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Voter ID

Volume 731: debated on Thursday 27 April 2023

To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities if he will make a statement on arrangements in place to record the number of voters who attend at a polling station and are denied a vote because they are not in possession of valid ID.

It is vital that we keep our democracy secure. This Government stood on a manifesto commitment not only to protect the integrity of our elections but to enhance it. On that basis, this Government won a majority. We have introduced legislation to implement that commitment and we are now in the process of delivering on our promise. Voter identification is central to protecting our electoral system from the potential for voting fraud. Its implementation at the local elections next week brings the rest of the UK in line with Northern Ireland, where people have had to bring photographic ID to vote in elections since 2003. [Interruption.] I remind the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who is chuntering from a sedentary position, that that legislation was introduced by the then Labour Government under direct rule.

The data collection processes for polling stations are set out clearly in the Elections Act 2022 and the Voter Identification Regulations 2022. Polling station staff will record details of any electors turned away—should there be any—for the purposes of complaints or legal challenges and, in the short term, to provide data to evaluate the policy, which will be conducted by the Government and the Electoral Commission in line with the legislation that was voted on, debated and passed by this House.

The Electoral Commission has published suggested templates of the necessary forms and has updated its guidance in the polling station handbook to reflect the new processes. As required by legislation, the Government will publish a number of reports on the impact of the voter identification policy. Our intention is that the first of those reports will be published no later than November 2023. The data collected will be a significant part of that evaluation.

There are few tasks more important in public life, as I am sure every member of a political party represented in this House and the general public would agree, than maintaining the British public’s trust in the sanctity of the ballot box in our democratic processes. We on the Government Benches take that duty very seriously. I look forward to our first experience of the policy in polling stations in Great Britain on 4 May.

I was not my intention to get into an argument about the appropriateness of the policy. I was trying to recognise that it will be important to know the impact of the voter ID regulations once the elections have taken place. When people go to polling stations and are turned away because do not have the requisite ID, will those numbers be recorded? We know that if someone speaks to a polling clerk and is turned away, the total number of those people—not their names—will be recorded. But because of concerns about the collection of people around polling stations, some authorities will have meeters and greeters outside who will check in advance, perhaps when people are in a queue, whether they have the required ID. We do not know whether people who are turned away at that point will have their numbers recorded—that is the confusion.

At a recent Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee hearing, Peter Stanyon, the chief executive of Association of Electoral Administrators, made this important point:

“The returning officers are required where they have a meeter-greeter to report those they have advised at the door and turned away, and those at the desk as well. They will be reported as two separate things…The base standard is it is at the desk, because that is where the ballot papers will be and that is where the question is asked. Where there is a meeter-greeter, the commission is asking for that statistic and the Government are asking for that statistic as well.”

So two sets of statistics will be collected. That seems fairly clear.

The problem is that this week the Electoral Commission said something very different. It said that when meeter-greeters turn someone away who does not have the voter ID that they should have, those numbers will not be counted. I have a simple question for the Minister: is it the Government’s intention that that information will be collected, so the total number of people who attend a polling station but are denied a vote because they do not have the requisite ID will be counted?

Was the statement made by Peter Stanyon to the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee correct? If it was correct, why did the Electoral Commission issue different advice this week? Was that information incorrect? Or, if it was correct, was the information provided by the Electoral Commission this week given with the consent and approval of the Government? If it was, and meeter-greeters are going to turn people away and the numbers are not going to be collected, how can it be said that it is the Government’s intention to collect information that includes the number of people who are turned away? Surely both elements have to be added together in order to get the total numbers correct and to properly assess the impact of the measure.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his forensic scrutiny, as we would expect from the Chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee. I will make a couple of basic points, but it may be appropriate for me to follow up in writing, because he is referring to some conversations—[Interruption.] I would be grateful if the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) would stop chuntering so I can answer the question appropriately, because the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) has requested a considerable amount of detail, which I am attempting to give.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I will make a couple of points. First, the hon. Gentleman asked whether the Electoral Commission has been directed by the Government. That is not the case. As he will know, the Electoral Commission is a completely independent body. I was just present in the Chamber to listen to one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), answering questions on behalf of the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission is subject to scrutiny and plays a vital role in these processes.

For the avoidance of doubt, I remind the House that we are very concerned to get the process of data collection correct. As set out in the voter identification regulations, data collection will take place in polling stations via two forms: the ballot paper refusal list and the voter identification evaluation form. The first records data in case of a later complaint or legal challenge. The latter records data for the purpose of evaluation of the policy. As has been discussed many times in the House, Cabinet Office research in 2021 showed that 98% of electors already have one of the accepted forms of photographic identification. An expired identification is also to be accepted if the photo remains a good likeness.

Following the remarks made by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the key points are, first, whether people know they need voter ID, and I hope these questions and answers will help to encourage that; secondly, they need to take that ID; and thirdly, that if they go to a polling station without it, they can go home and get it. Will the Electoral Commission be able to tell how many people who were initially unable to vote were able to come back and vote?

Finally, did the Electoral Commission recommend voter ID in England in 2015? And am I right in thinking that it is not only in Northern Ireland that voters require ID, but in the Republic of Ireland as well?

I thank the Father of the House for his comments. He is right in saying that voter ID is required not only in Northern Ireland—introduced by a Labour Government—but in the Republic of Ireland, along with many other European countries and Canada. This country is currently an outlier, and many experts have made that point.

My hon. Friend mentioned the arrangements at polling stations. We all play an important part in raising awareness. All of us who have local elections coming up have certainly been playing our part in reminding voters that ID is essential. There is a free form for which people can apply, as well as the 20 other forms of ID that are acceptable at polling stations. Local authorities have been given additional funds to raise awareness, working with all communities to ensure that voter engagement is as high as it possibly can be.

Colleagues will have been dismayed to learn that fewer than 90,000 of the up to 2 million people without appropriate ID have applied for a voter authority certificate. Voter ID has always been a solution in search of a problem. Millions of pounds have been squandered on this process, and we now find that hundreds of thousands of people have had their votes taken off them. The Minister talks of experts, but all the experts—the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Local Government Association—begged the Government not to introduce voter ID for the May elections because there was not enough time. Ministers did not listen, and this is the consequence. The sole accountability is theirs. We wait to be shown the scale of this travesty; that is rightly a role for the independent review, but the review will work only if it has the correct data.

Last month, during oral questions, I raised the point that many returning officers intended to use greeters outside polling stations to turn away those without ID, and that those turned away would not count as having been denied votes. That is deeply wrong, and not acceptable. The Minister did not address this point in responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), so let me press her again. Whose advice is right? Will people who are turned away by someone outside a polling station who asked whether they had appropriate ID count as people who have been denied a vote, or will they not?

I find it interesting that the hon. Gentleman has sought to rehash arguments that we have already had numerous times in this place, and I find it surprising that his party is not committed to protecting the sanctity of the ballot box. The reason we have had to introduce this legislation is the absolute fiasco that we have seen unfolding in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham over the years. We need to protect the sanctity of the ballot box, and that is what we are doing. We are introducing a number of measures to collect the data that will enable us to conduct the detailed analysis that is required by the legislation and by the electorate, and that is the right way of doing things.

May I ask why, if the Labour party is so opposed to voter ID, it requires ID for all its candidate selection meetings? Why have Labour Members stated time and again that they know full well that most people in this country have a valid form of ID? What is good enough for candidate selection in the Labour party should be good enough for our local elections.

I must tell the Minister that I am very uncomfortable with this policy. She is right to say that Tower Hamlets and other parts of the country are having problems, but they are principally about postal votes rather than personation. We have had one conviction in a decade in this context. The Electoral Commission said that the pilot was not big enough for conclusions to be drawn, although there was a reduction of up to 6% in turnout. In Northern Ireland, which the Minister cited, there was, according to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, a 2.3% reduction. I am afraid the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) had a valid point. Will the Minister please write to everyone, not just the hon. Gentleman, giving proper answers to his questions?

Pilots have been conducted on a number of occasions in, I think, Woking and Pendle. A thorough study was carried out, and we found no evidence of turnout being lowered. We also observed very high engagement with the new processes. The forms of ID that were available were very clearly communicated to people. What is more, this policy intervention has served the purpose of raising public confidence in the sanctity of the electoral process, and I think we should all welcome that.

I am sure the Minister did not intend to give inaccurate information when she said that all Conservative candidates and campaigns have been giving out correct information. A leaflet went out in Norfolk saying that people do not need photographic ID, so they clearly failed to pass on the correct information there.

We in the SNP have consistently raised our opposition to voter ID, because it disproportionately disenfranchises vulnerable and under-represented groups such as disabled people, young people, trans and non-binary people, and those from ethnic minority backgrounds. Given that local councils, this place and politicians at all levels are disproportionately white, non-disabled, older and non-trans, what assessment have the Government made of the impact that requiring voter ID will have on the representativeness of democracy in these isles?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I would reflect that she and her party are extremely keen to rejoin the European Union and that very similar electoral systems operate in many EU countries, and in many other advanced western democracies. That is what we are seeking to introduce in this country.

Of course, the hon. Lady is right to highlight the need to make sure that various groups of society are not disenfranchised. Research has demonstrated that 99% of black and ethnic minority communities already possess a form of voter ID that is perfectly appropriate for voting. It is also the case that some ethnic communities are more disadvantaged by abuses at the ballot box, which is why we will always fight for all people in our United Kingdom to have trust and confidence in the sanctity of our electoral processes.

Mask wearers are to be required to remove their mask. Will the Government issue reassuring advice, drawing attention to the WhatsApp messages of the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) revealing that masks do not work, have no evidential base and were introduced only as a means of keeping up with the ultras in Scotland?

I am satisfied that the Government are introducing all relevant public health advice, including to people who are clinically vulnerable. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) set out in detail some of the measures that will be taken in local authority polling stations.

For this set of elections, bearing in mind they are taking place only in England, the Electoral Commission tells me that 250,000 to 350,000 people should have applied for a voter ID certificate. At the deadline, just 85,000 had been issued, despite the estimated £4 million advertising spend. Given that less than a third of voters requiring voter ID applied for this certificate, does the Minister accept that voter suppression has already occurred?

No, I strongly reject that. I can see where this debate is going. Opposition Members are making shrill, hyperbolic and misguided claims that this is somehow voter suppression. I find that quite extraordinary, given that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency Labour party requires and expects its members to turn up with photographic ID when selecting candidates.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is typical flip-flopping from Labour Members, who are now campaigning to repeal laws that they introduced in Northern Ireland in 2003?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. When Labour Ministers introduced voter ID in Northern Ireland, they set out in great detail why the legislation was necessary. Why is it good enough for one valued part of our United Kingdom but not good enough for the electors of Great Britain?

As the Local Government Association indicated earlier this month, and as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) has reiterated, there are significant practical problems for polling clerks. Meanwhile, the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators has said that discussions are taking place with the police for extra resources on polling day. With a week to go, can the Minister confirm whether enough polling clerks have been recruited and whether additional police resources have been secured to support the additional burden next Thursday? What strain will this place on police services?

The hon. Lady is right to highlight all the practical work that is going on, and I want to thank local authorities very much for the way they have delivered those additional measures that are going to be needed, backed by £4.75 million of central Government funding through the new burdens process. Of course, the Government will take very seriously all the lessons learned about this exercise, but I return once more to the point: when this process was introduced in Northern Ireland, under a Labour Government, none of the issues that are being raised regularly by Opposition Members were found to have turned out in practice to be the case.

Some elderly constituents have contacted me to say that they know they need voter ID next week and they look forward to their trip to the polling station. Will my hon. Friend confirm what types of voter ID will be acceptable on the day?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question and encourage all of her constituents, from whatever age group, to go to the polling station. There is a long list of valid forms of photo ID, and we know that 98% of the population hold one of them. I have the list here and it is available on I will not detain the House by reading them all out, but they include: driving licence; passport; blue badge; PASS—national Proof of Age Standards Scheme—card; the Young Scot card; the Post Office card; and of course the free voter authority certificate.

Let us get back to what is really going on here this morning. One week before these important elections, this Minister has turned up in the House of Commons to answer an urgent question to which she does not know the answer and has offered to write to Members of Parliament. That is utterly unacceptable. Will she return to the House later today, having asked Mr Speaker, to make a statement to this House and turn up with the information that she should have had when she got here, so that she can answer the question to which the House wants the answer?

I firmly rebut that. I have made multiple comments answering the questions that Members have put to me. I also firmly rebut the accusations from Opposition Members suggesting that something is going on here other than protecting our electoral system in this great democracy, in which we are all proud to serve. [Interruption.]

Let us try to calm things down. In my hand, I have a senior railcard, which allows me to enter a polling station and vote. A young person’s railcard, which is almost identical and carries a photograph, will not give them permission to vote. The Minister will be aware of allegations of vote rigging by this Government against younger people. What does she have against younger people? When a note is taken of who is turned away because they do not have identification, will the person’s demographic characteristics be identified so that we can see whether or not the vote rigging against young people and other groups that has been alleged has taken place?

There is no vote rigging going on here. Under the process that has been set out through regulations, when people who are turned away later return to the polling station with accepted ID, which includes many forms of ID that young people are accustomed to carrying because they need to prove their ID on many occasions, such as when going into pubs and clubs and having an alcoholic drink, legally that can be recorded only by a poll clerk or a presiding officer at the issuing desk. If they go into the polling station, the data would be recorded at that point.

Let me ask a question that was asked earlier. I have grave issues with voter ID, but the Government are going to go ahead in any case, so let me ask a very straightforward question. The people who will be monitoring will perhaps have to turn somebody away, because they have turned up with proof of ID that has an old photograph—the person will think it is representative of them, but it is no longer representative because it is out of date, although apparently still a valid proof of ID. What training will people have had to be able to say to somebody, “You do not have the right to vote here today”?

There has been extensive work and engagement with local authorities by the Electoral Commission, the Government and others to make sure that all possible scenarios and processes are followed properly to protect the sanctity of our electoral system.

At a time when the majority of people are already not exercising their democratic right to vote in local council elections, this Conservative Government have introduced new voter ID regulations that will remove the right to vote unobstructed for millions of Brits. The Minister is unable to answer the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), but perhaps she can answer this simple question: exactly how many cases of voter impersonation produced enough evidence to lead to a police caution?

The hon. Gentleman makes a series of points that I do not accept. I do not recognise or accept in any shape or form the statements he has made on the Floor of this House that we are seeking to remove the right to vote. I think those were the words he mentioned. I remind him that 99% of young people already have a valid form of voter identification, and I have answered the question put to me on multiple occasions—it is just that Opposition Members do not like the answer.

The Minister has said that people who are turned away at the desk by a qualified voting agent will have that fact recorded. However, if we are looking to understand what is going on as a result of the requirement for ID when voting, surely those people who are turned away by a meeter or greeter at the door must also be recorded, and it is important that the people doing that meeting and greeting are properly trained to do it? Will the Minister go away and give some thought to that point, which she has completely ignored? It will obfuscate any attempt to understand what is going on if people are being turned away at the door and not recorded.

I have not obfuscated or ignored the point. I have been clear that the data on people who are turned away and who later return to the polling station with accepted ID will be recorded by a polling clerk or a presiding officer at the issuing desk. As has been discussed many times in this House, with the arguments rehearsed by many hon. Members, the greeters outside the polling station have an important role to play. However, I am sure that hon. Members can appreciate that, if someone decides not to exercise the right to vote, in a free and democratic society it is not for an agent of a local authority to ask intrusively why that person decides not to vote.

I wonder whether the Minister can help me with this. Will lower turnout in the local elections next month be regarded by Ministers as a success or a failure in terms of what they are trying to achieve?

What the Government are trying to achieve, and what this Conservative Government were elected to do, is to improve public confidence in the process of the exercise of our democracy. I note for the right hon. Lady that, when similar systems have been introduced in other major advanced western democracies, public confidence in the process of voting has gone up. We are an outlier at the moment and we need to bring ourselves into line with accepted practice.

I am a bit puzzled, so let me ask the Minister this: does she actually understand the difference between universal suffrage elections, such as the local elections coming up, and internal party elections?

The Minister simply has not answered the question whether, if people turn up outside and are turned away outside, they will be counted in the data. She has just read out a note that said they will be counted if they later return. If they do not return, will they be counted or not? Will she answer the question?

I think the Minister was in her place when my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) answered my question at Electoral Commission questions. There is only a week left until the local elections, and the Minister knows there are a number of immuno- compromised people for whom catching covid could still be deadly. They will be required to remove their face masks at the polling station. Can she look urgently at getting that changed in time for Thursday, so that those people who can prove they are immunocompromised do not face the requirement to remove their face mask in order to get a ballot paper?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the remarks I made when questioned on this precise point earlier. I also refer him to the remarks made in great detail by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), who was answering for the Electoral Commission, about all the work that has gone on to make sure we protect public health in this situation.

According to reports this week, it is estimated that only 4% of the 2 million people who do not have valid ID have applied for a voter authority certificate. I am extremely concerned that many of my constituents will not be able to vote on 4 May. What assessment have the Government made of the number of people in Wirral West who will not be able to vote on 4 May because they do not have photo ID?

I say again that it is a shame that Opposition Members are attempting to engage in this hysterical scaremongering. The hon. Lady’s voters in Wirral West, just like voters across Great Britain, have been given all the information they need through the extensive work that this Government have done alongside the Electoral Commission. We know that 98% of her voters in Wirral West will already possess a valid form of voter ID.

It seems that there is considerable anger out there—according to my postbag, anyway—that the desired effect of this Government’s actions seems to be discouraging people from voting. I have two concerns. The first is about what will happen in polling stations when volunteers and local authority officers have to confront disgruntled voters. What safety measures will the Minister put in place? Secondly, in terms of the meet and greet, if data is important, surely the simple solution is to place an additional officer outside the polling station to collect that data.

I do not in any way recognise the statement that the hon. Gentleman made about considerable anger. In fact, nationwide polling indicates precisely the opposite. The public are actually satisfied, and they are pleased that we are taking the necessary steps to increase confidence in the voting system. It is something that this Government were elected to do, and we are getting on and doing it.

Some 96% of people without ID still do not have any ID at all to show when they vote, so the Government’s implementation of their own policy has been completely abysmal. Let us try to be pragmatic. Since it is an electronic process, why can there not be emergency measures at polling stations to enable someone who turns up to vote without ID to create their ID? They would then have the right to vote, and their democracy would not be denied.

The Government simply do not recognise the figures that Members are using or the false voter suppression narrative that they are putting forward. We know that 98% of the electorate already have voter ID. We know that many of the people who have not registered for a free voter authority certificate live in areas that do not have elections, so they do not need to register for a certificate. We also know that turnout is sometimes lower than we would like it to be; that is very disappointing, and we all want turnout to go up. We all know from knocking on doors, as I am sure the hon. Lady does assiduously in her constituency, that sometimes people just do not want to vote. We live in a free country. We cannot compel people to vote. We do not have a compulsory voting system.

What an absolute and utter mess! I have rarely seen a performance so inept and ill-informed as the Minister’s this morning. The Government cannot even tell us how those they are disenfranchising will be recorded. All I can say is, thank goodness that in Scotland we will have nothing to do with this voter suppression mechanism for elections under our responsibility. Does the example of the Norfolk Tory leaflet not show us that what they are doing is introducing voter fraud where none existed?

The hon. Gentleman’s comments do him no credit. I will directly address the remarks about the Norfolk leaflet. The people responsible apologised straightaway. It went through, I am told, 200 doors. It was a mistake. The leaflet has been withdrawn. If he has been listening to my remarks throughout this session, he will know of the extensive work that has gone on to set out all the ways people can vote, the Government’s position on this, and the way that we have worked with local authorities and the Electoral Commission.

Apologies, Mr Speaker, for missing the start of the urgent question. May I ask the Minister when the data will be published, and will she ensure that it is published within 28 days of 4 May?

Yes. I set that out in the earlier part of my answer to the urgent question, which I am afraid the hon. Lady missed.

I thank the Minister for her answers. In Northern Ireland, most people know that voter ID is a requirement to vote, unlike in the UK currently. I always try to be helpful and constructive in my comments. We in Northern Ireland accept—this is in reference to what the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) said—out-of-date ID that still has a likeness to the individual. May I ask the Minister to consider that when allowing individuals to vote in England, as I believe that there is a legal right to use the franchise? Any form of photo ID, whether it is out of date or not, should and must be sufficient.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is probably the only Member of this House who has real experience of the system working.

I stand corrected by the hon. Gentleman who is speaking from a sedentary position. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is the only such Member I can see in front of me, present in the Chamber and participating, bringing his experience of the system in Northern Ireland. He is right that, as I set out earlier, a photographic ID that is a little out of date but in which the likeness can still be established is a relevant form of ID that will be accepted.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Just after I started asking my urgent question, I received a letter from the chair of the Electoral Commission John Pullinger, in which he says that the only data recorded will be those recorded by the polling clerks when people get to the desks to try to cast their vote and do not have voter ID. He accepts that the numbers of people met by meeters and greeters and turned away without voter ID cannot be recorded, which will compromise the data that is collected by the polling clerk, so the Electoral Commission will publish two sets of data: one from polling stations without meeters and greeters and one from polling stations with them. How can that be a sensible and co-ordinated information collection to show the actual impact of the measure?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to be able to answer that. This has been referred to many times during the debate. Of course, I have not seen the particular letter to which the hon. Member refers. To answer the substantive points that he has put to me, the greeters will not collect the data, as I have said already from the Dispatch Box. The chair of the Electoral Commission, the former national statistician, has said that that would risk providing inaccurate data in an inconsistent way. Those are important factors that we need to take into account in our deliberations. All poll clerks have been trained to record data accurately, and we have provided new burdens funding. As is right after introducing any new policy, there will of course be a full evaluation of it, of which formal data collection in the polling station will be only one part.

As Chair of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, will the Minister write to me as well to clarify whether those data are recorded? Then I have a very clear answer when Members come to me in that role.