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House of Commons Hansard
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Representation of the People (Voter Proof of Identity)
23 November 2016
Volume 617

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require those on the electoral register to produce proof of identity at polling stations before voting; and for connected purposes.

The purpose of the Bill is to bring the electoral rules used in Northern Ireland to elections for the rest of the United Kingdom, to reduce electoral fraud and ensure that our elections continue to be both fair and free. Our democratic system, and especially the way we vote, is based on trust. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which observes elections across the world, has raised concerns about trust-based electoral systems and their potential to be abused, and about the vulnerabilities of the UK system.

A polling station is a place in which a ballot can be cast in secrecy and free from any external influence; it is the individual’s decision for whom to vote. The role of polling station staff is to ensure that voters can cast their vote in secret, free from undue influence and in a calm atmosphere. We have all heard the phrase “vote early and vote often”, but it appears that that is increasingly happening. In some polling districts where the population is stable with a high turnout, repeat visitors will be noticed by the staff at the polling station, especially if the staff have worked the same station for a series of local and general elections. Repeat visits will be far harder to spot, and the polling station staff less confident to challenge them, where turnout is low and there is a more transient population, because a far greater proportion of voters will be unfamiliar.

As society changes, we have to assess whether our traditional “trust” system of voting needs to change, because it risks becoming outdated and being undermined. Our democracy is a living thing, and we have reformed and developed it over time. All the measures taken by Parliament in the past to improve free and fair voting, such as the Ballot Act 1872 and the Representation of the People Act 1918, were made in the interests of the electorate and of democracy. We are now approaching a time when an improvement must again be made so that we do not lose our democratic integrity, which has evolved over time and which must evolve again.

In recent years, concerns about the integrity of our voting system have been building in a wide range of areas. I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the independent review and report by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), the Government’s anti-corruption champion, who concluded:

“To retain the integrity of our democracy, we need to introduce more rigour into the processes we use”.

His comprehensive report highlights a whole range of concerns and suggests actions to put them right. No doubt many colleagues in this place will share those concerns and will be aware of problems in their own constituencies. Because of its nature, the level of fraud, particularly personation at polling stations, is difficult to gauge, but that does not mean that it is not happening or that simple steps should not be taken to stop it happening.

Electoral abuse was evident on a significant scale in Northern Ireland before the requirement to produce identification was introduced 30 years ago, and the situation was further improved in 2003 with the requirement for photo ID. Although I appreciate that some may have reservations about that requirement deterring people from voting, in Northern Ireland the number of people who do not vote because of a lack of suitable ID is very small. There is a strong case to be made that the use of ID may, in fact, increase voter turnout; some people do not vote after losing their polling card, which they do not actually need to bring in order to cast their ballot.

When we see a problem and contemplate a solution, we have to ask ourselves whether the cure is worse than the disease—whether requiring people to have suitable identification to participate in democracy is too big a hurdle. If someone buying cigarettes or alcohol was asked for ID we would hardly think it a problem. When we pick up a package from the Royal Mail collection office we may think that having to show proof of identity is rather a good thing. We have to prove who we are in so many different circumstances that it can hardly be viewed as a problem to have to do so when directly participating in something so important as democracy.

I wish to make it very clear that the Bill does not represent a move to create a national identity card or a way to keep a check on people. It is simply a move to add voting to the list of many things that require identification. Identification does not have to take one single form; for example, when we collect our post from the post office 20 forms of ID are acceptable, from a birth certificate to a bank statement or passport. Northern Ireland allows seven different forms of photo ID for voting, including an electoral identity card, which is provided free of charge.

The purpose of requiring ID is not to create a barrier for people but simply to prevent fraud and enhance the integrity of the voting system. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Electoral Commission all recommend the use of ID in voting.

Britain has a formidable history as the mother of Parliaments, and the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy has been adopted by many other nations. If our model falls into disrepute and fails, that will be bad for democracy the world over; if we sit back and allow that to happen for fear of change, we will be in the wrong. We cannot and should not sacrifice the integrity of our democratic system. Challenging issues of community cohesion and political engagement must be taken into account, but they must never be an excuse for failing to act to uphold the rule of law.

I ask that the Bill be introduced, so that electors are confident in their democratic system, and so that those entitled to vote may do so and, as in Northern Ireland, we minimise personation and fraud in polling stations in Great Britain.

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I see from the profile of the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) that he is an engineer. Frankly, if someone had put a project to him with such a singular lack of evidence as this has, I am sure he would have thrown it in the bin, which is what should happen to this miserable Bill. It comes straight out of the Donald Trump, US Republican, Conservative central office school of disinformation.

As we have seen in the United States, such measures are a blatant attempt to depress voter turnout. Very interestingly, the hon. Gentleman gave that away. He talked about areas with stable populations, and there being a problem in areas with a transient population. What was he talking about, I wonder? Basically, he was saying that things are all right in Tory areas, but we must have a problem in city Labour areas. He gave the game away very easily.

Of course, in a democracy it is very difficult to justify denying people the right to vote, so a mythology has to be developed that there is widespread and significant voter fraud. In the post-truth, post-fact world, that becomes easier to spread. But let us look at the data and the facts, starting with the United States, where this conspiracy theory comes from—Donald Trump was repeating it only recently. There has been a detailed study: under Republican President George W. Bush, the US Justice Department was tasked with searching for voter fraud. From 197,056,035 votes cast in the two federal elections in the period studied, just 26 people were convicted or pled guilty to illegal registration or voting.

Let us not rely only on the United States, although that is where this idea has come from; let us look at the United Kingdom and the Electoral Commission report on elections in 2015. At the 2015 general election, 31 million votes were cast; in the local elections that year, many on the same day as the general election, 20 million were cast; and there were about 400,000 cast in mayoral elections. How many cases of fraud were there? Let us have a look. There were 123 cases relating to voting offences. Remember, 31 million votes were cast. The 123 figure includes: voting offences; personation—voting as someone else; breaches of secrecy requirements; tampering with ballot papers; bribery; cheating; and undue influence. Out of 31 million votes cast, there were 26 cases of voting as someone else at a polling station, 27 cases of postal vote fraud, and 11 proxy cases—we should not forget them.

That was the number of cases reported, of course, not the number found to have any substance. Police investigation revealed that in 45 cases, no offence had been committed; in 36 cases, there was insufficient evidence; and that 10 suspects were impossible to identify. A great edifice is being erected on the basis of 16 cases resolved by the police. Six cases resulted in police cautions. I am not sure whether any of those cases went to court, yet the hon. Gentleman proposes the considerable inconvenience of insisting that people carry documentation.

The hon. Gentleman talked about Northern Ireland. I was a Minister of State for Northern Ireland. He may have noticed that it has a slightly different and unique political history. There are, therefore, no grounds for imposing its arrangements on the rest of the UK. If he wants voters to show identification, he may want to ask those on the Government Front Bench why, when they came into government in 2010, they abandoned their support for identity cards. The Electoral Office for Northern Ireland does issue electoral identity cards, but he did not say how much that would cost.

There is no evidential basis for this measure. It would involve a lot of extra work. It would also increase delays, with longer queues at polling stations as people have arguments about it or have to go back. We already have problems at many polling stations. It would prevent a number of voters, particularly elderly voters, from exercising their rights. It is a petty, politically partisan proposal that should be dumped in the bin.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Chris Green, Sir Eric Pickles, Jason McCartney, Jim Shannon, William Wragg, Mr David Nuttall, Mary Robinson, Craig Tracey, John Stevenson, Martin Vickers, Maria Caulfield and Luke Hall present the Bill.

Chris Green accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January 2017, and to be printed (Bill 97).