The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Philip Davies
† Afolami, Bim (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
† Andrew, Stuart (Pudsey) (Con)
Campbell, Mr Gregory (East Londonderry) (DUP)
† Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)
† Harper, Mr Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)
† Jarvis, Dan (Barnsley Central) (Lab)
Johnson, Diana (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
Kendall, Liz (Leicester West) (Lab)
† Mackinlay, Craig (South Thanet) (Con)
Malhotra, Seema (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
† Prisk, Mr Mark (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)
† Quince, Will (Colchester) (Con)
† Selous, Andrew (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
† Skidmore, Chris (Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office)
† Smith, Cat (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
Smith, Laura (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab)
† Stewart, Bob (Beckenham) (Con)
Mike Everett, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Third Delegated Legislation Committee
Wednesday 13 December 2017
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
Draft Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2017
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2017.
With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (Amendment) Order 2017.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
The purpose of the instruments is to modify provisions in the Representation of the People Act 2000 to enable the pilot scheme provisions to apply to combined authority elections and local mayoral elections. The provisions brought into effect in 2000 were used extensively in pilots in 2007. There has been no piloting of changes to the voting process for more than a decade, but new polls have been introduced to other local authority elections, namely elections for local Mayors and Mayors for combined authorities. However, the 2000 Act piloting provisions do not fully apply to the new polls.
Earlier this year, the Government announced that they would conduct pilots for voter identification at the local elections in May 2018 in line with their manifesto commitment to legislate to ensure that a form of identification must be presented before voting. Voter ID is part of the Government’s commitment to improve the security and resilience of the electoral system that underpins our democracy, and will ensure that people have confidence in our democratic processes.
Five authorities have indicated their intention to run voter ID pilots in the local elections in May 2018, including Woking, Gosport, Bromley, Swindon and Watford. Tower Hamlets will also pilot new security features for postal voting. Watford and Tower Hamlets will be holding local mayoral elections in addition to their local council elections.
The powers to alter electoral conduct rules for the purpose of running pilots are contained within section 10 of the 2000 Act. Section 11 enables the Secretary of State to apply measures trialled in a pilot scheme generally, taking into account any report on the scheme provided by the Electoral Commission under section 10. The sections currently make provision to conduct the pilots in local authority and Greater London Authority elections.
As I have indicated, two of the local authorities that plan to conduct pilots in May 2018—Watford and Tower Hamlets—will also hold local authority mayoral elections on the same day. Those polls are normally held in combination for the benefit of both electors and administrators, and proposed changes will allow pilots to be conducted at both. That will ensure that voters have a smooth voting experience. It would be confusing for voters if the provisions were piloted at one poll but not the other on the same day. The changes will also facilitate the effective administration of the polls.
More generally, the statutory instruments we are considering will enable pilot scheme orders to be made that are intended to improve the voting experience for voters, and to make the electoral process more secure. The pilot schemes orders will also allow evidence to be collected for statutory evaluation by the Electoral Commission on the impact of voter ID in polling stations. That evidence and evaluation will inform the Government’s decision about how most successfully to meet their manifesto commitment and introduce voter ID nationally. No pilot schemes are planned for a combined authority mayoral election—elections for metro Mayors, as the media have termed them—but the order will facilitate any pilot scheme orders for combined authority mayoral elections in future.
For the record, I will describe the detail of the proposed changes. On the draft Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2017, section 10 of the 2000 Act enables the Secretary of State, as I have explained, to make provision to run pilot schemes in relation to the conduct of local elections in England and Wales by order. Section 11 allows the Secretary of State to apply those changes generally. Currently, section 10 does not enable changes to be made to the conduct of rules for local mayoral elections.
Provisions in section 11 that enable measures tested in a pilot scheme to apply generally and on a permanent basis do not encompass conduct rules for local mayoral elections. When the mayoral rules were made in 2007, provision was made to apply sections 10 and 11 of the RPA 2000 to mayoral elections. However, a further modification was needed to enable changes to be made to the mayoral election conduct rules, because they are made under the Local Government Act 2000. Sections 10 and 11 only enable changes to conduct rules to be made under that Act, which was a technical oversight. The regulations make those modifications so as to enable pilot scheme orders under section 10 of the RPA 2000 to make changes to the mayoral conduct rules. That will enable pilot scheme orders to be made that will facilitate, in the short term, voter ID pilots during local mayoral elections and, in the longer term, any other future pilot schemes.
Turning to the draft Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (Amendment) Order 2017, similarly to local mayoral elections, sections 10 and 11 of the RPA 2000 as currently drafted do not enable the conduct rules for combined authority mayoral elections to be modified. When the combined authorities mayoral order was made in 2017, provision was made to apply sections 10 and 11 of the RPA 2000 to combined authority mayoral elections. However, a further modification was needed to enable changes to be made to the 2017 conduct rules, made under the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009. That, again, was a technical oversight. The order makes those modifications to enable pilot scheme orders under section 10 of the RPA 2000 to make changes to the combined authority conduct rules for the purpose of conducting pilots.
We are also taking the opportunity to address a technical issue concerning subscription of candidates’ nomination papers at combined authority mayoral elections. The order will amend the definitions of “elector” and “local government elector” to clarify who may subscribe a nomination paper. A subscriber must be of voting age on the day of the poll and they must be on the local government register of electors on the last day for the publication of the notice of election, which must be published no later than 25 working days before polling day. It also includes new versions of the form of the nomination paper for use by candidates at a combined authority mayoral election as a consequence of the changes.
The provision for the combined authority mayoral elections did not contain the limitation of the register being the one produced by the last day for publication for the notice of election, which is the case for other polls. That meant that administrators had to check subscribers on the register both up to that date and beyond it, which opened up scope for confusion and error as that was unlike the position for other polls. The change brings the provision in line with that of other polls and thereby also supports more effective administration of polls held in combination. The amendments will make combined authority mayoral elections consistent with other polls on this issue as well as provide certainty to candidates and administrators as to whom they subscribe the nomination paper.
Our principal stakeholders, the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators, have been consulted on these draft statutory instruments and are content. Furthermore, the stakeholders have expressed support for voter identification pilots in general. The Cabinet Office and Electoral Commission will undertake detailed evaluation of the pilots, after which the Government will announce the next step to implement voter ID nationally.
We consider, in summary, that these instruments are necessary for the conduct of electoral pilots in respect of local mayoral elections and combined authority mayoral elections and also make the law governing candidates’ nominations at combined authority mayoral elections consistent with other polls. I commend the statutory instruments to the Committee.
It is vital that our electoral system is fit for purpose. Pilot schemes can be an effective tool to test electoral innovations and identify key learning points through the evaluation process. The Opposition strongly believe in handing power back to communities: not the piecemeal devolution adopted by the Government but real, meaningful devolution complete with the necessary funding to give it legs. We therefore welcome measures to extend the rights to local authorities to make applications to run electoral pilots in local mayoral elections.
It is somewhat concerning that the combined authorities order is amending a drafting error in the original order for metro Mayor elections. It is not the first time that has happened this year: just days before the general election polling day, the Government were forced to table a new set of rules for the election after numerous errors in the 2017 parliamentary elections order came to light. That is hardly a good sign for how the vastly greater and more complicated reams of legislative change required for Brexit will go.
It is also disappointing that we are debating yet another statutory instrument that offers sticking-plaster solutions to an already broken system. The law governing elections is fragmented and flexible, inconsistent and complex. There are 40 Acts of Parliament and more than 170 statutory instruments relating to our electoral legal framework, with some provisions dating back to the 19th century.
It is widely accepted by those involved in administering and competing in elections, including the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators, that fundamental reform of electoral law is needed, yet the Government refuse to listen and continue to bury their head in the sand. In February 2016 the Law Commission published its interim report calling for the current laws governing elections to be rationalised
“into a single, consistent legislative framework governing all elections”.
Nearly two years on, the Government are yet to respond to that.
While we in the Opposition do not stand in the way of efforts to extend democracy to local authorities, we do not support this Government’s priorities on electoral pilots. The Government are fixated on introducing a photo identification requirement for electors in polling stations at the next election, and will be running pilots in May. We are deeply concerned by that. Electoral fraud is a serious crime, and it is vital that the police have the resources they need to bring about prosecutions. However, there is no evidence of widespread personation. Last year, there were 44 allegations of personation out of nearly 64 million votes. That is one case for every 1.5 million votes cast.
The introduction of photo ID presents a major barrier to democracy. Limiting acceptable ID to passports and photographic driving licences would potentially leave 11 million electors, or 24% of the electorate, without acceptable ID. Decades of international studies show that highly restrictive ID requirements make it harder for people to vote, reduce turnout and exclude some parts of the electorate, while doing little to stop determined fraudsters. It is disappointing that, rather than combating the real challenge that undermines our democratic process, the Government are creating further barriers to democratic engagement.
What, then, would the Labour party do to stop personation? I have seen it in a number of wards and it has proved quite critical in some elections. What would the Labour party therefore do, in those circumstances, for the returning officers?
Thank you. I hope that, if the hon. Gentleman has seen evidence of personation, he has reported it to the police. It is a serious criminal matter. One of the biggest challenges we face in tackling voter fraud is the cuts to local authorities. Delivering smooth and efficient elections is essential to our democracy, but the cuts we have seen to local authority election teams have pushed a lot of teams to the absolute limit. Without the staff necessary to deliver a quality service for voters during elections, the system is vulnerable. According to a study—
I know that the hon. Lady is not well, and I do not wish to push the matter too far, but she is reading out what is in front of her. My simple question was: for a returning officer who faces a challenge and is unsure about someone’s identity, what would the Labour party propose other than a photographic identity?
One of the challenges, of course, is that our police forces have seen huge cuts. My own constabulary in Lancashire has lost hundreds of frontline police officers since 2010. Without the resources to target people who are determined to be fraudsters in elections, all that introducing ID does is discourage genuine electors from turning out to vote. I am sure that, like me, the hon. Gentleman has campaigned in many elections where he found voters who thought they could not vote if they had misplaced their polling card and did not turn up.
The requirement for photo ID, with the potential for people not having it or not being able to find it on election day, will mean fewer entitled electors turning up, but it will not discourage determined fraudsters. In that situation, if they are determined to commit electoral fraud, we might assume that they are determined to commit identity fraud too, potentially by forging driving licences. I do not believe that requiring photo ID at polling stations will do anything to deter those determined fraudsters. The only real way to deter them is to focus police investigations on people who are known to be committing that crime.
The Opposition have a serious concern about the number of electoral administrators leaving the profession; it has doubled since 2010. Given that core electoral services are generally delivered by a very small team and in some cases by an individual employee, any loss of experienced staff can have a significant impact on service delivery. How can we expect local authorities to deliver electoral pilots when they face such challenges?
As I said, we welcome the measures to extend the right to local authorities to apply to run electoral pilots for local mayoral elections. However, it is not enough, and fundamental reform is needed if we are to maintain the integrity of our electoral process.
I would like to start by thanking the hon. Lady for her remarks today. I want to put on record the admiration of all hon. Members for her having turned up despite not being very well and still managing to make a significant and important contribution. We all appreciate that as part of our democratic process.
I would like to put the Government’s comments on the record in response to the hon. Lady’s specific points. The changes to the order made during the general election period in June were to funding allocations, and many of them were necessary because of errors or inconsistencies in previous claims by returning officers that had been put into the funding allocations. By allowing that process to take place, we could ensure that they have effective and up-to-date funding.
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct that the law governing our elections is fragmented and complex. The Law Commission’s interim report was an important contribution that has had the wide support of the electoral community. As a Government, we are determined to work with the Law Commission on what can be introduced at this stage, given the restriction in primary legislation. As she will be aware, many of the laws governing electoral conduct are in primary legislation. On Monday, when I held the first electoral summit, which included representatives of the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Commission and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, I announced that we will be taking forward further work with the Law Commission, particularly on rationalising 25 statutory instruments on the conduct of elections into two single statutory instruments. We hope that that work can progress. While we are unable to move forward with primary legislation, we want to maintain the relationship and show the commitment of this Government to rationalising that complex tangled web of electoral law.
Regarding the pilot of voter identification at the poll, that is obviously a package of measures that was announced in the Government’s response to Eric Pickles’s report, “Securing the Ballot”. When it comes to considering electoral integrity, the identity pilots will form just one part of the Government’s overall package, which in future will also include legislation to look at postal vote harvesting, so that we can ensure there is confidence in the whole system. It is not just to do with identification at polls.
The hon. Lady also mentioned photographic ID. These pilots are determined to ensure that we have evidence-based policy making, so some of the pilots will be photographic, some will be non-photographic and some—for example from Watford, which has been mentioned as one of the mayoral authorities—will involve people bringing their polling card, which will have a barcode on it that will be scanned through. That may provide interesting opportunities for a marked register, which currently is a manual one, to show how people voted, and that would eventually be digitised from the bottom up.
There is a potential for innovation. We want to trial all these different methods, but I want to make assurances to the House, because I am obviously committed to democratic engagement, and I will be publishing a democratic engagement plan this month, looking at how we can ensure that those groups that are under registered have the right to vote. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of women getting a right to vote, and the 90th anniversary of women getting an equal right to vote. Our democracy is still a very young one, despite our being in the austere surroundings of this place, and we want to ensure that everyone gets that right to vote. If there is anyone who does not have the identification that is needed, there will be a significant communications campaign in advance to ensure that people are aware that they need to bring ID and if anyone does not have the required ID, certificates of identification will be able to be issued. I am assured that no one will be disenfranchised by these pilots. We will listen to the evaluation process from the Electoral Commission and it is right that we take this managed and staged approach to looking at how identification might work.
The hon. Lady mentioned the small number of cases of personation and electoral fraud. That is a debate that we have had in the main Chamber. Yes, the number of cases of electoral fraud that have been reported is relatively small—I think 1,974 cases were reported to the Electoral Commission between 2010 and 2016. But there is a broader point about the confidence in our electoral process. I want to put on record the comments of Sir John Holmes, the chair of the Electoral Commission, who gave a seminal speech to the Institute for Government on 6 December in which he stated that
“there is a persistent and widespread perception of a significant level of fraud. More than one third of respondents to our surveys after the 2017 general election thought some fraud had taken place, and less than half believed that there were sufficient safeguards to prevent it.”
The Electoral Commission has recommended that solely photographic ID should be used. As I said, the Government wish to trial various forms of ID. The Electoral Commission made the case that photographic ID has been used in Northern Ireland since 2003. Sir John Holmes went on to state in his 6 December speech:
“This has some public support—when asked what single measure would be most effective in preventing electoral fraud, 52% of voters polled in 2016 said ‘a requirement to show photo ID at a polling station’.”
I agree with the Electoral Commission and Sir John Holmes: we must always act ahead of the curve on electoral fraud and electoral integrity to safeguard our electoral process.
Sir John Holmes also stated:
“We want to address this before it becomes a problem, and part of a wider reduction of trust in the system. It does not seem unreasonable to demand proof of identity before voting, if we have to do so simply to collect a parcel, for example. It is certainly something which many other countries do routinely.”
With that in mind, the Government are piloting measures that are proportionate and fair and will be fully evaluated as part of the process of bringing forward our manifesto commitment on identification at polling stations. However, they will not be taken alone: other measures will be taken to address issues with electoral integrity and postal voting. The Government do that not to disenfranchise people or to restrict voting rights, but to ensure that the voices of the vulnerable are protected, that every elector has an equal right to vote and, above all, that no one’s vote is stolen from them.
Question put and agreed to.
DRAFT COMBINED AUTHORITIES (MAYORAL ELECTIONS) (AMENDMENT) ORDER 2017
That the Committee has considered the draft Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (Amendment) Order 2017.—(Chris Skidmore.)