I beg to move,
That this House has considered voter ID pilot schemes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. The voter identity pilot scheme that was used in five local authority areas in this year’s local elections signals one of the most disproportionate and ill-thought-out changes to our electoral system in recent years. As the only Labour Member of Parliament representing an area used in the pilot scheme, I feel compelled to give the other side to the story that is being given by those merely repeating buzzwords and top lines on behalf of the Government.
The foundations for the pilot are well known and, arguably, well intentioned. It is true that at election times there is the potential for cases of fraud or voter impersonation. I do not dispute the fact that any attempt at fraud or voter impersonation is wrong, should be thoroughly investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted. Electoral fraud is a serious crime, but to suggest that it is a widespread problem is gross hyperbole, and the introduction of voter ID schemes is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
In Great Britain, excluding Northern Ireland, where they have their own arrangements, there were 21 cases of alleged impersonation in polling stations in 2014, and 26 cases in 2015, amounting to 0.000051% of overall votes cast. In 2016 there was one successful prosecution and three cautions. In 2017 there were just 28 allegations of impersonation and one prosecution, equating to 0.000063% of overall votes cast.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate; she is making an excellent speech. On the point that she has just raised, is that not precisely why the respected and independent Electoral Reform Society is opposed to the scheme? The Equality and Human Rights Commission also warned the Government that a voter ID scheme would have a disproportionate impact on protected characteristic voters, such as those from ethnic minorities, older people, trans people and people with disabilities. That is precisely why the scheme should not have gone ahead.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right that the Electoral Reform Society has criticised the scheme, stating that electoral fraud at the ballot box
“is an incredibly rare crime because it is such a slow, clunky way to steal an election—and requires levels of organisation that would be easy to spot and prevent.”
I will talk about protected characteristics later in my speech.
I rise to speak only because the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) mentioned the Electoral Reform Society. It is worth putting it on the record that after the election the Electoral Reform Society alleged, early in the day, that 4,000 people had been turned away from voting. It turns out that that number was massively overstated; the real number was actually, at most, 340. That was beautifully demolished by the Radio 4 programme “More or Less”. It is worth putting it on the record that the ERS was not very accurate in its analysis.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those points, but the reality is that it is very difficult to monitor how many people were disenfranchised, because some people did not turn out to vote or left the queues. That was certainly the experience in my constituency, which I will talk about later. I expect that the figure probably is quite a lot higher than the 300 that has been quoted.
The introduction of voter ID laws would make no difference to allegations of fraud with postal votes, proxy votes, breaches of secrecy, tampering with ballot papers, bribery, undue influence or electoral expenditure, which are arguably the areas where most electoral offences occur. Let me repeat: any attempted voter fraud or impersonation is wrong and should be thoroughly investigated, but the figures relating to alleged fraud at polling stations do not point to any widespread issue or problem relating to impersonation. An overhaul of the voting procedure by introducing identification requirements has been a step too far.
The hon. Lady mentioned Northern Ireland a moment ago. Given what she says, presumably there is evidence of marginalised groups being discriminated against in Northern Ireland. As I understand it, voter identification has taken place there simply and effectively for many years. What is the evidence of discrimination?
There has certainly been clear evidence of people being disenfranchised in my constituency, which was part of the pilot. In fact, in Bromley, the area I represent, prior to the scheme being launched an impact assessment said that the scheme was likely to have an adverse impact on older people and trans people. That is evidence from Bromley’s risk assessment.
I want to make some progress. I have big concerns about the potential disenfranchisement of voters in areas where people who are legally entitled to vote may not have identification in line with the requirements. Even before discussing the concept of voter ID, the requirements across the pilot schemes were wide ranging and different, meaning that aggregated findings or comparative analysis will both be questionable in any Government evaluation. Bromley, Gosport and Woking required ID documents, whereas Swindon and Watford required only a poll card. Interestingly, none of the trial areas had a significantly poorer or more ethnically diverse population than the national average, or any recent historical examples of voter fraud or voter impersonation.
As I said, Bromley Council’s impact assessment stated that there would be a noticeable effect on the elderly and trans people. It highlighted concerns that voters in those categories would be less likely to have up-to-date documentation in line with the requirements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) said, prior to the roll-out the Equality and Human Rights Commission warned the Government that voter ID schemes would have a disproportionate impact on voters with protected characteristics, particularly those from ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people and people with disabilities.
Before committing to any further changes to the way in which citizens vote, we should look at the experience of other countries that have rolled out identification checks at elections. Experience from the United States has shown that voter ID schemes disproportionately affected marginalised groups, because those who could not afford to drive or go on holiday often did not have the specified documentation. Figures from the last census, recorded in 2011, show that 9 million people in the UK do not hold a driving licence and 9.5 million do not hold a passport. To put that in perspective, figures from the Electoral Commission show that 24% of the electorate do not have access to a passport or photographic driving licence.
Furthermore, 3.5 million people in Great Britain— 7.5% of the electorate—do not have access to any form of photo ID whatsoever. If voters live in shared accommodation or often move, they are also less likely to have bills or paperwork in their name. With regard to the groups highlighted in the various equality impact assessments, we must consider the impact on those unlikely to have up-to-date ID. The recent Windrush scandal has shown that even those who are legitimate citizens and voters have struggled to access services to which they are entitled. Further expansion of voter ID schemes could see the Windrush generation denied their democratic rights, adding further insult to injury.
Notwithstanding those points, it has also been reported today in The Guardian that two barristers have called into question the legality of the pilot, given that it made voting harder, casting further doubt on a scheme that might have unlawfully denied people their right to vote.
The hon. Lady speaks about passports and driving licences, yet even Woking, which was an ID pilot area, allowed lots of different forms of photographic identification—I think 10% of those who voted had a senior bus pass, and various student cards were also admitted. She talks about millions of people being disenfranchised. In Woking only a tiny percentage of people did not hold any of the forms of strict ID—and, of course, such people could always apply for a free elector card.
I will go on to talk about the experience in Bromley, where people were turned away. A number of different forms of ID could be taken to the polling station, but nevertheless people were disenfranchised, and I will speak about that in a moment. Unlike in Swindon and Watford, where voters were required only to bring their polling cards, in Bromley, Gosport and Woking, where formal ID was required, voter turnout was marginally down compared with the 2014 local elections. The scheme took place in five areas, but I can speak specifically, and with first-hand experience, about the impact of the trial in Bromley. Reports on polling day from the Bromley wards within my constituency highlighted numerous cases of voters being turned away and prevented from rightly casting their vote. The council’s figures suggest that 154 people in Bromley were unable to cast their ballot on 3 May. When I was out campaigning on the doorstep, I was told of a significant number of people telling activists that they would not be voting because they did not agree with the principle of being asked for ID. Although that is direct evidence of voter disenfranchisement, it is unfortunately incredibly hard to measure.
On polling day, four polling stations in the Crystal Palace ward in my constituency had already turned away multiple people by 10.30 am for not having the correct ID. When I went to vote at 8.45 am at my polling station, I was told of two people who had already been turned away. In addition, the increased time that it takes to do ID checks puts a strain on the rate at which polling stations can process voters. In the morning on polling day there were reports of queues in Bromley due to the extra processing time, and of voters leaving before casting their ballots because, understandably, people do not necessarily have the extra time to wait while also juggling family and work responsibilities.
I also heard reports of polling station staff not being fully briefed on what ID was acceptable. In one case, a voter with a bank card was initially refused, but subsequently showed the polling staff the guidance that stated it was a valid form of ID. How many people might they have turned away before being shown the correct guidance? Another case involved a voter with a utility bill on their phone, who was told by staff to go home and print the document out. The polling station staff clearly had not been given guidance on whether a digital copy was sufficient. Such examples suggest that polling stations across Bromley were not adequately prepared for the trial and that Bromley’s measurements of 154 voters being turned away are far from exact. I believe that many more people might have been turned off from voting.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on an important issue. She is quite rightly highlighting some of the challenges that voters might face when we introduce a new system. Would she also accept that this was a pilot scheme, and that we aim to learn from pilots? Is she, in principle, supportive of the idea that voters should prove who they are when they go to the polls?
No. For the reasons I have already set out and will continue to set out, I do not, in principle, support the changes because, as the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Electoral Reform Society have identified, it is likely to lead to widespread disenfranchisement. I say that 154 people being disenfranchised in Bromley is 154 too many.
Studies from the University of California have shown that such schemes are merely a tool for voter suppression. Does my hon. Friend agree? As the Windrush scandal has aptly highlighted, many people within the UK do not even have one piece of ID, let alone several.
I agree that the scheme seems to disenfranchise certain groups, and that is something we should all be very worried about. The Labour party has been clear, repeatedly, that we believe the pilot to be misguided. I understand that more than 40 campaign groups that share our view have contacted the Cabinet Office, calling on the Government to drop any further roll-out.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady and I promise that I will not intervene again. She mentions the Labour party. Why is it that she does not think people should have to prove their ID when they are voting in public elections, yet my understanding is—although I am obviously not an expert—that the Labour party in internal party elections, such as those for selecting candidates, insists that people have to show ID to prove who they are? Is that not a little hypocritical?
It is right when people vote in internal Labour party elections that they can demonstrate that they are a Labour party member. That is completely different from someone exercising their democratic and fundamental right to vote in elections for their representatives in local government or in Parliament. The analogy is misguided and wrong.
When the issue of the pilot schemes was recently raised at Cabinet Office questions, the Minister suggested that the pilot was deemed by the Department to be a success. However, there is no doubt that voters were denied votes and that voters were put off—disproportionately so, in comparison with previous reports of voter fraud. Can a flagrant disregard for disenfranchising voters really be regarded as a success? In the year of celebrations marking the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 and women being entitled to vote, do we really think it is appropriate to advocate a scheme that has irrefutably excluded some voters?
Turnout at general elections has faltered over the past 25 years and it was encouraging to see a 2.5% increase in votes cast at the 2017 snap election. I am concerned that, were the scheme to be rolled out further, we would see greater issues at the next general election.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I wonder whether she shares my concern about vulnerable groups. None of the five trial areas had significantly older, poorer or ethnically diverse populations. How can we be sure that a large number of such voters would not be disenfranchised?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. I have very real concerns that if the scheme were to be rolled out in inner-city London constituencies or Manchester constituencies, for example, where there are much larger ethnic minority communities, swathes of the electorate could be disenfranchised. In my view, swathes of voters could be turned away if this scheme was rolled out country-wide at a general election. Voter ID does little to instil confidence in our electoral system or encourage greater participation—in fact, quite the opposite.
On current data, figures and analysis, we have a pilot scheme that risks disenfranchising many and creating issues that did not previously exist. The 2017 figure that 0.000063% of overall votes cast were allegedly fraudulent is set against data that shows that 7.5% of the electorate do not hold any photographic ID, which means the number of those at risk of disenfranchisement outweighs the number of allegations of voter fraud by a factor of more than 119,000. I have previously used the analogy of a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but I am no longer confident that that is a sufficient metaphor to describe the utterly disproportionate methods we have seen trialled this year.
Although the schemes will now be evaluated by the Government and the Electoral Commission will prepare its own report, I am concerned that the schemes will be clumsily rolled out across the country through secondary legislation without due care and attention, as exhibited in the run-up to the pilot, and we could find ourselves with a cumbersome, ill-thought-out electoral process that leaves thousands of legitimate voters without their democratic voice. At the moment the Government find themselves patting each other on the back, congratulating themselves on a job well done, but I must tell the Minister that the pilot cannot be regarded as a success. I have voiced legitimate concerns on behalf of my constituents who took part in the pilot, and their opinion and experiences must be taken on board. If not, this Government will have voter disenfranchisement added to their ever-growing charge sheet on alienating the public. It is surely time to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for securing this debate. It is really important that the House has the opportunity to discuss voter ID.
Some Members may be aware that I laid a ten-minute rule Bill to discuss voter ID before the House. Since I presented that Bill, many constituents and others from around the country have raised the subject with me, expressing their enthusiasm for the scheme. Many people find it incredible that they do not have to show ID when they go to a polling station. They have to show ID when they collect a package from Royal Mail, and in so many other parts of life—it is a common and accepted thing. Why, when engaging in such an important matter as democracy, is the threshold for participation so low? A minimum threshold of proving who you are to engage in democracy is quite reasonable.
As my hon. Friend says, it is important for someone to be able to show their identity. Does he welcome the fact that a range of different mechanisms were tried in the different pilot areas? Is he also aware of the fact that in Northern Ireland, where they have had this system in place for many years—a system that was legislated for by a Labour Government—any voter can have an ID card free of charge to use specifically to prove their identity in an election, and that that does not seem to have caused particular problems?
That is of great importance, and I agree entirely. A range of forms of identification were checked in these schemes, and a variety of options could be used. Northern Ireland, where there is excellent participation, is a role model for how the scheme can be implemented in the rest of the country.
Northern Ireland has invested millions of pounds over a considerable period to put that scheme in place. Such a scheme would have to be rolled out across the whole of England, but in these austere times we are led to believe that we do not have the money for our NHS. If we have the money for this pilot scheme, surely money should also be spent on much worthier causes, such as our NHS and our education system.
I think we have a different point of view. I hope that my constituents regard our democracy as very important and worth investing in. Northern Ireland is a role model for how this can be delivered. It is interesting that there has been no evidence forthcoming from Northern Ireland about people with protected identities being disadvantaged. I would have thought that Opposition Members might focus a bit more on the evidence from the United Kingdom, rather than referring to the United States of America, which has a very different system.
People expect to show ID. In fact, people often think they are disenfranchised because they have lost their voter card. It is posted out weeks before the election, and if people lose it they think, “I don’t have my card, so I can’t vote. I’m disenfranchised.” If we use forms of ID that people carry daily, they will feel more confident attending the polling station, presenting their ID, voting and participating in our democracy. As was highlighted previously, that is no less than the Labour party expects.
At the moment, we are just looking at trial schemes. It is important to have evidence from trials before we roll out the scheme across the country. There were five pilots around the country for checking voter ID.
My constituents are also concerned about postal voter fraud, and there was a postal vote trial in Peterborough, Slough and Tower Hamlets. When people think about voter fraud and corruption of the political system, they think of Tower Hamlets. It was not the Mayor of London but a Mayor in London who was kicked out of office because of irregularities in the voting system in Tower Hamlets. Statistics such as 0.000-whatever per cent are not very relevant when a Mayor in London has been kicked out of office. I welcome these pilots, and I hope the Minister will give some indication of when the scheme can be rolled out across the country, because my constituents would welcome that.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I am delighted to follow my fellow five-a-side footballer, the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green). I am sorry to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), who passionately outlined her position, but as the hon. Member for Bolton West just outlined, although Tower Hamlets was not in the voter ID pilot, we were a postal voter pilot, so we have some experience of this. I will speak briefly, because other colleagues want to contribute.
I support the Government’s efforts to protect our democracy. I am not persuaded by the argument that people have been deterred, and especially not by the argument about pensioners not having passports or driving licences. Every pensioner in London has got a freedom pass. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the freedom pass, which is photographic ID—I do not know any pensioner in London who does not have such a card, which allows them to take advantage of free travel—is an appropriate document for the trials.
The hon. Member for Bolton West mentioned Tower Hamlets. We have had allegations of fraud in every single domestic election except 1997, including of personation, intimidation and postal vote manipulation. The ID proposals should deal with personation. Intimidation has been dealt with by establishing sterile areas outside every polling station, which are policed by the Metropolitan police at every election. I think postal voting is still far too lax, which is why I am glad Tower Hamlets participated in the pilot. Every political party has been spending far too much time harvesting postal votes from its supporters. Anyone can sign up for a postal vote, which is to the parties’ advantage, but I think that devalues postal voting and lightens the democratic burden on the citizen to participate in our democracy.
The final paragraph of the Tower Hamlets briefing that I sought for this debate, which was very superficial, says:
“On completion of the two stages the data compiled was extracted and forwarded to the Electoral Commission for analysis in accordance with the requirements of the order. Once analysed by the Commission all stakeholders—namely the Commission, Cabinet Office and Tower Hamlets Returning Officer—will meet to compare the data extracted, review the process and explore the merits of these pilots and any further schemes that may be considered necessary in the future.”
My question to the Minister is, is there a timeframe for when we might hear what the conclusion of that analysis was?
Postal voting is far too easy. I had a look at the briefings from the House of Commons Library, the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society. I had to chuckle at the briefing from the Electoral Reform Society, because one of the frequently asked questions it attached to its response is:
“Don’t you need ID to vote in Europe?”
“Nearly all European countries have mandatory ID card schemes with either free or low-cost cards. As the ID cards are mandatory all voters have ID cards, so no groups of voters are discriminated against.”
I am very disappointed that, when the Labour Government proposed ID cards, we were beaten back by the liberal left, the libertarian right and the media, which said, “This is outrageous and too expensive.” It not only would have dealt with voter fraud and personation but would have improved security, dealt with NHS tourism and helped to deal with benefit fraud, but the proposals were defeated.
Voters welcome the opportunity to defend their right to vote. That is a precious privilege that we need to defend—I do not think that that view is something that is under attack. I will be listening to the Minister, because I think these pilots are important. Serious questions are rightly being asked of the pilots, and the Government will have to defend their conclusions, but I am not opposed to the fact that the pilots took place, as we need to defend our democracy as best we possibly can.
My constituency of Woking was one of the areas that had a voter ID pilot, and I think it is fair to say that it was the strictest of them all. It demanded a specific item of photographic voter ID or an elector card, which could be applied for before 5 pm on Wednesday—the day before polling day. Woking Borough Council has already submitted an interim report, which states:
“Voters across the Borough were required to show one of a number of approved forms of photographic identification before they were issued with their ballot paper at the polling station. Where electors did not have one of the approved forms of identification, there was the option to obtain a free Local Elector Card, with 57 of these cards issued during the trial.
Figures demonstrate that out of 18,851 voters who attended a polling station, 99.73% of electors provided the right form of photographic ID. In total, 51 people (0.27%) brought the wrong ID or attended with no ID and were not issued with a ballot paper. The report indicates that overall turnout to the election was unaffected by the trial, comparing favourably to previous elections at 37.75% compared to 37.71% in 2017 and 35.81% in 2012 (when the last Borough only election was held)”.
That is a pretty remarkable result.
Ray Morgan, Woking Borough Council’s chief executive and returning officer, expressed satisfaction with the trial:
“Given that 99.73% of voters brought a correct form of ID and engaged positively with the pilot and only 0.27% did not, I think we can call this trial a great success. I would like to thank Woking’s electorate for their cooperation and understanding throughout the trial. I would also like to acknowledge the hard work of all members of polling station staff and Council officers in the lead up to the election, and on the day, to make the new process such a success.”
I would like to add my personal thanks. Mr Morgan continued:
“Following our experiences in the polling stations on 3 May, I see no reason why bringing ID to vote cannot be embedded in our democratic process and have already expressed my desire to the Cabinet Office that Woking continues to participate in any future trials.”
We have heard some good speeches on both sides of this debate, but I remind those who seem to have set their face against voter ID for local and parliamentary elections that only a handful of votes can be crucial. In one of the 10 wards up for election in Woking this summer, one of the candidates won by just 10 votes and another by just 16 votes. Indeed, in recent years in Woking we have had single-figure majorities in different wards.
Given the numerous different ways to determine a draw, whether tossing a coin, drawing a straw or pulling a card, would it not be advantageous in the event of a dead heat in an election for voters to know that every one of the votes cast had been genuine? The election may be for a town council, borough council or a Member of Parliament, and at a time of minority Governments, as we have now, that could determine the Government of the country.
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent and important point. In the 2017 general election, as we all know, the constituency of North East Fife was won by the Scottish National party candidate by only two votes. Further parliamentary seats were won by fewer than 100 votes, such as Perth and North Perthshire with 21 votes, Newcastle-under-Lyme with 30 votes, Southampton, Itchen with 31 votes, Richmond with 45 votes, Crewe and Nantwich with 48 votes, Glasgow South West with 60 votes, Glasgow East with 75 votes and Arfon with 92 votes. A small number of votes can swing seats at a parliamentary election and therefore determine who are the Government of the day.
I would make two points in response to that. First, one should not necessarily accept that all those who were refused the right to vote were genuine voters. Everyone received several reminders about voter ID and had the opportunity, if without the right ID, to get a local elector card. It is important to note that people must come to the polling station with the correct ID, as they do in Northern Ireland. Woking went out of its way to publicise that. This was effectively the first time ever that people were asked to present voter ID at the polling station, and personally I think that the number of refusals was remarkably small. For a pilot area, a one-off, I do not think that anyone would expect anything else.
Furthermore, as I have said already, the turnout increased by comparison with the most equivalent elections. If we extrapolate from that, that is hundreds of thousands of voters across the nation in a general election.
I do not want to explore this cyclical argument too much, but let us say that we learn from this experience and voters become used to it, so that instead of 0.2% the figure falls to 0.1%. Does the hon. Gentleman believe, even so, that it is proportionate for 45,000 people to potentially be excluded, when only 28 allegations of voter fraud were made in the last general election?
Of course, Sir Christopher. In response to the intervention, I would say a couple of things. First, the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) said when introducing the debate that none of the pilot areas had a history of voter fraud. I am afraid that that is not the case in Woking: there is a history of voter fraud, in one ward in particular. When Opposition Members talk about the very few accusations of and convictions for personation, that is a vast underestimate of the potential level of fraud.
Anecdotally, I am afraid to say, where postal voter fraud has happened in the past, lots of personation was almost certainly going on as well. I have heard horror stories from various parts of the country, including Woking, because personation is so easy. All that is needed is to know that someone is going on holiday, and anyone of the right sex can simply turn up at the polling station giving that name and address. That is all that is required, so in a marginal ward with a history of voter fraud, it is ridiculous to suggest that personation has not been taking place. Furthermore, we know from our history that personation in Northern Ireland did take place.
To sum up, it is well past time for us to have voter ID for our British elections. It has worked in Northern Ireland and worked remarkably well in our pilot areas, and I urge the Minister and the House to adopt it expeditiously.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing this debate, but I have to state clearly that I cannot support her point of view. I shall speak from a Northern Ireland perspective and explain in a short time—a very short time, as it turns out—exactly what we have done.
The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland is the returning officer and has responsibility for electoral registration, compiling the electoral roll and managing all elections in Northern Ireland. By and large, that has worked pretty well. Before the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, the head of household was required to register all residents who were eligible to vote. The 2002 Act changed the registration procedure, introducing individual electoral registration and requiring eligible voters to provide the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland with their signature, date of birth, national insurance number and current residence. The Act also required voters to present photographic identity.
Many people in Northern Ireland therefore acquired an ID card, first, for purposes of electoral identification and, secondly, because when travelling from Northern Ireland to the mainland, photographic evidence has to be provided. The ID card was a method of doing so. People could get an ID card for the price of two photographs, whereas applying for a passport cost £68, or £40 for an Irish passport. That was how it was done, so people saved money.
Over the years, we have encouraged our constituents to apply for ID cards, and many have done just that. ID cards were introduced to counter a lack of public confidence in the electoral process in Northern Ireland. By and large, the Act changed that. There are still some issues with proxy and postal votes, but those can be looked at and changes made. A voter ID card scheme is one that I would support fully.
I will give a quick example of where frustrations can arise. My parliamentary aide’s sister came into my office one election to say that she had moved house. Having completed the sale on the day that registration closed, she thought her vote would stay with the house, but the person who bought it registered there and she lost her vote. That is an example of where people need to be sharp. By the way, that was not illegal—it was the system running as it should, and there is nothing wrong with that. The fact that I may have lost two votes is only part of it; the rules were being enforced.
I will conclude, Sir Christopher, because you have been clear on your timescales. There must be reform here on the mainland and there must be further reform in Northern Ireland to address proxy votes and postal votes. It is essential that we encourage more people to get on the register and use their vote, but also that we are as confident as possible that the vote returned reflects the will of the electorate and is not a result of fraud or scamming. That is what we need to do, and I would encourage the Minister to do that in England as well. Let us do it everywhere, right now.
We have a real problem in this country with democratic participation and engagement. At the last general election, 14.6 million people who were registered and entitled to vote did not do so. In all parts of the country, at every local election we do not have a majority of those who are entitled to vote taking part in the election. In other words, our democracy hangs by these very shoogly nails, and we all ought to be extremely concerned about the situation. It therefore bewilders me that in the midst of all the things we need to do, the Government are committing so much concern and energy to this particular issue, which as far I can see has not been demonstrated to be a problem at all.
As others have said, we are talking about 28 alleged cases of personation last year—one case for every 1.6 million people who voted.
I am afraid I do not have time.
That seems to be a problem so marginal as not to require Government attention. We also know that the public are not concerned: a survey released today by the Electoral Reform Society showed electoral fraud at the very bottom of a list of potential concerns the public have about the voting system
I am sorry, but I will not take interventions because we are short on time.
Unlike in Northern Ireland, where there was a serious problem, the instances alleged appear to be sporadic and individual rather than as a result of any organised campaign to scam an election—I have yet to see any evidence that the latter is the case. Given that, why are the Government so concerned and being egged on by some members of the governing party, for whom this seems to have become something of an obsession? Indeed, I note that someone recently put in a freedom of information request to the Human Tissue Authority, which regulates dead bodies, to ask what information it has about electoral fraud, as if we are looking at zombie voters coming to influence the situation.
As the evidence is not there that this is a huge problem that needs to be tackled, there is a case in what the Opposition are saying. In fact, the motivation is party political, with people seeking a party advantage. It is the case, is it not, that photo identification is less likely to be held by people who are unemployed, people who earn low incomes, black and minority ethnic groups, people with disabilities and migrant communities? All of those people have one thing in common: they are less likely to vote for the Conservative party. It seems to me that, as the hon. Member for Woking (Mr Lord) said, potentially very few votes influence the outcome of an election, if photo ID achieves the suppression of participation by voters in those categories—
I am sorry, but I have only 60 seconds left.
There is a severe problem here. We need to look seriously at the results of the pilot. I would like the Minister to respond. It will not be good enough if all the Electoral Commission does is speak to the returning officers in those five areas and finds out who voted and who was turned away; we need to know much more than that. We need the breakdown of who was turned away and what their characteristics are, to see whether there are any particular trends. More importantly, we need to know not just who was turned away but who never turned up in the first place. People have suggested that there was no effect on turnout, but surely that was in part because there was a publicity campaign in those five areas, so people will have known that if they did not have photo ID, there probably was not much point in going to the polling station. Clear scientific research needs to be undertaken to find out whether that was the case before there is a further roll-out.
I plead with the Cabinet Office and the Minister to understand that there are much greater priorities in improving our electoral system than this. It is surely time, in the 21st century, that 16 and 17-year-olds should be able to vote. It is surely time to have automatic registration. And it is surely time that we piloted online voting, where there would be absolute security in who votes and absolute guarantees against personation and fraud.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing the debate. I very much echo the concerns she raised.
It is deeply concerning that voters, some of whom have voted their entire lives, were denied a voice in last month’s local elections as a direct result of discriminatory policies introduced by this Government. The Government present voter identification as a solution to tackle the specific issue of voter impersonation in polling stations. Electoral fraud is a serious crime and every allegation must be investigated fully. Indeed, isolated incidents of electoral fraud have taken place and it is vital that the police have the resources they need to prosecute.
However, the proposals outlined by the Government are clearly disproportionate. In 2017 there were 28 allegations of impersonation out of nearly 45 million votes cast—one case for every 1.6 million votes cast. Of those 28 allegations, one case resulted in a conviction. None of the five English boroughs that took part in the pilots has experienced a single instance of impersonation in the past decade. The scale of electoral fraud in this country has caused many, including Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, head of politics at the University of Liverpool, to describe voter ID as
“a solution in search of a problem”.
Does the Minister agree with that assessment?
The Government clearly recognise the flaws in their argument. When pushed, they claim that voter identification is designed to tackle the perception of electoral fraud. However, new research published today by the Electoral Reform Society shows that mandatory ID in polling stations is one of voters’ lowest concerns—just 4% of voters believe ID is the most important priority for our democracy. The top issues for voters were: ensuring that elections are free from the influence of large financial donations, an accurate voting register and balanced media coverage. That shows just how out of touch the Tories really are. To quote Professor Toby James from the University of East Anglia:
“Concerns more often arise from accusations of fraud made by politicians in the media, rather than concrete cases.”
A concern shared by Opposition Members is that restrictive voter ID requirements could disenfranchise voters. Approximately 3.5 million electors do not have any photo ID, and 1.7 million lack even a bank account. That makes mandatory voter ID with no free provision a barrier to many people exercising their right to vote. There is also a significant financial barrier to obtaining ID. Only recently the Government pushed through unpopular proposals to increase the cost of adult passports from £72.50 to a whopping £85. In this context, it is deeply concerning to read a comment posted by Islington Conservatives on Twitter the day after the local election that, “Voting is not compulsory so ID doesn’t need to be free”. Will the Minister condemn the statement made by her colleagues in Islington?
Article 3 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights, which was incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, protects our right to free elections, including the right to vote. Under the law, voting is a right, not a privilege, and voting rights are closely linked to the rights to freedom of expression and to freedom of assembly. It is therefore extremely misleading for the Government to argue that voting is like picking up a parcel from the post office, where some ID is required.
The European convention on human rights outlines that the right to vote is not absolute—conditions can be imposed, which is why it is lawful to have residency or minimum age requirements. However, these conditions must pursue a legitimate aim, be proportionate and not prevent free expression in choosing the legislature. As I said, the measures piloted last month are clearly disproportionate to the amount of voter impersonation in England, and therefore do not fulfil the legal requirement.
I have no time.
I would also be interested to hear the Minister’s response to today’s intervention by Blackstone Chambers. According to Anthony Peto QC, the joint head of Blackstone, and fellow barrister Natasha Simonsen, schemes
“that restrict or discourage voting, or that inhibit voters,”
are beyond the scope of the Representation of the People Act 2000. Those leading barristers concluded that the pilots were illegal because they were incorrectly imposed by ministerial diktat rather than through Parliament. The Conservative party appears to have completely disregarded the rule of law. Does the Minister agree that, following that intervention, it is impossible for her Government to justify their undemocratic and unlawful plans?
The Windrush scandal demonstrated that it can be difficult for some communities to provide official documentation. This is the same hostile environment all over again, and it is shutting our fellow citizens out of public life. The Government were also warned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and more than 40 leading charities and academics in two separate interventions that voter ID requirements have a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people and people with disabilities.
I have to start winding up, because I am running out of time.
I will wind up really quickly.
Does the Minister seriously believe that the Government are making voting accessible for everyone? The Labour party believes in a democracy for the many, not the few. We want everyone’s voice to be heard, no matter what their background, which is why we call on the Government to abandon their dangerous plans.
May I first thank the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for requesting the debate, and everyone who has taken part in it?
Haven’t we heard some big words from Opposition Members? We have heard “disenfranchised,” “discriminatory” and “voter suppression” bandied about. Last time I looked in the dictionary, disenfranchisement meant not having the right to vote. We have one of the largest electoral registers this country has ever seen. Having every opportunity to cast a vote, with carefully designed safeguards and a safety net, is not disenfranchisement, it is not voter suppression and it is not discriminatory. Let me get that out of the way at the start.
The success of the pilots highlights that a reasonable and proportionate measure was taken. Voter turnout remained steady in all the trial areas—indeed, in one area there was a notable increase. The overwhelming majority of people cast their vote without a problem. I pay credit to the returning officers in the pilot areas, who were undeterred by some ill-informed and regrettable scaremongering in the run-up to polling day. They delivered successful awareness-raising campaigns to ensure that voters knew the requirements in their area. It is of course returning officers’ duty to ensure that registers are as accurate and complete as possible, and it is absolutely their duty—and it is in everyone’s interest—to get people on the register and get them out to vote.
While I am on the subject of legal duties, let me answer a point made by the hon. Members for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith). The powers to make such pilot schemes are contained in section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000. The hon. Gentleman, perhaps mistakenly, suggested that no Act defined such a scheme. That is simply wrong; it is in the Representation of the People Act, which enables changes to be made to the rules regarding the conduct of elections. That Act was of course fully debated and passed by Parliament.
As we have heard, the estimates by the Electoral Reform Society, which is a political lobby group, of the number of people who were turned away from polling stations were wildly exaggerated. I really wonder why hon. Members should trust the survey that the society published today when the facts so clearly speak against its record. Data from returning officers in all five participating local authorities show that 340 electors who were asked to return to the polling station with the correct ID did not return. That represents just 0.06% of the electorate and 0.14% of votes cast. I have of course put those data in the Library.
The experience in Northern Ireland, where paper ID has been required since 1985, and photo ID since 2003, shows that once that requirement has become established, voters find it easy to be part of that reasonable idea. Indeed, the responsible Minister at the time—a Labour Minister—was clear that no one would be disenfranchised by those measures.
Despite repeated claims by the Opposition, many of the people I spoke to about the pilots before the elections, as others will have done, thought they were a common-sense approach. Some—particularly people from Austria, Canada, the Netherlands and the many other countries where showing ID is a normal part of the voting process—were surprised that we did not already need to take ID to the polling station. It is clear to me that people value their vote individually and want collective confidence, which is what the scheme is about.
I read what the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge wrote in some recent articles about electoral fraud, and about voter ID in particular. I am shocked that she does not seem to think that electoral fraud of this type could influence elections. Do those stolen votes not count? Do they not undermine confidence in the very process that puts us in this place and gives us the privilege of being here? Does not any type of electoral fraud threaten the resilience and integrity of a democratic system and the confidence that people have in it? What level of fraud would be palatable? How many voters is it okay to silence and have robbed of their vote? Electoral fraud is real. By definition, it is difficult to detect if it is done effectively.
I will not. I have to conclude, and the hon. Gentleman and others have had their chance to contribute.
Voter ID is of course just one element of efforts, which I hope command cross-party support, to protect and sustain the electoral system, which should be precious to us all. I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for coming along to express his support for voter ID. Indeed, he explained that he would go further and do more to protect the voting system. That is why we at the Cabinet Office, in partnership with the independent Electoral Commission and Crimestoppers, are working to ensure that people feel encouraged to report electoral fraud if they see it. I marvel at how the rest of the Labour party cannot bring themselves to support such efforts.
At the moment, it is easier to vote in someone else’s name than to collect a parcel at the post office, so doing nothing would be wrong. We cannot allow a crime to happen until it reaches a certain level. It is doubly unfortunate that the Labour party continues its scaremongering, especially given that the previous Labour Government introduced photo ID at polling stations across Northern Ireland in 2003. Although today’s Labour party might not think doing that is an acceptable step to protect our voting system, constituency Labour parties think it is good enough for them, as they routinely insist on ID. Doing one thing and saying another seems unprincipled to me. On top of that, Opposition Members came here to quibble about the numbers. This is not about statistics; it is about the principle. Why do they disagree with the principle of tackling electoral fraud?
Electoral fraud is not a victimless crime. The Electoral Commission stated in its 2013 review:
“The majority of people in communities affected by electoral fraud are victims rather than offenders. The people who are likely to be the victims of electoral fraud can be described as vulnerable.”
In his report on electoral fraud, Sir Eric Pickles explained clearly that it was
“local residents who lost out from the crooked politicians who bullied them and wasted their money. The law must be applied equally and fairly to everyone.”
I remain committed to ensuring that equality is integral to everything we do in elections policy. I met the EHRC earlier today, and we share common ground on ensuring that whatever we do has the rights of electors and the fairness, equality and inclusivity of our electoral system at its heart.
The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge made repeated reference to photographic ID. I think she knows that was not helpful. That is not what the pilots required. Let me put on the record that no one needed to purchase ID documents to be able to vote in the pilots. Local authorities provided alternative methods free of charge, to ensure that everyone who was registered had the opportunity to vote.
The Government will reflect on the voter ID evaluation that the Electoral Commission publishes in July. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) will find that the Electoral Commission has published the list of the data that it will use in that evaluation. We will use that as an opportunity to review, among other things, how the awareness-raising campaigns operated and what could be improved.
I say again to the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge that I am grateful to her for bringing forward the points she made and for staying in touch with residents in one of the important pilot areas, but her arguments are not convincing. This really is a simple matter of principle: do we or do we not believe in stamping out electoral fraud? I do.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).