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Electoral Commission Committee

Volume 627: debated on Thursday 20 July 2017

The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

EU Referendum Campaign

1. What discussions she has had with the commission on allegations of illegal funding during the EU referendum campaign. (900612)

The commission has published two reports that include its assessment of the rules on campaign funding for the EU referendum. The commission has also completed investigations of issues with a small number of campaigner spending returns, none of which related to impermissible donations. It is continuing to consider issues with some campaigners’ spending returns, in line with its published enforcement policy. The commission publishes the outcome of all investigations on its website once investigations have been completed.

Can my hon. Friend confirm—or, if not, ask the Electoral Commission—whether it has received allegations of illegal financial funding from Russia to elements of the leave campaign?

The commission is aware of media reports that allege that there could have been Russian involvement in the EU referendum. These cover a wide range of alleged activities that are beyond the commission’s remit. Any allegation with evidence that a registered campaigner accepted impermissible donations from Russia would be investigated in line with the commission’s enforcement policy, but I am sure that officials from the commission would be more than happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss this matter further.

Does my hon. Friend—and she is a friend—agree that not only is illegal funding wrong, but so is electoral fraud? May I invite her to ask the commission to conduct a proper inquiry into having a national voter register, to ensure that people do not double and triple vote in general elections and other elections?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He will know that the 381 electoral registers are maintained by different electoral registration offices across the country, and it is not currently possible to interrogate them collectively in order to identify duplicate entries or voting in more than one area. The commission will be happy to work with the Government to consider potential solutions to reduce this risk.

Election Expenses and Political Donations

2. What recent assessment the commission has made of the effectiveness of the regulation of (a) election expenses and (b) donations to political parties. (900613)

The Electoral Commission continues to regulate the rules on UK political finance in a way that is fair and proportionate, focusing on helping parties to comply with the law. Since 2013 the commission has been calling for changes to improve enforcement and sanctioning of the political finance rules. It has recommended increasing the maximum penalty it can impose and extending its enforcement responsibilities to some candidate spending rules. The commission will publish a report in the autumn on the regulation of election expenses and donations to political parties in the 2017 general election.

There has been significant media coverage of the 2015 general election expenses issue, with the Tories being fined the maximum £70,000, and with an hon. Member reportedly having been charged. In March, the Electoral Commission chair, Sir John Holmes, said:

“There is a risk that some political parties might come to view the payment of these fines as a cost of doing business”.

Might it be worth making fine limits proportionate to the number of candidates standing for a party at an election?

The hon. Gentleman is right to make it clear that the Electoral Commission is of the view that the maximum fine of £20,000 could well be seen as the cost of doing business. The commission has called for an increase in the maximum penalty it can impose on political parties and other campaigners. It is of the view that the penalties should be more proportionate to the income and expenditure of larger and well-funded campaigners.

Emergency Proxy Voting

3. What assessment the commission has made of the suitability of the rules on emergency proxy vote applications for people who have suffered a family bereavement. (900614)

The commission has recommended changes to the qualifying circumstances for appointing an emergency proxy since 2011. It recommends extending the qualifying circumstances to include those who have unforeseen caring responsibilities or who have experienced the death of a close relative. In its September 2016 response to the commission’s statutory report on the 2015 general election, the UK Government confirmed that they had no plans to extend the qualifying circumstances for appointing an emergency proxy.

I thank the hon. Lady for her answer. My constituent Ruth Jones was unable to vote at the recent election following a family bereavement. She was attending her grandmother’s funeral at the time. However, had she been called away for a work emergency, she could have qualified for an emergency proxy vote. Can the hon. Lady reassure me that the Electoral Commission will continue to push for changes to enable a family bereavement to be seen as having the same impact on a voter as a work emergency?

I am sorry to hear about the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman described, and the way in which they affected his constituent. I can assure him that the Electoral Commission is still of the view that there is a gap in the emergency proxy provision, and remains concerned about the need to enhance the accessibility of the process by extending the qualifying circumstances. I am sure that the commission would welcome any support that he could offer in that regard.

Rules and procedures on proxies, emergency proxies and postal votes are good only if they are followed. What action is the Electoral Commission taking to address the shambolic handling of the general election in Plymouth, which resulted in 1,500 postal votes not being sent out, and 6,500 votes not being included in the declaration on the evening of the count?

The commission is collecting information from returning officers about their experience of the 8 June general election. I am sure that it would also welcome the views of my hon. Friend, should he wish to share them with representatives of the commission, either in writing or through a meeting, which I am sure they would be happy to attend.

Bearing in mind the questionably massive amount of proxy votes used in some constituencies in Northern Ireland, including Foyle, will the hon. Lady outline the steps being taken to stop the alleged abuse by some parties of this vital voting mechanism, which I, too, believe could be compassionately extended to grieving families?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that different arrangements relating to identity are in place in Northern Ireland. However, any concerns about possible criminal activity would be a matter for the police force, and I suggest that he encourages anyone with evidence of criminal activity to report it to the police.

Voter Registration and Boundary Commission Review

4. What discussions the Committee has had with the commission on the effect of (a) recent rises in voter registration and (b) the 2017 general election on the conclusions of the most recent Boundary Commission review. (900616)

The Electoral Commission this week published a report on electoral registration at the June 2017 UK general election. It highlights that online electoral registration resulted in a record electorate of an estimated 46.8 million people. The commission’s report argues that further modernisation is required to reduce the impact of large numbers of duplicate registration applications, and to ensure that the registration process is more joined up with other public services. The commission does not have any responsibilities in relation to the review of parliamentary constituency boundaries, which are a matter for the UK’s boundary commissions.

As my hon. Friend points out, 2.9 million new people registered to vote and became part of a record electorate in the recent general election. There was a similar spike before last year’s referendum. Surely we should now heed the Electoral Commission’s recommendation that boundary reviews take place after a major electoral event, to take those new people into account and to ensure that the 2022 election does not hark back to the outmoded situation of 2015.

The current review of parliamentary constituencies is a matter for the boundary commissions, but the Electoral Commission has previously recommended that Parliament and the Boundary Commission consider whether it would be more appropriate to base reviews on electoral data taken from the registers used for elections, rather than from the register published on 1 December.

It is perfectly reasonable for students and others to be registered in two places if they are normally resident in both. Does the hon. Lady agree that it would be sensible to check one in 100 late registrations to see whether they are double-registered and whether double voting has taken place? That would give us more scope to determine whether and how much fraud took place at the last election.

I am sure that the Electoral Commission will take heed of the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. It takes seriously any suggestion that an individual might have voted twice, but so far there is little evidence of widespread abuse in the recent general election. As he says, it is possible in certain circumstances for people—including students and MPs—to be lawfully registered to vote in more than one place. However, it is a criminal offence to cast more than one vote on their behalf in a UK parliamentary general election.

One of the most efficient organisations in recruiting young people to the electoral register is Bite the Ballot. It can register 16 to 18-year-olds for as little as 25p per elector; by comparison, the Electoral Commission’s advertising campaigns cost £80 to £90 per download. Will my hon. Friend liaise with the Electoral Commission and ask whether it will develop service level agreements with this excellent organisation?

I am more than happy to take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion. He is a doughty campaigner on this issue, and I am sure that he will continue that work now that he is back with us in this place.

The commission is correct to highlight the discrepancy between the 1 December assessment of our electorate, and the electorate in our most recent election. In my constituency, the difference between the 2015 and 2017 elections was 8,000, which is over 10%. Would the hon. Lady welcome an investigation by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee into how we deal with such discrepancies?

It will be for the Committee and its new members, when it is constituted, to consider the best way of examining the issues. We all want to ensure that registers are as complete as possible, that people are not missed out and that there is no reduction in the number of people registered to vote, so that the boundary commissions can consider parliamentary constituency boundaries based on the best available registers.