The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chairs: † Rushanara Ali, Sir Edward Leigh, Mark Pritchard, Christina Rees
† Anderson, Fleur (Putney) (Lab)
† Badenoch, Kemi (Minister of State, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)
† 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)
† Harris, Rebecca (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
† Hollern, Kate (Blackburn) (Lab)
† Kruger, Danny (Devizes) (Con)
† Mayhew, Jerome (Broadland) (Con)
† O’Hara, Brendan (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
† Randall, Tom (Gedling) (Con)
† Shelbrooke, Alec (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
† Smith, Cat (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
† Smith, Nick (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
Adam Mellows-Facer, Chris Stanton, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 19 October 2021
[Rushanara Ali in the Chair]
Before we begin, I have a few reminders for the Committee—you heard them this morning, but I am required to repeat them. Could you please switch electronic devices to silent? I encourage all Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other enough space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. Hansard colleagues would appreciate it if Members could email their speaking notes to email@example.com.
We now resume line-by-line consideration of the Bill. Members wishing to press a grouped amendment to a Division should indicate when speaking to it that they wish to do so.
Requirement of secrecy
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The clause concerns the important issue of the secrecy of the ballot for postal and proxy voters. Its purpose is to extend the requirements in place to protect the secrecy of voting for persons voting in polling stations to those voting by postal vote and proxy voting. This change implements a recommendation in the Pickles report, which found that:
“The secrecy of the ballot is fundamental to the ability of voters to cast their vote freely without pressure to vote a certain way.”
This is an important measure to keep our elections up to date, particularly as the rise of digital communication channels and social media could increase the risk that voters experience undue pressure and are compelled by inappropriate influence to take a photo of their postal ballot to show how they have voted. That goes against the fundamental democratic principle that someone’s vote is personal and secret, and we believe that it is unacceptable.
The measure will prevent a person from seeking to find out or communicate information about someone else’s postal vote, such as how the person has voted. The safeguards will also apply to the postal votes of those acting as a proxy for another elector. Additionally, a proxy will not be permitted to disclose information about how they voted, other than to the elector who appointed them. The existing offence in section 66 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 will apply to anyone who contravenes the new provisions related to postal and proxy votes. Voting by post or a proxy are perfectly valid ways in which an elector can choose to cast their ballot and should be protected by the same level of secrecy as in-person voting.
The clause also makes an important change to the existing requirement for a person who assists a blind voter in a polling station to maintain the secrecy of voting. That requirement will be extended to a person assisting a voter who has another disability or who is unable to read.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship this afternoon, Ms Ali. Clause 6 extends the requirement of secrecy to proxy and postal votes, which is a right and proper move. It is fundamental.
The Minister raised in her remarks the principle of free and fair elections. There are many principles that we need to adhere to if we are to have free and fair elections, and there are many things we could do in the Bill to extend those free and fair elections that would improve the Bill.
We support clause 6, but we have a couple of questions. Someone photographing a postal vote and perhaps posting it on their Instagram because they are proud of how they voted is very different from someone taking a photograph of their ballot paper because another person is putting pressure on them to prove that they have voted a certain way. Does the Minister agree that those are two very different issues? How might the provisions of the clause be implemented to differentiate between those two examples? There are those who may be pressured to act in a certain way and to photograph their ballot paper to prove it, but I am sure that all Committee members know of party activists who photograph their own ballot papers and post them on Twitter, saying how proud they are to vote for the A. N. Other party candidate in an election. Those are two very different things. Will the Minister highlight how she envisages that they will be differentiated?
That is an important distinction to make. There are people who inadvertently break the law and those who do it for a different reason. We are trying to prevent failure to maintain secrecy because of undue influence. We will discuss undue influence more generally in the next clause, but this clause ensures that people are not being made to do things that they would not ordinarily do just to prove who they have voted for.
The offence is already in law, so we are not doing something new but extending the offence to postal and proxy votes. We will be carrying on as we are at the moment, but ensuring that the standards for postal and proxy votes are brought up to the same level as those for in-person voting.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 6 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
With this it will be convenient to consider that schedule 4 be the Fourth schedule to the Bill.
It is a core tenet of our democracy that electors should be able to cast their vote free from interference and intimidation. Although it is already an offence to unduly influence an elector, the legislation has not been substantively updated since the 19th century. In the “Protecting the Debate” public consultation, 100% of respondents agreed that the law on undue influence requires greater clarity. The outdated legislation needs to be updated to provide electors with the protection they deserve.
Clause 7 therefore updates the existing electoral offence of undue influence in section 115 of the 1983 Act. It clarifies the types of activity that amount to undue influence, including physical violence, intimidation, damage to a person’s property or reputation, or deceiving a person in relation to the administration of an election. By broadening the scope of what constitutes elector intimidation for the purposes of undue influence, this measure helps to address the concerns raised by both the Pickles report and the Tower Hamlets election court that undue influence currently
“does not penalise thuggish conduct at polling stations of the sort that occurred in 2014”.
The clause maintains the existing offence’s reference to undue spiritual influence, as recommended by the independent Pickles review on electoral fraud. Given their charisma and authority, some spiritual leaders are uniquely able to abuse a person’s religious convictions to change their voting behaviour. However, I also recognise that a degree of spiritual influence is inherent in all positions of religious or spiritual authority.
Undue behaviour does not include, for example, a religious leader expressing their opinion on political or policy matters that have implications for the principles of that religion. It would also not apply in the case of religious groups for whom not voting is an established doctrinal position. It is only when spiritual influence becomes a form of improper pressure that it amounts to undue influence. I want to emphasise that this clause has been crafted to promote the genuine enjoyment of both the freedoms of religion and expression and the right to vote in elections free from spiritual harm or pressure.
Finally, schedule 4 ensures that if a person is guilty of undue influence in relation to any electoral event anywhere in the UK, the resulting incapacity—a 5-year ban on being elected to or holding certain offices—should apply consistently to elected offices across the UK.
The clause makes undue influence clearer to interpret and enforce, and I therefore urge that the clause and its associated schedule stand part of the Bill.
I thank the Minister for her remarks and echo the fact that for many of us, our politics and our faith are entwined. Indeed, our faith backgrounds often influence our politics and guide our values, so I am glad for her clarification and remarks.
The report that she highlighted recommended improvements around the existing corrupt practice of undue influence, which is subject to an offence designed to protect electors from malicious interference and intimidation. The main purpose of the clause is to clarify the activities that constitute undue influence in order to make the legislation easier to interpret. For that reason, the Opposition will support it.
We are pleased that Ministers backed away from creating a new offence, given that the existing criminal law is perfectly capable of dealing with intimidation and harassment. The enforcement of the law is the problem, and an update of section 115 of the 1983 Act, which, as the Minister pointed out, originated in the 19th century, is long overdue.
Although we welcome the clause, it is just a small step forward. We are disappointed not to see the comprehensive and joined-up reform of electoral law that is required.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 7 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 4 agreed to.
Assistance with voting for persons with disabilities
I beg to move amendment 60, in clause 8, page 11, leave out lines 16 to 27 and insert—
“(a) in paragraph (3A)(b), for ‘a device’ substitute ‘equipment’;
(b) after paragraph (3A)(b) insert—
‘(c) such equipment as it is reasonable to provide for the purposes of enabling, or making it easier for, relevant persons to vote in the manner directed by rule 37.’;
(c) after paragraph (3A) insert—
‘(3B) In paragraph (3A)(c), “relevant persons” means persons who find it difficult or impossible to vote in the manner directed by rule 37 because of a disability.’”
This amendment would retain the requirement for returning officers to make specific provision at polling stations to enable voters who are blind or partially-sighted to vote without any need for assistance from the presiding officer or any companion and change the nature of that provision from “a device” to “equipment”.
With this it will be convenient to discuss clause stand part.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali.
The amendment, which was tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute, is pretty straightforward and simple. It preserves and enhances current provisions and protections for blind and partially sighted people, while incorporating the Government’s new provisions for people with all other kinds of disabilities to be fully supported when casting their vote. The 1983 Act, as amended, provides that:
“The returning officer shall also provide each polling station with—
(a) at least one large version of the ballot paper which shall be displayed inside the polling station for the assistance of voters who are partially-sighted”.
I am sure that we are all familiar with seeing the big ballot papers up, and I think that they are probably a help for most voters going into the polling station, irrespective of whether they are partially sighted. The Act states that the returning officer shall also provide:
“(b) a device of such description as may be prescribed for enabling voters who are blind or partially-sighted to vote without any need for assistance from the presiding officer or any companion”.
Clause 8 removes subparagraph (b) and replaces it with a more general requirement for returning officers to provide
“such equipment as it is reasonable to provide for the purposes of enabling, or making easier for, relevant persons to vote in the manner directed by rule 37.”
During the oral evidence sessions, the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), argued that the provision expands and enhances the duties of returning officers and will not diminish the support currently available for blind and partially sighted people. I suspect her successor will say the same. That does not necessarily reflect the reality on the ground. Even with the current RPA requirements, the Royal National Institute of Blind People estimates that four in five blind people cannot vote independently and in secret. Its researchers found that 46% of blind and partially sighted people—less than half—are satisfied with their experience of voting, and at polling stations nearly two thirds of blind people, 61%, and a third of partially sighted people, 32%, had to get another person to help them to vote.
I am sure that Members have read the written evidence submitted to the Committee by the RNIB—EB04—which contains some quotes from respondents to the survey and research that the RNIB has carried out. One says
“The lady had to read out the candidates to me and point out the one that I wanted to vote for. It was slightly humiliating… Don’t get me wrong—the ladies were lovely and kind but it wasn’t secret or independent.”
“I usually have my partner with me to help, which makes things easier, but today I was alone, which made me realise just how dependent I am on others. Very negative from start to finish.”
That evidence went on to say:
“In 2019, a Judicial Review found the Government’s current provisions to support blind and partially sighted voters unlawful, with the judge describing existing provisions as ‘a parody of the electoral process’ because of the inability for voters to review the ballot paper independently using equipment provided and then make their mark.”
That is 150 years since the Ballot Act 1872 provided for everyone to have the right to vote in secret.
I suspect that we will hear from the Minister that the Cabinet Office—well, it was the Cabinet Office, but perhaps it is now the levelling-up Department or whoever is in charge—or the Government collectively are engaging with the RNIB to update the technology to improve the provisions. That is great, and that is a simple matter of fact: they are working with the stakeholders and that is welcome. However, the same stakeholders are clear that the Bill as drafted represents a diminishment of the current rights afforded to blind and partially sighted people.
The amendment has the active support of the RNIB and a range of other disability rights organisations who submitted a statement as written evidence to the Committee—paper EB07—which I am sure members of the Committee, and those on the Government Benches in particular, are familiar with. The statement, which was supported, by the RNIB, Age UK, the Business Disability Forum, Leonard Cheshire, Sense and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, says:
“While we support efforts to improve accessibility for everyone, changes to benefit other disabled voters do not need to replace provisions provided for blind and partially sighted people… We see no reason why wording to allow blind or partially-sighted people to ‘to vote without any need for assistance’ using adaptations prescribed by Government should not be maintained given the fundamental and unique challenges blind and partially sighted people face in casting a vote.”
That point was reflected in oral evidence heard by the Committee. The head of policy at Disability Rights UK, Fazilet Hadi, said:
“My main point would be that if there is prescribed equipment…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… 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.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 16 September 2021; c. 113-4, Q174.]
In that evidence, we hear one of the key points: the Equality Act 2010 already obliges returning officers to make reasonable adjustments to support disabled voters, which is essentially what the clause provides for. It is not clear what the clause adds, but it is clear what it removes.
Amendment 60 would change a reference in the RPA to provision of “a device” to provision of “equipment”. That would help answer the point about moving to more sophisticated technology than the current tactile voting device, which sits on top of the ballot paper and has tactile and Braille numbers associated with each candidate to allow the list of candidates to be read out and the voter to make a fold to make their choice in secret. However, as we have heard and as the research shows, that is not the experience of every blind and partially sighted voter. The change of “a device” to “equipment” would allow for a little more flexibility and modernisation in exactly what provision is made, while retaining the specific requirement to support blind and partially sighted voters.
The amendment ought to be relatively straightforward and acceptable to the Government. Aside from the small change from “a device” to “equipment”, it does not ask election officials to do anything new or different from what they are already supposed to do—even if that is not happening in practice. It would also retain the Government’s wording in the clause.
I hope that the Minister will find a way to support the amendment, although precedent suggests that that will not be the case. If I am not to be proved wrong, will she at least outline the reassurances that the Government will provide to blind and partially sighted people who simply want to exercise their right to vote independently and in secret?
Although the Government share the aim of elections being accessible to all voters, we cannot agree to the amendment because it is needlessly prescriptive. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments, which were not bad ones. I understand what he is saying, but we disagree on what the clause is trying to do.
I emphasise firmly that the principle underpinning the change is to make elections more accessible to a wider range of disabled voters. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s agreement with the provision to include, for the first time in law, a requirement for returning officers to consider the needs of voters with a wide range of disabilities when providing equipment for polling stations. However, I do not agree with the proposal to keep a piece of specific, prescribed equipment for one subset of disabled voters.
Our experience with prescribing assistive equipment in law is that it can become an obstacle to wider inclusion and innovation more generally. A prescriptive approach in legislation makes changes difficult when better solutions are developed, and it also becomes an impediment to their development. We believe it is better to allow returning officers that flexibility to tailor the equipment they provide to suit the needs of voters in their area.
Has the Minister been able to meet the RNIB? I have met its representatives and heard their concerns, and we have all seen their written evidence. They discussed their concern about the word “reasonable”, as it will not widen access to means of voting but reduce it because there will be inconsistency: what is deemed reasonable will be different at different polling stations, instead of being consistent for all people. That may mean that instead of access being widened there will actually be nothing.
I have not personally been able to meet the RNIB, but I believe that officials and possibly my predecessor did—[Interruption.] My officials are confirming that that is the case. We have seen its evidence and we believe that these changes are proportionate. We do not expect the outcomes that the RNIB has outlined to necessarily be the case.
I am a patron of a sight organisation in my constituency called Support 4 Sight, and I have discussed the issue with its representatives. They raised this legislation with me during a surgery and I was able to reassure them. I will be happy to write to the RNIB, as the Bill progresses and as we consider the secondary legislation, to see what other reassurances we can provide for it.
Sorry, I have lost my place in my notes—bear with me just a moment.
Perhaps the Minister will be interested to learn that one of the pilots for new equipment for people with disabilities—particularly the blind—was undertaken in my constituency. I had a meeting with the chief executive of my local authority to discuss how that pilot went; it was quite small, involving, from memory, seven to 11 people, but the new equipment did seem to voters’ experience. Is the Minister concerned that there will be a dead hand on innovation if we are too prescriptive in the drafting of the clause?
I do thank my hon. Friend for that intervention—[Laughter.]
As I was saying, it is better to allow returning officers the flexibility to tailor the equipment they provide to suit the needs of voters in their area. The new requirement will also be supported by Electoral Commission guidance, which will be developed in conjunction with organisations representing a wide range of disabled people and will support returning officers to make positive decisions to support disabled electors. Retaining a specific prescriptive requirement is an unnecessary obstacle to inclusion, as I mentioned earlier; it is also a significant challenge for those who administer elections, as I am informed we heard in evidence to the Committee before I took up this post.
I would like to provide a little additional reassurance to the hon. Member for Glasgow North. I understand the problem that he believes he is trying to solve. It is important to emphasise that we are not removing the requirement to support blind and partially sighted voters; we are only changing how that is delivered. The current requirement is too restrictive: providing only a single device is an obstacle to innovation and wider inclusion. Our approach will ensure that the most suitable support is provided at polling stations.
The hon. Member for Putney referred to the RNIB, and I can provide additional reassurance. We are trying to make elections as accessible as possible for all those eligible to vote. That is why, for example, we are removing restrictions on who can act as a companion to support electors with disabilities to cast their votes. For the first time in electoral law, we are also putting in place a broader requirement in respect of equipment at polling stations, and that should help more disabled people.
What we are doing will provide additional accessibility, as I will discuss when I speak to clause 8. We respectfully ask that the amendment be withdrawn.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North on tabling this amendment. It was so good that I tried to table exactly the same amendment a day after him, but he beat me to it, so he is nimble on his feet as well. We share the concerns that he and the RNIB have raised that the Bill weakens protections for blind and partially sighted voters by removing the limited legal protections that used to exist. Removing the requirement to provide tactile voting devices leaves blind and partially sighted voters somewhat to a postcode lottery.
I see where the Minister is coming from, but I disagree. While she sees it as prescriptive and stifling innovation, I see it as providing a baseline for a level playing field. That does not stop returning officers being innovative. Obviously as technology advances we will come across things that will help us to make voting more accessible for people of many disabilities or impairments. The legislation as it stands creates the risk of a postcode lottery with different systems being used in different areas. Although that might open up to innovation, it risks leaving some blind and partially sighted voters without adequate systems in place to help them to vote in secret and independently.
The RNIB has been consistent and has done excellent reports after every major national election outlining just how few blind and partially sighted voters get the opportunity to vote independently and in secret. It is something that I have raised many times over the years and I had higher expectations for the Bill. I am disappointed that clause 8 does not go far enough. We support the general gist of the clause in terms of making voting more accessible for those with disabilities, but it really only scratches the surface of the quite radical action that is needed to make our democracy more accessible to disabled people.
I share the concerns of the disability charity Sense that the Bill could have the dangerous consequence of removing the fundamental principle that electoral staff must enable voters to vote without any need for assistance. Although a broader duty designed to enable all disabled people to vote is a good thing, the wording of the new duty does not carry over the previous requirement to enable voters to vote without any need for assistance. As a result, I think polling stations will not be required to ensure that disabled people can vote independently. I seek the Minister’s clarification on that.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, though I am greatly disappointed both in the Minister for not having met with the Royal National Institute of Blind People and in my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North. She said that she listened carefully to his argument, and if he had just been more persuasive, this could have been the first time in 38 years when a Minister was persuaded to change her mind. Really, Minister? Let us be honest: this amendment is never going to pass because the Government have an entrenched position on it, and they were never going to listen to reasonable and decent arguments put forward by a reasonable and decent charity.
Fundamentally, voting is a visual exercise, and the frustration and humiliation felt by blind and partially sighted people at their inability to vote independently and in secret has been an open sore for many years. This afternoon, Government Members have talked extensively about secrecy and the privacy of the ballot, but that does not seem to extend to blind and partially sighted people. There are currently 350,000 voters in the UK who cannot vote without having to share their preference with a returning officer or anyone who happens to be within listening distance. Four fifths of blind or partially sighted people said that they were unable to vote independently and in secret.
Respondents to the RNIB survey said such things as:
“The voting booth was right beside the queue for the check in desk; it wasn’t closed off and I had to verbalise my choice to my partner…a person, waiting in the queue beside the booth, audibly sighed. I don’t feel I get privacy”.
Another respondent said:
“My helper disagrees with my vote and I have no way to be sure she voted as I wished”.
Another said that
“it’s a totally humiliating experience from start to finish,”
and the whole thing is predicated on
“assumptions that everyone can see.”
Things are far from perfect at the moment, but the RNIB, which is the UK’s leading sight loss charity, is extremely concerned that the Bill will make a bad situation even worse, as it weakens the protections that exist and could make it even harder for blind or partially sighted people to cast their vote independently and in secret. Could the Minister tell me what experience the Government have and what expertise they drew upon in reaching their conclusion that the RNIB does not have? What sources of evidence did they seek to get to this point that the UK’s leading sight loss charity, which she has not met, does not have?
The Minister said that the Government are not removing existing protections, but that is exactly what they are doing. They are literally removing the existing provisions in the RPA and putting in a different clause. She said that the amendment would be needlessly prescriptive, but the amendment simply retains the current legislation and the language that is currently in the Bill, thanks to the ingenuity of those who helped us to draft the amendment.
As all Opposition Members who have spoken have said, the concerns are raised clearly by the RNIB. I refer again to the written evidence that it submitted. In paragraph 2.7 it said that
“in the revised wording proposed, an individual returning officer could in theory decide that even the tactile voting device is not ‘reasonable’ to provide, lessening the accessibility of voting even compared to today.”
To the point that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood made, the RNIB also said:
“Moving the decision regarding what adaptations to provide to returning officer level would result in even more of a patchwork of provision and make it very difficult for blind and partially sighted people to know what to expect and to obtain the adjustments they need, damaging the ability to vote independently even further.”
The amendment would retain the Government’s wording and what is in the existing legislation, so we are providing a double level of support for blind and partially sighted people, and other people who require specific reasonable adjustments. I did not quite catch what the Minister said in response to the intervention on whether she had met with the RNIB. It is understandable that she is new in post and has not had time to meet with it, but I hope that she was not saying that she would not meet with it in future. I hope that she will give an undertaking to do so.
I am disappointed that the Government are not supporting the amendment, and I think that blind and partially sighted people who are following these proceedings would also be disappointed if we did not test the will of the Committee by pressing the amendment to a vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Adjourned till Thursday 21 October at half-past Eleven o’clock.
Written evidence to be reported to the House
EB06 Antisemitism Policy Trust
EB07 Royal National Institute of Blind People, Age UK, Business Disability Forum, Leonard Cheshire, Sense & Royal National Institute for Deaf People (joint submission)
EB08 Law Society of Scotland (further submission)
EB09 British in Europe