The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Digital technology offers significant opportunities to engage voters, but the commission’s report on the 2019 general election highlighted significant public concerns about the transparency of digital election campaigns. At its meeting on 24 March 2020, the Committee approved the commission’s interim corporate plan, which includes plans to address voter concerns about digital campaigning. This includes voter awareness work, with a particular focus on digital campaigning, and the commission will also support the UK Government as they develop and implement new requirements for imprints on digital campaign material.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his full answer. Other than an all-out military attack, there are few things that pose a greater threat to our way of life than concerted foreign interference in our election processes. The commission has repeatedly warned of the need for greater regulation of online campaigning, and the Intelligence and Security Committee found that Russia is actively seeking to use social media and other online methods to exert a malign influence on elections in the United Kingdom. What commitments have the commission or the Speaker’s Committee had from the Government that they will take effective action to address these threats before our national and local elections are scheduled for next year?
The commission works to protect the integrity of elections and the public’s confidence in it. There are limits to the activities that it can lead. The legal powers and remit stop at the UK borders. It looks to others to lead important activities outside political finance regulations, such as ensuring that elections are free from foreign interference. It supports the UK Government and security services in that area of work. It has made recommendations to the UK Government that would improve the transparency of digital campaigning, ensuring that voters know who is trying to influence them online, and provide the commission with better powers. This would reduce the risk of interference from overseas organisations or individuals.
Chair of the Electoral Commission
As required under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Speaker’s Committee put in place and oversees the process for selecting candidates for appointment as electoral commissioners, including the chair. The Committee’s duty encompasses the recommendation of candidates for reappointment. There is no presumption in the statute either for or against reappointment. At its meeting on 16 July, the Committee took the decision to commence recruitment for a new chair to replace Sir John Holmes, whose term comes to an end in December. That recruitment process will begin shortly.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response and I pass on my best wishes to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), who would normally be here but I think is unwell at the moment. I congratulate the Speaker’s Committee on what it has done; it has effectively fired the chairman of the Electoral Commission. Does the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) agree that one of the reasons for firing him was the fact that he oversaw the persecution of innocent people whose only so-called crime was wanting to take part in the democratic process and to ensure that the UK left the European Union?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Yes, it is not unusual for public appointments to end after one term. The Committee is grateful to Sir John for his four years of service in this very important role. The chair, and all commissioners who are appointed by Her Majesty the Queen following a recommendation from the House, work under a strict code of conduct during their time as commissioners. That requires and ensures impartiality and fairness, and is policed assiduously.
May 2021 Local Elections: Registration and Participation
The commission is experienced at driving voter registration across the UK and across demographics. That is delivered through paid advertising, the generation of media coverage, and partnership activity with local authorities, charities and others. Most recently, ahead of the 2019 general election, 2.6 million people were registered during the period of the commission’s campaign. Ahead of the next elections, the commission’s work will include additional public information communications to ensure that voters understand how their experience at polling stations may differ from normal, and the measures that will be put in place to ensure that they can vote safely.
The Minister for the Constitution recently confirmed that no new funding will be available to local authorities for the running of the May 2021 elections. Is the Electoral Commission content that enough funding is available to put in place the necessary measures to ensure that the May 2021 elections are covid-secure?
The commission has been working with colleagues across the electoral community to consider the potential impacts of the pandemic on the delivery of polls in May 2021. It is also liaising with the relevant public health authorities to ensure that its work is informed by the latest analysis and advice. The commission is now preparing to deliver its core functions in relation to public awareness and information for voters, and the provision of guidance to ensure that electoral administrators and campaigners have what they need to ensure that the polls are delivered safely and efficiently.
A key pillar of democracy is that everyone should have access to an equal vote without discrimination based on wealth, class or race. The Minister for the Constitution recently confirmed that no legislative changes would be put in place to enable more flexible forms of voting for the May 2021 elections in the context of covid-19, so what is the Electoral Commission’s view on introducing new innovative ways of voting to reduce queuing and ensure social distancing, such as early voting and drive-through voting, so that people do not have to choose between their health and the right to vote?
The commission will ensure that people understand the full range of voting options available that will enable them to participate safely in next May’s polls, including the process and timelines of how to appoint a proxy or apply for a postal vote. Its priority will be to ensure that voters have all the information that they need to make the right decision for their individual circumstances. Voters at local government by-elections in Scotland can now appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf if they require to do so following medical or Government advice to isolate or quarantine on polling day. The commission recommends that the UK and Welsh Governments should implement similar proposals for elections in May 2021.