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Representation of the People (Proxy Vote Applications) (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Volume 818: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Representation of the People (Proxy Vote Applications) (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2022.

Relevant document: 27th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 22nd Report)

My Lords, the instrument brought forward today makes a practical provision to continue support of the effective administration of elections. It does this by extending the Representation of the People (Proxy Vote Applications) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2021 for a further 12 months. These temporary regulations were first introduced ahead of the May 2021 elections. They allowed electors to appoint an emergency proxy, or change their existing proxy arrangement, up until 5 pm on the day of the poll where they were, or in fact their previously appointed proxy was, unable to attend a polling station due to Covid. This was without any form of attestation, which is normally required for a standard emergency proxy. It was part of a range of measures that helped ensure elections have been able to take place safely over the course of the last year.

While much has changed in the intervening 12 months, and is changing, extending this measure is prudent. While we have been able to remove a great many of the restrictions that Covid has made necessary, it is still the case that those who test positive for Covid are legally required to isolate—as some of their close contacts may be. While that is the case, and as the situation and exact nature of any isolation requirements going forward remain difficult to predict, we must ensure that those required to isolate are not, in the process of doing so, deprived of the ability to participate in the vital democratic process. So this is a tested and appropriate way to continue to protect that process during the pandemic. Now is not the right time to abandon this necessary temporary measure.

I will now move on to the specific details of the statutory instrument. The key purpose is to extend for a further 12 months the regulations brought into effect by the 2021 instrument, which is due to expire on 28 February 2022, so that instead it expires at the end of February 2023. We will keep this under review, and we will also consider repealing the regulations early, should they no longer remain necessary and proportionate.

The instrument will also remove the existing reference to the “clinically extremely vulnerable” and people who are

“at the highest risk of severe illness from coronavirus”

from the 2021 regulations. This terminology was used in England and Scotland respectively and its removal will bring the wording into line with the latest respective government guidance. Anyone following advice from a registered medical practitioner or a registered nurse to isolate will still be able to apply for an emergency proxy under these rules. This ensures that electors unable to attend the polling station for Covid-related health reasons will not be adversely affected.

The instrument applies to UK parliamentary elections in Great Britain, police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales and local elections in England. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have also either extended their equivalent arrangements for their respective devolved elections or are in the process of doing so.

It is essential to our democracy that people are able to cast their vote. The 2021 regulations brought into effect a temporary measure to ensure that those required to isolate shortly before a poll could still vote, or that a proxy arrangement could be amended where the appointed proxy was unable to attend a polling station for Covid-related reasons. This instrument is a simple, yet vital, extension of that measure. It will cover local and mayoral elections in England scheduled for May 2022, as well as any applicable by-elections or unscheduled polls that occur before the May 2023 polls. However, as I outlined earlier, we will keep these measures under review and we will consider repealing them early, should they no longer remain necessary and proportionate.

I can assure noble Lords that we have consulted with the Electoral Commission and that it is supportive of this measure. I note also, and am grateful for, the cross-party support that the 2021 regulations received when brought forward last spring, and I hope very much that there will be support for their sensible and necessary extension. I hope that colleagues will join me in supporting the draft regulations. I commend them to the Committee and beg to move.

My Lords, this proposal to extend the rules governing late proxy vote applications as a consequence of coronavirus medical advice, including self-isolation, is appropriate and, as the Minister has just said, prudent. The consultation on the measures with the Parliamentary Parties Panel elicited no comments and the Electoral Commission seems content as well, so there is no reason, in my view, for this Committee to take a different view. It is anyway a sensible measure that is time-limited to a further 12 months.

I understand the comments of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments on the clarity of the territorial and temporal limitations imposed by Regulations 1 and 2, but I also understand the complexities of drafting these regulations. The commitment of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to bear in mind the comments made about clarity should suffice, since this is in effect a one-year extension to an existing set of regulations.

The noble Lord in his opening comments made reference to the previous SIs, which were debated in the Chamber on 4 March last year and which included a number of changes, as he indicated. One of them was in relation to the number of signatures that could be required for nominations for local elections: it was previously 10 and was reduced to two in the circumstances relating to coronavirus.

At the time the subject was debated, I indicated that I regretted that the change was time-limited to end in February 2022. Since then, consultations have taken place. I know that I speak in support of the views of the LGA and that this matter has been discussed informally at the Parliamentary Parties Panel in the presence of the Electoral Commission. There is therefore general all-party support—although I say this without having consulted the Green Party; I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, is due to speak in a moment so she may express a view. But there is a general all-party view that the one, time-limited exemption to the end of February 2022 should now be lifted and that there should be an ongoing exemption. That would fit in with the spirit of the SI to which we are referring today.

I failed to say at the start of my comments that I had given the Minister and his office notice that I was intending to cover this point. Given that we are nearing the local elections, I hope that the Minister will be able to indicate that something which has all-party support can be expedited, that the time limit should be removed and that we can go on using two signatures, which is more than is required now in Wales and Scotland.

My Lords, as is evident, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, and I have not consulted in advance on this. I very much agree with his comments, and indeed I offer further cross-party support to this amendment. I also wanted to raise a question about why this is only for 12 months and to look at the practical situation that we are in now.

The Minister in introducing this SI focused rightly— I have absolutely no disagreement on the democracy side of this SI—on the obvious public health element here. You do not want people with a contagious illness, very keen to vote, trailing into the polling station, with all the obvious risks of spreading that disease further. If we look back over recent history—SARS, MERS, swine flu, the threat of bird flu—we are in a new age where contagious illness is becoming more of a threat and a problem. We also have a big problem with antibiotic resistance to a variety of diseases.

To preserve both democracy and public health, the department, parties and everyone should think about the fact that contagious illness is a threat to us all. I do not necessarily expect a sudden big announcement today, but I want to put that on the agenda. People want to do the right thing both for democracy and not to spread an illness. Obviously, illnesses come on quite quickly—it is not something that you can predict—so it would make sense to have a measure like this for all relevant illnesses, both for democracy and for public health.

My Lords, as we heard from the Minister, this instrument extends the legislation which allows late proxy vote applications for those who are required to self-isolate. As the Minister and others have said, we fully supported the measures when they were first introduced and continue to support them, so I will be brief. At that time, we warned the Government that they may well need to extend the measures, which unfortunately they have now had to do.

Allowing for late urgent applications to vote by proxy when an individual is required to self-isolate, in response to other coronavirus-related medical advice or if things change for a proxy who goes through the same thing is, we believe, an important part of maintaining our democracy during these uncertain times. Unfortunately, the reality is that it looks like we will be dealing with the pandemic for some time to come as we learn to live with it. We believe that this instrument is a sensible adjustment to support democracy during this time.

The Explanatory Note states that the amendments to the regulations

“remove the ground for applying late where an applicant or their previously appointed long-term proxy has received notification that they are clinically extremely vulnerable or that they are at the highest risk of severe illness from coronavirus.”

I understand from the Minister’s introduction that this is to ensure that the regulations align with current medical guidance. However, just for clarification, can the Minister provide assurance that those individuals would still have access to a proxy in the way that they did, provided that that is in line with what their medical practitioner advises?

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, talked about this, but one thing that I was going to suggest from the Opposition was that these provisions could well be made permanent for all medical reasons, given that there will always be examples of people who find themselves unable to vote in person at a late stage, due to illness. I also express my support for the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, regarding his proposals on two signatures for candidate nominations. I just draw attention to the fact that I was in fact a signatory to his letter on this matter.

My final point is an important one, and I hope that the noble Lord would agree with me on this, because it is around potential electoral fraud. We know that the Government have expressed clear concerns in the Elections Bill around electoral fraud, and proxy votes are being looked at as part of that. While we consider the SI before us today, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that emergency proxy votes still have the right kind of safeguards against electoral fraud?

My Lords, I thank all those who have taken part in this short debate, and I particularly welcome the general support given on behalf of all parties, starting with the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and for the recognition that the timely completion of this instrument is crucial in ensuring successful running of polls throughout 2022 while Covid regulations remain in place.

The immediate assurance that I can certainly give to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, is that there is absolutely no question of reducing the extent of protection for those in what was originally defined as the shielding groups. Under the extended regulations, electors will be able to appoint an emergency proxy to vote on their behalf without attestation when they are legally required to isolate and when attending a polling station would be contrary to advice provided by their medical professional—the kind of group that she described—and, indeed, when they believe that attendance at a polling station could lead to transmission of coronavirus. For example, they may be displaying symptoms but awaiting a test result. That picks up on what the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, was saying. Electors are also able to amend their existing proxy arrangements at very short notice, when the proxy is unable to vote on their behalf, due to the reasons above. So the technical change in wording does not reduce to any degree the availability or accessibility of arrangements, and I am very glad that the noble Baroness raised it. If I had been in her place, and seeing these words disappearing, I would have wanted to ask that question, which is why I anticipated it to some degree and mentioned it in my opening remarks.

My noble friend Lord Hayward, with support, raised the question of correspondence between him and my department, and indeed, DLUHC on this matter. As he knows, as part of our consultation on the Elections Bill this morning, we also discussed the matter. The statutory instruments here—this one and others—were made in the context of the height of the original Covid pandemic, when the Government were encouraging absolutely minimal social interaction and there was legislation in place restricting such activity. That is no longer the case, and therefore we judge that the measure is no longer necessary on Covid grounds. The Government are clear that it is important that the democratic process is as accessible as possible, and making that change permanent for specific polls, for which my noble friend asks, would need consideration in the context of wider electoral policy and legislation.

However, I welcome the point raised by my noble friend and by the noble Baroness opposite, and the Elections Bill is coming before your Lordships’ House very shortly. The Government are certainly open to further discussion on this topic. The existing arrangements have been useful. It may interest the House to know that in the May 2021 PCC, mayoral and local elections, there were 2,800 instances in which the facilities afforded by these regulations were made use of. That is not a phenomenal number of people, but they were used by certain people at the height of the pandemic, so they have been useful. We consider that while the pandemic continues, it is worth extending the provision allowing electors to appoint a proxy or change their existing proxy up until 5 pm on polling day on various grounds relating to Covid. That is sensible, but there is a point on the other side, fairly made by the noble Baroness, that there is a balance in these things when making permanent procedures which might make it easy to circumvent the normal controls. This is a specific measure introduced to help people during the course of the pandemic. However, the Government are considering very carefully that balance, and I look forward to discussing it during the course of the Elections Bill.

I hope I have responded to—

I seek clarification in the light of what I understand my noble friend to have just said. We had previously written, seeking on behalf of all parties and organisations such as the Local Government Association—which supports the proposal—and the intention was quite clear in the correspondence that I wrote, originally almost a month ago, that there would not be the opportunity for an SI to be brought forward now and that, therefore, we would have to wait for the Elections Bill for such a change to be implemented. If that is the case, I regret, given that the conversations have been ongoing, that I and others—including the LGA and others, not only political parties but organisations representing interested parties—could have been told or received some indication previously.

My Lords, I am disappointed by my noble friend’s comment. I regret that he is disappointed. The regulations we put in place were clearly time-limited and intended to be so. I indicated to him, as he well knows, in correspondence that took place and my response to the noble Baroness opposite, that the Government are open to discussion on this particular point, but the Government believe that careful consideration must be given to it in view of some of the implications. No doubt, my noble friend will have the opportunity on the Elections Bill to raise the matter again.

I can assure my noble friend that no personal discourtesy was intended by me or, I am sure, by any Minister in the responsible department in failing to deal with this matter in the timescale he asked for. If he has been offended, of course I regret that, but I stand by the position that I put before your Lordships, which I thought was fair. I think I said that I welcomed the point that he and the noble Baroness opposite had raised and that we are open to further discussions on this topic. I made the same point to my noble friend this morning in the exchanges we had on the Elections Bill, and I have nothing further to add.

Motion agreed.