All 10 Kemi Badenoch contributions to the Elections Act 2022

Read Bill Ministerial Extracts

Wed 22nd Sep 2021
Wed 22nd Sep 2021
Tue 19th Oct 2021
Tue 19th Oct 2021
Thu 21st Oct 2021
Thu 21st Oct 2021
Tue 26th Oct 2021
Tue 26th Oct 2021
Mon 17th Jan 2022
Elections Bill
Commons Chamber

Report stage & Report stage
Wed 27th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Commons Chamber

Consideration of Lords amendments & Consideration of Lords amendments

Elections Bill (Fifth sitting)

Kemi Badenoch Excerpts
None Portrait The Chair
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I can only repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. That is a perfectly fair point, and if the hon. Gentleman wishes to table an amendment to that effect, I am sure that the Government will listen very closely. I am completely in the hands of the Committee.

We will start with clause 1, and the question that it stand part of the Bill. Members will note my grouping and selection, and that several detailed matters relating to voter ID will be covered in debates on amendments later today. Clause 1 introduces the schedule on voter ID. I would be grateful if Members could please restrict their remarks to the principles of the proposals. That is quite important. I am sure that we can have a very wide-ranging debate that will be more like a Second Reading debate, but remember that there are loads of amendments later, so there is no point in getting into detail now. We will have plenty of time to discuss the detail.

Clause 1

Voter Identification

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Kemi Badenoch)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to progress the passage of the Bill. I pay tribute to my predecessor, the Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), for her great contribution to the proposals in the legislation. I ask the Committee’s forgiveness if I am not as sharp as she has been on the details. This is very new to me, following my taking on this position, but I look forward to taking the Bill through Committee and the upcoming stages.

I begin by introducing clause 1, which delivers the Government’s manifesto commitment to introduce photographic identification for voting at polling stations. I will first focus on the principle behind the measure, and why it is essential to the protection of our democracy. The details of its operation will be addressed later, when discussing the contents of schedule 1. I am sure the Committee will agree that it is paramount that we protect the security and integrity of our ballot, so that our elections will remain secure well into the future. The process for voting in polling stations in Great Britain has had no significant changes to security since the Ballot Act 1872. A system used in the Victorian era, when everybody was well acquainted with their neighbours, is simply not fit for the 21st century.

As my predecessor set out many times, there are undeniable vulnerabilities in our system that let people down because they can lead, and have led, to votes being stolen by unscrupulous individuals. We cannot sit idly by and tolerate that. Where there is the opportunity for fraud, we must act, particularly when we have the power to stamp it out with such a straightforward, simple policy. Just because someone is not regularly burgled does not mean that they stop locking their front door. Showing photo identification is an entirely reasonable and proportionate way to confirm that someone is who they say they are.

Many people would question why a requirement to show identification at polling stations is not already in place. In fact, the majority of the public—66%—have said that it would make them more confident in the security of the voting system. To suggest that specific groups, such as young people or those from an ethnic minority background, would automatically not be able to access the freely available voter card, based on assumptions about the work that will be done, is to unfairly diminish the agency and desire of those groups to participate. I will be unambiguous in setting this out: anyone who is eligible to vote will continue to have the opportunity to do so.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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I welcome the Minister to her place, and appreciate that she is obviously quite new to this area. I wonder how she feels able to back up what she just said about different demographic groups not having any trouble accessing free ID. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency does not hold data on the ethnic background of people who hold a driving licence, and the Home Office does not hold data on the ethnicity of those who hold passports. Given that those are the two main forms of ID, how is she confident that any particular ethnic group will not be disproportionately affected by the policy?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I am happy to answer that question. As we produce guidance, we will be able to give more details on the specifics, but the fact is that it is an insult to say that someone from an ethnic minority background will have difficulty procuring ID. That is nonsense.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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On that point, will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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No, no—I have given way. I am also, as the hon. Lady will know, the Minister for Equalities. I have spent a year working on the disproportionate impact that covid has had on people. Being able to collect data is critical, but assuming from the get-go that people are disadvantaged on the basis of their background is stigmatising, and denies them their agency.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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Will the Minister give way? I wish to correct the record.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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Let me finish. I do not know the conversations that the hon. Lady has had with other people. I think that she will find that on this issue I will be very robust, and I will not stand in this House and have ethnic minorities denigrated with the assumption that they need the Labour party or the liberal left to hold their hand in order to vote. We have had pilots, and there is a lot of evidence to show that this policy does not discourage people from voting.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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On that point, will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I will not give way any further. We have oral questions—

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On a point of order, Sir Edward. I never said anything about ethnic minorities in my intervention on the Minister. I said that data on different ethnic groups was not collected. I never made any comment about ethnic minorities. I just wish to make that clear for the record.

None Portrait The Chair
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The hon. Lady has made her point, and I am sure that the Committee will have heard it.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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The hon. Lady talked about the DVLA not collecting data on the ethnic background of people, so we know the point that she was making. As I said, I will be unambiguous in setting this out: anyone who is eligible to vote will continue to have the opportunity to do so. I hope that for the rest of the Committee we will be able to have a civilised debate, and not one where we bring in issues that are not pertinent to the matter at hand.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
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I share the Minister’s distaste at the suggestion that people do not have that access and that agency. Is it not the case that the existing elements of voter fraud in the system fall disproportionately on ethnic minority populations, as we saw in Tower Hamlets in the Bangladeshi community?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I completely agree, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.

I want those listening to the debate to be clear that we will work with them, and for them, to ensure that the implementation supports their participation, and I hope that on that principled point the Opposition will stop their negative and discouraging narrative on the future of the measures. Voter identification is a simple, proportionate and effective means to strengthen the integrity of elections. For those reasons, I urge that clause 1 stand part of the Bill.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I welcome the new Minister, the new Government Whip and the new member of the Committee, the hon. Member for Devizes. They missed out on the pleasure of the four evidence sessions that we enjoyed last week, but obviously those evidence sessions—I will make the point again, Sir Edward—were not sufficient to cover all the clauses due to the instruction motion that was passed on the Floor of the House on Monday evening.

It is incredibly disappointing and bad form on the part of the Government to approach the House with a constitutional Bill that fundamentally changes huge swathes of how we vote and exercise our democratic rights as a society without that level of scrutiny. The instruction motion included a change to the voting system that previously happened only under referenda. I note the alternative vote referendum that we had about a decade ago. If we are to change our voting system in this country, not with referenda and not even with consideration on Second Reading or in Committee evidence sessions, I question the accountability to which hon. Members feel they can hold themselves.

Clause 1 requires voters to show photo ID at elections. I believe that in a democracy it is right that voters choose their leaders, but in the Bill we see a reversal of that: it appears that the leaders are trying to choose the voters who participate in elections. There is no doubt that requiring photo ID at a polling station is an additional barrier to voting. No one can argue—I welcome interventions from Government Members—that putting an additional requirement on a voter before receiving their ballot paper is anything other than likely to drive down turnout. If we wish to strengthen our democracy, as the Opposition wish to, one of the best ways that we can do that is to drive up turnout, because bad actors thrive when turnout is low. I wish the Bill were about encouraging participation in elections and democracy, and driving up turnout, because that would make it harder for bad actors to manipulate and twist our election results.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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The Government’s own research showed that 2 million people did not have ID, and 17% of those people said that they would not apply for a locally issued identity document. A further 23% said they were not sure that they would apply. Does the Government’s own research not prove that we risk disenfranchising millions?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I think the hon. Lady is confusing two different things. Those 2 million people are not necessarily 2 million people who are on the electoral register and are not necessarily 2 million people who would have voted anyway. Is she not mistaking correlation for causation and confusing the issue? My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland showed what actually happens when he cited evidence of an improvement in the participation of ethnic minorities and other groups in the electoral process.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am a little confused by the Minister’s intervention. There was a petition on the Parliament website about using digital IDs to access things online. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport responded to that petition using the statistics that I have used today. If one Government Department is using one set of statistics and the Cabinet Office—or presumably now the Department for Levelling Up and whatever it is—is using different statistics, does that not just show that one arm of Government is apparently not speaking to another arm of Government?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I am very happy to respond to the point the hon. Lady has just made. Different pieces of research are used for different outcomes. My argument was that she is confusing two separate things. The point my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland was making was specifically related to voter ID, and we should not mix and match different petitions and different polls that are used for different purposes as evidence, when the questions being asked are not pertinent to the matter being discussed.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister is right to say that there is a lot of different research done on who holds what ID, and it appears that there is no central understanding in Government about who holds what. That leaves us, as a Committee, high and dry in terms of knowing what impact this policy will have on different communities.

The Committee heard evidence from Gavin Millar QC, who pointed out that if Tower Hamlets was the reason for introducing voter ID, it would be

“an example of a hard case making very bad law, and I would counsel against that.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 16 September 2021; c. 108, Q165.]

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Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

None Portrait The Chair
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Order. We cannot have an intervention on an intervention.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute is right. Hundreds and hundreds of people lost their vote in the general election in, I think, 1982—it was before I was born. [Interruption.] It was in the 1983 general election. As a response to that, legislation came forward to require forms of ID, which were initially not photo ID, to protect the integrity of the ballot in Northern Ireland, where quite clearly organised crime was being used to disenfranchise literally hundreds and hundreds of voters in constituencies across Northern Ireland and, arguably, to skew election results.

Does the hon. Member for Darlington want to make the case that that is happening right here, right now? I would be very interested to hear whether he thinks that, in his constituency, hundreds and hundreds of voters have had their votes stolen through personation—perhaps at the general election in which he was elected. If he thinks that that is the case, I would be very interested to hear him make the case, but I do not think we can draw a direct comparison from Northern Ireland in the 1980s to England, Scotland and Wales in 2021. Does the Minister still wish to come in on that point?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I am very interested in the shadow Minister’s points, because she is saying that what happened in Northern Ireland in the 1980s is very different from what is happening here now, yet she is advocating keeping the rules the same as they were in 1872—150 years ago. That is extraordinary. We have not changed anything since the 19th century, yet she is saying that what happened in the 1980s is not applicable now. That is quite extraordinary.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am really thrilled that the Minister has made that point, because I have been the shadow Minister for democracy and elections for the Labour party since 2016 and I think that, in every single speech, I have made the case that electoral law in this country is fragmented and confusing. In fact, we heard from witnesses that we need to solidify—

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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And now we are making it more uniform.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think we have to assume that they were. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] Because of all the evidence that we heard as a Committee. I make no apologies to the Minister—she was not here for the four evidence sessions. We did not hear convincing evidence that this is a widespread problem. That is just not what we heard from the witnesses. We know the statistics on how many people were turned away and did not come back.

Rob Connelly from Birmingham raised concerns that the pilots did not reflect the community that he represents:

“One of our concerns with the pilots was that they did not reflect a large urban area, such as Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool… It has been calculated that about 2% of people have not got ID. That is the equivalent of 15,000 people in my electorate.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, Wednesday 15 September 2021; c. 56, Q85.]

That is in Birmingham alone. A huge number of people—thousands, or tens of thousands—in cities up and down the country will have to go through the process of applying for this free voter ID card, on which there is no detail in the Bill. How can we be expected to vote for something on which there is no detail?

Returning to where I was before I took quite a lot of interventions, I think Ministers and Government Members are living in some kind of alternative reality. Perhaps they are watching too much Fox News. Our elections do not lack integrity. We consistently hear that in reports from the Electoral Commission and when our elections are observed from overseas. I am proud of our British democracy, and of the way we do elections in this country. I am confident that every Member of this House, whether I agree with them or whether we wear the same colour rosette at elections, and everyone who is sitting in this Committee Room was elected legitimately and got the most votes in their constituency. If any Member wishes to question whether they were legitimately elected to this House, I would be very happy to hear them say that they think they won unfairly.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I think the hon. Lady is confusing the purpose of the Bill. It is to protect the voter, not to ensure that our election results are kosher. I was elected with more than 25,000 votes. Anyone who was unable to vote lost their right. It would not have affected the legitimacy of my winning. The fact that she is saying that shows that she is still missing the point that many people lose their right to vote because another person has voted on their behalf. When I stood for election in 2010, I saw it happen at first hand. It is not reported, and a crime of deception is very difficult to see. She needs to acknowledge that point.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am a little confused by the Minister’s intervention. That would be reported because the person would have a tendered ballot and that information would be available. The point is—we heard it during evidence—that this policy has been brought in for UK Parliament elections with large electorates and we did not hear one witness say they thought a major election had been swung by mass fraud.

On the example of referendums, I campaigned in the EU referendum for remain, but I do not question that leave won because it would be unthinkable to enact personation fraud on such a scale.

Elections Bill (Sixth sitting)

Kemi Badenoch Excerpts
Question (this day) again proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Kemi Badenoch)
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To say that this has been a lively debate would be seriously understating the passion and arguments made by Members on both sides of the Committee. Speaking as a former Treasury Minister, it is a refreshing change from annual Finance Bill Committees, where I am used to saying lots of things to silence and often bemusement from Back Benchers. That has been a real change and I have very much enjoyed listening to the arguments.

I want to thank all Members who participated in the debate for making so many interesting points. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme, for Peterborough, for Heywood and Middleton, and for Gedling, as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell for making brilliant points in their speeches, with which I wholeheartedly agree. They all said things far better than I could, given how new I am to the brief. I also enjoyed the interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington, the hon. Member for Glasgow North, my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. I did not agree with the Opposition Members’ points, but they were well argued. I still think that they are wrong but I admire the passion of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. This is clearly a brief she knows very much about and it is nice to see that level of engagement with the topic. However, a few points were made in the debate that I wish to reply to; I will not speak for very long.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North talked about weaknesses in the research. I know the moment has moved on, but I want to emphasise that the Cabinet Office’s research is the most comprehensive to date and is nationally representative. It shows that 99% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds surveyed owned an accepted form of identification. It seemed from his speech that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute felt this was a Bill about introducing a new voter ID card. Yes, that is part of it, but it is mainly about photographic identification. I felt that there was often conflation between people not having photographic identification and needing a voter ID card as opposed to everybody else needing one. That is not the case. I remind the hon. Gentleman that only those without existing documents need a voter card.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood talked about this being a new case for identity cards. I remind her that the coalition Government scrapped the last Labour Government’s plan for ID cards in 2010 and we have no plans for identity cards. The 2018 and 2019 voter identification pilots were delivered with a voluntary, locally issued notification. There is no compulsion here and that same model of an optional free voter card is what we are going to introduce.

Finally, I just wanted to reject completely the accusation from the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood of voter suppression. This is a political topic; we are talking about elections and MPs get very lively. We enjoy having these discussions, but it is important not to alarm people when a simple procedural Bill is being put through. People are disenfranchised if their vote has been used by someone who should not be doing so. It does not seem to be something that is of concern to Opposition Members, but we take that very seriously. As I said in my opening speech, just because someone’s house has not been burgled does not mean they should not lock the door. We can take precautions for things, even if their likelihood, depending on geography, is more or less. We should also have something uniform in bringing in this sort of Bill. We cannot just do something for Tower Hamlets and then wait until something happens in another borough.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Would it be appropriate at this point to ask some specific questions? I hope the Minister can respond about the application process for the voter ID cards. Obviously, it would be administered by local councils, but will there be a core standard of expectations of, for instance, the hours councils will be expected to offer the service? Will people have to apply in person,

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I think that those are things that we can work out as we progress. We all know that those sorts of details would not end up in a Bill such as this one. We also need to be able to give flexibility. What we can say is that we want to encourage as many people as possible to take up these cards, and we will do whatever we can to ensure that that is the case.

Let me go back to the point that I was making about voter suppression. We hear again and again, particularly from Labour, that any change to boundaries or elections is all about keeping voters away and gerrymandering. I completely and utterly reject that. I was not a Member in 2014, but I remember that Labour claimed that the roll-out of individual voter registration in the country was going to suppress voters. Labour Members said that it was terrible, that we should not do it and that we should instead allow the head of household to register everyone. As we said earlier, that was about bringing things into line with Northern Ireland, and it is worth mentioning that the electoral register in the 2019 general election was at its highest-ever level. The last thing that Labour said was going to be suppressing voters did not do that, and I am absolutely confident, given all the evidence we have seen and heard, that this will not do so either.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On voter registration, what plans does the Minister, who is responsible for this policy area, have to ensure that the missing 3 million electors find a way to register and appear on the electoral roll?

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Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but she is deviating from the point I am making about voter suppressions. The point I was making is that the last thing we did, which Labour claimed was going to suppress voters, turned out not to do so. We have never heard any acknowledgment from the Opposition that it was actually a good thing to do and strengthened our democracy. On the point about registration, the hon. Lady will know that I have just come to this brief. We can deal with the Government’s plans, and what I will be doing over the next few years, outside the debate on clause stand part.

The claims about voter suppression are bogus. They have been shown to be false by the Northern Ireland experience and the 2018-19 pilot. There is no reason why we should not go through with this, which is why I urge all Members to let the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was as surprised as the witnesses from Peterborough and Birmingham councils when the chief electoral officer from Northern Ireland said that she needed 70 additional staff during the election period. Up until then, the evidence from Birmingham and Peterborough was that we would need a handful of additional staff through the year to give out ID cards, and then a surge, but to hear that 70 additional staff were needed in Northern Ireland was, I think, illuminating and concerning for some of the council staff who were giving evidence. It is a good point, well made.

Will the Government resource our local councils to deliver this policy? Can the Minister guarantee that there will be no cuts to frontline services because of the need to transfer resourcing to the production and delivery of ID cards? All year round, young people especially will be getting this card. At the moment, they have to buy a provisional licence to be able to go to a nightclub, so they will definitely want this card. It is a free resource all year round, so there will be demand for it all year round, but in the run-up to an election there will obviously be an additional surge. Will that fall on the local councils? Can it be guaranteed that Government funding will cover that? Local authorities and electoral registration officers will potentially be burdened with the additional time and money required to enfranchise 35 million overseas voters, at the same time as creating a whole new requirement for processing free voter ID cards for domestic voters, and that is on top of the Boundary Commission changes and all the other burdens being put on our electoral registration officers.

On top of that, the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, by its very nature, creates uncertainty around the timing of general elections, as the Prime Minister will be able to choose the date. The extremely short timetable in the lead-up to elections, as well as plans to shorten that window, has the potential to completely bury the administrative system behind elections, which will potentially result in those very precious electoral ID cards not being given out and people not being able to vote.

Local election authorities are already discovering that there is an increasing burden, and all the returning officers in the May 2019 voter ID pilots had to recruit extra staff, so it is not controversial to say that others will have to do so. It is not always straightforward. Mr Connelly from Birmingham City Council told us in evidence last week:

“As it is, we struggle to recruit and retain staff, who come to the polling station literally for one day a year.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 61, Q96.]

Recruiting and retaining staff all year round will be a challenge. All those staff will need to be trained, and that requires more time and money.

This Bill needs to guarantee two things. First, it needs to guarantee that the responsibility for delivering the voter ID programme falls on a central body that ensures consistency across the country. The amendment would make it the Electoral Commission. The responsibility should not be squarely on the shoulders of local returning officers and electoral registration officers, who are already stretched to their limit.

Secondly, the Bill needs to guarantee that local electoral authorities are properly resourced and given what they feel they need to carry out their new duties and responsibilities. During the evidence session I was concerned to hear that local authorities had not already been asked for their estimates of what that would cost. The Government cannot yet know what it will cost to fund that adequately because local authorities have not been asked. If they are not properly funded and staffed, they will collapse under the weight of the new electoral regime; it will not work.

In her response, I would like the Minister to assure not just me but returning officers and registration officers up and down the country that she understands the concerns and limited capacity of local election registration teams. I would like her to guarantee that they will be given all the resources that they will need, and to emphasise that no frontline services will be cut.

I should also be grateful if the Minister would shed some light on the following questions. Will there be a national IT system for producing the ID cards? What will be the role of the Electoral Commission in supporting local authorities as they gear up to deliver this? How much will one elector ID cost the taxpayer? We heard that, in Northern Ireland, costs differed when production was outsourced and when it was insourced, but what is the estimate for the rest of the UK?

Has the Minister consulted local authorities? I know that she has not been in her place for very long, but have there been consultations with local authorities about how elector IDs will be administered and physically printed? Will local authorities need special printing facilities, for example, or will a normal colour printer be sufficient? Such things will make a big difference to local authorities. Will voters have their photos taken at the local authority when applying for the card? How will that work? Will women wearing face coverings be forced to take them off, and has that been built into how the system will be administered?

The evidence that we have heard so far demonstrates convincingly that a centralised approach to administering voter ID is cheaper, is more consistent and efficient, ensures that local authorities will not be pushed over the edge but can deliver the system, and ensures that every single person who can vote is able to vote. I hope that the Minister will take amendment 24 seriously and commit at least to embedding these principles in the Bill and the guidelines that follow.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I will respond to the hon. Lady’s points first before coming to the substantive reason that the Government cannot support amendment 24.

The hon. Lady asked how we will ensure consistency in provision between local authorities, and my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington and for Peterborough made very good points on that. The broader point is that local authorities have to administer very complicated elections anyway. The hon. Lady knows that in London elections there are multiple things happening at the same time, and London can cope. Local authorities do not need to worry about the support that they will get to deliver this. In me they have a Local Government Minister who will be very much on top of these issues.

The hon. Lady asked a lot of technical questions—about how the cards would be printed and so on. I am afraid that I cannot answer those today, but those are things that we shall be working towards. The hon. Lady asked whether ID cards would be transferrable from one local authority to another. They will be.

Interestingly, the hon. Lady acknowledged that there might be a surge in demand for the ID cards because of young people wanting to use them to go to the pub, but it is important to clarify that they are not a form of free identification. They are for electors who do not have existing photo identification, and they will not include date of birth.

Amendment 24 would mean that the responsibility for producing and administering the voter card and the anonymous elector’s document would rest with the Electoral Commission rather than with electoral registration officers, as the draft Bill provides. We cannot support the amendment, because the Electoral Commission is an advisory and regulatory body; it is not an administrative one. It does not have the experience or capacity to carry out that function. To take that away from local government, which has been doing that for centuries, and pass it to the Electoral Commission would be completely wrong. Such an approach would represent a significant shift in the way we deliver elections. How can the commission guide and oversee a process that it participates in the delivery of? The Electoral Commission will play a key role in communicating the change to voters ahead of polling day, and must be able to focus on fulfilling those existing duties. I am not in a position to make those changes to the implementation of the policy. As I said, I have every faith in local government to develop and deliver local services that meet the needs of their communities, so we will not support the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree wholeheartedly with the points made by the hon. Gentleman. Will voters be able to apply for electoral IDs online, regardless of who they are applying to or who is printing it? Will the application form be available online or will it be paper-only? Does the Department have any expectation of how long an application process will take? Will there be any minimum standards? Will the ID card be delivered to the elector’s home address, or will they have to come in person to collect it?

The amendment not only demonstrates the importance of making free electoral ID cards as accessible as possible, but gives us the opportunity to explore whether local authorities have the capacity to administer those IDs, on top of administering the election, given the backdrop of cuts to local authorities over the last decade. A point was made earlier about councils administering other forms of identity documents, but in two-tier council areas that is not always the case. In Lancashire, for example, the county council administers blue badges, but the borough or city council—the second-tier council—would administer electoral IDs. It is important to recognise the diversity across these islands in the way that local government is organised, because there are slight differences and responsibilities lie in different places. As we see the patchwork of devolution in England develop, we shall increasingly see local authorities having very different powers.

Returning to the amendments, local authorities need to have clarity about what they are being asked to do and how that would work. Is there any opportunity to ask other public bodies to support their work, in order to take the burden off our electoral administrators? The Association of Electoral Administrators has already expressed its concern about the huge burden of such a technical administrative task being placed on already overstretched local authorities. Local authorities are being expected to deliver photo ID cards, alongside the additional burden of registering millions of new overseas electors, on top of boundary changes. That is an awful lot of work.

Can the Minister understand the concern here, and will she provide some assurances to our dedicated electoral returning officers up and down these islands? Voting should not be a postcode lottery; there should be equality wherever we are. We must see measures introduced to ensure that obtaining an elector card is as easy as possible. These may include expanding the number of locations at which voters can obtain a card and measures to ensure consistency in administering the scheme in different locations.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Amendment 25 would require registration officers to ensure that eligible electors could make an application for an electoral voter identity document at a specified list of locations—a local government office, library, GP surgery or Member of Parliament’s constituency office. We cannot agree to the amendment, because it is too prescriptive—needlessly so. The Government share the aim of ensuring that the process for applying for these documents is highly accessible, but the proposed amendment is poorly thought out. Registration officers have the responsibility and local knowledge to identify the most suitable locations for voters to access the voter card process. They must be allowed to exercise that expertise and responsibility. They are best placed to understand their local community and the needs of voters and will have the local knowledge and expertise to ensure that the voter card process works for all voters. I think that answers the questions from the hon. Lady and will reassure her. Registration officers are the ones who know what is happening on the ground. We have every confidence that they will be able to deliver this.

The proposed locations may be suitable in some areas. However, without local knowledge they could disrupt other services and at the same time fail to address the needs of voters, whose preferences and characteristics are likely to be best understood by their own local authority registration officer. That local knowledge and expertise, as well as the diligence with which registration officers fulfil their legal responsibilities to electors, has been proven time and again with the successful delivery of a wide range of electoral events.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood asked whether electors would be able to apply for a local voter card. The amendment would place a requirement on electoral registration officers to act in locations over which they have no control and where the owners or managers could refuse to comply. That is another reason why we cannot support it. There could be many reasons why those responsible for such buildings might not want to act as a venue for applications, and there has been no consideration of that or investigation of issues that could arise, which leads to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland was making. A GP surgery may not wish to increase footfall through their buildings during flu season, as it could lead to an increase in infections among vulnerable patients.

The amendment would also place a requirement on those locations and their staff to allow such applications to be made, raising a number of questions about someone’s rights to access such a location for that purpose. It may be that someone is excluded from the premises for good reasons, or there may be reasons why right of access should not exist to a particular location. The requirement of GP surgeries in particular cannot be supported; it will place an unnecessary additional administrative burden on them and draw focus away from their healthcare duties.

The question of how electors will be able to apply for a local voter card is very important and I completely understand the need to look into it. The detail of voter cards and anonymous elector documents will be issued through secondary legislation, so we will have further opportunities to discuss it, but it is important that we get the details right both for voters and for those who administer our elections. We are and will be working closely with a range of stakeholders to develop and refine the necessary detail. I will update the House on the progress with that as soon as we are in a position to. It will be vital for electors to know how and where to apply for a voter card if they need one. The hon. Lady is right to bring that up. Awareness-raising campaigns delivered by the Electoral Commission will ensure that voters are aware of the new requirements and they will have sufficient time to prepare. For those reasons, we cannot support the amendment.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister has addressed some of my concerns. My amendment is probing and I do not intend to press it to a vote, but I hope the Minister can recognise that it is not very satisfactory for many of these questions to be answered in secondary legislation. It would be helpful for the Committee’s deliberation if at some point she could at least indicate whether it will be possible to make applications online or whether they will have to be made offline. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you very much, Sir Edward, and I thank the hon. Member for Darlington for his memorable intervention—I certainly remembered it—on whether we should match 10-year passports, and whether that would be easier for people to remember. That might be part of the Government’s thinking. I would like to know what their thinking is. Can the Minister confirm how long the free elector ID card will be valid for? Are there plans for that? Does she agree that a free elector ID must last more than one parliamentary cycle or risk disenfranchising people by asking them to reapply between elections, or even at every single election? Finally, what is her policy on ID card renewal?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Amendments 32 and 41 would mean that voter cards and anonymous elector documents would be required to be valid for a period of 15 years from the date of issue, and I am afraid we cannot agree to that. Primarily it is important that the documents are renewed on a regular basis to ensure that they remain a good likeness of the holder, as the Bill states. I note, however, as other Members have mentioned in interventions, that driving licences and passports are typically renewed every 10 years. The hon. Member for Putney makes a good point, but we are considering the most appropriate time before expiry. We will bring forward our proposals in secondary legislation, which will then need to be approved by Parliament through the affirmative procedure.

Hon. Members have been judicious in trying to open up the list of specified forms of identification to include insecure methods, but they are limiting the flexibility of the method upon which those without access to a form of accepted identification could rely. For example, the amendments would prevent any consideration of an electoral returning officer issuing any kind of temporary voter ID card or anonymous elector documents, should that be appropriate. As such, that would work against being able to provide mechanisms to support people who need a short-term solution to showing identification, which I know the Opposition are particularly concerned about.

The hon. Lady raised inclusivity. We will of course ensure that the process is inclusive. The Government take those issues very seriously—I see that as the Minister for Equalities. We are doing a lot of work in terms of ID documents and gender recognition certificates to support trans people. As we have made changes throughout the last 12 months or so, we are seeing applications increase. Often all the things that we say will stop applications and participation are measures that improve and increase it.

I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me, because I did not have enough time to write down her last question and so have forgotten it. I hope that I have been able to address some of the issues that she raised. However, in order to maximise the options that we can consider as we take forward our implementation plans, the Government cannot support this amendment; it is just too restrictive for the Bill.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 42, in schedule 1, page 66, line 5, at end insert—

“13BF Application for electoral identity document on Government website: Great Britain

The Secretary of State must ensure that a person eligible for an electoral identity document under section 13BD or an anonymous elector’s document under section 13BE is able to apply for that document on the gov.uk website.”

The amendment would allow voters to sign up for free electoral ID when engaging with numerous Government services and not simply when they are registering to vote. The amendment is similar to amendment 25 and connected amendments, so I will not repeat those arguments, but the change would see voters reminded about voter ID rules and reminded to apply for a free elector card when they engage with gov.uk services. For example, when people were applying for universal credit on the Department for Work and Pensions website, they would be asked, at the end of the application process, if they wished to apply for a free electoral ID. Of course, this is assuming that people will be able to apply online. There has not been clarity from the Minister so far this afternoon on that, so perhaps this is an opportunity for her to make it a little clearer.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

The amendment would place a legal obligation on the Government to create a new digital application system, specifically on the gov.uk website, to enable eligible electors to apply for either the voter card or the anonymous elector’s document. We cannot agree to the amendment, although we recognise the positive intentions behind it. The issue of online applications was raised earlier. I want to reassure hon. Members that the Government share the aim of ensuring that the process for applying for these documents is highly accessible. We are working with numerous partners to ensure that is achieved. In particular, I would like to highlight the excellent work done by the various charities and organisations that advise us through the Government’s accessibility of elections working group.

However, the amendment would not help us achieve our goal. First, it is pre-emptively prescriptive. We need to be able to evaluate and consider the best vehicle for online applications. It may be better for online applications to be done via local authorities’ individual websites, or perhaps even a website specially designed for this purpose. We do not want to be restricted at this point, or to be required to fund a particular approach now, when there might be a much better option later. I have been clear that the Government’s intention is to continue working up the best model for implementing these measures. I acknowledge very much the arguments made for an online solution. I used to be a tech developer myself, so I completely see why this amendment was tabled, but for now we cannot support such a narrowly drawn approach.

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Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

When secondary legislation is developed, which will probably cover this matter, perhaps we can see what the evidence base is. We can then look at different potential contracts and what the costs would be, and the hon. Member is correct that that should inform our decision.

Most recently, there was real concern about sharing our NHS data and GP surgery data with a private company. That had to be scrapped during the summer, because there was so much concern about sharing that data. I think we should learn from that experience as well. With voting, people are even more concerned about where their data goes, who will be producing the voter ID card and what will be done in that area, so we have to be even more concerned to ensure that the Government are in control of the matter. That is the way to keep our integrity.

I shall finish my remarks by asking the Minister some questions. Does her Department plan to outsource the administration and production of voter ID to private companies? Have there been some pre-contracting conversations already? If she does not know, will she commit to following best practice in Northern Ireland and ensuring that this essential service is kept in-house, or at least to making that the default position in future negotiations?

I hope that the Government will support the amendment, which is not controversial. It is in line with best electoral reform practice in our kingdoms, as shown in Northern Ireland, and most importantly it is the right thing to do for our democracy.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

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)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - -

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.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The implication of how the amendment has been drawn up is that we would need a Government factory to produce the plastic and another Government factory to produce the ink. It is absolutely ludicrous.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I completely agree. That is what the wording of the amendment would mean. It would ensure that private companies cannot take part in any aspect of producing or administering voter cards, so my hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point.

It is also possible that the private sector will have expertise or capabilities, or could offer innovative solutions, that do not currently exist in the public sector but would be of great benefit to the elector. The private sector has long held an important role in supporting the effective delivery of elections. I have mentioned some examples showing that it is already a valuable and capable partner for electoral registration officers and returning officers, and there is no good reason why it should be prevented from contributing in this instance.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I would say that the whole Bill is ideological, so it is ridiculous just to take one part of it. It is ideological from start to finish, and especially in these provisions on voter ID. We must get this right from the start. We cannot go to an outsourced private company, get it botched, cause people not to trust it, and then insource it. Why not learn from Northern Ireland and get it right from the start? I am disappointed by the Minister’s lack of reflection on the Northern Irish experience. I still hope that this will be insourced from start to finish when it comes into play, and that the £120 million estimated cost will not go to line the pockets of individuals but stay within the system, where it should be. For all those reasons, we will press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member is absolutely right. Light is a very good source of scrutiny. A public consultation, as the amendment suggests, would bring in the expertise of more than just Members of this House. Obviously, we all engage with the process, but our electoral administrators might well have points to add. It would give them the opportunity to contribute, as it would political parties who are not represented in this House. Smaller parties would be able to have their say. It would give the Government far more credibility on what is, at the moment, quite a flaky policy.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Amendment 44 would ensure that any regulations made under proposed new sections 13BD or 13BE to the Representation of the People Act 1983 would first require a public consultation period of at least 28 days. The powers in those sections are for setting out the form of the voter card and the anonymous elector’s document, and the processes for both applying for them and issuing them.

We cannot agree to the amendment; it is an unnecessary administrative burden. Any regulations made under the new sections will be subject to consultation with the Electoral Commission, followed by significant parliamentary scrutiny under the affirmative statutory instrument procedure. Parliament would naturally want to ensure that any future changes are appropriate and based on contemporary evidence. Given the feisty debate that we have had—[Laughter.] The hon. Member for Glasgow North is laughing, but the fact is that we are having a lot of scrutiny on this Bill. We cannot pretend that we are not, and everyone can see that MPs are pleased to scrutinise this issue more than many others.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was particularly amused by the notion that affirmative instruments are subject to detailed scrutiny. Anyone with experience of the SI process in this House could see that comment in the wider context in which it should be judged, and that provoked my laughter. The reality is that the Government rely increasingly on these kinds of statutory instruments and secondary legislation regulations, partly because they do not seem to have done their homework in preparing the primary legislation and precisely because they want to avoid the kind of scrutiny that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood talked about—the opportunity for smaller parties who are not represented on Delegated Legislation Committees to have their say and the opportunity to amend regulations introduced in statutory instruments. This speaks to the power grab at the heart of the Bill, no matter what the purported purposes of it are.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. If he feels there are issues with the SI process, he should take it up with the Procedure Committee, but I am sure I have sat in a room just like this one when he has been keen to get out to have his lunch. I think that for those of us—

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None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Mr Grady, you are a very effective and much- loved Member.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I will leave the hon. Gentleman’s comments without reply, as we need to get back to the point.

I have talked about the Electoral Commission and the affirmative SI procedure, but there is a further issue with the amendment, of which I think we are all aware. It would require a significant mandatory time delay in making any regulations in future, no matter how small or technical. That could prevent a Government from making essential changes in time for an election if they needed to adapt the processes for issuing voter cards. The Government have worked and will continue to work closely with a wide range of organisations in the development and implementation stages of these measures. Adding a formulaic approach would be prohibitive to the system developing intuitively and responding quickly to evidence that comes out of implementation.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood asked whether I agreed with the remarks made by my predecessor in this Committee. Of course; I am keen to bring secondary legislation to the House as quickly as possible. She asked a lot of detailed questions, many of which I have answered before, and I am conscious that there is much still to work out as we go through further stages of the Bill. The questions that I can answer I will write to her about, but for many of them I am afraid I will refer to my responses to similar questions that have been asked previously. This will have to wait until secondary legislation, so we will not support the amendment.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very disappointed that the Minister has not been able to cover at least some of my questions. I am particularly concerned about victims of domestic violence, who are anonymous on the electoral roll if they have a letter from their local police. I urge the Minister to look seriously at that issue because some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our communities are likely to disproportionately face barriers because of their ID cards. Presumably it will be difficult to make them valid. The Minister has failed to reassure me that there will be true public scrutiny of the regulations, so I wish to press the matter to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

One of the witnesses in our evidence sessions—I cannot remember who it was; perhaps someone can intervene and share it with us—was very clear that no matter what legislation we bring in and how hard we try, bad actors will find a way around it to commit fraud. Even requiring ID at polling stations is not watertight. The hon. Member for Glasgow North made the point very clearly that if someone prints out a fake driving licence or passport, they can suddenly claim to be someone else because they have shown ID, even though it is a forgery. The legislation is not watertight against fraud, so it is about being proportionate.

I believe that the amendment is a proportionate safeguard to ensure that constituents who, for whatever reason on the day, are unable to provide ID are not denied the opportunity to cast a vote. It is used in many US states that have what I would call non-strict ID. It provides some level of protection, but not one that results in people being denied their vote.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Amendment 45 would allow a voter who has provided a specified form of identification at a polling station to attest to the identity of another voter who does not have a specified identification with them, and therefore enable a ballot paper to be issued to them. Amendment 46 would allow a voter who signs an affidavit confirming their identity to be issued with a ballot paper, even if they have not produced a specified form of identification. We cannot agree to the amendments because they would undermine the entire purpose of the voter identification measure in the Bill: that voters should show photographic identification in order to vote at an election. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton made an excellent intervention on that, which I will come to in a moment.

I remind Members that the principle underpinning the policy is to give voters confidence that their vote is theirs and theirs alone. Personation is by definition a crime of deception. It is very difficult to identify and prove. Photographic identification, more than attestation, virtually removes any risk of it occurring. It is a tried and tested model in the UK. As I said, the 2018 and 2019 pilots found that public confidence in the integrity of elections was higher. Attestation is just nowhere near the level that we need. People being able to create other documents easily is a weak argument. Fake passports and IDs are very difficult, complex things to create. Someone cannot just print a fake passport at their local library. The weakness of the examples that are being given shows that attestation is nowhere close to photographic identification.

We also consider that the decision to issue a ballot paper in a polling station to a voter should rest squarely with the presiding officer or a clerk. We do not consider that it would be appropriate for a voter to have a role in the issue of ballot papers to other voters, in particular as the ballot paper would be issued to a voter who has not shown a required form of identification. We should recognise that there would also be a risk that these provisions could be exploited by the unscrupulous to allow a ballot paper to be issued to a person who is ineligible to vote at an election. Any eligible voter who does not have one of the required forms of photographic identification can apply for a voter card. We will continue to work with multiple stakeholders—local authorities, the Electoral Commission, charities and civil society organisations—to make sure that reforms are delivered in a way that is inclusive for all voters.

I urge Opposition Members not to press the amendment.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister was obviously not present for our evidence sessions, but it strikes me that, as our witnesses told us that postal voting is where the largest amount of fraud takes place, and as that is a form of voting where photo ID is not required, she is leaving a gaping hole in the risks that she outlined. I am not convinced by her arguments and I would like to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The reason why I draw examples from the United States is that it does not have a national ID card, in the same way that we do not, whereas the European examples tend to have a national ID card. In that sense, we are more similar to the United States than to the European countries that the hon. Gentleman tempts me to talk about.

In New Hampshire, election officials will send a letter to anyone who has signed a challenged voter affidavit because they did not show an ID. These voters must return the mailing confirming that they are indeed in residence as indicated on the affidavit.

That method has allowed many successful elections to take place without fraud becoming an issue. There have been so many inventive ways to ensure that people do not lose their right to vote under that legislation. I urge the Government to share that imagination and perhaps to listen to some of those examples of good practice from the United States and incorporate them into the UK legislation. I hope the Minister will consider looking at the proposals and at the ways in which some US states do that to support our attempts not only to stamp out fraud, but to ensure that no elector is disenfranchised unduly.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The answer would be that we wait as long as we need to get the right result.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

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.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

No, I need to make progress—I am looking at the time.

The examples that we gave show why the Bill is needed, and that is not what the amendment would do. It would create an unnecessary administrative process. The focus of the Bill is on ensuring that everyone who is eligible and wants to cast their ballot in person can do so. We are talking about a situation in which someone does not have any photographic identification or a voter ID card, but puts in a provisional ballot only to disappear for who knows how long. Someone refused a ballot paper because they do not produce a required form of photographic identification may try again. If they return with identification, they will get a ballot, and they may make any number of attempts to do so.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That does not answer the point that I made on Second Reading and earlier today about what happens if a voter turns up too late in the process, say about quarter to 10 at night, at the last minute, but realises that they have left their photographic identification at home. By the time they get back, they might not be able to get inside to cast their ballot. This nonsense of, “How long would it take?”, could perhaps be addressed in regulations, as that seems to be the Minister’s solution to most of our other problems and questions. Or, if she does not like the competency or the wording of the amendment, is she suggesting that she would be open to a more clearly prescriptive amendment to address some of the points on Report? Perhaps that will be tabled and the Government will consider it at that stage.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has improved his argument by saying that we should not have the legislation because someone might turn up with five minutes left and something could wrong. We do not say that border control should not look at passports because someone might have left theirs at home, so might miss their flight.

The hon. Gentleman’s argument is, I am afraid, weak. We are improving and strengthening the process. There will of course be scenarios that are unpreventable. We have all seen them before, when someone is unable to vote. One of those scenarios, I repeat, is when someone tries to vote and their vote has been taken by someone else. The Bill will fix that, and the amendment would not help.

Points were made about what happens when people change their names. An elector who has changed their name since their photographic identification was issued will be able to bring additional documentation to polling stations to satisfy the presiding officer that they are on the register. The amendment would lead to the creation of an entirely new concept of a provisional vote that would be new to UK elections. It would therefore not be a straightforward process. That could impact on the result being announced in good time, as I have already said, potentially undermining public confidence in the outcome of the poll—something that we cannot have. We are therefore not persuaded of the merits of the arguments or the proposed changes, and we would be concerned about the potential harm they could do to the successful delivery of elections. I urge the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood to withdraw the amendment.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not entirely reassured by the Minister’s remarks. I know that our Liberal Democrat colleague, the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), has a different surname on the electoral roll. The issue of names on documents is a huge problem, particularly for women. It would be good to see an impact assessment, given the Minister’s dual role. I will not press the amendment to a vote, but I ask the Government to look seriously at ways in which we can be more innovative about being inclusive in our actions. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 48, in schedule 1, page 73, line 14 at end insert—

“(1BA) The presiding officer must ensure that a woman presiding officer or clerk is available to confirm privately the identity of a woman voter if that voter so requests.”

This amendment would give someone choosing to cover their face for religious or cultural reasons the option of removing their face covering in the presence of a woman presiding officer or clerk when confirming their identity.

This amendment would give someone choosing to cover their face for religious or cultural reasons the option of removing their face covering in the presence of a woman polling clerk or presiding officer when confirming their identity. The previous Minister advised colleagues that polling staff will be given appropriate training in the checking of voter ID for individuals who choose to wear face coverings or headscarves. Although the Government have apparently guaranteed the use of privacy screens at polling stations to facilitate private ID checks, many voters will feel uncomfortable about the prospect of having to show their face or hair to a polling clerk of the opposite gender.

In an evidence session we heard from Rob Connelly from Birmingham about how there will be an issue in recruiting polling clerks. He said:

“We will have to start reviewing all our polling stations again to be able to have privacy screens in place”.––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 61, Q96.]

I want to acknowledge the fact that there is a lot of pressure on local authorities. It is essential that no one is disfranchised. We also took evidence from Maurice Mcleod, who said:

“It is all very well saying that photo ID should be used, but if you are not supposed to reveal your face to a man who is not in your immediate family, that is really hard. Even if councils say, ‘We’ll make sure there are women, or people who know what should happen, at the polling station,’ there is still that worry in your head, if you are that woman who is not that confident about whatever, and you need to go out and vote. There is still that concern—‘Will I be treated properly? Do they know…my faith needs?’”

––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 16 September 2021; c. 97, Q152.]

Will the Minister confirm that her plans include provisions to ensure that there are staff of both genders all day at each of the 35,000 polling stations across the country to ensure that voters will not be placed in an inappropriate position? How much does she expect that to cost? Does she share my concern that many women will simply choose not to vote if they perceive that they are faced with the risk of having to remove their headscarf or face covering to a stranger, particularly a male stranger?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Amendment 48 would require the presiding officer to ensure that a woman presiding officer or clerk is available to confirm privately the identity of a woman voter if that voter so requests. We cannot agree to the amendment because it would not be appropriate for that level of detail about the staffing of polling stations to be set out in primary legislation. It is for returning officers and electoral administrators to manage the resources that they have for the poll, and there is the concern that introducing such a requirement would severely limit flexibility in the deployment of elections staff, which would make it challenging for returning officers to successfully deliver elections.

Before imposing such requirements and additional burdens on polling staff, it is important to conduct research and engagement with the public to find out if this is something they would find beneficial, or something that would need to be done in all areas. A similar policy of voter identification has been operating in Northern Ireland since 2003, and no such requirement exists there. Certainly, we will look to have this approach as best practice, which may be the more sensible approach, and one that provides more flexibility. I reassure the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood that initial discussions with electoral administrators have identified a significantly higher presence of female than male staff working in polling stations which, anecdotally, has been my own experience.

We consider it impractical to introduce the strict requirement proposed by the amendment, which could potentially prevent polling stations from being able to operate. I have said previously that we are going to be as inclusive as we reasonably can with this legislation. I am happy to reassure the hon. Lady that polling station staff will be given appropriate training, as she mentioned, and there will be a requirement for privacy screens to be placed in polling stations, allowing for those who wish to have their ID viewed in private. On that basis, the Government cannot support this amendment.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Without this amendment, I fear we risk a postcode lottery, where many women will be very anxious about the prospect of voting without the guarantee of a female poll clerk to verify their identity. For that reason, we would like to have a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I completely agree with the hon. Member. His intervention gives me the opportunity to put it on the record that the Welsh Labour Government have also recently extended the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds and seek to make participation in democracy something that is easy to do yet still secure. On that note, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s responses as to why young people are seeing more barriers put up to their voting than already exist.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

The amendment would ensure that further forms of photographic identification would be allowed in order to vote at a polling station. We cannot agree to the amendment, because the forms of identification currently in the Bill were chosen following a detailed assessment of a wide variety of photo identification.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Would the Minister be willing to publish the detailed assessment of why the Oyster card for older travellers who get free travel in London is valid, yet the 18+ Student Oyster card is not?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - -

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.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As the legislation stands, it is disappointing that the Minister has not been able to present convincing evidence on several forms of identity in this group of amendments. I hope that she takes this opportunity to look particularly at the Young Scot card, which is accepted by the Scottish Government, in order to at least present to the Committee the patterns of thinking as to why that was not as secure as, say, the 60+ Oyster card in London, because I think that would be of benefit to the Committee. I hope that the Government will be looking to make the list, while being secure, as inclusive as possible. And I would wish to have some votes, Sir Edward.

Elections Bill (Eighth sitting)

Kemi Badenoch Excerpts
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Before we begin, I have a few reminders for the Committee—you heard them this morning, but I am required to repeat them. Could you please switch electronic devices to silent? I encourage all Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other enough space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Hansard colleagues would appreciate it if Members could email their speaking notes to hansardnotes@parliament.uk.

We now resume line-by-line consideration of the Bill. Members wishing to press a grouped amendment to a Division should indicate when speaking to it that they wish to do so.

Clause 6

Requirement of secrecy

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Kemi Badenoch)
- Hansard - -

The clause concerns the important issue of the secrecy of the ballot for postal and proxy voters. Its purpose is to extend the requirements in place to protect the secrecy of voting for persons voting in polling stations to those voting by postal vote and proxy voting. This change implements a recommendation in the Pickles report, which found that:

“The secrecy of the ballot is fundamental to the ability of voters to cast their vote freely without pressure to vote a certain way.”

This is an important measure to keep our elections up to date, particularly as the rise of digital communication channels and social media could increase the risk that voters experience undue pressure and are compelled by inappropriate influence to take a photo of their postal ballot to show how they have voted. That goes against the fundamental democratic principle that someone’s vote is personal and secret, and we believe that it is unacceptable.

The measure will prevent a person from seeking to find out or communicate information about someone else’s postal vote, such as how the person has voted. The safeguards will also apply to the postal votes of those acting as a proxy for another elector. Additionally, a proxy will not be permitted to disclose information about how they voted, other than to the elector who appointed them. The existing offence in section 66 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 will apply to anyone who contravenes the new provisions related to postal and proxy votes. Voting by post or a proxy are perfectly valid ways in which an elector can choose to cast their ballot and should be protected by the same level of secrecy as in-person voting.

The clause also makes an important change to the existing requirement for a person who assists a blind voter in a polling station to maintain the secrecy of voting. That requirement will be extended to a person assisting a voter who has another disability or who is unable to read.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship this afternoon, Ms Ali. Clause 6 extends the requirement of secrecy to proxy and postal votes, which is a right and proper move. It is fundamental.

The Minister raised in her remarks the principle of free and fair elections. There are many principles that we need to adhere to if we are to have free and fair elections, and there are many things we could do in the Bill to extend those free and fair elections that would improve the Bill.

We support clause 6, but we have a couple of questions. Someone photographing a postal vote and perhaps posting it on their Instagram because they are proud of how they voted is very different from someone taking a photograph of their ballot paper because another person is putting pressure on them to prove that they have voted a certain way. Does the Minister agree that those are two very different issues? How might the provisions of the clause be implemented to differentiate between those two examples? There are those who may be pressured to act in a certain way and to photograph their ballot paper to prove it, but I am sure that all Committee members know of party activists who photograph their own ballot papers and post them on Twitter, saying how proud they are to vote for the A. N. Other party candidate in an election. Those are two very different things. Will the Minister highlight how she envisages that they will be differentiated?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

That is an important distinction to make. There are people who inadvertently break the law and those who do it for a different reason. We are trying to prevent failure to maintain secrecy because of undue influence. We will discuss undue influence more generally in the next clause, but this clause ensures that people are not being made to do things that they would not ordinarily do just to prove who they have voted for.

The offence is already in law, so we are not doing something new but extending the offence to postal and proxy votes. We will be carrying on as we are at the moment, but ensuring that the standards for postal and proxy votes are brought up to the same level as those for in-person voting.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Undue influence

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

With this it will be convenient to consider that schedule 4 be the Fourth schedule to the Bill.

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Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

It is a core tenet of our democracy that electors should be able to cast their vote free from interference and intimidation. Although it is already an offence to unduly influence an elector, the legislation has not been substantively updated since the 19th century. In the “Protecting the Debate” public consultation, 100% of respondents agreed that the law on undue influence requires greater clarity. The outdated legislation needs to be updated to provide electors with the protection they deserve.

Clause 7 therefore updates the existing electoral offence of undue influence in section 115 of the 1983 Act. It clarifies the types of activity that amount to undue influence, including physical violence, intimidation, damage to a person’s property or reputation, or deceiving a person in relation to the administration of an election. By broadening the scope of what constitutes elector intimidation for the purposes of undue influence, this measure helps to address the concerns raised by both the Pickles report and the Tower Hamlets election court that undue influence currently

“does not penalise thuggish conduct at polling stations of the sort that occurred in 2014”.

The clause maintains the existing offence’s reference to undue spiritual influence, as recommended by the independent Pickles review on electoral fraud. Given their charisma and authority, some spiritual leaders are uniquely able to abuse a person’s religious convictions to change their voting behaviour. However, I also recognise that a degree of spiritual influence is inherent in all positions of religious or spiritual authority.

Undue behaviour does not include, for example, a religious leader expressing their opinion on political or policy matters that have implications for the principles of that religion. It would also not apply in the case of religious groups for whom not voting is an established doctrinal position. It is only when spiritual influence becomes a form of improper pressure that it amounts to undue influence. I want to emphasise that this clause has been crafted to promote the genuine enjoyment of both the freedoms of religion and expression and the right to vote in elections free from spiritual harm or pressure.

Finally, schedule 4 ensures that if a person is guilty of undue influence in relation to any electoral event anywhere in the UK, the resulting incapacity—a 5-year ban on being elected to or holding certain offices—should apply consistently to elected offices across the UK.

The clause makes undue influence clearer to interpret and enforce, and I therefore urge that the clause and its associated schedule stand part of the Bill.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for her remarks and echo the fact that for many of us, our politics and our faith are entwined. Indeed, our faith backgrounds often influence our politics and guide our values, so I am glad for her clarification and remarks.

The report that she highlighted recommended improvements around the existing corrupt practice of undue influence, which is subject to an offence designed to protect electors from malicious interference and intimidation. The main purpose of the clause is to clarify the activities that constitute undue influence in order to make the legislation easier to interpret. For that reason, the Opposition will support it.

We are pleased that Ministers backed away from creating a new offence, given that the existing criminal law is perfectly capable of dealing with intimidation and harassment. The enforcement of the law is the problem, and an update of section 115 of the 1983 Act, which, as the Minister pointed out, originated in the 19th century, is long overdue.

Although we welcome the clause, it is just a small step forward. We are disappointed not to see the comprehensive and joined-up reform of electoral law that is required.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 4 agreed to.

Clause 8

Assistance with voting for persons with disabilities

--- Later in debate ---
I hope that the Minister will find a way to support the amendment, although precedent suggests that that will not be the case. If I am not to be proved wrong, will she at least outline the reassurances that the Government will provide to blind and partially sighted people who simply want to exercise their right to vote independently and in secret?
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Although the Government share the aim of elections being accessible to all voters, we cannot agree to the amendment because it is needlessly prescriptive. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments, which were not bad ones. I understand what he is saying, but we disagree on what the clause is trying to do.

I emphasise firmly that the principle underpinning the change is to make elections more accessible to a wider range of disabled voters. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s agreement with the provision to include, for the first time in law, a requirement for returning officers to consider the needs of voters with a wide range of disabilities when providing equipment for polling stations. However, I do not agree with the proposal to keep a piece of specific, prescribed equipment for one subset of disabled voters.

Our experience with prescribing assistive equipment in law is that it can become an obstacle to wider inclusion and innovation more generally. A prescriptive approach in legislation makes changes difficult when better solutions are developed, and it also becomes an impediment to their development. We believe it is better to allow returning officers that flexibility to tailor the equipment they provide to suit the needs of voters in their area.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Has the Minister been able to meet the RNIB? I have met its representatives and heard their concerns, and we have all seen their written evidence. They discussed their concern about the word “reasonable”, as it will not widen access to means of voting but reduce it because there will be inconsistency: what is deemed reasonable will be different at different polling stations, instead of being consistent for all people. That may mean that instead of access being widened there will actually be nothing.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I have not personally been able to meet the RNIB, but I believe that officials and possibly my predecessor did—[Interruption.] My officials are confirming that that is the case. We have seen its evidence and we believe that these changes are proportionate. We do not expect the outcomes that the RNIB has outlined to necessarily be the case.

I am a patron of a sight organisation in my constituency called Support 4 Sight, and I have discussed the issue with its representatives. They raised this legislation with me during a surgery and I was able to reassure them. I will be happy to write to the RNIB, as the Bill progresses and as we consider the secondary legislation, to see what other reassurances we can provide for it.

Sorry, I have lost my place in my notes—bear with me just a moment.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Yes—thank you!

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Perhaps the Minister will be interested to learn that one of the pilots for new equipment for people with disabilities—particularly the blind—was undertaken in my constituency. I had a meeting with the chief executive of my local authority to discuss how that pilot went; it was quite small, involving, from memory, seven to 11 people, but the new equipment did seem to voters’ experience. Is the Minister concerned that there will be a dead hand on innovation if we are too prescriptive in the drafting of the clause?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I do thank my hon. Friend for that intervention—[Laughter.]

As I was saying, it is better to allow returning officers the flexibility to tailor the equipment they provide to suit the needs of voters in their area. The new requirement will also be supported by Electoral Commission guidance, which will be developed in conjunction with organisations representing a wide range of disabled people and will support returning officers to make positive decisions to support disabled electors. Retaining a specific prescriptive requirement is an unnecessary obstacle to inclusion, as I mentioned earlier; it is also a significant challenge for those who administer elections, as I am informed we heard in evidence to the Committee before I took up this post.

I would like to provide a little additional reassurance to the hon. Member for Glasgow North. I understand the problem that he believes he is trying to solve. It is important to emphasise that we are not removing the requirement to support blind and partially sighted voters; we are only changing how that is delivered. The current requirement is too restrictive: providing only a single device is an obstacle to innovation and wider inclusion. Our approach will ensure that the most suitable support is provided at polling stations.

The hon. Member for Putney referred to the RNIB, and I can provide additional reassurance. We are trying to make elections as accessible as possible for all those eligible to vote. That is why, for example, we are removing restrictions on who can act as a companion to support electors with disabilities to cast their votes. For the first time in electoral law, we are also putting in place a broader requirement in respect of equipment at polling stations, and that should help more disabled people.

What we are doing will provide additional accessibility, as I will discuss when I speak to clause 8. We respectfully ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North on tabling this amendment. It was so good that I tried to table exactly the same amendment a day after him, but he beat me to it, so he is nimble on his feet as well. We share the concerns that he and the RNIB have raised that the Bill weakens protections for blind and partially sighted voters by removing the limited legal protections that used to exist. Removing the requirement to provide tactile voting devices leaves blind and partially sighted voters somewhat to a postcode lottery.

I see where the Minister is coming from, but I disagree. While she sees it as prescriptive and stifling innovation, I see it as providing a baseline for a level playing field. That does not stop returning officers being innovative. Obviously as technology advances we will come across things that will help us to make voting more accessible for people of many disabilities or impairments. The legislation as it stands creates the risk of a postcode lottery with different systems being used in different areas. Although that might open up to innovation, it risks leaving some blind and partially sighted voters without adequate systems in place to help them to vote in secret and independently.

The RNIB has been consistent and has done excellent reports after every major national election outlining just how few blind and partially sighted voters get the opportunity to vote independently and in secret. It is something that I have raised many times over the years and I had higher expectations for the Bill. I am disappointed that clause 8 does not go far enough. We support the general gist of the clause in terms of making voting more accessible for those with disabilities, but it really only scratches the surface of the quite radical action that is needed to make our democracy more accessible to disabled people.

I share the concerns of the disability charity Sense that the Bill could have the dangerous consequence of removing the fundamental principle that electoral staff must enable voters to vote without any need for assistance. Although a broader duty designed to enable all disabled people to vote is a good thing, the wording of the new duty does not carry over the previous requirement to enable voters to vote without any need for assistance. As a result, I think polling stations will not be required to ensure that disabled people can vote independently. I seek the Minister’s clarification on that.

Elections Bill (Seventh sitting)

Kemi Badenoch Excerpts
Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There are many circumstances in which someone might just not have that photographic ID to hand. My children go off, use their photographic ID in a nightclub and do not return with it. There are so many reasons why it might be hard to find that photographic ID. If people find it hard to locate their polling card on the day—I accept that sometimes they do—they will find it even harder to find their photographic ID.

This amendment is so important. The polling card would give people huge reassurance that they will be able to go down and vote. If the amendment is not agreed to, that will be taken away. The amendment is logical and supported by plenty of evidence from the pilot schemes themselves. I urge the Minister to support it.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Kemi Badenoch)
- Hansard - -

If I may, Sir Edward, I want to take time to acknowledge the tragic loss of Sir David Amess. He was a fellow Essex MP to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point. He was a truly beloved friend and colleague who served both Parliament and Southend West for nearly four decades with dedication and care.

It is particularly poignant that we should be debating the Elections Bill at this point. The act of violence that occurred on Friday was abhorrent. Violence and intimidation cannot be tolerated in any circumstance and must have no place in our public life. No one should feel afraid to participate in our democracy or to represent their community, and tackling intimidation in public life is a top priority for the Government. There are measures in the Bill that seek to introduce a new electoral sanction against anyone found guilty of intimidating a candidate or elected representative, but this is a problem that no one measure alone will address. That sanction is just one part of a much wider effort by the Government to tackle intimidation and violence in public life.

Amendment 54 would allow a voter to use their poll card as a form of identification under the new system being introduced by the Bill. The amendment effectively defeats the purpose of the Bill. We cannot agree to it because the requirement to provide a form of photographic identification is the best way to secure the electoral system against fraud and to stamp out the potential for it to take place at polling stations in elections.

My hon. Friends have made the argument already, but I should also say that when evaluating the security strengths and weaknesses of each pilot model the Electoral Commission found that

“the photo identification only model has the greatest security strengths compared with the other models”.

A poll card can easily be intercepted, particularly for those living in shared accommodation, and so cannot be used as a form of identification. It is simply not secure enough. That is why we are requiring voters to provide photographic identification.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Before we continue the debate, I echo what the Minister said on behalf of all members of the Committee about our colleague Sir David Amess. I entered Parliament with him 38 years ago, with over 100 MPs. Many of them rose to great distinction; at least two became Prime Minister. Sadly, there were only three of us left from that intake, and there are now only two. I say to Back-Bench Members that the career of David Amess shows that it is wonderful to be a Member of Parliament and to be a Back Bencher, even for your whole career, so keep campaigning, intervening and talking about the causes that you hold dear.

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Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

The amendment would allow a voter to use a utility bill, a debit or credit card or a birth certificate as a form of identification under the new system being introduced by the Bill. I disagree with the hon. Lady’s arguments. The threshold for picking up parcels should not be the same as for voting, which is far more important.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

One of the key arguments for introducing the principle of voter identification was that people needed to show ID when they were picking up a parcel from the post office. These are precisely the kinds of identification that people need to pick up a parcel at the post office. I understand the argument that people might go around harvesting poll cards, but is the Minister seriously suggesting that there is a lot of harvesting of bank cards and birth certificates going on that would make these really unreliable forms of identification at a polling station?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

What the hon. Gentleman has said does not negate my argument. We are talking about the threshold and we are talking about photographic identification. All these things might meet the threshold for picking up a parcel, but we are making the threshold for elections tighter than that. I made the same arguments when talking to amendment 54.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We keep hearing this argument about what is going on in America, which is on the other side of the Atlantic.

Is my hon. Friend aware of this point? I would just warn that it is from Wikipedia:

“Netherlands: The registration office of each municipality in the Netherlands maintains a registration of all residents. Every eligible voter receives a personal polling notification by mail some weeks before the election, indicating the polling station of the voter’s precinct. Voters must present their polling notification and a piece of photo ID (passport, identity card, or drivers license (a passport or ID is compulsory from the age of 14)). Such photo ID may be expired by not by more than five years.”

Is an argument constantly focusing on America not slightly trying to muddy the waters?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention; I was not aware of that information, which is very helpful. It shows that the evidence we have gathered and the basis for the Bill is correct. As I set out in my response to amendment 54 about pilots, photographic identification is by far the most secure method of those piloted and I cannot agree to amendments that seek to weaken that protection.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I have finished.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

You can make a speech.

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Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 62, in schedule 1, page 82, line 4, at end insert—

“Reports on voter identification and turnout

35A The Secretary of State must prepare and publish reports on the effect of the voter identification requirements in this Schedule on turnout—

(a) across the electorate,

(b) in minority groups,

(c) among disabled people,

(d) among young people.

35B The Secretary of State must publish a report under paragraph (35B)—

(a) no later than 31 July each year, and

(b) in the 90 days following a general election.”

This is a highly reasonable amendment, which I hope will be supported. I also hope that all hon. Members would want to see the effects and outcomes of what the Bill does. The Secretary of State would be required to prepare and publish reports in a timely fashion on the effect of voter identification requirements in the schedule—in particular those where civil society groups have raised a large amount of concern—so that we can learn the effect of the measures in real time. The amendment would not undermine the fundamentals of the Bill; it just says, “We should report on it and learn from it in a timely fashion.” I hope that it will be accepted.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

We believe that the amendment is unnecessary. The Bill already outlines that there must be three evaluations of the effect of a requirement to show identification on voting, and those will consider the effect of the new policy on electors’ applications for a ballot paper. Committing to further evaluations annually and in perpetuity would be disproportionate and an inappropriate use of taxpayers’ money.

The Government will consider how best to gather information relating to the impact of the policy on all parts of the electorate. Although some data will be collected at polling stations under new rule 40B, and used for evaluations, it is important to note that it would be inappropriate to collect information on protected characteristics at the polling station directly. Electors would not expect to have to answer questions about their race, sexual orientation or gender identity before receiving their ballot and might not feel comfortable doing so. We will consider how best to gather that information without such intrusion.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This is a very reasonable request from the Opposition. One of the most robust evidence sessions we had was when we discussed the impact of the Bill on minority groups and people with protected characteristics. I would have thought it would be in the Government’s interests to try to gather evidence to show the minimal impact—or indeed the positive impact—they expect the Bill and the requirement to show voter identification at the polls will have on those groups.

The Labour party makes a perfectly reasonable request. As the Minister said, there is already a certain amount of evaluation built into the Bill; an additional round of evaluation is not going to cause too much difficulty. No one is suggesting that people should be quizzed before the ballot box. There are perfectly acceptable and valid ways to conduct research, at academic or Government level, without having to put people under pressure at the moment they are carrying out their votes. We have seen some of that research already, as some of it was commissioned to help inform the Bill. The Opposition are entitled to make the points they have and can expect our support if they push the matter to a vote.

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Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Clause 2 is essential to strengthen and improve the current security of the postal ballot. The clause, and associated schedule 2, will require postal voters in Great Britain to make a fresh postal vote application after a maximum of three years of being registered as a postal voter if they want to continue to vote by post at future elections. That is one of a number of measures in the Bill that implement recommendations in the 2016 Pickles report into electoral fraud, and it is needed to address documented weaknesses in the current absent voting arrangements.

The Electoral Commission’s winter tracker for 2021 found that one in five people considers postal voting to be unsafe, and the witnesses who gave evidence to this Committee also highlighted that absent voting can be particularly subject to fraud and abuse. Currently, an elector may have a postal vote on an indefinite basis as long as they provide a signature sample every five years. Requiring an elector to reapply for a postal vote at least every three years will enable the electoral registration officer regularly to assess their application and confirm that they are still an eligible elector. The measure will also ensure that electors’ details are kept up to date and reduce the waste and cost of postal votes being sent to out-of-date addresses, where they may also be vulnerable to fraudulent abuse.

By requiring each postal voter’s signature to be refreshed more frequently, we will also reduce the likelihood of a postal vote being rejected because of the elector’s handwriting changing over time. Further, asking that electors confirm their preferred arrangements at least once during the life of a Parliament provides an opportunity for someone who may have been initially convinced or coerced into having a postal vote to break out of that situation and protect their vote from being stolen.

Existing long-term postal voters will benefit from the transitional provisions in the Bill that allow them to maintain their preferred voting arrangement, and they will have advance notice of the change so that they can prepare ahead of the deadline. Electoral registration officers will be required to send a reminder to existing postal voters in advance of the date that they will cease to have a postal vote and to provide information on how to reapply.

Schedule 2 also provides for postal vote registrations for the maximum period to cease on 31 January in the year in question, which will give electors time to apply for a fresh postal vote ahead of scheduled elections in May that year if they wish to vote by post. For overseas electors, we are aligning the maximum period for which they may hold a postal vote with their registration cycle, and have extended that period so that it may also not exceed three years.

Those safeguards will not only protect against the abuse of postal voting but also, I hope, raise the level of confidence in absent voting so that no one has to feel concerned that their vote could be stolen or abused.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We will vote to remove the requirement for the reapplication for postal voting every three years and return to the status quo of postal votes lasting an indefinite period, because we believe that the requirement is disproportionate, costly and confusing. We strongly oppose moves to force those using a postal vote to reapply.

Clause 2 is another Government provision that has left me scratching my head and very concerned. These pointless changes will make the process of voting more complex and bureaucratic, forcing lifetime postal voters to reapply every three years. The Minister may think that mandating re-registration every three years is making our electoral system more secure from postal vote fraud, but that is mistaken and based on flawed assumptions about where postal vote fraud is happening. It is at variance from what we heard in evidence.

In evidence, we heard about the highly concerning case of postal vote fraud in the 2004 local elections in Birmingham. However, the main concerns raised by the commissioner included the deadline for postal voting packs being close to the election—six working days before—and the lack of checks on whether applications were made by the named voter, which made it difficult to detect fraud. Clause 2 does not address that.

Following that case, the Electoral Commission made a number of recommendations, including using personal identifiers for postal votes, moving the deadline for applications from six to 11 working days before polling day and making falsely applying for a postal vote an offence. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 was passed by the Labour Government in response to criticisms and has addressed a number of those concerns already, including a system of personal identifiers for postal ballots. What is the evidence that clause 2 will address the postal fraud that has been identified in the cases about which we have heard? The measure is not based on good evidence.

The second thing we are deeply concerned about is that the changes will reduce flexibility for voters and risk imposing yet another barrier to voting, which damages our democracy. Ministers should direct their energy towards changes that make voting easier, not putting up barriers. The change will suppress voting and erase the positive improvement in postal voting seen during the pandemic. It is unnecessarily bureaucratic.

We have seen a gradual rise in the use of postal voting over recent years, as an easy and flexible alternative for those who prefer not to visit the polls in person, even more so during the pandemic. In 2001, 1.8 million postal votes were issued; in 2012, 6.3 million; and at the last general election in 2019, 7.3 million postal votes were issued. As has been mentioned, in his review, Lord Pickles concluded that

“the availability of postal voting encourages many legitimate electors to use their vote effectively”.

But forcing people to keep reregistering so frequently—too frequently—could risk disenfranchising people who are not aware until it is too late that the rules are changing and that they need to reapply for their postal vote, when they have only had to do it once before. Changing the rules is confusing.

We oppose moves to change the law to limit who can hand in postal votes at polling stations. That change could create barriers for some voters who genuinely need assistance. My other concern is the sheer cost; as we mentioned, the Cabinet Office’s own impact assessment published with the Bill estimates the cost of the new requirement for postal voters to register every three years rather than five at between £6 million and £15 million. This will cost millions of pounds, and do we even need it? That estimate is in addition to existing costs and is based just on the cost of sending out the additional letters, let alone the extra administration and advertising costs. Can the Minister explain how she will pay for those additional costs?

There is also a capacity issue for local councils. It will inevitably prove hugely burdensome on local authority election teams, who are already overburdened and under-resourced. The Association of Electoral Administrators agrees with that assessment. It believes that reapplying for a postal vote every three years rather than five will bring an “additional burden to Electoral Registration Officers, creating more regular peaks of demand.”

There is the confusion between different election systems in the devolved nations Currently, neither Scotland nor Wales has diverged from existing legislation on postal voting. Postal votes on demand are available indefinitely, as they currently are in England, and signature refreshes are also required every five years. If the current measures in the Bill are approved, a complex, messy system of divergent requirements for different sets of elections will be created. I cannot imagine having to explain that multiple times on the doorstep, and for councils to have to explain that: one local election will be like this, but a general election will be like that. It will be very confusing.

Confusion stops people voting and gets in the way of our democracy. For instance, someone who has chosen to vote by post permanently in Scotland and Wales will be required to reapply every three years for their postal votes for the UK parliamentary elections, and will also separately be required to refresh their signature for postal votes in devolved elections every five years. It will create a huge administrative and bureaucratic nightmare that will be highly confusing for voters, who do not look in as much detail as we do at postal votes and when to sign for them and apply for them. I have yet to hear the Minister’s solution to that, and I hope to hear it now.

The clauses are pointless and arbitrary; they will not achieve what the Government is setting out to achieve. As usual in the Bill, they are disproportionate. There is very little evidence that they are necessary. They will hit the already disenfranchised the hardest. They will cost the taxpayer millions of pounds, pile the pressure on our already overstretched electoral staff and conflict with the frontline service delivery of our local councils. I urge colleagues not to let the clauses stand.

--- Later in debate ---
Paul Bristow Portrait Paul Bristow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I absolutely do. The evidence comes from Peterborough, Tower Hamlets and many other parts of the country. It is not isolated to a handful of local authorities; it is much more widespread than Opposition Members would believe. A lot of the evidence we heard in Committee about fraud—Opposition Members have made this argument time and time again—was that the issue was postal votes. Here is an opportunity to try to do something about it, and I urge hon. Members to support this element of the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I will respond briefly to Opposition Members’ points, which can be summarised as, “This new measure is burdensome.” I thought it would be helpful to let the hon. Member for Putney know that any additional costs on local authorities or electoral returning officers relating to these measures would be covered under the new burdens doctrine. She also mentioned administrative burdens on devolved Administrations, and the answer to that is that they could easily align what they are doing with what we are doing if they felt it was overly burdensome on them.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 3

Handling of postal voting documents by political campaigners

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Clause 3 introduces a new criminal offence and bans political campaigners from handling postal voting documents issued to others. This is designed to address activities and behaviour that have been a cause for concern at previous elections. The Pickles report into electoral fraud found that there had been episodes where party activists had used the ploy of canvassing or answering inquiries from voters about completing postal votes to collect or harvest the votes of other postal voters. There is a real risk that voters could be coerced into completing their postal voting statement before handing the ballot paper unmarked to campaigners to be taken away and filled in elsewhere.

The Pickles report also highlighted that concerns have been raised about party activists taking completed ballots and then choosing not to submit them if they are not completed in a way that suits the campaigner’s aims. Clearly, these are very concerning matters and show that there are weaknesses in the current arrangements that have been, and could be again, exploited by persons seeking to undermine the integrity of the electoral system. That is why the Government in their manifesto committed to stopping postal vote harvesting.

The Electoral Commission’s code of conduct for campaigners is clear that campaigners should never touch or handle anyone else’s postal ballot paper.

Paul Bristow Portrait Paul Bristow
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Hear, hear!

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

However, the code does not have legal force. We believe it is time to put it on a statutory footing, and make it a criminal offence for political campaigners to handle postal votes.

The clause sets out details of the postal vote handling offence and makes the offence a “corrupt practice”. Of course, it is perfectly reasonable that a political campaigner might, like many others, want to offer help to a family member, perhaps offering to drop their household’s completed ballots into the post box. This measure makes provision for that, creating exemptions to the offence where the handler is a listed family member or carer of the postal voter. We do not wish to deny legitimate support, but we must be clear, as the Bill is, that systematic collection of votes is unacceptable. This measure will strengthen the integrity of postal voting and give protection to postal voters from those who would seek to subvert the postal voting process.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The official Opposition rise to support that clause 3 stand part of the Bill. Indeed, the advice given by the Electoral Commission is also issued by the Labour party to our own activists, in terms of the rules by which we guide our canvassers, campaigners and candidates not to handle postal vote documents from electors when out canvassing. Fraudulently applying or tampering with or using someone else’s vote—postal vote personation—is already a criminal offence in electoral law; and a person convicted of personation or postal voting offences, which are corrupt practices, can be disqualified from standing for and voting in elections for five years. This proposal is in line with the advice that we give our campaigners and activists already, so we will not oppose clause 3.

--- Later in debate ---
Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is exactly why prelegislative scrutiny would have been useful. This is about the distinction between political campaigners and voters. There are legitimate reasons why some voters may wish to hand in more than two postal votes at a polling station.

I gave the example of a care home, but equally, in the current context of covid, a family of three may not have posted their postal votes and ask neighbour to deliver them. If two postal votes can be handed in by an individual but three postal votes cannot, and someone turns up with three, how do we know if that third postal vote is an individual postal vote? There are various holes in the legislation. I am putting these questions to the Minister and I hope she will be able to answer them.

For example, with the limit of two postal votes, if someone were to turn up at a polling station with three postal votes to hand in, and they are able to hand in two for other people and one for themselves, how do we know which is which, given that when they are sealed there is no way of identifying whose votes they are? If the person says, “That one is mine. That is my postal vote so I can legitimately hand that in, and these are the two that I can legitimately hand in,” how would a polling clerk know that those were two postal votes that were being handed in on behalf of other people and one that was for that individual, if the envelopes are sealed and there is no way of identifying them? Can the Minister clarify how she envisages a polling clerk can make that assessment?

According to the explanatory notes accompanying the Bill,

“regulations may require a person seeking to hand in a postal voting document to complete a form containing specific information, which the government anticipates would include, among other information, the name(s) of the postal voter(s) whose ballot papers are being handed in. Regulations may make provision to require the “relevant officer” receiving the ballot to reject the document if the person fails to complete the form.”

The Minister will know that, once completed, a postal vote does not have a person’s name on the front of the envelope, for obvious reasons to do with the secrecy of the ballot. How does the Minister see this being enforced or policed? It would be impossible to know if the postal vote being handed in actually belongs to the person recorded on the form.

I leave the Minister with those questions. It would be helpful to have some clarification on these matters, in terms of how the Committee might progress and whether or not to accept this clause as part of the Bill. I draw the distinction between political campaigners, whose actions were the subject of the clause we previously debated and who I believe should be held to rights, and members of the general public, who might be handing in postal votes on behalf of a neighbour or family member, or be a care home worker handing in ballots on behalf of residents of a care home.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Amendment 69 would require the Secretary of State to conduct a public consultation for at least 28 days before making regulations under the provisions in clause 4 of the Bill. The Government will not be accepting the amendment as we believe it would impose an unnecessary administrative burden.

The Government will be required to consult the Electoral Commission on any regulations made under this clause, followed by parliamentary scrutiny under the affirmative SI procedure, which answers the hon. Lady’s question about further detail. We have had a similar conversation in earlier Bill Committees, but Parliament would naturally want to ensure that any future changes are appropriate and based on contemporary evidence.

We have been working with the Electoral Commission and electoral stakeholders on the issue of handing in postal votes while developing the legislation. We will continue to consider their inputs, and the needs of voters, in the development of the regulations. With the example that the hon. Lady gave about care homes, I do not believe that that is a loophole. Just as we said earlier in terms of political campaigning, we recognise that there are exceptions, and a carer in a care home would fall into that.

The measures in the Bill to tighten up the current arrangements concerning the handling and handing in of postal votes flow from the report by Sir Eric Pickles into his review of electoral fraud. That review took into account views from a range of persons, including academics and policy-makers; electoral administrators and political parties; and people who have found themselves impacted by real examples of fraud. The review’s findings were informed by a wide range of views. Given that, the Government are not able to accept the amendment.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Does Patrick Grady wish to comment?

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

It might be a convenient moment for the Minister to make her clause stand part speech now.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Thank you, Sir Edward. Clause 4 concerns the handing in of postal ballot papers at elections. The clause is closely linked to clause 3, which introduces the new offence banning political campaigners from handling postal votes issued to other persons. Together, these measures address concerns about the harvesting of postal votes and individuals handing in large numbers of postal votes, and reduce opportunities for votes to be stolen.

It will still be permitted for people who are not campaigners to handle and hand in postal voting documents issued to others. However, we believe that it is important to ensure that the arrangements in place governing that process are robust and support the integrity of postal voting. The clause therefore seeks to tighten up the current arrangements concerning the handing in of postal votes. It does so by introducing powers to allow regulations to be made that set out requirements for the handing in of postal votes at elections to returning officers across the UK and at polling stations in Great Britain. That includes setting a limit on the number of postal voters on behalf of whom a person may hand in postal votes, and requiring postal votes to be rejected if not handed in in accordance with the requirements.

We currently envisage that in addition to their own postal vote, an individual will be able to hand in the postal votes of up to two electors, but that will be considered during the process of developing secondary legislation, which I hope the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood will be most interested in and will contribute to.

I note that currently there is no requirement for a record to be kept of persons who have handed in postal votes or of whom those votes belong to. The clause will allow regulations to require persons handing in postal votes to complete a form giving these details, which will help promote compliance with the new requirements and with investigations of allegations of fraud.

It is right that these reasonable limits are introduced on the handing in of postal votes to ensure that the integrity of postal voting is safeguarded. The clause, and the postal vote handling measure in clause 3, are aimed at addressing activities and behaviour that have been cause for concern at past elections. They will give greater confidence in the integrity of the process by preventing an individual from collecting and handing in unlimited numbers of postal votes on polling day to returning officers at polling stations across Great Britain or at the Electoral Office in Northern Ireland.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am glad that the Minister has raised the issue that I will almost certainly be spending many more hours of my life in a Committee Room ironing out how this stuff works in secondary legislation. My frustration is that so much is not on the face of the Bill and will be decided in secondary legislation in Committee corridors, which, as you, Sir Edward, and members of the Committee have pointed out, does not have the same level of scrutiny as it does on the Floor of the House. Indeed, it is very unusual—I do not think it has ever happened—that an Opposition have amended a piece of legislation in an SI Committee or a Bill Committee and it has been accepted by the Government. It seems somewhat reckless to be legislating on the strength of the Bill as it stands, because it does not have the level of detail that we will clearly need.

I am minded to press my amendment to a vote. Picking up on what the Minister said in her opening remarks about its being an unnecessary administrative burden, there is a huge administrative burden on our electoral officials up and down the country, and the Bill will heap a whole load more tasks on electoral returning officers and registration officers in town halls across the country. In the last five years there has been one piece of legislation after another, putting more and more administrative burdens on electoral returning officers.

I think it is fair to say that our local authorities have had their belts tightened. They have had austerity and cuts, and we are asking fewer and fewer people to do more and more. I want to flag my concerns that electoral administrators are under a lot of pressure and that the Bill is putting additional pressure on them. While it is slightly beyond the scope of my amendment, I will be cheeky and say that the Government really need to look at how we resource local authorities as well.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

With this it will be convenient to consider that schedule 3 be the Third schedule to the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

The purpose of the clause and associated schedule 3 is to strength the current arrangements for proxy voting. Currently, someone can act as a proxy for up to two electors and an unlimited number of close relatives in any constituency in a parliamentary election or any electoral area at a local election. That can give rise to situations where an individual can harvest and cast many proxy votes over which they may have inappropriate influence. It may lead to someone being coerced into appointing a proxy who could then effectively steal their vote.

The Bill introduces a new limit of four on the total number of electors for whom a person may act as proxy in UK Parliament elections or local government elections in England. Within this figure of four, no more than two may be domestic electors—that is, electors who are not overseas electors nor service voters. All four may be overseas electors or service voters.

The approach will tighten up the rules on proxy voting while also providing appropriate support for overseas electors and service voters wishing to appoint a proxy. It will be an offence for an elector to appoint a proxy knowing that the person they are selecting as proxy is already appointed as a proxy for the permitted number of electors. An appointed proxy will also be guilty of an offence if they vote as proxy for more than the permitted number of electors.

Of course, these provisions have been developed to ensure that there are no gaps for those already voting by proxy. Under the Bill, there will be transitional provisions for existing proxy voters, so that they will have advance notice of the change. The current proxy voting rules will continue until a date to be specified in secondary legislation. At that point, electors wanting to continue with a proxy vote arrangement will need to reapply for a proxy vote under the new rules. Electoral registration officers will be required to send a reminder to existing proxy voters in advance of the date they cease to have a proxy vote, and to provide information on how to reapply for a proxy vote.

The Bill will also amend the eligibility requirements to act as a proxy at elections in Northern Ireland by providing that a person must be registered in a register of electors to be eligible to act as proxy. Currently, a proxy is not required to be registered but must meet age and nationality requirements. That will bring elections in Northern Ireland in line with proxy eligibility in Great Britain.

The measures will reduce the risk of fraud and reassure voters that appropriate safeguards are in place to protect the integrity and fairness of the proxy voter system. The clause will prevent an individual from casting a potentially unlimited number of proxy votes, over which they could have inappropriate influence.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have a couple of questions. The Minister said that it will be an offence if a person knowingly asks to be their proxy someone who already holds the maximum number of proxy votes. How on earth will that be determined? Is there any risk of people being prosecuted when they have, in good faith, asked someone who, whether on purpose or accidentally, is acting in bad faith by securing more proxy votes than the statute allows?

Where did the figure of four come from? Why not three? Why not five? Why not some other figure? What research has the Minister’s Department carried out to determine that four is the optimal and safely manageable number of proxy votes? Is there any evidence that if someone has four proxy votes, they are probably not carrying out personation or any other kind of voter fraud, but if they have five, there is clearly criminal intent, and they must be punished to the full standard of the legislation?

We accept that there is a certain issue around the management of proxy votes, as we heard in evidence, but we need from the Minister a robust defence of the necessity for the provisions. I look forward to hearing that before we determine whether the clause should stand part.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Does the Minister wish to reply?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Not particularly, no.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Debates would be a lot shorter if Ministers always said that.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Rebecca Harris.)

Elections Bill (Ninth sitting)

Kemi Badenoch Excerpts
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

With this it will be convenient to consider that schedule 5 be the Fifth schedule to the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Kemi Badenoch)
- Hansard - -

Clause 9 and schedule 5 ensure that the changes made to parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland in part 1 of the Bill are applied to local and Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. We have already considered the substantive detail of these changes to parliamentary elections in clauses 1 to 8. The same measures will apply to Northern Ireland’s local and Assembly elections. For that reason, I do not want to go through the detail of the changes again. However, hon. Members may note that, although the existing Northern Ireland identification provisions remain unaltered, some small technical changes made in clause 1 will apply to the equivalent rule in Northern Ireland, including the requirement that the returning officer must provide a private space for voters to produce their identification should they require it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 9 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 5 agreed to.

Clause 10

Extension of franchise for parliamentary elections: British citizens overseas

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 79, in clause 10, page 13, line 4, at end insert

“and

(c) the person satisfies at least one of the following conditions—

(i) he or she was included in a register of parliamentary electors at some time in the past fifteen years;

(ii) he or she was resident in the United Kingdom at some point in the last fifteen years;

(iii) he or she is a member of the United Kingdom armed forces;

(iv) he or she is employed in the service of the Crown;

(v) he or she is employed by the British Council;

(vi) he or she is employed by a United Kingdom public authority;

(vii) he or she is employed by a designated humanitarian agency; or

(viii) he or she is the spouse or civil partner of a person mentioned in sub-paragraphs (iii) to (vii) above and is residing outside the United Kingdom to be with his or her spouse or civil partner.

(1A) The Minister for the Cabinet Office or the Secretary of State may by statutory instrument define ‘United Kingdom public authority’ and ‘designated humanitarian agency’ for the purposes of subsection (1)(c).

(1B) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (1A) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”

This amendment is a probing amendment to enable debate on the premise of maintaining 15-year rule with exemptions for certain citizens.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ali. The amendment relates to the 15-year rule exemptions. I will make some introductory comments on overseas electors as a whole, in order to put the amendment into context. As a modern, progressive party, Labour is committed to building a truly global Britain and championing our core values of equality, social justice and opportunity for all. All hon. Members will agree that no area of electoral law is more important than the franchise—who gets to vote and is able to participate in our democracy. Overseas electors play a significant role in providing a close connection not only to our European neighbours but to countries across the world, and we must continue to encourage that valuable connection.

Under the current system, British citizens who have moved abroad can register to vote as an overseas elector in the last constituency in which they were entered on an electoral register. British citizens who have lived overseas for more than 15 years cannot register to become an overseas elector. The Opposition are committed to taking radical steps to ensure that all eligible voters are registered and able to use their vote. The issue of extending voting rights for overseas electors is important and must be considered properly.

The extension of overseas voting rights has come a long way since 1985, when British citizens living outside the UK were unable to register to vote in any elections. The Representation of the People Act 1985 introduced new provisions allowing British citizens living overseas to qualify as electors in the constituency where they were last registered to vote before moving. The time limit from 1985 was only five years. In 1989, that was extended to 20 years, before being reduced to 15 years in 2002.

In the 2015 and 2017 general elections, it was a Conservative party manifesto commitment to abolish the 15-year rule and allow British citizens a vote for life in parliamentary elections. Indeed, about three years ago, a private Member’s Bill was tabled by the then Member for Montgomeryshire that would have changed voting rights for overseas electors, but it did not progress in the previous Parliament. Our position has not changed since those debates in 2018: we are committed to building a franchise that ensures that everyone living in, and contributing to, the UK has their voice heard and represented. The current 15-year rule strikes the right balance between allowing expats to maintain strong links with the UK and ensuring the integrity of the electoral process. It means that expats can continue to engage with our democracy for a significant period of time after they have left the UK, but it maintains the balance in our representative democracy by which people who are affected by rules and laws get to decide who makes them.

My biggest concern about the overseas electors section of this Bill is the fact that it could undermine the integrity of our electoral process. Not only does this change threaten to overwhelm our election teams—who, frankly, are already overworked and under-resourced enough—it threatens to allow foreign money to flood into our democracy. Let us be clear: the true motivation behind these changes to overseas voting is to create a loophole in donation law that would allow donors unlimited access to our democracy, and allow them to bankroll Tory campaigns from their offshore tax havens. There is no possible justification for changing the law, other than to open a loophole so that donors can continue to funnel money into the Conservative party. For example, the new law will allow one of the Tories’ biggest donors to keep bankrolling the party for life, despite having reportedly lived in the Bahamas for a decade. John Gore has given almost £4.2 million to the Conservative party, making him the Tories’ No. 1 donor, despite his having spent more than a decade away from the UK.

The Conservative party accepted more than £1 million from UK citizens living in tax havens ahead of 2017 through existing methods, as reported in The Times. The new law will remove those barriers, and what angers me most is that in one fell swoop, expats will be granted more flexibility in registering to vote than people who live in this country. If the Conservatives were serious about improving democratic engagement, they would be extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, as well as concentrating efforts on registering the millions of adults in this country who are not currently on the electoral roll. This Bill allows expats to vote in UK elections regardless of whether they have previously been on an electoral register. It is a free ticket for anyone hoping to fraudulently register in a swing seat, who only require another expat to vouch for them.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Member could not have made his point about the loophole that this legislation will create any more clearly, and I agree about the principle of no taxation without representation. It strikes me that there are 16-year-olds in this country who are going out to work and are paying tax, and are affected by things such as the rise in national insurance contributions, who have no say in who their UK parliamentarians are, while overseas electors who live in tax havens will suddenly get free rein. Rather than taking the necessary steps to safeguard British democracy from malign foreign influences, as highlighted in the Russia report, the UK Government are instead allowing even more foreign interference in our democracy.

Turning to the issue of the election teams that register electors in councils up and down the country, the representations this Committee has heard have proven that those teams are already under a lot of pressure. They cannot cope, and if this clause becomes part of the Bill, the impacts on electoral return officers and councils is going to be huge, because the process of registering an overseas elector can take around two hours. If those officers were to see a huge increase in the number of overseas electors registering to vote, at a time when councils already face huge funding cuts and pressures, that would threaten the integrity of our elections as well.

Obviously, overseas electors fall off the register every 12 months, so the vast majority of registration applications occur immediately ahead of a general election, when the pressure on our electoral administrators is already at its most intense. Abolishing the 15-year rule and therefore increasing the number of British citizens overseas who can register to vote would completely overstretch electoral administrators, who are already being pushed to the limit.

I put three questions to the Minister, which I hope she will answer in her response. Do the Government have any indication of how many of the estimated 5 million Britons living abroad would apply to be overseas electors in the run-up to a UK parliamentary election or national referendum if the 15-year rule were removed? How does the Government intend to fund the electoral registration officers for the additional costs that will be incurred by the proposals, and what steps will the Government take to ensure that election teams have the resources and capacity to manage that increased volume of electors? If the Government are so intent on granting votes for life, why do they not focus on domestic voters and grant 16 and 17-year-olds the vote? The Bill will further embed and entrench current laws that prevent 16 and 17-year-olds, either abroad or in the UK, from engaging in parliamentary elections.

I will not speak for long on amendment 79 because it is probing, and I wish to trigger a debate on the premise of maintaining the 15-year rule with exemptions for certain citizens. The amendment attempts to demonstrate that abolishing the 15-year rule entirely is a drastic, extreme move that will flood our democracy with money from overseas and threaten its integrity. Instead of abolishing it entirely, the Minister could exempt certain groups of people from the 15-year rule, with the necessary checks in place. For example, the Minister might want to exempt those who have fought for our country and might lose their right to vote by being away, which seems very unfair. In the same spirit, we may not want those who serve our country in the service of the Crown—some 1% of our civil service are permanently based abroad—to miss out on their chance to vote, nor those working for the British Council, with the services they perform for our nation and standing in the world, or those employed by a UK public authority or a designated humanitarian agency. Will the Minister consider that this approach might achieve her aim of enfranchising expats while still protecting our democracy?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I read the amendment very carefully, and it is a shame so much was put into it because it contains some interesting points that we could discuss with the Opposition given the spirit of what they are trying to do. I recognise it is a probing amendment as well. Unfortunately, the way the amendment has been worded would completely undermine our manifesto commitment to scrap the 15-year time limit on British citizens voting from overseas. I reiterate that we intend to deliver votes for life and extend the franchise for UK parliamentary elections to all British citizens living overseas who have previously been registered in the UK, and extending the franchise to those people sets a sensible boundary for the franchise for those who have a strong connection to the country.

Given that we have been talking about fraud and ensuring that the franchise is protected, proposed new paragraph (c)(ii) is interesting, and I would have liked to have spoken to the hon. Lady about it. I know these amendments came in fairly late and perhaps we might be able to discuss what she is seeking to achieve there.

However, the additional conditions set out in the amendment would weaken the sensible boundary I mentioned and exclude a large number of citizens with a deep relationship with the UK, so we cannot accept the amendment for that reason. Most British citizens overseas retain those deep ties: many still have family here; some will return here; many will have a lifetime of hard work in the UK behind them; and some will have fought for our country in the past but are no longer a member of the armed forces. We can see the strength of their continuing connections in the passion of the campaigns for votes for life. The amendment purposely excludes the voices of those who have deep ties and wish to participate in our democracy, but through no fault of their own do not meet those strict conditions.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister is speaking of the deep ties that people who have lived away from this country for more than 15 years continue to maintain. Given that the Treasury told me it has not made any estimate of and “cannot identify” individuals registered as overseas electors within tax data, does she think that, once the system is up and running, some kind of survey, canvass or random sample might be worthwhile? That would help us understand the demographics and nature of those electors. Perhaps, as part of that survey, there could be an assessment of what tax those people pay to the UK Exchequer.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I do not think there is anything wrong with the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. Obviously, I will not commit to anything here, but it is always useful to know the exact demographic information and what people are and are not doing. We have done more than any other Government to prevent tax avoidance in this country. If he has good suggestions for what we can do, I am sure that the Treasury will take them up.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood made a point about political donations. It is a shame that we are not rising above the fray and that we are making out that things are done for political reasons when they are not. A long-standing principle originally recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life is that permissible donors are those on the UK electoral register: if someone can vote for a party, they should be able to donate to it. Election law allows registered British expats to vote in UK parliamentary elections and to make those donations for up to 15 years.

I understand the point about taxation. However, since the adoption of universal suffrage, taxation has never been the basis of enfranchisement in the UK. Many people who could donate now pay tax in the countries they live in; others who pay tax on their pensions, property and investments in the UK might still not have a right to vote. Opposition Members’ tax explanation does not really add up.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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I just wonder whether the Minister is aware of the famous suffragette slogan, “No taxation without representation”.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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Yes, I have just referred to that. However, within the UK, there are many who do not pay tax who can still vote. That is my point: the principle is not used universally at the moment. Many of the people who they are claiming do not pay tax actually quite often do. A classic example is full-time students, who do not pay tax but are allowed to vote.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood asked whether the Government have an indication of how many people we are talking about enfranchising. I do not have that information at my fingertips, but I can write to her on that specific point.

On the funding of electoral registration officers, the new burdens doctrine applies. We will not ask people to do things for which they do not have the resources.

The House has debated votes for 16 and 17-year-olds exhaustively. The fact is that 16 and 17-year-olds will eventually get the right to vote. The clause is a completely different issue, and we should not muddle them up. Based on those answers, I hope the hon. Lady feels we have had a sufficient debate and agrees to withdraw her probing amendment. We can have discussions on what else we can do to tighten up the franchise.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I was not going to comment on the amendment. However, while I have great regard for the shadow Minister, as she knows, I was disappointed in the route her speech went down by trying to make the issue about political donations. There is a system in this country for how our political parties are funded, and it is a cheap kick-around to try to say that our system is being corrupted. Donations to the Conservative party are declared through the official lines. Some of the examples the hon. Lady gave would still be eligible to make donations under existing legislation.

I make that point because this clause offered the possibility for some probing amendments to try to expand this issue, because it does need a great deal of thought. I am disappointed because the amendment is perhaps not clean enough to go down that road. However, I think that we are doing all of us in this House a disservice when we try to link a political issue to extending the franchise and the reasons behind that.

The Committee may recall that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) gave the example of Harry Shindler and that question is the driving force behind why he feels, despite being a Labour party member, that it is important to try to extend the franchise. Within the thinking—I say this as a former vice-chairman of the Conservative party, the international chairman of the Conservative party—at no time in any of the discussions about the idea was it linked to trying to bring in further funding from abroad.

We can get into a real political knockabout on political funding. We can talk about union funding; we can talk about the lack of tax returns from Unite the union. We can have that knockabout. What I have found over the years is that, yes, political funding can be a problematic thing, and it can be kicked about, but it is still a better position to have it than to have state funding for political parties, whereby people have their taxation used to fund a whole bunch of political parties whose political beliefs are nowhere near their own.

When we probe the clause, I make the plea that we should move away from trying to make out that there is some kind of corruption behind it, and stick to the arguments that many have made over a great period of time. I am sure that there are varying views in my party, even though there was a very clean line in the manifesto on this issue, about how things should go ahead and the implications, including about somebody who has basically absented themselves from this country for a long time—these are issues that are to be debated.

I put on the record my disappointment about how the amendment has been drafted and that it has been brought down to an issue that I do not think does anybody in this House a service—that is, when we try to paint the picture that there is something corrupt underlying legislation. My plea to the shadow Minister, when she sums up, is that she speak more to the amendments, because I am genuinely interested in them, although I do not think they are quite clean enough. My plea would be that we should please not bring this down to a level of, “This is just so you can expand your political funding”.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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Amendments 80 and 81 both relate to the definition of residency and the evidence that is needed for someone to be classed as a resident. Amendment 80 is a probing amendment, with which I ask the Minister to address the challenges involved in defining residency. The ambiguity surrounding the notion of residency is critical to the future integrity of the franchise. There must be a clear definition of residency before the Government can consider enfranchising the millions of overseas electors who would be eligible under the new provisions. As yet, we have not seen any definition of electoral residence.

Currently, residence is understood to mean a considerable degree of permanence. That means that a person with two homes who spends the same amount of time in each can legally register at both addresses. A lot of hon. Members might be familiar with that situation, as many are registered to vote in both London and their constituencies. The Law Commission’s 2016 interim report recommended:

“The law on electoral residence, including factors to be considered by electoral registration officers, and on special category electors, should be restated clearly and simply in primary legislation.”

Over five years later, we have not had a Government response on that issue.

Although the definition of residence might seem a tedious issue, it is critical to the Bill. The Bill provides that overseas electors can register to vote using only evidence of previous residency, and that is an entirely new and untested voting qualification. The checks on residency in the Bill are very weak. A British expat qualifies to vote as a previous resident if they can provide one piece of evidence connecting them to a residence in the UK at any point in their lives. However, supplying a single piece of evidence at a single point in time does not actually prove residency. According to the Association of Electoral Administrators, scrapping the 15-year rule would increase the potential for electoral fraud, and it would be extremely difficult for EROs to determine the residency of overseas voters and check the validity of the attestation. Marginal constituencies in the UK could see an influx of overseas voters because of the changes brought in by the Bill. It is undoubtedly possible for a determined individual wishing to sway the result of a close election to forge documentation tying them to a past residency in a particular constituency. Moreover, there are no provisions to prevent an overseas elector registering with more than one local authority where they had been on the register. The Bill could open a Pandora’s box of unknown implications for the security of our elections, and for this reason the Government should define what exactly they mean by residency before we plough ahead with the policy.

Amendment 81 is also a probing amendment. It seeks to clarify what documentary evidence the Government see as necessary to register as an overseas elector. If an electoral registration officer needed to check on the registration of a domestic voter, they could simply go to the property, but that is not the case with overseas voters. The Bill asks EROs to determine whether evidence from overseas voters is sufficient. Although I trust the skill and experience of electoral registration officers, I am concerned that there will be a lack of consistent practice across the United Kingdom when it comes to deciding what is acceptable proof of previous residency or connection to a constituency.

Amendment 81 would put into the Bill the pre-existing Government guidance on declaration requirements. All domestic voters are now required to provide a national insurance number, full name and passport details, and they must be made aware of the criminal penalty for false declaration; the same should also be required for overseas voters. If it is good enough for domestic voters, overseas voters should be held to the same standard. I do not intend to press either amendment 80 or amendment 81 to a Division, but I hope the Minister might take the opportunity to clarify the issues that I have raised and perhaps to clarify the Bill with a Government amendment.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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There are two aspects to this group of amendments: creating a statutory definition of residence and the list of evidence of residency. A statutory definition of residence, however well drafted, could end up inadvertently disenfranchising some groups or individuals. Linking the definition to physical residence could be problematic. For instance, an elector may be classed as resident at an address despite not being physically resident: they may be working in a different location, studying—students can register in two constituencies—or in hospital for a long time. Any definition must capture every eventuality; the risk is that, if it cannot, the results may not be as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood intended as it would mean the inadvertent exclusion of these groups.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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As is the theme, amendments 82 and 83 are probing amendments. They relate to attestation requirements for overseas voters, which there is space for the Government to strengthen substantially to prevent foreign interference in our elections. The amendments say that there should be two forms of attestation: one from an individual in the constituency where the elector is registering, and one from an overseas elector. This should provide a more robust approach to verifying the identity of an overseas elector. The Association of Electoral Administrators said that it had

“concerns as to integrity, with the possibility of increased applications via this route in a marginal UK parliamentary constituency.”

Such declarations could be made without documentary evidence, and the AEA questioned how likely it is that a false declaration would result in prosecution, when the attestor, as well as the applicant, live abroad. Given that, I do not think that a sworn statement is sufficient security to prevent fraudulent applications. Currently, all we require is that identity must be attested to by another overseas-registered elector who is not a close relative.

More worryingly, overseas electors who do not have access to documentary evidence are entitled to make a declaration of local connection. They can still register even if they have no proof that they were ever resident in the UK; they simply need another overseas elector to make a sworn statement about their identity. Effectively, multiple fraudulent overseas electors could attest for each other at different addresses in the UK using a declaration of local connection; that would allow for multiple false registrations. If it comes down to just a handful of votes—as does happen—fraudulent applications to register to vote could swing elections to this place. I ask the Minister to consider amendments 82 and 83, and to see ways that we can strengthen the integrity of our elections in this regard.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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The amendments would require all declarations from overseas electors to contain two attestations, which is linked to the important principle of the Bill that only those entitled to register are permitted to do so. However, mandating applicants to in all cases provide an attestation of identity as part of their application would be inconsistent with the application process for domestic voters and the current process for overseas electors. The Government do not accept the principle that overseas electors ought to be treated differently and certainly cannot agree to such a burdensome threshold, which would add a significant extra layer of bureaucracy not only for the applicant but for the electoral registration officer, which the hon. Lady just mentioned wanting to avoid. Indeed, it could preclude people who are currently eligible from registering. We intend to strike that balance between ensuring that the registration system works well for citizens and administrators and maintaining the security of our elections.

I take the hon. Lady’s point that we should not create more opportunities for people overseas to do fraudulent things in order to get on the electoral register; that is quite right. We need to make sure that effective measures will be in place for overseas electors to prove their identity. That is absolutely our intention. As I have said when discussing previous amendments, the Bill contains provisions to make secondary legislation that will enable an electoral registration officer to seek additional evidence to verify an applicant’s identity where they consider that that is required, but it is not prescriptive about the nature of that evidence. I suggest that the Government continue to work closely with the hon. Lady and stakeholders to develop a balanced solution. To reassure her, I share her sentiments completely regarding the importance of having in place robust processes for applicants, but I hope she understands why, at this point, we cannot accept the amendment.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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I thank the Minister for her comments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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If I understand the right hon. Gentleman correctly, I think we have identified the same issue, and I am going to go out on a limb here and say that we probably agree it is a problem that so many of these electors’ ballots are not returned. My proposed solution—I would be very keen to hear solutions from any member of this Committee; I do not believe any one of us has a monopoly on knowledge or innovation—is that allowing EROs an extra week on the UK end, at the start of the process of issuing a postal ballot to an overseas elector, would increase the chances of many of these ballot papers being returned in time. I do not see the amendment as changing the electoral timetable for domestic voters or the wider election, which I think is what the right hon. Gentleman is asking.

I hope that the exchange that I and the right hon. Gentleman have just had has not confused the Committee too much. My intention is to give EROs the extra time that they will need to register overseas electors, which takes longer than registering a domestic elector. The aim is for them to be able to issue, post and have returned a postal voting form from overseas electors, thereby ensuring that fewer overseas electors are disenfranchised in future elections.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I am afraid that the amendment would have what I suspect is an unintended consequence, so we cannot accept it. In short, it prevents many overseas electors from casting their ballots, for this reason: the registration deadline for overseas electors is 12 working days before the poll. The amendment does not change that, but it makes the deadline for applying for an absent vote earlier than the registration deadline. The effect is that someone who registers by the registration deadline would not be able to vote because they would not have made their absent vote application, and the only way they could fix that would be to travel back to the UK for polling day. The proposed changes to move other absent vote deadlines further from polling day would make it more difficult for some overseas electors to update or alter their absent voting arrangements ahead of the election. Because our intention is to facilitate greater participation in our democracy among British citizens living overseas, we cannot accept the amendment.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
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May I ask a question about potentially putting some aspects of this into secondary legislation? In other countries, overseas electors are able to avail themselves of the opportunity of going to their embassy—or our equivalent, the high commission—in order to post their ballot paper. That might help with some of the short timings, and also with the burden that we are putting on our EROs in local councils here. Have there been any discussions with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office about the use of embassies within this process to enable our overseas voters to vote?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I have not had a formal conversation with the FCDO, but I have had conversations with officials about what else we could do on the specific point that the hon. Lady has raised. The issue is that not everybody lives near an embassy, so that does not necessarily solve the problem that she has described, but we have tried to solve the problem of registration and making things easier for electoral registration officers in another way. The Bill enables overseas electors to remain registered for longer with an absent vote arrangement in place ahead of the election, so that is a burden that is being taken off the EROs. At the moment, the registration period for overseas electors is one year, so that is what those EROs have to deal with. We will extend that to three years in the Bill. Then, in addition, electors will be able to reapply or refresh their postal absent vote arrangements, as appropriate, at the same time as renewing their registrations. I think those changes will have the effect that Opposition Members want, by reducing the workload on electoral administrators during the busy election period.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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Amendments 85 and 86 are on a report on awareness of overseas electors and a report on the effects of the number of registered electors. These two amendments ask the Government to provide crucial detail about the true impact of clause 10.

Amendment 85 would require the Government to report on levels of awareness among overseas electors about how to participate in UK parliamentary elections before the provisions on overseas electors can come into force. Surveys by the Electoral Commission have demonstrated the widespread lack of awareness about what it means to be an overseas voter and the eligibility criteria necessary to vote. That lack of awareness has no doubt created a significant barrier to casting a ballot.

An Electoral Commission survey found that there was a widespread lack of awareness about eligibility requirements, with 31% of respondents believing that eligibility required receiving a UK state pension and 22% believing that owning a property in the UK was required. Indeed, the Association of Electoral Administrators has previously stated that

“voter education is needed to inform overseas electors about the different ways available to them to cast their ballot.”

Before enfranchising millions more overseas electors, should not the Government focus on ensuring that those people who already have the vote are actually aware of their rights and how to exercise them?

Amendment 86 is tabled in a very similar spirit. It attempts to answer the number of unanswered questions that have resulted from clause 10. It is essential that there is appropriate evaluation and investigation of the effects on our democracy of passing the Bill. We must have a clear idea about the sheer volume of people who we are enfranchising and whether that is likely to impact our finely balanced constituency maps.

The potential introduction of millions of new voters will undoubtedly have consequences for our constituency boundaries—some Members have endured the attentions of the Boundary Commission as well. The number of overseas voters registering to vote has risen exponentially over the past 10 years and it continues to rise. It is estimated that potentially 5 million new voters will be enfranchised, so detailed provision must be put in place as to how those voters will affect current UK constituencies.

As the Minister knows well, the Opposition want a fair boundary system that benefits our democracy and not only the electoral interests of the Conservative party. The spread of new voters across these constituencies and how they will be allocated is crucial, and there must be detailed consideration to prepare for that.

In addition, I wonder whether the Minister has considered the benefits of introducing a separate constituency for overseas electors. On Second Reading of the Overseas Electors Bill in 2017, several Members referenced arrangements in France, where 11 seats in the Assemblée Nationale are reserved for French nationals living overseas, covering different zones of the world outside France and French territories, which of course have their own seats within the Assemblée Nationale. Will the Minister confirm whether any efforts have been made to investigate the potential benefits of overseas constituencies?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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Unlike the previous amendments that we discussed, we are in complete disagreement with these amendments; the Government just do not believe that they are necessary. Amendment 85 would require the Government to produce a report that would unnecessarily delay the implementation of these measures. It is of course important that our fellow citizens are informed of these changes to their rights, and the Government fully intend to play our part in that process, working closely with the Electoral Commission and others. The transitional provisions in the Bill also include a discretionary power that would enable the Government to use the data we hold to promote awareness of the franchise changes around the time that they come into effect. In line with its statutory duties, the Electoral Commission will work on specific communications activity designed to target those overseas residents who have been added to the franchise, to raise awareness of the removal of the 15-year limit and how best to participate in future elections.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I want to pick up on what the shadow Minister said; Government Members have a great deal of regard for her, so this is purely a geeky rhetorical point. On overseas constituencies and the French example, the Third constituency for French residents overseas contains the United Kingdom and has about 85% of its electorate in Greater London. Does the Minister agree that that does not particularly serve the interests of constituents living in, for example, Estonia or northern Greenland, which are in the same constituency, who may not be able to access their Member of Parliament? Those constituents may have closer links with their home constituencies, where family members or friends may live.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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My hon. Friend makes a good point about the complexity of that, which I will touch on later.

We do not agree with amendment 85. We encourage campaigners, parties and interested people of whatever political stripe to play their part in informing British citizens living overseas about these changes and related matters.

Amendment 86 would require a separate report on the impact on constituencies of the number of overseas electors. As my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton sort of alluded to, overseas electors come from all corners of the United Kingdom. They will be entitled to register in the last place that they were registered or, if they were never registered, the last place that they were resident, which could be in any constituency. At each boundary review, the four boundary commissions take account of changes to the electorate to ensure a more equal distribution of electors across constituencies. All registered electors, whether domestic or overseas, form part of that electorate and will be part of the calculations for boundary reviews, so we do not need a report to determine whether a review of constituency boundaries is needed; that is already taken into account by the boundary commissions.

The proposed report in amendment 86 also refers to creating new separate overseas constituencies. We do not need a report to know that that is unnecessary and undesirable, not only because we are not French, but because overseas electors will continue to register in constituencies to which they have a significant and demonstrable connection. That constituency link is a cornerstone of our democracy.

On the shadow Minister’s point about effectively establishing an MP solely to represent overseas electors, that would be a significant change to the UK parliamentary system. The French have had it quite possibly even back to colonial times—I seem to recall that there were colonial MPs there; it is something that they have been doing for a very long time—but it would be a significant change to the UK parliamentary system, which would require complex bureaucratic deliberations to decide how many constituencies would be created and then to draw up and maintain those constituency boundaries. Overseas constituencies would also require changes to the way that the electoral administration of voters and conduct of polls is organised in Great Britain, where responsibility lies at local authority level.

The Government’s proposals in the Bill are the product of careful consideration. We want to work well with the Opposition and will continue to work closely with the electoral administration community and relevant stakeholders on the technical aspects of the policy’s implantation. However, the proposed report would not do what the amendment says and would not be a good use of that community’s time and resources.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I suppose this is the opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton, who picked up on the issue of overseas constituencies being quite large. He gave the example of the northern European constituency in the French Parliament. Many UK constituencies are quite large—not quite as large as that, admittedly, but it would take me an hour and a half to drive from the most easterly to the most westerly point of my constituency.

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None Portrait The Chair
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With this it will be convenient to consider that schedule 6 be the Sixth schedule to the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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Clause 10 and schedule 6 deliver on the Government’s manifesto commitments to make it easier for British expats to vote in parliamentary elections and to get rid of the arbitrary 15-year limit on their voting rights. That will enable greater participation in our democracy among our fellow British citizens living overseas.

The Government believe that the current 15-year limit is arbitrary and anachronistic in an increasingly global and connected world. Most British citizens overseas retain deep ties to the United Kingdom. Many still have family here, some will return here, and many will have a lifetime of hard work in the UK behind them. Some will have fought for our country.

Going forward, any British citizen who has previously registered to vote in the UK or was previously resident in the UK will be able to register as an overseas elector. That sets a reasonable boundary for the overseas elector franchise. Previous registration or residence denotes a strong connection to the UK. Individuals will be eligible to register in respect of one UK address—the last address at which they were registered to vote, or, if they were never registered in the UK, the last address at which they were resident. This approach maximises continuity with the existing registration system, which electors and administrators are familiar with. It puts in place clear rules regarding where persons may register. It will also ensure that overseas electors, like now, have a demonstrable connection to the place where they vote.

As I stated when we were debating amendments 79, 80 and 81, I recognise and share some Opposition concerns, such as those about reducing the opportunities for fraud and for using loopholes. I will work with the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood and other stakeholders to make sure that we confer these rights properly. I reiterate that the changes will facilitate participation by making it easier for overseas electors to remain on the register, and there will be an absent vote arrangement in place as well.

Clause 10 will extend the registration period for overseas electors from one year to three years. That will be accompanied by a fixed-point renewal cycle, under which all overseas electors’ declarations will expire on the third 1 November after they are made. That three-year cycle aligns with the postal vote renewal measures elsewhere in the Bill, to make it easier for overseas electors to reapply or renew their absent vote arrangements at the same time as renewing their registration. Changes to the registration period and the registration renewal process will benefit not only citizens but electoral administrators by reducing their workload during busy electoral periods.

Finally, the transitional provisions in schedule 6 include a discretionary power that will enable the Government to use the data they hold to promote awareness of the franchise changes around the time when they come into effect.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I feel that the Committee has already heard my views on this clause, so I have nothing further to add.

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None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments 8 to 20.

That schedule 7 be the Seventh schedule to the Bill.

Government amendment 7.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Clause 11 and schedule 7, which is associated with it, amend the voting and candidacy rights of European Union citizens. The law as it stands reflects our old obligations under EU law. It grants local voting and candidacy rights automatically to all EU citizens resident in England and Northern Ireland. That extends to Wales for police and crime commissioner elections. Since those rights were granted under freedom of movement rules, no immigration-based eligibility requirements are attached to them. Now that the UK has left the EU, it is no longer appropriate for there to be a continued automatic right to vote in, and to stand in, local elections solely by virtue of being an EU citizen. The concept of the UK participating in joint EU citizenship has ended.

The clause and the associated schedule will remove the automatic granting of rights to EU citizens to vote, to register to vote, and to stand in all levels of council election and referendums in England, Greater London Assembly and mayoral elections, elections for local authority and combined authority mayors in England, council elections in Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

The Government believe that the voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens living here must be considered alongside those of citizens of the UK living in EU member states. The Government’s approach is a sensible one of recognising established rights, while moving to new bilateral agreements with individual nation states in the EU. That ensures we are protecting the rights of British citizens living in EU countries.

To give effect to that intention, the clause and the associated schedule will grant local voting and candidacy rights only to those EU citizens legally resident in the UK who are from countries with which the UK has a voting and candidacy rights treaty. Such treaties will ensure the preservation of voting and candidacy rights for citizens of the UK living in EU member states with which such a treaty has been agreed. We have four such treaties, and we remain open to negotiating with other EU countries.

Over and above that, provisions are included to honour our commitment to respect the rights of those EU citizens who chose to make their home in the UK before our departure from the EU. The relevant provisions preserve the rights of all EU citizens who were resident in the UK at the end of the implementation period and have lawful immigration status to vote and stand in local elections. In line with Home Office policy, specific and limited exceptions are included in the provisions, which relate to the operation of the grace period regulations and the EU settlement scheme.

I draw Members’ attention to part 4 of the schedule, which gives effect to the Government’s public commitment that persons elected to office before the measures come into effect will be enabled to serve their full term in office. Additionally, the Government have tabled minor and technical amendments that do not change the intended scope or effect of the provisions but ensure that they will operate as intended. The Government therefore urge hon. Members to accept the amendments, and to agree that clause 11 stand part and that schedule 7 be the Seventh schedule to the Bill.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Labour party strongly believes that all those who are subject to local laws and politics have a claim to political representation. Essentially, anyone who lives in a local area and uses public services should have a say in how they are run. That fits with our arguments on overseas electors. Anyone who has lived outside a country for a substantial amount of time can no longer claim to have such a close connection.

Although the Labour party welcomes efforts to ensure that some UK residents from the EU will retain their voting rights, we do not think that the provisions go far enough. At present, citizens of European Union member states resident in England and Northern Ireland are automatically granted voting and candidacy rights in local elections, Northern Ireland Assembly elections and police and crime commissioner elections by virtue of being EU citizens. The rights granted to EU citizens in the United Kingdom were reciprocated, so that UK citizens living in EU member states were also granted local voting and candidacy rights in their respective countries.

Now that the UK has left the European Union, and with the ending of free movement, the basis for an automatic grant of voting and candidacy rights to a European citizen of course no longer exists. Correspondingly, individual EU member states are now able to set their own rules for local voting rights with reference to resident UK citizens. I put on record that the Labour party would like to see measures to ensure that citizens from countries that already unilaterally grant local electoral rights to British citizens resident there are granted local electoral rights in England and Northern Ireland, regardless of whether the UK has negotiated a bilateral treaty with that country.

Luxembourg citizens resident in the UK can vote in England and Northern Ireland local elections, whereas Dutch citizens cannot, even though British citizens resident in both Luxembourg and the Netherlands have local electoral rights in those countries. Since the Secretary of State already has the power to remove from the list a country that ceases to be party to the relevant bilateral treaty, they should similarly have the power to remove countries from the list when the local electoral rights of British citizens in that country are unilaterally removed.

Although the Labour party welcomes efforts to ensure that some UK residents from the EU retain their voting rights, we do not think that the provisions go far enough. We emphasise that people who live here, who contribute to society in a broader sense than just through paying taxes, and who stand to be affected by the outcomes of any electoral process, should have the right to vote. That principle is already active in UK electoral law as it relates to overseas voters.

Elections Bill (Tenth sitting)

Kemi Badenoch Excerpts
Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Sir Edward, given that we are taking amendments 61 and 75 together, I would like to speak to the amendment that appears in my name and those of my hon. Friends.

I thought the hon. Member for Glasgow North made the case strongly, and I agree with him, although we come at it from slightly different positions. While he would like to see Scotland separate from the United Kingdom, I would very much like to see the United Kingdom strengthened and I support the Union.

On those grounds, there is a strong Unionist case for amendment 75, which is about respect for the devolved nations. When the Conservative Government continue to treat the Senedd Cymru and the Scottish Parliament with such disrespect, particularly regarding the strategy and policy document, it threatens the Union. From one Unionist to another, I implore my colleagues on the Government side of the House to look again at how deeply disrespectful the Government’s approach to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd is.

While I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on the reasons that we have come to this view, his amendment is very good, although I think ours is slightly better on the grounds that it also includes the Senedd Cymru.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (Kemi Badenoch)
- Hansard - -

As Opposition Members will probably have guessed, we believe that the amendments are unnecessary, for two reasons. First, the provisions for the introduction of the strategy and policy statement, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North said in his speech, already provide a mechanism that will take into account the views of Welsh and Scottish Ministers where the statement relates to the Electoral Commission’s devolved functions.

Under proposed new section 4C(2) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, Welsh and Scottish Ministers are specifically listed as statutory consultees, which means that they will be consulted before the statement is subject to the approval of the UK Parliament. It would be both impractical and unnecessarily burdensome for the UK Government to be required to put the statement to the approval of the devolved Parliaments as well. It will be for the Scottish and Welsh Governments to determine their own processes for coming to a view on whether to suggest any changes to the statement.

Secondly, and very importantly, the Committee is no doubt aware that the Welsh and Scottish Governments have already recommended that the devolved Parliaments do not grant legislative consent to this measure. This Government’s view is that a statement applying to both the reserved and devolved functions of the Commission would ensure greater consistency across the UK for the Commission and all those involved in elections. It is regrettable that that was the decision they reached. However, I am keen to continue to engage with my Scottish and Welsh counterparts to mitigate any unintended consequences, and as such I am considering what amendments we may need to make to these provisions in relation to devolved matters.

Based on those considerations, an amendment of this kind would become redundant. For those reasons, I urge the Committee to oppose the amendments.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

To respond briefly to the Minister, I still think the point about consent is important. I welcome whatever reassurances she is giving, and we look forward to seeing what they turn out to be. However, the Government are proposing further amendments, which they should not have to do at this stage of the Bill’s passage. This could have been dealt with at a previous stage; they could have consulted the Scottish Government and Welsh Ministers in advance of bringing this measure forward in the first place. Purely on the basis that SNP amendment 61 covers only the Scottish Parliament, and I think we should test this for both the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd Cymru, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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0

Division 19

Ayes: 4


Labour: 3
Scottish National Party: 1

Noes: 8


Conservative: 8

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 12, page 23, line 13, leave out—

“and (3) (consultation requirements) do”

and insert

“(consultation requirements) does”.

This amendment makes it clear that only the consultation requirements under new section 4C(2) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 may be disapplied under new section 4E(4) (and not the requirement to lay a draft strategy and policy statement before Parliament).

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

With this it will be convenient to discuss clause stand part.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I now turn to clause 12, and the measures in the Bill that concern the Electoral Commission. Members of the Committee will agree that it is vital that we have an independent regulator that commands trust across the political spectrum. The public rightly expect efficient and independent regulation of the electoral system. The purpose of the clause is to make provision for the introduction of a strategy and policy statement that sets out guidance that the Electoral Commission must have regard to in the discharge of its functions. The commission will be required to report to the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission on what consideration it has given to the statement in the exercise of its functions within 12 months of a statement being designated, and every 12 months thereafter.

The clause sets out clearly the type of guidance the statement may contain, which includes Government strategic priorities relating to elections, referendums and other matters in respect of which the commission has functions. As the statement will contain Government guidance, and the Government’s views of the commission’s priorities, it will therefore be drafted and designated by the Secretary of State. However, the statement will be subject to a statutory consultation with the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Electoral Commission itself before being subject to parliamentary approval. That will ensure that the Government must consider Parliament’s views and will allow Parliament to have the final say over whether the statement is designated.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does that mean that Parliament will have the opportunity to amend the statement? Will Opposition Members, or Government Back Benchers, be able to table textual amendments to the Government’s statement, or will it be for the Government to amend a draft statement in the light of consultation responses?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I do not believe that is the case. We would have to bring in a different statement if Parliament did not allow it, and during a parliamentary debate views could be considered.

The Secretary of State will be required to consult Scottish and Welsh Ministers with regard to any guidance relating to the commission’s devolved Scottish and Welsh functions. To ensure that the statement remains relevant, the clause requires that at least once every five years since the previous statutory consultation, the Secretary of State must review and determine whether to revise or withdraw the existing statement. The Secretary of State must then consult the statutory consultees previously listed before laying a revised or unamended draft statement before Parliament for approval.

It is important for the Government to be able to make swift changes to the statement when needed. That is why the clause provides that, within the five-year period, the Government may on their own initiative or at the request of the commission, review the content of the statement from time to time. When doing so, the Secretary of State must inform the statutory consultees of any proposed changes and consult the Speaker’s Committee on whether those changes require a statutory consultation. Should the Secretary of State disagree with the Speaker’s Committee’s opinion, they may proceed with laying the draft statement before Parliament for approval only after issuing a ministerial statement outlining the reasons for disagreeing with the Committee’s opinion.

On Government amendment 1, it was always our intention that any revisions to the strategy and policy statement, apart from typographical or clerical errors, should be submitted for parliamentary approval, both within the five-year period and at the five-year review point. However, since introduction, we have identified that the wording of proposed new section 4E(4) to PPERA could unintentionally enable the Secretary of State to determine that, following a revision to the statement within the five-year period, the obligation to lay the draft statement before Parliament does not apply. That could have the unintended consequence of allowing the Secretary of State to bypass the requirement to submit the statement for parliamentary approval. That was never our intention, and the Government are clear that the strategy and policy statement must be subject to appropriate levels of parliamentary scrutiny. For that reason, we have tabled Government amendment 1, which clarifies that new section 4E(4) does not disapply the requirement on the Secretary of State to submit the revised statement for parliamentary approval.

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Part 3 of the Bill, and clause 12 in particular, represent a deeply worrying step for our democracy, and I do not say that lightly. It is not fair on any Government. It might be the Minister’s party in government today, but we legislate for future Governments that could be of other parties, including parties not represented in this room. It is not for any Government to dictate the priorities of an independent watchdog, and yet these proposals allow the Government of the day to set the agenda for the Electoral Commission.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Strategy and policy statements are not unique to this regulator. We have had them for other independent regulators. We had one for Ofgem, and it is also mentioned in the energy White Paper, so why is it fine for other regulators, but not this one?

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very clear about this. I will come to it later in my remarks in more detail, but, roughly speaking, regulation of the Electoral Commission regulates elections in which Governments are elected. There is a difference between the regulation of democracy in elections and the regulation of water companies, for example. There are distinct reasons why it is important that an Electoral Commission in particular has independence from the Government of the day. Indeed, that can be seen in examples from similar democracies. New Zealand, Australia and Canada are three democracies that we look to and that, for historical reasons, have structures similar to our own. It very much looks as though the Government are trying to rig democracy in their favour by directing the strategy and policy of the Electoral Commission, and that is very different from other regulators.

The existence of an independent regulator is fundamental to maintaining confidence in our electoral systems and, therefore, confidence in our democracy. That is particularly important when the laws that govern elections are made by a small subset of the parties that stand in elections. Many parties that stand in elections in our country do not have Members of Parliament elected, and much of the legislating on this will be done in secondary legislation. We have only three political parties represented in this room. We have more than that elected to this House, and there are many more parties that the Electoral Commission regulates that do not have any Members of Parliament on the green Benches. I stress that having a very small subset of participants in a process making decisions on the regulation of an independent regulator is deeply troubling.

The commission’s independence needs to be clear for voters and campaigners to see. The commission needs to be seen to be fair and impartial. If we see this measure alongside previous calls by some Government Members on the green Benches—although I do not think by anyone in this room today—to abolish the Electoral Commission in its entirety, it does strike me as a worrying trend. I have been looking at similar democracies—the three obvious ones are Canada, New Zealand and Australia—where there is a complete separation between the Governments and their electoral commissions. A country where the Electoral Commission is told what to do by the Executive is not a country with free or fair elections. The regulator of our elections needs to be independent and impartial and must not be subject to political control.

I have tried to think of other examples. I am a football fan and this is like being able to decide who the referee is and whether they grant a penalty. We would all like to see our clubs do well, but it would be deeply unfair to the teams that we play, so we would not go along with it. We would not allow a gang of criminals to decide whether the police could investigate a crime, and nor should the governing party decide the political strategy of the supposedly independent—this raises that question—Electoral Commission.

Far from increasing the powers of independent electoral regulators, and giving them the powers they need to defend and protect our democracy, it looks like the Government are intent on stripping the Electoral Commission of its ability to do its job in this field. These proposals threaten to end the commission’s independence and put control of how elections are run in the hands of those who have won them, which seems intrinsically unfair. These are the actions of a Government that fear scrutiny, as we have seen in other recent legislation.

I draw hon. Members’ attention to the evidence sessions held by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, where we heard from Helen Mountfield QC. She said that the Bill arguably breaches international law and that

“the removal of the independence of the Electoral Commission is potentially legally problematic”

and breaches the UK’s constitutional standards. I feel that clause 12 should be removed in its entirety.

I finish by responding in more detail to the Minister’s previous intervention. The ministerial powers to specify statements for Ofcom, Ofgem and Ofwat do not include giving guidance about specific matters or functions for which those regulators are responsible. That is a completely out-of-the-ordinary and inappropriate abuse of power. The example strategy and policy statement that was published last month illustrates the scope of this power and how it could be applied in reality.

The breadth of the example statement strayed, I would argue, from the scrutiny of the commission and into decision making and directing how decisions are made. Some of the content would have an impact on the commission’s independence, for example by specifying considerations to which it must have regard when carrying out its enforcement work. I do not believe that this clause should stand part of the Bill and we would like to vote against it.

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Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In that case, I hope the hon. Member will support the amendment to provide for lay membership of the Speaker’s committee to enhance that level of scrutiny and indeed to ensure that there is not a Government majority on that committee. No one is saying we should not expand scrutiny of the Electoral Commission’s operations; we are saying that the clause will reduce scrutiny and put more control in the Government’s hands. It is not good enough to say that statements can be consulted on and indeed might change between Governments as Governments change. In fact, that is more dangerous and would lead to inconsistency, which would really start to diminish the commission’s impartiality.

No one can say, “Well, this is a bland and harmless overall statement of principles that people have already agreed to,” when it provides directives and powers to give directives that are not found elsewhere either in UK regulators or in comparable commissions in the Commonwealth such as those of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Conservative Members in particular are generally so proud that people in those countries look to the mother of Parliaments for their inspiration and to this glorious United Kingdom as an example of democracy that others should aspire to. Those countries have done that—well, they may have done that—and they have independent regulators that are accountable to their Parliaments and legislatures, not to their Executives. The SNP opposes this power grab and will oppose the clause.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

It is pretty obvious that Opposition Members are making a mountain out of a molehill. It is well established for a Government to provide policy guidance to independent regulators via policy statements such as with Ofgem and Ofwat, as I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. It is also entirely appropriate for a Government to provide a steer on electoral policy and ensure that their reforms on electoral law are properly implemented. That does not fetter operational enforcement decisions on individual cases or change the Electoral Commission’s statutory duties.

The fact is, the Electoral Commission is created in law and the strategy and policy statement does not supersede the legislation. That is not the intention, and the measures in the Bill do not do that. If there were a conflict, the commission would have to defer to the law and not to a statement.

On who can amend a statement, there are multiple ways for Parliament to indicate its intention if it does not like the content of a statement. That does not need to be specifically through an amendment—there are other ways in which procedurally we as parliamentarians can let our views be known.

At present, the Electoral Commission is not properly accountable to anyone. As a result, its failings such as on electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets have never been addressed. The Speaker’s committee has not provided enough robust scrutiny on such issues.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for giving way on that point, because I am the only member of the Committee who is also a member of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. I agree that that committee is not as effective as it should be. Is she minded to support amendments to strengthen the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, perhaps by ensuring that no one party has overall control? That would strengthen the committee and scrutiny of the Electoral Commission, which we all want.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I will answer more fully on those amendments when we come to that part of the debate.

The Pickles review on electoral fraud recommended such reforms to improve accountability, and that the Government put in place a stronger emphasis on and remit for preventing electoral fraud.

There is something more concerning in the statements that I have heard from Members on the other side of the Committee, however. The Electoral Commission does not regulate politicians; it regulates the electoral process. Parliament is sovereign; we are the ones who make the rules. If anything, Opposition Members’ statements almost sound as though they think the Electoral Commission is there to assist the Opposition in holding the Government to account, which is just another type of bias.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

indicated dissent.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

That is what it sounds like. If, as they believe, and as we believe, the Electoral Commission is truly independent, a strategy and policy statement that all of Parliament votes on should be sufficient. On that point, I stress that Her Majesty’s Government and Ministers are separate from political parties, which the Electoral Commission regulates. Ministers act in line with the public interest and the provisions of the “Ministerial Code”. The points that those Members are making are well outside the scope of what the Electoral Commission should be doing. This is not a worry about accountability, and a good strategy and policy statement will not affect the commission’s ability to do its work.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Question put, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission is a statutory committee whose existing remit is narrowly restricted to overseeing the commission’s finances and the appointment of Electoral Commissions. The purpose of the clause is to expand that remit.

That expansion will contribute to improving the parliamentary accountability of the Electoral Commission by giving the UK Parliament the tools that it needs to effectively hold the commission accountable. The clause will expand the role of the Speaker’s committee and empower it to examine the commission’s performance in its duty to give regard to the strategy and policy statement. That will enable the committee to perform a scrutiny function similar to that of parliamentary Select Committees in that it will be able to retrospectively examine the commission’s activities in the light of the regulator’s duty to give regard to the strategy and policy statement.

That new power will sit alongside the committee’s existing statutory duties, which we are not amending. To be clear, under the clause, the committee will not be able to proactively direct the commission’s decision making either. The commission will remain fully operationally independent and will continue to be governed by the electoral commissioners. To support that expanded scrutiny function, the clause also gives the committee powers to request relevant information from the commission in such forms as the committee may reasonably require—oral or written evidence, for instance.

To protect the integrity of the commission’s enforcement function, the provisions will ensure that it is not required to disclose information that might adversely affect any current investigation or contravene data protection legislation. The clause also makes provisions for the protection of witnesses against defamation claims, and for any evidence given by a witness not to be used in civil, disciplinary or criminal proceedings against the witness, unless the evidence was given in bad faith. That is necessary to afford a degree of protection to witnesses.

For the reasons I have set out, the clause will improve the accountability of the commission to the UK Parliament while respecting the regulator’s independence and enforcement proceedings. I therefore urge that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Opposition broadly support the principle of expanding scrutiny of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. However, we have some issues with the membership, which we will come to when we debate a subsequent clause, so I will hold back some of my remarks until then.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 14

Membership of the Speaker’s Committee

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Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Amendment 65 prevents a situation in which the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission can have a majority from the governing party in the House of Commons. The committee currently has a Government majority, and the Bill seeks to strengthen and increase that majority. If we saw that happening in any other democracy around the world, I do not think that we would be sitting back and not saying anything.

As the primary mechanism through which the Electoral Commission is accountable to Parliament, we are concerned that, for the first time, the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission in the current Parliament has been composed of a majority of MPs from the governing party. This would have been a good opportunity for the Government to be able to correct what I think was an inadvertent error of circumstances.

Although it is normal for Committees to have a governing party majority, it is especially important in the case of the Electoral Commission that oversight is balanced, given that it is responsible for electoral law, including making decisions that may be perceived to have been against a political party that may have membership on the committee. The Bill involves many attempts by the Government to dodge scrutiny, which seems to be a theme running not only through this legislation but through others, so I encourage Members to prevent a situation whereby the Executive has a majority on a committee that aims to scrutinise our democracy.

Amendment 66 proposes to include laypersons on the Speaker’s committee. The voice of voters and major stakeholders in the Electoral Commission’s work is absent from oversight of the regulator. Including laypersons on the committee would enhance non-partisan scrutiny and bring a very different perspective. There are precedents for including lay members on committees overseeing issues that should be outside partisan interests. Lay members sit on both the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Committee on Standards. Amendments 66 and 65 are complementary to ensuring that there is no Government majority on the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission is a statutory committee, the membership of which is set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and includes five Back Benchers, who are appointed by the Speaker of the House of Commons, and four ex officio members. It is a cross-party committee and chaired impartially by the Speaker. As such, it is expected to work on consensus across party lines, as is the case for all parliamentary committees, regardless of their political majority. There has never been any suggestion that the presence of a Government majority has fettered the Speaker’s committee’s ability to work constructively with the Opposition in holding the Electoral Commission to account.

The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission’s composition currently reflects the wider majority in the House of Commons, as is usually the case for parliamentary committees. Contrary to some of the claims made by the Opposition during the debates about the Bill, it does not have an in-built Government majority. The Speaker already has the necessary statutory powers to appoint five Back Benchers of his choosing.

Therefore, the Opposition’s amendment 65, which seeks to ensure that the Government do not have a majority on the Speaker’s committee, is wholly unnecessary as it seeks to resolve a non-existent problem. Also, as I said earlier in the debate on clause 12, it hints at there being a political motive, rather than a desire to strengthen the Speaker’s committee.

Our view is that amendment 66 should also be opposed, as it is inappropriate. As the Committee will know all too well, it is extremely rare for lay members to be appointed to parliamentary Committees. On the rare occasions that it has happened, extensive consideration was given by previous Parliaments to ensure there were strict criteria determining the appointment process, length of mandate and political background of those lay members. This is necessary to ensure that the addition of lay members to parliamentary Committees does not undermine the role of parliamentarians in their scrutiny function.

None of this important reflection work appears to have been done by the Opposition in tabling this amendment, which simply seeks to pander to false claims that the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission has an in-built Government majority. The perspective of voters and members of the public is rightly represented on that Committee by its members, as parliamentarians. It would be both highly unusual and unnecessary in this case to appoint lay members to the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. Parliamentarians should be trusted to duly scrutinise the work of the Electoral Commission while having regard for preserving public confidence in the integrity of our elections.

For these reasons, I urge the Committee to oppose both amendments.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

If the Minister is saying that the amendment to provide that the Government do not have a majority is fixing a “non-existent problem”, the logic of that is the amendment should not cause a problem either. Also, the Government might want to consider—this may be hard to believe at the moment—that they may not be in power forever. At some point in the future, another party or parties may form a majority in this House and may wish to legislate, regulate and all the rest that flows with the taking of power. At that point, I have a feeling that a Conservative Opposition’s view on all these matters might suddenly change. So the Government might want to think about some of that, in relation not just to this amendment, but other things in the future.

The point about lay membership was very well made by the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson. It is not uncommon to find lay members on certain consultative and advisory Committees associated with this House, and indeed in other parts of public life. Given that some of the Minister’s own Back Benchers were asking earlier for increased impartiality in the Speaker’s committee, I would have thought that the presence of lay members, who can bring in outside expertise without worrying about the transition that might happen at an election or whatever, would be quite helpful.

I will be very happy to support any amendments that the Labour party chooses to push to a vote.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Clause 14 will facilitate Government participation in proceedings of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. That is necessary because, given wider commitments, it has not always been possible for the Minister for the Cabinet Office to attend the Speaker’s committee meetings, despite the fact that they are an ex officio member of the Committee under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Only members named in the legislation are entitled to participate in proceedings of the Speaker’s committee. However, in practice, another Minister of the Crown with responsibility for the constitution will generally exercise functions relating to elections and the constitution on behalf of the Minister for the Cabinet Office. This clause will therefore allow concurrent membership for the Minister for the Cabinet Office and a Minister of the Crown with responsibilities in relation to the constitution who is appointed by the Prime Minister.

This clause will also revoke the Transfer of Functions (Speaker’s Committee) Order 2021, which served a similar purpose and allowed a Minister of the Crown in the Cabinet Office with responsibility for the constitution to deputise for the Minister for the Cabinet Office whenever necessary at meetings of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission.

I want to state clearly on the record that, in contrast to what some Opposition members have claimed, this clause will not increase the total number of Government members or votes on the Committee. Nor will it allow the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Minister of the Crown to be appointed by the Prime Minister to attend Committee meetings at the same time, or to have two votes. Rather, the clause will merely allow a Minister of the Crown to deputise for the Minister for the Cabinet Office as and when he is unable to attend Committee meetings. There will continue to be only two ex officio Government members, with two votes, in total on the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. Together, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Minister of the Crown deputising for him amount to only one member and one vote, because they cannot both attend Committee meetings.

Following the recent machinery of government change, a transfer of function order will be laid separately to replace any mention in this provision of the Minister for the Cabinet Office with a reference to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. As Minister of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities with responsibility for local government, it is expected that I will be appointed by the Prime Minister to be the other ex officio Government member of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. This clause is necessary to duly facilitate Government participation in proceedings of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, and I urge that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15

Criminal proceedings

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

The purpose of clause 15 is to maintain the existing role of the Crown Prosecution Service and the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland in bringing prosecutions under electoral law by clarifying the extent of the Electoral Commission’s powers. The Electoral Commission has publicly stated in its 2020-21 to 2024-25 interim corporate plan that its intention is to develop a prosecutorial capability that would allow it to investigate suspected offences and bring them directly before the courts. For the avoidance of doubt, the commission has never brought a criminal prosecution to date. While the commission considers that the current legislation provides scope for it to develop this function, this has never been explicitly agreed by the Government or Parliament, and could risk wasting public money while duplicating the work of the prosecution authorities that are already experts in this domain.

Clause 15 therefore amends the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to expressly remove the potential for the commission to bring criminal prosecutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This will not apply in Scotland, where there is already a single prosecutorial authority. This clause will not amend any of the commission’s other existing powers: the commission will continue to have a wide range of investigatory and civil sanctioning powers available to it. It will also remain able to refer criminal matters to the police, as is currently the case.

To reiterate, the purpose of this clause is to maintain the existing role of the Crown Prosecution Service and the Public Prosecution Service in bringing prosecutions under electoral law by clarifying the extent of the Electoral Commission’s powers. The effect of the clause is to amend paragraph 2 of schedule 1 to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to provide for expressly removing the potential for the Electoral Commission to bring criminal prosecutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It also maintains the existing prohibition on the commission borrowing money, and relocates it to proposed new paragraph 2(2) of schedule 1. As I mentioned earlier, it is not necessary to include similar provisions for Scotland, as it is already clear that the Lord Advocate, acting through the Procurator Fiscal Service, has sole responsibility for criminal prosecution in Scotland. For those reasons, and to bring much-needed clarity to electoral law, I urge that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

As the Minister has said, this clause relates to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It does not really cover Scotland because of the nature of the Crown Prosecution Service, and in olden times, this might have been one of those clauses that was subject to the English votes for English laws procedure. I always like to speak on things that might have been covered by the EVEL procedure.

I want to reflect a little bit on this clause, though, because the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders have expressed concerns about what the Government are trying to do here. The Government giveth a statement, a direction to the Electoral Commission, and then they taketh away, saying that the commission cannot have the powers that it wants in order to be able to do its job right now—to increase its capability to prosecute. Throughout scrutiny of this Bill, we have heard from Government Members about rampant corruption threatening the integrity of the UK system. We have heard that Tower Hamlets was not an isolated case—people were prosecuted in that case, and brought to justice—but that similar cases are happening all over the country; it is just that we do not know about them, and they need to be investigated and prosecuted. Here is an opportunity for prosecution, but the Government are taking it away.

Other regulators have this power, either at an English, a Welsh, or a UK-wide level, including the Financial Conduct Authority, the Health and Safety Executive, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Food Standards Agency. As such, this goes back to the point I made about some of the earlier clauses in this part of the Bill, about what the Government are trying to do here and the power grab that they are determined to effect. I fully accept that the regulatory and prosecutorial regimes north and south of the border are different, so it is not the SNP’s place to challenge this clause or press it to a vote, but it is important that those points are put on record.

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That was partly the reason for a meeting I had with the Law Commission last week, in the company of the Norfolk safeguarding adults review board, to press the case for removing private prosecution powers from all those quangos, inter alia. The best place for prosecutions is with the Crown Prosecution Service, which is set up and dedicated to that purpose, instead of with an adjunct power of an organisation which, in the example of the Care Quality Commission, is primarily a regulator set up to work with organisations to ensure compliance and give guidance over a long period, just as the Electoral Commission is. That is a relationship. In contrast, with the prosecuting authority, a breach is found and penalties are then enforced. There is a fundamental conflict there, and we need to move away from that and towards the Crown Prosecution Service. I thoroughly support the Government in this measure.
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

As I sum up, I would like to add a further point in response to accusations that the clause represents a power grab. I wholeheartedly agree with the excellent points made by my hon. Friends. However, I thought it was also worth reminding the Committee that the Crown Prosecution Service has criticised the Electoral Commission’s suggestion that it should have prosecution powers. The Crown Prosecution Service noted that

“the CPS deals with criminal offences under the RPA and criminal charges under PPERA, while the Electoral Commission has civil powers to deal with PPERA cases. We assess this is an appropriate division. There are important prosecutorial functions that the CPS has vast experience of, and expertise in, including police PACE processes, adherence to CPIA legislation and to disclosure rules.”

It continued:

“In our view, a criminal-civil divide provides a good level of precision… Any unintentional blurring of the lines would be counter-productive.”

Those are the Crown Prosecution Service’s words, which explain why the clause is important. I would also like to remind the Committee that the Electoral Commission has civil sanctioning powers that apply to referendums and elections. More serious matters can be referred to the police and the CPS, and then considered by a court of law. The courts already have the power to levy unlimited fines, but the Electoral Commission still has civil sanctioning powers, which we believe are sufficient.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 15 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

I am not on now till Wednesday week, so, if you finish before then, may I say it has been an absolute delight to work with you all? If you are still talking about the Bill on Wednesday week, I shall look forward to this Committee with the greatest anticipation.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Rebecca Harris.)

Elections Bill (Eleventh sitting)

Kemi Badenoch Excerpts
None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

Before we begin, I have a few preliminary reminders for the Committee. I know that you have heard them before, but if you could listen, that would be helpful. Could we have social distancing, and could we have masks being worn when not speaking, please? Also, to be helpful to our wonderful Hansard colleagues, could you email any notes to hansardnotes@parliament.uk? [Interruption.] That is a reminder: please could you turn off all electronic devices? Thank you very much indeed.

We now resume line-by-line consideration of the Bill. Members who wish to press a grouped amendment to a Division should indicate that they wish to do so when speaking to it.

Clause 16

Notional expenditure: use of property etc on behalf of candidates and others

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister for Levelling Up Communities (Kemi Badenoch)
- Hansard - -

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. Clause 16 makes an important clarification to our political finance rules that I hope will be welcomed by all members of this Committee. In 2018, after the Supreme Court determined that the rules on notional expenditure for candidates did not contain a test of authorisation, there were concerns among parties and campaigners that candidates could be liable to report benefits in kind that they did not know about, but could be seen to have benefited from. On Second Reading, we heard about the direct impact that unclear rules about notional expenditure has had on colleagues, and we must prevent the unwelcome consequences that this confusion may have on participation, such as stopping people from volunteering to be agents due to their fear of falling foul of the law through no fault of their own.

That is why we are making it clear that candidates only need to report as notional expenditure benefits in kind—property, goods, services and facilities that are given to the candidate at a discount, or for free—that they have used themselves, or which they or their agent have authorised, directed or encouraged someone else to use on the candidate’s behalf. That is what was already widely understood to be true prior to the court case. We have sought input from the Parliamentary Parties Panel on these measures, and are confident that they will bring important clarity to the rules and support compliance.

In this clause, we are also making an equivalent amendment to the rules for other types of campaigners, such as political parties and third-party campaigners, to ensure consistency. Expenditure that promotes an individual candidature would continue to count towards a candidate’s own spending limit, and expenditure that is joint between a party and a candidate will continue to be apportioned appropriately, a practice which all parties have long engaged in. Together, these changes will bring much-needed reassurances and clarity to candidates and their agents on the rules that apply to notional expenditure. They will support compliance with the rules and ensure that those wishing to participate in public life can feel safe in doing so. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 16 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17

Codes of practice on expenses

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

This clause amends existing provisions in electoral law in respect of the codes of practice that the Electoral Commission may prepare on election expenses for candidates. The clause also amends the parliamentary procedure to bring into force some of those codes of practice, so that parliamentary procedures are consistent.

Clause 17 ensures that the code of practice on candidate spending that the Electoral Commission may prepare can, and should, cover what constitutes notional expenditure and third-party spending under the Representation of the People Act 1983. We are making that change in order to put the scope of the guidance beyond doubt. It is important that the guidance is comprehensive, so that it can address concerns about notional expenditure that have been raised across the political spectrum. At present, the legislation implementing the various codes of practice on candidate spending is difficult to understand, and different codes are subject to different procedures.

Currently, the codes of practice on spending for both candidates and parties and campaigners are laid before both Houses in draft form, and are subject to parliamentary scrutiny for up to 40 days. It is right that Parliament is able to scrutinise those codes before giving them final approval, so this will not change. We are amending the provisions for the candidate code in the 1983 Act simply to specify that the order that brings this code of practice into force is a statutory instrument. This is a minor amendment to an existing power and simply remedies the fact that the legislation does not specify that at present. Like the other codes, the candidate code will still be subject to parliamentary scrutiny for up to 40 days. We are not changing that.

We are also amending the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 so that the order bringing the code of practice for political parties into force is subject to no parliamentary procedure, rather than being subject to the negative resolution procedure. That is in line with other commencement orders and with the procedure followed for other codes of practice prepared by the Electoral Commission. This follows the initial 40 days of parliamentary scrutiny when the code is laid in draft, and that will not change. As I explained, these changes will ensure that the procedure for all the codes of practice are consistent and clearer, while ensuring that Parliament remains able to duly scrutinise them and give them final approval.

None of the codes has been put forward to Parliament to date and, given that the Elections Bill is changing the law on notional expenditure, the draft codes previously developed by the Electoral Commission will need to be updated to reflect the changes in the law. We would expect the Electoral Commission to consult political parties and others in future on any new codes of practice.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 17 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 18

Authorised persons not required to pay expenses through election agent

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Section 75 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 prohibits any third party spending above a certain amount on candidates without the written authorisation of the election agent. However, the current rules also provide that any authorised spending incurred by the third party must be paid for by the election agent. That is not logical, which is why we are amending the rules so that any authorised spending under section 75 can be both incurred and paid for by the authorised third party.

The measure does not change the existing rules around submitting spending returns, as any authorised spending should still be reported by both the third party and the candidate. This change will make the process of paying for that authorised spending more straightforward.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 18 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 19

Declaration of assets and liabilities to be provided on application for registration

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Clause 19 amends section 28 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to bring forward transparency about political parties’ assets and liabilities to an earlier stage. There is already a requirement for political parties to maintain a record of assets and liabilities in their annual accounting records. However, that information may not be available until up to a year after a party registers and can therefore be after an election that the party has contested.

Parties with assets or liabilities that do not exceed the £500 threshold will be required to make a declaration confirming that fact. Parties with assets or liabilities in excess of £500 will be required to produce a record of those assets and liabilities to accompany their declaration. That will be incorporated into the registration process with the commission and into the register maintained and published by the commission. Parties with assets and liabilities of above £500 will be indicated on the register of parties.

This is a good step forward as it will allow earlier public scrutiny of parties’ finances and ensure public confidence in the transparency of all political parties’ financial positions.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 19 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 20

Prohibition on entities being registered political parties and recognised third parties at same time

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

None Portrait The Chair
- Hansard -

With this it will be convenient to consider clause 21 stand part.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Clause 20 prohibits groups and individuals from having access to multiple spending limits at an election. Spending limits exist to ensure a level playing field, and any opportunities to unfairly expand them should be removed. During the 2019 UK parliamentary general election, one group claimed that it could do exactly that by registering as both a political party and a third party campaigner. That showed the potential for the current rules to be abused and spending limits expanded.

If we do not close down the loophole, it may be exploited further in future. This change will prohibit recognised third party campaigners from registering as political parties and gaining access to a spending limit for each registration. That will serve to protect the integrity of the existing spending limits.

To ensure that there can be no doubt, the list of individuals and entities permitted to be on the third party campaigner register will also be amended to remove political parties. As groups may already appear on both registers when the provision comes into force, clause 21 will ensure that any group that spends in a third party capacity during a regulated period will not be able also to spend as a political party. That means that any group appearing on both registers when these provisions are commenced will have to choose whether it wants to spend as a political party or a third party campaigner during any subsequent regulated period.

Finally, clause 20 also makes consequential amendments to the rules on donations, spending and reporting for recognised third party campaigners, where they currently refer to the specific requirements for political parties, which take into account their existing financial controls as a party. Altogether, these changes will ensure that groups cannot use the rules to their advantage to expand their spending limits unfairly.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 20 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 22

Restriction on which third parties may incur controlled expenditure

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Clause 22 restricts all third party campaigner spending during a regulated period to entities eligible to register with the Electoral Commission, as listed in section 88 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, and to overseas unincorporated associations with the requisite UK connection.

Currently, foreign third party campaigners can legitimately spend on UK elections underneath the recognised third party campaigner registration thresholds, which are £20,000 during a regulated period in England, and £10,000 in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This activity becomes illegal only once the thresholds are passed. It is important that only those with a legitimate and fair interest in UK elections are able to influence the electorate.

Clause 22 will remove the scope for any legal spending by foreign third party campaigners underneath the registration threshold but above a £700 de minimis. The inclusion of such a de minimis provision will balance the desire to prohibit spending by foreign entities without criminalising low level, potentially unintentional breaches below £700, which are unlikely to adversely impact an election.

It is worth noting that only individual overseas electors are permitted to register as third party campaigners with the Electoral Commission. In order to support overseas electors, who are important participants in our democracy, to work together, the clause will permit them to form unincorporated associations to campaign if they spend below the new lower tier registration threshold of £10,000, set out in clause 24. That is in line with the current situation, and it is only right that such electors should be able to spend in UK elections as they can now. Under our proposals, unincorporated associations will meet the “requisite UK connection” requirement to incur spending in UK elections only if they are composed solely of registered overseas electors.

To conclude, these provisions make necessary and proportionate changes to ensure that spending at UK elections is only permitted, above a £700 de minimis, for those with a legitimate interest in UK elections. They help reduce the risk of illegitimate foreign influence in UK elections.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 22 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 23

Third parties capable of giving notification for purposes of Part 6 of PPERA

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 71, in clause 23, page 33, leave out lines 6 to 10.

This amendment would leave out the powers for ministers to remove categories of permitted campaigner while leaving in place their power to add new categories of campaigner.

--- Later in debate ---
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Clause 23 builds directly on the requirements put in place by clause 22. As I have mentioned, the aim of clause 22 is to remove the scope for foreign entities to spend above a £700 de minimis amount during the regulated period running up to an election by restricting all third party campaigner spending at that time to spending by entities that are eligible to register with the Electoral Commission, as in section 88 of PPERA.

However, we are conscious that legitimate categories of third party that are not on the list of categories of campaigners may emerge in future, and clause 22 would significantly restrict their ability to campaign if they could not be added to the list quickly. For that reason, clause 23 makes provision for the amendment of the list of eligible categories of third party campaigners in PPERA. It will allow the Government to add to, remove items from, or otherwise amend the list of categories of third party campaigners as necessary. Any such changes will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny via the affirmative procedure. These provisions will ensure that we can be responsive to the emergence of new groups, and that eligible categories of third party are not unduly restricted from campaigning and participating in our democracy in future. I therefore urge the Committee to allow the clause to stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 23 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 24

Recognised third parties: changes to existing limits etc

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move amendment 76, in clause 24, page 33, line 23, at end insert—

“(5C) Registered charities and Community Interest Companies may act as a recognised third party subject to the lower-tier expenditure limits without the requirement to give the Electoral Commission notification under section 88 of PPERA.”

This amendment would exempt registered charities and Community Interest Companies from the notification and registration requirements of Clause 24, which introduces a new lower tier registration for third party campaigners who spend more than £10,000 on controlled expenditure anywhere in the UK.

--- Later in debate ---
Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - -

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.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Given the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, how will charities know when it is 12 months before a general election?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I will come to that point in a moment. Charities can choose to spend less than £10,000 in the period before an election. The clause is drafted so as to increase transparency by requiring third party campaigners to register at a lower level of spend than is currently the case, while also ensuring that the regulatory requirements on such third party campaigners is proportionate to their campaign spend.

Digital technology has significantly reduced the cost of campaigning, and it is important that the lower tier of expenditure reflects that reality. Those third parties subject to the lower-tier expenditure limits will be subject only to minimal registration requirements and will not be subject to reporting or donations controls. That increased transparency is intended to reassure the electorate and to continue to uphold transparency