Debates between Kemi Badenoch and Cat Smith during the 2019 Parliament

Mon 17th Jan 2022
Elections Bill
Commons Chamber

Report stage & Report stage
Tue 26th Oct 2021
Tue 26th Oct 2021
Thu 21st Oct 2021
Thu 21st Oct 2021
Tue 19th Oct 2021
Tue 19th Oct 2021
Wed 22nd Sep 2021
Wed 22nd Sep 2021

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Kemi Badenoch and Cat Smith
Wednesday 7th February 2024

(2 weeks, 2 days ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Female-led businesses often face particular challenges, and in the Department for Business and Trade we work with the British Business Bank to ensure that those businesses continue to have access to finance. We have the Investing in Women code and a taskforce for women-led entrepreneurs. We hope that all these actions together will help improve the lives of women in business.

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

T6. Will the Minister make a statement about today’s report by the Patient Safety Commissioner addressing redress for victims of sodium valproate and mesh?

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Kemi Badenoch and Cat Smith
Wednesday 25th January 2023

(1 year ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister for Women and Equalities (Kemi Badenoch)
- Hansard - -

The Government will publish a draft Bill setting out our approach to banning conversion practices, which will go for pre-legislative scrutiny in this parliamentary Session. We are committed to protecting everyone at risk of those practices from harm and we are clear that the legislation must not affect the ability of parents, teachers or counsellors to have open, exploratory and even challenging conversations with young people.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Has the Minister had sight of the Health and Social Care Committee’s report into the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review and, particularly on paragraph 53, what conversations might she be having with Treasury colleagues to support women seeking redress?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I thank the Health and Social Care Committee for its IMMDS follow-up report. Our sympathies remain with all those women affected by sodium valproate. Patient safety is our top priority and we are committed to improving how the system listens to people, which is why I have asked the Patient Safety Commissioner, Dr Henrietta Hughes, to look into redress schemes. I am not committing to any specific next steps today, but the Minister for Women will provide an update in due course.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The Government are committed to increasing participation in our democracy and empowering all those eligible to vote to do so in a secure, efficient and effective way. An important part of that is ensuring that electoral services—be they registering to vote, applying for an absent vote or applying for a voter card—are as convenient and accessible as possible. To that end, we have tabled new clause 11 and new schedule 1 to provide powers to introduce an online absent vote application service and an online voter card application service. These amendments also provide similar powers for such applications in Northern Ireland.

As it stands, it is not possible for electors to apply for an absent vote online. Electors who wish to apply for an absent vote must do so via a paper form that they must submit to their local electoral registration officer via post. New clause 11 and new schedule 1 will enable the identity of applicants using those services to be verified, as well as identity verification for paper absent vote applications, as is already the case for registration applications. That includes powers to enable real-time identity verification—that is, identity verification while an applicant is in the process of completing their application—for voter card applications, absent vote applications and registration applications.

That issue was raised in Committee by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). The Government agreed in principle with her points and committed to considering an online service for electors to make applications for an absent vote once further work was done to understand how best to implement such a service. That commitment is being honoured here with the tabling of amendments to provide powers to introduce an online absent vote application service.

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

I thank the Minister for being receptive to the points that were raised in Committee about putting many more of the ways in which we engage with democracy online. I wonder if she has had time to reflect on whether the Government may have gained advantage from pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill, because it strikes me that not only did the instruction order after Second Reading bring forward parts of the Bill that were not given scrutiny by the full House, but there have also been a huge amount of Government amendments at this late stage. What reflections does she have on the ways in which she might consult the House on constitutional matters before bringing forward Bills in future?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I have nothing further to add to what we discussed in Committee. I understand the hon. Lady’s point—we want our legislation to be as rigorous and robust as possible. I hope that the open relationship that she and I had when she was shadowing me is one that I will be able to continue with her successors. That is how we will get very good legislation on the statute books.

As I was saying, that commitment is being honoured here with the tabling of amendments to provide powers to introduce an online absent vote application service. That will include a process by which the identity of absent vote applicants can be verified. The identity verification process will be made to apply to paper applications as well as to applications made online.

--- Later in debate ---
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

That is a good question. It is something that we discussed in Committee and we decided that the best way to do that would be through secondary legislation. We did debate what the thresholds were, but this is something that can be resolved when further detail comes out in secondary legislation. I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman’s comments at that stage.

As I was saying, amendments 82, 84 and 87 will help ensure clarity to both electors and polling station staff as to which forms of identification will be accepted. In line with other registration decisions, amendment 74 introduces an appeal process against the refusal of an application for a voter card or absent vote.

Finally, on this group of Government amendments, amendments 49 to 50, 76 to 79, 89, 90, 92, 93, 96, 105 and 108 seek to provide the chief electoral officer of Northern Ireland with the ability to provide confidential lists of dates of birth to polling stations at all elections in Northern Ireland, which will facilitate the implementation of existing provisions.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Before the Minister moves on, I just wonder whether she, since taking up her post, has had a chance to meet the Association of Electoral Administrators, which has raised the concern that it is already quite difficult to recruit volunteers to staff polling stations. Its concern is that being asked to check these forms of ID will be a disincentive for volunteers to come forward because of the potential conflict between a voter whose ID is not valid and the volunteer who is staffing the polling station. Has she discussed that with the Association of Electoral Administrators, and if so, how did that conversation go?

Elections Bill (Eleventh sitting)

Debate between Kemi Badenoch and Cat Smith
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Yes, but the fact is they are not very common. Every single one of us in this room is in the same situation. I was elected in 2017. I did not know that a snap election was going to be called. I am afraid that what Opposition Members are asking for is the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which is not within the scope of what we are discussing. Debates on the clause are not the place to discuss certainty around election time, if that is what Opposition Members want. The clause is about regulating political finance transparency.

The fundamental point made by Opposition Members is that clause 24 creates an undue administrative burden for charities and community interest companies, but it does not do that. They can easily supply the relevant information.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can the Minister answer a very simple question? Will there be a UK general election by 26 October 2022? That is 12 months from today.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

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

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

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

--- Later in debate ---
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

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

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

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On the point about transparency, does the Minister not recognise that the Government are not being transparent with charities or third party campaigners? How are they ever meant to know when the regulated spend period is kicking in when we do not have scheduled, regular general elections for the UK Parliament because of legislation we already passed a couple of months ago? Does the Minister agree that we are asking charities, which are blindfolded, to make decisions with no idea when an election will take place? The amendment is the only way we can treat all third party campaigners fairly and give them any sense of transparency. Can the Minister see that the Government are a little inconsistent on the point about transparency?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I do not think so at all. In the previous clause, we made the situation equal for everybody. The Opposition are talking as if there is a secret conspiracy where everybody knows, other than them, when an election is going to be called. We are applying the law equally to everybody. That is right and I am happy to continue making the argument.

--- Later in debate ---
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I have already given way multiple times and we need to proceed. There are other more important reasons why the amendment simply cannot pass.

Under the terms of the amendment, third party campaigners would be able to incur spending beyond their current limit, prior to the poll being officially set, and still be able to influence the electorate. That would give a potential advantage to those with access to greater funds, and thus also undermine the fundamental democratic principle that there should be a level playing field for all those taking part in elections. That would apply to all third party campaigners, whether on the Government’s side or the Opposition’s. That is the fairness about which the hon. Lady is talking. In addition, donations of third party campaigners are regulated only where they are used for controlled expenditure during a regulated period. That ensures that donations that are spent to influence the electorate in the period before an election come from permissible sources and are fully transparent. This is a regulated period amendment and we are not talking about charities.

A shorter regulated period would allow third party campaigners to accept and spend donations from potentially impermissible sources in the run-up to an election, and do so without being subject to transparency controls, as long as those donations were spent before the regulated period began. That risks unchecked money being used to influence the outcome of an election.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can the Minister confirm for the benefit of the charities that are watching our proceedings that we are not currently in a regulated spend period?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I have answered that question already.

The amendment, as drafted, does not achieve the aims set out in the accompanying explanatory memorandum. Although the memorandum suggests that the amendment would limit

“regulated periods for UK Parliamentary General Elections to the period between the announcement of the election and the close of polls”,

that is not correct. It makes changes to section 85 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which provides a definition for what constitutes controlled expenditure, namely spending incurred by third party campaigners at relevant elections, not just UK parliamentary elections, which can be regulated. The amendment does not amend the length of the regulated period, but rather creates an additional time period over which controlled expenditure is regulated. That would cause confusion to third parties as to which time applies.

The amendment would also create disparity between the rules for third party campaigners and the controls on political parties, which would still have a twelve-month regulated period, known as the relevant period. The proposed change would therefore also have the effect of making regulated periods for UK parliamentary elections significantly shorter than those for the devolved Parliaments, whose regulated periods would remain at four months. The amendment therefore should not stand because it would undermine the principles of controls and transparency that are placed on election funding and spending, and it would create confusion and disparity.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

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

I have agreed that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood can make her remarks while seated.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Mr Pritchard. I welcome not just clause 26, but the whole of part 5 of the legislation. As shadow democracy Minister, I have had the unfortunate pleasure of having to take part in many debates about intimidation of candidates; I am sure all Members will be aware of some of the accounts.

We know that many of our colleagues are intimidated, and many candidates of our party have experienced intimidation and threats. It is devastating that we should be debating this clause so soon after the murder of our colleague, Sir David Amess, who was on the Panel of Chairs and chaired many debates on issues like this. I must be honest: I did not expect when I stood for election in 2015 that I would lose two colleagues to murder in such a short space of time. An attack on an MP, and an attack on a candidate, is an attack on democracy. The Opposition therefore welcome part 5 of the Bill.

I am making remarks about clauses 26 to 34 so that I do not have to bother for future clauses. My only concern is that some of the legislation does not go far enough. Many of the people who might go on to intimidate candidates, agents or campaigners might not be put off by the idea of not being able to stand for elected office for five years, because many of the people who commit these crimes are not interested in participating in our democratic processes—they are, in fact, opposed to the democratic process in its entirety.

As the Minister finds her feet in this new role, I would be very happy to open a dialogue with her to explore ways in which there might be a consensus across the House to ensure that our democracy, which we all take part in and support, can be strengthened so that we do not see the acts of violence and intimidation that we have seen in recent years deter good people from entering public life.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 26 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 8 agreed to.

Clause 27

Vacation of office etc

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

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

While those in public life are often the targets of intimidation and abuse, I regret to say that they can also be the perpetrators of intimidation and abuse. For example, it is possible that an MP or a local authority mayor or councillor will be sanctioned by the new intimidation disqualification order. They will be treated no differently from anybody else and will be disqualified from holding elected office.

The clause sets out the process by which the office holder’s office is vacated; this is no more than three months after the officeholder receives the intimidation disqualification order. During the period prior to the office being vacated, the officeholder is suspended from performing the functions of their office. However, if the officeholder makes a successful appeal against their conviction or sentence before that three-month period ends, the office is not vacated and consequently they can resume their office.

The process strikes the correct balance between, on the one hand, the right of an offender to appeal and, on the other, the smooth vacation of office and a swift resolution. A swift resolution provides certainty for electors and ensures that there is an office holder in place who can discharge the responsibilities of that office. This is also consistent with the existing process for vacating office outlined in the Representation of the People Act 1983.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 27 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 28

Candidates etc

Elections Bill (Twelfth sitting)

Debate between Kemi Badenoch and Cat Smith
Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister for Levelling Up Communities (Kemi Badenoch)
- Hansard - -

The provisions pertain to the Government’s proposed new digital imprint regime. The new regime will require promoters, and those promoting on their behalf, behind digital campaign material targeted at the UK electorate to declare themselves, providing greater levels of transparency to online campaigning. In clause 36, “the promoter” of electronic material is defined as

“the person causing the material to be published”

and to publish means to

“make available to the public at large or any section of the public.”

The imprint rules will apply to all material in electronic forms that consist of or include speech, music, text, and moving or still images. It is important that the definition of electronic material is comprehensive to reflect the wide scope of the regime. At the same time, we must remain cognisant of the practicalities of imprint requirements for certain mediums. For that reason, telephone calls and SMS messages will not be in scope of the regime, due to the impracticalities of including an imprint in an SMS or a telephone call.

Clause 36 defines key pieces of terminology that are relevant to the digital imprints regime, specifically the political entities that will be required to adhere to the new regime and that are prominent actors in political campaigning in the UK. The definitions in the clause cross-reference other pieces of legislation to ensure that there is consistency with the terminology used throughout the Bill. Both clauses provide clarity to campaigners who will be subject to the regime and provide consistency to the enforcement authorities that will enforce the regime and wider electoral law. For these reasons, I urge that the clauses stand part of the Bill.

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

We are pleased to see provisions in the Bill on the regulation of digital content. The Electoral Commission has advocated digital imprints since 2003. While digital technology and campaigning have proceeded at quite a pace, legislation to ensure that the ways electronic communications are used are transparently portrayed to the electorate has been somewhat slow by comparison. Extending the imprint rules will help voters to make more informed choices on the arguments presented and to assess the credibility of campaign messages in a digital space in the same way as with print material. When digital material is disseminated by a political party, voters who see that material will be aware of that fact and will be able to make their assessments accordingly.

It is right that political parties, candidates and campaigners should not be able to conceal their identity online, any more than they would if they printed out a leaflet and pushed it through doors. However, I want to flag a slight loophole in the legislation, which allows reshared content to disseminate without an imprint. I would be interested in working with the Government —I extend the hand of the Opposition here—to find a way of resolving this issue.

There do need to be requirements on online content to show who has made it, who is paying for it and how it is being promoted so that voters can make informed choices. Amendments to subsequent clauses may go some way to doing that, but broadly speaking it is a great relief to see this measure before the House in the Bill. It is something that we have called for for a considerable time, and it is great to see us moving slightly further forward, although there are still some loopholes left to be closed.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 35 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 37

Requirement to include information with electronic material

--- Later in debate ---
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

These amendments move elections for police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, the Mayor of London, combined authority Mayors and local authority Mayors to the simple majority voting system, more commonly known as first past the post. The new clause amends legislation that provides for the supplementary vote system to apply when there are three or more candidates in an election or by-election for each of these posts. Under the new provision, each voter has one vote and the candidate with the most votes will be elected. Amendment 59 is consequential on that provision and modifies the long title of the Bill to include provision about the use of the first-past-the-post system in elections for certain offices.

The Government’s manifesto committed to supporting the first-past-the-post system. That reflects the will of the British people in the nationwide 2011 referendum, which saw two thirds of voters in favour of retaining first past the post for parliamentary elections.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for giving way so early in her speech. Can she help the Committee by explaining why this has been tabled as a Government new clause and was not in the Bill when it was first published?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

All I can say is that that would have been a question for my predecessor. These discussions happened before I came into post. I know that this was a Government manifesto commitment, and I see no reason why, if there is a convenient Bill to allow us to fulfil a manifesto commitment, we cannot use it as a vehicle for doing so.

The Government’s manifesto committed to supporting the first-past-the-post system, as I have said, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced in March the initial recommendations of the review of police and crime commissioners. It recommended that the Government introduce legislation to change the voting system for all combined authority Mayors, the Mayor of London and police and crime commissioners to first past the post when parliamentary time allowed. The Home Secretary’s review of police and crime commissioners also extended to Mayors who can exercise PCC powers, to metro Mayors and to the Mayor of London. Changing the voting system for local authority Mayors, too, to first past the post will ensure consistency in voting method for all directly elected Mayors in England. This undertaking aligns with our belief that the first-past-the-post system is robust and secure and provides strong local accountability.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I just wonder why it was a Conservative Government who introduced the supplementary vote system for police and crime commissioners if the simple majority voting system is so desirable.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I believe it was a coalition Government who introduced PCCs, not a purely Conservative Government. We have had PCCs for 10 years now and there has been plenty of time to review the system and decide whether improvements can be made. There are many things that previous Labour and Conservative Governments have done that future Governments will change, and this is one of them.

Changing the voting system will ensure consistency, and this undertaking aligns with our belief that first past the post is robust and secure and provides strong local accountability. Moving to first past the post will make it easier for the public to express a clear preference. Additionally, as a simple, well-understood and trusted system, it will reduce complexity for voters and administrators alike.

On Monday 20 September, the House approved a motion to instruct this Committee to make provision in the Bill for the use of the simple majority voting system in elections for the return of the Mayor of London; an elected Mayor of a local authority in England; a Mayor of a combined authority area; or a police and crime commissioner. The House’s approval has enabled the Government to bring forward this new clause, and I therefore commend it to the Committee.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I must say that I was very surprised when we received an instruction motion. To be honest, I had not seen one before during my time in this House, and I did not realise that the Government had been so disorganised that they had forgotten to put one of their manifesto commitments in the Bill, but by all accounts, that is exactly what has happened. It is not only chaotic, but deeply disrespectful to the House.

Our colleagues who do not have the privilege and joy of serving on this Committee got to debate the Bill on Second Reading, when we had no idea that this new clause would be included. Although we are able to debate this new clause, our colleagues were not able to raise concerns about it on Second Reading. It is disrespectful to our colleagues that they have not yet had the opportunity to raise concerns about this clause, but it is also disrespectful to this Committee. When, through the usual channels, we decided which witnesses should give evidence to the Committee, we did not know that a new clause was going to be tabled that would massively shake up the way in which many elections take place in England and Wales. We were not able to get witnesses who were experts in voting systems before the Committee, so that we had the opportunity to quiz them—to ask questions and explore whether the first-past-the-post system is as desirable as the Minister seems to think. We did not have the opportunity to explore how successful, or perhaps otherwise, the supplementary vote system has been in mayoral elections in England, or in police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales. None of that was allowed for, which is disrespectful to this House, this Committee, and our colleagues who did not have the opportunity on Second Reading to ask questions and scrutinise the Government.

Moving beyond the incredibly disrespectful way in which new clause 1 has been tabled and turning to its specifics, I ask the Minister what consultation she or her predecessor have had with Mayors about whether this was a change they were seeking. Having spoken to many elected Mayors over the past few weeks, it strikes me that they did not know that this was coming, and it has come as something of a surprise. There was no clamour for it from their offices, and they are deeply hurt that the Minister has not reached out to them to consult with them on this new clause.

Specifically looking at London—I admit that I have had to swot up a fair bit on this issue, because I am not a London MP—in 1998, in the Greater London Authority referendum, Londoners were asked whether they wanted to have a Mayor and an assembly, and it was clear that that Mayor would be elected using a supplementary vote system. Londoners agreed, by a majority of 72.01%, that this was something that they wanted. Is this Committee going to overturn a democratic referendum—the democratic will of the people, we might say; in this case, the people of London—to change the voting system?

Last time we had a debate about changing the voting system in this country, the alternative vote referendum that everyone has clearly long since forgotten about, that question was put to the people, because this is a really major change. For us to be changing the voting system used in elections in this country not by referendum, not even by putting it in the Bill and debating it on Second Reading, but by slipping it in in Committee, is absolutely shocking and appalling. It is one of the lowest points of this Bill; as I have said at earlier stages, there are plenty of other things in this Bill that I disagree with, but I am deeply offended by the way in which the Government have gone about this. It is disrespectful, and it is riding roughshod over democracy.

Specifically in the case of the London referendum, every single London borough voted to elect their Mayor using a supplementary vote system. Who is this Committee—many of us are not even London MPs—to say to those people, “You voted in that referendum for that, but we are taking it away from you”? I had a little look at the breakdowns for different boroughs, because I was surprised when I saw that every London borough had voted for it—this is a diverse city—but in the lowest supporting areas, Havering and Bromley, it was still 60% and 57% voting in favour of that system, with the highest support being in Lambeth and Haringey, which had 81% and 83% respectively.

--- Later in debate ---
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

And I still reject the hon. Gentleman’s point. The fact is that we have a Labour Mayor at the moment; we have had more Labour Mayors than Conservative Mayors; and first past the post gives accountability and strength to the people who are elected.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister is absolutely correct about the London Mayors, and that first past the post would not have changed the results of any London mayoral elections. Is she aware of any mayoral posts currently held in England where the result would have been different using first past the post? Could she perhaps give an example of some of those?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

No. I do not have a list of the mayoral elections that would be different, because the point is that we are not doing this for political reasons; we are doing it to simplify the system.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I will finish this point, because I know we want to finish this this afternoon. This was a manifesto commitment; people voted in the 2019 election knowing that this was in our manifesto. What would be undemocratic would be if we did not do this. That is why I urge Members to support the new clause.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will just let the Minister know the answer to my question, which is, of course, that there are some mayoral elections in England that would have been different if they had been held under first past the post. From the ones that I have seen, that would be because the Conservatives would have won under first past the post, while under the supplementary vote, they did not. I just thought I would help the Minister by pointing out that her amendment does very much help the Conservative party.

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

It will always be a matter for this House to decide. A citizens’ assembly cannot change the law; only we parliamentarians can do that. A citizens’ assembly could put interesting proposals to the House, and it might throw up proposals that it had not even crossed our minds that the public might want.

I am glad the hon. Gentleman raised the example of climate change. Lancaster City Council has pulled together a citizens’ assembly on climate change and finding ways in which we, as a city, can be greener. The assembly has come up with proposals that were not in any party’s manifesto at local elections. Those things came forward from the public, who were given that space and opportunity to speak to experts and develop their own ideas. If we take that one small example of looking at climate change in a city in north Lancashire and apply it to a UK-wide citizens’ assembly looking at electoral systems and integrity, as it says in the new clause, the opportunities are far greater. In my time in this Front Bench role, which I have held since 2016, it has struck me that there is an awful lot of talk about electoral systems and democracy in this place, but we do not hear enough from the public. A citizens’ assembly would be a fantastic way of ensuring that the decisions we make can be inspired and influenced by people in this country—our electors.

Parliament is not a citizens’ assembly. We choose to put ourselves forward for elected office. I dare say that the kind of people who put themselves forward for electoral office are not all totally like the rest of the country. Many of the people who elect us look at the job we do and question why we do it. I can say, hand on heart, that both my younger sisters have said to me, “Cat, I have no idea why you do that job.” Being a full-time elected parliamentarian is a completely different experience from being a citizen on a citizens’ assembly, and I do not think we should equate the two.

We can learn lessons from the Republic of Ireland, which uses citizens’ assemblies to debate really complex ideas. That gives me confidence that UK citizens would, like Irish citizens, be able to come to policy solutions on very complex issues, including electoral systems and democratic accountability. We have a lot to learn from them. There is absolutely no obligation on us as parliamentarians to implement the outcome of the citizens’ assembly. We can take those recommendations and do what we do with many parliamentary reports—put them on the shelf and let them get dusty—although I would like to think we would not. However, there is no harm, and only opportunities for good, to come from supporting this new clause.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I have listened to the arguments carefully, and I am not persuaded that there is a need for a citizens’ assembly on this issue and for a statutory requirement, so I Members to oppose the new clause.

--- Later in debate ---
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

New clauses 3 and 11 would impose a legal duty on public bodies, requiring them to provide information to electoral registration officers for the purposes of automatic electoral registration of identified electors. I am open to being persuaded, but the arguments need to be very good and, clearly, should not contradict the principles on which we stand for election or that can be found in previous legislation. We cannot agree to the new clauses as they contradict the principle that underpins electoral registration: that individuals are responsible for registering themselves. For those reasons, we cannot support new clauses 3 and 11.

In addition, new clause 13 broadly replicates existing legislation and is therefore unnecessary. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 ensures that the facilitation of electoral registration is a condition of the higher education framework, so I urge Members to oppose the new clause.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I rise to speak to new clauses 11 and 13, which are tabled in my name. Throughout the passage of the Bill, we have had discussions about the security of elections, and there has been much talk about whether individuals can fiddle results and how elections can be stolen. I tabled the new clauses with the hope of making our elections more secure, because we know that when the electoral register is more accurate and more complete, it is harder for malign actors to fiddle it round with just a few votes. At the moment, having 9 million voters either missing entirely or registered incorrectly is a weakness in our democratic system. It is a move to improve the security of our elections to have a more accurate electoral register.

I liked the point made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute: we do not register to pay tax, so why do we register to vote? I believe that it is very important to vote, and I tell anybody who will listen how important it is to take part in our elections, but I am aware that many people do not have figures like me in their lives—they are probably grateful for it. Given that we know we can have automatic voter registration and a more accurate electoral register, it strikes me as utterly bizarre that we would not want that—that we would not want a more accurate electoral register and not want to know that when we go to the country everyone who should be registered to vote can vote and hopefully does vote. I would like to see increased voter turnout, but at the moment people are falling at the first hurdle when they find that they are not on the electoral register.

New clause 13 is specifically about colleges and universities, because we know that younger voters are far less likely to be registered than older voters. There is a real gap.

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

I rise to speak to new clause 8, tabled by me and my hon. Friends. It was good timing for the SNP spokesperson to open the debate on the age of enfranchisement. The Labour party would extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. The Welsh Labour Government have done it, and we have seen it work well for a number of years in Scotland. We know that the record of voting in the Scottish parliamentary and local elections proved that 16 and 17-year-olds are more than capable of casting their votes and making informed decisions.

Since this year’s Senedd elections, Welsh 16 and 17-year-olds can now vote for their Members of the Senedd. The experience of the Scottish referendum showed that, when given a chance, 16 and 17-year-olds have a higher rate of turnout than 18 to 24-year-olds, with 75% voting, and 97% say that they would vote in future elections. Only 3% said that they did not know. That flies in the face of some of the arguments that I have occasionally heard in opposition to this idea, although we have not heard any yet today, that say that young people would not be well informed. We know from analysis of the referendum in Scotland that 16 and 17-year-old voters accessed more information from a wider variety of sources than any other age group, so, arguably, they are incredibly well informed and not necessarily biased towards one political persuasion.

A lowering of the voting age has been called for many times over the years. I have called for it many times since I was elected. It would enable young people to have their first experience of voting, often when they are still in full-time education. I know from studies that I have read over the years that if an elector votes the first time that they are eligible to vote in an election, they are far more likely to go on to develop a lifetime habit of voting and engaging in democracy. Again, it comes back to security in elections. One of the best ways we can make our elections safer and more secure is by increasing turnout. A good way of increasing turnout in the long term is to maximise the number of people whose first opportunities to vote come when they are still in full-time education, when they are still very much supported to vote.

At the moment, with the voting age for England and Northern Ireland coming in at 18—it has been 18 for UK general elections, and in Scotland and Wales as well—for many young people their first vote comes at a time of great change in their lives. They might be starting out in the world of work, might have gone off to university to study, or might have recently moved out of the family home. It is far better that we give young people an opportunity to vote and give the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds so that we can increase the chances of an electorate that is engaged in the process and that votes. That is better for the security of elections.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I was amazed to hear the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute, who is clearly suffering from significant amnesia if he claims not to have heard the arguments on votes at 16. As the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said, the subject has been debated time and again, certainly every single year since 2010. There is no need for me to rehash the arguments. I ask him to ask his parliamentary researcher to research Hansard. Given our manifesto commitment to maintain the current franchise at 18, and having been elected on that principle, the Government have no plans to lower the voting age. We will not support the new clause.

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

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause would increase the accessibility of postal voting. As we have seen, the Government have reduced voters’ flexibility to use postal votes through the earlier clauses of the Bill. Their changes will make the process of voting more complex and bureaucratic and, I fear, turn voters off bothering to vote at all. Ministers should be directing their energy towards changes that will make voting easier, not putting up more barriers. Since we are considering all things elections, I also wonder why on earth postal voters need to print off and submit a form via the post when it is possible to register to vote online. That an additional administrative burden could be quickly removed through online postal vote applications. The Opposition are trying to make postal voting more accessible, and that requirement is an additional administrative burden that could be removed by allowing online applications.

There is no good reason why the policy intention of this new clause should be voted down by the Government. I would be interested to know whether, if the Minister is not happy with the wording of our new clause, she would be interested in taking it away and exploring ways in which we can embrace digital technology to make our democracy more accessible. She is certainly not afraid of technology: I admire the fact that she is one of the few Ministers who is often at the Dispatch Box with an iPad, rather than a sheet of paper. Given her enthusiasm for all things digital, I wonder whether there is scope for the Government and Opposition to work together and come forward with a solution to digitalise this process, making processes quicker and more accessible for electoral administrators and delivering more of what voters now expect when engaging with any aspect of applying to do things through the state.

Finally, given that COP26 is about to start, moving to online applications would of course reduce the use of paper and would therefore be a greener policy as well.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

Committee members may want to get out their smelling salts, because the Government agree in principle with the introduction of online absent voting applications. The Government developed the basis for a potential online absent voting application earlier this year, and further work is under way to determine whether it can be rolled out safely. The Government are committed to increasing participation in our democracy and empowering all those eligible to vote to do so in a safe, efficient and effective way.

As the hon. Lady mentioned, an important part of the legislation is to provide electors with a choice on how to cast their vote. Now more than ever, people may wish to make use of absent vote and postal vote methods, which are essential tools in supporting voters to exercise their right to vote. As she said, in a digital world, it is right that we spread the use of technology, when that can be done safely, to further increase accessibility and the efficient running of our elections.

--- Later in debate ---
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

As the hon. Member mentioned, we discussed this issue when considering clauses on overseas electors. I did agree with Opposition Members that we should look at ways to ensure that we do not inadvertently create new loopholes while trying to secure the voting system or inadvertently extend the franchise beyond the Bill’s intention.

Having said that, what the hon. Lady refers to as a loophole is not. It is a long-standing principle—one originally recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1998—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.

UK electoral law already sets out a stringent regime of spending and donation controls, to ensure that only those with a legitimate interest in UK election can donate or campaign. That includes British citizens who are registered as overseas electors. I have explained that I am very open to discussing what we can do to secure the system but, for the reasons I have outlined, the Government do not support the new clause. I hope the hon. Member for Putney understands that and will withdraw the new clause.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I wonder whether I might trouble the Minister. Will she commit to a meeting to discuss the specific issues that the new clause raises, looking particularly at the Russia report and whether we could find cross-party agreement on ensuring that our elections and democracy are safe and secure?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

I am very happy to have a meeting, and I think we should look at the whole section on overseas electors. I have not read the Russia report, so I am keen to get a briefing on it from the hon. Lady. I am sure that officials will also prepare a briefing so that I can fully understand. Given that, I hope the Opposition will withdraw the new clause.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Elections Bill (Ninth sitting)

Debate between Kemi Badenoch and Cat Smith
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

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.

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

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
- Hansard - -

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.

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

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
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

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
- Hansard - -

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.

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

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
- Hansard - -

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.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

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.

--- Later in debate ---
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

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.

--- Later in debate ---
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)

Debate between Kemi Badenoch and Cat Smith
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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

--- Later in debate ---
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.

Elections Bill (Eighth sitting)

Debate between Kemi Badenoch and Cat Smith
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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 ---
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)

Debate between Kemi Badenoch and Cat Smith
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

Elections Bill (Fifth sitting)

Debate between Kemi Badenoch and Cat Smith
Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (Kemi Badenoch)
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On that point, will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

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.

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

On that point, will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard -

The hon. Lady has made her point, and I am sure that the Committee will have heard it.

--- Later in debate ---
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - -

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.

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

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
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - -

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.]

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

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
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - -

And now we are making it more uniform.

--- Later in debate ---
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
- Hansard - -

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)

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

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
- Hansard - -

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?

--- Later in debate ---
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

--- Later in debate ---
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.

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.