Skip to main content

Voter Identification Scheme

Volume 737: debated on Thursday 14 September 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to make a statement on the voter identification scheme.

We were pleased and encouraged by the first roll-out of voter identification at the local elections in England in May. The data gathered in polling stations showed that the vast majority of electors—99.75%—were able to cast their vote successfully and adapted well to the roll-out of the changes. We are grateful to local authorities and other partners for their work to deliver the change in requirements.

The Government committed in legislation to conduct an evaluation of the implementation of voter identification at the local elections in May and at the next two UK parliamentary general elections. Our intention is that the first of those reports, evaluating the implementation at May’s local elections, will be published in November 2023. Yesterday the Government published two documents that demonstrate that we are making clear progress with the evaluation, and that provide more detail on the evidence upon which it will be based. We are determined to ensure that we fully understand how the policy has operated in practice, what has gone well, and any ideas for improvement.

There are few tasks more important in public life than maintaining the integrity of our democratic processes and the British public’s trust in them. We are not just committed to doing so; we are acting to achieve that. The Government have taken seriously the important recommendations made by the independent Electoral Commission, by international electoral observers and by Sir Eric Pickles—now Lord Pickles—in his report into electoral fraud, and we have been committed in the years since to addressing what has been a staggering vulnerability in our electoral system. It was previously far too easy to commit the crime of electoral fraud in the polling station and almost impossible to detect it. I am immensely proud that we have now delivered this new process and fulfilled our manifesto commitment.

I suspect that the Minister and I were reading different reports, because the first report cards on the roll-out of voter identification in England are out, and they are not good. The Electoral Commission’s report—the result of extensive work monitoring and analysing the recent elections—warned that disabled people and the unemployed found it harder to show accepted voter ID, as well as younger people and people from ethnic minorities. It also reported that on average more deprived areas had a higher proportion turned away compared with less deprived areas. The Local Government Information Unit reported that approximately 14,000 voters were not given a ballot paper because they could not show an accepted form of ID and significantly more were deterred from voting because of the ID requirement.

This is not just about England, because the next election is UK wide—it will affect my constituents in North East Fife. Hundreds of thousands of people risk being turned away at the next election, at a cost to the taxpayer of £120 million over the next decade, and all of that to combat levels of voter fraud that, at the last election, stood at six cases—talk about using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. A general election is perhaps no more than a year away, but it is clear from reading the reports that we are teetering on the cliff edge of a democratic travesty, not just because the roll-out of voter ID has been botched—many of us believe that it should never have been implemented in the first place—but because of the Government’s apparent refusal to listen to the concerns of members of the public and Members of this House. That was what they did in the run-up to the local elections, when take-up of voter authority certificates was pitiful and local authorities were warning that they were unprepared, and that is what the Government are doing now.

I was hugely disheartened that in both the Minister’s response and the written statement published yesterday the Government seem to be taking a stance of blindly ignoring the warning signs. So far, I see no evidence to suggest that that stance will change in the Government’s evaluation report in November. I hope that the Minister will use the opportunity to start setting things right. Will the Government ensure that the evaluation report in November is truly independent? What measures are under consideration to ensure that voters will not be turned away at the general election, as the LGIU report warns? How do the Government intend to expand the roll-out of voter authority certificates ahead of the general election, and will they expand the list of acceptable forms of identification?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments, but I remind all Members in this Chamber that we have already passed the Elections Act 2022; it passed the scrutiny of both Houses and is now law. If she refers to the debates in Hansard, she has treated us to a compilation of the Liberal Democrats’ greatest hits—and that is no surprise because, as always, they do one thing and say another. If she is so opposed to the principle of electoral identification and photographic identification, why did her party support its introduction in Northern Ireland? At that time, the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokes- person told Parliament that

“we accept the need for a Bill… The Liberal Democrats…welcome the Government’s intention to introduce an electoral identity card”—[Official Report, 10 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 705-707.]

That legislation passed Second Reading without a vote. If we separate the points of substance and process from re-running the battles of the past, of course we take the recommendations of the independent Electoral Commission extremely seriously, as we set out in detail in the report and as I set out in my remarks earlier.

The Minister has rightly distinguished the political from the practical. The Electoral Commission itself recommended photographic ID, and it has now come forward with other comments.

We must recognise that the biggest deficit is the inadequacies in the completeness of the electoral roll, and the fact that one third of people do not vote in general elections and up to two thirds do not vote in local elections. We ought to spend as much time on that issue as we do on this.

We ought to consider the suggestion of attestation, where someone in a household who does not have voter ID can have their identity attested by a person in the same household who does. Perhaps neighbours ought to be able to do that, and other people with some kind of standing in society might be able to do the same thing for people who find they cannot vote on the day. It seems to me that we can improve what we have without throwing out the whole system of photographic ID, which, as the Minister has said, was supported by all parties when it was first brought in for Northern Ireland.

I thank my hon. Friend the Father of the House for those very sensible and proportionate comments. He is right that, as political parties, we all have a responsibility to ensure that our constituents and those voters take part in our democratic process. That is what this process is about. I am afraid that the kind of scaremongering comments that we have just heard from the Liberal Democrats, and that no doubt we will hear from all the other Opposition parties, are damaging the important cause that we all stand behind: ensuring the safety of our precious democracy, which now more than at any other time could potentially be at risk. I am proud to be part of a Government who are taking sensible steps to protect our democracy from the kind of interference that we all fear could happen in this day and age.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I echo the concerns raised by the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) in her urgent question and by the Father of the House in his sensible remarks. The Minister should be promoting confidence in our electoral system and concentrating on getting the millions of people who are not registered to vote on to the register. Instead, she has tried to pull the wool over our eyes this morning by presenting the Electoral Commission’s report as a ringing endorsement of her Government’s dangerous policies.

The reality is far from that. This extremely concerning report brings into sharp focus the consequences of the Tories’ failed photo ID regulations. By introducing such strict regulations, against the advice of experts and equality groups, the Conservatives have snatched away the ability of legitimate voters to have their say on services and society. One former Minister, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg), admitted that this partisan scheme was designed to rig the rules and lock voters out of democracy. The Minister claims that she is concerned with protecting our democracy, so will she agree to the entirely reasonable Electoral Commission reforms and the widening of the list of ID that people can use to vote, or will she commit to introducing a vouching rule for those without voter ID?

Given that the Electoral Commission said that the rules risk widespread disenfranchisement at the general election, will the Minister commit now to publishing the evidence to prove the commission wrong? That should not be a problem if she has nothing to hide.

Is the Minister concerned by the watchdog’s findings that the laws could have a disproportionate impact on people from minority ethnic backgrounds? When the independent review concludes, will she commit to making a statement to the House?

May I take this opportunity to warmly welcome the hon. Lady to her place and to thank her for her comments? On the substantive, non-political points that she made, I have been extremely clear, and am happy to repeat the assurance, that we are working carefully with the independent Electoral Commission, which itself recommended the introduction of photographic ID to safeguard our precious democracy. We are looking at all its recommendations. We will, of course, naturally come forward for scrutiny when the findings are published, as we do as a matter of course.

On the substantive point, is the hon. Lady really saying that the Labour party will repeal the Elections Act should it come into government? What exactly has the Labour party done to raise confidence among Labour voters? Or is this just a case of Labour Members standing on the sidelines making shrill, scaremongering claims? Time and again, Labour has made such claims ahead of the sensible and proportionate pilot schemes that we have rolled out, but none of the things that Labour Members have warned about has happened—[Interruption.] Perhaps she would like to listen to my remarks.

The new shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), warned of shortages of electoral staff, lack of venues and funding uncertainty ahead of the local elections in May 2021. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, warned that elderly people and ethnic minorities would not visit polling stations. None of those things has happened. The Electoral Commission—[Interruption.] Opposition Members are chuntering from sedentary positions, but perhaps they should listen to the words of the independent Electoral Commission—not my words—which found that

“the polls were delivered safely and successfully”,

and that changes put in place by the UK Government, the commission and electoral administrators helped to “support and reassure voters” and campaigners.

I think it important to make this final point. The hon. Lady talks about ethnic minorities being disenfranchised and discriminated against, but we know from the type of heinous behaviour that we saw in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham that ethnic minority voters are most disenfranchised and disadvantaged by not having security in our elections.

The crime of personation has been notoriously difficult to prove. We have functioned on the basis of trust that people who go to the polling station are who they say they are. The sad reality is that when I was elected in 2010, we found after the election that scores, perhaps hundreds, of people who had voted in my constituency were actually abroad at the time. The police refused to do anything about it. People impersonated those voters. I do not how they voted, but clearly those votes were stolen from people. Voter ID ensures that that sort of activity cannot happen. Will my hon. Friend also take up the issue of postal and proxy voting to ensure that their proper policing is integral to our system?

My hon. Friend is totally right. The suggestion from the Opposition parties is that we should just wait and see whether something bad happens, and then take action. That is the wrong way to go about safeguarding our democracy, which we should all be proud of. He makes the extremely valid point that it is impossible to detect impersonation. When it has been detected, such as in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham—the Opposition do not like me mentioning it—people have been taken to court and found guilty of these offences. He is also right to raise the issue of postal and proxy voting, and he will know that we are commencing provisions to safeguard some of those processes, which is the right thing to do.

The incredibly hard-working team at the Electoral Commission are far too polite to say, “We told you so,” but that would be a pretty easy way to sum up most of what is in this report. Practically every concern about the introduction of photo ID that was raised during the passage of the Elections Bill has been borne out in the by-elections and local elections that have taken place since it became law.

The Government say that they want to increase democratic participation and not suppress turnout among minority and disadvantaged communities, but the evidence suggests that that is exactly what is happening—fewer votes from sections of society that it just so happens are less likely to vote Tory. What steps will the Government take in advance of the general election to remove barriers to voting established by the Elections Act 2022? Will they expand the list of acceptable ID? Will they make sure that, as the Father of the House suggests, people can vote on polling day through attestation? Will they make sure that the Electoral Commission and local authorities are properly resourced to fulfil their functions? They already have to deal with boundary changes and polling district redraws, and now they have to deal with the Elections Act. Will the Government look to Scotland as well, where with votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, refugees and EU citizens, we are seeking to expand, not restrict, the franchise?

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman listened to the response that I have given multiple times, but I am happy to repeat it, in case he was reading his brief at the time. We are working with the Electoral Commission on all the recommendations it has made. It made several recommendations, and we are looking closely at them. I hope that we all share the same objective of making sure that this change is rolled out successfully.

If the hon. Gentleman does not like our proposals— I am sure he does not, because he wants to break up the United Kingdom—could he explain why they are working so well in Northern Ireland? The incredibly hard-working people, as he puts it, from the Electoral Commission have observed there:

“Since the introduction of photo ID in Northern Ireland there have been no reported cases of personation. Voters’ confidence that elections are well-run in Northern Ireland is consistently higher than in Great Britain, and there are virtually no allegations of electoral fraud at polling stations.”

Why is it perfectly acceptable for us to listen to the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland, England and Wales but not in Scotland?

One of the problems was that people took ID that had run out, such as driving licences and passports. Does the Minister agree that if a document has recently run out, as long as it has a photograph of the person, it is admissible? Furthermore, could the amount of ID that can be shown be broadened slightly, so that people have a bit more choice in what they can use?

I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestions. It is right that we look at all the practical barriers that have been encountered at polling stations. That is why we are working closely with the sector to listen to its feedback and to representations from civil society, disability charities and others. We know that where voter identification was trialled in pilots, the proportion of people who agreed that electoral fraud was not a problem increased from 13% to 32%. We know that most people were able to vote successfully in both the pilot and the last local elections, but it is right to look at all the details, and we will be doing so, in line with the Electoral Commission’s recommendations.

If we are to have voter ID at the next general election, which we will, will the Minister seriously look at extending the amount of ID that is acceptable? It is unfathomable that a concessionary bus pass is acceptable, but an 18-year-old’s bus pass is not.

I would like the hon. Gentleman to look carefully at the eligibility for 18-year-old Oyster cards and 60-plus Oyster cards, because they are different. Eligibility for the 60-plus card involves significantly more requirements, including a passport or driving licence. Of course, when we try to expand the forms of identification that can be used, we are going to say yes in some instances and no in others if the eligibility is different.

Despite what we are hearing from Opposition Members, my experience at the local elections in May was that when people were turned away, they did indeed return. They are used to providing identification when dealing with so many other services, and they found it quite acceptable. We need to recognise that the public at large are very supportive of the policy, but echoing other comments, could the Minister give an assurance that the postal vote system will be thoroughly examined? There are genuine causes for concern about that system.

My hon. Friend makes an accurate observation, and he is right that the vast majority of the general public support the policy. I remind Opposition Members that we were elected on a manifesto commitment to introduce these measures. They have been thoroughly debated in both Houses and have received very serious parliamentary scrutiny. Opposition Members are asking the same questions that they have asked time and time again, and I remind them that prior to the introduction of this policy, it was harder to take out a library book or collect a parcel from a post office than it was to vote in someone else’s name. This Government do not agree that that is an acceptable state of affairs in Great Britain today, and I find it quite astounding that members of Opposition parties do.

If we as a country truly value democracy, it should be in the interests of the state that as many people as possible vote, rather than deliberately turning them away as this Conservative Government have done. Since the Minister has chosen to attack the Liberal Democrats’ legitimate concerns rather than answer questions, I will start again and ask her to answer a specific question: what measures are under consideration to ensure that voters will not be turned away at the next general election?

For the hon. Lady’s benefit, I will repeat the specific answers I have already given. We know that the vast majority of people were able to vote successfully, so I have nothing to do other than remind her that the Liberal Democrats, of which she is a member, supported the introduction of photographic identification in Northern Ireland. It is quite astonishing to me that the Liberal Democrats continue to oppose introducing sensible measures in England that they supported and voted for in Northern Ireland, which is part of our United Kingdom.

On the day of the local elections, I remember knocking on the door of a constituent who told me that she usually votes, but was not going to because she realised that she did not have the necessary voter ID. That broke my heart: her democratic rights, which she has exercised time and time again, were taken away, and of course she will not appear in that figure of 14,000 people who were turned away.

The Electoral Commission says that ethnic minorities and unemployed voters were more likely to be turned away at the polling station. When we show our constituents around this House, we talk about the struggle for the universal franchise. Let us remember that the establishment that the Conservative party represents did not want women or the working class to have the vote. Will the Minister reflect on our journey towards increasing participation in democracy, and on how this rotten arrangement is robbing people of their hard-won democratic rights?

I will respond to that by asking the hon. Gentleman to reflect on his comments. Is he seriously suggesting that the introduction of photographic identification is not suitable? Does he seriously think that it should be harder to take out a library book than to vote in his constituency today? If he is seriously suggesting that, that—more than anything else—gives us evidence that the Labour party is in no way ready for government. It is not a serious party: it does not take seriously the threat to our democracy from international actors, and would do nothing to tackle the very real issues experienced by ethnic minorities in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham, who are being systematically disenfranchised by the corrupt practices of certain people in their local areas.

I might be a lone voice on the Opposition side of the Chamber, but I reinforce what the Minister has said. The electoral voter ID system for Northern Ireland has been a tremendous success, as is proved at every election. It shows that the system can work.

A short time ago, along with my chief of staff, I visited the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland to be constructive and suggest how we could perhaps do some things better. The Electoral Commission is agreeing to set up hubs across Northern Ireland constituencies, giving people the opportunity to get their voter IDs in person. That has not always been possible in areas of my constituency, so I welcome that commitment, which will be announced, I understand, in early October. Will the Minister consider something similar for the United Kingdom so that everyone can have the advantage of getting their voter ID in person in their own constituency?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for sharing his really practical and useful wisdom from the policy that has been rolled out in Northern Ireland—a valued part of our United Kingdom—where it has been working very well for many years. I note that a much smaller list of documents is used in Northern Ireland and that that has worked effectively. In the Electoral Commission’s recent 2021 public opinion tracker survey, not a single respondent from Northern Ireland reported that they did not have ID and had found themselves unable to vote.

Of course, we must always look at the sensible and practical recommendations from the Electoral Commission. We will continue to do that. Before this roll-out, we put a significant amount of investment into working with civil society and charities. We have made funding available for communications campaigns. It is just a shame that the Labour party and Liberal Democrats did not take the opportunity to amplify our messages among their own constituents. We all have a shared responsibility in this place to amplify messages and communicate effectively, particularly to ethnic minority and disabled voters. I know that is what I did ahead of local elections; I wonder what they did.

Has my hon. Friend the Minister received representations from any colleagues in the House, particularly from Opposition parties, about the arrangements for voter ID in Northern Ireland? After all, those were introduced by the Labour Government of the time and the arrangement is used by Labour at its own internal elections.

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on, as always. If Labour Members now think that voter identification is so wrong, why are they not campaigning to repeal their own laws? Why should electoral fraud be tolerated in Great Britain but not in Northern Ireland? Do they really believe that most European countries, which require voter ID, engage in so-called voter suppression? They seem to want to take us back into the European Union across all areas of policy; perhaps this is their latest ploy to take us back into the EU.

For all the bluster that the Minister is deploying, I am not sure that we are any clearer about what she actually thinks. A minute ago, she referred to “international actors”. Which international actors are pretending to be Mrs McGlumpher from the high street, trying to vote? She is deploying a ridiculous argument. The reality is that the Electoral Commission’s research has shown that younger people, ethnic minorities and unemployed people were all disproportionately disenfranchised by voter ID. Those are, of course, all demographic groups less likely than others to vote Tory. Does the Minister understand that those of us looking at the issue with a perspective different from hers think that rather than safeguarding democracy, as she would suggest, it looks very much like voter suppression—“If you can’t persuade them, don’t let them vote”?

No, I do not understand a single thing that the hon. Lady said, which is hardly surprising from the nationalists across there. She thinks this is voter suppression; her party is so keen to break up the United Kingdom and rejoin the European Union, but this is standard practice across the European Union in all manner of elections. The fact that the hon. Lady cannot take seriously the threats to our democracy shows the lack of seriousness that the Scottish National party—[Interruption.] She does not like what I am saying and is chuntering from a sedentary position, but perhaps she ought to listen to a serious Government about the serious actions we are taking.

The Government have committed to an independent review of their voter ID changes. Can the Minister tell us who will conduct that review and what its terms of reference will be? If she is not in a position to do that today, can she confirm when she will be able to share that information?

We will make further statements on that process in due course, and we will be subject to the usual parliamentary scrutiny.

Following on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), the Minister’s answers have taken sophistry to new levels. She said that 99.7% of voters were able to vote, but that is only of those who turned up to vote, and many will not have bothered to try and vote. The Government knew that young people, ethnic minorities and the unemployed would be disproportionately affected but they did it anyway. Incidentally, having tried to apply myself, I can attest to the fact that the Scottish young person’s concessionary travel card requires a lot more proof of ID than the London Oyster card for young people. Will she just admit that this Government’s version of voter ID is blatant antidemocratic gerry- mandering?

It is right that I put on record once again that everybody can vote across the UK. The methods that have been introduced are free methods available to everybody. On the hon. Gentleman’s other points, I actually take his comments as a compliment and refer him to my previous remarks.