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Political Parties, Elections and Referendums

Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2024

[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission of 2023, Response to the draft Strategy and Policy Statement for the Electoral Commission, HC 1809; and Third Report of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission of 2022, Response to the draft Strategy and Policy Statement for the Electoral Commission, HC 967]

I beg to move,

That the draft Electoral Commission Strategy and Policy Statement, which was laid before this House on 14 December 2023, be approved.

It is a pleasure to be able to present this important strategy and policy statement for parliamentary consideration this afternoon. We may disagree on many points, but one point on which I hope we can agree is that there are plenty of issues in our political life to raise the blood pressure. Let me say respectfully to the House that this strategy and policy statement is not one of them, for reasons that I shall set out.

The Electoral Commission Strategy and Policy Statement was laid before Parliament on 14 December 2023 for approval by resolution of both Houses within a 40-day period in accordance with section 4C(9)(a) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Let me start by asserting clearly and unequivocally a concern which I know many right hon. and hon. Members have had, and which I wish to nail from the outset. This statement, this strategy, in no way undermines or challenges the robust, legislatively underpinned independence of the Electoral Commission. The commission plays an important part in our national life. It has a key and important role, and the House and, I believe, the country recognise that.

The statement gives the Government no new teeth or power. How, if and when the commission faces into the guidance is up to it and the scrutiny of Mr Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, whose role is exercised on behalf of the House. The commission, as is set out in the 2000 Act, only has a “duty to have regard”. We are not saying—not least because we cannot, and do not wish to—that the commission “will” or “must”. We create no new duty to report to the Government, only a duty for the Speaker’s Committee to maintain its relations with the commission. The commission will continue to report only to Parliament, as it has done since its creation in 2000. The statement—I want to make this very clear, because this is a twin approach of independence—does not politicise Mr Speaker’s Committee or the Office of the Speaker in respect of its commission functions.

I have been listening to what the Minister is saying with a bit of disbelief. If the commission will not have to take any notice of the statement or act on it, but need only have regard to it, what is it here for? If “having regard to” means “taking seriously and doing something about”, that applies both to the commission and to Mr Speaker’s Committee, which has to oversee the commission and its work. Does that not compromise the neutrality and independence of Mr Speaker as well as the Electoral Commission? This is a very serious matter.

If that were true, it would be a serious matter, but I must say to the hon. Gentleman—for whom I have huge respect, and who chairs the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee with much distinction—that I do not see it that way, and neither do the Government. However, he takes me from my explanation of what the statement is not, to explaining why we are approving it. That is the nub of this issue. We see—I see—the role of this Government and of any party that has the honour to be in government in the United Kingdom as that of a pro tem custodian of our democracy. That is why we have election law, and why I am the elections Minister. Democracy is, as we discussed last week in the Holocaust Memorial Day debate, a fragile flower under huge pressure.

We believe that the statement is timely, not least because of the raft of changes that have flown through and been delivered by statutory instrument from the recent Elections Act 2022. We are also hugely cognisant of the threats to the robustness and resilience of our democracy presented by overseas interference, fake news, deepfakes, and artificial intelligence. The solemn role of pro tem custodian, and holding the flame of democracy while we serve in government, are important.

It is important to underpin, rather than undermine, the work of the commission by standing shoulder to shoulder with it in the important work that has been set before it, which I will come to when I have taken the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

I am a member of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and we warned in our report about the threat to the independence of the commission from the Government’s legislation regarding the strategy statement. I can understand where the Minister is coming from when he says that we are not using the expression “must” because that would be a direction, but the Government are repeatedly using the expression “should”. The question in my mind is: if the commission ignores this “should”, what happens? There is an implied threat around the “should”.

The right hon. Gentleman helpfully takes me to the next part of my remarks about “should”, “would” and “must”. Let us just canter through, with some degree of attention and seriousness, the priorities set out in the statement. In all seriousness—I hope the House knows me well enough to know that when I use that phrase it is not just parroting a line; I am serious in what I am about to say, because it is important—I really would question whether any hon. or right hon. Member of this House, of any party, would take exception to anything in the statement.

If the right hon. Gentleman will be a little patient, he will have his question answered. He asks his question in his way and, in the words of Frank Sinatra, I shall answer it in mine.

The first paragraph rehearses this key point:

“The Electoral Commission is the independent regulatory body responsible for giving guidance and support to Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers in undertaking electoral registration and conducting elections and recall petitions effectively and in accordance with the law.”

Anybody disagree with that? No. Paragraph 2 states:

“The Chair of the Commission has the responsibility in law for acting as the Chief Counting Officer at national referendums in the UK…and the staff of the Commission support the Chair in that role, when it is required, to work through local electoral authorities to deliver such events.”

The delivery of smooth and seamless referenda is not, I would suggest, a revolutionary power grab by His Majesty’s Government.

Paragraph 3 states:

“The government believes the Electoral Commission has an important role to play in maintaining the integrity of our elections and public confidence in that integrity.”

I do not think that point will get the Division bells ringing. In answer to the question from the Chair of the Select Committee, paragraph 3 continues:

“The duty to have regard does not require the Commission to give lesser priority to, or to ignore, any of its other statutory duties. The Electoral Commissioners and the Commission’s executive leadership will remain responsible for determining the Commission’s strategy, priorities, how it should discharge its duties (including day-to-day operations) and the allocation of its resources, as agreed by the relevant parliaments. It will be for the Commission to determine how to factor the Statement into its decision-making processes and corporate documents such as the Five-Year Plan.”

Paragraph 4 states:

“One of the government’s policy priorities is ensuring our democracy is secure, fair, modern and transparent.”

One could easily transpose the word “government” for “Parliament” there. Who will argue with ensuring that our democracy is secure? Who will argue that our democracy should not be fair, modern, or transparent? Paragraph 4 goes on to say that it is a priority to ensure

“that those who are entitled to vote should always be able to exercise that right freely, securely and in an informed way;…that fraud, intimidation and interference have no place in our democracy;…that we are the stewards of our shared democratic heritage which we keep up to date for our age.”

That is my custodian point again.

Paragraph 5 states:

“One of the leading government objectives is tackling electoral fraud”.

Anyone in this House in favour of electoral fraud? I did not think so—and rightly so. Paragraph 5 goes on to state that the commission should

“support continued effective delivery of voter identification by raising public awareness about the requirement to show an approved form of photographic identification before taking part in UK parliamentary elections, local elections in England and elections in Northern Ireland”.

It has done that in Northern Ireland for the last 20 years or so. This issue was raised in close questioning from the Lords Constitution Committee just the other month. The important role of the Government, the commission and other agencies in raising the profile and public awareness of voter identification was a matter that we discussed at some length.

I am listening to the Minister reading out a list of the things that the commission is obliged to do by law anyway, so why he has to restate them in this paper, I do not know. The clear advice to the Committee and to the Speaker’s Committee was that if certain items were identified as priorities for the commission, other things would per se be of lesser priority. For example, overseas voter registration is a priority, but the registration of voters in this country, where 8 million people are not on the register, is not listed as a priority. This skews the work of the Electoral Commission, whether the Minister likes it or not.

The hon. Gentleman was obviously so busy trying to find his rebuttal point that he did not listen to my answer to the first question. I set out clearly that the duty to “have regard” does not require the commission to give lesser priority to, or ignore, any of its other statutory duties. The electoral commissioners and the commission’s executive leadership will remain responsible for determining the commission’s strategy and priorities, and how it should discharge its duties. The statement in no way undermines, countermands or double-guesses any work of the commission.

The paper goes on to talk about tackling electoral fraud, which I know we would all wish to do. Crucially, it also talks about the role of the commission in working with returning officers and others to ensure the maximum opportunity for those with disabilities to take part in the ballot on the day and in polling stations. Nobody in this place, or the other place, would think that was not a noble aim.

And at the very mention of noble aims, I give way to the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington.

I come back to the fact that this statement in effect sets priorities for the commission, and that has not only operational consequences but budgetary consequences. What are the consequences for the commission if, like me, it thinks the Government’s statement is daft and completely ignores it?

I just do not see that happening, because the commission understands the importance of the statement. It is not a directional document; it is an augmenting document. It says—because there are difficult things facing our democracy, as the right hon. Gentleman knows—that the Government, not a party Government but Government as an entity, are in lockstep with the commission, in full support of the work that it does to preserve, protect and enhance our democracy. We felt that it was timely for the Secretary of State to provide a statement to augment and clarify matters that flow from the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 Act and subsequent statutory instruments.

The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) is right to say that the commission is, in any case, doing the things set out in the statement, in whole or in part. It will be entirely up to the commission to set its priorities from the list, and to give greater or lesser attention to matters as needed. For example, it could say, “Well, that has already been done, and this is all in hand, but we really need to augment this matter here.” The voter authority certificate is a prime example. There are things that we would all expect the commission to spend a certain amount of time on, in order to raise awareness of them.

The Minister is doing a commendable job, given that he has clearly inherited a piece of legislation from a different era that was part of a different agenda. He said that things might need clarifying, and then mentioned the voter authority certificate. Can he give us examples of other things that need clarifying? What does he think the Electoral Commission is doing that is wrong, and that needs to be righted by this statement?

Nothing. If the hon. Gentleman is looking for that, then he has completely misunderstood the purpose of the statement and the operational independence of the Electoral Commission, and apportioned malign intentions to the Government. I know that he wants to say, “Oh, this is mission creep because that is something else, and the Government are trying to take over an independent body”—it is nothing of the sort.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that others wish to speak. They can read the statement for themselves, but I hope that the examples I have given indicate that the strategy and policy statement augment what the Electoral Commission does. My Department and I have good relations with the commission. We never seek to direct. We admire and respect the work that the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission does in discharging its duty. I have the honour of being a member of that Committee, as do the Chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East; the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins); the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith); and others—so it is not even weighted in His Majesty’s Government’s favour.

This is a benign statement, supporting the commission in its work, addressing the changes introduced post the Elections Act 2022 (Commencement No. 7) Regulations 2023. It is all part of our process to ensure that our electoral system is resilient, open, transparent, secure and has the maximum access to all who have the eligibility to cast a vote on whichever election day it may happen to be. How they vote is entirely up to them; how the commission sets its priorities is entirely up to it. Mr Speaker and his Committee will hold the commission to account, not Parliament. There is no mandate in the statement that the commission has to provide a statement or report, annually or quarterly, to my Department or to the Secretary of State. The usual communication channels between the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Commission remain.

Given the fragility of our democracy and the outside pressures facing most western democracies today, I suggest to right hon. and hon. Members that, in trying to ascribe ill intention, Machiavellian motivation and some sort of surreptitious purpose of undermining democracy to this benign statement of good will, they demean themselves and they demean and weaken democracy.

I thank the Minister for his introduction. I have a lot of respect for the Minister, but I struggled to listen to him. Through gritted teeth, he tried but failed desperately to justify why this statement is needed. You cannot flog a dead horse, and if something ain’t broke, it doesn’t need to be fixed.

In 2000, the previous Labour Government set up the Electoral Commission to act as a guardian of our democratic system. At the heart of that decision was the need for a central pillar of independence within our politics: a body that the public could trust that would not suffer interference, not just from the Government of the day but from future Governments of any shade; that would not fear the consequences of taking on major parties when they broke the rules; and that could provide information about our system from a trusted sources, free of political interference. Over 20 years later, the commission’s independence has become a cornerstone of public trust in our democracy.

Let me put the strategy and policy statement into context. Sadly, 14 years of Tory failure have left many people feeling powerless at the decline under this Government. People have seen their hard-earned money go to Tory friends and VIP donors. People who followed the rules to protect the NHS saw those who made the rules breaking them. I grew up not far from this place, on a council estate in Brixton, just a bus ride away. What annoyed and angered me was seeing decisions being made about my community by people who did not feel the ramifications. The Government need to reflect on that—I hope the Minister will—and realise why trust in our politics is at a record low after so many scandals from this place. During this time, the independence of the Electoral Commission has acted as a bedrock in our system against declining trust. While we have seen recent drops in confidence and satisfaction in the system, a majority of people remain satisfied with the voting process.

I agree with the Minister that there are always things we can do to improve our democratic process, but this statement is setting a political agenda for an independent watchdog. That is completely wrong, Minister, and you know it, and that is not just me saying that.

Order. The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, but I beg of her, would she please call the Minister “the Minister”, not “you”? I am not blaming the hon. Lady; bad examples have been set by senior Members of the House calling other Members “you” or “Minister”. Phrases such as “and you know it” are exactly why we do not have that way of doing things here, because that refers to the occupant of the Chair. I apologise for pulling her up on this, because she is far from being the first person to get it wrong, but if we do not start to put it right, people will not understand the reason for the rule.

Thank you for highlighting that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I totally agree with you; I will refer to “the Minister”.

It not only me saying that there are issues with the statement; The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, and even the Electoral Commission itself, have all highlighted problems with the statement. These are not random bodies. In fact, they are so respected that the Government themselves made it mandatory to consult them prior to bringing the strategy and policy statement to the House. Yet when all three raised the same concerns, the Government simply railroaded the statement through. Madam Deputy Speaker, you would expect a Government who disregard the powerful points made by these respected bodies to have a clear evidence base for their actions. For the Minister to repeat what the Electoral Commission is doing fantastically well is not the basis for the statement.

In announcing the statement, the Government said:

“This guidance addresses the concern raised in Lord Eric Pickles’ independent review into electoral fraud, that the current system of oversight of the Electoral Commission is not fit for purpose.”

Given that, we would expect to find a robust justification for this statement in what the Minister outlined. However, all we get on the system for oversight is three buried lines on page 50 of that seven-year-old report—no detail, justification or evidence. Wow.

When the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee found it was

“not aware that any of those concerns remain current”

from the relevant section of the Pickles report, and when so many respected bodies are saying the statement is unnecessary, surely the Minister must see that the very basis for making the statement is simply not good enough.

Under this Government, trust in our politics and democratic institutions is at an all-time low. We all need to work hard to restore that trust, give people belief that their voice matters and that decisions are made with them, not to them—this is another example of decisions being made to them. Instead, the contents of the statement completely undermine the Electoral Commission, representing a dangerous threat to the independence of a vital watchdog. MPs from all parties have condemned it and respected bodies have rejected it, which is further proof that we need a new approach to a democracy that works for everyone. I urge hon. Members to join us in voting against this dangerous politicisation of our independent elections watchdog.

I rise to make a short contribution to the debate. I welcome the work that has been done on the policy statement. Having read the examination undertaken by the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and the report by the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, I am glad the Government have responded to elements of the critique. I also acknowledge the incredibly important role that Mr Speaker and his Committee play in the existing governance of the Electoral Commission— I want to make sure that is on the record, because they do their job well.

For me, and I suspect other colleagues who supported the Elections Act 2022—the source of today’s instrument— there are a couple of additional arguments that should be put alongside what the Minister has said. First, it is reasonable to have a strategy and policy statement. Other regulators, such as Ofcom and Ofgem, have one. Secondly, this debate is an opportunity for the whole Chamber to engage in the Electoral Commission’s work. I rather wish that the Chamber was even fuller. Be that as it may, this is rightly an opportunity for more right hon. and hon. Members, other than those who sit on the Speaker’s Committee or on the Select Committee, to take part.

Does the hon. Lady not accept that comparing this with other regulators is profoundly confusing? They are different. Regulating the water industry, with the Government quite rightly having a view about how our water purity, sewerage and so on should be controlled, is completely different from the Government interfering in how an independent Electoral Commission should carry out its operations.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for making that point. Let me say in a respectful tone of voice that I am glad to see the depth of work that he has done on this, but I hope that he recognises that there are many of us on the Conservative Benches who have also spent very many years focusing on this area. My answer to him would be that there are partial similarities and there are partial differences. I think that he is wrong and that some of his colleagues are unwise to throw quite so many accusations in such a tone today. In part, there are good reasons why it is reasonable to set out in one place the Government’s priorities, which, as the statement sets out, are adjacent and relevant to matters to do with the regulators. That is what today’s document does. He is right that that is somewhat different from the more detailed work that is done by the regulators of water and electricity and so on. He is also right, of course, to point to the essential independence of the Electoral Commission. I am glad that he has done so, because it gives me the opportunity to add my emphasis to that as well.

There is nothing to be concerned about from this statement in respect of the independence of the commission. We have heard those assurances from the Minister today. It is extremely important that he has set that out, and I am glad that he has done so, and I add my voice to the essential nature of that. But I want briefly to go back to the need for wider participation in the work of the Electoral Commission. We are able to spend, periodically, a few minutes of question time on the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, and good work is done through that mechanism, but it is perhaps somewhat indirect. It is important for the whole Chamber to be able to look at the important issues that sit behind our constitution and our electoral system.

I wish to move on to the contents of the strategy and policy statement. I am working in particular from the points that we see in paragraph 19, where it is emphasised that this regulator needs to work together with others to discharge its duties. I want to emphasise that in the context of the demands being made on regulators this year with regard to artificial intelligence. Members will be very well aware of that from the White Paper on regulating artificial intelligence, which was set out last year, and on which we are shortly to have an update from a different Department.

The key point is this: it is the world’s biggest election year. Billions of citizens will be going to the ballot box, including here. These elections will be the first to happen since the significant advances in AI. There are legitimate concerns, anxieties and, indeed, evidence from our security services, for us to ask whether this technology will be used for fabrication, for manipulation and to affect the integrity of elections. It goes without saying that the integrity of elections matters, so that people’s free choice achieves what they intend.

The Government have asked regulators across their fields to set out how they will work with artificial intelligence. Clearly, the Electoral Commission is one of those regulators—and somewhat in the hotseat in this regard. It is my view that, in respect of the grand concerns and anxieties, the Electoral Commission and connected enforcement agencies could helpfully set out the preparation that they have done and give reassurance publicly about their readiness for elections this year. With reference to the substance of today’s statement, I ask the Minister what discussions he has had with the Electoral Commission on its work with other regulators, for example as per paragraphs 19 and 20 of the statement, which talk about keeping up to date with the realities of campaigning activities—I think that is a good tone to take there. I also ask the Minister in what way he expects to keep the statement itself and future iterations of the statements updated in regards to technology and national security considerations where those might be relevant.

I agree with the Minister that we here are stewards of our democracy. I have been in his particular position before. I set out the approach that we ought always to strive for our elections to be secure, fair, modern, accessible and transparent. I also agree that this is some of the most important work that we can do. None the less, I conclude by saying gently that it is a legitimate function of Government to address themselves to these principles. That is what we need the Government and Parliament to do, because we are the custodians of law as well as of those principles. We did that with the Elections Act, and we did it prior to that with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. We have also done it before then and since then, and we will continue to do so.

It is a legitimate function of Government to enact changes and updates to electoral law when they are asked to do so, perhaps through a manifesto commitment in a democratic process. We do that through Parliament, so it is good, as I have said, that we have this wider opportunity for Parliament to be able to engage in the work of the Electoral Commission while crucially respecting its design and independence, and I am glad that we are getting that chance to do so today.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), not least because she was the Minister who brought in the Elections Act 2022, which has given rise to the motion today. The Minister on the Front Bench today, whom I hold in the highest regard, is either the fifth or the sixth Minister—I have lost count—from the second Government Department who has had responsibility for manifestations of that legislation, whether it was the Bill proceedings or delegated legislation, since its First Reading in 2021. That does not say much for the continuity of this Government or their commitment to getting right the regulation of elections—that perhaps is hardly a surprise. In fact, as I have alluded to, much of the statement and much of what we are doing today is a hangover from a slightly different era—a more muscular era—of the Conservative Government.

That is a pity because, on the one hand, the Elections Act was a massive missed opportunity to consolidate and update electoral law properly for the next quarter of the 21st century, and on the other, it provided for significant regression in the access to, and potential fairness of, UK-wide elections and certain other elections in England and Wales. It removed proportionality from mayoral elections and it imposed the burden of photo-identification, particularly on poorer and marginalised communities, while at the same time extending the franchise to millions of voters from overseas who have much less in the way of verification. And now, on the Floor of the House today, we have the cherry on top, the crowning glory of this Government’s interventions on our election process: the strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission.

The commission is supposed to be the independent regulator of elections across these islands. It is a body that already has extremely clear functions, which are set out on a statutory basis in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. My first question to the Minister is this: what is this statement? Is it the law? Is it a statutory instrument? Is it delegated legislation? It is telling that the Government have tabled a debate in the Chamber rather than passing this to a DL Committee, because I have a feeling that that was their original intention and that the Minister would have preferred that given the scrutiny and publicity he is now facing, but here we are in the Chamber—and I am not entirely sure if a motion to approve a strategy and policy statement is delegated legislation.

It seems that the commission is not legally bound to follow the strategy and policy, but only to “have regard” to it. As others have asked, what does that mean? What happens if the commission finds itself conflicted between the statement and the statute? Can it be challenged in the courts, and if so, by whom—by political parties, by non-party campaigners, by the Government themselves? If it is not the law, how is it to be enforced—who decides if the commission is compliant or not?

I know the Minister, and you Madam Deputy Speaker, enjoy some deftly deployed Latin so perhaps this is a good time to ask the classical question, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers—or, in this case, who commissions the commissioners? The answer to that question is that it is this House: it is Parliament that recommends commissioners for appointment by the monarch by means of a Humble Address. It was Parliament that established the commission in the first place through the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The commission is accountable to the Speaker’s Committee of Members of this House and through other mechanisms to the Parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We can therefore look at this statement and the motion before us and ask whether the Government are usurping the sovereignty of this House. The motion is unamendable, much as some of us would have liked to amend it to mandate the Government to abandon the statement and repeal the relevant section of the Elections Act 2022, and the statement is unamendable. The Government ran a limited consultation—limited in time and limited in the number of consultees. Where is the parliamentary sovereignty in that?

The only way in which the Scottish Government were able to express their views was in a letter from my good friend the Minister for Parliamentary Business, George Adam MSP, to the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee of this House. That is probably a fair reflection of what this Government think is the place of Scotland’s Parliament and Government in the modern United Kingdom—as a subsidiary of the housing Committee of the House of Commons. The statement does not have any effect on the Electoral Commission’s functions in the devolved nations, but by definition that increases divergence of practice, which is perhaps a surprise given the UK Government’s determination to promote the broad shoulders of the Union.

In his letter, Minister Adam makes clear that, like almost every other stakeholder—and every other voice we have heard with the exception of those on the Government Benches who have taken an interest in this matter—he considers the strategy and policy statement to be

“an unwelcome and unnecessary interference with the independence of the Electoral Commission”.

He makes the extremely valid point that the statement’s preamble says that it

“does not suggest that the Commission should cease to carry out any of its other statutory duties”.

He also rightly suggests:

“This appears to raise the alarming prospect that such a suggestion might feature in future versions of the SPS.”

Surely a change in the functions of the commission would require a change in the statute.

It would be helpful to hear the Minister’s response to those points in getting to the heart of what this statement is or is not supposed to achieve. If it is largely a restatement of the principles and functions that the commission is already carrying out, as the Minister sought to assure us in his most emollient tones, it seems to be surplus to requirements. Perhaps the Minister could give us some examples of what, as a result of the statement, he thinks the commission will do differently, or better. If the statement is simply changing the emphasis on certain functions, that goes back to the point I raised in my intervention: why is that necessary? What does the Minister think the commission is doing wrong and why do the Government need to direct what is supposed to be an independent regulator?

The Elections Act 2022 was of course just one step in a pernicious series that this Government in their different incarnations have taken to shield themselves from accountability and to reduce the openness and transparency of democracy across the UK. The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022 restored the prerogative of calling an election to the Prime Minister alone—with all the consequences that is having for the Tory Back Benchers, the Press Gallery and the podcast studios of Westminster. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2020 has restricted the right to protest. The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and sundry other pieces of Brexit legislation have ridden roughshod over the Sewel convention and deliberately weakened and undermined the devolution settlement.

Perhaps it should be no surprise, therefore, that the Government have the independent regulator of elections next in their sights. The Conservative party is clearly not going to have an easy time at the next election, and it has clearly decided that therefore neither should anybody else—whether they are a candidate, a political party, a non-party campaigner, an electoral registration officer, a returning officer or some other official, or indeed the Electoral Commission itself.

The time to introduce elections legislation reform is usually at the beginning of a Parliament, so that everyone involved has time to prepare and implement the changes, not at the desperate fag-end of a Session as part of what appears to be a scorched earth policy by the current Government. That does mean that there are some serious questions for the official Opposition as well, and indeed for all of us writing our manifestos. Are the official Opposition prepared to repeal or amend aspects of the Elections Act should they have the opportunity to do so at some point in future? Will they commit to getting rid of this statement and certainly to not publishing any of their own?

In the meantime, the Government need to hear from the House that this statement is at best unnecessary and at worst—which is more likely—an undermining of the independence of the Electoral Commission and indeed its accountability to this House rather than to the Government of the day. Members on the Government Benches—wherever they are; they are clearly not that interested in this motion—who believe far more fervently in parliamentary sovereignty than those of us who believe in popular sovereignty believe in that, should consider whether this is really the road they want to go down. If they do not want to go down this road, they should join those of us who respect the independence of the Electoral Commission, and who want to see fairness and transparency across elections on these islands, in voting against this statement—or whatever it is.

This debate has to finish at 4.13 pm. I ask colleagues to be aware of that. There are five more speakers and a little brevity might help.

I am speaking today as Chair of the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee and a member of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. I also declare my interest as vice-president of the Local Government Association.

When the Minister was given responsibility for local government finance, he no doubt thought that he had got the hospital pass, which some Ministers get from time to time when they have a very challenging brief and a very difficult situation to face. Then he realised that that hospital pass was coming down the road straight away, and that he was going to have to try to justify this statement today. He did a good job of telling us what the current responsibilities are of the Electoral Commission; what he did not do was give us one example of something that the commission is not doing right at present which they will be made to do right and better by this statement. What are the problems that need addressing, and if the motion passes in this House, what will be different tomorrow from today? He did not give one example of that. That is why in the end both the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee and the Speaker’s Committee said that, at worst, this statement process compromises the independence of the Electoral Commission—the commission believes that as well—and at best, it is simply unnecessary and will contribute nothing whatsoever.

I say to the Minister—and he has made this point—that democracy is of course very precious and it is the responsibility of all of us to protect it. The Electoral Commission is a very important part of that process in its oversight of elections and the electoral processes in this country, so it must be seen to be independent—not just independent in practice but perceived to be independent. Despite what the Minister said in the very detailed way he addressed the statement, the perception is that the Government are trying to do something to influence the Electoral Commission. If they are not, what is the point of this? If they have no intention of influencing the Electoral Commission, we should just let it get on with the current situation and be accountable to Mr Speaker’s Committee—that is surely where we ought to be.

The Speaker’s Committee and the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee had very helpful advice from senior and authoritative officers in this House who concluded in reporting to our Committees that the statement would constitute interference with the commission’s operational independence. That is what we were advised; we were advised that no cogent explanation had been put forward for why the statement was needed. We have not heard one today either; the Minister did the best job he could, but it was not a coherent and cogent explanation. Further, we were told that it was hard to see how this statement would help the commission in its work.

The statement says that the commission should have regard to the way in which it operates, and gives it certain priorities. If among the commission’s many responsibilities some have to be a priority, others must be of a lower priority—that is pretty self-evident as a conclusion.

Those other things are less important. Either that directs the commission to concentrate its resources on the things that the Government think are important, or the commission will just ignore it and walk away; either way, we do not know what we are here for. Either we are here to interfere with the work of the commission, direct it and give it priorities, or we are simply here to say to the commission, “There are some things that the Government think are rather nice, but go away and ignore them because they don’t really matter. That’s not your statutory responsibility.”

Ultimately, the commission has statutory responsibilities. We were advised on the Committee that some of the wording in the statement differs from the wording in law, so the commission could be caught between following the law and following the guidance. It would end up in court, with lawyers making a lot of money from the conflicts—lawyers always make money where there is confusion in wording. The Government ought to be careful about what they are asking us to do.

Reference was made to other regulators. Other regulators are essentially agents of Government: for example, Ofwat exists to carry out Government policy about how our water should be kept clean. The Electoral Commission is not an agent of Government. It is therefore very different from the other regulators—the agents—that the right hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) and Ministers have referred to.

It goes back to the question that I put to the Minister. If other regulators fail to abide by the direction given by Government, they are removed. We have not heard what the consequences will be from the Government of not abiding by the range of “shoulds” within the statement.

Absolutely. No consequences are laid out for what will happen if the statement is not followed by the Electoral Commission.

I wonder whether it is worse than that. Regulators should be removed if they are found to be incompetent. Given the state of the water industry with Ofwat and the Environment Agency, the Government probably ought to be stepping in and removing those regulators, but they are not.

Yes, perhaps the Government ought to pay more attention to those problems rather than to one that seems not to exist. The Minister has not told us what problems the statement is intended to address.

I politely ask the Chair of the Select Committee where in my remarks opening the debate I talked about other regulatory bodies and tried to rank them pari passu with the Electoral Commission. I will tell him where I did it: I did not.

The Minister’s right hon. friend the Member for Norwich North raised it, and she was the Minister who took the Bill through Parliament, so it is worth taking seriously what she had to say.

The Minister did not tell us what problems the statement is meant to address. It would be helpful if he did so. [Interruption.]

I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am just trying to encourage the Minister to be helpful to us. Obviously I am struggling in that regard.

I am trying to be helpful. Read Hansard. I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question three times. If he neither understands nor can hear the answer, that is not my fault.

The Minister is clearly trying to be helpful but not succeeding.

In the end, it comes back to the point that the Electoral Commission’s priorities do not have to be the Government’s priorities, and the Government have no right to direct the commission in its work. Again I ask: what problem is the motion designed to address? If the Minister cannot articulate what the problem is and how the statement will change the behaviour of the Electoral Commission, frankly every Member of this House is busy and has lots of things to do. Have we just wasted 90 minutes of our time, because in two years we will come back and find that today’s motion had no impact? I rather hope that that is the case, because the other scenario would be that the Government are interfering in the Electoral Commission’s work, which is the worse of the two ways of looking at this.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). I associate myself with everything he said, which allows me to cut short my speech; I am conscious of time, Madam Deputy Speaker.

When preparing for the debate, I took a little time to learn what the public think of the Electoral Commission. Some research was carried out, and the words most frequently used by voters to describe the commission were “independent”, “important” and “professional”. At a time in our politics when fake news, misinformation and artificial intelligence are seen as threats, and frankly are threats, to the security of our democracy—indeed, during Prime Minister’s questions earlier we had Members spreading fake news about vaccines and things—should it not be a source of great pride for our country that the Electoral Commission is held in such high regard by voters, who rely on it to safeguard the independence of elections and of democracy itself?

Fairness and accountability in electoral regulation depend on a strong and independent regulator, which is what the Electoral Commission is. It fulfils the vital role of overseeing our elections and regulating political finance in the UK. The commission’s independence is established in statute as a public body, independent of Government, and accountable to Parliament through the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, for which I am a spokesperson. I regularly attend the Chamber and answer questions from colleagues on both sides of the House about the commission’s work. In a healthy modern democracy, we should seek compromise on matters of democracy and the regulation of elections, and not allow one party to set all the rules.

One party is in Government today, but there will have to be an election, and should another party form the next Government, they could author the next statement. We need to ensure that the structures that we agree as a House can withstand changes of political party in government. Political parties that are not represented in the House today might one day be elected to this House, and they might not value democracy as much as I know all right hon. and hon. Members here today do. The structure that we are being asked to approve today comes straight out of a Republican party playbook of politicising the Electoral Commission. Those of us who see that as a threat do so because we look at what is going on in other countries and other democracies. We also look at what has been going on here through the various iterations of Conservative Governments over the past 14 years.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) set out some of this already, but it is worth reiterating that this is not a first offence. This is a Government who repealed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 to allow a Prime Minister to decide when the starting whistle can be blown on a general election. This is a Government who changed the way that electoral registration worked, moving from household registration to individual electoral registration, which meant that millions of people fell off the electoral roll—at which point, the Government decided to draw the new electoral boundaries using the numbers in that snapshot. By the way, those electoral boundaries were for 600 MPs, because at that point that number looked advantageous to the Conservative party. Then we had the 2019 general election and the picture looked a little different. It was then more electorally advantageous for the Conservative party to have 650 Members, so guess what happened? Yes, with absolutely no explanation, we went back to 650 Members.

The freedom to protest peacefully is important in a democracy, but it has been curtailed under this Government. The Elections Act 2022 contains a plethora of things that are damaging to the security and safety of our democracy. Voter ID has been widely discussed in this House, and it is true that it is easier for some voters to vote with photo ID than it is for others. A now ex-Minister slipped up and accidentally said what was actually happening, which is that an attempt to gerrymander in the Government’s favour had suddenly been found not to be in their favour. Voter ID was an attempt to make voting harder for those who were not planning to vote Conservative and easier for those who were planning to vote Conservative, although it arguably backfired somewhat.

The Government are also changing the rules on who can vote, which is important, and this week we have seen changes that remove the 15-year limit on overseas voters. We now have a situation in which a person who has lived outside this country for 16 years can vote in UK general elections, but a 16-year-old who has lived in the UK all their life cannot vote in a UK general election. Who gets to vote is political.

This is the politicisation of the Electoral Commission. The Elections Act changed the electoral system for police and crime commissioners and Mayors to the party political advantage of the Conservative party. The general election spending threshold for political parties has been raised way above inflation, with absolutely no explanation other than that the Conservative party feels confident that it has the money to spend. Now we have a strategy and policy statement to direct the work of our independent commission. I will call it what it is. This is the politicisation of the independent Electoral Commission. All Members of this House who believe in the independence of our Electoral Commission would do well to cast their vote against this motion today, because the consequences will be far-ranging.

The point of the Minister’s statement, which he has now read out several times, is that any future Government may set the direction and policy priorities of the independent Electoral Commission. Let us keep politics out of the Electoral Commission by opposing this motion today.

It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), who made some excellent points. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as I too am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I rise to make a very short speech opposing the Government’s motion and the Conservative party’s efforts to undermine the elections watchdog. The last Labour Government set up the Electoral Commission to protect Britain’s democracy through the independent regulation of free and fair elections. The commission’s independence from Government of any shade must be crystal clear for voters and campaigners to see.

As a member of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and, for the Minister’s benefit, the Member of Parliament for Luton South, I have already shared my opposition to the Government’s draft strategy and policy statement on the Electoral Commission. At a time when trust in our politics is low, Ministers using this statement to set a political agenda for the Electoral Commission is a dangerous act that undermines its independence. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) put that well, too.

Even on its own merits, the statement fails to explain why it is required in the first place, and it provides no further support for scrutiny of the commission’s work. This begs the question: what is the point? As we know, there is cross-party agreement that the commission’s independence is vital to the health of our democracy, and both the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee and the Speaker’s Committee have concluded that no statement is necessary.

The Electoral Commission has rightly pointed out that the repeal of the Government’s power to designate a statement would improve confidence and trust in our electoral system. That begs another question: why did the Government introduce the strategy and policy statement power in the Elections Act? Perhaps if we put it in the context of a very unpopular, declining Conservative party that is out of ideas, it could be suggested that it is trying to assert an unfair influence on the rules of engagement at the next general election.

Alongside the strategy and policy statement power, the Elections Act also introduced repressive voter ID requirements—a solution to a non-existent problem—yet we are still waiting to see any action on, or prioritisation of, the real issues facing our democracy, such as disinformation and AI. There is no concerted plan to get under-represented groups and people turning 18 on to the electoral register. Will the Minister explain why?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood put it so well, we are seeing the alarming trend emerging of a Government tightening their grip on the delicate functioning of democracy. It seems that, with this statement, the Conservative party is purposefully seeking to undermine public trust in order to serve its own interests. Perhaps the Minister can try again to convince us otherwise. Is it arrogance or weakness that is informing these decisions? In any event, the public are under no illusions and can see this for what it is.

Labour will continue to oppose all reckless acts that threaten to undermine our democracy, and Labour will fight for every vote in every part of the country. The only people who will be deciding Britain’s future are the British public.

I should say from the off that I would not allege that the Government want to achieve something untoward by the statement. I am not for a moment suggesting that they are seeking somehow to introduce this guidance for the Electoral Commission to gain a political advantage for the Conservative party.

However, perception matters. The Minister says that the statement is about resilient, open, transparent, secure, modern and fair democracy, but many of our constituents will ask, “What is wrong with the current system?” The fact is that nothing is wrong with the current system of the Electoral Commission reporting to the House, not to the Government.

I am surprised to have received considerable correspondence from constituents on this subject, which I had thought would be of little interest to people in Devon. Let me give the House an example of that correspondence:

“As your constituent, I am urging you to please consider voting against the draft Electoral Commission and Policy statement on Wednesday. No Government or political party should be able to have any say in the commission’s strategy or policy.”

The Electoral Commission exists to run elections. It seems obvious to me and my Liberal Democrat colleagues that the Electoral Commission needs not only to be impartial, but to be seen to be impartial. The concerns expressed by my constituents, and felt by my party, have also been highlighted by two Committees of this House: the cross-party Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, which is so ably chaired, and the Speaker’s Committee, which has published its third report on the Electoral Commission of 2023. Those Committees have made it plain that we do not need this additional Government guidance to the Electoral Commission.

If that were not enough, the commission itself says that the Government having a strategy and policy statement is inconsistent with the independent role of the Electoral Commission. That is why I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues will vote against the statement.

The Minister is better than this motion—let us all agree on that. Like the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), I think it is a hangover from the Boris Johnson days, when the Electoral Commission upset him and he wanted to influence it. The Minister can correct me if I am wrong.

The Government claim that this strategy will enhance the parliamentary accountability of the Electoral Commission and increase public confidence in its work, but as everybody has stated today, it will do the complete opposite. This strategy and policy statement is little more than an attempt by the Government to undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission and to stamp their own agenda on the regulation of our democracy. This is a fight for our democracy.

We in this House need to take back control—that is important. Avoiding transparency and accountability seems to be the hallmark of the Government. Do not just take my word for it; the Electoral Commission itself wrote to MPs this week stressing that the principle of independence is crucial to maintaining confidence in our electoral system. It warned Members:

“The introduction of a mechanism such as a strategy and policy statement—by which a government can guide an electoral commission’s work—is inconsistent with this independent role.”

If the commission is saying that, and the Speaker’s Committee is saying it, why is the Minister trying to convince us otherwise? It really does not make any sense.

As we have heard many times, this is not the first time that the Government have attempted to rig our democracy. They forced through their voter ID system, which threatened to disenfranchise the most vulnerable in society. Remember that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) mentioned, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) let it slip that that was a deliberate attempt to manipulate electoral outcomes in favour of the Conservative party, and then went, “Whoops!” because he had made a mistake and said the quiet bit out loud. It is not a shock that the Government are once again attempting to influence an independent body that oversees our elections, but it should shock us all.

This draft strategy and policy statement sets out the Government’s strategic and policy priorities for the Electoral Commission. It also contains

“guidance to which the Commission must have regard in the discharge of its functions.”

That places on the commission a concerning legal duty to consider first and foremost the Government’s priorities when fulfilling its duties. If it does that, it cannot be independent, and the whole point is that it is supposed to be independent. It is simply unacceptable for the Government to direct the commission on how it should carry out its functions. If a foreign Government were wielding that much power over their elections, there would be calls to send in independent advisers to ensure that their elections were being held democratically—that is how bad this is. When people ask, “Do we have corruption in our Government?”, I say, “Yes, we do, and this is an example of that.”

The Government keep focusing on the prevention and detection of voter fraud, yet there is little evidence that voter fraud is widespread. In fact, it is so rare that there were only nine convictions—

Order. The hon. Lady talked about corruption in Government. I want her to withdraw that; she needs to rephrase what she said. She does know that—she is very experienced—so I ask her to say at this point that she withdraws any allegations of corruption within Government.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I withdraw the statement that the Government are corrupt, or that there is corruption in the Government—I do not know for sure, but I withdraw that statement.

There are, however, issues that need tackling, and the motion does not achieve that. There are rising considerations, such as the threat of generative AI, the use of deepfakes, the spread of disinformation and the scraping of people’s data. None of that has been tackled today—I wonder why, although according to the fact checking organisation First Draft, 88% of the Conservative party’s most shared online adverts in the final days of the 2019 general election campaign were found to have contained misleading information.

When the Minister gets to his feet, I hope that he will change his mind, because he is respected across the House and this motion is going to damage his reputation. As I have said, I urge the House to take back control and reject the motion.

First, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions this afternoon. To address the last part of the speech made by the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), I have been very grateful to colleagues on the Opposition Benches who have said some rather nice and kind words about me personally. I will not press to a Division the question of whether I deserve those nice and kind words—I am not sure how my side of the House would vote.

I say this in all seriousness: I hope the House knows me well enough to know that if I thought the intentions that sit behind this statement, the Elections Act, or any of the statutory instruments that have flowed from that Act were what hon. Members have asserted they were, I would have tendered my resignation to the Prime Minister. As a democrat—as somebody who has stood in elections, who has lost and won elections, and who has served in this place, if only for eight and a half years—I can say that there is nothing malign or mission-creep in anything that we are discussing today. I am not expecting that sentiment to change the votes of Opposition Members, but I say it sincerely. A number of Members have asked where the statement came from. Its genesis is, of course, to be found in sections 4A to 4E of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, inserted by the Elections Act 2022—that is where it comes from.

I will try to address some of the comments that have been made. My shadow, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), said that there was a political agenda; there is not. We paid full regard to the submissions of consultees, and we took a different view from them. That is perfectly fine. It does not undermine the system, nor is it a dangerous politicisation of the commission.

I believe my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), a distinguished former elections Minister, was right when she referred to this as a reasonable vehicle. She asked about my discussions with the commission. I have had a very useful meeting with its senior team, at which we discussed a range of issues and how we can work together to support and buttress our democracy. Those conversations will continue. The statement is iterative and organic, and it can of course be refreshed to reflect issues and challenges as they arise in the field of AI, overseas involvement and so on. The House will notice that I use the word “as”—as they arise—not “if”.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady)—I call him an hon. Friend because he is a friend—asked: where is the parliamentary sovereignty? When the Division bell rings, that is the exercise of Parliament’s sovereignty, and he will vote accordingly.

The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), in an rather confusing way, said he thought the statement was wrong because it did not mandate the commission or tell it what to do, and then went on in almost the same breath to say how frightful it would be if the statement could do that. I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is proving to be, on this issue and on this issue alone, a little bit of a pushmi-pullyu, because the independence of the commission is absolutely safe and sacrosanct.

Let me read back into the record from the statement that the

“duty to have regard does not require the Commission to give lesser priority to, or to ignore, any of its other statutory duties. The Electoral Commissioners and the Commission’s executive leadership will remain responsible for determining the Commission’s strategy, priorities, how it should discharge its duties”,

and so on and so forth, within its five-year plan. The commission will not be reporting to me, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, No. 10 or the Cabinet Office. It will continue to report to Parliament through Mr Speaker’s Committee, using the functions it has.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I will not, because the House has a lot of business today. Let me address the points that have been raised by others, because I want to give due attention to the points they have made.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) really should have a word with her own Front Benchers about overseas voters. Let me quote from her hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall on the statutory instrument we took upstairs on Wednesday 6 December 2023, when, from the Labour Front Bench, she told the Committee:

“We do not oppose the principle of overseas voting and giving citizens who still have a strong connection to the UK a voice in our elections, and that includes people who still have a strong connection to our local services and communities”.—[Official Report, Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee, 6 December 2023; c. 6.]

So the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood is entirely out of step with her hon. Friend on the Front Bench.

I thank the Minister for giving way this time. I wish to object in that the Minister is very much misportraying the point I made in my remarks. The point I made is that it is a political decision to decide who gets to vote, and I was comparing 16-year-olds in the UK with someone who had lived outside the UK for 16 years. That was the point I raised, and I do not think it is at all inconsistent with those on my own party’s Front Bench.

I heard the hon. Lady very clearly say that in principle she was opposed to overseas voters. If I misheard her, then I apologise, but that was certainly the thrust of the remarks she made.

The hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) describes the statement as a political agenda. Is improving disabled access having a political agenda? If so, or if that is the charge, I am going to plead guilty. Is cracking down on electoral fraud? If that is the charge, clap me in irons. Is ensuring that the rules of registration and the importance of voter ID are promoted? If so, take me off to the Tower. I plead guilty as charged.

The Minister rather misportrayed what I just said. I said that this statement either seeks to change how the Electoral Commission operates, in which case it is interference with an independent body, or does not seek to do that, in which case, what is the point of it?

The point, as I have consistently said, is to augment and buttress the work of the commission, and to give some reference tools in Parliament’s assessment. I also want to take issue with the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood—again, I hope I heard her correctly—who prayed in aid the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, as if it was an ancient symbol of our democratic function that we have repealed. It sat for five years as a way of giving confidence to the markets that a coalition of two parties could deliver the clean-up strategy for what her party had left behind in 2010. So its repeal was not a dismantling of some great, permanent piece of our democratic architecture.

The hon. Member for Brent Central seemed to refer to this as a vendetta against the commission. Let me just invite her—[Interruption.] She referred to it as a vendetta—I wrote the word down. The record will say that she thought that Mr Johnson, as Prime Minister, was waging a vendetta against the commission because the commission had said something with which he disagreed; that was the word the hon. Lady used and I will play it back to her advisedly. I took a contemporaneous note of the word as she used it. Let me just invite her to consider that if we wished to wage a war against the commission, we could neuter it, fetter it, force it to report to us and we could abolish it, but we haven’t and we won’t. Why won’t we, why aren’t we? It is because we know that the commission is important, we respect its work, and we honour, cherish and guard its independence. We believe that this statement and the previous legislation that this House has put through will augment the accountability of the commission to Parliament and, in so doing, serve this as its sole and only purpose: to build on Parliament’s and the public’s confidence in its work. The commission was and is independent, and it will continue to be independent. I commend this motion to the House.

Question put.


That the draft Electoral Commission Strategy and Policy Statement, which was laid before this House on 14 December 2023, be approved.