike the right balance to empower voters without enabling undue influence, but I am afraid that these regulations go nowhere near far enough to do that. Unfortunately, the Government have refused to implement any effective safeguards and have instead brought forward these regulations. I further probe the Minister on how the Government propose to monitor the impact of these new rules. Will they publish regular reviews or statements on the number of new overseas voters? If so, will this include how many have used the attestation route to register? How will we get notified of the number and value of donations made by overseas voters?

The ability to make political donations is dependent on the right to vote, so the change would allow substantially more overseas donations, particularly where the attestation of identity is open to more abuse. We express concern that the changes could dangerously weaken the restrictions on overseas political donations and allow foreign money to enter British democracy. We have therefore tabled this amendment to register our concerns, as this entirely unnecessary risk creates problems for our elections and our democracy. At a time of global instability and significant evidence of hostile states seeking to interfere in UK politics, as well as a lack of public confidence in our political institutions, now is the time to enhance our safeguards, not dismantle them. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, and the department will think again, and that all noble Lords will support our amendment to the Motion today. I beg to move.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, there are real concerns about these measures. They include the security of our electoral processes, the risk of undermining confidence in them and, above all, our elections being bought by dark money and illegitimate foreign interference. That is why we support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley.

All parties agree on the principle of UK citizens living overseas being able to vote for representatives in our Parliament, but these statutory instruments do not do much to help them. In the absence of a fixed-term Parliament, there is a very short timescale in our system for conducting a general election. It is really too short to enable many people living overseas to be able to return postal votes. We could have better addressed the issue of UK citizens living overseas through the creation of overseas constituencies, dedicated to representing their interests. They do this in many other countries, including France, Italy and Portugal. Countries such as the US and Australia allow a longer period, of up to a fortnight after polling stations have closed, for postal votes to be returned, enabling many more of their citizens living overseas to participate in their elections. When I raised such issues during the passage of the Elections Bill, the Government lacked interest. This failure means, for example, that members of our Armed Forces serving overseas, or British diplomats working in our embassies, will often remain unable to cast their votes in general elections.

What the Government are interested in is allowing many more donations to come from abroad, without any organisation in this country having any real capacity to verify the original sources of those donations. The absence of any cap on the size of donations will no doubt encourage more donations of, say, £5 million-plus to come from people whose real interests are not in this country. Why should a billionaire tax exile be able to fund a political party in the UK, and who knows where their money really comes from? The Government have clipped the wings of the previously independent Electoral Commission and made criminal enforcement of election finance laws significantly harder. I wonder why. I think perhaps we should be told.

Political parties themselves have very little capacity to scrutinise overseas bank accounts, or to inspect the accounts of companies operating overseas, even if they want to. Earlier this year, the Government rejected an amendment to the then National Security Bill which would have insisted on greater scrutiny of the original sources of donations to parties. I wonder why. The chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Julian Lewis, supported such an amendment, saying that

“the UK has clearly welcomed Russian money, including in the political sphere … We must protect against covert, foreign state-backed financial donations if we are to defend our democratic institutions from harmful interference and influence”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/5/23; col. 132.]

But this Government did not want our democracy to have that protection. I wonder why. I think perhaps we should be told.