All David Davis contributions to the Elections Bill 2021-22

Tue 7th September 2021
14 interactions (1,038 words)

Elections Bill

(2nd reading)
David Davis Excerpts
Tuesday 7th September 2021

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House declines to give a second reading to the Elections Bill, notwithstanding the need for legislation around digital imprints and some accessibility improvements for disabled voters which do not go far enough, because it infringes on the right of expression of the electorate by allowing the Secretary of State to unilaterally modify and select which groups are allowed to campaign during an election period, creates unnecessary barriers to entry for voting, makes the Electoral Commission subordinate to the executive, would serve to restrict the franchise and thereby reduce the overall number of people able to participate in any future UK General Election and does not make provision for the UK Parliament to match the devolved nations in Scotland and Wales by extending the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds and other disenfranchised groups.

It is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate. Let me begin by quoting: the law governing elections is “voluminous”, “fragmented” and “extremely complex”, with some provisions

“dating back to the 19th century”.

I used that quote from the Law Commission’s 2016 report back in 2016, when I first became Labour’s shadow spokesperson for elections, a role that I still hold. Since 2016, it is like nothing has happened. The Government did not make any changes on the back of those recommendations, and the Elections Bill continues to make absolutely no progress on them or on the recommendations of many reports that have been published since. In fact, over the past decade the Government have failed to take any action to modernise our electoral laws or to close the loopholes that allow foreign money to flood into our democracy; this Bill actually makes that threat far greater and does not reduce it at all. I think the reason is very clear and those of us on the Opposition Benches have seen right through it: it is because these laws will lead to benefits for the Conservative party. In the Bill we have before us, the Government have not reached out for cross-party consensus as is typical for a Bill of this type which massively changes electoral law and deals with constitutional matters. It would be normal to see a Speaker’s Committee put together before such massive changes were brought forward. There has been no attempt by the Government to reach out for a cross-party consensus on a matter as important as our elections and our democracy.

This Bill is a huge missed opportunity to modernise our electoral law to bring it into the 21st century and try to encourage people to participate in our democracy. Indeed, our democracy is stronger when more people take part in it. In this Bill we see that the leaders would like to choose the voters. I believe that the voters should choose the leaders of their country, yet the flagship part of this Bill is very much about the leaders of this country choosing who are the voters.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
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I am a known critic of this Bill, but I will say to the hon. Lady that when I served through over a decade of Labour Government, they did not once consult the Opposition when they changed electoral law—not once.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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For years now, I have stood opposite the Minister responsible for the constitution and we have talked about many ways of improving our democracy. I had hoped that this Bill would contain some of the many topics that we have discussed across the Dispatch Box and in Committee, to expand the franchise to make it more inclusive. That might include spending the £120 million that will be spent on the electoral ID system to encourage registration to make sure that the millions missing from our electoral roll are included, making it easier for homeless people to register to vote—but no, none of that is included in this Bill, which would in fact serve to reverse decades of progress. I draw attention to the recent changes made by the Welsh Labour Government to expand the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds.

Some of the Conservative Members here today should consider the implications of this Bill for their constituents whose votes they perhaps relied on to get into this House, and how difficult it is for so many people in this country to have access to ID, because it is expensive—£80-odd for a passport and £43 for a driving licence. This is a paywall to the ballot box.

--- Later in debate ---
Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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I agree entirely. Trade unions are already incredibly heavily regulated, and charities will feel stifled and gagged by the legislation before us.

Finally, I want to turn to what the Government are calling the so-called votes for life section of the Bill. Indeed, if we wish to expand the franchise, I would very much support the Government if they wanted to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. However, it appears that, at one fell swoop, we seem to be advancing more rights to people who do not live in this country than to people who do live in this country.

There is nothing in this Bill that actually helps overseas electors get their ballots back in time. One of the complaints I have heard most from overseas electors is that they do not get their ballot papers in time and cannot get them returned to the UK in time for their votes to count. There is nothing in this Bill that explores the many different options of using modern technology to speed up this process to make sure that overseas electors currently registered under current legislation can actually use their vote. Instead, the motivation behind the change to remove the 15-year limit is about creating a loophole in donation law, and it will give rich Conservative donors unlimited access to our democracy in allowing them to bankroll the Tory party.

I look forward to the Committee stage of this Bill, and I cannot wait to get into the detail of the clauses in Committee with the Minister, but I shall finish by saying that I do believe this Bill tarnishes our democracy. It is an opportunity missed—an opportunity to modernise our electoral law, put it into one piece of legislation and make it fit for the 21sst century, and to use £120 million to encourage voter participation instead of putting up barriers. The Labour party will therefore be voting against this legislation today. I hope that all Members in this House will consider the implications for their own constituents, and I commend the reasoned amendment in my name and the names of others.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
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Let me start with a comment relating to the question the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) raised about the duty on Governments to be more than fair when they are dealing with electoral legislation. Governments should not, even by accident, put in place electoral legislation that advantages themselves over their opponents. However, I do have to say to her that the most egregious example of that was under Gordon Brown, and the more sanctimonious the Minister, the worse the outcome sometimes. It is incumbent on us to make sure that we do not even accidentally disadvantage the other side in elections.

I want to focus on just one thing today, which is the issue of voter ID. The very fact that the phrase has “ID” in it will tell everybody I am against it—they understand that—but it is not for the conventional reasons. This is not an ID system with a database behind it; it is just an ID card that people have to present. Our country has over the centuries been different from other countries: we do not allow our policemen to come up to people and say, “Can I see your papers, please?” It is important to maintain that distinction between the citizen and the state, particularly when we are talking about the fundamental rights of the individual, such as the right to vote.

The Government quite rightly claim that voter fraud undermines our democracy—the battle on that has already occurred to some extent—but the primary voter fraud has been in postal votes, not in personation. We all know how it has occurred in communities up and down the country, and we should deal with it ruthlessly and prosecute. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who used to serve with me as a Minister in the Brexit Department, that the answer to his question is that the prosecution should happen in his constituency. That is what should happen, but let us be clear: since 2014 only three prosecutions have occurred. There have been 30-odd allegations but only three prosecutions, and that is out of many tens of millions of votes cast. So there have been 30-odd allegations, three prosecutions and zero election outcomes influenced; that is what we must bear in mind.

On the back of that, Ministers will want to introduce mandatory voter identification. It is an illiberal solution—unsurprisingly coming from the Cabinet Office, as that is what it always thinks up—in search of a non-existent problem. [Interruption.] I have at least some support on my side of the House.

The Government’s own research found that those with disabilities, the unemployed, people without qualifications, people who had never voted before and ethnic minorities were all less likely to hold any form of ID; those are the sorts of groups we are talking about. In two groups—the over-85s and the disabled—between 5% and 10% had no photo ID. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has warned that the introduction of voter ID may have a discriminatory effect on those groups and other protected groups, and the trial referred to by the Liberal spokesman, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), when 700 people did not vote as a result of photo ID being required, took place in a set of areas where the numbers of people in these groups were very low; it was basically the southern English test area, not central Bradford or wherever.

This is very serious. We are talking about quite a significant fraction of our population. There are 2 million people in the groups I have described who will have to be met by some ID system, and that must be balanced against three voter convictions. That is the problem we are facing.

Craig Mackinlay Portrait Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet) (Con)
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Has my right hon. Friend looked at schedule 1, which contains a very broad list of valid means of identification? I would be very surprised if anybody in the country today did not have one of them, and my right hon. Friend also knows that there is the provision of free ID from the local council.

David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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The point I would make is that I am quoting from Government research. I did not do this research; it is Government research. By the way, since my hon. Friend draws me to Government research, Lord Pickles, a real old pal of mine, did a study on this. I have read it and, to summarise, the conclusion was, “I can find no evidence of personation but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, and of course even if it isn’t happening now it might well happen in the future.” It is the precautionary principle gone mad in the centre of our constitution.

The Government answer, as we have heard several times, is free photographic ID. Nevertheless, the Government’s own research again found that about 42% of people without the ID would not take it up. That is really very serious. These groups are going to be disenfranchised because they do not take it up, and they will turn up at the polling station and find that they are unable to vote. This is in pursuit of three convictions.

Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
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The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech thoroughly destroying the Government case for voter ID. Would he care to hazard a guess as to why the Government are pursuing this policy?

David Davis Portrait Mr Davis
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This is where I differ from the hon. Gentleman. I think that the Government are trying to do their best. I do not think that this is a deliberate action, but I think that the pressure on the Government—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman laughs, but listen: I lived through a Labour Government deliberately gerrymandering the system, frankly, so I do not want to take any lectures on that. I think that the Government are trying to do their best. They have the wrong idea in pursuit of a problem that does not exist, but they are nevertheless trying to do their best. But there is a greater—

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies
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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. There is no evidence of gerrymandering. That is outrageous.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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That is not a point of order. I really do not want the debate interrupted by points of order that are actually points of debate.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis
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I will take another day to give lectures on points of order.

The simple truth is that there is a greater responsibility on the Government than on anyone else to do the right thing and to avoid errors working to their own advantage. That is what I am arguing here today. This voter ID scheme is an illiberal idea in pursuit of a non-existent problem, and that is what we need to address. We need to get rid of it, and that is what I will seek to do on Report.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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Fundamentally, this Bill is an attack on democracy that will disenfranchise millions, entrench more powers with the Executive, and remove the power of the Electoral Commission to scrutinise. Like many others, I urge Members not to look at the Bill in isolation but to view it in the wider context of the other legislation going through the House at the moment with respect to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, citizens’ right to peacefully protest, and even the proposed privatisation of Channel 4. That paints a very bleak picture for our democracy.

When the Bill first appeared, in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year, the headline-grabbing proposal was voter ID, whereby photographic evidence would be required before an individual was allowed to cast their vote. However, as we have heard from many others this afternoon, voter fraud at polling stations barely reaches the height of minuscule, and the evidence that we have heard from those on the Government Benches has been based on personal anecdote. We have to ask: what is the problem they are seeking to solve?

Seeing a Government introduce such radical policy changes without a shred of evidence to support those changes sets alarm bells ringing among those of us who believe that every Government should be trying to remove barriers that prevent participation in the democratic process, rather than raising them.