Debates between Brendan O'Hara and Kemi Badenoch during the 2019 Parliament

Elections Bill (Eleventh sitting)

Debate between Brendan O'Hara and Kemi Badenoch
Tuesday 26th October 2021

(2 days, 2 hours ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right, though I admire his endless optimism that the chances are middling to none. He is far more optimistic than me that the Government will ever move an inch. That does not mean that the arguments cannot be made. Indeed, there is every reason for the arguments to be made.

At general elections, every single one of us has been made to think, question and commit one way or another to an idea coming from a third party or campaigning organisation. That is exactly how it should be in a democracy. When we put ourselves forward for election, people have a right to know where we stand on the big issues of the day—whether that is homelessness, third-world debt or support for those suffering domestic violence—and where better to do that, for a charity or third party organisation, than a general election? People are not asking us just as individuals; they are asking all those who put themselves forward for election in this country where they stand, because our public have an absolute right to know that.

The real question is about the motivation of the Government in introducing the measure in the first place. Campaigning is a core function of many organisations. It allows them to highlight areas of concern and contribute to the wider public discourse, from a position of authority and experience, from which every one of us benefits. We have all heard from numerous third party organisations of their concerns, but these measures will make an already complicated area even more confusing and burdensome for those issue-based campaigning organisations. They face new rules that may see them inadvertently fall foul of legislation and, as a result, step a long way back from their activity. They will shrink back from that public debate, which can only harm our democracy. That will dampen public debate, and the voice of those marginalised groups they represent will be further diminished.

Organisations will quite rightly engage in campaigning 12 months prior to a general election, but the vast majority of that campaigning will not be focused on that general election. Those organisations campaign every day of the year, every year of a decade. That is what they are there to do; they are there to inform and to advocate.

What is really troubling here is the purpose test and whether it can be passed. It is confusing. The legislation says that the purpose test can be passed if it

“can reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters to vote for or against political parties or categories of candidates, including political parties or categories of candidates who support or do not support particular policies”.

That is all well and good, but the confusion arises because that is not the intention of the charity of a third sector organisation. The interpretation comes from someone else, and it is their perception of what counts as political campaigning. Even if the charity is clear that that is not its intention, it could be decreed by someone else that it is. The result is that the charities will shrink from those areas of concern—homelessness, domestic abuse—for fear of falling foul of the legislation. Many of us on this side of the Committee think that that was probably the Government’s intention from the start.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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Amendments 76 and 90 would exempt from the transparency requirements provided by the lower tier of expenditure registered charities, charities exempt from registering with the Charities Commission, and community interest companies spending more than £10,000 across the UK but less than the existing notification thresholds. Amendment 77 would allow those groups to forgo the usual notification process for the lower tier and instead provide only their charity or company number.

The Government are clear that any group spending significant amounts in UK elections should be subject to scrutiny. That is essential to ensure transparency for voters and to maintain the level playing field for all participants in elections. It is therefore right that all types of third party campaigner should be subject to the same sets of rules where they are trying to influence the electorate. The amendments would undermine those principles, and the Government cannot accept them.

Additionally, third party campaigner regulations do, and should, focus on the purpose of campaigning activities conducted by all organisations, not just specific types of organisation. Charities and CICs can always choose to spend less than £10,000 in the period before an election if they do not want to register with the Electoral Commission.

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Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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Indeed, or a Back-Bench MP—how will they know when they are in that 12-month period before a general election?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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The fact is that we all have a fairly good idea of when an election will be. Although snap elections can be called, the fact is that everybody will be in the same situation.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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Will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I am not giving way again on that point. Third party campaigning groups will not have any special intelligence. People will need to take that into account when they are campaigning politically. People seeking to influence the electorate should all be subject to the same laws.

The debate is not about whether charities are nice groups or nice individuals, which is 50% of the argument made by SNP Members. To be perfectly honest, it sounds like Opposition Members want charities to make their political arguments for them, because they think they are more acceptable.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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Will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I am no longer giving way on that point.

That is not how we want to regulate our politics or our electorate. Charities should make points on their own—not in the way that SNP Members are saying, as if there are other political reasons that would be helpful to them, rather than the Government. They accuse us of playing politics, but it sounds to me as though they are the ones doing that.

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Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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The hon. Lady knows that I cannot answer any questions about when elections are forthcoming. That does not change the premise of our argument. I do not know; she does not know; charities do not know; no third party campaigners know. The law is equal for everybody. I am afraid we simply do not accept the argument that there should be special rules and exemptions for particular groups.

Charities can supply the relevant information, and the amendment would increase the administrative burden for the Electoral Commission—a point it has made several times—and not allow it to obtain all the necessary information covered in the notification requirements. Under the amendment, charities and community interest companies would not have to provide the name of a responsible person. That information cannot be obtained through Companies House or the Charity Commission because it is specific to electoral law.

It is important to identify a person who will be responsible for ensuring compliance with electoral law. Naming a responsible person also acts to protect third parties from being liable for expenditure that has not been authorised by that person. Allowing charities and community interest companies to be exempt from that requirement would risk their duty of compliance and protection falling away, which would not be right. In the light of the reasons I have given, and the minimal burden on charities that the measures will generate, we oppose the amendment.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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I have a question for the Minister, which I think is a perfectly reasonable and fair question to ask on behalf of charities. How do they know right now that they are not 12 months out from a general election? How do they know where their spending is in relation to the next general election, and that they have not already exceeded the threshold? The question is whether she thinks it is fair for charities inadvertently to fall foul of the legislation, with their having absolutely no way of knowing where they stand because the Government have changed the rules around about them. Will she address the basic issue of fairness to our charities?

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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Third party campaigners are subject to limits on their controlled expenditure in the periods leading up to parliamentary elections in the UK, including devolved elections. The time during which those spending limits apply are known as regulated periods and are 12 months long for UK parliamentary elections and four months long for the relevant parliamentary elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Regulated periods can be longer where they overlap. It is right that any campaign that could influence the electorate at an election should be regulated and subject to a spending limit. While significant amounts of spending might take place following the announcement of a poll, elections are often known, rumoured or expected to take place long before the poll date is announced and a Parliament is dissolved, which is the point that we are debating.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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Can the Minister explain how the House can legislate on the basis of a rumour of when a general election might be? How is that any way to run a country?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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That is not what we are legislating on; that is a statement of fact. Just as with every intervention the hon. Gentleman has made, it is a point we all acknowledge that while elections are at expected times, they can happen at different times: earlier or there may be snap elections, though rare. That does not change the fundamental point under discussion.

Opposition Members seem to be annoyed that there is a regulated spending period at all. I am afraid that that is not going to change. Campaigning and political activity, which can occur up to 12 months or more in advance of an election, may have a significant influence on its outcome. Having a short regulated period, as proposed by the amendment, would mean that spending, which does influence the electorate, is likely to fall away from being regulated and reported. That fatally undermines the principle of transparency and spending limits.

Elections Bill (Sixth sitting)

Debate between Brendan O'Hara and Kemi Badenoch
Wednesday 22nd September 2021

(1 month ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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The amendment would ensure that private companies could not take any part in any aspect of producing or administrating voter cards and anonymous elector’s documents. We cannot agree to the amendment. It is an entirely unnecessary restriction, clearly raised for ideological reasons, with no consideration for the practicalities. I remind Opposition Members that the private sector already plays numerous roles in elections—it prints documents, ballot papers and poll cards; it manufactures equipment such as ballot boxes and polling booths; and it delivers poll cards and postal votes. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling made the point well; we on the Conservative Benches can spot socialism coming from a mile away, and this is nationalisation through the back door.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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Whether this is about socialism or whatever else—we can debate that—we have just come out of a personal protective equipment scandal. So much of this Bill has been predicated on public trust and on building public trust. In light of the fact that the public have been so horribly stung in that PPE scandal, we have to rebuild trust. The idea of the landlord of a Minister’s local boozer saying, “I can make those cards for you,” runs a shiver down our spines. In the interests of building public trust, this surely has to be taken in-house, because if it is not we will be in grave danger of repeating the scandal we have seen with PPE.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that straw man argument, which shows that he did not listen to what I just said. Does he seriously think that all the ballot papers and poll cards that are being printed are being produced by mates—

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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No, I am not giving way any more. I would say that he does not think that. An ideological point is being made, and we will not have it.

The hon. Member for Putney made a point about GP surgeries having our data. GPs are private contractors. This conflation of what is private and what is not, and this lack of understanding of how services are delivered, is poor. The Carillion argument in particular is a specious one. Many organisations both private and public fail occasionally. We have debated these issues on the Floor of the House many times, and there is no point in my repeating them, but public sector organisations also fail. We do not then decide that we are going to rip up everything and that they will no longer provide any services; we try to fix what has gone wrong. I do not accept those arguments at all.

Government and local authorities will, as ever, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland said, seek to ensure best value for money for the taxpayer. That is the right thing to do, rather than the ideological ping-pong that we are seeing here. I say to the hon. Member for Putney: nice try, but we are not accepting the amendment. If any aspect of the production or administration of either of these documents could best be served in the private sector, then that must be an option that is available. We are not being prescriptive about how we are going to do this.

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Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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The amendment would provide that a person who is unable to produce one of the required forms of photographic identification is able to cast a provisional ballot pending checks on their identity. We cannot agree to the amendment. It would mean that the counting of votes and announcement of the final result at an election might have to be delayed while the eligibility of such persons to vote at the election is checked and resolved by elections staff.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
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On the length of time, so much of what we heard on Second Reading and today was about the integrity of the ballot and about ensuring that every vote counts and that no vote is there wrongly, but suddenly we seem to have a pivoting on this point, with convenience somehow trumping democracy. The Minister accepted that queues will be longer, because people will have to produce a voter ID card, so are we really saying that the inconvenience of having to check the veracity of somebody’s vote—that it is absolutely correct—is more important than them actually having that vote?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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No, I do not think so. I do not think that the point the hon. Gentleman is making applies to this amendment. Of course, we want every single vote to be counted, but as the amendment is drafted, how long would we have to wait, and what would the procedure be under it?

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
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The answer would be that we wait as long as we need to get the right result.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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Exactly—that is the point I was coming to. As the amendment is drafted, it could be a way in a marginal election of unduly delaying the announcement of a result. We want to ensure that people do not have their votes taken away and used by others who should not be using them. The examples we saw in Tower Hamlets and so on are part of the reason for the Bill.

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Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I can actually answer the question, because I asked it myself; I thought it was an interesting point. The reason is that the requirements when applying for those types of card are different. Getting a 60+ Oyster card is a significantly more stringent process. People need a passport, driving licence or combination of different proofs of age and address to apply for the 60+ Oyster card. People do not have to have that for the 18+ Oyster card, for example. We have gone through and looked at what the basis for stringent checks would be. The point I am making is that we considered the level of security checks required to get each type of identification and the likelihood that someone holding further forms of identification would already hold one of the permitted types of identification. That is why this is the case.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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My question is on the specifics. We have been talking about a card that is accepted by the Scottish Government and, indeed, by Police Scotland. Why specifically is the Scottish young person’s national entitlement card not accepted for this purpose?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I am sorry, but I do not know the details of the Scottish entitlement card. Perhaps if I can see the reasons and the application process for that, I might be able to give an example. I have given the basis for how the decisions were made. I cannot comment on various forms of identification used in various places, I am afraid.

The list of identity documents that will be permitted for the purpose of voting at polling stations that is included in the Bill is already broad. That said, it is recognised that available forms of identification will change over time, and that is why the Bill includes provisions to allow the list of acceptable identification to be updated through secondary legislation. For example, there are plans for online provisional driving licences, which will be considered for inclusion if appropriate. We completely understand the need to make sure that as many people as possible are able to get the ID that they need, and we feel that this provision and the free voter card are enough to make sure that voters will have the identification required, so we will not support the amendment.

Elections Bill (Fifth sitting)

Debate between Brendan O'Hara and Kemi Badenoch
Wednesday 22nd September 2021

(1 month ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
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I have been trying, both on Second Reading and in Committee, to tease out where the Northern Ireland comparison comes from and how the Government believe that the situation we have in the United Kingdom in 2021 in any way resembles that in Northern Ireland in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, which led to the change. Nobody has managed to give me an answer to explain what the similarities are and why the Northern Ireland example is being used to advocate this change.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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Can I come in on that point?