My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question given in the other place yesterday by the Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office. I apologise in advance if it is somewhat longer than it would normally have been. The Answer is as follows:
“The British public deserve to have confidence in our democracy. There is clearly the potential for electoral fraud in our system, and that undermines confidence and promotes perceptions of vulnerability. When fraud is committed in elections, it is not a victimless crime. People’s votes are stolen, or someone is elected who should not have been elected.
Earlier this year the Government announced that they would be conducting pilots for voter identification at the local elections in May this year in line with our manifesto commitment to legislate to ensure that a form of ID must be presented before voting.
Voter ID is part of the Government’s commitment to improve the security and the resilience of the electoral system that underpins our democracy and will promote greater confidence in our democratic processes. In making these changes, we will bring our electoral system in line with others, such as that in Northern Ireland or Canada, which operate successful programs and recognise that there is an increasing expectation that someone’s vote should be protected and carefully guarded.
We already ask that people prove who they are in order to claim benefits, to rent a car or even to collect a parcel from the post office, so this is a proportionate and reasonable approach. Democracy is precious, and it is right to take that more robust approach to protect the integrity of the electoral process.
Since 2014, the independent Electoral Commission has pushed for the introduction of ID to strengthen the system, and it has welcomed the voter ID pilots as a positive first step towards implementing its own recommendation that an accessible, proportionate voter identification scheme be introduced in Great Britain. In a recent report for Democratic Audit UK, academic Stuart Wilks-Heeg stated that after the scheme was introduced in Northern Ireland there was no evidence to suggest a fall in turnout but that there was plenty of evidence that fraud declined sharply.
Indeed, it was the previous Labour Government who introduced photo ID at polling stations across Northern Ireland in 2003. As I have said, it has not affected turnout there and it has helped to prevent election fraud. The Labour Minister at the time said:
‘The measures will tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters’,
‘no one is disfranchised’.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/7/01; col. 739.]
The opportunity to pilot voter ID in May 2018 was offered to all local authorities in Great Britain, and five—Woking, Gosport, Bromley, Watford and Swindon —have committed to do so. Proxy voters in Peterborough will also be required to show ID before they can vote on 3 May 2018. The Minister for the Constitution has taken the opportunity to speak to each local authority about the design of their pilots and the methods that they have applied to ensure that their electors are aware of voter identification and that each elector’s needs are understood. Local authorities will notify every eligible voter by including information of the ID requirement on their poll card.
No one will need to buy ID documents to be able to vote, and the ID requirements will not be limited to a passport or driving licence. In the pilots, voters can use a wide variety of ID, from marriage certificates and passports to bus passes and bank cards, depending on where they live. If voters do not have the required ID, local authorities are providing alternative or replacement methods to ensure that no one is disenfranchised. Everybody eligible to vote will have the chance to do so.
The pilots will help to identify the best way of implementing voter ID, and we look forward to each authority’s findings. The Minister for the Constitution has responded to the recent letter from the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and a copy has been made available in the Library of both Houses. All the local authorities involved have completed equality impact assessments, and the Electoral Commission will independently evaluate the pilots, with results published this summer.
We want to ensure that our elections are as accessible as possible and that there are no barriers to democratic participation. We have recognised that, for example, people with a disability face different issues when registering and voting. We have run a call for evidence to hear directly about their experiences to enhance the Government’s understanding so that we can help those people to register and cast their vote. We have also recently made it easier for survivors of domestic abuse to register to vote anonymously for fear of revealing their address to an ex-partner, as there were fears that that was preventing survivors registering to vote.
The aim of the pilots is to protect voting rights, and it comes in the context of protecting and improving our democracy. Pilots are important in order to find out what works best. Electoral fraud is unacceptable on any level, and its impact on voters can be significant. It takes away an elector’s right to vote as they want, whether through intimidation, bribery or impersonating someone in order to cast their vote. The Cabinet Office, in partnership with the Electoral Commission and Crimestoppers, launched the Your Vote is Yours Alone campaign only last month to encourage people to report electoral fraud if they see it.
The impact of electoral fraud is real and it is criminal. It steals something precious from a person and undermines the entire system for everyone. I do not want to see our democracy dumbed down; it is rather a shame that the Labour Party appears to”.
Ensuring our elections are safe and secure is an important duty, and one which I fully support. Will the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, say a bit more about the evaluation process? I hope that he can confirm that a speedy decision will be taken by the Government after the pilots have been evaluated, as we need simple but effective measures to ensure the integrity of the electoral process and to ensure that we do not get in the way of enabling people to cast their vote, which is the other side of the same coin and an important part of their playing their role as citizens of the UK.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. There will be an independent statutory evaluation of the pilots conducted by the Electoral Commission. That will be published by the end of July, and it will inform the ensuing debate.
My Lords, we recognise the validity of the concerns of the EHRC, but we should know by the summer whether the Government were correct in their assessment or whether those concerns were legitimate. Meanwhile, what exactly are the new safeguards to prevent electoral fraud in postal and proxy voting that are being tested in the three pilot areas referred to by the Minister in the Commons yesterday? The Minister also assured my Liberal Democrat colleague there that the number of registered electors who are not permitted to vote in person, for lack of appropriate ID, will be recorded and reported. What will happen if that number exceeds the margin of victory in a particular ward?
The noble Lord is quite right: three local authorities are piloting new procedures for voter ID on postal votes—Tower Hamlets, Peterborough and Slough. I said a little about that in my opening remarks. Some local authorities are not only making people more aware of the incidence of electoral fraud and encouraging them to report it where necessary to Crimestoppers, but are following up after the election—contacting certain electors who have used the postal vote—to make sure that nothing improper has taken place.
With regard to turning up at a polling station and not being able to vote, in one local authority—I think it is Swindon—if you do not have the necessary documentation on polling day you can take along someone called an “attester”, who has the necessary documentation and is registered in the same ward, and if the attester vouchsafes your identity you can then vote.
Is the Minister aware that during the proceedings on the Electoral Administration Bill on 21 March 2006, in col. GC 94, some of us proposed an alternative to electoral registration in a scheme similar to the pilots currently proposed by the Government? There was, however, a crucial difference: individual local authorities could apply for permission to run voter ID control schemes only if they believed that they had a particular problem with electoral fraud. With the Government now proposing pilots with a view to a national rollout, in addition to existing electoral registration schemes, which are already costing us millions—a fortune and, in my view, a waste of money—will not more money be wasted on a problem that affects only a very small number of local authorities?
I was not in your Lordships’ House in March 2006—I was elsewhere—so I do not recall that intervention. However, the noble Lord made a similar intervention when we debated a statutory instrument on the combined authorities order 2017. We are not minded to adopt the proposals that he has referred to. Any incidence of electoral fraud is unacceptable. The independent Electoral Commission have been pressing for voter ID since 2014; the Eric Pickles report that looked at the wider incidence of voter fraud recommended it as part of the way forward; and I think that this is the right way. I notice that when we debated the measure in Grand Committee there was broad support for the Government’s approach, with a notable dissenting intervention by the noble Lord.
Would my noble friend consider, when he reviews the effectiveness of ID in voting systems, consulting the Labour Party? In selection meetings the Labour Party requires two forms of ID: one photo ID and one proof of address. It goes on to say, “It is rare that members have no form of ID”. That is a direct quote from the Tottenham Labour Party, but it applies—does it not?—to many other Labour constituency parties: they have experience and expertise that the Government could well draw on.
I am very grateful to my noble friend. The chances of my presenting myself at a selection meeting for the Labour Party, when it chooses a new candidate, are small. However, my noble friend makes a valid point: people are now accustomed to being asked for various forms of ID during the normal course of their daily lives, so there should not be a problem as we introduce these pilots for voter ID in a few local authorities.
My Lords, when I was in the other place representing Bristol East, I was one of the few Members who conducted a constituency-wide consultation on identity cards when they were proposed by the then Labour Government. There was a mix of replies and we then held a consultation with the Minister, Beverley Hughes—now my noble friend Lady Hughes. The people who were most in favour of identity cards were women from our ethnic minority communities, who said to us in terms that they had no access to their passports and no bank accounts; some of them were not even allowed to have a library card. This also applied to replies from another women’s organisation, representing women who were subject to coercive control. They all said, “I do not have any means of identity, and no man in my family will allow me any”. Perhaps the Minister will tell me how women like that will be able to vote because they will not turn up if they think that they will be turned away.
The noble Baroness makes a valid point. Local authorities are implementing equality impact assessments and working with partners to ensure that voter ID does not risk preventing any eligible voter from voting. The noble Baroness has raised an important issue, and when the Electoral Commission evaluates the impact of the pilots, I will make sure that it takes on board the specific issue she raises.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that when you go along to a polling station to cast your vote but find that somebody has stolen it and impersonated you, you would be issued with a tendered ballot paper. Those are then kept separately in discrete envelopes and used if necessary—because the result of the count is so close—when somebody has to adjudicate whether or not that is a valid ballot paper. This process indicates what level of impersonation takes place at polling stations, so can the Minister tell us how many tendered ballot papers have been issued in any of the recent national elections? Does he also accept that perhaps the best deterrent against impersonation at polling stations is the presence of a uniformed police officer, as used generally to be the case?
I am not sure that the presence of a uniformed police officer would guarantee the absence of impersonation in every case. The steps that we are taking in line with the recommendation of the Electoral Commission are the right way to go. The noble Lord asked a specific question; the answer to it is not in the folder in front of me, but I will endeavour to get it and write to him.
My Lords, can the Minister perhaps give us some advice on the terms of reference and the way in which the Electoral Commission will produce its report? One of the particular concerns being expressed on our Benches is that voter ID schemes will be used to depress turnout. Will an evaluation of the impact on turnout come through from this study and, in particular, will the Electoral Commission look at that issue and compare, say, Peterborough with adjacent areas that do not have the obligation to produce voter ID when people go to vote?
Not only will the Electoral Commission be able to do that—I am sure that it will—but anybody could look at the turnout. As I said in my opening Statement, there is no evidence in Northern Ireland or in many other countries that have moved over to voter ID that this has depressed turnout.