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Electoral Practices

Volume 669: debated on Thursday 19 December 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Maggie Throup.)

It is a privilege to lead the first Adjournment debate of this Parliament, on electoral practices, especially with so much time stretching before us—something I have long dreamed of. I am sure that the Minister will not mind my saying that. I am especially grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for selecting the debate, because I have sought it for some time.

On 26 September, I intervened in a general debate on the principles of democracy and the rights of the electorate after a number of my constituents had contacted me about plans to introduce voter ID, which they believed to be unnecessary. I am afraid that I fundamentally disagree and am pleased with the commitments that the Conservative party made in our manifesto. In my intervention, I talked about the scale of unlawful electoral practice in Wycombe and I promised to apply for this Adjournment debate to elaborate and to ask what the Government will do to combat abuses of our electoral system. I subsequently published an article, on which this speech expands.

My objective is to ensure that free and fair, open and lawful elections take place in the UK without cheating. It is about upholding the principle that every entitled voter should have one vote and cast it freely. It is to ensure the proper functioning of our democracy. There can be no question of disenfranchising anyone, or of constraining legitimate political discourse. However, it is a sad reality that systems of rules are always gamed. It is a sad reality that the rules of general and council elections are being gamed today. Evidently, some are happy to cheat to win.

Since the legitimacy of political power rests on the consent of the public, expressed at the ballot box, action is required. Since I have already had some foolish and vexatious reactions to my article, I wish to make it clear, up front, that the fundamental reason for this debate is to stand with the law-abiding majority across all sections of my diverse constituency, including EU nationals and people of Asian descent, against the corruption perpetrated against them by certain individuals. I seek to advance justice and equality for all.

Furthermore, I am confident that the agents of the main political parties in Wycombe conduct their campaigns with an unimpeachable commitment to the integrity of the democratic process. However, despite their integrity, I am clear that rules are being broken by or on behalf of particular individuals.

I pay tribute at this point to the indefatigable zeal of my agent, Mrs Susan Hynard, who, over some 30 years, has worked harder than anyone I could name, and possibly as hard as anyone in the country, to ensure not only cross-community politics, but that our elections are conducted in a proper, fair and decent manner of which we can all be proud. I am very grateful.

I am sure of the account I give tonight. I could easily identify persons involved under the privileges of the House, but I do not intend tonight to use that privilege unnecessarily. I am aware that by the time evidence has reached me, it is often hearsay. However, what I am going to say is sourced to a high level of confidence, including, in some cases, to the standard required to make referrals to the police. That has been done.

I believe that the overwhelming majority of my constituents and people across the country would be shocked if they knew the extent of corrupt election practices and voter fraud, which happen every time there is an election. In Wycombe, we have reason to believe that an important council seat, which the Conservatives held, was lost as a result of corrupt election practices. We think that the extent of corrupt practice could be material in parliamentary elections.

So what do we find is being done? I know of people who register to vote at different addresses in our town and then cast a vote in the same election more than once. In one instance, we have evidence that a man voted once in person and once by postal vote in the same election. My constituents tell me, astonishingly, that people living outside the area will register to vote using friends’ and families’ addresses in order to support a particular candidate. I can understand that some people would want to vote against me, the Conservative candidate, but I object to people being shipped in to do it. In one case, private data held for legitimate purposes was used to apply for postal votes without the consent of the elector, and those postal votes were then intercepted before the electors had a chance to discover and complete them. That is a premeditated theft of votes, but the victims would not make a formal complaint for fear of retribution. I am disgusted to think that today’s system of postal voting should facilitate something so redolent of the old rotten boroughs.

We also know of landlords who register to vote at properties that they own, but where they do not reside. When we look at the register, we need not be presumptuous about these people and the relations they have with the occupants of the same property, because when we look at the names we often know the people involved. I am well aware that it is not an offence to be registered at two addresses and in specimen cases where people can be shown to have voted twice, we have reported them, but no prosecutions have followed.

It is always a pleasure to be involved in an Adjournment debate, and as this is the first one of the season, I was obviously keen to come along and support the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who wants to uphold the honesty and integrity of the electoral practices. Does he agree that the scheme that allows students in some cases to vote at university and in some cases to vote at home must be reassessed and reviewed? One person, one vote was democracy in the past, and one person, one vote is democracy today.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, and I hope he will not mind me teasing him a bit when I say I am delighted that he has intervened in the Adjournment debate and that normal service has therefore been resumed. He is absolutely right, and he knows that I agree with him. One person, one vote cast freely—that is the principle of our democracy. I am slightly reluctant to single out students, although I agree with him that there is a potential problem with students voting in two locations. The crucial point here is to ensure that people vote only once and that they are prosecuted if they vote twice, but our system should prohibit that. Whether we should rule out students and others from registering in two locations is something to which I would be glad to hear the Minister’s response.

In Northern Ireland, we have had a number of examples of well-orchestrated, well-detailed and witnessed instances of illegal voting taking place. The Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland has taken many steps to try to change that and to make the process more accountable, but there are still examples across Northern Ireland of things going wrong. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Minister could perhaps look at some of the practices that we have introduced in Northern Ireland to stop illegal voting, and that this might also help the hon. Gentleman’s efforts to stop it?

I absolutely agree, and I think that the Government should certainly look extremely closely at the precedent established within the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland. Certainly, if it is good enough for Northern Ireland on this subject, I would think that as a starting premise, it is good enough for the rest of the nations of the United Kingdom.

We have found foreign nationals on the electoral roll living legally in the United Kingdom, but who are neither nationals of the UK or the Commonwealth nor citizens of the Republic of Ireland or another EU country. Nevertheless, they are on our register to vote. In one case, we were able to establish a man’s nationality via Companies House. From his correspondence, it was clear that he was on the electoral roll with the intention of voting in this general election, but without any entitlement to do so. I have received accounts of candidates visiting electors’ homes, demanding that postal votes are completed in front of them and then taking them away. I am sorry to say that we cannot assume that voters enjoy secrecy and freedom when marking a ballot paper at home.

Only last week, my agent reported to the police evidence we have received regarding the harvesting of postal votes in favour of a particular candidate. I have testimony of one young woman’s unmarked postal vote being taken from her under duress by a relative and handed to a candidate. We learned about that because she told another candidate that she wanted to cancel the postal vote, so that she could cast it again herself in a different way. What a tragic situation to have descended into. It is an abuse that we must not tolerate.

There are instances of people impersonating others and voting at polling stations in their place. Again, we know of some of these cases being reported to the police without prosecutions following. We have received reports from electors in Wycombe that activists working on behalf of particular candidates have sought to procure votes for as little as £10, a free taxi ride or a free pizza. This simply cannot go on.

As I have previously mentioned in this place, in 2015 my agent and I personally reported one of my own party’s council candidates to the police. We told our candidates that we would hold them to the highest standards and that we would be the first to report them to the police if we received evidence of corrupt practice, because we will not tolerate it. Though it gave us no pleasure, we did what we said we would do. My agent has on other occasions raised specific instances of electoral abuse with both the police and the Electoral Commission. Sadly, prosecutions have not followed. It is a theme that comes up time and again. I am keen to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister, if she can tell me, why prosecutions are not taking place.

In summary, votes are being cast which ought not to be cast, votes which ought to be cast are being cast by those who ought not to be casting them, votes are being cast in particular ways as a result of treating and intimidation and, for various reasons, prosecutions are not forthcoming. That is to say nothing of the truth that votes have significantly different weights in different constituencies, so I say only in passing that constituency sizes must be equalised, as near as we can, if people’s votes are to have political equality.

When individual voter registration was introduced, it was expected that it would remove the abuse of people registering at addresses where they were not entitled to do so, but it seems not to be working. What is to be done? The law is often very clear. One may not, for example, offer a pizza in return for a vote. However, it is not clear that appropriate importance is always attributed to each and every vote and to prosecuting offences. I am clear that when one vote is stolen, or otherwise corrupted away, it is not just a pencil mark on a piece of paper but the inheritance of a tradition of liberty and equality fought for at great cost and handed down over centuries. If we fail to understand the magnitude of the corruption of even a single vote, we are a politically bankrupt nation.

Our current electoral system has not caught up with population growth and the realities of modern life. Our procedures have become somewhat quaint, a point which struck me when I looked at the rules for candidates entering polling stations. They say that we can go there to check for personation. While I know many of my constituents, I do not know a sufficient number that I can go into every polling station and have any chance of spotting personation. The rules seem inadequate for the modern age. However, even as a software engineer who has looked into the matter, I would not support the introduction of electronic voting machines because they, too, are dangerously corruptible.

I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to set out what plans and procedures, perhaps drawing on our manifesto commitments, she intends to put in place to strengthen the integrity of elections and, in particular, to ensure that the electoral roll is an accurate reflection of people’s entitlement to vote. What steps will she take to ensure that people vote only once, that if they vote more than once, they are prosecuted, and that that prosecution carries meaningful penalties? What steps will the Government take to stamp out treating? What steps will the Government take to reduce intimidation, in particular in relation to postal votes, even though that may involve curtailing access to postal votes for the law-abiding majority—people who I believe would be shocked and appalled by the things I have set out? I know from my constituents and others that there are objections to voter ID, with a suggestion that people might be disenfranchised. We must not disenfranchise anyone and the Government must take appropriate steps, but what will the Government do to ensure there is no restriction of the franchise while ensuring that people identify themselves properly?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so gracious in allowing interventions.

Northern Ireland already has voter ID, and it is successful. People find that it works. Although there may have been some initial objections or concerns, the scheme works well. The Government have suggested that they will commit themselves to voter ID, which is a good idea. We have done it in Northern Ireland, and it is working.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Before I conclude, I will briefly touch on two practices that are not fair game and that the law needs to address more fully. The first is third-party unregistered campaigners who produce sometimes slanderous campaign material with no imprint and no oversight, and without the approval of legitimate campaigns and their agents. The ability to circulate bold, misleading and slanderous statements on social media, often in private and securely, means messages can circulate quickly and widely. As reported by the Guido Fawkes website, a particularly egregious campaign was run in my constituency in support of the Labour candidate, despite the campaigner not being registered as a third party. Others are independently pursuing that campaigner, and I wish them Godspeed, but what will the Government do on unregistered third-party campaigners?

Secondly, it seems quite unjust that we should tolerate candidates with no obvious platform who stand in an election with no apparent aim beyond increasing the total budget available to oppose a particular candidate, with access to free delivery of literature by Royal Mail, a copy of the electoral roll and other privileges available to legitimate candidates. If this principle of standing candidates simply to expand the budget available to oppose another candidate—possibly the incumbent, as at least one of my colleagues would attest—is allowed, the trajectory towards every candidate running one or more shadow candidates in their support is both obvious and undesirable.

There are other practices that I find extremely distasteful, particularly in relation to the general standard of political campaigning, but I will not go on about them tonight because they should not be objects of the law. I will leave them for another day. I have raised the matters I wish to focus on tonight.

John Stuart Mill, that great beacon of liberal thinkers on political and social theory and, most famously, on liberty, said in 1867:

“Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

Tonight I am looking on and doing something. I am saying to my hon. Friend the Minister, who I hope and expect agrees with me on all these issues, that in a peaceful society, one governed by the rule of law, the ultimate tool we have to restrain the use of power in our lives and to give consent to it is our vote. Political equality and a free and fair ballot are fundamental prerequisites to living in a free society. That is what is at stake in this debate. A great deal was said in my constituency during the general election campaign about cleaning up politics. A good place to start is ensuring that, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said earlier, one entitled person casts one vote freely and in secrecy.

It is a pleasure to speak for the first time under your speakership, Mr Speaker. I wish you many happy years in your role, as well as the merry Christmas you have wished to all in this Chamber and all who work here.

I welcome the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) in coming here tonight to speak on this vital issue, and he is right that I largely agree with him. I hope to be helpful to him in setting out what the Government are doing to address these important matters.

My hon. Friend has given a clear account of the unacceptable behaviour he has observed, and I pay tribute to his work and that of his team in taking the right action by reporting his and his constituents’ concerns to the right authorities for investigation. With his actions, he rightly seeks to support the law-abiding majority. So do I and so do the Government.

I will talk chiefly about the problem of electoral fraud, although I will touch on two of the matters my hon. Friend raised toward the end of his remarks: the relatively new issues of unregistered third-party campaigning and of shadow candidacy, to borrow his phrase. I have heard about the second issue in relation to the election just past, and I would welcome hearing from any hon. Member in any part of the House who believes they saw or experienced something untoward. I will consider what can be done. On the subject of unregistered third-party campaigners, I direct my hon. Friend to the work emerging on so-called digital imprints, which, as the name suggests, is a way of transferring what we do on paper literature to online literature. It rather does what it says on the tin. It is important because, quite understandably, online is where nowadays we put across and receive messages. Voters rightly expect to have political interaction online, but it should be done in an accountable way. In that respect, we are seeking to extend to the online sphere the regulations covering identification of campaigners offline. The Government will shortly publish more detail on that, which I think will be of interest to my hon. Friend.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that electoral fraud is a pernicious crime that should not be ignored. Those who would ignore it are condoning it, and they are unwise to do so. People deserve to have confidence in our democracy and they expect crime to be punished. Victims of electoral fraud deserve support, too. There is no complacency in the Conservative party, nor in the Democratic Unionist party, represented tonight by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), about the importance of tackling the vulnerabilities to fraud in the electoral system, whether that involves those who vote in person or those who abuse the option of voting by post or by proxy. I assure my hon. Friend and his constituents in Wycombe that we will introduce measures to improve the integrity and security of each elector’s vote, whether it is cast at a polling station or remotely. Those measures are part of a much wider initiative to improve our trust in the integrity of our democracy. We want to maintain public confidence and, of course, support inclusivity and equality in our electoral system. My hon. Friend is right to draw on the ancient concept of equality in voting rights and in casting one’s vote.

As part of that work, the Government are committed to introducing voter ID measures whereby voters are asked to show an approved form of photographic ID in order to vote in a UK parliamentary election at a polling station in Great Britain. Of course, voter ID has already been introduced in Northern Ireland. We have been piloting the measures in local elections in England to be ready in time for the next general election. These are common-sense measures. My hon. Friend described exactly the types of behaviour that expose the undeniable potential, not just in Wycombe but arguably anywhere in our democracy, for electoral fraud and the perception of such fraud, which in itself undermines confidence in our democracy. Showing an ID is something that people of all backgrounds do every day, whether they are taking out a library book, claiming benefits, or picking up a parcel from the post office. Proving who you are when you come to make a decision of huge importance at the ballot box should be no different. I have spoken extensively to people about this measure, and they agree that it is an entirely common-sense approach—indeed, many are surprised that we do not already have to do it.

The voter ID system in Northern Ireland requires photographic identification. Some people have licences, some have passports, and some have neither, but they may have a bus pass or a firearms certificate—something like that. The Government also set up a system whereby people are able to get a photographic ID through the responsible Government body. There are ways of making such a scheme work, even for those who might find it difficult.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. I can confirm that in the pilots we have run we have made sure that anybody who lacks the specified form of ID has been able to apply, free of charge, for local electoral ID from their local authority. Indeed, we have heard of cases where that has proved hugely valuable in individuals’ lives for reasons other than elections, because they now have a form of official ID that it is possible to use. I can point to a really heart-warming example of a number of homeless individuals in Woking, during one of the pilots last year. That measure in itself ensures that everybody who is eligible to vote has the opportunity to do so, which is fundamental. While I am on this subject, I should also point out that other countries already require voter ID. If we look at Australia, Canada and the Netherlands, we can see clear examples from around the globe where ID is a normal part of the voting process.

The evaluation of the pilots we have done show that voter ID is a success for the public: there is higher public confidence in elections in the voter ID pilot areas, which is important. The Electoral Commission found a notable decrease in the number of people who were worried about the integrity of our elections when voter ID was in place. That returns us to the core point that if the public has confidence in our elections, they are more likely to take part, which is what we all want to see. Our evaluations also show that the huge majority of electors who came to vote did so with the right documents and with confidence in knowing how to. Based on those evaluations, we can also say that there is no indication that any particular demographic was adversely affected by the voter ID models. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe will use that to reassure any remaining constituents of his who might be interested in the details of how such a scheme works.

I reassure the House that that voter ID is backed by a range of third-party organisations: not only the Electoral Commission but international election observers such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which has repeatedly called for its introduction. That is important. As I have said, my hon. Friend is so right about the importance of tackling electoral fraud, and I am sad to hear that other parties in the House are not supportive of doing so. We will want to take up that argument again in this place another time.

The next steps here are that the Government will continue to work with local authorities throughout the UK, as well as with those that piloted voter ID at the local elections in 2018 and 2019, to make sure that the model works successfully for all voters. I would be delighted if Wycombe District Council wanted to take part in future.

I assure my hon. Friend that I will give her all my support to make Wycombe a pilot area for voter ID. May I press her on another point? A voter might conceivably correctly identify themselves, yet still vote twice. I can think of ways—I will not elaborate now—to check that without establishing a single giant database. What steps will the Government take to make sure that people do not vote twice, and that if they do, they are prosecuted?

I thank my hon. Friend for sharpening the point about voting twice. There are a couple of things to which I was going to come later. First, I reassure my hon. Friend with regard to something we are doing that goes by the name of canvass reform. We are getting deep into the technicalities of how elections run, but everyone in this place values this. I ask my hon. Friend to take a look at canvass reform, because there he will find new data-matching practices used by local authorities to check people’s entitlement to register to vote, which is of course preceded by working out who is in each household, which is the point of the annual canvass, as my hon. Friend will know. There are a number of steps in that process, which is being reformed, to make sure that we allow registration officers to focus their resources where they are needed most.

We think of that mostly in terms of helping those who are least easy to find to invite to apply to register to vote. It is about registration officers fulfilling their duty, which is to encourage everybody to register to vote. Of course it is right that they should focus their resources where they are most needed, instead of following cumbersome processes that are otherwise defined in the electoral law. For the purposes of this argument, there is also an extra merit here, which is that publicly held data sets can increasingly be used to better understand voters in a given area and perhaps to look into some of the issues that my hon. Friend is touching on in his arguments.

I should say that voter ID is not the only step that we are taking. Hon. Members might be aware of the Pickles report into electoral fraud. There is much to do to implement its recommendations. In fact, we are part way through doing so. It is here that Members will find the Government’s commitment to working on matters such as undue influence and to updating the law, which again are relevant to some of the points that my hon. Friend made.

We will also be looking at postal and proxy voting as part of that. We intend to ban political campaigners from handling postal votes, and we will also establish a requirement on those who are registered for a postal vote to reapply every three years—currently, registration can last indefinitely. We will limit the number of proxy votes that a person may exercise to no more than two per elector regardless of their relationship with the voter for whom they are voting. On this point, may I highlight the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) who did some very great work? I am not sure whether he is here with us tonight. I spoke to him only this afternoon on this matter. He introduced the Bill in the previous Session. It was an excellent piece of legislation because it made provision to ban political campaigners from handling another voter’s postal vote, and to introduce a limit on the number of postal ballots that anybody may hand in on behalf of other voters at a polling station or to a returning officer on polling day. Those are all known vulnerabilities in the system that we seek to remove. I pay tribute to his work on that important issue. That Bill was not able to complete its parliamentary stages, but there is a lot more to do, and we in the Government are committed to building on that, particularly with regard to stopping the harvesting of postal votes at elections.

I want to come on to enforcement. This is, I think, the core part of the concern that my hon. Friend is articulating here tonight. He will understand that I will not be in a position to comment on the particular evidence in cases that he has referred to, but I can give him reassurance that there is much work going on to look at consistency and enforcement across the country. I want to do more of that, because evidently when an hon. Member comes to the House with stories as he has done tonight, it is clear that this work is not complete, so it must go on.

Regular meetings take place between myself, as the Minister for the Constitution, and the Electoral Commission and the National Police Chiefs Council. That is one forum that we have used to try to achieve consistency and the review of systemic issues. If there were any elements of my hon. Friend’s presentation tonight that he thinks I should raise in that forum, I would be happy to hear them.

The Cabinet Office has also been working closely with the Electoral Commission to run a very large awareness campaign. [Interruption.] Please, excuse me, Mr Speaker. All of the activities this autumn have taken a toll on my voice. Thank goodness it is Christmas very shortly so that I can cease speaking.

My hon. Friend mentioned awareness. One of our problems is that people are all too aware of the vulnerabilities in the system. One man I could name who, for the sake of clarity, is an Irishman. I will not name him any further than that. He is so obviously guilty of voting once by postal vote and once in person that I could name him outside the House and be confident that I would not be sued, and yet he was not prosecuted when we put out the evidence. I am very keen that we fine people—gosh, jail them if they are really repeat offenders—because they know what the vulnerabilities are and they are exploiting them. I was shown evidence earlier today of somebody boasting in a WhatsApp group of having driven two and a half hours to vote against me from his home where he had already voted. This cannot go on.

Yes, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend about the gravity of the situation. I hear his point about the penalties that may follow when evidence is presented. None the less, it is also important to encourage the victims of this crime to speak up, so it is excellent that my hon. Friend and others are playing their part by raising such evidence. It is also important that we help other victims to do so. Even better, we should help them not to be a victim of such fraud in the first place by knowing that their vote is theirs alone; in fact, that was the strapline of the awareness campaign to which I have referred.

There is a lot more to do and much work that can be done to help the Electoral Commission, the police and local authorities to get on top of the issue when evidence is raised. I am keen to offer the commitment to the House that if any Member wishes to raise such issues with me, I will take those anecdotes and observations as a portfolio of evidence that I might be able to use to take this work forward. There are also some granular ways in which we can target such behaviour. For example, it is sensible that police community support officers are now allowed into polling stations by law, which means that police are available to tackle issues on polling day should they be identified.

Earlier I mentioned canvass reform and the ways in which registration officers are able to use data better than they were in the past. Let me also give my hon. Friend a pointer about the system of individual electoral registration. I do not know the dates of all the issues he has raised. It is possible that some of his points go back some years, which might predate the introduction of individual electoral registration; I am absolutely confident that my hon. Friend has looked into this carefully and knows exactly what I am driving at. The point is that we value a system in which an individual should be responsible for their registration, as opposed to somebody being able to register for them—let alone register them without their consent, which was a further point made by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend also referred to double voting. Following the 2017 election, I heard concerns from hon. Members that there appeared to be some evidence that certain groups may have been engaging in double voting. My predecessor and I undertook to take all such allegations and seek for them to be investigated in a co-ordinated way through co-operation between the Electoral Commission and the National Police Chiefs Council. I am keen to do so again if there is a weight of such observations, perhaps running as high as allegations. As I said, I would be happy to hear such things from any colleagues if they perceive that something needs to be investigated at a systemic level.

The Government are committed to strengthening the integrity of our electoral system. This is vital, because the public ought to have confidence that our elections are secure and fit for the 21st century. If people are confident in our democracy, they are more likely to participate in it; all the benefits that my hon. Friend has laid out so meticulously will flow from there, and we will know that our democracy is doing its job.

The measures that we are looking to achieve, which will flow in this Parliament, we hope, will provide greater security for everybody, whether they vote in person, by post or by proxy. We think this is a job to be done on the side of voters, not on the side of those who wish to corrupt democracy. We also think very strongly that we should not be taking our democracy for granted in any way, so our work to protect, promote and strengthen our democracy is never done. People do deserve to have confidence in the system. As the Prime Minister said earlier in this place, this is a moment of great democratic importance—a moment to repay the trust of those who have sent us here, to deliver on their priorities, and to ensure that our democracy thrives from now onwards.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.