[Relevant documents: Fifth Report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of Session 2021-22, The Elections Bill, HC 597, and the Government Response, HC 1133; Second Report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, The Work of the Electoral Commission, HC 462; Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 1 March 2022 on the work of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, HC 1066; Correspondence between the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities of 12 April, 25 April, 19 July and 30 August 2022.]
I beg to move,
That the draft Voter Identification Regulations 2022, which were laid before this House on 3 November, be approved.
This statutory instrument is a key part of how we implement the voter identification policy in the Elections Act 2022. This area was debated extensively during the passage of the Act earlier this year. Through this SI, we will be fulfilling a Government manifesto commitment to protect the integrity of our democracy by introducing identification to vote at polling stations. Gaps in our current legislation leave open the potential for someone to cast another vote at the polling station. Our priority is adopting legislation that ensures the public can have confidence in the integrity of our elections and certainty that their vote belongs to them, and them alone.
The introduction of a voter identification policy is the best solution to the problem. It has been long called for by the independent Electoral Commission, as well as by international organisations, such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which regularly monitors and reports on our national polls.
The Minister mentions the Electoral Commission. It issued a press statement at the weekend that expressed continued concerns about the delays in the Government getting their act together on this policy. It said it was not now sure that all the considerations it wanted taken into account to ensure the policy works properly could fully be met. That was in the press release. That comes alongside the Local Government Association and other council leaders expressing real concerns about whether this matter could be implemented properly and fairly and give people full access to voting in the May local elections. Does the Minister not just want to stop and think for a minute about the timing of the implementation, if not the policy itself?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. We absolutely are thinking about how best to implement this policy. In the period while I have been in post, I have already met the Electoral Commission to talk about it. I have spoken to the Association of Electoral Administrators about it, and today I have spoken to the LGA about it. There are a range of views, but we are confident and focused on ensuring that this policy is implemented properly. We will continue to be so. On the key point, the Electoral Commission has been clear since as early as 2014 that
“we should move to a system where voters are required to produce identification at polling stations.”
This SI sets out further detail on the new processes that will be put in place to help us to implement this policy in practice. First, it sets out the updated polling station conduct rules for a range of elections and referendums, and details exactly how photographic identification documents will be checked and how data will be recorded by polling station staff. Secondly, it sets out a series of updates to election forms. As Members would expect, a number of existing forms, such as poll cards, have been updated to inform electors of the new requirement to show identification and of the types of documents that will be accepted.
On top of those changes, there are also new forms, such as those for polling station staff, which we will use to record data that will help our planned reviews of the policy in the future. Lastly, the policy sets out the details of the new electoral identity documents that can be obtained if someone does not already have an accepted document: the voter authority certificate and the anonymous elector document. These forms of photographic identification will be available to voters free of charge and will ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote will continue to have the opportunity to do so.
I might be one of the minority on the Opposition Benches who think that what the Government are bringing forward is the right thing. The proof of pudding is in how the voter ID system works in Northern Ireland. The system sets the example for all the UK, and I know the Minister has had many discussions with his officials in Northern Ireland to ensure that the system in Northern Ireland can work here. It reduces electoral fraud and increases fairness in the democratic system. The Minister has had discussions with Northern Ireland, and electoral ID is of some use to people in their daily life. Those are four things going for it; it seems to me to be the thing to vote for. I just cannot understand why anybody would not.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for outlining the importance of these policy changes. I fear it may be the only thing we agree with coming from the Opposition Benches tonight, but he has made an important point and he speaks from experience and more than 15 years of knowledge about how these kinds of changes make a difference to the integrity of our voter process.
As someone who served on the Elections Public Bill Committee, I know that the regulations that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to were actually brought in under a Labour Government. Might the Minister like to comment on that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I look forward to hearing Opposition Front Benchers’ comments in support of this statutory instrument, based on their previous support for strengthening the integrity of our democratic processes.
This SI also sets out the processes for how electors can apply for these documents, both online and via paper forms, and for how electoral registration officers can process, determine and issue the documents. Showing photo ID is a part of day-to-day life for people in all walks of life. It is a perfectly reasonable and proportionate way to confirm that a person is who they say they are when it comes to voting.
I reassure the Minister that surely the Opposition will support this statutory instrument, because only three weeks ago, my Labour opponent was selected and as part of the rules for the hustings, people had to bring voter ID.
My hon. Friend makes a significant intervention that highlights the importance of consistency, which I am sure will shortly be coming from those on the Opposition Front Bench. Showing photo ID is a part of day-to-day life already, and as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has already outlined, it has been a requirement to show photographic identification since 2003 in Northern Ireland.
We are all rightly proud of the long history of our democracy, but we should never take it for granted. An essential part of how we keep our system functioning is by keeping the right structures in place, through measures such as this SI, that stop our elections being undermined. This SI will strengthen the integrity of our elections, and I hope that Members will join me in supporting these measures.
Order. I remind hon. Members that this is not a general debate on voter ID; it is about the regulations that pertain to it, so I ask people to stick to the regulations.
I would like to say that it is a pleasure to speak in this debate, but frankly, I am sad that we have reached this point. It is a stain on Britain’s democratic history that, if the Government have their way with these regulations, we will take a historic step away from making our democracy more open and accessible and towards closing it down, shutting people out and making it harder to vote.
Opposition Members have been clear from the start that this legislation is a wasted opportunity. It is a step backwards at a time when so many improvements are needed to widen participation in our democracy and to make it fit for the 21st century. The regulations arise from a slapdash, short-sighted and politically motivated act that turns the clock back on democratic progress. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for his work throughout the stages of the Elections Act 2022, highlighting the dangers of mandatory photo ID, which we are debating today. I thank him for helping to secure this debate on the Floor of the House when Ministers would no doubt have preferred to sneak it through upstairs.
The basic fact is that voter ID is not only a backwards step for democracy, but completely pointless. It is a solution in search of a problem. Ministers claim it will combat voter fraud, but voter personation—the voter fraud which voter ID apparently targets—is vanishingly rare. Over the last 10 years, there have been about 243 million votes cast in elections, and how many people have been convicted of voter fraud? Four. That is 0.00000005%. I am under no illusion that the Government are in the slightest bit interested in genuinely tackling fraud. The Tories’ Minister responsible for fraud summarised it when he resigned at the Dispatch Box, saying that the Government had
“no knowledge of, or little interest in, the consequences of fraud to our economy or society.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 January 2022; Vol. 818, c. 20.]
While the Government focus on measures like these regulations, serious fraud, where criminals target vulnerable people with scams to steal bank details, is running rife under this Government. Our economy loses around £190 billion every year to fraud—more than the UK spends on health and defence combined. People are being left terrorised by scammers pretending to be their banks, mobile networks or family members, but instead of actually tackling that, the Government are using parliamentary time to tackle the virtually non-existent crime of voter personation, costing millions of pounds in taxpayers’ money to boot.
Will the right hon. Member explain why, if the system is so bad, it is used in Labour selections?
I have just explained why this is such a tiny, not even significant, minuscule issue that the Government are trying to make hay over, when, in fact, we have fraud that results in people being terrorised by scammers pretending to be their banks. Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being wasted on this Bill instead of dealing with the fraud that the hon. Member’s constituents have to face every single day, which is not being tackled. He needs to tackle that.
Perhaps the Minister lives in a bizarre alternative reality where, across the country, people are attempting to impersonate their neighbours to steal their votes, but meanwhile, in this universe, you are more likely to be hit by lightning 54 times than fall victim to voter personation fraud. So let us get back to the reality that we face. The British public face a cost of living crisis, freezing temperatures, with people too scared to put their heating on, and cancelled Christmases, with working parents unable to afford festive treats. And this Conservative Government are planning to spend £180 million of taxpayers’ money to introduce a completely pointless and eye-wateringly expensive change.
We heard evidence from the police in the Bill Committee. They thought that the measures on voter ID and the extra measures that we are taking to avoid intimidation would make the Act really useful for them on polling day, so that they can get on with the job that we want them to do—that is, to keep our communities safe—and not have to spend as much time dealing with cases of personation at polling stations.
I say to the hon. Member: show us the evidence. Where is the evidence of that? We have not seen the evidence, but we do know that people are choosing between heating and eating this winter. We do know that crime is on the rise and that people just do not see the police on the beat any more. We do know that people are targeted by online fraud every single day of the week, with no protection and no action by their Government.
I ask the Minister: why will he not spend his time and energy tackling the huge array of issues that face the British people instead of flushing away yet more hard-earned taxpayers’ cash on this pointless measure? I might be able to hazard a guess. I notice that the regulations allow 60-plus, but not 18-plus, Oyster cards—why is that? I notice that OAP bus passes will be valid, yet students IDs will not—why is that? I notice that some 4.2 million voters do not have a photo ID allowed by these regulations, yet the Government demand that we plough on—why is that?
The Minister said that voter ID does not discriminate, but I am afraid that the evidence does not quite stack up. When the Minister’s colleague, a former Cabinet Office Minister—the right hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith)—said that
“the evidence of our pilots shows that there is no impact on any particular demographic group from this policy.”—[Official Report, 11 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 394.]—
the answer was based on the Electoral Commission’s evaluations of the 2018 and 2019 voter ID pilots. However, in its most recent report, the commission said that it had no way of measuring the effect of voter ID on minority communities. It said:
“Polling station staff were not asked to collect demographic data about the people who did not come back, owing to the practical challenges involved in carrying out that data collection exercise”.
Let us take a look into the pilots more closely. Pilots for voter ID took place in just 10 local authority areas in England. In all elections that took place in 2019, there was one conviction and one police caution for using someone else’s vote at a polling station, but during the pilots, 2,000 people were turned away because they did not come to the polling station with ID. More than 750 of those did not return with ID to cast their vote. How can the Minister stand there and tell us that these measures will not make it harder for people to vote? Perhaps they are less keen on having the Government chosen by the voters than having the voters chosen by the Government.
I come on to the Government’s so-called “free elector IDs”. Not only are they unworkable, they are hugely expensive for already overstretched local authorities. Council leaders have warned the Government that voter ID risks damaging access to democracy and must be delayed. They say that there is simply not enough time to deal with all the risks that will be created by the new system. I wonder what the Minister has to say to the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association, James Jamieson, who said that voter ID must be delayed because:
“It is a fundamental part of the democratic process that elections can run smoothly and effectively where every citizen is able to exercise their right to vote.”
What does the Minister have to say to the leader of his party’s councillors?
The language and politics around voter ID used by this Government is frankly dangerous. Does the Minister not trust the voters of this country to continue to cast their ballots securely, as they have done for generations? Does he really believe that voting is not safe and secure in Britain? Ministers should be promoting confidence in our elections, not spreading baseless scare stories that threaten our democracy.
Finally, the Minister will be aware of an amendment tabled in the other place by my noble Friends on the Labour Front Bench to establish a Select Committee to conduct an assessment of the impact of the voter ID regulations on turnout in the local elections next May. If the Minister is so confident that the regulations will not create barriers to people voting, surely he cannot object to that pragmatic, common-sense proposal. Surely he has absolutely nothing to be afraid of.
I urge Members across the House, when they enter the voting Lobbies this evening, to think about our constituents who have the right to vote and may have done so for decades, but will be turned away for the first time in May. It is for that fundamental reason that these backward, unworkable and anti-democratic regulations must be stopped in their tracks.
I will make just a few quick comments. My seat of North Swindon, as part of the Swindon Borough Council area, was part of one of the initial pilots in 2017 or 2018, so I want to make a few observations. First, turnout was up, not down. Secondly, when the pilot came to an end and we were not made part of the bigger pilot, we were inundated with complaints, because people thought that the new system was far better. That is why I am very pleased to advocate this welcome change.
I have a bit of a soft spot for the deputy leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), perhaps because we have similar music tastes. She talked about trusting people. I have now had not one, not two, not three, not four, but five Labour opponents. I can assure her that every single time one of them has been selected, the adverts for the selection meetings—in which, of course, we take a mild interest—very clearly say, “You must bring voter ID.”
The whole thrust of the argument against the draft regulations is that the number of people looking to cheat the system is so small. That seems to indicate that the right hon. Lady believes that North Swindon Labour party members must all be truly terrible people—that the terrible people must all be consolidated there. I want to reassure her that that is not the case. They are actually very nice people.
The hon. Gentleman is misinterpreting the Labour rules, is he not? They do not require photo ID; they require any ID. They allow student ID, student bus cards and student railcards, all of which the Government have excluded in their gerrymandering efforts. Does he acknowledge that this Government have gerrymandered voter ID?
The hon. Gentleman, bless him, has got absolutely muddled. As he would have seen from the pilots if he had taken the time to look, anybody can access IDs. They are commissioned by the local authorities. It is straightforward.
The proof of the pudding was that turnout in Swindon was up during the pilot. Sadly, that pilot came to an end and we were not part of the second pilot, so we were inundated with complaints. People want to have trust in our democracy. The regulations are a brilliant thing to have brought forward.
The hon. Member talks about increased turnout. One of the highest turnouts in British history was for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, which had a very clear result: Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. A conspiracy theory was circulated at the time that votes would be altered if people put their cross in the box with a pencil instead of a biro or a pen. That was rubbished by the general public and put in the dustbin where it belonged. Should we not trust the great British public to get these things right, as they have in the past?
Yes, it is about trust: trust in our world-leading democracy and trust in making sure that we can safeguard what matters. I will not stray into conspiracy theories about Scottish elections, but trust is the proof of the pudding. When there was a pilot in my constituency, voter turnout went up and people complained when the pilot came to an end. It is quite straightforward.
The hon. Member talks about trust. Trust is incredibly important, so can he tell me why anybody should trust the Conservative party when it comes to voter fraud, given that its last leadership election—not the coronation that we have just had, but the leadership election—was delayed because of security fears and possible breaches of ballot paper processes?
If there is ever any question of any threat in any form, it should always be investigated. The sun comes up in the morning—it is that obvious.
I say to the Minister: hold firm. This is what the public want. It has worked in the pilots, and proceeding with it is an absolute must.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
When we stand for election, every one of us appeals to the electorate to get out and vote. We impress on them how important it is that they use their democratic right to express their will through the ballot box. We want bigger turnouts and we seek more and better engagement, yet voter ID will have a detrimental effect on turnouts. We know that because we can measure it.
The UK Government have tried on several occasions to justify voter identification cards by stating that they already exist within the UK: they are used in Northern Ireland. What they cannot say with any conviction is that they have been a success in Northern Ireland. In fact, the turnout in the first election in Northern Ireland after photographic ID was introduced was 2.3% down. If we extrapolate from the data to a UK general election, approximately 1.1 million people would not vote. That would not fall evenly across the population, so who is it that we are disenfranchising?
Angela Kitching, head of external affairs at Age UK, points out that the Government’s own research has found that 6% of people over 70 would have problems with presenting the right kind of ID. It is reasonable to believe that that estimate is low, because the UK Government did not include the 500,000 people in care homes and sheltered accommodation in their research. It is no surprise that Angela Kitching has described the idea as being “for the fairies”.
The Royal National Institute of Blind People says that
“this will disproportionately disenfranchise blind and partially sighted people, particularly older blind and partially sighted people.”
The Royal Mencap Society has raised concerns that
“voter ID could simply result in yet another barrier to people with a learning disability participating in elections.”
Sense, the national charity that supports people with complex disabilities, has also raised concerns, saying:
“Given the barriers that already face disabled people while voting, Sense is concerned that this could make it harder for some disabled people to vote.”
Concerns have been raised by groups representing LGBTQ+ communities, including the LGBT Foundation, Mermaids and Stonewall. The Runnymede Trust has raised concerns that introducing a voter ID requirement would add further barriers to voting for black and ethnic minority groups.
Those groups should not be disadvantaged. Their votes and their views are not worth less. Pilots have shown that 30% of people who had their ballot paper refused for lack of ID did not return later with an ID to vote. Were all those people trying to impersonate someone? I do not think so.
As has been mentioned, this measure will disproportion-ately impact younger voters. ID such as an Oyster 60+ card is valid, but an Oyster 18+ card is not. Despite the calls for railcards or student IDs to be accepted, the Government have refused.
Of course, change attracts a financial cost. Disappoint-ingly, the UK Government do not know how much this change will cost. Their assessment is £150 million, based on an assumed take-up of 2%, but a UK Government survey found that 31% of people said they would apply for a voter ID card. The impact assessment estimates that an additional £10.2 million should be added for each additional percentage point, which brings the cost of that 31% to £450 million.
In truth, we do not know, because the people surveyed were not informed of the existing photographic ID that would be acceptable, nor were they informed that out-of-date photographic ID would be acceptable. There is more confusion on which we are supposed to legislate: we need a clearer explanation of how having a period of validity for a voter card could work if its expiry date was not a bar to using it for its sole purpose at a polling station.
What is driving this change? Photographic voter ID is supposed to be required to address the issue of personation —occasions when somebody pretends to be another elector and votes on their behalf. We are asking people who work a very long day in polling places to verify visually that each voter looks like the photo ID that they present and, if they are not happy, to refuse that person the right to vote. That is a burden that will weigh heavily on many of those who, until now, have diligently staffed polling places.
For us to go to such lengths as introducing photographic voter ID, placing such a burden on electoral staff and risking disenfranchising 1.1 million voters, personation would have to be a massive problem. Yet, as the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) said, with more than 58 million votes cast in elections in 2019, there were 33 counts of personation at a polling station. As we have heard, that comprises 0.000057%. When we consider the number of people cautioned for or convicted of personation, the proportion is reduced to 0.0000035% of votes cast. This is a sledgehammer looking for a nut to crack. It is a solution looking for a problem. The long and short of it is that this legislation has been pushed through with little substantial evidence of its value.
For as long as Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom and Westminster has the power to affect the voting franchise and the electoral process in Scotland—even if that involves elections to this place—we in the Scottish National party will hold Westminster to account, and will demand that any changes must be transparent, considered, constructive and inclusive. The motion does not satisfy those criteria.
I have listened with great interest to the Minister’s assurances to the House and the country, but it will not surprise Conservative Members to learn that I am not assured, nor will my constituents be assured.
Tony Benn talked of the importance of the vote. He talked very movingly of the way in which universal suffrage had helped to transfer power from the marketplace to the ballot box, giving our citizens the right to obtain through voting what they could not obtain through their wallets, whether it be free healthcare, free education, or a say in our country’s laws. That right is under threat from these regulations, which are littered with discriminatory inconsistencies. They are not, in fact, a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but, in my view, a deliberate voter suppression strategy—a strategy not to suppress just any voters, but to suppress certain groups of voters in particular.
These regulations are straight out of the right-wing United States Republican playbook. Over there, they try to find ways of stopping people being able to vote. How else can we explain the way in which young people are discriminated against in the regulations? I believe they are a deliberate voter suppression strategy against working-class communities in particular, and, in particular, black and ethnic minority working-class communities and young working-class people, because the Conservatives have taken the view that those are the people who are less likely to vote for them.
The regulations also have a broader context that should disturb all of us who are concerned about hard-won British democratic freedoms. In our society, there are three main ways for people to fight back against unpopular policies or express discontent with a Government they do not like, or an employer they do not like. There is the right to protest peacefully, the right to take industrial action and withdraw labour, and, of course, the right to vote. These regulations on voter ID need to be seen within the context of an authoritarian drift on the part of a Government who have in their sights the right to protest peacefully, the right to take strike action, and the right to vote with ease. That is profoundly disturbing. The Members on the other side of the debate are probably split between those who believe that this is necessary and desirable and those who do not really believe that it is necessary and desirable, but are going along with it because they are going along with that authoritarian drift.
Even if we were to accept the introduction of voter ID, which I and others certainly do not, when we look at the inconsistencies in the regulations with regard to which voter ID is acceptable and which is not, we see that it is a real dog’s dinner—a real anti-democratic dog’s dinner. These regulations should send a shiver down the spines of all those who believe in civil and democratic liberties in our society. They should send a shiver down the spines of people, regardless of their political views, who believe that the right of every citizen to vote, the right of every worker to withdraw labour and the right of every citizen to engage in peaceful protest are rights that were hard won and should be cherished and defended. It is because we defend those hard-won civil liberties and principles that we oppose these regulations, and oppose this Government’s disgraceful authoritarian drift.
The proposal will result in voter suppression, and I want to raise a number of concerns about its implementation, based on feedback from colleagues on Plymouth City Council, which represents one of the poorest communities in the country. Being in the south-west of England, surrounded by lovely beaches and gorgeous countryside, we are often not considered to be one of the poorest communities, but many of the problems experienced by some of the poorest communities in the north and the midlands are also present in the south-west.
I greatly fear that this proposal will not increase turnout, and I think that any Government who seek to introduce electoral reforms with the objective of not increasing turnout should look again at why they are doing it. What is their motivation? The proposal will cut turnout; in certain target demographics, the Conservative party will have a partisan advantage over other parties, which should also make us look again at the reasons for the proposal.
Many of the concerns were expressed during a group discussion between Councillor Tudor Evans, the leader of the Labour opposition on Plymouth City Council, and his councillors. I think they are genuinely meaningful, and I should be grateful if the Minister responded to them when he sums up the debate. One of them relates to the number of people who might be unable to obtain voter ID. On the basis of Government figures, the council estimates that about 4% of voters—8,000 people in Plymouth—will not have access to the photo ID that will be required for them to vote, which means that a great many people will not be able to cast their ballot without embarking on a bureaucratic process to secure it.
The concern in this regard is that councils will not be able, in the time that is allowed, to process the necessary number of applications. Councils are not full of staff twiddling their thumbs and looking idle, but they do not have the capacity to enable electoral officers to work flat out to process these IDs. Even if it were possible for that to be done on time—which it is not—resources would be diverted from jobs on which councils should be focusing.
My hon. Friend is right to say that this is about the disenfranchisement of, in particular, young people and black and ethnic minorities. As he also said, it is impractical too. The Local Government Association has talked of delaying the timetable beyond the local elections. I am fundamentally against the proposal and will vote accordingly, but I hope my hon. Friend agrees that we need to look again at this unrealistic timetable.
I agree that the timetable is important. Regardless of party, we should all be seeking to make good legislation, with a good outcome. Rushed legislation will not lead to a good outcome, and I fear that rushed legislation is exactly what we have before us.
One of the concerns that many councils have is that the software required for them to produce valid certificates enabling people to vote if they do not have what legislation defines as legitimate forms of photo ID will not arrive until the start of next year, and has not been tested and integrated into other local IT systems that councils possess. Even councils that want to process the IDs for as many people as possible cannot yet do so. Plymouth City Council estimates that it will take eight minutes to process a single piece of voter ID for someone who does not have one, and 8,000 people in Plymouth do not have one. That means an awful lot of work: someone will be working their socks off to be able to deliver it.
This will also involve additional bureaucracy and cost. I asked a parliamentary question about the number of mirrors that would be required for the legislation to work, which produced some very puzzled faces. Why was I asking about mirrors? The answer is that the legislation will require 40,000 mirrors to be purchased by local councils to enable people in polling stations to readjust their masks or religious garments after taking them off to demonstrate that they are who they are, should they be asked to do so. It will also require the purchase of 40,000 privacy screens so that people can do that outside the public gaze, particularly for religious reasons.
Furthermore, the legislation will require a woman to be present as one of the polling clerk staff throughout the day. I think we should be seeking more women to be polling clerks, but we know that many polling stations do not have female coverage across the entirety of the day. That would now be required, under these regulations, so we are asking councils that are deeply in debt and struggling to afford social care for some of our poorest people to go on to eBay and buy mirrors. We would need one mirror for every polling station and we would probably need some spares in case one got smashed along the way.
It is a warped priority for councils to be buying mirrors, so can the Minister say whether the Government will be providing privacy screens and mirrors for every single polling station, or whether that cost will be put on to hard-pressed council taxpayers? I suspect that if the parties were in opposite positions and we were introducing this, Conservative Members would be saying, “Look at this Labour Government waste, buying mirrors and privacy screens.” Why is that not being said here? The £180 million cost is a significant amount of money that should be being spent on social care. The Tory-run Plymouth City Council is £37 million in deficit at the moment, and I want it to spend every single penny on essential public services, not on this type of bureaucracy.
Another concern I would like the Minister to address is the safety of polling clerks at the polling stations. We have to assume that refusing people or asking them for ID will generate a certain level of friction among some of the people seeking to cast their vote. Plymouth has 105 polling stations and there is real concern about what advice has been and will be given to those polling clerks about what happens if that friction turns into violence. Will there be adequate policing resources available on polling day to ensure that those polling clerks are safe when they ask people for ID or when they have to refuse them? What about the people who do not return when they have been refused? Our SNP colleague, the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), estimated that this would involve nearly a third of the people. That is an enormous number of people who might be in possession of the correct form of identification but do not have it with them when they go to vote. That is an awful lot of people who simply will not return, and not just for that election, because it will damage their voting experience for the rest of their lives.
I want to put on record a concern about the rural impact of the proposal. People who live in an urban area who are refused because they have left their ID at home might be able to walk back to their polling station easily, but those who live in a rural area and must travel large distances to get to their polling station are less likely to return. There is an urban-rural divide.
How will the Minister judge the success or failure of this measure? We know that there has been only one conviction, so in the Minister’s eyes, how many people being refused their right to vote will class the proposal a success, and what is the level at which it tips over to be a failure? I think that a single person being denied the right to vote is a failure, but I understand that the Government have taken a different view, and I would like to understand how many people must be turned away for this not to be successful.
This is not a piece of legislation of which the House can be proud. More importantly, it is not a piece of legislation of which the Minister should be proud. After this piece of voter suppression delivers partisan advantage in May and turns out to be a failure because people are refused their right to vote on a widespread basis—heaven help us if there is violence or if a poll clerk gets injured because of this—what do the Government think success looks like? Denying people their vote is never a success; it is always a failure, and I think that is what this piece of legislation will be.
In mid-October, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stood here and warned us that eye-wateringly difficult decisions would need to be made by the Government to stabilise public finances following the disastrous October mini-Budget, yet today we are being asked to pass regulations and put the final touches to a scheme that will cost £180 million over the next 10 years to solve the issue of just 33 allegations of voter fraud in 2019, with only one conviction and one caution. That might look like good value for money to the Conservatives, but the truth is that it is a staggering waste of money. In the midst of a cost of living crisis and a self-inflicted financial disaster, it beggars belief that this scheme is going ahead. Our councils are cutting critical services because of extreme financial pressure and we should not be burdening them with the additional cost of a scheme that is totally unnecessary. Whether it is for mirrors, privacy screens or ID cards, it is all a complete waste of their time.
But is worse than that: not only is photo ID for voting not really needed, but the plan is not even expected to work particularly well. The chair of the Electoral Commission has told Ministers that the plans cannot be delivered in a way that is
“fully secure, accessible, and workable”
in time for next May’s local elections. The Conservative chair of the Local Government Association is calling for the implementation of voter ID to be delayed because the LGA simply does not have time to get the plans in place for May without access to votes being put at risk.
The most worrying element, as colleagues have pointed out, is that the likely effect of all this will be selective voter suppression. Research has shown that there might be around 3.5 million people without the right ID and that those people are more likely to be the most vulnerable in society, such as those with limiting disabilities, as well as younger voters, black and ethnic minorities and the least well off in society. The Cabinet Office has already admitted that around 42% of those without photo ID are estimated to be unlikely to apply for a voter ID card. The proposed acceptable forms of ID include a 60+ Oyster card or bus pass, but not the young person’s equivalent. This will disproportionately disadvantage students and young people. The Government have shown no concern at all about the possibility of postal voter fraud, which will not require any form of ID; I fear that is down to the fact that postal voters are most likely to be older and to vote Conservative, while the young and the other groups I have mentioned are more likely to support an Opposition party.
There is no need to go into any further detail. In summary, I urge the House to consider the facts: we do not need photo ID, we cannot afford to implement the scheme and the proposals will simply lead to voter suppression. This Government should be trying to give the next generation a reason to vote for them, not to supress their view because they have offered them nothing. Scrapping this legislation is not an eye-wateringly difficult decision. It would be a common-sense course of action. The Liberal Democrats are determined to end this legislation and I therefore urge all Members to vote against it today.
Where are they, then? Where are all the Lib Dems?
Order. No shouting out. I call John McDonnell.
The debate so far has been superb and I want to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) on the expert way in which she completely took apart the Government’s arguments. I was 20 years in local government before I came here, and the last exercise in voter suppression was the poll tax. I was in local government at the time—I was chief executive of the Association of London Authorities, which represented both Conservative and Labour councils—and we explained to the then Government what the effect of introducing the poll tax legislation would be. It might well have been advertised as a fairer way of funding local government and collecting resources, but we argued that the Government needed to be careful because it could also possibly result in voter suppression. Naively, we did not think that that was an exercise being deliberately undertaken by the Government.
Although the poll tax brought down Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister, it ensured that a Tory Government were elected in 1992 because of what happened in many constituencies. Take my own constituency as an example, where 5,000 mainly working-class people dropped off the register. As a result, there were four recounts and I lost by 54 votes. I know every one of them and I visit them every so often, but there we are. That was an exercise that was done for one reason but actually had a sub-reason, which was voter suppression, and unfortunately I think that is what is happening today.
My second point is that, because of my local government background, I know that there is a long tradition that we listen to our electoral administrators. They are the one group of people in an authority whose professionalism we do not contest, because they serve all political parties, and they do so independently and to the best of their abilities. Most of them have limited staff and limited resources, and they are not particularly well paid either. Survey after survey shows the majority have no confidence that they can deliver this change in time for the local elections. First, they do not have the staff in place because of cutbacks. Secondly, they do not have time to have their computer systems properly tested and operating effectively. Thirdly, they do not have time to launch campaigns informing people of what they need to do to register. Even if they launch a campaign and it is sufficiently successful, the prediction is that anything up to 16% of the electorate might apply but there will not be the staff to administer it.
We should listen to the constitution unit’s report: this is an accident waiting to happen. Just in administrative terms, whatever the political motivations, this policy is not supportable and is not needed, as has been demonstrated by speech after speech. Unfortunately, not only is it a policy that will ensure some people do not get the right to vote and will cause conflict and contests at individual polling stations, but it is a policy that people will come to regret. It smacks of the dangerous dogs legislation, on which we cannot find anyone who supported it or promoted it.
My only reason for speaking in this debate, apart from my local government experience, is so that when people examine this legislation in six, 12 or 18 months’ time, or in the years ahead, I will be on the record as speaking out against it. I think this is a disaster waiting to happen.
The policy of requiring people to have ID to vote is simply a corruption of our democracy. It knowingly suppresses poorer communities, so the Tories can cling on to power during their economic disaster.
We know that some 30% of people do not vote in general elections already; we know that, of the 243 million votes cast in the past 10 years, there are only a handful of examples of fraud; and we know that some 2% of the population do not have a driving licence, a passport or another form of ID, and that they will now be required to go and get that ID. Many of them will not get that ID and will therefore be automatically disenfranchised.
We know that the poor will be disproportionately hit; we know the disabled will be hit; we know black and ethnic minorities will be hit; and we know the young will be hit. We also know these regulations allow older people, but not younger people, to use travel cards, such as Oyster cards, as voter ID. This policy is overtly discriminatory and is clearly designed to suppress votes and to load the dice at a future election.
Aneurin Bevan, who famously started the health service, would be 125 years old if he were still alive today. In “In Place of Fear”, his political analysis was that British politics is a struggle between property and the interests of property, by which he meant the Conservatives, and poverty, by which he meant the mass of people represented by the Labour party. He took the view that, in difficult economic times, property would attack democracy itself.
At a time when one in four people is now in food poverty, thanks to the incompetence and cynicism of the Conservative party, we have a situation in which the Conservatives are attacking democracy itself. They are attacking the right to peaceful protest, and they are now attacking the right to vote by requiring voter ID. This is a transparent attempt to corrupt democracy. It is totally wrong, and I hope a future Labour Government will repeal it immediately.
The whole debate around voter ID and the safety of our voting system is slightly Trumpian. This is exactly what happened in the US: the far right tried to claim the system is not safe and that people cannot trust it, and then, when a clearly democratic result came around that it did not like, the far right whipped up its henchmen by saying, “This was an unfair vote.” We know that that is not the case in Britain, and we know it has never been the case in Britain.
The Conservative party and this Government talking down the safety of our electoral system is exactly what these voter ID regulations are about. It my view, it is extremely dangerous. I asked numerous times in Committee on the Elections Act 2022 for a public assessment of why certain forms of voter ID are acceptable and others are not. I was particularly concerned about why student cards and young people’s cards will not be accepted. Not once have the Government published their rubric of why certain ID cards will be accepted and others will not.
It is interesting that, in applying for temporary or permanent voter ID, one piece of evidence that a local authority can accept is that the applicant is on the roll of a local educational institution, but a polling station will not accept the card from that educational institution. That barrier makes no sense. The Government cannot say, on the one hand, that evidence from the educational institution is not acceptable to vote but, on the other hand, that it is perfectly acceptable as the sole piece of evidence to get a voter ID card from a local authority—no further evidence is required—other than the barrier of having to apply days in advance.
Under the regulations, however, a voter can apply for a temporary ID card up to the day before an election, if the electoral returning officer believes they would not have been able to apply in advance. Why on earth could they not apply for it at the polling station by showing another form of ID, by allowing the polling clerk to make a determination? Surely it is only because the Government want to make sure that people who would not have ID cannot vote.
Government data shows that about a third of people have only one piece of ID. My mother has only a passport. She has an old-fashioned paper driving licence, and she does not have any other form of ID. What would she do if her passport needed to be renewed and an election were called? Given the mess in the Home Office, she might be waiting months, if not longer, to get her passport. It is the same with a driving licence. A person who moves house might wait months to get their new driving licence, but they have rightly chopped up their old licence and sent it back. They might then have no voter ID. Despite the Government saying that only a single-figure percentage of the population do not have ID, anyone renewing an equivalent ID might have no form of voter ID during the renewal period.
According to the Government’s data, 6% of people say they will be less likely to vote. What is 6% in each constituency? It is about 3,000 voters on average. About 40 Conservative constituencies have a majority of less than 4,000. That is 40 Conservative constituencies that might hold on a bit longer, meaning the Conservatives claw on to power despite the popular will.
Let us consider travelcards, for example. Even the Government’s own research shows that 4% of young and middle-aged people believe their travelcard can be used as voter ID. If they turned up to the polling station with that ID, every single one of them would be refused a vote—that is not to mention the embarrassment of being turned away—and many of them, about a third, would not bother to return. Those numbers would change about 15 results at an election. That might make a difference in a tight election.
The Minister said the professional world has mixed views about the implementation of voter ID, which I am afraid is just not true. The Minister is either mistaken or something far worse, and I would not believe that of this very good Minister. The reality is that every single professional body—the Local Government Association, the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators—says that the implementation of these regulations at this time is dangerous. They know it is dangerous because they have not been able to roll out even a card-based voter ID. It will be a piece of paper produced by the local authority. A piece of paper! Really? They will accept a piece of paper that an electoral services officer may have authorised, but they will not accept a travelcard that has to be applied for with a proper form of ID. It is ridiculous.
The regulations will allow people in the community to attest that someone is who they say they are, but they will allow a person in the community to attest for only two people every election publication cycle. A doctor, a teacher or the one lawyer in a poor community might want to attest for many people, to say that they have known a person for a long time, but they will only be able to do so for two people. If those people cannot prove through other means who they are they are—there are other means, I grant that—they will not be able to go to their doctor, because the doctor will have used up their two for that year. Those are unnecessary burdens. We do not put that burden on applying for a passport or any other form of ID. Those arbitrary numbers are deliberately designed to attack the poorest who would not have access to others.
The Government’s own data says that those who are trans or non-binary, who might be sick or have cancer, or who have experienced large amounts of weight loss and look significantly different, might face difficulties getting past the electoral services officer, but they have no plans to do anything about that apart from highlight to the polling stations that they should be cautious about that. How can they highlight to someone that they should be cautious that someone might not look like their ID, and at the same time say that they must refuse anyone who does not look like their ID? The Government’s own impact assessment does not make sense. The impact assessment on age says that they do not think that will be a significant difference, but the data itself says there will be a 4% to 6% drop in young people going to the polls. We know that those people are already less likely to vote.
We can have an argument about whether we should have electoral ID or not. We can have an argument about whether it should be photo ID or the wider version. The Electoral Commission said that it preferred any form of ID, such as a credit card or other form of named evidence. We can have those arguments and we will continue to do so, but this instrument is being introduced with less than five months to go before nationwide polls, and no council administrator believes that they will be able to operate it safely. That is undermining our local councils. We know why the Government are trying to do that: they know that they will lose a load of their councils because people are fed up with the nasty Conservatives undermining their democracy and their councils. This should not pass.
It has been an interesting debate, with quite a large proportion of it rerunning the previous legislative discussion, which I will not spend time at the Dispatch Box responding to. There is a question about temperateness of language, particularly some of the language used in places. This is our attempt to ensure there is integrity within the voting system. Quite frankly, some of the statements tonight should be considered in the round.
The Government’s focus is on ensuring that the system is set up fairly, working with those who want to ensure that the implementation works, dealing with the detail and making sure that happens. We can rerun the previous debate, as many Members seem to wish to, or we get on with the job. We are choosing to get on with the job.
I will turn briefly to a number of comments from Opposition Members. The hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) both talked about resource and funding. There is additional funding coming for this activity. Some of it has already been provided to local councils and is already being used today to prepare for what is coming in a number of months’ time.
The Opposition spokesperson, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), made a series of statements, or claims—or however one would like to state it. One of them was that voter personation is rare, but the OSCE report says about the United Kingdom:
“concerns are regularly expressed with regards to the lack of safeguards against possible fraud resultant from a weak system of voter registration and postal voting, compounded by the absence of a requirement to produce identification at any stage of the process.”
[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady heckles because she does not want to talk about what independent assessors have highlighted. The Government are trying to respond to that over time.
Secondly, the right hon. Lady talked about the use of dangerous language. She calls voter ID backwards and unworkable. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who was the only Opposition Member who rose to support the changes we are making, has been dealing with this system for the last 15 years. Thirdly, the right hon. Lady highlights the concern about the breadth of ID that can be used. [Interruption.] For the record, I will read the list of acceptable documentation, because the right hon. Lady does not seem to want to either read it or understand it: a United Kingdom passport, a passport issued by a European economic area state or Commonwealth country, a driving licence—[Interruption.]
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am trying to listen to the Minister. Four Opposition Members are speaking at the same time. It would be easier if they did not.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. There is quite a lot of noise on both sides. I would suggest that we listen to the list being read out by the Minister.
For the record: a United Kingdom passport, a passport issued by an EEA state or Commonwealth country, a full driving licence, a provisional driving licence, a UK biometric immigration document, an identity card bearing proof of age, a standard scheme hologram PASS card, a defence identity card, a blue badge, a voter authority certificate or a temporary voter authority certificate, an anonymous electors document, a Northern Ireland electoral identity card, or a national identity card issued by an EEA state. [Interruption.] The list goes on, because we are trying to ensure that this approach works over the long term.
Order. If the Minister does not want to give way, he is not going to. It is up to him.
I am not giving way only because the Opposition asked a series of questions and I am seeking to answer them. Indeed, it is incumbent upon the Opposition to listen to the answers that I am giving.
Finally, the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), with his liberal sprinkling of rather outrageous hyperbole, talked of Tony Benn and the working class. This working-class kid from Tony Benn’s constituency knows exactly what constituents in places such as Chesterfield or the one that I have the privilege to represent would say if they were asked about this. Their views would be closer to mine than the hon. Gentleman’s quite outrageous indications. It is for that reason, and for the security and integrity of the ballot box, that I commend this SI to the House.
That the draft Voter Identification Regulations 2022, which were laid before this House on 3 November, be approved.
Business of the House (Today)
That, at this day’s sitting, the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Penny Mordaunt relating to Standards: Code of Conduct and Guide to the Rules not later than two hours after the commencement of proceedings on that Motion; such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved; the business on that Motion may be entered upon and proceeded with at any hour, though opposed; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Penny Mordaunt.)