Elections Bill (Third sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: †Christina Rees, Sir Edward Leigh
† Anderson, Fleur (Putney) (Lab)
Bell, Aaron (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
† Bristow, Paul (Peterborough) (Con)
† Clarkson, Chris (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
Furniss, Gill (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab)
Gibson, Peter (Darlington) (Con)
† Grady, Patrick (Glasgow North) (SNP)
† Hollern, Kate (Blackburn) (Lab)
† Hunt, Jane (Loughborough) (Con)
† Mayhew, Jerome (Broadland) (Con)
† O'Hara, Brendan (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
† Randall, Tom (Gedling) (Con)
† Rutley, David (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
† Smith, Cat (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
† Smith, Chloe (Minister for the Constitution and Devolution)
† Smith, Nick (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
Adam Mellows-Facer, Chris Stanton, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Heather Harper MBE, Chairman, Conservatives Abroad
George Cunningham, Chair, Liberal Democrats Overseas
Anne Wafer, Communications and Social Media Officer, Labour International
Maurice Mcleod, Chief Executive, Race on the Agenda
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 16 September 2021
[Christina Rees in the Chair]
Before we begin, I have some reminders. I encourage hon. Members to wear masks when they are not speaking. Please also do what you can to give one another and members of staff some space. Hansard colleagues would be grateful if Members emailed their speaking notes to email@example.com. Please switch electronic devices to silent mode. Tea and coffee are not allowed during sittings. We just have some private business before we start.
The Committee deliberated in private.
Examination of Witnesses
Heather Harper, George Cunningham and Anne Wafer gave evidence.
Before the first Member asks a question, I remind all Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick to the timings in the programme order that the Committee has agreed. For this session, we have until 12.15 pm. Could the witnesses please introduce themselves? Heather, would you like to go first?
Heather Harper: I am Heather Harper, chairman of Conservatives Abroad—the global network of Conservative members and supporters around the world.
Thank you. George Cunningham, would you like to introduce yourself?
George Cunningham: Thank you very much. First of all, honourable Members, I am very happy to be with you today. I am the chair of Liberal Democrats Overseas, which is one of three local parties that are abroad, the others being LibDems in France and Liberal Democrats in Europe. I am the chair of Lib Dems Overseas; I have also been chair and vice-chair of Brussels and Europe Liberal Democrats, so I have covered geographically all the areas of the party outside the UK. I stood for Parliament in the 2015 UK general election while being disenfranchised because of the 15-year rule, so I was a candidate without a vote. It is very nice to be with you today.
George Cunningham: It is important that we try to take as much of the pressure off the councils having to do this and try and automate things as much as possible. Effectively, using a purely postal system is denying thousands the ability to vote and in some countries, such as Indonesia and parts of Africa, there is no postal service worth talking about. The outcome is that British citizens living closest to the UK get a chance to vote, but it is denied in far-flung places. If you imagine the numbers in Australia, for instance, of British citizens, you are basically excluding almost a million over there out of the 5.5 million or so British citizens abroad.
The problem is accentuated further with the abolition of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and a possible shortening of the time period between the proroguing of Parliament and election day. There is also an issue—and this is personal experience—of prepaid envelopes. In some countries, local postal offices that do not really get the information do not accept them as prepaid. They just chuck them in the bin because they do not have local or national stamps on. So it might be best not to have them prepaid so that post offices see that the correct postage stamps have been put on for mailing.
As coming up with a secure system online voting does not seem yet to be on the cards, our embassies and consulates could get involved, as is the case with other countries. A few days could be saved if they were posted out by the embassy on the day the election was called, based on the register held there. Alternatively, ballot papers could be downloaded from the UK website, limited to those who have registered online via the gov.uk website, and then mailed back, because that cuts in half the amount of time for the stuff to come back.
Proxy votes are not adequate because we are talking about people who have been away for more than 15 years so they have lost a lot of friends, perhaps even through death. We have to do the best we can to speed up this whole process, and also to reduce the pressure on councils.
Thank you. Heather, would you like to add anything?
Heather Harper: Only that, although I have been an expat for many years, I have not personally voted from overseas. However, having worked on these matters with so many of our overseas voters, I would say that I am very strongly supportive of the Bill in its current state because it addresses so many of the issues that have arisen from the complaints, in just some of the things that are addressed, and the difficulty in overseas voting. What is in the Bill is very streamlined and will increase overseas voters and make it much simpler and easier to vote—or register, rather.
George Cunningham: They are two separate issues. It is important to recognise that a lot of people living abroad are pensioners or teachers—they are all kinds of people from ordinary walks of life like ourselves. They are all equal in front of the law and in front of God, let us say. That is one issue. There is a separate issue concerning the financing aspects, which, of course, many of us consider to be very unsatisfactory, but I do not think it has affected things enormously. The fact that companies can donate and so many companies that are foreign are on the stock exchange and de facto foreign, and through their subsidiaries they can donate to the parties here: that is the critical issue that needs further addressing in a separate Bill. I think it should be disassociated from the Elections Bill.
Heather, would you like to add anything to that?
Heather Harper: Yes, I would. Electoral law regarding donations to political parties is set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which already allows British citizens on the electoral roll to donate to any party. UK nationals living overseas are not foreigners, and they should not be conflated with foreign donations. I do not see any significant effect on donations. It may increase our membership, which is £25 a year—quite honestly that is hard enough to get most of the time. Conservatives Abroad is not an organisation that solicits large donations; our emphasis is on engagement. There is already a robust a legal framework in place that bans foreign donations—I do not see any significant increase there. What is important now is to increase the awareness of voter registration.
A big welcome to our two witnesses. George, it is lovely to see you again in person, and Heather it is very good to see you again. Is it the case that Anne is still unable to join us?
Unfortunately, we have no news, so we have to press on.
Heather Harper: I think they should be treated exactly the same. One of our expatriates in France said,
“We want to be able to live our lives not as some kind of second-class citizens denied our right to participate in the democratic processes of our country, but as fully capable and fully recognised citizens of the UK.”
Minister, our British citizens have a long history of living and working overseas, starting with explorers, engineers, teachers, scientists, hospitality workers, sportspeople, financial services and health workers. Many of them return to our country with a new-found wealth of knowledge and experience that they gained overseas. They should be treated exactly the same as every British voter. We are one of the few democratic countries in the world that actually denies, and puts a time limit on, their citizens’ right to vote. In answer to your question: they should be treated equally.
George Cunningham: First up, I have to say the Liberal Democrat party has long campaigned for the abolition of the 15-year rule and for establishing the institution of overseas constituencies, which we feel is the best way for people to have their voices heard. Perhaps we will come back to that. The commitment to both of these is featured in our 2017 and 2019 general election manifestos. We support the Bill’s aim to abolish the 15-year rule as an important first step for British citizens having equal rights, to be properly represented and to have their voices heard.
With that in mind, we have the unfortunate—from our perspective—situation of the referendum in 2016, which showed that a lot of people who had lost their vote were not able to participate in something that would fundamentally change their lives in Europe. That is the most prominent thing that has happened, but there are many other things that, if we had MPs representing overseas constituencies, are issues of concern to overseas voters regarding the UK. For instance, unfreezing pensions; in Australia, Canada and in many parts of Africa where, if there is not a reciprocal agreement, people’s pensions are not increased, meaning that they receive something like a quarter of the pension received by UK citizens here. This is an important campaigning issue. Another is NHS access. We have a member who is very sick at the moment, and it is not possible for him to access the NHS because he has not been living in the UK for a while. There are many issues there that are of great importance to us.
Our voice will be heard so much more. Many of those who will have been abroad for more than 15 years when the rule is, hopefully, abolished are of course pensioners, who are the most affected by these things, which have to be addressed. Those are some examples of issues that are of concern to UK citizens abroad in terms of the importance of treating everybody equally—all citizens being equal in front of the law.
Heather Harper: I have many examples; I have just mentioned Christopher from Paris. My inbox is full of people from around the world who are so angry about their right to vote because they basically feel that they are not valued. I do have to say, though, that this is not a party political issue. This is about granting the right for all British citizens to register to vote, so I have to acknowledge the fact that Harry Shindler, of the Labour party, has been campaigning for his right to vote for the last 20 years. I have been working hard—with support, indeed, from Labour International—to represent all the people who have been disenfranchised. Harry, by the way, says,
“I fought for my country”—
he is 100 years old
—“and I feel that I have been fighting for my right to vote, why should I be denied that?”
The Bill will improve the House significantly. It will get people to actually register, and it will encourage people who have fallen off the register because of the difficulties that they have faced: they come up to the 15-year rule and think, “No, I can’t be bothered, because I am going to be disenfranchised,” or they face difficulties in having to annually re-register.
Minister, removing the 15-year rule and treating everybody equally removes the uncertainty about who can and who cannot vote. By making the registration last for three years, the process is less cumbersome and more people will be encouraged to engage with it. By introducing the prior residency criteria, the Bill is going to help, in particular, younger family members who have not previously been registered in the UK.
The Bill addresses so many of the issues that actually have stopped overseas British citizens from registering to vote. I hope that that goes some way to answering your question.
George Cunningham: Two things come to mind. One is Brexit and the impact that it has had on our citizens in the European Union. This is an ongoing issue that has not been resolved. They are very frustrated about the fact that many of them had no say, and then were left in the lurch in many respects. To give them the vote will perhaps push more of an interest within Parliament to protect their interests and see ways in which the situation they face can be alleviated.
It does depend on the country within the European Union and the reactions towards our citizens, and I am happy to say that many countries have tried to be as helpful as possible concerning our citizens, albeit in terms of residency rights that is a bit of an issue. There will be a voice for those who are in pain because their pensions have been frozen, and perhaps it would then become more of a political issue. Certainly in our party we would be encouraged to put some overseas issues into the manifesto for elections, and I think that would be very helpful to them. I actually see positive things.
Of course, if there are no overseas constituencies, it would be so much simpler to register. If a person has a British passport and is above the age limit, then surely they would be able to vote for a constituency, which has a geographical limitation. This would help, for instance, where a child has not been living in the UK—at the moment they continue to be disenfranchised, even if they are British citizens. This would overcome the problem.
Before I bring Patrick Grady in, we have good news and bad news. The good news is that the technical fault is nearly resolved; the bad news is that we are not quite there yet. Minister and Cat Smith, would you be content to repeat your questions to Anne Wafer once she joins, if we have time?
Is the Committee content with that?
I was also interested in something you said in passing, George, about an overseas constituency. I wonder if either of the panellists have a view on that. At the moment, a vote goes towards wherever the voter last resided, and I can well understand the point that although someone maintains an affinity for their country and has citizenship of the UK, surely after a considerable passage of time the local issues in the constituency will have changed considerably. Not every single overseas voter will still be paying attention to the exact circumstances in the constituency in which they lived. Is there any merit in the concept—which exists in other parliamentary democracies—of a dedicated overseas constituency that is represented by an MP for the overseas?
Before you answer, may I interrupt to say that our third witness, Anne Wafer, is now with us. Anne, would you introduce yourself to the Committee please?
Anne Wafer: I am sorry for the delay; my computer decided to update something at just the wrong moment and it is now running a bit slowly, so it may not be perfect. It has been fine—it was perfect for the test.
Anyway, I am from Labour International, the international section of the Labour party. I am the communications officer. We have about 3,000 members, who live all over the world. I live in Slovakia and am the secretary of the central and east European branch. I could answer the question that has just been asked. Is that okay? Can I carry on to that, or do you want to know more about me?
No, that is a lovely introduction and we will leave it to the first two witnesses to answer that question first, and then you can come in, Anne. That will be fine. Heather, would you like to go first?
Heather Harper: I am not in favour at all of an overseas constituency. The home constituency is and always has been the fundamental building block of democracy. All Britons overseas hail from all parts of the country, and their insight into their home constituency should not be lost in any way. Nor should their voices be muffled by being aggregated into a few catch-all expat seats.
Boundary changes may have occurred and may still occur to those constituencies from which our members departed when they went out to the world to study or work, but it is the town or area that our members call home. I think that is fundamental.
An idea that some members of Conservatives Abroad have come up with is an expats office, akin to the one that has looked after British veterans’ affairs under various Governments. Such a ministry, office or agency would be able to serve as a focal point for communication to and from expats, enabling the Government to gain insights from our global Britons and to swiftly address all the concerns and queries raised by expats.
George Cunningham: On my side of course, as we say in our manifesto, we are for overseas constituencies. We look at France especially, but also at other countries, to see how well that system works. Specific issues that are of concern to our members and other British citizens abroad are specific to being abroad. For instance, say in Australia or in Canada, when it comes to frozen pensions, they want the Government to negotiate an arrangement with the Government of Canada and the Government of Australia—a reciprocal arrangement—so that they can upgrade their pensions to a proper level.
These are the kinds of areas—that is just one of them, but there are many other areas, for instance within the European Union—where people want to have a way to funnel their view. If you dissipate that voice across 650 constituencies, only a tiny number of people in each constituency voice that view within the totality of the work of the Member of Parliament.
We understand that maybe we cannot reach overseas constituencies yet; we understand that this Bill is a building block. That is why we support this Elections Bill when it comes to the overseas side—pretty much—but we would like to see overseas constituencies as a stage 2 in due course.
Anne Wafer: I left the UK in 1978. Before then, I was a student and then I lived in a few different places. The job I had before I left was a one-year contract, so I cannot actually remember where I was last registered to vote, and this could be a problem; it may be a place that I do not now have a lot of connection with. Obviously you cannot just choose a constituency at random. If there was the opportunity to pick one that you had some proven connection with, rather than the last one, I think that would suit us better.
Also, I wonder how we can find out. I am pretty sure that I was registered, but I do not have a clear memory of it, because in those days you did not have to register yourself. How do we find out where we were last registered and how do we prove it?
Moreover, I know that our members have been talking about having a constituency for overseas citizens, or would be interested in that, but I am not sure that now would be the time to include that. If this becomes law, as it probably will, potentially a lot more people will become interested in joining political parties and registering to vote, so for that reason perhaps an overseas constituency is a good idea. At the moment, we will probably just take this step, if we can. But we have certainly been considering it, and some of our members live in countries where that is allowed—where they do have overseas constituencies. So yes, we would look at that favourably.
Only one member of the Committee has indicated that they wish to ask a question, so I now call Cat Smith, the Opposition spokesperson, and then the Minister to ask a couple of catch-up questions.
Anne Wafer: I am very pleased to meet you, Cat. The last constituency where I was registered to vote may well have been Lancaster, your constituency, because that is where I went to university, and I would be very happy with that.
On problems, I have been abroad for more than 15 years, so I do not have a vote. I notice that the Bill will extend the vote for parliamentary elections, but it does not mention referenda. I think that is an important omission, because it is a big bone of contention for our members that we could not vote in the EU referendum. I did see some news that said we could vote, but then the same day I saw another piece of news saying they had decided we could not.
Brexit has affected our right to free movement within Europe and our right to bring home any European-born family members, for example, which is going to be much more difficult. A lot of people would have liked to return with partners, family members and foreign-born children, and maybe elderly parents who need care and do not want to be left behind, but that is much more difficult now. We would very much like to have voted in that referendum, although it probably would not have made any difference to the result. However, there could be future referenda, perhaps to rejoin or for regional assemblies, or anything like that, so we would like referenda to be included.
There will be quite a lot of bureaucracy involved. I feel as though I have been swotting for an exam that I never attended the classes for, because I have stepped in fairly last minute and I have not paid particular attention to the Bill before. However, I do know what our members’ opinions are, because they have been campaigning for a long time for voting rights to be extended to people who have been abroad for more than 15 years. One of our best known members is Harry Shindler, who lives in Italy and turned 100 in July. He has been campaigning for the extension of voting rights for a long time, and I am sure that some of you have worked with him—Heather, I have seen a photograph of you with him. He is still a very active member at 100 years old.
We are very strongly for this part of the Bill, but there are other parts that we are not so happy about. There will be quite a lot of bureaucracy involved. We are used to that, because anyone who has lived abroad has had to fill in forms for British bureaucracy, or the bureaucracy of whatever country they live in, but hopefully registration will be made much simpler for everyone.
I notice that there is a section on accessibility. Accessibility at polling stations does not affect us directly, but it does affect our family members, so we think that should be a lot stronger.
Anne Wafer: That could be a concern, because the perception is that British people who live abroad are all wealthy and living in tax havens with lots of money. That is not necessarily true, certainly among our members. I have not studied that part of the Bill closely, but there does now seem to be a potential for wealthy people living abroad to be allowed to send huge amounts of money to their favoured political party. There needs to be some regulation of that. I cannot really say any more about it because I have not studied the details of exactly how that would work under the Bill, but yes, I would be concerned about that.
Anne Wafer: I do not know. I study genealogy, and there are electoral registers going way back to the 19th century, so I wonder why there are no records, because that is news to me. I assumed there would be. There would need to be some proof that you had that connection and lived in a particular part of Britain. I am getting my pension from Britain, so that should be sufficient proof, for example. It is not a very big one—I am getting a tiny pension—because I left quite early, but I am getting one, so there should be an alternative way of proving that you had that connection and had lived there.
There are a lot of measures in the Bill on voter fraud, but there does not seem to be much evidence that it actually happens. I am sure there are ways to prevent it without disenfranchising people, which has a bigger effect on the electoral result than small amounts of voter fraud. As people who live abroad, we have to jump through so many hoops to sign up to register and get proxy votes, and I do not think the potential for voter fraud is very high. Obviously there need to be some protections in place, but it should not be too difficult to prove that you have lived in a place. If you have a pension from Britain or had a job in Britain, there must be some record that you lived there.
There should be some flexibility in what records could be provided if no record can be found that you were on the voting register, because we do not want to be disenfranchised on that account. Although I have lived abroad for a long time, I still have a lot of connections. I lived in Ireland before I came here, but I visit my family every year when I can—of course, the pandemic has prevented that—and take a strong interest in politics.
Thank you, Anne. We are running out of time, so I would just like to squeeze the Minister in.
Anne Wafer: I did see that, but I was not quite sure how that would work in practice. I did see something—maybe not in this Bill—about how if you had left before you were old enough to register, then you could prove residence. Hopefully it is not just limited to that but is extended to everyone.
Anne Wafer: Does it cover oldies like me, though—the residency?
There are three questions I put to the witnesses previously. I will ask them swiftly. I asked, first, whether witnesses thought that British citizens overseas should be treated as equally as possible with British citizens in the UK. Secondly, I invite you to suggest what kinds of policy topic matter to overseas citizens. In other words, what are their interests in UK politics? For example, pensions are one interest, but there might be others. Thirdly, I wonder whether you have examples from your membership, your friends or your network of how people feel when they get, effectively, kicked off the register —disenfranchised, in the proper sense of the word.
Anne Wafer: Can you ask the first question again?
Of course. Should British citizens overseas be treated as equally as possible with those in the UK?
Anne Wafer: Yes, I think so, although even as members we are not treated completely inclusively. Of course, we cannot stand candidates in Britain, but other than that, in our party we are equal to any other constituency Labour party that is in Britain. We send delegates to conference and everything else, so I think as citizens that should be the case as well, because we still have an interest in our country and the regulations still affect us. Many of us are getting pensions, and some of us will want to return at some stage. I thought of returning, but I couldn’t afford it—it is too expensive there.
On policies, my members are interested in a huge range, not just ones that affect us directly. Climate change is a big one. That is a huge one for us. Reversing austerity—all the Tory cuts to all sorts of things; we want to reverse them. We have family members—for example, I have a sister who is disabled. My father is 97. I have nieces and nephews who are disabled. I have nieces and nephews with children and new babies. We are all concerned for everybody in Britain and that they have better lives.
As I say, climate change is a big one. One of our motions at conference will be on proportional representation, which a lot of our members think would be a good idea—changing the electoral system. Reform of the House of Lords is one we would be concerned with.
Those are great examples. Thank you so much—they are a bit broader than we might normally discuss. That is really helpful.
Anne Wafer: One would be the education system. We are very much against tuition fees for universities. We want to be rid of those. We are very concerned about what has happened to people during the pandemic, and we need the green new deal and regeneration of jobs, but those need to be green jobs because of the climate crisis.
Anne Wafer: Most people are not happy about it. Some people get citizenship when they get voting rights in their own countries, where they live, so maybe they are less upset in that case. We can vote in local elections in the countries we live, or we used to be able to. I have not checked whether I still can since Brexit. But yes, we are not very happy about being kicked off the register for sure. We would like that changed. We finished on hearings on that one.
We are also not happy about—
Thank you, Anne. Unfortunately, we have come to the end of our time. May I thank all the witnesses for their evidence this morning and the Members for their questions? We are now going to move on to the next panel.
Examination of Witness
Maurice Mcleod gave evidence.
Maurice Mcleod: Hi there. My name is Maurice Mcleod. I am the chief executive of Race on the Agenda, an anti-racism charity.
Thank you. Minister, would like to come in first on this question?
Maurice Mcleod: Hello, thanks for having me. It is not a bad idea to make it free and allow local authorities to give out these passes. The problem is that it ignores what it feels like to be part of that group without any voter ID—part of that group that is reticent even to cast a vote.
Probably everyone in this room and everyone listening sees the value of voting and feels like it is an important part of their democratic rights and that they can affect things if they turn up and vote. When you are talking about people who often do not feel very connected, do not feel very engaged, do not feel very empowered within society, yes, you can say “This is only a small hurdle, you just need to apply to your council and they will give you a free voter ID,” but that is just another hurdle that gets in the way, though. It is just one more step away from them feeling that they can engage with our democratic process. So I think it is a good thing. If we are going to have voter IDs—I would strongly argue that we do not—at least give people access to getting them for free, sure. I just think that does not solve the problem.
Maurice Mcleod: I absolutely agree with that. I would go further. I do not really understand why you are not automatically registered. I remember turning 18; you get your national insurance number because going out to work and paying your national insurance and your tax are important rites of passage. I do not know why we do not do the same with voting. You should not have to apply to register to vote; you should be automatically registered.
Maurice Mcleod: You are right that part of the problem is that this data is not always readily available. The data I have found—the Government’s own data—says that while 76% of white people hold a form of relevant photo ID, such as a driver’s license or a passport, when it comes to black people, about half do: 47% do not hold one of those forms of ID. There are 11 million people in Briton who hold no form of photo identification. That drastically discourages people from voting. You are adding an unnecessary extra burden on people who we want to turn out and vote.
Maurice Mcleod: You are very right to bring up the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Of all of the communities that make up Briton, they are already among the groups that are most likely to be disenfranchised. You do not need to be a genius to work out that if you are moving around, and your residence is not set in one place, it makes it very hard to know who to engage with, and what needs to be done to get the ID that allows you to vote. It cannot be assumed that everyone has good links with their local authority and understands where they need to go.
Looking at other communities, you have to acknowledge that the slightly hostile way that we have dealt with migration means that there is nervousness among some communities, even with people who are perfectly legal and allowed to be here. Sometimes there is a nervousness about engaging with the authorities on anything other than something that is considered essential. Sadly, for a lot of people, voting is not something that they consider essential.
Maurice Mcleod: Without a doubt, I believe it will decrease participation. There is already a problem with getting people from minority communities to even register to vote. Now you have to register to vote, and you also need to find some form of voter ID to—as has been said—solve a problem that I am unsure anyone thinks exists. It is very hard to see the impact of this being anything other than voter suppression within those groups. There is certainly not any suggestion that this will increase voter turnout—I cannot see how you would even make that argument.
“Diluting rights, denying racism, delegitimising protest, and diminishing voter turnout.”
“Anyone who doesn’t see a concerted campaign at work here simply isn’t looking.”
What is that concerted campaign?
Maurice Mcleod: We have had mention of what happened in America with voter suppression, the methods that some parts of the political machine have gone through and the fights to pull back the other way. I think that there is a concerted effort, first, to instil the idea that our voting system is not secure, that there is loads of fraud, that there are loads of people doing something dodgy and that people are cheating. As I have said, I do not really see much evidence of that. Our voting system is pretty trusted and robust. So first, there is this idea of bringing in a measure. When you bring in a measure in Parliament, people think, “Oh, there must be a reason that they’re doing this; it’s because there’s loads of fraud.” It undermines faith and trust in our democracy.
Secondly, as I have said, these measures also put an extra barrier in the way of groups that some parts of the political establishment may think will not turn out for them or are not particularly strong supporters of them. What some people behind this may be thinking is, “If those people do not turn up and vote, is that such a bad deal?” When I said a concerted effort, that is what I mean.
Maurice Mcleod: If I said non-existent, that is not what I meant. I meant that it is very small. Yes, there have been issues in various places. To my mind, though, those issues would not be fixed by voter ID. The suggestion that there is a massive lack of faith in our electoral system just is not borne out in the polling. That is not the evidence of anyone that I have spoken to or any research that I have seen. People trust our electoral system, and that is a good thing. We should not do anything that undermines that.
“wants to bring in Voter ID to tackle non-existent voter fraud.”
I suggest that you take a look at the evidence from Peter Golds, Lord Pickles and others yesterday; it may enlighten you.
In 2018, you argued that people should be able to vote online. You then dismissed one social media user’s comment about fraud by saying,
“Sure, I understand the security risks but they are no greater than the risks of postal voting or even voting in person.”
What are those risks of postal voting or voting in person?
Maurice Mcleod: I see what you have done there. I was arguing, and I still argue, that we should move to online voting eventually. We should have ways of allowing more people to vote in more easy ways that fit in with their lives, so that they do not have to take time off work and go to a polling station, a post box or wherever. That is what I was arguing for. When I said that there are no more risks with that than with other types of voting, I meant that there are hardly any risks with those other types of voting, and therefore there are no risks with online voting.
Order. Online voting is not in the Bill. He was entitled to respond, but we are going a little bit wider than we should. Do you have a small supplementary?
“Voter ID will have a terrible impact on voter turnout.”
Why do you think that this impact has not been seen in any of the Cabinet Office trials, or indeed over many years in Northern Ireland?
Maurice Mcleod: That is valid. The Northern Ireland point is brought up a lot. I think I am right in saying—I could be wrong—that there is more of a tradition for carrying ID there than there is here. I could be wrong on that; I am not sure. I have not really looked into that too much.
No, I think you are wrong.
Maurice Mcleod: Am I wrong on that? Okay. It stands to reason that if you have a chunk of the population that does not have what you are being asked to have to turn up to vote, then you are going to lose voters among that demographic. I do not think that is really controversial. I am not sure how you would argue against that. You can argue that there is a bigger problem that needs to be fixed than I seem to think there is, but I do not see how you can argue that it is not going to dissuade people—it is not going to encourage more people to vote, is it?
Order. I think we will move on. You have had quite a few questions. Patrick Grady is waiting to come in.
“Voter fraud played a very small part, funnily enough, in Tower Hamlets.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 15 September 2021; c. 14, Q13.]
Thank you, Maurice; your contributions have been extremely helpful. You spoke a little bit about automatic voter registration. Could you say a little more about how you think that might work in practice and what impact it could have on turnout and participation, particularly among minority communities? Could you also say something about access to postal voting among minority communities and what impact that has? Does that help or hinder turnout, participation and engagement?
In Scotland, we have recently extended the franchise for Scottish Parliament elections to pretty much everyone with settled status, including EU nationals and people with settled refugee status. Are there any lessons that might be learned from that, particularly in terms of the message it might send to counteract some of what you have described as the hostile environment and how it might make it clear that everyone is welcome and everyone ought to participate in the democratic system?
Maurice Mcleod: I will try—sorry; I was not writing those down, but I will try to remember the questions.
The first was about how automatic registration could happen—I think that is what you said. I am not a techie, so there is no way I will be able to describe what the functions would be to make sure that happens, but, as I said, the same process that issues a national insurance number or the same process that says, “You are now this age and a British citizen, or whatever, therefore you can work and pay taxes” should also say, “Therefore you can now vote” and some information should be sent out with that. It might say, “Congratulations, you are 18”—you can argue whether the voting age should be younger, but it should be like a rite of passage—“You are now an adult in our society. You now have this right to have a say in how we are run as a country.” That would send a really strong message, rather than having to apply.
One of my fears about the Bill is that the people who will be most impacted by it and who really will be excluded from having a say are probably the people who are less able and probably less keen to talk about it. It is not something they are bothered about; they do not vote, so they do not vote. They are not going to be marching on Parliament demanding a vote that they do not use anyway. You end up arguing on people’s behalf.
I cannot remember the second part of your question.
Picking up on what you said there, however, that relates to some of what was discussed yesterday. Is there something about civic education and awareness raising about the importance of participation in our democratic systems among minority communities that might also help to increase turnout and participation?
Maurice Mcleod: Absolutely. We should do loads more for all communities, not just minority communities. Learning how your country works, how you get involved in it and how you change things, if you feel that they need to changed, should be among the most important things that we are taught as we grow up in this society. Instead, it is seen as a bit of a fringe subject or people say, “Oh, let’s not talk about politics because it might get too political and then we might be accused of being one way or the other.” Instead, we should have a real love for democracy. We should instil the idea that you, as an individual, have a say in the country that you run. That is really important and I do not think we do anywhere near enough of that, so we should consider anything that increases knowledge among the public about how you change things—what’s a councillor; who’s an MP; what’s an Assembly Member; what do these things mean; who does what. Most of us do not know this stuff—most of us in this room might do—most people out there do not know this stuff. Anything that improves that would be great.
In terms of extending the mandate, I personally am of the opinion that anyone who is resident here should have a say in what goes on here. Anyone who lives and works in our society should have a say about what goes on here. I would extend that in ways that may be tricky to do, but I think prisoners should have a say—lots of people should have a say. In my opinion the mandate should be extended to all residents in this country.
You mentioned postal voting. I have not got any evidence of whether it has a particular impact on black and minority ethnic people, but I know that you have a longer window when you have a postal vote. We should give people the ability to go down and post their vote in the middle of night, or whenever they want to to fit in with their lives; we all live these piecemeal, sometimes slightly precarious, lives and we have responsibilities. You cannot always say, “Right, I am going to go down on a Thursday and queue up if I need to, and vote” because you might need to be at work or drop off your kids. Just allowing people to vote by post is massively beneficial.
I have Tom Randall, followed by Fleur Anderson, Kate Hollern and Jerome Mayhew. If there is time at the end, I will bring Paul Bristow back in.
Maurice Mcleod: No, it has not.
Maurice Mcleod: Absolutely. I am not claiming that this is based on any specific research that ROTA—that is my organisation—has done. There is an amount of research out there, I guess.
Maurice Mcleod: I would argue that it is all of us. If there is anything going wrong with our electoral system, we all suffer. We might end up with a Government who we do not want or a local authority that did not actually win the vote. We all suffer if there is voter fraud.
Maurice Mcleod: Yes, if we agree that it is a problem. I am afraid that I have not seen the evidence from Tower Hamlets, but I will take your word for it; I am sure you are right. Like I say, I am not sure whether it would have been solved by the measures that you are talking about bringing in, but if it is a problem, everyone suffers. I do not think just the residents or the voters in a particular area who might be disenfranchised suffer. We all suffer because our system does not work properly then.
Maurice Mcleod: Yes—sure, of course. Absolutely. But I would also like to know how prevalent this is. Is it a one-off situation in one place that needs to be dealt with in a particular way, or is it an endemic thing in our system? I am not really convinced that it is endemic in our system. I guess that is what I am saying.
Maurice Mcleod: Do you mean the voter ID measures?
Maurice Mcleod: If there are particular groups—the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community was mentioned earlier; those communities are particularly vulnerable to this—who, for one reason or another, are less likely to have the ID required, the impact will fall disproportionately on them. If a larger percentage of black Caribbean people do not have this ID, bringing in the measure will have a bigger impact on them.
On a point of order, Ms Rees. Can I just confirm that witnesses have been invited to speak to this Committee on the basis of their experience and there is no requirement or expectation of any of the witnesses who appear today or who appeared yesterday to back up their evidence with primary source research evidence? We have not asked any other witness to detail the evidential base. We are entitled to ask questions and witnesses are entitled to respond on the basis of their experience. Can I confirm that, please?
Thank you, Mr Grady. The witnesses have been invited to give evidence on the basis of their experience. They do not have to have any research as a back-up. We are very grateful that the witnesses have agreed to come along and give evidence.
Yes, it is perfectly proper to ask any questions you want, but I was just clarifying that it is not necessary for the witness to be backed up by research.
Of course. You can ask scrutinising, relevant questions.
But if the Bill does go ahead in this way and ID cards are expected, are there any other measures that could mitigate the potential for suppression? From your experience of working with the black community, what would need to be put in place that would make this less of a bad deal?
Maurice Mcleod: Thank you. As I was saying earlier, if we cannot move to a place where people are automatically registered and you get sent your photo ID that is relevant when you turn up and vote automatically, I would like to see a massive effort from all local authorities to actively seek out the people who do not have photo ID. Authorities must contact them and say, “Look, here’s a form, here’s how you apply for your free photo ID from the council.” It is not enough just to say, “Oh well, if people want it, it’s easy enough for them to go on this website or turn up at the town hall and ask for this stuff.” Yes, it is easy for us because we want those things, we want our vote and we see the value in it. So much more needs to be done.
It is bigger than just getting people voter ID cards: it is making our democracy transparent and making it easy to engage with your local authority, MP or Assembly member. It is making all those paths much clearer and simpler to use than they currently are. If you know how the system works, who to put pressure on and how to impact your world, you have a much better existence. If you are not that of sort of person, politics just happens to you. It is not something that you actively engage in. We should be doing everything in our power to encourage and show people where their power is, what they can do and what they can change. If you have a society that feels it cannot make changes or be engaged in the way that it should, people switch off or get distracted into things that do not benefit society at all. That is a bit wider than the question you asked, but we need to be proactive in reaching out to these communities. We can find them. We can work out who does not have a driving licence. We can work out where these people are, so let us do that and ensure that they have everything they need to be able to express their democratic rights.
I have just checked the allegation of fraud made by the hon. Member for Peterborough and, in those cases, it was found that no offences were committed. Does the message that electoral fraud has happened in black and ethnic minority communities act to disfranchise those communities, which we are trying to reach?
Maurice Mcleod: Sadly, I think it does, whether deliberately or not. I think we should always lean towards things having been done in good faith, but if you say things like, “There is very serious electoral fraud, and it happens in areas where there are lots of black and Asian people,” it is not a massive leap in people’s minds to, “Okay; so black and Asian people are somehow doing electoral fraud. That is what we’re clamping down on. We’re stopping people doing something dodgy to our process.” That is exactly the sort of alienating message that ends up with people saying, “I’m not interested in any of that stuff. All that politics stuff has nothing to do with me.” Those sorts of narratives do play into that, I am afraid. I have forgotten the beginning part of your question, but I worry about the narrative of, “We need to solve this massive fraud problem that is happening in minority ethnic areas.” I will not say it is a dog whistle, but I think it has an impact on minority communities, certainly.
I do not really want to go down the road of more points of order. The Committee is becoming quite agitated. If there is anything you would like to raise, perhaps it could be raised after the witnesses have left. Would the Committee be content with that? We are against the clock, and more Members would like to come in.
I am perfectly happy to raise my point afterwards, but it is worth noting that it has been implied that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling and I were unreasonable in our questioning, and that it may be because the witness comes from an ethnic minority. It is perfectly legitimate to place on record that that is not the case. Our questions were perfectly in order. I find it insulting that the hon. Member for Blackburn would even suggest such a thing.
Can we leave it there, please? Your comments are on the record now. We need to move on and take more questions, but your point is noted.
Maurice Mcleod: That is very hard. You make a really good point. It is all very well saying that photo ID should be used, but if you are not supposed to reveal your face to a man who is not in your immediate family, that is really hard. Even if councils say, “We’ll make sure there are women, or people who know what should happen, at the polling station,” there is still that worry in your head, if you are that woman who is not that confident about whatever, and you need to go out and vote. There is still that concern—“Will I be treated properly? Do they know what my faith needs?”
If that is the route we go down, I would want to see a real effort, through mosques and any other faith groups that would be impacted, to bring those communities on board and show them, “This is how it will be. It will be completely safe. We totally get what you need to do to be observant.” It is another worry—one that I have not brought up so far. Not everyone can use their face as ID as freely as the rest of us.
Maurice Mcleod: Sorry, I am not sure. Can you say that again?
Maurice Mcleod: I do not, I am afraid. I am not from a constitutional background or a legal background, so that is not something I could comment on.
We have to move on. I promised Jerome Mayhew that he could come in, so if we have time at the end, I will bring you and Paul Bristow back in, Ms Hollern. We are against the clock. Mr Mayhew?
Maurice Mcleod: Sorry, can you say that stat again? I may have got the stat jumbled at the time. Can you repeat that?
Maurice Mcleod: It is part of it. It is one of the things that gives me concern that this will have a particular impact on those communities, yes.
Maurice Mcleod: If it turned out that 99% or whatever you just said of BAME people do have relevant ID, that is quite reassuring indeed. There was lots of talk about this in the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ report; I would be interested in seeing a proper breakdown, because it is all very well saying, “Minority ethnic people have IDs”, but if that ignores Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people in particular, or particular groups who have much lower numbers of take-up, that would still be a concern. In fact, it would mean that those groups are even more marginalised, because they are a special case: their lack of the required ID is not being flagged up.
“What percentage of the eligible population do not hold at least one form of photo ID currently under consideration for the voter ID requirement?”
“What is the level of ownership of the required photographic ID in groups with protected characteristics? specifically with reference to:
Race or ethnicity
This was a very thorough and independent piece of research, and if that is the case—you can look at it on the gov.uk website, so it is publicly available—that would, as you say, provide you with a degree of reassurance.
Maurice Mcleod: I would feel slightly better. If everyone had a relevant form of photo ID, I would feel slightly better about this. It is like saying you need to bring your front door keys when you come along and vote. Most people have a front door key; it would still stop some people from voting.
Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted to the Committee to ask questions, and indeed for this morning’s session. On behalf of the Committee, I thank our witness for his evidence. The Committee will meet again here at 2 pm this afternoon to continue taking oral evidence. I invite the Government Whip to move the adjournment.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(David Rutley.)
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.
Building Safety Bill (Fifth sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: Philip Davies, †Peter Dowd, Clive Efford, Mrs Maria Miller
† Amesbury, Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
† Bailey, Shaun (West Bromwich West) (Con)
† Baillie, Siobhan (Stroud) (Con)
† Byrne, Ian (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab)
† Cadbury, Ruth (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
† Clarke, Theo (Stafford) (Con)
Clarke-Smith, Brendan (Bassetlaw) (Con)
† Cooper, Daisy (St Albans) (LD)
Hopkins, Rachel (Luton South) (Lab)
† Hughes, Eddie (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government)
† Logan, Mark (Bolton North East) (Con)
† Mann, Scott (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
Osborne, Kate (Jarrow) (Lab)
† Pincher, Christopher (Minister for Housing)
† Rimmer, Ms Marie (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab)
Saxby, Selaine (North Devon) (Con)
† Young, Jacob (Redcar) (Con)
Yohanna Sallberg, Adam Mellows-Facer, Abi Samuels, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 16 September 2021
[Peter Dowd in the Chair]
Building Safety Bill
The building safety regulator
Before we begin, I have a few preliminary reminders for the Committee. Please switch all electronic devices to silent. No food or drinks are permitted during Committee sittings, except for the water provided. I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with the current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Hansard colleagues would be grateful if Members could email their speaking notes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We now begin line-by-line consideration of the Bill. The selection list for today’s sitting is available in the room. It shows how the selected amendments have been grouped together for debate. Amendments grouped together are generally on the same or a similar issue. Please note that the decisions on amendments do not take place in the order they are debated, but in the order in which they appear on the amendment paper. The selection and grouping list shows the order of debates. Decisions on each amendment are taken when we come to the clause to which the amendment relates. Decisions on new clauses will be taken once we have completed consideration of the existing clauses of the Bill. Members wishing to press a grouped amendment or new clause to a Division should indicate when speaking to it that they wish to do so.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this, it will be convenient to discuss that schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am pleased to see that we seem to be, if not sharing political attributes, at least sharing some new facial attributes. It is very good to see you in the Chair.
Before we begin to further scrutinise the Bill, I acknowledge and thank all those who have been involved in the legislative process so far, from the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who oversaw the prelegislative scrutiny by the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, to independent advisers, such as Dame Judith Hackitt, whose independent review formed the bedrock of the Bill. I also extend my thanks to those who sat in the Wilson and Boothroyd Rooms for being part of this Committee’s process, some of whom have already been involved in the development of the legislation and who have helped to make it as ambitious as it is in its scope.
I am sure that over the coming weeks we will work constructively together to achieve the same ends. The Bill takes forward the Government’s commitment to fundamental reform of the building safety system. It delivers on each of Dame Judith’s 53 recommendations detailed in her independent review of building regulations and fire safety, which was published in May 2018.
The independent review found a sector that needed significant reform, that was opaque and fundamentally lacked clear accountability for safety. It has understandably been a complex and extensive process to get to this point today, but for that I do not believe we should make any apology. The Government accepted all the independent review’s recommendations and published our “Building a Safer Future” consultation in June 2019. Nearly 900 responses were received from individuals, resident groups and representatives from the fire safety and built environment industry. The Government published our response to the consultation in April of last year.
Having considered stakeholder feedback, the Building Safety Bill was published in draft on 20 July 2020. Prelegislative scrutiny then followed, as I have indicated, with the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee publishing its final report on 24 November last year, which the Government considered carefully and gave our response to in July this year. I hope the Committee agrees that it has been a comprehensive process.
I welcome Graham Watts’s comment in evidence last week that there has not been “a more exemplary case” of the Government consulting with industry on policy matters. I trust that that will stand us in good stead as we scrutinise the Bill. I hope the Committee will agree that at the end of this process, the Bill will usher in a new age of safety for our built environment, and that at its heart it will ensure greater accountability and responsibility for fire and structural safety issues throughout the entire life cycle of buildings that fall within the scope of our new regime.
Clause 2 establishes the national Building Safety Regulator as a new operational arm within the Health and Safety Executive. The Committee will be aware that clause 1 acts as an overview of the Bill’s constituent parts and will be considered at the end of the process. The independent review of building regulations and fire safety recommended that the Government should make a series of important improvements to create a more effective regulatory and accountable framework for buildings.
At the centre of the Government’s strategy to implement those improvements is the setting up of the Building Safety Regulator, to bring national focus, drive and expertise to the delivery of the reforms. The Building Safety Regulator will implement a more stringent regulatory regime for high-rise residential and other in-scope buildings, oversee the safety and performance of all buildings, and promote the competence of professionals working on all buildings.
The key effect of clause 2 is to determine that the Building Safety Regulator should be delivered by the Health and Safety Executive. The Government believe that the identity of the Building Safety Regulator is critical to the success of the Bill, so we took independent advice on the matter. Following the independent review, the Government took independent advice from Dame Judith Hackitt on who should deliver the new Building Safety Regulator. Dame Judith suggested that the Health and Safety Executive would be best placed to deliver the Building Safety Regulator. That reflects four particular strengths of Health and Safety Executive delivery.
First, the Health and Safety Executive is an established regulator—it was established in 1975, as we all know—and has extensive experience in making robust and proportionate regulatory decisions, including in a construction industry context.
Secondly, Health and Safety Executive delivery offers the fastest and most efficient route to establishing the new regulator, and is therefore the quickest way to provide reassurance to residents about their safety.
Thirdly, we believe that the Health and Safety Executive’s expertise, reputation and knowledge will send a signal to industry that it will be properly held to account by a robust regulator, as offshore drilling was held accountable by the Health and Safety Executive after the Cullen inquiry in 1988.
Fourthly, the Health and Safety Executive combines being an independent regulator with extensive expertise in working with local government in order to deliver—I believe that that is a really important consideration.
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee also took evidence on this issue as part of its prelegislative scrutiny. I am grateful to its Chair and members for highlighting that the
“evidence overwhelmingly supported the Building Safety Regulator being established within the HSE.”
“We welcome the location of the regulator within the Health and Safety Executive and agree that it has the experience and expertise to implement the new building safety regime.”
In the light of the strong external evidence that the Health and Safety Executive will deliver an effective Building Safety Regulator, I hope that this Committee will welcome its role.
Where possible within existing legal powers, the Health and Safety Executive is already focused on improving building safety and standards as a shadow regulator. The focus of its work is to develop and pilot key elements of the new regime, work with early industry adopters, and recruit the top team, including the first Chief Inspector of Buildings, Peter Baker. We heard evidence from him, and from Sarah Albon of the HSE, to very good effect last week.
It will be this Bill, however, that gives the Health and Safety Executive the tools and powers to deliver the independent review’s vision for an enhanced building regulatory system. Clause 2 introduces schedule 1, which makes a number of necessary amendments to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, to support Building Safety Regulator delivery. Those provisions give the Health and Safety Executive a broad power to determine the right administrative arrangements to deliver its new building functions, and to set up committees to support those new functions.
The provisions ensure that up to four members of the Health and Safety Executive Board may be appointed due to their building safety, building standards or fire safety expertise. That will ensure that the Health and Safety Executive board will have the requisite expertise to effectively oversee the Building Safety Regulator. Schedule 1 creates important safeguards around the use of the Secretary of State’s existing power to direct the Health and Safety Executive. Under those provisions, a ministerial direction can never be issued in relation to the enforcement respect of a particular case.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I quite agree that the Bill will help his constituents, and those of all right hon. and hon. Members on the Committee and in the House. We want to ensure that HSE has the appropriate resources to do its work. I am sure that we will discuss that in greater detail as we proceed, but I can say that the finances available to HSE were increased by 10%—to some £14 million—for the course of the covid emergency. That is an example of the financial stimulus that we provided to HSE, and we will of course continue to support it in its new and important role.
Clause 2 and schedule 1 are vital to our wider reform, which the Building Safety Regulator within HSE will sit at the heart of. They provide the regulator with the necessary powers to effectively deliver a new regulatory regime, and I commend clause 2 to the Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, with your very colourful tie, Mr Dowd. It will be a pleasure to work with everybody in this room over the next few weeks, scrutinising and hopefully strengthening the Bill, which will alter the building safety landscape.
As has been reinforced by the plethora of witnesses who gave evidence to the Committee over a solid two days, the Bill will improve the regulatory regime—a point the Minister emphasised in his remarks on the clause. I thank the Chair of the Select Committee and all its members for their evidence throughout the process, Dame Judith Hackitt—I must mention her—and the many stakeholders who have been consulted and have helped build the Bill.
Many proposals to alter the building safety landscape are of course responses to the fire at Grenfell Tower, in which 72 people lost their life, and to the fire at Lakanal House some years before that. Certainly, as the Minister outlined, Dame Judith Hackitt has built a fuller response, in terms of providing evidence. The Opposition have called for a stronger framework of regulation, in which the safety of people in buildings is paramount. The amendments that we have tabled are designed to strengthen that framework further, in order to ensure that buildings are safer for residents and our constituents now—I emphasise “now”—and in the future.
Our fundamental concern is not necessarily with what is in the Bill; it is with what is not. Seventeen times—18 if we include a recent promise by the Prime Minister—Ministers have stated that leaseholders will be protected from historical remediation costs. When we look at the Bill line by line and clause by clause, we see that the evidence is that that simply is not the case.
We heard from many of our witnesses this week about the stark reality of the consequences of responsibility for these astronomical bills being placed on the shoulders of resident leaseholders. Alison Hills referred to friends going bankrupt, and spoke, as did Steve Day, of the mental health struggles that this crisis caused each and every one of them. Hundreds of thousands of people—millions—are trapped in unsellable flats.
Order. The Minister had a little bit of leeway to make a general speech to begin with, but this debate should be about clause 2 and schedule 1. May I exhort you to deal with the specifics of those provisions, please?
I certainly will, Mr Dowd.
Giles Grover from End Our Cladding Scandal referred to the many complexities that make up the layers of the building safety scandal, from waking watch to inflated insurance premiums and the funding lottery created by the limited size and scope of the building safety fund. Do the many clauses and schedules of the Bill respond to that immediate crisis? Does clause 2 do that? The answer is no. This is the very Bill that the Minister with responsibility for building safety, Lord Greenhalgh, said was the appropriate vehicle for responding to the crisis. If there were a prize for being consistently inconsistent, this Minister would win hands down—top of the premier league.
Moving on to the fundamental details of clause 2, many witnesses, including the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Matt Wrack, welcomed the new building regulator and spoke of the constructive working relationship with the Health and Safety Executive, reaffirming the Minister’s statement and the evidence from other witnesses about the appropriateness of HSE. Other witnesses, such as Martin Boyd from the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, spoke of the need to capture the residents’ voice, from the grassroots to the highest table of the new regulator, to help to establish and change that culture, and to improve the competence referred to in future clauses. Given the commitment highlighted in the previous social housing White Paper, for example, I am interested in the Minister’s thoughts about the residents’ voice.
The evidence from HSE management team seemed to indicate that they have the necessary resources to carry out the terms of reference of this new regulator.
I do hope so. Working together in Committee and across the Floor of the House, I hope we can contribute towards changing that landscape and making people and buildings safe. However, on resources, and this point was mentioned by—I know the Member has a Bolton seat, but do excuse me—
It was Bolton South East, yes.
I know it is important to hon. Members that HSE is resourced appropriately, but given the evidence from the inspection regime, with the number of inspectors cut from around 1,400 in 2011 to 900 in 2019 and funding cut by over 30% by HSE, I am not filled with confidence. Will the Minister ensure for residents and leaseholders, let alone Members of Parliament, that the new regulator does indeed have the necessary resources?
While it was reassuring to hear that HSE has been assured by the Government that it will receive the resources it requires, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is imperative that local authorities are also given the resources they require to deliver this new building safety regime?
I concur with that powerful point. Indeed, the Local Government Association made the same representations. Of course, local authorities have been somewhat hammered over the past decade in terms of resources and austerity. The hon. Lady makes a good point.
In conclusion, Labour welcomes the regulator overall, but we would of course go further and establish a building works agency to deal with the crisis here and now, building by building, with the principle of find, fund, fix and recover, and that the polluter pays. That is the immediate way forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd, to participate in this Committee and to follow the hon. Member for Weaver Vale. His contribution was fascinating, and I want to pick up on one of his points about clause 2. I hear what he is saying about not necessarily dealing with the present, but clause 2 is also focused on the future. I am sure he will agree that we have to ensure that we do not see a repeat of what we have seen thus far. We have to ensure, as we heard in the evidence sessions, that the housing market and the industry is fit for the future and keeps people safe, and that we do not allow this race to the bottom to continue or put vulnerable people at the risk of individuals who seem to think it acceptable to create unsafe places to live. Clause 2 is part of the patchwork to do that.
My right hon. Friend the Minister talked about the importance of the Building Safety Regulator sitting within the Health and Safety Executive. I absolutely agree with him. He particularly mentioned the importance of collaboration. HSE has 45 years of experience in dealing with health and safety, and will now be focused on building safety too. That is the right approach. As the Building Safety Regulator is developed, we have to ensure that the right expertise is there, because it will have such a crucial role in the future of the housing market, probably for the next generation.
I agree that the Bill is better than what we had before. The hon. Gentleman talks about working for the future and future buildings. Is the system going to be resourced adequately to deal with both the future and the mistakes of the past? It was only through the Grenfell fire’s exposure of flammable cladding that the cladding was removed from the Paragon development in my constituency, which was built by the Berkeley Group 18 years ago. Two years after the cladding was removed, after a series of inspections, it was found that the structure of the building was fundamentally unsafe and the 800-odd students and 150 shared owners and leaseholders were given a week to leave. Should HSE and the Building Safety Regulator not be sufficiently resourced to find those buildings that are already occupied, by all sorts of different users for different purposes, to ensure that they are safe for future use, as well as being resourced to deal with the future?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East made a similar point about resourcing to the Minister. The Minister referred to a funding uplift, and I am hopeful. Obviously, I have no control over those levers, but I would be hopeful that part of the resource uplift would go into that. I do not disagree; the hon. Lady is absolutely right: if we are going to put in this regulator, it has to have the resource to do the job properly. We cannot have it cutting corners, because that only adds to the problems that many of her constituents have already had to deal with. It has to come with a commitment to ensure that the resources are there to adequately deal with the issue.
I am sure there will be debates on what that actually looks like and what the numbers are, but the hon. Lady and I can both agree that the fundamental, core principle is that the regulator needs to be resourced properly. The intervention on the Minister by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East was absolutely right. We can talk in high-level terms about how great it is to have a new regulator, but we have to make sure it can do the job day to day. That is the important part. The one thing I would raise with my right hon. Friend the Minister, while I have his ear in Committee, is that we have to ensure that the system works properly.
I broadly welcome clause 2. It is right that we have a regulator that draws on existing expertise. It is also right that, broadly speaking, the regulator has the ability to make the decisions unimpeded. I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Minister said about not being able to bring about ministerial directions to overturn decisions of the regulator. That is the right move. Given what we have seen in this space to date, having an empowered regulator that can stick up for the most vulnerable is absolutely vital. Those lives that we have seen destroyed by incidents such as Grenfell—that cannot happen again. This plan ensures robustness.
Returning to the point raised by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth, the resource has to be there and the regulator has to be allowed to do its job. I am hopeful, from the overtures that we have heard today, that that will happen.
I welcome clause 2. It is the right move. I think it ensures, in the longer term, the future of this market, and ensures that people looking to buy a home can live there safely, knowing that there is the oversight that they need and that we have an organisation in the Building Safety Regulator that draws on existing expertise but equally has independence. That is the key thing: the independence to do that job properly and ensure that those people are safe.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I listened very carefully to the comments from the hon. Member for Weaver Vale and to your point, Mr Dowd, about focusing on the proposed amendment. It is only natural that we want to look at wider issues. This is such an important Bill. There have been so many horrible incidents, and this affects lives, but the proposed amendment asks for the insertion of mitigation for building safety risks due to climate change—
Order. That is clause 3, not clause 2. We will come back to that when we debate that issue. I call Ian Byrne.
Thank you, Mr Dowd. It is a splendid tie. I rise to emphasise that all of us on the HCLG Committee thought that the independent Building Safety Regulator was a fine idea, but over the last decade there have been 46% cuts to HSE and a third of officers have gone. There is a real worry about whether this will be resourced. I know people have spoken about that this morning, but we cannot emphasise it enough. Without an independent, well-resourced Building Safety Regulator, it all falls down.
I would like further commitments about where we are going, and what sums we are talking about. Will there be a complete recapitalisation of HSE to where it was pre-austerity, which we will then build on? It is so important that this is capitalised, and that the experience, officers and moneys are available to ensure that HSE can play a hugely important role in changing the culture. We all heard in the evidence sessions—and I have heard since 2019, sitting on the Select Committee—about how the culture in the building industry has created what we have talked about over the past two days. We heard some heart-rending evidence from so many people.
The hon. Gentleman is very experienced in local government and an experienced member of the HCLG Committee. Does he not agree that it will be really important to ensure that the regulator has a culture of independence? I am sure he will agree that ensuring that the regulator is beholden to no one but itself will be the only way to ensure that it truly keeps people safe.
I completely concur with the hon. Gentleman. It is a very valid point, but as I said, this is about ensuring that the resources are there. The hon. Member for St Albans made a very good point about local government. There have been 68% cuts to Liverpool City Council. It has been hollowed out. The ability to check on buildings has been catastrophic at times. This comes back to funding. The intent and the money have to be there. Without them, I am afraid that we could be back to some of the situations that many of us have faced in our constituencies with some buildings.
I congratulate all members of the Committee on their contributions on the clause. A number of Members, properly and understandably, raised funding, including my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich West and Opposition Members such as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby. We have made further funding available for the creation of the shadow regulator within HSE. We also, as I said earlier, made funding available to HSE during the covid emergency. We have also made commitments through the building safety levy to ensure that developers that have made mistakes in the past provide appropriate and proper restitution for the remediation of high-rise buildings. We will provide more information about that in due course. Certainly, the funding of HSE is, as always, subject to discussions with the Treasury in the spending review, and I am sure we will hear more about that—to the benefit of HSE—in due course.
The hon. Member for Weaver Vale referred to Grenfell in his remarks, and he was right to do so because Grenfell was the wake-up call to the challenges that we face in a very complex development, ownership and safety terrain. That is why we must approach the Bill and the clause with care, to ensure that we address the complex situation of buildings, safety and ownership carefully, and that is what we will do throughout the course of the Committee.
The hon. Gentleman made two specific points to which I think I ought to respond. He asked about residents’ voices. Sarah Albon made clear in her evidence to the Committee last week that HSE is reaching out—to use that modern phrase—to stakeholders, including residents and dwellers of high-rise buildings, to ensure that their voices and concerns are heard. We have also committed to a new homes ombudsman. That is not the point of the clause, but it is something that we will debate later in our scrutiny of the Bill, giving the hon. Gentleman and other Members the opportunity to learn about the Government’s work to ensure that residents’ voices are heard. The hon. Gentleman also made the point about HSE funding, and I refer him to the comments that I have just made.
To conclude, we have heard the high regard in which HSE is held by all members of the Committee for its historical and, one might say, international reputation as a safety board of the highest regard. We believe that HSE provides the regulator with the necessary powers to effectively deliver the new regulatory regime. I commend the clause to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 1 agreed to.
The regulator: objectives and regulatory principles
I beg to move amendment 11, in clause 3, page 2, line 14, at end insert—
“(c) mitigating building safety risks due to climate change, including—
(i) flood risk
(ii) coastal erosion, and
(iii) overheating of buildings.”
This amendment would mandate the building safety regulator to mitigate for risks to building safety due to climate change.
Although there is much to welcome in elements of clause 3, there are two points on which I believe it important to expand what is currently set out. Amendment 11 seeks to expand the objective of the regulator to include another major threat to the safety of people in buildings, beyond fire and the threat of climate change. In 2019, the Climate Change Committee published a report on housing in which it stated:
“UK homes are not fit for the future.”
It found that
“efforts to adapt the housing stock for higher temperatures, flooding and water scarcity are falling far behind the increase in risk”
from the challenging climate emergency. We will face serious consequences if we do not act soon. Some of the biggest risks are the lack of protection from increasing floods and coastal erosion, and the overheating of buildings. There is also the danger of under-insulating buildings. Projections indicate that maximum summer temperatures could rise by 9° by the end of the century. Some 20% of homes overheat in the current climate. Modern high-rise flats are disproportionately at risk of overheating due to lack of protection from the sun and lack of ventilation in many cases. As a result, deaths caused by overheating could triple over the next 30 years if we do not reduce the risk. This is about people and about building safety beyond fire safety. At the other end of the spectrum, cold deaths are also predicted to remain high, but we could reduce them by better insulating homes.
It is not just high-rise flats that are at risk from the effects of climate change; 1.8 million people now live in areas at risk of flooding. That could double by 2080, but we are simply not seeing the resilience measures that we need to be built into the framework. In mentioning flooding, I am not talking about eighth-floor flats, yet there is a clearly a huge risk. Many constituencies and constituents regularly face the threat of flooding. This summer has seen huge flooding that has killed hundreds of people across western Europe. This is another example of how we must look beyond the narrow definition of the present risk and of building safety.
Last year, the chair of the Climate Change Committee’s Adaptation Committee, Baroness Brown, wrote to Dame Judith Hackitt as chair of the board overseeing the establishment of the Building Safety Regulator. In the letter, she stated:
“The current building safety works programme must be broadened beyond its current focus on fire safety to include the risk of addressing climate change.”
We are in a climate emergency. Amendment 11 would put that very commitment on the face of the regulator’s objectives. I urge the Minister to consider the amendment.
I call Siobhan Baillie.
Thank you, Mr Dowd, and I apologise for my eagerness earlier; I take all opportunities to talk about the climate change emergency.
The Minister was clear in his opening remarks that the Building Safety Regulator is crucial to the success of the Bill and that the Government have consulted widely and listened to many experts in drafting the Bill we are considering today. In those discussions, he spoke to Dame Judith Hackitt and other respected building mega-brains. Given that the people who were able to inform us about the regulator’s function have not suggested that there should be a clause that refers specifically to climate change and talks about flood risk, coastal erosion and the overheating of buildings, I am confident that we do not need one, not only because we know that they are thinking deeply about how to make the Bill a complete success, but because the climate emergency is on everybody’s lips and mind, and every Government Department wants to tackle it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the legislation does not need to refer to climate change, as the Government, across many pieces of legislation—both those in force and looking to the future—will consider the climate change issues that face the UK and the rest of the world?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. I am somebody who does not think that we should add words for the sake of it, if the regulator is already doing the work. The explanatory notes describe the regulator’s core functions, stating that it will implement
“the new, more stringent regulatory regime for higher-risk buildings. This means being the building control authority in England in respect of building work on higher-risk buildings and overseeing and enforcing the new regime in occupation for higher-risk buildings. The Building Safety Regulator will work closely with, and take advice from, other regulators and relevant experts in making key decisions throughout the lifecycle of a building.”
We know from our constituencies that the Environment Agency, our local authorities and our parish councils are committing to looking very carefully at such issues—particularly, in my patch, those related to flooding. That work, and the work that the Government are already doing to combat flooding, will flow through. I am confident that the Bill as drafted achieves that.
The hon. Lady referred to local authorities and other stakeholders giving due care and attention to flooding. In my constituency, given that new developments are still being built on flood plains, I do not think that is the case. I would again argue that, rather than making it an assumption that the regulator addresses the climate emergency, it should be added to the Bill.
Forgive me—I hear the point again, in a new form, but I still do not think that that is necessary. We have to rely on the expertise of the regulator and everybody who will be involved. We are so focused on building safety risk at the moment, and rightly so, given everything that has happened. I feel that the work is there.
I had my own mini-experience of coastal erosion growing up. It was not in Stroud, which is landlocked, save for the River Severn. I grew up in Yorkshire and went from Filey to Scarborough to school on a school bus. As we were going along, a hotel called Holbeck Hall fell very steadily into the sea. Many Members may know about it. It went on for many months. It was completely fascinating to school children, but even those many decades ago it was known about, thought through and seriously considered. Everybody was focused on it. Given the work that has been done in the Bill, I do not believe that, were a building in that state of peril, the regulator would not pick up on it and be able to help.
The hon. Lady feels confident that the regulator’s powers cover high-risk buildings and the risks to buildings from flooding, overheating and the other aspects of climate change that my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale covered, but the Bill as drafted defines a higher-risk building in clauses 58 to 62 and onwards as being residential buildings over 18 metres in height. That will exclude many buildings built on flood plains, and many flats, such as those in my constituency that get dangerously overheated—
Order. Ms Cadbury, please sit down. I exhort Members to make interventions short and sharp. People have the opportunity to speak to the substantive issue if they wish. Please keep it short and sharp and to the point. I do apologise for being direct.
There will be many discussions over the course of the Committee about the definitions, but ultimately we believe in the regulator, in the work that is being done, and in people such as Dame Judith Hackitt and Baroness Brown, who have been mentioned. Those climate change considerations have already been factored in.
We need culture change, so why not put it in the Bill to direct the culture of the building industry, which for a long, long time has been wrong in placing profit over safety? Why not put that change in the Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale has asked for?
As I have already pointed out, I do not feel it is necessary to add that given the scope of the Bill, the work of the regulator and the work that has been done to get to this stage. We need to be really confident in the regulator so that it is not hamstrung and can use the expertise of local authorities, the Environment Agency and all the other bodies with which it is directed to work, to make sure that the building safety work is done. I implore the Committee to agree that there is absolutely no need for the amendment.
In the light of your comments, Mr Dowd, I shall try to keep mine short and sweet.
I do not disagree with a lot of what the hon. Member for Weaver Vale said. My concern, as a constituency Member who had real flooding issues last year, is that planning is a real patchwork. That is one thing that we perhaps need to go further on. The hon. Gentleman talked about house building, and he will know as well as me that water companies, for example, are not statutory consultees on planning issues. I would like that to change, because it is ridiculous that water companies are just asked to join an estate up to the network, having played no part whatsoever in planning. That is an example of something that needs to change.
On flooding specifically, we go down a plethora of different avenues. Flood Re is meant to cover buildings at risk, and some house building standards are being amended right now. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the climate change issue; we know that temperatures are going up and that we all have a responsibility to tackle that. The environment that we are dealing with at the moment is complex and will require us to bring many strings together. Although I do not disagree with his intentions, my concern is about the mechanism for ensuring that that happens. I do not think that relying on the BSR should be our only avenue; we need a mechanism to ensure that this happens.
I have seen the impacts of flooding on my constituents, particularly in deprived urban areas, which are quite often overlooked. For the best part of 18 months, I have been making the case that there needs to be more of a realisation that it is not just nice shire areas that get flooding, but inner-city areas, too.
In my own constituency, the Northwich area has been subject to flooding for the last two years. Undoubtedly, that is partially an impact of the climate emergency. In future, a high-rise buildings regulator could, through a planning gateway process, future-proof that and other environments.
Last week, I had the displeasure of visiting the Strand in Liverpool, near the waterfront. Work there was signed off by building control under a permitted development, and some secondary legislation has already been passed for that. The regulation for such buildings is minimal, to say the least. It is so important that this provision is added to the remit to future-proof and to respond to the climate emergency, including with the practical examples that the hon. Gentleman gave. Beyond this debate, I would like to sit with Ministers and have a conversation about the wording around this, because it is very important.
Can I just be clear? People can speak for as much as they want with a substantive issue. Interventions should be pretty short, sharp and to the point.
The hon. Member for Weaver Vale makes an interesting point, but I come back to my point about the environment we are dealing with from a legislative point of view. As an esteemed former member of Manchester City Council, he is much more experienced than me, and he understands the issues. We are crossing into the boundaries of planning reform as well. I do not disagree that that needs to be looked at in this space. However, while I do not disagree with and can subscribe to the amendment’s intentions, broadly speaking, I am concerned that doing it like will mean missing other opportunities for a much more comprehensive reform of this space to ensure that the issues that both the hon. Gentleman and I have experienced in our communities can be resolved.
Given the rumours that the Government’s proposals for planning reforms have been dropped, does the hon. Gentleman agree with the content of the amendment? If he does not want to see it in the Bill, where does he imagine he would be able to put it over the course of the legislative agenda?
The hon. Member is trying to tempt me into speculation on matters I have no control over, unfortunately. I could not possibly say, purely because I do not wish to speculate. To round up, I do not disagree with the hon. Member for Weaver Vale’s sentiment, but there is a better way that we can do it, outside the amendment.
Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Scott Mann.)
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.
Elections Bill (Fourth sitting)
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: †Christina Rees, Sir Edward Leigh
† Anderson, Fleur (Putney) (Lab)
Bell, Aaron (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
† Bristow, Paul (Peterborough) (Con)
† Clarkson, Chris (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
Furniss, Gill (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab)
Gibson, Peter (Darlington) (Con)
† Grady, Patrick (Glasgow North) (SNP)
† Hollern, Kate (Blackburn) (Lab)
† Hunt, Jane (Loughborough) (Con)
† Mayhew, Jerome (Broadland) (Con)
† O'Hara, Brendan (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
† Randall, Tom (Gedling) (Con)
† Rutley, David (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
† Smith, Cat (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
† Smith, Chloe (Minister for the Constitution and Devolution)
Smith, Nick (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
Adam Mellows-Facer, Chris Stanton, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Gavin Millar QC, Matrix Chambers
Fazilet Hadi, Head of Policy, Disability Rights UK
Dr Alan Renwick, Deputy Director, Constitution Unit, University College London
Public Bill Committee
Thursday 16 September 2021
[Christina Rees in the Chair]
Examination of Witness
Gavin Millar QC gave evidence.
We will now hear oral evidence from Gavin Millar QC of Matrix Chambers. Thank you very much for joining us. Before we begin, I remind Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick to the timings in the programme order that the Committee has agreed. For this session, we have until 2.45 pm. Would the witness please introduce himself for the record?
Gavin Millar: I am Gavin Millar. I am a QC at Matrix Chambers. I specialise in election law and have done for 35 years.
Thank you. Minister, would you like to open the questioning?
I think it is Cat Smith’s turn to go first.
It looks like an empty chair.
Shall I bring in other members of the Committee? Patrick Grady, would you like to ask a question? [Interruption.] Oh, hang on.
Gavin Millar: I am sorry—I am having trouble hearing.
I will try repeating my question. Is there anything that you feel is missing from the legislation that would strengthen elections, or anything that is amendable that needs to be tightened up?
Gavin Millar: As the Committee probably knows, there is a widely held view that what we have at the moment is a complicated mass of disparate election law provisions in statutes that have been enacted over many years, often containing historical provisions that have just stayed in them down the decades. The mass of that legislative material is difficult and confusing for election administrators—lawyers, judges, candidates and agents.
Accordingly, there is a widely held view that the way to tackle election law now would be to sweep that current body of law aside and modernise it, applying appropriate consolidating provisions in the existing law, into a single, simpler set of statutory rules. The Law Commission said this a few years ago, I have said it and others have said it often. It is disappointing that, in approaching the legislation, the Government have chosen to introduce another rather ad hoc set of disparate provisions that are unrelated, rather than the whole amazing, simplifying rewrite that is required. I suppose that is the first point, in terms of where we are. There is a case—[Inaudible]—to tackle the urgent problems in the electoral system, but with the exception of part 6 of the Bill, which deals with information to be included with electronic material, nothing that it tackles could conceivably be regarded as an urgent problem of the sort that ought to take priority.
The Bill ignores the other most urgent problem in our system, which is the lack of an effective regulatory and enforcement regime to ensure that foreign money and dark money do not enter our political system through donations to political parties. I would say that that is now an election law issue, because in reality there is non-stop campaigning by political parties between the short and long election campaigns, which can be funded by large and inadequately regulated donations. There is the risk not only of money coming into the system that should not be there, but of the level playing field that we have always striven to achieve in our election law during the narrower periods of elections being lost in the intervening periods. It is disappointing that nothing in the legislation addresses those problems.
Gavin Millar: There is no doubt that once you have got into the process of regulating non-party expenditure in elections, some very difficult questions arise. Traditionally, those difficult questions have arisen in our system in relation to non-candidate expenditure in constituencies or local government wards—whatever it is—during the election campaign. Local campaigners, non-governmental organisations and so on and so forth can spend some money to campaign, but it is heavily capped. Of course, we are now into the territory where national campaigning is capped and regulated, and the current laws in relation to that are incredibly complicated, very difficult to follow and understand, and very difficult to apply, even for the courts.
I suppose the broad considerations are that we should, in a democracy, encourage and facilitate non-party campaigning of either form, but including national campaigns, to the extent that we can, if it does not unbalance the level playing field across the piece, because that contributes to the democratic process. There are a great many NGOs, charities and third-party campaigners that are not directly party political or campaigning on a range of issues, but may be campaigning on just one issue. It enhances our democracy to enable them to participate, which is going to cost money—they will have to spend money on that—provided that it does not cross the line of unbalancing a level playing field. It is a difficult balance to strike.
One of the features of the legislation that is very difficult is clause 25. It tackles third-party campaigning where it crosses a particular line, which is what is known in the legislation as a joint campaigning arrangement, where the third party or third parties can be shown, as a matter of fact, to have a plan or an arrangement to campaign together. That is an incredibly difficult concept. There have been a couple of cases where the courts have struggled with this, and I do not find the drafting in the Bill very easy, particularly clause 25.
It will be very difficult for campaigners, who might be caught by a suggestion that that is what they are doing, to know whether they are on the right or the wrong side of the line. If they are deemed to be on the wrong side of the line, and a court or a commission says that there is planned co-ordinated expenditure involving more than one non-party campaigner and a political party, that will dramatically reduce the amount that they will be able to spend. They will have to go through the whole process of declaring all the participants in that arrangement, and their available spend will be reduced accordingly. It may be that there are cases where it is justified in having that end result, but you should not have unclear law that leaves people in doubt as to what they can and cannot do and what is and is not a joint campaigning arrangement.
At the moment, that is very unclear in our law and has not been properly resolved by the courts. I would not suggest rushing into the provisions of clause 25. If that part of the Bill is going to go through Parliament, there should be very careful scrutiny of exactly what it is intended to catch and what it is not intended to catch, and of what the consequences are for third-party campaigners who engage in that sort joint campaigning with a political party. I am just not sure that that is there at the moment. That is the problem. Therefore it will tend to risk encouraging that active participation that I said was so important in a democracy.
Gavin Millar: Yes, I am concerned that this part of a strand in our law that is developing, which gives powers to Government and to the Executive to fill in gaps in legislation and take legally binding decisions outwith the legislation. It is very undesirable. It means that nobody knows in advance what the law is going to achieve and how it will work. It reduces parliamentary scrutiny.
Everything that is going to be there that will affect non-party campaigning should be in the primary legislation. It should be simple, clear and easy to understand, and it should be justified in terms of what it is trying to achieve in preventing the skewing of the level playing field. It should be absolutely clear what the consequences are for third-party campaigners, many of whom I advise at election time and in between elections. They are very confused by this. They find it very difficult to know what they can and cannot do, what crosses a particular line and what does not cross it, and what their maxima are for spending. You do not need to be a lawyer to realise that that is undesirable in a democracy, with an activity of such importance.
Thank you. Jerome Mayhew.
You expressed a concern a moment ago that the Minister, under clause 25, would have the ability to add to the list of categories. There is a rationale for that, which I hope we can agree on: as the sector develops, there will potentially be a need for the legislation to respond to growth in the sector, and it would be beneficial were the legislation able to satisfy that need. In those circumstances, is it not reasonable for the legislation to allow for an affirmative procedure in both Houses to give Parliament’s consent to the decision of the Minister? I am really challenging the rather bold assertion that it is the Minister who decides. It is not, is it? It is Parliament that will decide, and not just by the negative procedure; it is by the affirmative procedure in both Houses. Is that correct?
Gavin Millar: I concede that point. There is a form of parliamentary procedure that will enable scrutiny of how the power is being exercised. Members of the Committee and parliamentarians will know better than I do as a lawyer how effective that is likely to be. The main thing is to avoid unconstrained powers. The premise of your question was that there would be a legitimate concern that needed to be addressed through subordinate legislation and the Minister’s decision. That is fine, but the question is what sort of things we are talking about, and in what circumstances such a power will be exercised. I get very anxious about provisions—perhaps I am too old, or too old-fashioned, because they are a rather more contemporary thing—that are in very broad terms. When the primary legislation is enacted, it is difficult to anticipate for what purposes they will be used and what would be regarded as a justifiable change in the law, but I take the point that if it is the affirmative procedure there is parliamentary scrutiny.
Could you also say a little more on the value or otherwise of a more comprehensive effort to consolidate electoral law? We have a lot of Representation of the People Acts. This is not a representation of the people Bill; it has been called the Elections Bill. I do not know whether there is any legislative or theological difference between the titling of these different Bills and Acts, or the things that they have done over the years. Where do you see the merit in perhaps a stronger effort to consolidate the different pieces of legislation that govern the electoral framework?
Gavin Millar: In relation to the Electoral Commission, we need to start at the beginning, as it were. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, known in the trade as PPERA, created the Electoral Commission for the first time—it was the first time we had had one in this country—but [Inaudible] an Electoral Commission that does not actually have a role in administering, overseeing and running elections in real time, and that does not have powers to investigate conduct and outcomes, and still less overturn those outcomes. It is important to understand that other countries have equivalent entities with much stronger roles in each of those areas. We are starting from a pretty low base in terms of what the Electoral Commission has been created to do.
As far as I can see, there is no case here for any of the three main changes proposed in the legislation in relation to the Electoral Commission. First, there is the strategy and policy statement, which, as I understand it, is going to tell the regulator what it should and should not be doing. Secondly, the Electoral Commission’s willingness to do what it is told, and its success or otherwise in doing what it is told, will be overseen—one might cynically say “marked”—by the Speaker’s Committee. Thirdly, clause 15 takes away from the Electoral Commission the power to prosecute. I can see no case or justification for any of those measures.
An Electoral Commission should be independent of Government; it should be free from Government influence as a matter of principle, because of its role in a democracy. It should be rather akin to the police or the Crown Prosecution Service in that respect. Its decision making, and indeed its powers to investigate and act, should be framed and guided solely by the public interest and the merits of the evidence before it. Does this need to be investigated? To what extent does it need to be investigated? What has gone wrong? What needs to be done? It should be answerable to Parliament as a whole rather than to a single Committee or a small group of politicians. That seems to me a key and obvious point of principle.
My own view is that the Electoral Commission should have more powers and resources—hopefully under the codified and modernised statutory regime that I have suggested—rather than less, which is what seems to be the aim at the moment, particularly in relation to the removal of the power to prosecute. Why? Well, because it is the only player in the game. It is the only possible resource for dealing with breaches of election law, in its limited area, other than through criminal prosecution and civil litigation.
As far as the former is concerned, the police and prosecutors frankly do not have the resources or expertise to tackle offending under the RPA or PPERA, and I am absolutely certain that much goes uninvestigated and unprosecuted at the moment. That is extremely undesirable in our system. Civil litigation—by candidates, judicial review, election petitions and so on—is costly, cumbersome, time-consuming and very difficult to undertake. All those factors indicate that we need an empowered and funded Electoral Commission to tackle problems as they come up. They are experts and specialists; that is why they are there and should be there.
On the second point you asked about—I will try not to become boring, because I could wax lyrical about this for hours—as you probably know, essentially we have two strands to our election law. We have the Representation of the People Act 1983, which is the primary statute regulating three things: the exercise of the franchise, the conduct of elections and challenges to elections after the event. There are various problems with it, but the main one is that it is the most recent of a long succession of Acts with the same name in the 20th century, and indeed there were earlier equivalents going back into the 19th century. They have often been a political compromise in Parliament, simply enacted by way of consolidation with only minor amendments. What we have ended up with is really an awful lot of 19th-century provisions that have hardly changed in their wording.
On top of that, in that strand of the law—the actual regulation of the administration of elections—there have been many, many more pieces of primary and secondary legislation relating to those three areas of our law since 1983. They either come in statutory instruments or they go into amendments to the RPA, so you get these long lists of amended sections with ZA numbers after the primary number, and it becomes wholly unwieldy and unmanageable.
The Law Commission’s report, where it recommended this, alluded to a problem that surfaced in the 2010 general election. I am sure you all remember that there were queues at polling stations and people were unable to get in and vote when they closed at 10 pm. That is an unresolved issue in our election law. The Law Commission make the point that when Parliament had to correct that to make sure people queuing at that point could get in, 10 different pieces of legislation had to be amended to achieve that one single result. That is how bad it is.
In addition, the second strand is the PPERA strand, which came into play in 2000 with completely new and different areas of election law. In particular, as we know, it included the regulation of national campaign expenditure by political parties and third-party campaigners, as well as permissible donations. Again, accretions and additions to that legislation over the years have made it incredibly complicated.
So what is election law? Well, it is ill-defined, but essentially it is everything surrounding those two huge pieces of legislation and the case law they have thrown up. One of the advantages of consolidation would be to be clear about what needs to be regulated in elections. As I have said, it seems to me that the whole issue of campaigning between long and short campaign periods is now election law. That is just the reality of it in the modern world, just as we have accepted that what goes on on the internet is election law, which we never did before. Modernising and consolidating would give us a much broader definition of election law.
As you point out, in this Bill we have bits relating to each. We have bits relating to PPERA and bits relating to the RPA regime, and it is now simply called the Elections Bill, which is a sort of combination of two strands of our law, and it is a bit of a rag-bag really. I am not saying that some of the things are not desirable—clearly they are—but they are not urgent and they should not be given priority over this much more fundamental issue that needs to be resolved, which is a consolidated and complete electoral code.
Gavin Millar: This strand of convention law—by which I mean, whether a piece of domestic legislation is incompatible with the provisions of the convention—does not work on an individual case-by-case basis. It works on the basis that if you have to look at compatibility in a court case, it is at the impact of the domestic rule of law—here, the voter ID provision—across the piece and the whole of the electoral system in the contracting party.
Is the impact of that legislative provision one that can be justified as being compatible with the convention? The convention—Strasbourg—has its own internal set of rules for saying what is and is not compatible. Very few rights are absolute, which is why you can have laws that prevent certain people—criminals and so on—from voting for a period, but to be compatible with the convention they have to be justifiable, in the sense of achieving a legitimate aim, one that is legitimate in that country for that political system and that voting system. It has to be a proportionate means of achieving that aim.
The question here—I accept that it would be assessed by the impact on individual groups of people, such as the Roma, whom you mentioned, but it would be much broader than that—is, if you try to justify what the Government are proposing to do across the electoral system as a whole, can it be justified as meeting a legitimate aim? Is there a problem that is so bad that it needs addressing in this system in this way? Is this a crude or a proportionate way of addressing it? The problem I have with clause 1 is that I cannot see the problem and, even if there is a problem, I cannot see that this is a targeted and proportionate way of addressing it, because it would just sweep out of the franchise somebody who did not happen to have a card or voter ID but was properly on the electoral register and entitled to vote when they turned up.
Why do I say that there is not a problem? You are all politicians, you have been elected and you know how this works, but you may not have looked at this from the point of view of an election lawyer, a criminal lawyer or someone looking at election fraud, which for my sins I have spent a lot of time doing for the past 20 years. The sort of fraud we are talking about here is called “personation” under the RPA. It is an electoral offence—it is impersonation, but misses off the “im” in the statutory historical categorisation. Personation is A turning up at the polling station pretending to be B, who is validly on the register.
It is not a problem of any great consequence in our system, and I speak from experience. Personation cases are almost non-existent. There are reasons why it is not a problem. First of all, it is extremely risky for anyone to try that. You are liable to be caught because somebody spots you and knows you are not that person. It is also ineffective because there is the alternative possibility that that person turns up and votes later, or indeed has already voted and is marked off the register when you try to impersonate them. If you are going to do it, you have to be absolutely certain that the person is dead or is not going to come and vote, and that you will not be found out that way. It is also hugely inefficient compared with other forms of fraud that have been perpetrated, particularly since postal voting on demand. You have to get a range of people, or yourself, to go around different polling stations at different times in the day, and all you get out of each criminal offence you commit is one vote. It is just not efficient or effective as a fraud, so it does not happen.
As I understand it, this came from the 2014 Tower Hamlets mayoral election. There were a whole range of election offences pleaded in that case and looked at by the court. One of them involved some personation at polling stations, but it was not the core problem. If that were the reason we had got to this point, this would be an example of a hard case making very bad law, and I would counsel against that. The fraud that exists in our system, or has existed since 2000, that everybody has read about and knows about, is a very different type of election fraud. One possibility is what is called roll-stuffing in Australia, where you put additional voters on the register who are not entitled to vote in a concerted fraud before the election, and then vote in their name. You normally apply for a postal vote for those non-existent voters at a particular address, and you pick up the postal vote papers and you vote.
There are various other postal vote frauds that were recounted in the cases that have been cited. That form of fraud has been made much more difficult by Parliament and by the administrators because of the cases over the past 20 years, and there are less cases even of that form of fraud, but it is not a form of fraud that would be addressed by this piece of legislation, so what is the problem? What is it achieving? Why is this a proportionate way of addressing it? I have no answers to any of those questions, and of course in a situation where, by common estimates, we have something like 17% of eligible voters not on the register, one wonders why our efforts are not being concentrated on voter registration measures—getting more people on to the register and facilitating them in voting—rather than making it more difficult for them to do it by imposing this requirement, which we have never had.
I appreciate that advocates of the Bill will say, “It is not a lot to do, to get a piece of photo ID or have a piece of photo ID and bring it along to the polling station,” but we need only look at the Windrush scandal to see how many poor people and ordinary people in our society have difficulties with that sort of thing, not to mention disabled people and other discriminated-against groups who do not want to engage with obtaining this sort of identification, for fear that it will open them up to other scrutiny and investigation of an unjustifiable kind. It is wrong on every count, really.
To answer the question, yes, there will inevitably be challenges to this as incompatible with the European convention on human rights if it is introduced, and it seems to me that there is a strong case for doing that. The impact would be considerable, by all accounts—although somewhat unquantifiable—but I just have not seen the evidence that you would be required to produce at a judicial review or at a case in Strasbourg to justify this as an appropriate state interference with the right to vote.
If there are no further questions from Members, I thank our witness for his evidence.
Examination of Witness
Fazilet Hadi gave evidence.
Fazilet Hadi: I am Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK. Just so you know, I am blind, although it should not affect anything today.
We have until 3.30 pm for this panel. Minister, would you like to start with the first question?
Fazilet Hadi: I will briefly give a bit of context before answering that question. Some 14 million people in the UK are disabled, or one in five of the population, so we are a very big group and very diverse. About 45% of older people and 19% of working-age adults have a disability. As you and colleagues will know, that can range from sensory impairment to learning disability, mental health and mobility issues, so we face a wide set of challenges.
There are some real challenges in voting, so it would be good to see rigorous standards applied and enforced by Government, because voting should not be a postcode lottery; it should be equal wherever we are in the country. A couple of issues in the Bill concern me, particularly photo identification and the provisions on equipment, which seem to be turning the clock back a little, particularly for blind and partially sighted voters.
Coming back to your question on standards, the standards start even before the electoral officers—for example, in the way that local authorities produce information on elections and whether reasonable adjustments need to be considered for electors who have disabilities. Even for those first letters, people should already be thinking, “Can this person read the letter? Do they need an easy-read, audio or electronic version?” I think it starts very early, and it then moves through all the stages of postal voting, through to the actual physical buildings in which elections are held, the devices we are given to enable us to vote independently, the height of the desks where we cast our vote and wheelchair accessibility. It is almost like walking through the customer journey from beginning to end, ensuring that reasonable adjustments are made at every point, because I am sure the Government want to ensure that those 14 million people have a voice in the same way as everyone else.
As you rightly say, we all want to see disabled voters, or voters with any condition or extra accessibility need, able to take part fully. What do you think ought to be focused on in communicating the changes encapsulated in this Bill? How could that be done with your members, for example, or others?
Fazilet Hadi: The provisions on photo ID will need a lot of communication, but they should not be communicated in isolation. Going back to what I said before, if we take something out of context, it presupposes that the electorate get everything else and know all the other things that are in place, and disabled people may not know about the other adjustments that are available. On photo ID, that does pose particular issues, and when there were trials, my recollection from colleagues at Mencap is that it took quite a lot of education, face to face, as well as written information, to communicate to people with learning disabilities what the change meant.
There will be an education imperative for the whole public, of course, but for particular groups of disabled people, some of us maybe do not access information so easily—British Sign Language users, people who access through audio or braille, people who need easy read, and people whose literacy skills are low. There is quite a communication challenge in actually getting across that photo ID is required, and that has to start well in advance of it being required.
May I draw on your experience of voting as a blind person—as a person with a visual impairment? I would guess that you have used the tactile voting device. Could you describe to the Committee what it has been like using that device? What are its drawbacks and advantages?
Fazilet Hadi: I have not actually used it. I have voted through the post, and I have voted with the assistance of the electoral staff—
I apologise for making an assumption.
Fazilet Hadi: Not at all. I should have tried the template. My understanding is that it does not allow completely independent voting. If people can imagine, it is like laying a template over a piece of paper. You would probably have to memorise what was on the paper, which could be tricky. I suppose you would not have complete confidence, because you cannot check back. I think it was a device of its time. As I understand it, a judicial review said that it did not allow a completely secret ballot.
What the device should be is not a straightforward issue, but I worry about the provision in the Bill taking away the wording of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which says that the device should be prescribed by the Government. Whatever the device is, and whatever its limitations—hopefully we can improve on the current device—it should be available without question and without any decision making being needed from local electoral staff. It should just be made available because the Government says that it should be. Under the Bill as it is framed at the moment, there is a danger with that kind of wording being removed and a much looser wording about reasonableness being inserted instead.
Fazilet Hadi: In this particular instance, I am not sure whether the Act envisaged a tactile template, but I think the wording means that the Government can prescribe “it” and update what the “it” is in guidance. The thing is to get to the principle that it is set down and must be provided. That would be the way to do it, not saying exactly what the “it” is. Indeed, the “it” will change as digital technology changes, with things like 3D printing. I am not a great technologist, but I think that the Act can get across the mandatory nature of the equipment that must be used. For people across the country who are registered blind, any sense that you could go to a polling station in one local authority area and get one device, and go to another elsewhere and get another device, would be a retrograde step.
Fazilet Hadi: No. I am not an expert on the Elections Bill, but it seems very much to put it down to the individual electoral officer to decide what is reasonable. I accept that we could be talking in a much wider sense about what is reasonable for any disabled person. As I said earlier, some people might need a slightly higher or lower table in the polling station, depending on whether they are standing up or in a wheelchair. Some people might need a fatter pen because they have dexterity issues, and some people might need some sort of tactile device. In that sense, it is good that the Act tries to cover a broader range of equipment. Nevertheless, I still think that the Government need to specify those types of equipment in guidance and standards. As I said, voters would expect that consistency across the piece. At the moment, the language needs hardening. If the Government’s intention is to make this mandatory, I do not think that that comes across.
You opened your remarks by describing how you felt that the legislation is turning back the clock, particularly for voters who are blind or partially sighted. If I understood correctly, that is because the 1983 Act wording would be rescinded and there would be much more flexibility for local authorities to have potentially quite different ways of supporting blind and partially sighted voters. That would create something of a postcode lottery. What would the challenges then be for voters with a disability or impairment who have perhaps moved house to a different local authority area and might then get a different level of service or a different system to facilitate their needs? Would that be an additional barrier to voting for disabled people?
Fazilet Hadi: I like the words in the Representation of the People Act 1983, “prescribed equipment”. Obviously, guidance can say at any point what that prescribed equipment is for. There might be prescribed equipment for people with other impairments. It is not just tactile devices; it could be adjustable tables or pens that people can grip.
The Government signed up to the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which says that there must be full participation in political and public life for disabled people. It specifies that there must be materials, facilities and procedures that are fully accessible and appropriate. It specifies that there must be a secret ballot. It specifies that there must be assistance from whoever the disabled person chooses. The Human Rights Act 1998 talks about the right to vote and how we all need to have the ability to express our opinion through voting. The Equality Act 2010 puts a public sector equality duty on the Government and local government––any government––to think about what they are doing to promote the interests of, and make reasonable adjustments for, disabled people and others. We have all these laws and a stated intention that this Bill should make things better for participation by disabled people, but it cannot be better for the equipment to be different in different polling stations. For me as an elector, it is about not knowing exactly what I am entitled to, so that I can try to enforce it if I do not get it. Leaving arrangements to the 152 local authorities in England, and I do not know how many in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is totally unacceptable.
Fazilet Hadi: Huge concerns. If we think about who does not have a driving licence or a passport, who does not have a blue badge or a bus pass or a railcard, we are asking those people who have obviously found it unsurmountable for various reasons—those reasons could be cognitive, sensory, digital exclusion; all sorts of reasons—to apply for a card. We are asking the most disadvantaged people in our community, who have not got one of those other cards, to go and apply for a card. It just does not make any sense. These are the people who are least likely to apply for a card. If they could apply for cards and that was easy for them, they would have one of these other cards. I just feel the proposal is completely impracticable.
If we really want the people who are really struggling to vote to come and vote—the people who do not have any of these cards—you can imagine how many challenges that section of the community has, and applying for a voting card would not come anywhere near the top of their to-do list.
“such equipment as it is reasonable…for the purposes of enabling or making it easier for, relevant persons”.
Relevant persons would include blind or partially sighted people, but also people with other disabilities or impairments or difficulties.
Is there any reason why you could not just have both? You could keep the specific provisions, perhaps updating them so we are not limiting this to one specific piece of advice, and making a bit of a tweak so that we talk more generally about equipment that might change over time with technology, but keep those provisions and add in the extra requirement for a wider group of voters who might have difficulty accessing the polling stations. Do you see any incompatibility with that approach?
Fazilet Hadi: No, there is no incompatibility. My main point would be that if there is prescribed equipment—that is not just for blind people; if there is prescribed equipment for wheelchair users or people with dexterity problems—let that be prescribed, so that we get consistency across the board, but let us have an additional provision about how all reasonable adjustments should be made, which is actually just repeating the duty in the Equality Act, because electoral officers are discharging a public function anyway. I do not mind that being repeated, but I do not think we should be confusing prescribing equipment for whichever impairment group needs it with the duty to make reasonable adjustments. They can live together quite harmoniously—I agree.
If there are no further questions from Members, I thank the witness for giving evidence today. It is much appreciated.
Examination of Witness
Dr Alan Renwick gave evidence.
We will now hear oral evidence.
On a point of order, Ms Rees. A motion to approve an instruction has been laid by the Government and will be heard on the Floor of the House on Monday, regarding expanding the Elections Bill to include electoral voting systems, specifically in terms of mayoralties within England and police and crime commissioners. Would it be in order to ask questions of Dr Renwick about electoral systems, given that they are not currently in the scope of the Bill?
My understanding is that matter is not currently in the scope of the Bill. I am aware that the motion is on the Order Paper for Monday.
If it is possible to have a supplementary programme motion, then that could be added, but that is not a matter for me. That is usually done through the usual channels.
Dr Renwick: I am Alan Renwick from the constitution unit at University College London and I lead our work on elections and referendums, and some of our recent work on the structure and functioning of the Union.
Dr Renwick: The principle for a good electoral commission is that it should be independent from the Government. The details of how that works in countries around the world depend a great deal on political culture; it is not just a matter of institutions. I would not attempt to draw a tight parallel between how things work in other countries and how things should work in this country. For example, some countries might have a procedure for appointing members of an electoral commission that might look quite political on the surface, but in practice, given the conventions in that country, it may be properly neutral and protect the commission’s independence. The key thing is how to ensure the independence of the Electoral Commission, alongside the appropriate accountability, in the context of the UK. I am afraid that the Bill’s proposals seem wholly contrary to the principle of independence of the commission.
Independence and accountability matter. It is absolutely right that there should be parliamentary accountability, and there is already a great deal of it. The Electoral Commission is, of course, accountable to the Speaker’s Committee; the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee scrutinises the commission’s work a great deal; and it is also accountable to the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd. I do not think that there is a deficit of accountability of the commission at present.
As for independence, I think that it requires, quite simply, that Parliament lay out the remit of the Electoral Commission, and that must happen through primary legislation, so that Parliament can properly scrutinise and amend that remit. It is not a matter that is written in Government and subject to much more limited parliamentary scrutiny or opportunity for amendment. Parliament should lay down the remit for the commission, which should then get on with delivering that—subject to appropriate scrutiny, as already exists. The idea of having an additional strategy and policy statement written by Ministers, without the appropriate degree of scrutiny, flies in the face of the principle of independence, and therefore seems to be wholly inappropriate.
Dr Renwick: It could potentially create very great tensions. The proposal would clearly require a legislative consent motion in order to be compatible with the Sewel convention. The Counsel General—the Minister in the Welsh Government—has already indicated that he does not recommend that a legislative consent motion be passed on this matter, and I presume the Scottish Parliament will do the same.
This part of the Bill envisages that Ministers in the UK Government, subject to affirmative procedure, would be able to specify guidelines for devolved matters and that Scottish and Welsh Ministers would only be consulted—and, indeed, would only potentially be notified—in the case of amendments to the statement. That seems wholly contrary to the principles of devolution that have been established, and I cannot see any justification for it. The Sewel convention indicates that Westminster will normally not legislate in matters that have been devolved. There is nothing abnormal here, there is nothing unusual and nothing has changed since these matters were devolved to Scotland and Wales—those devolution changes did not take place very long ago—so it seems very problematic.
That also heightens an issue that already exists with the governance of the Electoral Commission: the commissioners themselves are all appointed on the recommendation of the House of Commons, and that on the recommendation of the Speaker’s Committee. The Speaker’s Committee has, in recent appointments of commissioners with responsibility for Scotland and Wales, either consulted the Presiding Officer or the Llywydd, or included a representative of those people in the committee responsible for shortlisting, but that has been entirely at its discretion.
There is a need to review the arrangements for governance of the Electoral Commission in light of the recent devolutions of electoral matters in those areas. The last serious review of this question, conducted by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2007, said at that time that the current governance arrangements were appropriate because those matters were not devolved. These matters have been devolved now, and therefore there is a need for a review.
My impression is that this point has not been thought about terribly much. I do not detect that either the Scottish Government or the Welsh Government have done much detailed thinking on this, but some consideration is needed of how to ensure that the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd are properly represented in these processes.
One final point I should make in this area is one that has been made by others: the fact that the Speaker’s Committee has a majority from a single party is simply indefensible against the principle of independence of electoral processes. That has never happened before—it did not happen when there were large majorities for Governments in the early 2000s; at that time there was no majority for that party in the Speaker’s Committee—but it has been allowed to happen now, which suggests that conventional constraints on the improper exercise of power are not working, to be honest. Legislative action is needed to ensure that there is never a single party majority on the Speaker’s Committee.
Dr Renwick: I am not a lawyer, so I wondered when I looked at those words exactly what they meant, but if they mean what you have described them as meaning, they do not trouble me. It was always the intent of the PPERA legislation passed in 2000 that the Minister with responsibility for elections and the Minister with responsibility for local government should be members of the Speaker’s Committee, and if the change is simply intended to ensure that the Minister who has responsibility for elections can participate, but there are only two Ministers participating, then that change does not seem to me problematic.
Dr Renwick: That is absolutely correct. I do not know what went wrong in this case. I cannot see an argument against the view that something has gone wrong in the current composition of the Speaker’s Committee; it is wrong that it has its current composition. If you look at the 2007 Committee on Standards in Public Life report, there is a quotation from evidence provided by the Speaker’s Committee saying that the convention has been applied and that the Speaker’s appointments will be made such that there is no single party majority. That convention was understood in 2007, and the CSPL at the time recommended that it should be formalised. This has not taken place. Somehow, things went awry at the start of the present Parliament, and I do not know what happened or what went wrong. However, given that it has gone wrong, legislative change is now needed to ensure that it does not go wrong again.
Dr Renwick: I would suggest simply a stipulation that that power be exercised subject to the constraint that there shall never be a majority of MPs from any one party within the membership of the committee.
Your points about the Sewel convention were interesting. I wanted to have your written evidence in front of us, as well as what you have just said. In your written evidence you say the proposed strategy and policy statement violates the Sewel convention. Your words just now were accurate in saying that the Sewel convention says that this House will not normally legislate for affairs that are devolved without consent. You have clarified in your words here today that it is the existence or otherwise of an LCM that would violate the Sewel convention. For absolute clarity, can you confirm that the strategy and policy statement does not, in its own right, violate the Sewel convention, but instead, the behaviour and procedure around it is where you direct those comments?
Dr Renwick: I intentionally changed my comments because what I wrote in my evidence was somewhat inaccurate. What I should have said was, if there is no legislative consent motion on this aspect of the Bill, then the inclusion of the strategy and policy statement as currently set out would violate the Sewel convention. It seems very likely that there will not be a legislative consent motion; that was the presumption I was making, but it was a presumption that I should not have made without clarification.
Dr Renwick: Absolutely. The Welsh Minister in his legislative consent memorandum indicates that he is in conversation with you, which I am very glad to hear, and I hope you will take your normal constructive approach in seeking a solution to this issue.
Dr Renwick: It would be subject to much less scrutiny than primary legislation and it would not be amendable. As far as possible in this area, the principle should be applied that the rules are made in a reasonably consensual cross-party manner. I realise that is very difficult and it is not guaranteed by the primary legislative process, but at least there is a process for proper scrutiny and discussion of the proposals in a cross-party forum. The procedures around the strategies, policies and statements that are indicated in the Bill do not enable that degree of scrutiny, which I think is simply not appropriate.
Dr Renwick: There is the kind of detailed scrutiny that we are having today, for example, in which there is an opportunity for detailed discussion of the proposals to take place. Also, of course, part of what we are doing here today is bringing in the views of a variety of people from beyond Parliament as well. It is essential that the processes of accountability for the Electoral Commission should be both cross-party and non-party. Those two features are essential for ensuring that electoral integrity is maintained for the simple reason that, as a member of the Committee alluded to earlier this afternoon, however wonderful MPs are—I have great respect for MPs; I know some of you on the Committee and I genuinely think you are great people—you have a vested interest in these issues. We are talking about a body that regulates some of the activities of MPs. In that context, it is essential to ensure there is a process that brings in voices from outside Parliament, and the primary legislative process allows that to a much greater degree than does a simple affirmative resolution.
Dr Renwick: Yes. The changes introduced in 2009 with the introduction of party members of the Electoral Commission was a desirable step in ensuring that all voices are properly represented in the governance of the Electoral Commission, and those structures are not changed. As I have indicated, in some respects the governance structures need to be changed, particularly regarding the composition of the Speaker’s Committee and the question of how we reflect the devolved arrangements, but yes, I agree that the arrangements you mentioned are not changed.
Dr Renwick: No, I was not. I would not expect to have been aware necessarily of all the consultations that might have taken place, but I do not recall being aware of the proposals before they were announced by the Minister in June. To be honest, that is problematic. I have expressed concerns about the substance of the proposals, but procedurally there is a difficulty here as well because of the point that I have already alluded to. With the best will in the world, and with full respect to you as MPs, the fact that you have a vested interest in this issue means that it is incumbent upon you to proceed with particular care when you are thinking about electoral matters generally, and particularly the governance of the Electoral Commission.
I think the procedure that ought to be followed in such a case is that there is an independent review before any recommendation such as those that have been introduced here are put forward. That was the case in 2000; the introduction of the Electoral Commission stemmed, if I remember correctly, from the Fifth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The changes in 2009, introducing, among other things, the partisan commissioners, reflected recommendations made in, if I remember correctly, the Eleventh Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. There has been no comparable process in this case. I do not think that that is an appropriate way to introduce significant changes in the governance of the Electoral Commission.
Dr Renwick: I do not think it is for me to speculate on that to be honest. I regret that it has happened in this way. I have great respect for the Minister, and I hope that there may be scope for reconsideration of some of these aspects. For example, as you will all be aware, the CSPL published a report just two days after the Bill was published on the regulation of election finance, which of course is part of what the Bill covers. I would very much hope that the Government have been considering the recommendations made in that report, and might introduce amendments to take account of many of them. I thought it was an excellent report. I hope that there is scope to change elements of the Bill in order to reflect the views that have been heard since its publication, because I do think that steps up to that point were too hasty.
Dr Renwick: The main point is that the governance of the Electoral Commission should stand up to proper scrutiny, and should be appropriately independent. Frankly, I am not sure whether it has much impact on public perceptions. I suspect that most people have higher priorities in mind. Certainly, the measures diminish the integrity of the electoral process, or will do if introduced, and that ought to be regretted. Quite what effect that has on public opinion as such, who knows?