Question for Short Debate
My Lords, at the outset, I want to pay tribute from my own personal experience to Sir David Amess. He was a truly honourable Member, and I appreciate enormously his family’s call for more co-operation and working together. That is something I have tried to do throughout my 30 years in this Parliament.
It is perhaps sad but necessary to start by taking note of the deterioration in the public and political dialogue since David and I were first elected. During the whole of my service here, I have been privileged to work with colleagues from other parties and from none on a number of projects, not least in areas of direct relevance to the subject of this debate. It was a particular privilege to work with the late Robin Cook to reform the Commons—successfully—and try to reform this House, not quite so successfully. I have been able to co-operate closely with Conservative allies, too, in such notable reformers as Ken Clarke, Sir George Young, William Hague and Andrew Tyrie, as they then were. I have also had very constructive shadow relationships with Commons Agriculture Ministers such as John Gummer, Douglas Hogg and Nicholas Soames. At this stage in their careers, they will perhaps forgive me for blighting their preferment prospects with No. 10 by mentioning their names now.
What has changed, especially in the past two years, is that that constructive co-operation with Conservatives —now in the Johnson mould—has become impossible. That tradition of Conservative principle, combined with a pragmatic pursuit of shared values and objectives, has simply vanished. I am sorry to say that the once great Conservative and Unionist Party has become a narrow, dogmatic cult. I know that many great figures of the past and present on the Benches opposite know this to be true, though they cannot say it. Andrew Rawnsley admirably summed this up 10 days ago under the headline, “Like all cults, Borisology is detached from reality and destined to end badly”.
“The Conservative & Unionist party is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. It’s kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-party.”
The present leadership do not care about conserving the union. They do not feel obliged to conserve Britain’s reputation in the world—not even by maintaining the legal obligation for realistic international aid—so destroying the UK’s soft power role. They have no time for conserving business ethics, failing to apply due diligence to the award of huge contracts to their political friends and donors. They demean such core elements of our constitution as respect for the rule of law. They have even threatened the constitutional position of the monarch, with their underhand attempt at an illegal Prorogation of Parliament. Was that conservative? Likewise, tearing up international agreements signed with people the Prime Minister calls friends and partners is not conservative. It now appears that Ministers intend to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights, for which Churchill worked so hard. Is that conservative?
I owe my time in this Parliament to the people of my beloved ancestral county of Cornwall. They are feeling the distinctly unconservative, scorched-earth nature of this Government particularly keenly. It is easy to underestimate quite how badly people feel let down by the level of deceit, misrepresentation and deliberate distortion—downright leaver lies—that has become all too common since the 2016 Brexit referendum. Both the Prime Minister and Mr Gove promised that the level of EU investment funding for Cornwall, as a region of generally very low household incomes and below-average economic activity, would be fully replicated in the new post-Brexit national support programme. Tory MPs repeated that promise. EU structural fund support this year would have been some £100 million. As Cornwall Council now warns, the actual UK support now firmly promised is only £3 million. Even if the proportion of SPF is matched, the maximum would be £57 million. So much for levelling up.
Further, to add blatant insult to injury, we have just learned that Ministers have torn up their promise, made to me in this House during debates on the then Trade Bill, that all existing protections for Cornish speciality food products under the excellent EU scheme would be fully retained in future trade deals. My noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed pointed out on Thursday that the agreement with Norway and other countries has ditched that commitment. There is no protection there for Cornish pasties, clotted cream and so on. The Minister could only splutter in reply:
“You cannot get all that you ask for, of course, when you negotiate these agreements.”—[Official Report, 14/10/21; col. 2021.]
Did they even ask for this important protection? What is happening with all the other trade negotiations? It is this cavalier relationship with the truth that divorces today’s Conservative Party from its past and betrays the legacy of Macmillan, Heath, Major—and, yes, even Thatcher.
Eventually, I believe that the time of this clique will be over, both in the country and in the Conservative Party. But for now, the Johnson junta is making an insidious attempt to defy electoral gravity in perpetuity by weighting the entire system in its favour. Last week, the chair of the official Committee on Standards in Public Life said:
“It is essential … that parties obtain funding in ways that are free from suspicion that donors receive favours or improper influence in return … I doubt many would argue that our current system meets this test.”
That was a masterclass in understatement.
Yet, far from achieving cross-party and independent consensus on how to achieve transparency and safeguards, the Government’s Elections Bill actually increases the chance of elusive foreign financial inducements. It is demonstrably designed to inflate the influence of Tory millionaires while disfranchising millions of citizens who are less likely to vote Tory. It is deliberately partisan and a real threat to the basic integrity of our electoral system.
For about 150 years—since 1883, in fact—the law of the land has sought to prevent rich men buying the constituency elections that determine who will govern Britain. Candidates and their agents have been held responsible for all expenditure intended to advance their cause. This Government, in their own party interest, are attempting to reverse the 2018 Supreme Court judgment which reinforced that essential safeguard. In a feigned pursuit of “clarification”, the Bill would enable huge sums of money to be invested by the richest party in marginal seats while its candidate and his or her agent took no responsibility for it. There would be no effective control or limit.
To this, they add an attempt to change mayoral and PCC elections from the relatively fair supplementary vote system to the self-evidently less fair first past the post system, which cheats so many electors of any impact. Perhaps the most compelling line in the Government’s 2019 manifesto was the promise that they would be
“making sure that every vote counts the same—a cornerstone of democracy.”
In today’s multiparty democracy, that clearly requires the end of first past the post for the House of Commons. Parliament has legislated to make this happen in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. MPs should perhaps recall the admonition, “Physician, heal thyself.” That would be an initiative on which we could all work together, co-operate and seek consensus.
I could hardly leave the House without reflecting on a lifetime commitment to changing how Members get here. I recall being accused of being “an old man in a hurry” when I was an enthusiastic proponent of the coalition Government’s substantial and sincere attempt to reform this place in 2012. I pointed out then that progressing to elections a century after they had first been envisaged in the Parliament Act 1911 could only be considered “hurried” in this Chamber. At that time, there was real cross-party consensus for promising elections—just no consensus on delivering them.
Among the deluge of reports and submissions on electoral and political reform that I have been wading through in my office, clearing the decks for departure, I came upon a previous submission by the then Leader of the Opposition here, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, entitled “Delivering a Stronger Parliament”. I will read only a short extract:
“The Senate should have 300 members called Senators ... All political members should be directly elected in largely county-based, three-member constituencies. There should be an end to the abuse of patronage of the Blair years.”
But there was a footnote:
“It is truly alarming to think that the Prime Minister could believe the perpetuation of patronage on the recent scale was appropriate to any century, least of all the 21st”.
Yet today’s Prime Minister has again turned places in this Parliament into an instrument of patronage, to be purchased at party dinners. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, will do me a parting favour by repeating his former words to Mr Johnson.
We cannot escape some criticism of the media for creating the destructive atmosphere that we see today. Some of the media has had a really divisive role in the past five years. Today is Trafalgar Day: “England expects that every man will do his duty”. However, marine historians remind us that at least 10% of the crews in Nelson’s fleet were not English; they were foreigners. In the Brexiteer media, they would be branded as unpatriotic immigrants.
I plead with true Conservatives—in both Houses and beyond—to reclaim their party. For many years, I have had staring at me on my desk the reminder from Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” For all my reservations about the leadership of this Government, I sincerely believe that this House is a place full of good people. My Lords, I wish you well.
My Lords, it is of course always a great pleasure for me to follow my noble friend Lord Tyler, and it is with considerable sadness that I now do so for the last time.
It was in 1964, 58 years ago, that my noble friend was first elected to the Devon County Council and became the youngest councillor in the country. In February 1974, he was elected as the Liberal MP for the Bodmin constituency. He won then by just nine votes, then narrowly lost in the October election by just 665 votes. Many people might have given up politics at that point—but not Lord Tyler.
He fought the Beaconsfield parliamentary by-election in 1982. He came a strong second, easily consigning to third place the new young Labour candidate—one Tony Blair. In 1983 and 1987, he organised the general election tours for David Steel. He became chair of the Liberal Party, while I was one of its campaign officers, and we had high hopes for the then Liberal/SDP Alliance. But at the end of that decade, my party hit the rocks in the European elections of 1989.
Sensing the national disaster ahead, I decided to abandon what was happening at my party HQ and began making the first of my many campaign visits to Cornwall to support my noble friend’s campaign there to try to become the MEP. Again, he did not win, but, after a campaign in which I worked closely with his election agent, Dame Annette Penhaligon, he was the only Liberal Democrat in the country to achieve second place in that election, polling over 30% of the vote, compared to just 6% for my party nationally. Our campaign, including the distribution of over 250,000 tabloid newspapers in his support, set in motion the process which eventually resulted in every seat in Cornwall being held by a Lib Dem MP.
In 1992, I helped him to win the North Cornwall constituency, which now included the town of Bodmin. He later became the Chief Whip in the Commons for my party, while I was its director of campaigns and elections. We worked very closely together with the late and much missed Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon.
We then became colleagues here when he retired from the other place in 2005. We worked together on many aspects of reform to your Lordships’ House, seeking, as he said, to go much further than we were able. We worked together to try to establish the principle of fairness in the funding of elections nationally, and to defend the principle of there being a level playing field in constituency campaigns, and we have worked to try to reduce the number of people unable to participate in our democracy because they are not registered to vote, to prevent the Government changing the rules of elections in favour of their own party, and to protect the independence and role of the Electoral Commission.
My noble friend’s debate today is very timely. Never before have a Government sought to gain control of the independent Electoral Commission, to change spending rules to enable marginal seats to be bought, and blatantly to increase the power that comes with millions of pounds rather than with millions of votes.
We will greatly miss my noble friend in the debates ahead, we thank him for his many contributions, and we are most grateful to Lady Tyler for everything that she has done in support of him, his constituents, and the cause of democracy.
My Lords, I have had the pleasure to write and speak privately to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, to express my regret that he is leaving this Chamber. Therefore, I shall just briefly put on the record that I have always found him generous, thoughtful, considerate and helpful, and I shall have those memories. I am wearing Liberal Democrat colours—I say with pain—but, more significantly, as he will recognise, they are one half of Cornish colours.
I should like to pick up on the issue of electoral integrity in a different way. Next year, we will have elections. One of those will be the mayoral election in Tower Hamlets. Previously, Lutfur Rahman was found guilty of corruption. He has indicated that he intends to stand again. Richard Mawrey described him as
“pathologically incapable of giving a straight answer … he was not truthful.”
He described people who worked for him as “chosen from his cronies.” He described another person as a “hatchet-man”.
Lutfur Rahman was ultimately found guilty of 10 different corruption offences. In the penultimate paragraph of Mr Mawrey’s comments in his judgment, he states:
“Mr Rahman has made a successful career by ignoring or flouting the law … and has relied on silencing his critics by accusations”.
That is a man who is now entitled to stand for election next May and has indicated that he intends to do so.
I received from Mark Baines a brief extract from a Sylheti channel where Lutfur Rahman is present. On four occasions during that meeting, different people do not refer to campaigning for votes, but repeatedly use the word “collect”. I have had it checked and confirmed that this is the correct translation of the word used. Who are these people? They are the Tower Hamlets Carers Association. In other words, they are looking after the elderly in old people’s homes, yet Lutfur Rahman’s henchmen are saying that they will collect votes.
Following the theme of the debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, what should we do to achieve electoral integrity? We could comment on other aspects of the Elections Bill, but I would like to see four things, if possible. I have circulated extracts of the video from which I quoted to a number of Peers and the Minister. First, I would like the Government, on an all-party basis—because that is how the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and I have tried to work on occasions, although we have had disagreements—to bring forward the postal and proxy votes aspects of the Elections Bill, along with undue influence, and complete them to be used for the local elections next May. Secondly, I ask that the Electoral Commission prepares itself now and starts looking at the records, financial paperwork and the rest on Aspire—the party under which Lutfur Rahman and his cronies will campaign—to ensure that it has met all the required regulations, in a way that it did not previously. Thirdly, I ask the police to nominate and identify an individual. Fourthly, I ask all the political parties that are not part of Aspire to work together to defeat a man who was found to be so corrupt on a previous occasion.
My Lords, we can all agree with that but, by Jove, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is ending with a bang rather than a whimper, with the splendid and spirited speech he made—rather like the way he entered Parliament. I was there in 1974, because I was elected in 1970, and he came in and was immediately able to command the House with his speeches. He punched above his weight then and has done throughout. Naturally, I cannot agree with everything he said and certainly do not today. He is a bit of an expert in ex-parties so, when he pronounces the impending doom of mine, I take it with the proverbial pinch of salt—although I am bound to say that the slight tendency among certain members of my own party to move towards English nationalism is something I do not endorse in any possible way.
I very much disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on the future of your Lordships’ House, but the great thing about him is that he has always spoken with complete conviction—even when completely wrong. He has always been immensely courteous. He has been a true parliamentarian and this place will be the poorer for his going. I very much wish he had stayed for the forthcoming Bill on elections, because he would have had much to contribute, as my noble friend Lord Hayward will, and I hope to have my twopenneth too. It is important that the integrity of the electoral process is always maintained, because a democracy is flawed if its electoral process is not beyond criticism. We have to look at certain things, certainly at the way in which votes can be manipulated—or collected; that was a frightening quotation from my noble friend Lord Hayward a few moments ago.
I am very sad that we are seeing the end of an extraordinary parliamentary career. The thread that has run through it is persistence. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, as he is now, came into the House of Commons, was with us for six months and was gone. He was outside it for 18 years, but he maintained his political campaigning throughout, proclaiming his beliefs and his love for his beloved Cornwall. He came back for North Cornwall in 1992 and stayed for 13 years, and then came to your Lordships’ House. When I joined him five years later, it was clear that he already had an established presence here. Although he has not agreed with the fundamental basis of your Lordships’ House, as I have, he always conducted himself with total propriety and always made a contribution, using the House as it is, even though it is not how he would have wished it to be. I hope it never is as he wished, because I greatly value the Cross Benches—that is just one reason. Nobody will deny him his place in late 20th-century and early 21st-century British politics. He has made a noble and notable contribution in both Houses. I wish him well and hope he uses his visiting rights frequently.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and, in so doing, note that it has provided grants over the last 70 years to ensure both that the integrity of our electoral processes remain robust and that Governments and parliaments ensure that our voting systems enhance our democracy and do not bring it into disrepute.
I echo the many tributes that have already been paid to my noble friend Lord Tyler for his role in your Lordships’ House and so much more. As my noble friend Lord Rennard already said, he was first elected a councillor in 1964. When I joined the Liberals in 1974, he was already a well-known character. He was one of my predecessors as chairman of the Liberal Party in 1983, was elected as the MP for North Cornwall in 1992 and, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, joined this House in 2005. For the entirety of that time, he has had a passion and commitment unrivalled by any parliamentarian to ensure that the integrity of electoral processes is good. He is admired by all of any party passionate about elections, even if they disagree with some of the things he wants.
My noble friend and I have attended the Make Votes Matter campaign meetings for years, which brought together all those interested in proportional representation, initially, but it also discusses issues such as whether your Lordships’ House should become an elected chamber. Klina Jordan, the chief executive of the Make Votes Matter coalition, has written to me to say:
“Paul is a remarkable and dedicated champion of democracy. His passion for making sure all voices are heard and all people are properly represented has been a driving force in the movement to Make Votes Matter. As a leading figure in our cross-party Alliance for Proportional Representation, his immense wisdom, generosity of time and strategic insight have been invaluable. We warmly wish him a very happy, healthy and well-deserved retirement.”
I echo that to your Lordships’ House from the many hundreds of thousands of people across the country who continue to fight for proportional representation.
My noble friend Lord Tyler has spoken about the risks to the integrity of our electoral processes and that they have never been more at risk than now. Over the past few hundred years, our society and democracy have developed and changed beyond recognition but, unfortunately, our voting system has failed to keep pace. Our party believes that first past the post has no place in a modern democracy and should be replaced by a system of proportional representation. That is not just to get more Liberal Democrats and other smaller-party people represented; the key reason is to make sure that a vote counts for every voter.
The idea of a minority ruling over the majority goes against the UK population’s most basic ideas about democracy, but we have learned that with first past the post it is just the norm. For nearly 90% of the time since 1935—almost 90 years—we have had single-party majority Governments, but not one of them had the support of a majority of voters. The current Conservative Government have a majority of seats but only 43% of the votes. They gained an extra 48 seats despite an increase of only 1.2% in the vote share. Almost since the first general election, politicians who, frankly, most of us did not vote for and do not agree with have had the power to govern the UK however they like. The Liberal Democrats are particularly disadvantaged by first past the post, losing a seat despite increasing our overall vote share by 4%.
The other problem with this system, almost alone in Europe, is that it seems to operate on a two-party political basis whereby diversity is suppressed. As my noble friend Lord Tyler said, our system now enables seats to be either so safe that they never change hands or to be bought by the party that can invest the most in them, mixing national and local funding mechanisms under the law to their advantage. Our system is broken.
When so many voters are denied a voice, Parliament fails to reflect the people it is supposed to represent. It is vital that this be remedied. It is not just bad for democracy; it is bad for politics and our entire society. In saying farewell to my noble friend Lord Tyler, I shall end on this. There are many others in Parliament who will pick up and run with the work he has been steadfastly doing over the past 40 years. We will continue and at some point, we will succeed.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in regretting that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, has chosen to retire. One of the few advantages of this place is that you never have to retire. Why give up such a fun place? However, he has done it. I was somewhat surprised that he made a Second Reading speech on a Bill which is not yet before us. I shall not refer to what the noble Lord said in his speech because I thought he was talking about something else. As an economist, I know one thing: forecasts are always wrong. I think the noble Lord’s forecast about the future of the party will not be right. It will be here for a long time to come—when I and most of us present are no longer here.
My worry is about something very different. It is that our democratic system is outdated. The people outside, especially those below the age of 50, or perhaps 35, do not understand why we have to go to a polling booth on a certain day to vote. Your Lordships’ House has progressed to having a Peer hub. I remember that when I was on a committee to elect the Speaker in this place—that shows how long I have been knocking around here—I asked why we should not vote more mechanically, rather than having six minutes to count the votes. I was told that there had to be a process by which the water flows from one part of the bottle to the other, to ensure that it lasts for six minutes. I also suggested that the Speaker sitting on the Woolsack should have a little computer to tell them what is happening. I was told that that is not our practice.
Now, not only do we have a Peer hub, but most of our citizens would prefer not to go to a voting booth but to vote online. Why have we not even thought about that? When I talk to my children and grandchildren, they do not understand why elections are organised in such an antediluvian way. Elections should be much more citizen friendly. Citizens should be allowed to vote whenever they want to vote. Why must it be on a particular day? They should be allowed to vote on any day of a given week, for example.
There are other things to think about. MPs’ surgeries have been very much on our minds lately. Why are we doing this completely outdated thing? Why does a citizen have to see his or her MP face to face? We have learned during the pandemic that all that is completely unnecessary. You can do it online. It would be much more convenient for our citizens not to have to see their MP face to face. The fact that they have to do so shows that the system is not very efficient. I think I am being signalled to shut up, so I shall.
My Lords, noble Lords on these and other Benches have paid tribute to my noble friend Lord Tyler, so I shall be brief. I will pick up the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that my noble friend Lord Tyler has been true parliamentarian for 30 years. He will be hugely missed, not only on our Benches but across the House. I believe it is his 80th birthday in eight days’ time, so I wish him an early happy birthday, but I say to him that 80 is no age at all.
The older I get, the more I think that 80 or 85 is no age at all. My noble friend is really being very cheeky retiring early.
My noble friend gave a compelling survey of all the threats to electoral and democratic legitimacy. I want to talk about the Government’s intention to bring in voter ID. The number of specific accusations of voter fraud at polling stations is low and very few accusations result in cautions or convictions. The Joint Committee on Human Rights did a report. In evidence, the chief executive of the Electoral Commission, Bob Posner, told the committee:
“I’m not suggesting that there is a high incidence of it happening and of its being established, but we cannot say with confidence that there are not higher levels of personation than the statistics on cases brought by the police actually show. We can know only so much about that.”
That seems to me to be a bit of an Aunt Sally: we think there may be more but we have no idea and no proof. Mr Posner told the committee that making a change in introducing voter ID not only has to improve security, it also has
“to maintain complete accessibility to the system; and it has to be a workable, practical system.”
On both those scores there is considerable doubt. Voter ID is a solution in search of a problem, and one that entails considerable risks.
The Electoral Reform Society said that across the 2018 and 2019 voter ID pilots, 1,000 people were turned away from voting. The ERS, like the Joint Committee on Human Rights, has instead called for the introduction of automatic voter registration. The ERS also urged the Government to replace the current first past the post electoral system with proportional representation. It said that voters already think the UK’s system is safe and secure, but not that it is fair, so fairness should be the priority.
The JCHR called on the Government to find out whether requiring people to show ID to vote might decrease engagement with the electoral process, particularly among people from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds. Cabinet Office research showed that 4% of eligible adults do not have ID that is recognisable or in date. If correct, this would mean that 2.1 million people may not have suitable photo ID to vote, especially older people, people with disabilities, the unemployed and those without qualifications. It showed that 5% of those surveyed said they would be less likely to vote in person if voter ID was introduced. That is a severe impact.
Our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, founder and director of Operation Black Vote, spoke to us about how mistrust in the Government and their institutions made him
“deeply afraid that if there is another layer of bureaucracy it will be another impediment for a group
—black and other ethnic minority voters—
that is already hesitant about fully engaging in the democratic process.”
I shall skip the bit about the ECHR, since I know noble Lords know all about the obligations of the ECHR, but I conclude with the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ conclusions. The Government must explain why they have reached the view that voter ID is necessary and proportionate, given the low number of reported cases of fraud, the even lower number of convictions and cautions, the potential for discrimination and the lack of clear measures to address potential discrimination. I hope the Minister can give me those answers today.
My Lords, when I saw the title of today’s debate, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, which is to ask the Government
“what plans they have to consult on measures to enhance the integrity of electoral processes”,
my first thought was: how appropriate for a valedictory speech from the noble Lord, following 16 years in your Lordships’ House but also a lifetime of campaigning on constitutional and political issues. I am pleased to respond on behalf of our Benches. I am only sorry that, in the four minutes available to me, I cannot do justice to the noble Lord’s career in Parliament and the campaigning he has done. I suspect that he takes his voluntary departure from your Lordships’ House with mixed emotions. It is a retirement well earned. As we heard, before taking his place in your Lordships’ House, he represented two constituencies in the House of Commons. Throughout 30 years in Parliament, he has, as we have heard from him and his colleagues, been a stalwart of his political party.
The noble Lord would expect me to say that, at times, we have differed on what reform of Parliament means and what changes could be made, but we have never disagreed on the commitment to the integrity, honesty and public confidence in our system and our representatives at every level of public service. I believe that he should take pride in the work he has done—but I have a sneaking feeling, reinforced by his comments today, that his choice of debate is not because he considers that all is well but because, as we have heard from his opening speech, like many of us he fears for the integrity of our system and processes.
I am never quite sure whether the Government are just careless about the integrity of our national institutions, or, as others have suggested, it is part of a calculated effort to undermine and erode anything that Boris Johnson sees as opposition. Some of these attempts would be quite comical if they were not probably intended. Noble Lords will recall, when we had the tax credits debate shortly after I became Leader, a government Minister threatened to introduce a thousand extra Peers into your Lordships’ House. On another occasion, there was a plan to divide Parliament and send half of it—the House of Lords—up to York. We also saw the unlawful Prorogation of Parliament, and now we even see attempts to make our independent courts system more political. Just this week, on the front page of the Sunday Telegraph, it was reported that
“Mr Raab revealed that he is devising a ‘mechanism’ to allow the Government to introduce ad hoc legislation to ‘correct’ court judgments that ministers believe are ‘incorrect’.”
I find that truly shocking.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, outlined so many of the concerns that many of us in your Lordships’ House share. In among the many other sad examples that I could give is the focus of today’s debate: the Elections Bill. The Government originally planned to call it the elections integrity Bill. Perhaps it was an examination of its content that saw that misnomer of a title soon dropped. Back when I was a Minister, a lesson I learned with regard to legislation was to clearly identify the problem you are seeking to address or resolve, then judge whether the remedy was an effective and proportionate response. The Government’s Elections Bill fails both those tests, but it is perhaps passes the Johnson test—to weaken any critics, using his largely unquestioning parliamentary majority to do so.
I want to be clear: confidence in and the integrity of our country’s system of voting is essential. There can be no compromise on that. So I thought, let us have a look at the impact assessment—perhaps that will shine a light on and identify the problem the Bill seeks to solve. Under the heading:
“What is the problem under consideration? Why is government action or intervention necessary?”,
there is no problem identified. There is nothing about abuse, merely that the Government want to ensure that,
“our elections remain secure, fair … and transparent.”
There is no justification for the measures proposed.
The question from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is moderate and sensible. He merely asks what plans the Government have to
“consult on measures to enhance the integrity of electoral processes.”
Would it not be great if the Minister could stand up and tell us something that will satisfy the entire House? When a significant constitution-related change, such as that in the Government’s Bill, are proposed, the sensible, pragmatic and decent way forward is to seek consensus across the political spectrum. There will always be differences in views on the voting system, campaigning styles and related issues, but on the most fundamental of questions about the robustness and integrity of the system, I believe there is a mainstream political consensus.
I am grateful for the opportunity that the noble Lord has given the House to address some of these issues. I am sorry he will not be with us when we get to discuss that Bill, but I will also say that these Benches are grateful for the noble Lord’s service to this House. We wish him well in his retirement and we wish him a very happy birthday.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to wind up in this debate. I shall try to watch the right clock this time. I, of course, begin, as every noble Lord who has spoken has done—and I thank all those who have spoken—by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. I congratulate him not only on bringing this important subject before us—and it is an important subject—but on his valedictory speech. It is a proper recognition of his great contribution to his party to see so many of his colleagues here to wave him on his way. I share the sadness expressed from those Benches that he will no longer be with us.
It was, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, reminded us, very long ago—I think Sir Alec Douglas-Home was still Prime Minister—when the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, was first elected as Britain’s youngest county councillor back in 1964. Gosh: that was the year that China exploded the atom bomb and the old Liberal party gave us the noble Lord—the noble Lord has always been a true liberal, in the very best sense of that word, which all of us endorse. Ever since then he has been a consummate servant of the county, the country and the party he loves, and of both Houses of Parliament. He is concluding 30 years of service in Parliament. I certainly will miss him.
The noble Lord was a great campaigner against the misuse of the 0870 prefix. I assure that him that, if he ever wants to telephone me in future, he will not have to dial 0870. I shall always welcome hearing from him. I shall miss him for his scrutiny. He was, as somebody said, and is still a great parliamentarian. His scrutiny was always properly persistent. They were times today when it felt a little bit like the wasp around the jam— the jam under the clotted cream, of course—but it was far more congenial. His contributions have always been congenial.
I conclude by saying that as a comrade, when we were noble friends in the coalition years at the time of the attempt to reform your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord and I found ourselves on the same side of the argument on many occasions in our views about the future—views which are rather more congenial on his Benches than they were on mine, as my noble friend Lord Cormack reminded us. However, I wish the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, very well in the future, as we all do.
It has been implied that the Bill has not had proper scrutiny or consideration. The Government have long been working on the programme of electoral integrity. We take the responsibility to preserve and build on our democratic heritage with the utmost seriousness, as does everyone in your Lordships’ House. All citizens must be able to participate in our elections and feel confident that their vote is theirs and theirs alone. That is why this Government set out plans to protect and strengthen our democracy in our manifesto, and why we have introduced the Elections Bill, which is currently progressing through the other place, to deliver on that promise. It has been the focus of significant interest and, as we have heard today, will no doubt come under fierce scrutiny when it arrives in your Lordships’ House. Twelve scrutiny sessions have already been scheduled in Committee in the other place, including four evidence sessions that took place in September.
My honourable friend in the other place set out the extensive history of the measures in the Bill. I must say to the noble Baroness opposite that many elements are long-established commitments or have stemmed from reports and reviews conducted by parliamentarians. For example, the measures to secure postal and proxy voting methods were born out of the recommendations of my noble friend Lord Pickles in his 2016 review into fraud. The overseas electors measures were set out in a specific policy statement issued in October 2016. The measures seeking to improve the accessibility of our polls were born out of the Government’s call for evidence, Access to Elections, in September 2017. The new electoral sanction for intimidation in the Bill also directly derives from the Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information consultation in July 2018, and the same consultation informed the transparency in digital campaigning methods. These were also the focus of a technical consultation on digital imprints from August 2020, the government response to which was issued in June this year. In addition, we undertook a range of voter identification pilots in 2018 and 2019. So there has been a great deal of pre-consideration, and I look forward to justifying it in answer to the challenges that will doubtless come from the Benches opposite. I think the Government can respond to those comprehensively.
Certain issues have been raised in the debate that I must touch on. My noble friend Lord Hayward gave me notice of the issue that he brought to the attention of the House. I saw by the reaction to his speech the concern that was felt across the House at the matters that he raised in his characteristically thoughtful remarks. A number of concerns have been highlighted about the current arrangements for postal voting, which do leave the system open to potential vote harvesting, and the recent reports from Tower Hamlets are concerning.
That is why the Government are introducing a number of measures designed to improve the integrity and robustness of postal voting. The Bill will provide a power to limit the number of postal votes a person may hand in at a polling station or to the returning officer on behalf of others. It is currently envisaged that, in addition to their own postal vote, an individual will be able to hand in the postal votes of up to two electors. If a person hands in postal votes on behalf of more than the prescribed number of electors, all the postal votes will be rejected. The Bill will also ban political campaigners from handling postal votes issued to others and will require those registered for a postal vote to reapply for a postal vote every three years in order to keep their absent ballot arrangement. This will provide the opportunity for someone who may initially have been convinced to have, or coerced into having, a postal vote to break out of that situation and prevent their vote being stolen.
We will have no truck with the practice of so-called family voting. It is unacceptable in any century, certainly the 21st century, that a man should go into a polling station and seek to direct the way that a woman should vote. That is already unlawful and we look to the authorities to prevent such occurrences.
I understand that the noble Lord expressed a concern that the measures in the Bill should come into force promptly in order to reduce the risk of future abuses taking place. I will certainly reflect on what he said, but it is vital that the processes that we put in place to support these measures are workable for both voters and those who administer elections. These are complex changes to deliver, but I have heard the noble Lord.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said—and I understand the historic aspiration of the Liberal Party—that first past the post has no place. The Elections Bill will legislate to change the electoral system for all elected mayors and police and crime commissioners from the supplementary vote to the well-understood and long-established system of first past the post. Britain’s long-standing national electoral system of first past the post ensures clearer accountability and allows voters to kick out the politicians who do not deliver. We do not have a third party that sits permanently in power deciding which of the two larger parties should form an Administration. First past the post is simple and fair. The person chosen to represent a constituency should be the one who receives the most votes. I must remind the House that the 2011 nationwide referendum endorsed first past the post, rejecting a change to the voting system. The referendum result should be respected. In 2011 AV was supported by a majority of the local voters in a mere 10 of the 440 local counting areas, so we will implement our manifesto commitment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, raised issues relating to voter ID. I have no doubt that we will debate that at great length when considering the Bill, so I will not anticipate all those arguments, but I understand where she is coming from. I have heard the arguments but unfortunately, I do not agree with them. Showing photographic identification is a reasonable and proportionate way to confirm that someone is who they say they are. It will allow us to take action against the vulnerabilities in the system that the 2016 report by my noble friend Lord Pickles and leading international election observers such as the OECD and the Electoral Commission all agree are a security risk. The 2021 Electoral Commission winter tracker was also very clear that the majority of the public—two in three voters, 66%—say that a requirement to show identification at polling stations would make them more confident in the security of our elections. If they are more confident, notwithstanding what the noble Baroness said, they are more likely to participate. A comprehensive equality impact assessment was published alongside the Bill. As I say, I have no doubt that we will discuss this at great length on the Elections Bill and I look forward to being of service to your Lordships’ House and going some way towards convincing your Lordships that voter ID is sensible, proportionate and desirable.
In conclusion, exactly as the Minister of State for Equalities and for Levelling Up Communities noted during her first debate on this Bill in the other place, we are indeed having a lot of scrutiny of this Bill. I look forward to that. The only thing I do not look forward to is not hearing the familiar and respected voice of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, assisting us in those considerations.