The Government took all the legal steps necessary to prepare for the European parliamentary elections and put in place all the necessary legislative and funding elements to enable returning officers to make their preparations. We worked with returning officers, the Electoral Commission and other agencies, such as the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers and the Association of Electoral Administrators, to support the smooth running of the polls. The Government are greatly appreciative of electoral administrators’ hard work inside and outside election periods, which resulted in a higher turnout than for previous European parliamentary elections.
Electoral registration officers are under a statutory duty to ensure that people who are eligible to vote in elections have the opportunity to do so. For the recent European Parliament elections—as for all previous such elections—that included making sure that EU citizens who are resident in the UK and registered to vote in local elections were made aware that they needed to complete a voter registration and declaration form, commonly referred to as a UC1 or EC6, so they could vote in the UK. The Electoral Commission supported EROs in this and encouraged them to take additional steps to raise awareness of this requirement locally, through social media channels and other means.
The UC1 form implements a requirement under EU law. EU Council directive 93/109/EC requires all member states to send the details of any EU citizens’ declarations to the state they are a citizen of,
“sufficiently in advance of polling day”,
to ensure that an EU citizen does not vote twice in the same European parliamentary election. That is not a new requirement and has been in place for previous European parliamentary elections. Similar provision applies to UK citizens living in other EU member states. The UC1 form was accessible on the websites of the Electoral Commission, local authorities and Your Vote Matters.
On 5 April, the Electoral Commission published guidance for local returning officers and EROs on the upcoming European parliamentary elections. In it, the Electoral Commission reminded EROs to prepare and issue UC1 forms to EU citizens on the electoral register. On 3 May, the Electoral Commission published guidance advising EU citizens to avoid registering to vote using unofficial registration sites. The guidance further stated:
“Any EU citizen who wants to vote in the European Parliamentary election in the UK must also print, complete and return a declaration form stating that they will only vote in the UK.”
The guidance also included a link to the Your Vote Matters website, where the form could be downloaded.
The numbers of non-UK EU citizens who were reportedly denied a vote in the European elections should be a source of shame for the Government. We are talking about people who live and work here and who contribute to our communities, yet for the past three years they have been insulted, exploited, asked to apply to stay in their own homes and now denied a voice in an election that has massive implications for their futures. Have the Government learned nothing from the Windrush scandal about the consequences of shutting citizens out of public life?
After the previous set of European elections, the Electoral Commission warned that we needed to streamline the two-step registration process, like other European countries have done. Why did the Government refuse to listen? They buried their head in the sand in respect of the elections, even at the eleventh hour when it was clear that the House was not going to pass their botched Brexit deal. The Opposition repeatedly warned that EU nationals were not given enough time and notice. We put forward reasonable requests that could have been adopted to mitigate the risks, such as ensuring that EU citizens were handed a copy of the form when they voted in local elections and extending the deadline by a week to ensure that the forms could be returned.
What was the Government’s response? It was to tell EU citizens to vote in their own country. Not only did that add to the anger and sense of exclusion that many felt, but it was asking people to register to vote in a country that they may not have lived in for decades and where voting registration may well have closed. Does the Minister acknowledge how insulting that was? Will he apologise to those affected? Campaign groups have already raised more than £40,000 to fund a legal challenge; have the Government assessed whether their actions were compliant with the law? The failure to act made this democratic disaster sadly inevitable. In the light of the overwhelming evidence, will the Government conduct a full and urgent investigation?
We have to be clear that the process was exactly the same as what was required back in 2014 and 2009. The legal structure for how the vote takes place has not changed.
On the deadlines referred to, I can remember having a discussion with the shadow Minister about whether it would be possible to change the registration date, but that would have run up against the clear requirement that we have to share the declarations
“sufficiently in advance of polling day”.
That means sharing them in advance of polling day, not just a day or two before, to allow registers to be completed in home nation states. To be clear, this process has been in place for some years.
I accept the point that obviously people did not necessarily expect the EU elections to happen, given the result of the referendum and the fact that 80% of the people who voted in 2017 did so for parties that had pledged to respect the referendum result—something we have not seen much evidence of on the Opposition Benches. The Electoral Commission will review the European elections, as it reviews any other electoral event, and will look into any issues raised. As a responsible Government, we will of course consider carefully what the Electoral Commission says.
I thank the Minister for his statement.
I was contacted by a handful of my constituents about this issue. My local authority has confirmed that the relevant paperwork was sent out entirely in accordance with the rules on 12 April, to be returned by 7 May. Several thousand of those forms were returned, so the process was clearly working, but for a handful of people there seems to have been some confusion. Will the Minister confirm from the Dispatch Box that he will look carefully at the Electoral Commission’s report on the election, to understand why that group of people found it so difficult to follow the rules in this instance?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. I am pleased to hear her experience, which is that thousands did return the declaration and were able to take part. We will of course listen very carefully to what the Electoral Commission has to say in its review of the European parliamentary elections. The turnout did go up. In fact it was much, much higher than it was in 1999, which is the last time we had stand-alone European elections, so, again, that gives us some confidence in the system. None the less, we will certainly consider very carefully the points that the Electoral Commission brings forward and look at whether any changes are required.
Whether by accident or design, this Government have presided over the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of our neighbours and friends who wanted to vote in that election but were unable to do so. Frankly, the Minister’s complacency here today is simply compounding the problem. He acts as if this were some sort of surprise. Back in 2014, many people told the Cabinet Office that the system then was inadequate. The Electoral Commission itself called for a review of the UC1 system. Therefore, given the additional dubiety and uncertainty created by this Government about the fact that these elections would take place this year, surely it must have been obvious that something needed to be done in order to improve the situation. At any stage did Ministers approach the European authorities to get a dispensation from the regulations in order to cope with the situation in the United Kingdom? At any stage did Ministers consider bringing forward a statutory instrument to this House in order to truncate the existing system for filling in the UC1 form? Will the Minister promise that there will be a full and public investigation into this debacle?
Let me be clear: the Council directive is a piece of EU law. It is not something from which we can seek derogations or exemptions. I know that, normally, those on the Scottish National party Benches are very keen to see European law there and fully complied with. This is about an election across all 28 member states for one Parliament; this is not about a uniquely British election.
With regard to looking at the options open to us, we did briefly ask for official advice, but on whether it would be possible to consider a statutory instrument, I have to say that that rubs up against our need to implement that exact expression of being sufficiently in advance of polling day. Given that our registration deadline was 7 May—roughly two weeks before—it is hard to see how we could move much more beyond that date. As for how we will look at this matter, the Electoral Commission will comply with its statutory duty to conduct a review of how the elections were conducted. It is a body that has solid election knowledge, is appointed independently and is not under the control of Government. We can all think of views that the Electoral Commission has expressed that we have either loved or loathed. That is our best option. We will therefore carefully consider what conclusions it brings back.
The Minister does not appear to appreciate the Government’s responsibility for this mess. It was not until Tuesday 7 May that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that the UK would definitely be taking part in the European elections. As the Minister has just admitted, Tuesday 7 May was also the closing date for the receipt of UC1 forms. Given that the Government must have known since 11 April, which was the date on which the EU granted us a further extension to 31 October, that we would be taking part in these European elections, why did it take the Government from 11 April to 7 May to confirm that fact? Earlier confirmation would have allowed more EU citizens to get their UC1 forms in in time, and they would therefore not have been denied the right to vote on 23 May.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. As I said in my earlier answer, it was on 5 April that the Electoral Commission published guidance for local returning officers and EROs, and it was on 8 April that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster laid the necessary orders for the poll. There was no restriction on submitting a UC1 application before those dates. There was no need to wait until it was completely confirmed to submit that form. As has been said, a number of EU citizens who are resident in this country made arrangements to vote in this election in the state of which they are a citizen. It is therefore clear that there was no undue delay and that advice was pushed out. By 3 May, there was clear advice published by the Electoral Commission, which has the primary role in promoting how citizens use their electoral rights in this country.
We see shocking complacency from the Minister and a complete denial of any Government responsibility for this shambles. A number of MPs—me included—raised these concerns in advance of the election, saying that EU citizens were going to be disenfranchised. And sure enough they were, as they were in the EU referendum. Is the Minister aware of legal advice that says that the use of the UC1 form is discriminatory, and will he—he has not yet answered this question—support calls for an inquiry into this shambles and the Government’s role in it?
The suggestion that the UC1 form, which has been used in a number of European elections, is now discriminatory is absolutely for the birds. It is a process that we have used for other elections and it is part of implementing a requirement under European law. The Liberal Democrats cannot say that they like the European Union’s laws one day and then demand that we should just ignore them the next, when it suits them. It is clear that the Council directive requires us to complete declarations and to send them sufficiently in advance of polling day.
The Minister said—once again, erroneously—that 80% of voters in the referendum voted for parties that supported a Tory Brexit. He knows that to be completely wrong. What he omitted to say was that the majority of voters who voted in the European elections voted for parties who want another referendum and want to remain in the European Union. The Minister was warned repeatedly about this issue in this House and outside it, yet we all have examples of constituents who came up to us in desperation on election day, having done all the right things but having had their names crossed out when they arrived at the polling station. It is an absolute scandal. Does this not reveal a Government who did not investigate properly the proven subversion and lawbreaking in the referendum, and who have absolutely no interest in the integrity of our democratic process? The Minister should resign.
Oh dear; well, I will not thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. The reality is that we have an independent Electoral Commission and an independent police force which does not—and should not—operate under political guidance. Despite the right hon. Gentleman’s obvious disagreements with the referendum result, the relevant bodies have obviously looked at the evidence and come to their conclusions. It will be a dark day when Ministers at the Dispatch Box instruct the police and the Electoral Commission how to behave.
As I say, the UC1 form implements a requirement under European Union law. As for the right hon. Gentleman’s figures regarding the vote itself, they are not figures that I recognise because they normally imply that my party is somehow supporting remain.
Seven weeks ago, Mr Speaker kindly granted me an urgent question on this exact topic, but the warnings were not heeded. Scores of EU voters were in touch with my busy office and with the electoral registration officer on Haringey Council on the day, just as predicted by many Members in this House on 25 April. Will the Minister lay out exactly what investigations his team will undertake now to put this situation right once and for all?
The Electoral Commission will do a report and present its conclusions—as it does with all major electoral events in this country—and it will do so independently, not under the direction of a Minister. We will then consider its conclusions carefully. To resolve the issue completely, we will look to implement the 2016 referendum result, as we have pledged to do.
I think the Minister has misunderstood his job. He seems to think it is about disenfranchising people who are going to vote the wrong way. After the 2014 European elections, the Electoral Commission warned that the current practice of requiring citizens to complete an additional form needed to be more streamlined, moving to a near automatic system of inclusion as is the case in most other European countries, yet the Minister and his Department did precisely nothing about it. [Interruption.] Perhaps he could get the smirk off his face. We are actually talking about democratic involvement; even though the Minister does not seem to rate it, Labour Members think that it is an important principle.
This is a process that has been used before in elections that actually happened under a Labour Government as well—let us be clear about that. It is a process where we followed the law. We had to comply with the European Council directive in how we held these elections, and that means having a declaration that we send over. If we wanted to talk about disenfranchising people, we could talk about what happened when an arbitrary limit of 15 years was imposed on overseas elections.
Dozens and dozens of my EU national voters were disenfranchised at this election. Given that the election has now gone, would it not be prudent for the Government to re-enfranchise them by holding a public vote on how we leave the European Union, allowing people who live, work and pay their taxes here, and who have done so for decades, to be involved in the future running of this country?
Let us be clear: Britain’s membership of the European Union was first decided by the parliamentary franchise in the form of the elections to this House back in 1972. It was therefore the parliamentary franchise that was used, with the addition of Gibraltar and Members of the other place. That is the one that the House chose for the referendum in 2016, and hopefully this House will actually finally listen to what was said in 2016 and implement that referendum vote.
On 23 May, a significant number of my constituents who are EU nationals were denied their basic human right to vote, despite me and others having repeatedly raised on the Floor of the House the risk that that would happen, including my making a direct appeal to the Prime Minister at PMQs on the day before the elections to use the power of her office to do something about it. Does the Minister appreciate how this scandal has exacerbated the fears of EU citizens that their rights are not taken seriously by this Government? Does he therefore understand why there must be an inquiry into the Government’s failure to act, and will he answer the question posed by so many other hon. Members and commit to that inquiry?
I recall that the hon. and learned Lady’s suggestion at Prime Minister’s questions was about having forms at the polling station. However, that would directly conflict with the requirements of the Council directive, which says:
“sufficiently in advance of polling day.”
We could not have complied with that in having forms at the polling station. In terms of a review of what happened, as I have now said several times, the Electoral Commission, as it always does, will review the conduct of the poll and bring forward recommendations, and it is completely independent in doing so.
Can I say to the junior Minister that I feel sorry for him? Here he is, like the last boy left on the burning deck of the ship. He has no colleagues behind him. There is an absence of Government—where is his boss? The fact is that this is an important issue for democratic responsibility and accountability, and for parliamentary democracy, and we want to know the answer. Yet here we have—I hope it can be seen all over the world—an empty Chamber where this country has no Government and no Back Benchers: it has nothing. When are we going to get a general election to get rid of this ghastly regime?
I think that one is probably slightly beyond the scope of this urgent question. I would always say that it is good to have quality of support, if not necessarily quantity, on the Benches with me. The key issue in elections is that we comply with the law, and the law is as it has been set down for previous European elections. A key part of that is making sure that we comply with European law, given that this is not purely a vote in the UK about UK delegation members—it is ultimately an election of the entire European Parliament.
Listening to the Minister’s initial answer, I wondered, if this was all so good, why did it turn out so badly? The Government claim to have been preparing for “all Brexit eventualities”, yet despite the billions of pounds being set aside, we have still had this blundering democratic deficit. Is there not a real danger that this Government’s reputation for Brexit splits and betrayals will be excelled by an equally deserved reputation for incompetence?
The Minister does not seem to have accepted the fact that this vote happened as a result of something that was entirely predictable. The Department for Exiting the European Union has a Minister for no-deal Brexit. Why has it not considered that the third of the possibilities outlined by the Prime Minister might happen, and it should therefore have a Minister for no Brexit?
I wrote to every single one of my EU national constituents at my own personal cost to inform them of this voter suppression. I wonder whether the Minister will repay me the cost of the postage, and whether he will also reflect on article 9(4) of the directive he cites, which says that Community voters “shall remain” on the register until they are removed. Getting them all to re-sign the form was therefore a breach of Community rules, and he should learn his law better.
Mr Russell-Moyle, you are a person of passionate convictions. You are in some danger of rivalling your hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), who I am inclined to inform audiences across the country and round the world is the noisiest Member of the House. That is a questionable accolade.
Many EU nationals in my constituency were also denied their vote. It is simply unacceptable that registered voters who have turned out to vote were turned away without explanation. As decreed in article 39 of the EU charter of fundamental rights, the right to vote is universal and equal. Does the Minister agree that this fiasco is something that a modern democracy should not tolerate?
As I said, the Government took all legal steps necessary in conducting the European parliamentary elections. That included complying with European law, including the Council directive, which requires details of these declarations to be sent “sufficiently in advance” of polling day. We cannot just assume that people wish to vote in this country, rather than the country where they are a citizen.
The Minister is actually right about two things. He is right that this process has been used before, and he is right that the Electoral Commission makes independent recommendations. But ridiculously, he refuses to acknowledge that Conservative Ministers ignored those recommendations about this process right back in July 2014. Does he acknowledge that the Electoral Commission made recommendations about this process back in July 2014—yes or no?
As I have said in numerous answers, we complied with the legal steps necessary to conduct these polls, following the House’s refusal to back an exit from the European Union which many Members elected to this place had pledged to do. We will of course listen with interest to the Electoral Commission’s review of these elections, but it is our intention that the UK will no longer participate in European parliamentary elections, having implemented the result of the referendum.
If there had been 1 million Conservative voters—yes, I know—threatened with disenfranchisement by uncertainty about whether the elections would take place, the Government would have moved heaven and earth to ensure that they were registered and enfranchised before the vote took place. Is it not a fact that anyone who wants to know about his party’s and his Government’s contempt for the rights of EU nationals does not need to listen to his complacent answers today—they simply need to look at the Benches behind him?
EU citizens can be reassured that there is a huge amount of work going on to ensure that their rights are protected after Brexit, including their democratic rights in this country. Let us be clear: UC1 forms and declarations of their nature are not unusual for UK citizens living in the EU. We have used them before, and we will hopefully not use them again, because we believe in respecting referendums, although I accept that for the Scottish National party, that is a rather unusual concept.
Paloma Luna has lived in my constituency since 1992, and she has voted in every single local and European election until this year. Because of the impossible timetable set by the Government for our electoral services, Paloma never received the UC1 form. Electoral services normally have three months for such things, and this time they had three weeks. What does the Minister have to say to all of those who were denied their fundamental, basic human right to vote? And please do remember that these are human beings.
Starting with local elections and Assembly elections, there is absolutely no need to complete a UC1 form, because there is no requirement to make a declaration to another member state, so those electoral rights are protected and clear, and many used their vote in the local elections three weeks prior. To be clear, this is a process where we did what we could to make sure people were available. The Electoral Commission put out guidance and encouraged local returning officers well before the election—about a month before the actual deadline for registration. Plus, we have moved on in recent years in allowing registration online, something that was not available in the past.
It is disappointing that some areas seemed to accept UC1s on the day of the election, but not those in Scotland, which said they were instructed to do that. The Minister has said that he took “all legal steps”, so can he confirm the percentage of UC1 forms that were forwarded to countries overseas between 7 May and the election?
To be clear, UC1s should not be being accepted on polling day, given that the Council directive is very clear that the information needs to be exchanged sufficiently in advance of polling day. Once information was collated after 7 May, it was then communicated to member states, just as other member states communicated those details to us. That process has existed for many years.
A number of my EU-national constituents were prevented from voting on 23 May, and they are exceptionally angry about it. The issues on polling day were a direct and deliberate result of the failure by the Government—the coalition Government and then the Conservative Government—to address the concerns raised by the Electoral Commission after the 2014 elections. At the very least, my constituents are owed an apology. Are they going to get one?
Again, I can make it clear that the Government took all legal steps necessary to conduct this poll, as we were legally obliged to do. As I say, we will look with interest at what the Electoral Commission’s review of this election states. However, we are clear that we have no intention of taking part in the EU parliamentary elections in 2024, because we intend to leave the European Union and honour the referendum result.
Is the Minister seriously trying to say that nothing went wrong here, and that is why he will not apologise? I, too, have constituents who sent all the forms off in time and who went on the day with an extra form just in case, and they were denied the right to vote. They were disenfranchised by this Government. Surely they are owed an apology. Will the Minister take that opportunity now?
Again, what I would say is that we will ask the Electoral Commission to review that for anyone who did comply with the requirements, although clearly we would need to look at what happened in that particular instance with that particular ERO. Ultimately, at the end of the day the UC1 is not an optional process; we have to comply with the Council directive. That is not something we have an ability just to vary.
First, I would like to thank David Miller and his team at Glasgow City Council for doing their very best in the circumstances this shambolic Government have thrown at them. Those circumstances resulted in one of my constituents, who had registered in time when they moved into their property in Dalmarnock, not having enough time to get the UC1 form back and therefore losing their democratic rights. Will the Minister issue an instruction to returning officers to ask them how many people lost their votes in similar circumstances, and to ask for their advice on what the Government should do in response?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Clearly, it is the Electoral Commission that will be conducting the review of how the election went, and I am almost certain it will be in contact with local returning officers to discuss any issues that were raised. Likewise, at that point it would certainly more than welcome and would probably be quite interested in hearing the experiences of how the process operated in reality.
The Minister knows that the Government were tearing themselves apart on whether or not to participate in these EU elections until 7 May, but what steps did his Department take to talk to other EU countries about extending the deadline? In the age of electronic communication, surely fewer than 16 days is necessary.
The Government were never tearing themselves apart over whether to hold the elections. We were clear that we would fulfil our legal obligation to hold them if necessary as a member of the European Union, and we did. Regarding the exchange of information that already takes place electronically, there is a clear need to finalise registers at a certain point, and to ensure that information is collated and then exchanged with other member states. The timescales now are similar to those put in place in the past, and the UK is one of the first countries to vote, on the Thursday, along with Holland. Even though some countries vote later, we have to be ready for the start of the European elections, not halfway through.
The empty Government Benches will send a powerful message to EU nationals across the country. Many of them in my constituency contacted me to say that they had registered to vote online, after it became clear on 11 April that the elections would be taking place; they told me that the system did not alert them to the need to complete a UC1 form, nor was it available online. Does the Minister accept that the Cabinet Office’s failure to ensure that proper processes were in place denied them their vote?
To be clear, the Electoral Commission website had guidance on registering to vote; the UC1 form was available; and there were links to the Your Vote Matters website, where the form could be downloaded and returned. It was available online. There were some issues with those who mistakenly used unofficial registration sites, and perhaps the Electoral Commission will consider how we can make clearer the differences between unofficial websites purporting to be for electoral registration and Your Vote Matters, the official Electoral Commission site.
My constituent, a Spanish national, had a similar experience: he believed he had returned his UC1 form digitally, but the local authority said it could find no trace of it, and advising him on 3 May on a website that he should have downloaded it, printed it out and posted it back is not reasonable when he had an expectation that his digital form was acceptable. Is it not time there was a proper Government-sponsored inquiry into every stage of the process, so that we can understand exactly what went wrong with both the system and the information available to voters?
I think it right that the Electoral Commission independently looks at the process for the European parliamentary elections and draws its conclusions independent of Government. That seems to me to be a process that builds more confidence in the recommendations that emerge.
The Minister says the legislation is in place, but the processes clearly are not, despite the recommendations from the 2014 investigation, which have not been implemented. Many of my constituents have contacted me to say they were refused the vote on election day, despite their having voted in London and council elections, and even the 2014 European parliamentary elections. Does the Minister not acknowledge that this debacle only adds to the anger and sense of exclusion felt by so many of the 3 million EU citizens in this country since the 2016 referendum? Is it not worried that it will exacerbate the rate at which EU citizens leave our country and so no longer contribute to our society?
One of the handy things of having my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration on the Bench beside me is that I know that there are still more EU citizens coming to this country than leaving. We very much welcome that, given the skills and talents they bring to this country.
The process we follow is similar to the one used in other EU states for UK citizens living abroad. I understand that people have concerns. My big concern would be if turnout had gone down, but in fact turnout went up. One of the biggest threats to European parliamentary elections was the absolutely dismal turnout 20 years ago.
It really does seem that sorry is the hardest word. My constituents have faced all the problems outlined by my hon. Friends, including the situation where the form has been properly filled in but they are still denied the vote—and, of course, denied their vote in their home country, so they are doubly disenfranchised. At the end of these exchanges, could the Minister show some grace on behalf of the Government and apologise not to Opposition Members, but to the people who have been disenfranchised?
As I touched on earlier, we would expect the Electoral Commission’s review to look at issues with local councils where the form was returned in compliance with the law and then not complied with. The Government would not have dealt with that directly. Election turnout rose compared with previous similar elections, and we hope that this election will not take place again following the UK’s exit from the European Union.
“This feels like one big scam”—that is what one citizen I represent told me about his experience of this process. I say to my fellow Devon MP that I think he has got this one wrong. When the Electoral Commission publishes its report, will he now commit to publishing it and bringing it back to this House with a statement, so that he can say sorry, from the Dispatch Box, to all the EU citizens who have been denied a vote, and set out how it will be corrected in future?
I always respect the passion of the hon. Gentleman, my friend from Devon, when it comes to raising issues and campaigning on behalf of his constituents. We will of course see what the Electoral Commission report brings back. It will be a public report, so it will be published. We will certainly then consider what next steps would need to be taken if we were ever to have European parliamentary elections again, although, as the hon. Gentleman will know, my view is that we should implement the referendum result so that we will not be an EU member the next time they take place.