Electoral Commission Strategy and Policy Statement

Lord Rennard Excerpts
Tuesday 6th February 2024

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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In light of the scathing consultation responses and feedback in relation to this statement, I hope that the Minister and the Government will think again. I ask all noble Lords to support our amendment to the Motion to help the Government to think again.
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, I too apologise for my slightly late arrival in the Chamber; earlier business finished more rapidly than might have been expected.

I thank the Minister for her briefing meeting with me and others last week to discuss these measures. In response to her points now and then, I say that “substantive” is a subjective word. She says that substantive changes have been made to the policy and strategy statement being imposed on the Electoral Commission, but nobody outside the Government agrees with that description. The Electoral Commission itself certainly does not; its briefing to us sets out the commission’s clear view:

“The introduction of a mechanism such as a strategy and policy statement—by which a government can guide an electoral commission’s work—is inconsistent with this independent role”

of the Electoral Commission.

Our Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee highlighted the fact that the Speaker’s Committee—the body responsible for holding the commission to account on behalf of Parliament—objects to the draft statement as being

“not fit for purpose and inconsistent with the Commission’s role as an independent regulator”.

The Electoral Commission is not like other regulators, such as those for the utility industries. Its role includes advising on the framing of election laws and it helps to police them. It is not appropriate, therefore, for the party in power to set the commission’s policy and strategy. Putting the governing party in charge of this is like letting GB News set the strategy and policy for Ofcom; Southern Water to set if for Ofwat; or Eton College to set it for Ofsted.

I led for my party during the 11 days of debate in this Chamber on what became the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. All parties were agreed throughout this process on the essential need for the Electoral Commission to be independent of government or party. Its creation was proposed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life—a body created by Sir John Major to try to clean up the reputation of politics. It was legislated for on the basis that it

“must be as independent of the Government of the day as our constitutional arrangements allow”.

The late and greatly respected Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish led for the Conservative Benches, in opposition on this occasion, during all those debates. He defended the principle of the Electoral Commission’s independence. He argued that our election laws should not be subject to control by what he called “Tony’s cronies”. So I say now that the Electoral Commission should not be subject to control by Michael Gove and his cronies.

I will give four examples of how this Government have history in seeking to change the rules of elections to favour themselves. The first is the introduction of very specific forms of photo ID in order to vote at a polling station. This made it far harder to vote than anything required by any evidence of fraud in Great Britain. The introduction was defended by the Government on the basis that ID is required to collect a parcel from a post office. Surely, then, forms of ID acceptable at a post office should be acceptable at a polling station—but they are not. Despite evidence of people being turned away from polling stations and many more failing to attend because of specific ID requirements, the Government refused to act on the advice of the Electoral Commission to allow wider forms of safe and reliable voter ID to be used.

The Electoral Commission’s chair, Mr John Pullinger, was interviewed recently in the Financial Times. The article stated:

“Conservative ministers have ‘opened themselves’ up to the charge that a new voter identification scheme is designed to benefit the Tory party, according to the head of the UK elections watchdog”.

This fact was admitted by no less a person than Jacob Rees-Mogg. This Government are imposing classic voter suppression techniques taken from the Trump Republican playbook.

Secondly, this Government have a history of seeking to undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission. This is the seventh Government since the commission was created, and none of the previous six Governments sought to control it in the way that is now set out. The excellent previous chair of the commission, Sir John Holmes, found that his term of office was not renewed by the Government after he and the commission pursued illegal activity by the Conservative Party. This resulted in a senior Conservative Party official escaping jail only on compassionate grounds, but after a damning judgment by Mr Justice Edis.

Conservative MPs wanted revenge. This series of investigations was followed by the then Conservative Party co-chair, Amanda Milling MP, writing in the Daily Telegraph in August 2020 to say that, if the Electoral Commission failed to make the changes that the Government wanted,

“the only option would be to abolish it”.

An independent election watchdog should not operate under such threats in a democracy.

Thirdly, this Government have, in effect, ended the principle of the level playing field that was first established to provide fair elections in Gladstone’s day. As a funding arms race developed, in 2000, a national limit for political parties to spend in a general election was established. Since then, six different Governments have not seen any need to raise this limit and only one political party has generally come close to spending the legal maximum—the Conservative Party. Increasing the national party expense limit from around £19.5 million to around £36 million is clearly designed to benefit one party only—the Conservative Party.

Meanwhile, the Electoral Commission said that the Government had provided no evidence of the need for this increase. When I questioned this most significant change to our election laws, I was told that it was an exercise that had been performed by successive Governments of all political colours. It is not, therefore, an unusual law. But this is simply and absolutely not the case: no previous Government of any party or colour have sought to raise this limit. All my questions about national party spending have been met with answers relevant only to local candidate spending, which of course is quite different. This Government have changed the national spending limits unilaterally and without a vote in Parliament.

My fourth and final example is the ban, in 2022, on the distribution of political literature by party volunteers in the approach to major local elections, when no such ban was imposed on the distribution of political literature by pre-existing commercial operators. It cannot conceivably be a coincidence that the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats rely mainly on volunteer activists to deliver their leaflets, while the Conservative Party generally relies on paying commercial delivery companies to distribute its leaflets. So I asked why one form of delivery was banned when exactly the same activity by employees of commercial firms used by the Conservatives was not banned. I was frequently told that this was because of scientific, health and medical advice. I asked repeatedly for some of this purported evidence to be made available, but it never was.