Elections Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
David DavisMain Page: David Davis (Conservative - Haltemprice and Howden)
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.