All 1 Robin Walker contributions to the Elections Act 2022

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Tue 7th Sep 2021

Elections Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Elections Bill

Robin Walker Excerpts
2nd reading
Tuesday 7th September 2021

(11 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Robin Walker Portrait The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr Robin Walker)
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I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed this afternoon. It is a pleasure to once again take part in a full debate in this Chamber. May I take the opportunity to welcome the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green)? I congratulate her on a very gracious maiden speech and the kind tribute that she paid to her predecessor, who was a dear friend of so many on the Government Benches.

I welcome the opportunity to close this debate as the Minister with responsibility for elections in Northern Ireland, a part of our United Kingdom where photographic ID has been used successfully to support the integrity of elections for a number of years and where, thanks to legislation introduced by the last Labour Government with cross-party support in both Westminster and Northern Ireland, there is a higher degree of confidence in the integrity of elections than in any other part of the UK. One of the hon. Members from the SNP, who is no longer in his place, intervened to ask the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution about the evidence from Northern Ireland, and I want to talk a bit about that.

As we have heard, voters in Northern Ireland have first-hand experience of one of the measures at the heart of this Bill: the requirement to show photographic ID at polling stations. That requirement is an accepted and non-controversial part of elections in Northern Ireland that has been in place for decades and enjoys cross-party support. Although turnout in Northern Ireland is, historically, usually lower than in Great Britain, in the first election after the introduction of photographic ID, turnout in Northern Ireland was unusually higher than in England, Scotland or Wales.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
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We have heard a lot of spurious arguments today about voter ID. Was that not exemplified just now by the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who said that low turnouts favour the Conservative party? There was a 59% turnout in 2001. I would like to erase the history of Tony Blair, but I believe that he had a 166 majority.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Certainly, in my experience, the higher the turnout in my constituency, the higher my majority has turned out to be.

This measure in Northern Ireland has helped to prevent electoral fraud, and it has not affected participation. Labour Ministers said at the time of its introduction—I want to quote this in full—that the measures

“will tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters,”

ensuring

“that no one is disenfranchised because of them.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 April 2003; Vol. 646, c. 1248.]

They added that

“the Government have no intention of taking away people’s democratic right to vote. If we believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because of this measure, we would not be introducing it at this time.”—[Official Report, 10 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 739.]

I do not always agree with pronouncements from the Front Bench in the era of Blair and Brown, but in this case they were 100% right. There is no evidence that ID has negatively impacted turnout. Levels of satisfaction with the electoral process are usually slightly higher in Northern Ireland.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I endorse what the Minister has said. We as a party will be walking through the Lobby with the Government tonight to support the Bill. Photo ID has been a success for Northern Ireland. We can vouch for that. It has stopped fraud and corruption. I had a discussion with the Minister earlier. The RNIB has expressed some concerns about the legislation. Will he agree to meet the RNIB to discuss those concerns?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I am certainly happy to offer that meeting. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution mentioned earlier that she has had a number of meetings with the RNIB already and has been working with it, but she will continue to meet it as the Bill progresses, because that is vital. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s illustration of the support for this measure in Northern Ireland.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I want to address some of the evidence that the hon. Gentleman’s party asked for. One survey conducted just a few years—

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
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It is on that point.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I will address the point that the hon. Gentleman’s party raised. One survey, conducted by the Electoral Commission in 2009 under the last Labour Government, just a few years after the introduction of photographic ID in Northern Ireland, found that 100% of respondents in Northern Ireland experienced no difficulty with presenting photographic ID at polling stations. As part of its post-election questionnaire in 2019, the Electoral Commission reported that 83% of voters in Northern Ireland found it very easy to participate in elections, as opposed to 78% across Great Britain, including, of course, Scotland.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara
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Can I just clarify whether the Minister is drawing a clear and direct parallel between the situation in Northern Ireland in the 1990s and the situation in the United Kingdom in 2021? Is there a clear and direct parallel that joins the two that explains this legislation?

--- Later in debate ---
Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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The hon. Gentleman should want us to learn from what works in one part of the UK for the whole of the United Kingdom. I am very pleased to see the United Kingdom aligning further, with Northern Ireland leading the way as Great Britain takes forward a measure to protect the integrity of elections, which has been tried and tested to great effect in Northern Ireland.

Some of the wider claims we have heard in today’s debate are simply not borne out by the experience of Northern Ireland. They echo some of the scaremongering when this Government successfully introduced individual electoral registration. Many Opposition Members cried that that would result in mass disenfranchisement, but we saw the effect in the last UK general election, when a record number of people were registered to vote. The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, one of the hardest working Ministers with whom I have had the pleasure to work and herself no stranger to Northern Ireland, excellently articulated the reasonable and considered approach we are taking across the Bill.

We heard a number of very powerful speeches in support of these measures from my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), my right hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Mr Baker), for Southport (Damien Moore), for Leigh (James Grundy), for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) and for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), and my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Tom Randall), for Keighley (Robbie Moore), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew).

I want to try to answer some of the points that have been raised and some of the questions that have been put to me in Members’ contributions. Before I do, however, I think it is worth reflecting on the work undertaken to get to this point and the long pedigree of some of the measures in the Bill. This is not just a product of the Government or the Cabinet Office; it has been inspired, informed and enhanced by the input of a wide variety of organisations and individuals. We are grateful to a number of parliamentary Committees, many of whose thoughtful contributions are reflected in the measures and some of whose Chairs we heard from in today’s debate. To highlight just a few individuals, the important contribution of Lord Pickles has been critical in understanding the very real risks and challenges our electoral system faces. Similarly, the reports by colleagues in this House, as well as by the House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, have highlighted key considerations, from the need for more transparency in areas of digital campaigning to political finance.

Along with the valued contribution of the electoral sector experts, I know the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution has been meeting a wide range of organisations in the voluntary and community sector, which have raised some important points and will play a vital role in ensuring that the detail that will be developed in secondary legislation will meet the needs of all those who manage and use our electoral services. In particular, she is committed to continue engagement with people with disabilities, other minority groups and some of the key groups of vulnerable people who have been all too often, as my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe and for Bolsover pointed out, the major victims of electoral fraud.

I want to turn to some of the specific questions that have been asked. The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and her colleague the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) asked about an impact assessment. I would direct them to the 21-page equality impact assessment and the 120-page impact assessment published alongside the Bill.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) asked about the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I welcome the report published by the Committee in July. As the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution said, the recommendations will be given full and proper consideration, and the Government will respond. In fact, I should point out that we are bringing forward measures in the Bill which are closely linked to recommendations made in that report, such as a new requirement on political parties to declare their assets and liabilities over £500 on registration, and a restriction of third-party campaigning to UK-based or otherwise eligible campaigners.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made a powerful speech, as he always does. Like many on the Government Benches, I happen to disagree with him on this particular one, but let me point out that the Government research he quoted also found out that 98% of people across the age groups have access to accepted forms of photographic ID already, 99% of people from ethnic minority groups have that level of access, and 99% of those aged between 18 and 29 already have an acceptable form of photographic identification.

The hon. Members for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) asked about important issues of engagement with the devolved Administrations. Devolution means that we already have different arrangements for devolved and reserved elections. We do engage regularly and I can offer him the reassurance he sought that the strategy document will not undermine the partnership between the Electoral Commission and the devolved Administrations.

There are many other points that I would like to address, but I will not have time. Let me conclude by thanking hon. Members for all their valuable contributions. The Bill will place British citizens’ participation at the heart of our democracy and will keep it modern, secure, transparent and fair, so that our democracy can continue to thrive. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution will do an excellent job of steering it through Committee, and I look forward to a lively debate in the next phase of its passage. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made.