All 2 Lord Rennard contributions to the Ballot Secrecy Act 2023

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Fri 15th Jul 2022
Ballot Secrecy Bill [HL]
Lords Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading
Fri 18th Nov 2022

Ballot Secrecy Bill [HL] Debate

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Ballot Secrecy Bill [HL]

Lord Rennard Excerpts
2nd reading
Friday 15th July 2022

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, the provisions in this Bill were debated during the passage of the Elections Act earlier this year, and the principles behind it have our strong support.

As the noble Lords, Lord Hayward and Lord Kennedy, both said, it was 150 years ago that the Ballot Act 1872 first required parliamentary and local government elections in the UK to be conducted by secret ballot. Prior to that legislation, tenants feared eviction if they did not vote as their landlord would have wished; small retailers feared that they could not vote against the wishes of their bigger customers and risk losing business; and with no spending limits yet in place, candidates could bribe voters and check that they had voted as they had agreed. The principle of the secret ballot had been a key aim of the Chartists, and it is an essential democratic principle—but it can be undermined, and this Bill addresses concerns about polling stations.

However, my major concern about ballot secrecy is not with polling stations but with postal votes. The system is too open to abuse. In the Rochdale constituency in the 2010 general election, several hundred postal votes were submitted on which the “X” next to the name of the Liberal Democrat candidate Paul Rowen, the Member since 2005, was either crossed out or tippexed out, and the ballot papers then showed crosses next to the name of the Labour candidate. I do not seek to make a party-political point but just to demonstrate how postal voting can breach principles of secrecy.

Too often, a family may fill in their ballots at the same time under the watchful eye of someone acting as the head of the household—if they do fill it in themselves. It was because of concerns such as these that I led the opposition to a move by the Labour Government in 2004 to abolish polling stations and make voting in four English regions in the local and European elections that year by postal ballot only. Some Members of the House may remember that we sent that proposal back to the Commons about five times before Conservative Peers eventually backed down and let the measure go through. The eventual outcry meant that the pilots were never rolled out. I hope that the Labour Front Bench will note that Conservative Peers at that point were not at all reticent when they were in opposition about blocking measures they considered to be an abuse of democratic principles.

The need for the measures in this Bill has been questioned by government Ministers, but there is an obvious lack of clarity on the issue because, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said, advice from Ministers and the Electoral Commission has differed. It is not satisfactory to say that the practice of family voting is already illegal, because the practice is not uncommon and is not always prevented.

A visible police presence at polling stations is a critical part of preventing electoral fraud, but even where police are present, so-called family voting still occurs. As has been said, the Democracy Volunteers organisation witnessed this practice taking place in about a quarter of the polling stations it observed in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in May this year. It says that it is a national problem, not just one confined to Tower Hamlets.

The question I hope the Minister will address is: if the practice is already illegal and the Bill unnecessary, why is it sometimes so prevalent? The Electoral Commission guidance for polling stations makes no reference to the practice being against the law. Perhaps the QC’s opinion will confirm the illegality of the practice and the Electoral Commission guidance will be changed to reflect this. Presiding officers and the police will then be more able to prevent it. Unless and until we have that clarity, the Bill is necessary.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, for his tenacity in pursuing this issue. I close by saying that it is 29 years to the month since I was overseeing my party’s campaign in the Christchurch parliamentary by-election, which prevented his return to the other place. He may not have thanked me at the time, but the result eventually enabled him to play a distinguished role in this Chamber and for us to become good friends on opposing Benches. On this measure, we agree.

Ballot Secrecy Bill [HL]

Lord Rennard Excerpts
Committee stage
Friday 18th November 2022

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, I spoke from these Benches in support of the principles of this Bill last July, and I do so again. Once again, I pay tribute to the great tenacity of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, in pursuing this serious and important matter.

Like him, I would like to pay tribute briefly to the late David Butler. When I was an undergraduate student of politics and economics at Liverpool University 44 years ago, the standard textbook was Butler and Stokes, from which I learned, although I have devoted most of the years since to trying to overcome his conclusion in that book that a candidate’s personal vote was worth only about 500 votes. I discussed this with him on a number of occasions and as a result of elections since then, he revised his opinion considerably. We very much miss his contribution to politics and are sorry that we cannot be with his family and friends this afternoon.

I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, for the work of her department in support of these measures. I must admit that in considering these amendments and discussing them with the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, I thought the Government were perhaps being overcautious, as is often the case when lawyers are involved. However, sometimes they help provide necessary clarification. Clarity is what we need on these issues if the proper principles behind the Bill are to be enforced. I hope we will proceed very speedily with this Bill becoming law.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark Portrait Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab Co-op)
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My Lords, like other noble Lords, I spoke in the debate in July. I very much support the Bill.

I want to make my own tribute to Sir David. I met him many times. He was a wonderful man and will be missed by all of us. He shaped elections and was an absolute giant in this area.

I was very supportive of the Bill when the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, brought it forward in July, and I remain so. I congratulate him on getting government support, which is no mean feat for a Private Member’s Bill. These amendments improve the Bill and I support all of them. They bring the Bill together and make it much more workable. I am sure that all in this Chamber want to ensure that our elections are free and fair, and that when people go into the polling booth they are not intimidated, coerced or made to do anything they do not want to do. At the same time, if people need help to vote, perhaps because they are disabled, this ensures that that help can be there. In that sense, the government amendments really help to shape the Bill.

As I say, I fully support the amendments and the Bill, and I am so pleased that the Government are behind it. If I may go slightly off-piste, I point out that loads of other wonderful Private Member’s Bills have been tabled. I note that the Government Chief Whip is here; I hope she and others will see that there may be others—I have one down—the Government could look at in the same light. I live in hope. I congratulate the noble Baroness on her amendments and the noble Lord on his Bill. I look forward to it becoming law.