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Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) (Amendment) Order 2013

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 29 October 2013

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) (Amendment) Order 2013.

Relevant documents: 9th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 11th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, in moving this Motion, I shall speak also to the next Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper—that is, on the Representation of the People (Ballot Paper) Regulations 2013. I shall speak to those regulations first. They amend provisions in the parliamentary elections rules set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983 to make changes to the form of the ballot paper used at UK parliamentary elections. The changes are being made following widespread consultation involving a programme of public user testing and are designed to make the ballot paper clearer and easier to use, and so to facilitate electors’ engagement with the voting process. The intention is for the new ballot paper to take effect for any UK parliamentary by-election arising on or after 22 May 2014, and for the general election scheduled for May 2015.

The draft regulations are being made as part of a wider exercise that will see the introduction through secondary legislation of a set of up-to-date forms and notices to be used by voters—including poll cards, postal voting statements and the ballot paper—at UK parliamentary, European parliamentary and local elections and also other statutory elections and referendums, which are intended to make the voting process more accessible. This reflects moves in recent years to modernise the appearance of forms used by voters at newly created polls, such as the police and crime commissioner elections and the 2011 referendum on the parliamentary voting system.

The revised material—including the ballot paper we are considering today—has been produced following a programme of public user testing and consultation with the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, territorial offices, electoral services suppliers and with Scope. The regulations make changes to the layout of the ballot paper. They do this, first, by, for example, providing for the left alignment of candidates’ details, which reflects the way in which people read English—that is, left to right. Secondly, they introduce a requirement for the ballot paper to display the title of the election. The title of the election must also be printed inside a box to give it prominence. This helps to remind people which election they are voting in, which is particularly important if the election is combined with another poll.

Thirdly, the regulations replace the traditional grid pattern on the ballot paper with horizontal rules that allow the voting box to float freely between them. This will help electors with certain eyesight problems who found the old design difficult to use. Additionally, the regulations require a final bold horizontal rule to be added to delineate strongly the end of the ballot paper. The regulations amend the directions for the printing of the ballot paper to support the changes being made to the layout, wording and design of the ballot paper.

As I have indicated, the Government have consulted the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders over the new ballot paper. Further, in line with what has become established practice for new voting forms, the ballot paper has been subject to public user testing. Representative samples of members of the public in different parts of the UK have therefore had the opportunity to input their views on the clarity and accessibility of the current ballot paper and the proposed new ballot paper, and to influence the proposed changes. This resulted, for example, in the pictorial depiction of the cross to be put by the voter in the box next to their choice of candidate to be more prominent in the guidance to voters on the ballot paper. The Electoral Commission, stakeholders and members of the public involved in the user testing have all been supportive of the proposed changes, agreeing that they are an improvement on the current design.

The Government are committed to supporting electors’ participation in elections and effective electoral administration. The proposed changes to the form of the ballot paper provided by the regulations will make it clearer and easier to use and therefore will improve electors’ experience of voting in UK parliamentary elections. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

I turn now to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) (Amendment) Order 2013. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 places a number of requirements on parties and officers. These include the provision of quarterly donation reports and annual accounts. The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 provided the Electoral Commission with new investigatory and civil sanction powers. These powers were introduced to remedy the practical difficulties the Electoral Commission found with the limited investigative and sanctioning powers provided for by the 2000 Act. The Electoral Commission has been able to use these additional powers since 2010. They include fixed or variable monetary penalties, compliance notices and stop notices. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) (Amendment) Order 2013 makes two technical amendments to this regime. These changes have been requested by the Electoral Commission in the light of its experience of using these civil sanctions.

First, the order allows the Electoral Commission to impose a fixed monetary penalty or discretionary requirements on a registered political party and similar bodies in circumstances where a party office holder or responsible person has committed a prescribed offence. The Electoral Commission has highlighted a concern that it is unable to sanction a party for breach where an individual has committed an offence; only the individual. In certain circumstances it is more appropriate to sanction the party, for example, where the individuals responsible for compliance are frequently changed or where the breach arises from the individual following a party policy.

Secondly, the Electoral Commission will be able to recover a non-compliance penalty in England and Wales as though it was payable under a court order. This means that if such a penalty is unpaid, the Electoral Commission does not need to make a claim in the courts in order to enforce payment. Instead, it can proceed straight to taking enforcement action as though it had already obtained a judgment following such a claim. Presently, this power is available to the Electoral Commission for various financial penalties under the civil sanctions regime, but not in relation to non-compliance penalties, which the order seeks to rectify.

The Electoral Commission has discussed these changes with all the political parties, which have raised no concerns. The Government have consulted the Electoral Commission on the draft order, which responded on 3 June 2013 to say that it is content that the drafting achieves the policy objectives set out in the Explanatory Note. I beg to move.

My Lords, I will be brief. I welcome the order and the regulations because any changes that make it easier for people to vote are to be welcomed. However, we live in an electronic age, we no longer live in a paper age, and we certainly do not live in an age where we use a pencil. As I said in an earlier debate, the last place where an adult actually uses a pencil will be when they put a cross on a ballot paper. Even golfers will have turned to electronic means to keep their scores rather than recording them on a piece of paper. Surely it is time to wake up to the fact that our younger generation, who we are concerned to get involved in the political process, are moving further and further away from us in terms of how we carry on our democracy. This building is an example of how far behind the times we are in that we still practise our democracy in a building that is so out of date, being 18th or 19th century in its design.

If we are going to involve younger people, not only do we have to educate them, we have to change our democracy so that it takes them into account. They now use electronic means to do a variety of different things, as do some elderly people such as me, and use all forms of electronic devices. Why on earth are we not moving, rapidly, towards electronic voting and using ID cards—which this Government of course stopped—or smart card technology in order to ensure that the right people vote and the register is automatic? If we had some form of smart card, anybody could simply turn up and vote anywhere—eventually, even at home, by putting their card into their computer or their finger on their iPad, or whatever it might be, to prove who they are and then voting.

That would be quite possible these days and it should be part of the process. I hope that the Minister, having put these regulations through, will go away and at least start to think about where we go next.

My noble friend has outlined what should happen, and all the various ways of doing it, but has not mentioned what the benefits are of doing it.

I am quite happy to take that intervention. The benefits are twofold. First, you have an automatic register and do not have this problem of people committing offences by not registering. There would be a register, and you would have an ID card that included your address, which would therefore be on the register in each constituency.

Secondly, the benefit of voting electronically through some form of ID card is that you increase the number of people who vote because you make it possible across a whole range of outlets and places, such as supermarkets or wherever it might be. People can vote provided they can prove their identity. At the same time, that does away with the problem of fraud because you cannot vote unless you have an ID card or some form of fingerprint, eye scan or whatever recognition you might use. That will ensure that we have a system which stops fraud from taking place. It will not stop all fraud but it will dramatically reduce the amount of fraud that, supposedly, takes place in elections at present.

All I am asking is that the Minister goes away and least looks at this matter. If 2015 is too soon, it will certainly be quite possible to have the first electronic election in 2020.

I thank the Minister for introducing this debate and my noble friend Lord Maxton, who introduced me to the Kindle. I remain for ever grateful that he kicked me into the century in which we actually live. In a previous debate, I said to the Minister that he would rue the day that his party insisted on getting rid of ID cards. He has yet to admit it but I will welcome it when he does repent in that way.

We welcome the first draft order, for which the Electoral Commission asked, as the Minister told us. It allows civil sanctions to be used against the relevant organisation, whether a political party or a third party, rather than simply the “responsible person”. However, it does rather beg the question of why, under the other bit of mischief that he is up to at the moment—the “Lobbying and Interference with Civil Society” Bill that he is steering through the House—the Minister is introducing criminal sanctions. I am not quite certain what the thinking is behind that. I am also not certain, under that Bill, to whom the criminal sanctions would apply. Would it be the “responsible person” or, as with this order at the moment, the body rather than the individual concerned? In other words, is it the hapless officer who happens to have spent £20 over the cap on travel costs, their boss or the trustees of the charity? It is interesting that the distinction being made in this order between the individual and the organisation is not as clear as in the other bit of mischief he is up to. It would therefore be useful if the Government could provide clarity as to who the responsible person is under that Bill, as otherwise there will be much anxiety in your Lordships’ House, many Members of which are trustees of charities.

We are content with the regulations dealing with the ballot paper and ask the Minister only two questions. First, will he confirm that political parties have been consulted on this and not simply the returning officers that he mentioned? Although I think he mentioned Scope, I do not think he mentioned organisations such as the RNIB, which deals not just with those with no sight but also with those with restricted sight, and organisations dealing with people with other physical difficulties who may have difficulty casting a vote. Have those organisations been consulted? Secondly, can he indicate the date when we can expect to see the Welsh version of the ballot paper? I know that he has got into hot water before over the difficulties of producing a Welsh version of a ballot paper in time, so it would be useful to know when the bilingual version will be available.

I thank noble Lords for those comments. I am always extremely happy to listen to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, on why we should become electronic in every single way. I am sorry that he did not read his speech from his iPad. I would have liked to see that. I should declare that I have recently acquired an iPad and am taking advantage of the offer made by a number of noble Lords to assist us in learning how to deal with its quirks. I look forward to being helped by the noble Lord’s noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth who has offered to assist me in this regard.

As the noble Lord knows, I am very sympathetic to his approach. The question of identity assurance is, of course, the key to all this. The Cabinet Office is discussing with the individual privacy lobby—if I may put it that way—the whole question of how we move forward on identity assurance. We will be bringing forward a draft data sharing Bill in January for discussion and, I stress, pre-legislative scrutiny. At that point there will be plenty for the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, to get his teeth and his iPad into, and we will take it further forward. With the move towards individual electoral registration, we have made it possible to register electronically. That is a step in the right direction. However, as we all understand, the identity assurance issue is very important.

At the moment, we can do this electronically, but we can confirm only. Is this a new way of registering? Am I correct in thinking that you can now register online?

That is my understanding. I will write and contradict myself if I discover that I am mistaken. Listening to the noble Lord, I recalled that at each Liberal Democrat party conference we sing the Land Song during which we all wave papers and sing, “Why should we be beggars with the ballot in our hand?”. It would not be quite the same if we were waving our iPhones. There is something tactile about the old-style ballot.

As regards the Welsh version, bilingual forms will be brought forward in due course before the polls in 2014. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, understands the subtle differences between “soon”, “in due course”, and “in good time”. The political parties have been made aware of the proposed changes to the ballot paper and other forms. We understand that Scope represented a number of disabled bodies, so we have consulted widely with those who have particular difficulties in this regard.

I hope that I have answered all the questions on these SIs. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, raised a number of wily issues about another Bill, which she and I need to discuss in the Corridor before we move to Committee stage. I have no doubt that we will have plenty of opportunities to discuss the question she raised over the next few weeks and months.

Motion agreed.