In our response to the review of electoral fraud by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), we outlined our intention to run several pilot schemes in a number of local authority areas in 2018, the purpose of which is to test the impact on elections of asking electors to present identification before voting.
Does my hon. Friend agree that voting is one of a citizen’s most important duties, and that introducing proof of ID would bring voting into line with other everyday transactions such as getting a mortgage or renting a car?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. When it comes to voting, there cannot be a more important transaction someone can make over five years than to democratically elect their Member of Parliament or councillor. It is right that that process is respected and that, as for so many other transactions in the modern world, we bring it up to date. It is not acceptable for someone simply to turn up at the voting booth, point out their name and claim that as their identity. That does not happen anywhere else. It is time to bring our democracy up to date.
Voter fraud is unacceptable, and I welcome any measure to secure democracy. Swindon Borough Council has repeatedly been commended for good election practice, so will the Minister consider us for future pilots?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We have had a great deal of interest in the pilot process from local authorities. We are currently conducting a review to decide exactly what form those pilots will take—as I said, some will involve photographic ID and some will involve non-photographic ID. We are determined to ensure that interested local authorities can come forward in good time so that they can participate in a pilot project. On Monday, I addressed the Association of Electoral Administrators at its annual conference in Brighton, and I was struck by the fact that more than 50% of electoral administrators supported the introduction of ID in polling stations.
My hon. Friend the Minister is absolutely right that voter identification is common practice in many sophisticated democracies around the world. What best practice have the Government been taking from those other countries?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. We expect that by introducing the pilot schemes, we will provide invaluable learning for strengthening our electoral system, but we also want to learn from international comparisons with countries such as Canada, Austria and Brazil, which require voter identification. As I have stated, voters in Northern Ireland have had to present identification since 1985, and photographic identification since 2003. Further information is available in the Electoral Commission’s report “Electoral fraud in the UK”. We will consider the international comparisons going forward.
The Government are deluding themselves if they think that personation is the main challenge to the integrity of our democratic system. The main challenge to its integrity and credibility is the fact that millions of our fellow citizens who are entitled to vote do not do so. Would it not be better for the Government to spend time and money on pilot projects designed to increase participation, such as a radical overhaul of how we teach democratic rights in schools; on pursuing online voting; and, most of all, on automatic voter registration, so that the ability to vote is not something people have to apply for?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising democratic participation. As I have stated, we now have a record 46.5 million people on the electoral register and turnout at elections is at a record level. Nevertheless, we can and must do more. The ideas of a clear and secure democracy and looking at voter identification pilots are just part of a package of measures. We also have another crucial strand: ensuring that every voice matters. In spring, I will set out our democratic engagement strategy, which will include further pilots of schemes to use civil society groups to encourage voter registration.
Will the Minister give an assurance that the issue of postal and proxy vote applications, which can also be subject to abuse, will be kept under review, in terms of the accurate identification of the person who is supposed to be applying for such votes?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. When we published our response to the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, the top line was obviously ID in polling stations, but there was also an entire package of measures, including looking again at postal vote fraud, banning the harvesting of postal votes by political parties, and limiting the number of postal vote packs that can be handled by family members to two. I entirely take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and we will continue to review those matters.
The Electoral Commission tells us that 3.5 million genuine, legitimate electors do not have the valid photo-identification that would be required in the trials, and risk being denied their votes. Blackburn with Darwen Council recently passed a motion to oppose the trial there, Pendle has called for a rethink, and Burnley is considering a similar motion. When will the Minister abandon his tatty copy of the Republican party’s playbook on voter suppression and listen to the sensible voice of the good folk of Lancashire?
The hon. Lady mentioned the Electoral Commission, but she omitted to say that it has stated that it welcomes the
“full and considered response from the Government and the announcement of its intention to pilot measures to increase security at polling stations.”
The Electoral Commission is indeed in favour of introducing photographic ID for elections. When it comes to the pilots, we want evidence-based policy making, which is why we will have pilots that look at photographic ID and pilots that look at non-photographic ID. When it comes to ensuring that people will be able to vote, I am not going to be denying anyone that franchise. We are protecting those communities that are most vulnerable in casting their votes in a secret ballot. We must protect against undue influence, and I am surprised that the hon. Lady does not take the matter seriously, as the Electoral Commission does.