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

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Department: Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities

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

Lord Rennard Excerpts
Tuesday 23rd January 2024

(4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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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.