My Lords, I see that there is a large number of speakers down today. That is a testament to the importance of the subject matter underpinning this Bill. Without any offence to anyone, I particularly look forward of course to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham.
The Government committed in their manifesto to secure the integrity of elections, restore constitutional balance and defend our democracy against increasingly sophisticated threats. I am therefore pleased to come before your Lordships for the Second Reading of this necessary Bill, which is a key part of that work.
We have a remarkable democratic heritage, because it has evolved and adapted with time, and overcome new threats and challenges. But it does not do that entirely naturally; it is down to the stewards of that system to actively preserve it—and, at this time, that includes your Lordships. That is why the Bill is necessary, and it is not without careful consideration that we take these steps. The Bill is the product of a number of reviews and reports, and fulfils a number of long-standing commitments.
Part 1 focuses on the administration of our elections—specifically, and most critically, on the principle that all those who are able to vote can do so easily and with confidence in the integrity of their ballot. In the Commons, we heard many times from the Opposition that this is a non-issue and that fraud within our system is not a problem. I am sure we will have the opportunity to discuss that in Committee, but we on this side must respectfully disagree.
Part 1 of the Bill therefore introduces what many consider to be an obvious requirement: the requirement to prove that you are who you say you are before you cast your vote. Everyone is challenged now as to their identity before they vote. Showing photo identification is a reasonable and proportionate way of proving your identity. It is something that we are often required to do in everyday life. Many people would question why it is not already the case; in fact, a recent Electoral Commission report was clear that the majority of the public say that a requirement to show identification at polling stations would make them more confident in the security of the voting system.
Not everyone has a passport or a driving licence, as I have seen inferred in some reporting of the provisions, so I want to underscore at the outset today that it is not just those forms of identification. Set out in the Bill is a broad range of identification that will be accepted. The Bill also makes provision for free voter cards to be produced and made available by local authorities to those electors who require them.
Noble Lords are rightly keen to understand the detail of the secondary legislation in this area and how the card will be administered. I bring to noble Lords’ attention the policy statement published in January by the Minister of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which sets out how the new requirements will work, including the application and rollout process that we envisage for the voter card. These proposals have been tried and tested, and not just via the pilots that we ran in 2018 and 2019.
Voter ID is used across the world, including in most European countries and in Canada. Indeed, it is not even a new concept in the United Kingdom, having been in place in Northern Ireland since 2003, when it was introduced by the then Labour Government. We therefore have an empirical example of how the rollout of such a measure can work. In fact, we know that not only has it been operating with ease for decades, it has been successful in upholding the integrity of elections.
Many across this House and the other place—again, this is an area that I expect to engage with in Committee—also have concerns about the integrity of absent voting methods. That is why the Elections Bill will also introduce measures to combat electoral fraud, and to ensure the integrity of the ballot in other ways. Voting by post and voting by proxy are essential tools for supporting voters in exercising their rights. They must remain available options for voters who may not wish to, or cannot, vote at a polling station.
It is not currently possible for electors to register for an absent vote online; those who wish to apply must do so via a paper form that is then posted to their local electoral registration officer. This is surely out of step with the process of registering to vote generally, which can be done online using the Register to Vote digital service for ease and convenience. The Bill therefore provides for an online service through which applications for an absent vote can be made. Identity verification for absent vote applications will be applied to paper applications as well as to applications made online. This will ensure that those applications are legitimate and the absent vote application process more secure, resilient and efficient for both electors and electoral administrators.
In addition, the Bill introduces further reasonable safeguards against the abuse of postal and proxy voting that will not complicate or hinder the process. They include new limits on the number of postal votes that may be handed in by any one individual, and provisions making it an offence for political campaigners to handle postal votes issued to others, unless they are family members or carers of the voter.
Of course, stealing someone’s vote is not always personation or taking someone’s postal ballot. There are also those who wish to intimidate or pressure people to cast their vote in a certain way, or not vote at all—something that is surely wholly unacceptable in any community in this country, in any part of this country, in the 21st century. The existing legislation on this, known as “undue influence”, which originated in the 19th century, is difficult to interpret and enforce. Through the Bill we will provide greater clarity to the police and to prosecutors, making sure that there can be no doubt that it is an offence to intimidate or cause harm to electors in order to influence their vote.
Part 1 also delivers the manifesto commitment of continuing our support of the first past the post voting system, and changes the voting system for police and crime commissioners, combined authority mayors and the Mayor of London from the confusing and overcomplicated supplementary vote system—
—to the tried and tested simple majority voting system, also known as first past the post. I knew there would be a great deal of interest in those provisions on the Liberal Democrat Benches. In the 2011 nationwide referendum— I hesitate to remind them—two-thirds of voters voted in favour of retaining first past the post for parliamentary elections. It is therefore only right that we are consistent in our approach to voting systems and reflect the view of the British people in these important elections. The change to first past the post will provide clear local accountability in a readily understandable way: the person chosen to represent a local area will be the one who directly receives the most votes.
Finally, in Part 1, we are ensuring that in choosing to cast their ballot in the polling station, those who require additional support to navigate that system can receive it. How that support is provided, and for whom, is important. This, again, is a matter which I know we will discuss in some detail.
One size does not fit all, and often serves only to narrow the scope and responsiveness of the system. That is why the Bill is introducing key changes from our call for evidence on access to elections. It will require returning officers to respond to local need and provide each polling station with equipment as is reasonable to support voters with a range of disabilities. We are also extending the definition of who can act as companion to anyone who is aged 18 or over, so as not to limit those people who may require assistance in voting.
Part 2 of the Bill pertains to the franchise. The Government’s manifesto included a commitment to
“make it easier for British expats to vote in Parliamentary elections, and get rid of the arbitrary 15-year limit on their voting rights.”
The Bill will fulfil this commitment. The existing time limit is anachronistic in an increasingly interconnected world. Most British expatriates retain deep ties to the United Kingdom. The Bill will therefore extend the franchise to all British citizens who have been previously registered or resident in the United Kingdom. In addition to that, the changes will facilitate participation by making it easier for overseas electors to remain on the register, with an absentee vote arrangement in place ahead of elections. This will also benefit those who administer elections.
Also relating to the franchise, Part 2 updates the voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens who reside in the United Kingdom, moving to a more reciprocal model fitting of an independent sovereign state. We stand by our commitments to those EU citizens resident here before our exit from the European Union. EU citizens who have been living in the United Kingdom since before the end of the implementation period on 31 December 2020 will retain their local voting and candidacy rights, provided they retain lawful immigration status. This goes well beyond our obligations under the withdrawal agreement and gives the lie to those who claimed that leaving the European Union was an act of xenophobia. For EU citizens who have moved to the United Kingdom following EU exit, local voting and candidacy rights will be granted on the basis of bilateral agreements with individual EU member states, which will reciprocate arrangements for British citizens living there too.
The third part of the Bill relates to the Electoral Commission, including reforming the accountability of the commission to the UK Parliament while respecting its operational independence. It was my noble friend Lord Pickles who found in his review on electoral fraud:
“The current system of oversight of the Electoral Commission—by the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission—does not provide an effective third-party check on its performance.”
The review was clear that the Electoral Commission needed to change. Part 3 of the Bill therefore introduces a strategy and policy statement, which will set out guidance and principles that the commission must have regard to in the discharge of its functions.
I have read the Electoral Commission’s letter published on 21 February, and I cannot agree with the characterisation of these measures. The Electoral Commission will remain accountable to the UK Parliament and governed by their Electoral Commissioners. This Bill will not change that. The provisions of the Bill do not allow the Government of the day to direct the commission’s decision-making, nor will it replace or undermine the commission’s other statutory duties. This statement will be reviewed regularly and will be subject to parliamentary approval and, in applicable circumstances, statutory consultation. The UK Parliament will be able to reject in full any draft statement that it disagrees with.
The Bill also expands the remit of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and empowers it to scrutinise the Electoral Commission’s compliance with its duty to have regard to the strategy and policy statement. Through this, Parliament will be able to better scrutinise the work of the commission and together, these reforms will facilitate parliamentary scrutiny of the Electoral Commission’s work, while respecting its operational independence.
Part 3 also clarifies that the Electoral Commission may not bring criminal prosecutions, as prosecutions for electoral law should remain with the existing prosecution authorities. Our view is that the proper place for criminal investigations and prosecutions lies with the experts in this domain, namely the police and prosecution authorities. We must not forget that the commission has never brought a criminal prosecution to date, and this provision merely maintains that status quo in practice. This means that our measure will not add any additional burden on prosecution authorities or lead to fewer prosecutions.
On Part 4, we already have a comprehensive regulatory framework for electoral campaigning, which is rooted in the principles of fairness, transparency and the importance of a level playing field. We must ensure that our electoral law continues to uphold these principles. These measures take a proportionate and sensible approach to ensure that those campaigning at elections and seeking to influence voters are subject to transparency requirements and rules that effectively maintain that level playing field. By restricting all third-party campaigning above £700 at elections to UK-based or otherwise eligible campaigners, the Bill also removes the opportunity for ineligible foreign spending at UK elections.
There has been some suggestion that the Bill introduces a loophole to allow foreign donations to UK political parties. Again, I am sure that will be discussed. But I can assure this House that the Bill does no such thing. The measures in this Bill, together with existing controls on who can make political donations, provide a robust and transparent framework to ensure that only those with a legitimate interest in UK elections can spend money on campaigning or make political donations. Donations can only come from permissible donors who have a genuine interest in UK electoral events, such as UK-based or registered electors, UK-registered companies, trade unions or other UK-based entities.
The principle of transparency for the electorate is vital, but third-party campaigners subject to the new lower tier registration threshold will be subject to lighter touch regulation proportionate to smaller campaign spend. In a similar vein, the joint campaigning measures are simply intended to strengthen the principle of spending limits already in law that protect the integrity of the level playing field by ensuring that political parties cannot use campaign groups to unfairly exploit loopholes enabling them to expand their spending limit potential.
I wish to make it clear that our proposals on joint campaigning will capture the regulated election spending of political parties and third-party campaigners working together as part of a common plan, where the various groups are for all intents and purposes operating as a single group. They do not include political parties and third-party campaigners who are simply spending on the same issue or spending on campaigns that are not regulated by electoral law.
I am sure that many in this House will welcome the clarification of the law on notional expenditure included in the Bill that candidates and agents should only be liable for benefits in kind they have actually used, or which they or their election agent have directed, authorised or encouraged someone else to use on their behalf. This will ensure that candidates and their agents can continue to conduct full campaigns without the fear, as found by PACAC in its 2019 review into electoral law,
“of falling foul of the law through no fault of their own.”
Part 5 of the Bill introduces a new offence aimed at helping to protect candidates and others from intimidation. Without a broad range of candidates for voters to choose from, we would diminish representation in this country and stifle discourse. To harass someone or to commit an assault are of course criminal offences already, but this Bill takes it a step further, and ensures that a person who has been convicted of an offence of an intimidatory nature can be banned and stripped of the privilege of standing for public office themselves for a period of five years.
Finally, Part 6 of the Bill delivers on recommendations made by Select Committees and the Electoral Commission to improve public trust and confidence in digital political campaigns. These are very important provisions. They introduce a new digital imprints regime which will be one of the most comprehensive in the world, increasing transparency and empowering voters to make informed decisions about the material they see online.
Before closing, I turn to the legislative consent Motions relating to the Bill. We worked closely with the devolved Administrations in preparing the policies for drafting into legislation. In order to deliver the benefits of coherence and consistency across some of the measures in the Bill, for both reserved and devolved polls, we sought legislative consent from the Scottish and Welsh Governments. Respecting the subsequent request from the Scottish and Welsh Governments to remove all aspects which relate to devolved matters, we are preparing the necessary amendments and will bring these changes forward in Committee. I welcome the indication which both Governments have given that they will consider legislating comparably across a number of areas.
At the beginning of my speech I emphasised that we have a strong history of democratic excellence and a shared devotion to democracy that brings together people on all sides of this House, and that we have a duty to regularly take stock and make the necessary changes that make it fit for the modern age. The sensible and considered measures I laid out here today will continue this legacy and raise confidence even further in our elections.
I assure noble Lords that I will listen extremely carefully, as ever, to all contributions made today and that I look forward to engaging with noble Lords as the Bill goes forward. I commend this Bill to the House.
My Lords, we have heard from the Minister that the Bill intends to make substantial changes to our electoral law. Despite its stated ambitions, however, it does not tackle the fundamental and widely recognised need to consolidate the voluminous and fragmented body of existing law. In fact, it will do the opposite. Together with the secondary legislation needed for implementation, it substantially increases the complexity of our electoral law and brings in numerous measures about which we have serious concerns.
Having said that, I will start with some positives. It is important that the Bill looks to tackle intimidation, and we support the proposals to extend the imprint rules to digital communications and materials. The Electoral Commission has been calling for this for many years and it is a welcome step to bring our democracy into the 21st century.
On the subject of welcomes, I very much welcome the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham, to our House, and I am very much looking forward to hearing his maiden speech.
I will now raise our concerns about the lack of consultation and scrutiny received by many of the Bill’s proposals. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee agrees and stated in its report that the Bill
“received insufficient public consultation prior to introduction.”
It further added that it
“should have gone through a pre-legislative scrutiny process, with a draft Bill being scrutinised by a Joint Committee. Given the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny and the significance of the measures contained in the Bill, the Government should place a statutory commitment to undertake post-legislative scrutiny on the face of the Bill.”
In short, the whole thing seems to have been constructed based on not much evidence at all.
A more cynical mind might suggest that it is an example of Ministers choosing not to consult because they knew it would be a bruising experience that would not support their proposals. So I ask the Minister why the Government have not consulted on these provisions and whether he can assure your Lordships’ House that
“a statutory commitment to undertake post-legislative scrutiny”
“on the face of the Bill.”
Clause 1 introduces voter ID at polling stations to address the electoral offence of “personation”. However, personation is exceedingly rare in British elections, with just two convictions between 2010 and 2018. The Government have tried to justify their proposals through a precautionary principle: that it might be happening more. While there is nothing inherently wrong with taking a precautionary step, this seems a remarkable basis on which to introduce a policy that seems certain to deny many more legitimate votes than it will prevent illegitimate ones.
The issue of electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets is where this policy has come from, but the problem there related not to personation but to public funds, intimidation and the misuse of postal votes. The judge in the Tower Hamlets case, Richard Mawrey QC, told the Bill Committee in the other place:
“Voter ID at polling stations, frankly, is neither here nor there. Personation at polling stations is very rare indeed”.—[Official Report, Commons, Elections Bill Committee, 15/9/21; col. 15.]
The evidence to support the introduction of voter ID simply does not exist. So why is there such a focus on polling station personation while offences committed via postal voting, where there is far more evidence of electoral fraud, are ignored?
Government data looks at how groups of the electorate will be affected by the introduction of voter ID, but it does not explore whether income level indicates whether someone will already have photo ID. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has considered the impact of voter ID on low-income potential voters. Its research shows that they are less likely to have photo ID than wealthier potential voters. It suggests that 1 million people will therefore be less likely to vote under the new legislation.
The Government’s own statistics show that 3.5 million people do not have access to valid photo ID. The reality is that these requirements discriminate against some groups more than others. As well as those on lower incomes, concerns have been raised that those who are disabled, older, younger or from ethnic minorities risk being disenfranchised. When voter ID was introduced in Northern Ireland, the turnout at the 2004 Assembly elections dropped by 2.3% as a direct consequence.
The proposals in the Bill expect people without the required ID to get a free voter ID card. Those without such ID are more likely to be excluded from society or disadvantaged, but the Bill contains no detail as to how these cards will be issued and administered, with significant details about the voter card application process left for secondary legislation. So how can the Government guarantee that no one will be disenfranchised?
Can the Minister justify the financial cost of introducing voter ID? The impact assessment suggests that it could be up to £180 million over the next decade. Between the lack of convictions for voter fraud, the lack of allegations and the lack of concern among the electorate, why are the Government proposing to spend up to £180 million to make it harder for some people to vote?
The Electoral Commission has said that the Government should do more to modernise electoral registration to ensure that as many people as possible are correctly registered. It has found considerable potential to evolve the current system to make it more joined up with other public services, and to explore automatic or more automated forms of registration. If we wish to strengthen our democracy, as we should, one of the best ways would be to drive up registration and turnout —so it is disappointing that Ministers have missed the opportunity to encourage participation in elections and do exactly that.
I want now to draw attention to the unique challenges that some disabled people experience when voting. While we welcome the Bill’s stated ambition to make voting more accessible, the RNIB has expressed serious concerns that the current wording inadvertently reduces the legal protections for blind and partially sighted people. Will the Minister proactively work with the RNIB and other interested parties to address their concerns and bring in amendments so that no one is disfranchised because of a disability?
On the proposals on overseas electors, we have concerns that the motivation behind the change to remove the 15-year limit is about creating a loophole in donation law, allowing wealthy donors unlimited access to our democracy through unprecedentedly large donations, so I strongly disagree with the Minister’s interpretation of this part of the Bill. Foreign donors should not be allowed to financially influence our democratic processes. Considering recent developments in Ukraine, the Government must be alert to how Russia and others could use illicit finance to influence our political system. Yesterday, my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon asked the Leader of the House to commit to speaking to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet about removing these provisions from the Bill. I give notice to the Minister that, if this does not happen, we will bring in amendments to remove these loopholes.
At the same time as increasing the number of overseas electors that can register to vote, the Bill removes the right to vote from certain electors who are resident in the UK, such as some EU nationals. Again, on this issue there is nothing in the Bill that helps to solve an existing problem. A regular complaint from overseas electors is that they do not get their ballot papers in good time to return them to the UK for their votes to actually count. Nothing in the Bill explores using modern technology to speed up this process.
I turn to changes to the regulation of the Electoral Commission. We are very concerned about the intention to make provisions for a power to designate a strategy and policy statement for the commission which will be drafted by the Government. This would seem to be political interference in the regulation of our elections, as the Bill gives the Secretary of State powers to direct the Electoral Commission and require it to follow instructions from the UK Government as to its activities and priorities. This calls into question the commission’s independence from political control by the Government. We are in no doubt that this is a dangerous precedent. When we look to similar democracies, such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia, we see a complete separation between Governments and their electoral commissions.
The Government justify this change by saying that Ministers give guidance to other regulators, but these regulators are not responsible for ensuring that candidates, Ministers and political parties stick to the rules. It is essential that our regulatory framework strikes the right balance between upholding the independence of the Electoral Commission and ensuring that it is properly scrutinised and held to account. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is so concerned about the implications of the Bill on this front that it has recommended that the relevant clauses be removed pending a formal consultation on the proposals.
Part 4 of the Bill amends some of the existing rules that provide transparency and place limits on election campaign spending and funding, with proposals to change the rules on non-party campaigning. This will undermine the ability of civil society organisations, charities and trade unions to engage and campaign in our democracy. It must be seen in conjunction with the proposed extension of joint campaigning rules to include political parties. Plus, the effect of Clauses 24 and 25 together would be to allow the Secretary of State, by statutory instrument, to add, remove or define permitted participants in election campaigning, and therefore to effectively restrict categories of organisation from spending more than £700 on such campaigning in the 12 months leading up to a general election.
In a free and open democracy, elected Governments are scrutinised by opposition parties and civil society. That is part of what makes our democracy healthy. The freedom for civil society to do this and to hold those in power to account is a sign of a strong democracy. This Bill is an attack on some parties more than others. I would say that the attack on the trade unions, and the 6 million people who are members of trade unions, is an attack on all working people’s rights to campaign for fair pay at work and health and safety in the workplace. It is also an attack on the very people who have brought our country through the pandemic. Trade unions are already incredibly heavily regulated and charities will feel stifled and gagged by the legislation before us.
Finally, on the introduction of a majority system for certain elections, we question why that change is needed. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is also correct on this that, regardless of arguments over the benefits or disadvantages of the changes made by the Bill to the electoral system of those offices, the way the proposed legislative change was brought in is unsatisfactory. Making changes such as this after the Bill has been introduced and debated at Second Reading in the other place is disrespectful.
In conclusion, this Bill creates more problems than it solves and is not proportionate. It is a waste of taxpayers’ money that reverses decades of democratic process and needs to be completely overhauled.
My Lords, it is a very personal pleasure to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Moore, and say that I look forward to his maiden speech. When I was a student, the first by-election I worked in was the Cambridgeshire by-election of 1961 in which his father was a candidate. His father, as some Members of this House may already know, was a wonderful and inspiring speaker and would have been an adornment to this House. We hope very much that his son has inherited much of his fluency as a speaker and look forward to hearing more from him.
This Bill should never have reached Parliament in its current badly drafted and highly partisan form. The Ministers who presented it have made no attempt to build consensus on rules that are at the core of democracy. They have largely ignored four authoritative reports: first, the Law Commission report on the simplification of electoral law, published in March 2020; secondly, the Committee on Standards in Public Life—CSPL—review, Regulating Election Finance, published in July last year; thirdly, the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee—PACAC—report on the Bill itself, published in December; and fourthly, the Intelligence and Security Committee—ISC—Russia report of 2018, which covered issues that this Bill addresses, making recommendations that the Government have also ignored. The Law Commission proposed to simplify and clarify the layers of legislation on electoral regulation. To the contrary, this 171-page Bill adds further layers of complexity. It is a major lost opportunity, as PACAC comments.
Part 4 of the Bill takes almost no account of the 47 recommendations for tightening controls on election donations and spending in the CSPL report. A Cabinet Office Minister told the Commons that there was insufficient time to include any of these in the current Bill. The Government nevertheless found time to introduce over 100 of their own amendments as the Bill as it moved through the Commons—strong evidence that the Bill had been insufficiently thought through beforehand. They even introduced a late amendment to narrow the voting system for mayors, without any prior notice to other parties. The Minister’s introduction suggested that the Government intend to return all elections to what he regards as the tried and tested first past the post system. I assume he is aware that the devolved nations use and prefer different systems.
The PACAC Committee Report is the most damning. It highlights
“potential gaps in the evidence base for the proposed measures”
and states that many witnesses considered that the Government did
“‘not have the evidence to understand the impact of their proposals’”.
It notes that the Elections Bill “does not adopt any” of the recommendations of the Law Commission’s 2020 report and says:
“Given the constitutional significance of the proposed changes to voting and the accountability mechanisms of the regulator of elections, the Committee is disappointed that a Joint Committee was not appointed to scrutinise this Bill in draft, to help ensure the legislation is fit for purpose.”
So a Commons Committee does not consider the Bill in its present state to be fit for purpose. It criticises the
“melange of delegated powers provided for in this Bill”,
and bluntly states:
“The Government should present the draft secondary legislation as early as possible,”
as the previous Commons Minister had pledged to do. The Government have failed to provide this before the Bill reached the Lords.
The report goes on:
“Introducing a compulsory voter ID requirement risks upsetting the balance of our current electoral system, making it more difficult to vote and removing an element of the trust inherent in the current system … Given the potential for a significant number of people not to vote as a consequence of the Voter ID requirement, the Government should not proceed with its proposals”
until further evidence has been provided. It then details the practicalities of implementation and the additional burden on polling station staff, which also need to be clarified.
The report is equally scathing about the further complications the Bill proposes about who can vote in UK elections and who cannot. It recommends giving the vote to all who have settled status on a residency basis, rather than extending the historical anomalies we have inherited. The practicalities of extending the rights of overseas voters have also not been explored. Its potential addition of several thousand extra voters to some constituencies—mainly urban—would negate the Government’s aim to reduce the variation in voter numbers from one constituency to another. Checks on their status and claims will be minimal, in contrast to the additional checks on those who vote in person.
I will leave it to others to discuss the complexities of regulating third-party campaigns and of electronic campaign material—both important issues to which the Committee should devote considerable time. I want to flag up the constitutional importance of maintaining and strengthening the role of the Electoral Commission, and of tighter regulation of campaign finance.
The Conservative Party says that it has lost confidence in the Electoral Commission. The CSPL could not find anyone—any witness—outside the Conservative Party who had lost confidence in the Electoral Commission. The PACAC report concludes,
“The Government has not provided sufficient evidence to justify why the proposed measures are both necessary and proportionate. We therefore recommend that Clauses 13 to 15 of the Bill are removed, pending a public consultation”.
I hope the House will follow that advice. The proposals, the PACAC remarks,
“risk undermining public confidence in electoral outcomes”.
Again, it notes that
“there was no formal or public consultation … and that there is a lack of supporting evidence to demonstrate that the proposed measures are both necessary and proportionate”.
The ISC Russia Report calls for the Electoral Commission to be strengthened, not weakened, saying that
“we have already questioned whether the Electoral Commission has sufficient powers to ensure the security of democratic processes where hostile state threats are involved; if it is to tackle foreign interference, then it must be given the necessary … powers”.
The Government’s response to the ISC’s call for them to publish the evidence they had gathered on foreign influence over campaigns was simply to state:
“We have seen no evidence of successful interference”.
They refused to publish while carefully not denying that such interference has been attempted and that there is evidence of it. We are entitled to know about attempts to corrupt our political processes, particularly when they focus on the party in government.
Part 4 loosens, rather than tightens, the control of expenditure. Britain has a party system in which one party can raise far more money than others, in increasingly large sums from a small number of wealthy donors. The United States is the only other democracy in which controls on party finance are so lax. The Bill aims to enable the Conservatives to entrench that advantage by loosening controls on how those funds are spent.
The Government published their response to the PACAC report quietly last week. It failed to address most of the committee’s powerful criticisms.
This is a constitutional Bill. It reshapes the rules of political campaigning and elections—central elements in a constitutional democracy. I hope the Minister will not try to push it through unchanged, stonewalling in overlong speeches into late-night sittings, as he did on the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill. He used to be a constitutional, one-nation Conservative. He has now become a Johnsonian populist, contemptuous of parliamentary scrutiny channelling the Prime Minister’s interpretation of the people’s will, as he has told us on several occasions.
I remind the Minister of two very different speeches about freedom and democracy in the last two weeks, representing incompatible understandings of Conservative values. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Oliver Dowden, made an extraordinary speech in Washington to the Heritage Foundation about threats to freedom. He asserted that these threats are now centred in our universities and schools—in intellectual elites questioning established values. He said nothing, to a Trump Republican audience, about the threats to freedom from those who refuse to accept the outcome of elections, encourage mobs to attack the legislature, erect barriers to voting by disadvantaged groups, and redraw the boundaries of electoral districts to favour one party against others. His silence suggests that he does not think that constitutional rules matter in democratic politics. This Bill arrives in the Lords with worrying echoes of American Republican ambivalence about democracy as such.
In contrast, Sir John Major, when speaking to the Institute for Government, warned:
“Our democracy is a fragile structure: it is not an impenetrable fortress. It can fall if no-one challenges what is wrong, or does not fight for what is right. The protection of democracy depends upon Parliament and the Government upholding the values we have as individuals, and the trust we inspire as a nation.”
I wish I could be confident that the Minister agrees with Sir John, rather than Mr Dowden.
This Bill aims to tilt the rules of campaigning further in favour of the Conservative Party. It would be a contempt of Parliament for the Government to push it through without careful examination of its half-digested proposals. If it becomes necessary to carry it over into the next Session, that would be better than rushing through democratically dangerous regulations. If the House considers that some clauses require more detailed examination in a Select Committee, following the Commons committee’s criticisms, then so much the better. Constitutional Bills deserve and require far more examination than this Bill has received so far.
My Lords, I shall concentrate on Part 3, for today’s purposes at any rate, and will to some extent repeat what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, had to say. Surely we all understand that there is a constitutional necessity, in a system of democracy based on universal suffrage, that any electoral commission should be wholly and totally independent.
I imagine that I heard “Hear, hears” on the government side of the House, as I did among the Cross Benches, so I repeat: surely we understand the constitutional necessity, in a democracy based on universal suffrage, that there should be an independent Electoral Commission.
What do I mean by “independent”? Independent of all political parties—that is easy, but there is a further step. The commission must be independent of all direct or indirect political influence, which is rather different, and vested with the responsibility on behalf of the electorate—the entire electorate, whoever they vote for or whether they do not vote at all—first to diminish to extinction the possibility that the party in government would have any sort of undue influence over the election. I should not have used “undue”; there can be no such thing as any influence, however slight, that is not undue. The second consideration is that the electorate must be satisfied that the system protects the independence of the Electoral Commission. It is not just a matter of what the law is—although, as I say, I shall endeavour to explain why in this Bill the law does not protect that—it is about the perception that it is independent. We should look at what is proposed here.
“The Secretary of State may designate”—
so that is the power—
“a statement for the purposes of”
the Act. What is the statement?
“The statement is a statement prepared by the Secretary of State that sets out”—
and I shall go slowly through these words even though I have only six minutes—
“strategic and policy priorities of Her Majesty’s government relating to elections”.
Could the Bill not at least have had the courtesy to say “the strategic and policy priorities of Her Majesty’s Parliament”? New paragraph (b) provides for the statement to set out
“the role … of the Commission in enabling Her Majesty’s government to meet”
their own priorities. New subsection (3) says:
“The statement may also set out … guidance relating to particular matters in respect of which the Commission have functions”.
I will pause there. That is its duty, and it will be subject to reference to the Speaker’s Committee. No disrespect to the Speaker’s Committee, but what is its function? Its function is to see that the Electoral Commission has carried out its own statutory obligations.
What is chilling about the present proposal is that there is no room for the Electoral Commission to say, “We don’t agree with that. That has a huge political advantage for the Government in power.” It might even want to say, “That has a huge advantage for the Opposition”, but it has no discretion of any kind to say, “We disagree with the directives given to us in the guidance or this statement of policy priorities.” It cannot do that; nor can the Speaker’s Committee. The committee does not have the power to do so; it is simply there to make sure that the Electoral Commission does what the Secretary of State has ordered it to do. It is simple enough to read the statute, and I venture to suggest that this is what it says. It is no answer to say that the commission must have regard to the statement when carrying out its functions, as though that imposes a limitation. What it is imposing is an obligation—“must have regard to”. Is that really what we want? We need to think rather carefully about what Part 3 provides for.
I have time for one sub-point. The obligation on the Secretary of State is to consult PACAC, among others, before the statement is produced. If so, why will the Government not listen to PACAC’s observations on this part of the Bill:
“The Government has not demonstrated that the proposed measures impacting the Electoral Commission are both necessary and proportionate, and therefore risks undermining public confidence in the effective and independent regulation of the electoral system”?
That is not the end of it. The report goes on to recommend—on top of its series of recommendations about every one of these clauses suggesting modification and improvement—that:
“Clauses 13 to 15 of the Bill are removed, pending a formal public consultation”
and that the body that is supposed to be consulted by the Secretary of State should be allowed to have its say and have another look.
My Lords, I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for his particularly generous remarks about my late father. I was very touched by them, and I will return to them because they are relevant to the theme of my speech today.
I must first apologise to this House for my delay in making this speech. I have spent my life as a newspaper editor, journalist and writer and we of course live by deadlines, but there is no deadline for making a maiden speech so I have procrastinated. But I hope I have some excuse. I was introduced when Covid-19 was going strong, and I found it difficult to acquaint myself with your Lordships’ House in hybrid form. A Parliament means a place where people speak, but the pandemic muffled normal speech. Many of your Lordships could not attend in person; many members of staff were working from home. I thank them all warmly for their kind efforts on my behalf, and it was not their fault that I was uncertain what I should be doing. Today it is an honour—and I must say a relief —to be addressing a fully functioning House at last.
I come from the county of Sussex. Nowadays Sussex is regarded as rich, but our eastern part of the county has traditionally been poor. A few years ago, the Tatler magazine published a satirical illustrated map of Sussex; our little rural patch was marked by a large cactus and the words “Social Desert”. We felt perversely proud of that. Even today, my birthplace, Hastings, is well known for areas of persistent poverty. Robert Tressell’s famous Edwardian socialist novel about poverty, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, is set in Hastings. It is subtitled “A season in Hell”. I maintain that modern Hastings has many glimpses of heaven, but problems do remain.
Hastings helps explain my interest in the Bill that we are debating today. In 1844, my great-great-grandfather, Robert Ross Rowan Moore, stood there as the free trade, anti-Corn Law candidate. In those days, the fishermen of Hastings did not have the vote, but they did support free trade. By law, no candidate could be elected unless present in the constituency on polling day, so the fishermen kindly proposed to kidnap my ancestor’s rival, the Tory candidate, and take him out to sea. Sadly, Robert Moore refused the fishermen’s offer and therefore lost the election, but my family still possesses a roll which names the
“one hundred and seventy-four honest and independent electors who voted for Robert R. Rowan Moore and free trade.”
In those days there was no secret ballot. Indeed, that great liberal John Stuart Mill was actually opposed to a secret ballot. He believed that honest men—and it was only men in those days—should publicly declare their allegiance. He was frightened of the corruption that goes with secrecy. As the 19th century progressed, however, people realised that only a secret ballot could prevent intimidation by powerful interests. In 1872 the Ballot Act was introduced. All of us in your Lordships’ House are disfranchised in general elections, so we can look at the matter disinterestedly, I think. I am sure that we all agree that the secret ballot was the right way to go. It was the key means of obtaining the universal franchise which lies at the heart of the development of our modern parliamentary democracy.
It follows that the ballot must be carefully protected from the corruption arising from secrecy which Mill feared. The integrity of the universal franchise is guaranteed by methods of registration and scrutiny. This has been essential for public trust. My late father, whom the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned, was a lifelong Liberal, and frequently a candidate. He therefore had the distressingly wide experience of losing at nine general elections. I remember, however, that he always expressed complete confidence in the functioning of the system, with one notable exception. This was when he stood in Northern Ireland in 1966. There, the split in the community was so entrenched that cheating was endemic. My father met a man who claimed to have voted unionist 92 times at the previous election and was offering to transfer his favours to him. He high-mindedly refused; like his great-grandfather in Hastings, he remained unelected.
The fact that voting in Ulster was often cooked was a symptom of democracy impaired. That is why Northern Ireland today is particularly careful, more so than the rest of the United Kingdom, to protect the integrity of the ballot. A painful history has taught this lesson.
The benign consequences of electoral trust are extremely high. When working on my biography of Margaret Thatcher, I was struck by how she, and most mainland candidates in the middle of the last century, could draw on public confidence in the ballot. In the 1950 and 1951 general elections, she had no hope of beating the Labour candidate, but the sense of engagement was strong. By the time she had left Dartford, she had raised membership of her constituency Conservative association to 3,160, a figure roughly 10 times greater than modern party memberships even in safe seats. No doubt much of this was due to the young Margaret’s phenomenal energy, but there was also widespread faith in the poll itself.
Nowadays, I think this faith is declining. There is serious controversy about personation, intimidation, proxy votes, postal vote harvesting and so on. In the United States, such issues are now so partisan that they threaten to undermine faith in voting altogether. We must not go down that path.
I have a small direct experience of this issue. Before entering this House, I was legally registered to vote in two places: at home in Sussex and in central London. There seemed to be no check on whether such people, of whom there are hundreds of thousands, were voting twice. In the EU referendum of 2016, I therefore decided to expose the problem. I voted normally in Sussex and then went to London. There, I entered the polling station and handed over my legitimate polling card. I went into the booth and wrote, “I am spoiling this ballot paper in order to show how easy it is to vote twice”, and then I submitted it.
I later described this in the Daily Telegraph, hoping to help the Electoral Commission by drawing attention to the dangers of abuse. After a bit, I got a call from the police asking to come and see me. The officer who arrived was very kind and a little embarrassed. She said that the police were acting at the request of the Electoral Commission. Although I had cast only one vote which could affect the result, she explained that, according to law, I had voted twice. The Electoral Commission wanted me prosecuted, but the police had decided that a prosecution would not be in the public interest. “Please don’t do it again,” she politely added. Some noble Lords may think I acted foolishly, but I hope they can accept that my motive was public-spirited. I must say I remain disappointed that the Electoral Commission showed more zeal in chasing me than in stopping potential abuse.
There are strongly differing views about this Bill. Some rightly worry that too close an invigilation of voters’ identity could deter whole classes of people from exercising their democratic right. Others see greater danger in leaving the vote so open to abuse that elections can no longer achieve a true representation of the people. In a maiden speech, I should not come down hard on one side, but I hope that we, who cannot vote in elections to another place, can unite in recognising that the integrity of the ballot really is a sacred trust. It is a simple act to write a cross beside the name of the candidate you prefer, but behind that act lies a long history of legislation and enforcement which is the work of a high civilisation. It is a continuing, delicate work which we must assist.
My Lords, it is a great privilege and a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Moore, and to be the first to congratulate him on his delightful maiden speech. The noble Lord acknowledged that it has been a long time coming, albeit with good reason. I think the whole House will agree that it has been worth waiting for and that it amply fulfilled the expectations of those who have previously spoken.
As with John Morley always being remembered for his Life of Gladstone, when we are all forgotten, the noble Lord will be remembered for his biography of Margaret Thatcher. Like many others, I gave him such help as I could in that endeavour, in the belief that I was contributing to the objective and definitive history of that time. My trust was never abused and was amply rewarded by the outcome. It is our good fortune that the stimulus and enjoyment which the noble Lord gives us each week through his columns in the Spectator and the Telegraph will be extended to his contributions in this House. I hope we will receive them on a similarly regular basis.
I want to make three short points about the Bill. First, I regret that it has not been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny or, even better, a Speaker’s committee in the other place. It is desirable that legislation on this subject should be submitted to the views and contributions of all parties and, if possible, introduced with all-party agreement. If that does not happen in the Commons, it invites partisan disagreement in this House, and it is clear from the speeches that have already been made that that has not happened. For that reason, it will encounter more difficulties in this House than it otherwise would have done, which is regrettable.
Secondly, we live in a time in which the means of distorting information available to voters have grown hugely in their reach and influence. It is necessary for legislation to protect voters, as far as possible, against the intervention of those with the means and resources to subvert the democratic process, whether that subversion comes from state actors or other interest groups. In this context, the Bill is inadequate. As has been stated, it does not address the concerns expressed by the Intelligence and Security Committee or, more recently, the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in another place, about the dangers of secretive campaign finance coming from foreign sources. In passing, I cannot help referring to the paradox that, in my time in government, we used to worry about subversive finance from Russia to the Labour Party; now we worry about subvention from Russia to the Conservative Party.
Seriously, however, I ask the Minister to tell us what the Government are doing about these reports, particularly in current circumstances. I say with all due respect to him that it is not sufficient to say that the Government always consider the advice they get from wise committees and then do nothing about it. These committees are indeed wise. As those of us who serve on Select Committees and other committees find, they take a great deal of evidence and receive contributions from experts, and they need to be taken seriously. There is not likely to be another opportunity for legislation on election issues during this Parliament, and so these matters need to be dealt with in the Bill. The committees that have made recommendations need and deserve a serious response from the Government before the Bill is considered. I mention particularly the threat through unincorporated associations identified by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and I ask the Minister in his response to deal with that.
Finally, the Electoral Commission is the instrument through which we seek to ensure a level playing field. Like others, I remain to be persuaded that it is necessary for the Executive to interfere with the independence of the commission through a strategy and policy statement, especially one prepared by the Government, with their own majority in the House of Commons and their own electoral interests. I hope that the House will look very carefully at that provision in the Bill.
My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to have listened to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Moore. I had the opportunity a few years ago to be on the panel of “Any Questions?” with the noble Lord in which he compared me and my fellow Liberal Democrat coalition Minister to two characters in Beatrix Potter. It was of course a scarring event, but I reflected on the journey home that I was very grateful that the noble Lord’s taste in literature did not run to the rummy. I look forward to many speeches and to see the great biographer of Lady Thatcher in this Chamber and I am sure that we will look forward to many years of his contributions.
As my noble friend the Minister said, much of the Bill is based on a report I produced for the Government a few years ago. I am obviously pleased that many of my recommendations have been accepted and I take full responsibility for them. But I hope that my noble friend will not think me churlish if I start with a measure that I have some reservations about. The Bill seeks to change the requirement for the visually impaired to have use of tactile devices to aid independent voting. I understand the laudable reasons for allowing greater choice of equipment, but in practice I am not sure that this will be the case. In Committee I will be looking for greater reassurance and possible amendments to meet the concerns of those professional organisations working in the sector.
I noticed in another place when this Bill was debated—and reflected in some of the briefing we have had—the suggestion that this Bill was unnecessary. They point to the low number of prosecutions and suggest that everything in the world of elections has reached a point of perfection and that any amendment would risk the very foundations of democracy. But it raises legitimate questions. Is there widespread corruption in our electoral system? Leaving aside that by its nature the crime is difficult to detect, and there is a strong element of underreporting, I saw no conclusive evidence to suggest that there was widespread and systematic corruption within our system.
But that misses the point. If there was widespread corruption in the system, it would already be too late. This House and another place would be stuffed to the gunnels with people with a vested interest in retaining corrupt practices. Our system relies so much on reasonable behaviour and trust. To misquote Sir John Major, it is a system of warm beer and elderly ladies cycling to Evensong. But we have been warned, not just by the Electoral Commission but by the Council of Europe. It was clear when it said:
“It does not take an experienced election observer, or election fraudster, to see that the combination of the household registration system without personal identifiers and the postal vote on demand arrangements make the election system in Great Britain very vulnerable to electoral fraud.”
There seems to be some consensus on the need to reform postal voting. I received many representations that postal voting on demand should end. But I took the view that it was not desirable to return to the previous system, as on demand reflects a more mobile society. However, safeguards are long overdue: banning political campaigners from handling postal votes and, with some limited exceptions, making it a criminal offence; stopping postal vote harvesting by limiting the number of postal votes that a person may hand in on behalf of others; extending the secrecy provisions that currently apply at the polling stations to postal votes; requiring those registered for postal votes to reaffirm their identities once every three years; and limiting the number of people for whom someone can act as a proxy to four, regardless of their relationship.
During my report I took evidence from a number of returning officers. We held a seminar where good and bad practices were examined. I was told shocking stories of mass door-to-door collections of postal votes by candidate supporters, of blank postal votes being handed in as a demonstration of loyalty and of boxes of postal votes delivered by political parties to polling stations at 6 pm on polling day. The measures in this Bill are long overdue.
We should also bear in mind that we are talking not just about an election system but about a way of ensuring an anti-corruption policy in public life. I am not sure I would waste a lot of resources corruptly trying to get a Member of Parliament elected, but our councils, with their billion-pound budgets, are a great prize to take. Many can be turned over by simple action in one or two wards. We have seen what happened in Tower Hamlets, and it is my sincere hope that Tower Hamlets does not represent the future. I commend this Bill and look forward to Committee.
My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Moore, on his very amusing maiden speech. I ought to be pleased that one fewer Conservative vote will be cast in the next general election, but I have to tell him I think it is a complete anachronism that your Lordships are unable to vote, and I hope that at some point we will put that right.
I have great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, who has just spoken. We have had robust and often constructive exchanges in the past, and I respect greatly the action he took in relation to Tower Hamlets. But this evening we have to be extremely careful that, with the measures we take to overcome whatever problems we currently have within the system—and we should address them—we do not give the impression out there in this country that there is a serious problem with our electoral system. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Moore, that that is precisely the insidious worm that got into the Republican Party in the United States and led decent people to start mouthing platitudes about the ballot being rigged and the fraud within their system. If we get that here we will be in real trouble. So let us address where there is clear evidence of fraud or misuse and try to identify the problem. Who is in favour of the change in the problem, as was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace? Do the measures we will debate tonight and in Committee achieve the goal that has been set out? If we can answer those questions honestly and clearly, we might get somewhere.
I have very little time, and I know people will be waiting to speak later in the evening, so I want to say just two things. First, I thank my noble friend Lady Hayman and the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, for their mention of those without sight seeking to exercise an equal vote on the same terms as anyone else, and I hope we will be able to put that right. My main thrust, however, is to pick up on the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, which I thought, as with other Opposition Front Bench speakers, was extremely powerful. What we do through this Bill will have implications for our standing and reputation internationally. We should not underestimate the danger of meddling with and undermining the independence of the Electoral Commission. Of course there can be improvements in how it operates, and we should concentrate on those. But, as the noble and learned Lord said, handing over to government the strategic and policy priorities of what is supposed to be an independent body goes to the very core of our democratic process.
On 9 September last year, we had a debate in this House on the issues around public life. We debated the first interim report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has reported further since. At that time, in what I thought was a very thoughtful debate, there was a consensus that it is really important that no political party misunderstands its role.
When a political party becomes the Government, it does not automatically embody, on behalf of the nation, its party and its ideology. The Conservative Party and the Government are not one and the same thing, and we should avoid them becoming so, any more than the Bolsheviks thought that taking power meant that that held them as the voice of, and the only voice of, the nation. I mention the Bolsheviks because, of course, someone giving £1.8 million might have an interest in the well-being of our country but their husband may have a different interest altogether.
Let us be absolutely clear this evening: if we interfere, as this Bill does, with the independence of the Electoral Commission, we will send a signal not only to our own country and our own people but across the world. Disentangle the Conservative Party from the running of this country on behalf of the whole of this nation, and then we might get it right.
My Lords, over the past 200 years, historically significant Bills have come before Parliament to allow a greater number of our citizens to vote. A number of them were referred to in the excellent and entertaining maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham, whose late father I also remember with great affection—we campaigned together a number of times. However, this Bill reverses that process by creating unnecessary barriers to participation by people who are legally entitled to vote. At the same time, the Government are deliberately failing to act to ensure that many others who are legally entitled to vote are included in the list of people able to do so. There is little in the Bill to welcome.
No other country has such strict provisions as requiring photo ID to vote without some provision being made for those people who go to a polling station without it. The proposed requirement for photo ID goes significantly further than the proposals made by the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, in his government-inspired review of electoral laws. The Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, with—I emphasise this point—its Conservative majority, said:
“We are concerned that the evidence to support the voter ID requirement simply is not good enough.”
I have previously urged the Government to investigate the number of people who arrive at a polling station to find that their vote has already been cast. The Government will not do this, and that is clearly because the evidence from returning officers confirms that it is an extremely rare event. Even when it happens—if it happens—there is a process by which anyone in such circumstances can still claim their vote. Their vote is simply given a different coloured ballot paper which is put aside but which could be counted if relevant to the outcome of the election and investigation required. In contrast, if a parcel at the post office is taken by the wrong person, it cannot be replaced, but at a polling station, a replacement ballot paper is issued in the unlikely event that the person’s name has already been crossed off the list of those who have already voted. In other words, a parcel cannot be replaced and appropriate ID is necessary before it is handed over, but a stolen ballot paper can be immediately replaced, so photo ID is not necessary. All the evidence is that this virtually never happens.
The projected cost of introducing photo ID in the Government’s own impact assessment amounts to £180 million over 10 years. How many times do we debate necessary things in this House which might require a sum smaller than £180 million and the Government say there is no money, yet they are willing to commit to this extremely wasteful expenditure for which the motivation is suspect? It will affect some communities disproportionately, and these are communities that are already underregistered.
Some of the measures in the Bill are welcome, such as the principle of extending the franchise to all UK citizens living overseas. They have a stake in our country’s future, but they do not generally have a stake in a particular constituency where they may not have lived for many decades. The proper way of enfranchising them would be to do what they do in France, for example, and create dedicated constituencies for overseas citizens, so that their special interests are properly represented.
However, the Bill is not about enfranchising them, as claimed. How do we know that? Because it is still incredibly difficult to vote from abroad. The proposals in the Bill for registering people who have not been on the voting register in the last 15 years are incredibly problematic. For those who are registered, proxy voting is often difficult to arrange, so postal votes must be applied for and granted. When nominations close, ballot papers must be printed, and then posted abroad. When completed, the ballot papers must work their way back through different countries’ postal systems, and very often they do not arrive with the relevant returning officer by polling day. These problems must be addressed, and allowing postal vote applications to be made electronically is insufficient.
The real reason for extending the franchise is not about voting rights but about donations, which must come from individuals on the voting registers. In December 2019, the then Minister for the Constitution announced to the other place that the maximum limits on expenditure by political parties in a general election could be increased considerably, since they were set in 2000. In 2000, Parliament was asked to support the creation of a more level playing field in national elections. Since then, only the Conservative Party has come close to the maximum of £20 million. So an increase now would favour only one party, the Conservative Party, and the principle previously agreed by Parliament, of seeking a level playing field, would end. The Government then suggested that the increase should be in line with inflation since 2000. That is now about 79%, and would mean increasing the limit from approximately £20 million to £36 million. Will the Minister say that this will not happen? He should bear in mind that, in 2019, the Times showed that 28 out of 93 British billionaires have moved to tax havens or are in the process of relocating. The Bill will facilitate billionaire tax exiles, who may not have lived here for decades, contributing to the Conservative Party.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Moore of Etchingham on a remarkable, welcome and amusing speech. It is a very difficult one to follow.
There are some very important issues in the Bill, and we will come to them later. My purpose today is to draw noble Lords’ attention to an anomaly in our election law which, thanks to this Bill, we have an opportunity to correct.
Under current arrangements, Commonwealth citizens have the right to vote in British general elections. However, the present law does not include any length of residence test. Now that election registers are revised every month, that right becomes available virtually on arrival to anyone from Commonwealth.
Some noble Lords will recall that, in 2008, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, the former Labour Attorney-General, produced a report on nationality matters. In it, he recommended that the automatic right for Commonwealth citizens to vote in general elections should be phased out. In support of his recommendation, he made three points. First, that most countries do not permit non-citizens to vote in national, or often even local, elections. Secondly, that it is right, in principle, not to give the right to vote to citizens of other countries living in the UK until they become British citizens. Thirdly, that this change would restore the significance of citizenship and help people to be proud of achieving it. However, despite these arguments, as some Members will recall, no action was taken on this matter by either the Labour Government or subsequent Conservative or coalition Governments.
Reciprocity is one aspect of this. In 39 of the 54 Commonwealth countries, British citizens do not have the right to vote until they become citizens of these countries. In nine Caribbean countries, British citizens can vote—normally after 12 months’ residence. It would not be fair to deny to nationals of these countries the right to vote in Britain, provided that right remains reciprocal. There is no question of removing the vote from those who already have it—that would be absurd. But the matter is still quite important, because the inflow of Commonwealth citizens who are not UK citizens is in the order of at least 100,000 a year. There are, of course, some political angles to this. For example, the Labour Party’s policy platform before the most recent election, as decided by their 2019 autumn conference, included a pledge to give voting rights to everyone living in the UK, whatever their citizenship. That would have immediately added several million new voters to our electoral rolls.
I see that the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, is in his place. He commented at the time that opponents would characterise this as a,
“reckless policy to throw open not only our borders but our system of democracy”.
As usual, the noble Lord hit the nail on the head.
This Bill is a valuable opportunity to clear up the present anomaly and to put virtually all foreign citizens on the same basis. I shall be in touch with the experts to draw up a suitable amendment. Finally, I should make it clear that such an amendment would not affect Ireland, with which we have had reciprocal arrangements since 1922. It would, however, affect Cyprus and Malta. We have an opportunity to clean this up, and I think we should do it.
My Lords, I too join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Moore, for his subtle and penetrating speech. I do so as someone who originates from Sussex, albeit the western part.
I shall address just one aspect of this Bill—the introduction of photographic ID. Other noble Lords have already raised specific issues presented by this clause. I echo their concerns, and I question whether photo ID is consistent with the UK’s democratic heritage. The fundamental duty of government as we know it is to ensure that all citizens have access to the resources they need to play a full part in the democratic process. Any action that risks reducing democratic engagement, especially one which excludes a significant sector of society, needs the most careful consideration, and it should be based on very sound evidence.
I am concerned that the Bill’s intention to increase trust in the reliability of the voting procedures risks reducing it. Currently, 90% of those asked by the Electoral Commission’s public opinion tracker see voting and polling stations as safe from fraud and abuse. This is precisely because we expect the Government to allow us to take part in the democratic process—if we choose to—without putting measures in place that might impede it. The high level of trust in our electoral system seems to raise comparison with the use of voter ID in Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Moore, said, this derives from a historic mistrust among all communities about elections being free and fair. There is no such mistrust in this case. As the noble Baroness, Lady Davidson, has said, this is trying to solve a problem that does not exist—and that makes it politics as performance. Politics is, in many ways, a performance, but the performance should come second. Any performance which could disenfranchise voters risks withholding recognition from individuals and cultural communities.
As your Lordships have heard, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation indicates that 1.7 million low-income voters could be disadvantaged. This would constitute moral injury and would be an injustice. A significant proportion of low-income voters are likely to come from UK global majority backgrounds or from white working-class communities. Both are among the least likely to own photographic ID or to have ID which would be recognised, because of the current costs of obtaining them. It has also been found that those with learning difficulties are likely to find it an obstacle too high to climb, as the Cabinet Office’s research showed.
Many in these already disadvantaged communities, the very people whom the Government’s laudable levelling-up agenda seeks to raise up, are less likely to have the time, access to equipment, or desire, to fill out additional forms or to register for the voter ID cards than more advantaged people. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation also found that 41% of those with unsuitable ID were unsure whether they would apply for free voter ID cards. Legislation that may make democratic participation for the most vulnerable and marginalised in society harder fails to meet the Government’s responsibility to enhance the practice of democracy and maximise involvement in the common project on which society is built.
Within the Bill, there is a commitment to a consultation with the electoral community on how the voter ID law would be introduced. Does this mean that the Government recognise the possibly harmful effects of making this a requirement? Will they seek to mitigate them through secondary legislation? If that is the case, why is the consultation coming after the law has been passed and not before? At the moment, the proposal for voter ID fails to provide the assurance that every voice in our community will be heard. If the Government proceed as planned, which I recognise is the manifesto pledge, I would support amendments that introduce mitigating factors to the Bill and reduce the risk of unintended exclusion.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the opportunity for his Elections Bill officials to have discussions with me about potential amendments which I might bring forward. That may worry the Minister that I will bring forward amendments, but I hope that they will improve the operation of the Bill and of elections in this country, nationally and locally.
This Bill should be about four different aspects, one of which there has been virtually no reference to so far in this debate—the administration of elections as undertaken by our returning officers, who do a truly superb job, despite the propensity of politicians of all political parties to impose an ever-greater burden on them, with the expectation that the elections will be administered effectively, openly and on time. There may be some discussion in that field.
Secondly, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, touched emphatically on another field, the overall regulation by a body—in this case the Electoral Commission—and how it should operate. Clearly, there will be much discussion about that element of how we handle elections, as there should be. The Electoral Commission is a relatively new body, and it is worthwhile, at this point in a Bill, to look at how it operates and should operate.
The third field is an area which I regret has been omitted from this Bill, and which has been touched on by a number of noble Lords, the first of whom was the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman: the report of the Law Commission, which said that, effectively, our electoral law is a mess. We operate on 25 different pieces of major electoral legislation. Its report said:
“The current laws governing elections should be rationalised into a single, consistent legislative framework with consistent electoral laws across all elections, except where there are clear and necessary differences, for example due to different voting systems.”
Some of the amendments, to which I referred in my opening comments, fall within that field to at least introduce a degree of consistency—even though we will not have, disappointingly, a rationalisation of the mess of electoral legislation that we all face at the moment.
Fourthly—and this comes to the nub of the early parts of the legislation, to which the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, spoke—there is the issue of fraud, in some form or another. I am afraid that I see a degree of complacency in society. It is not just Tower Hamlets, which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, referred to first, and which we will get to many times over the next few days in Committee; we should not kid ourselves that Tower Hamlets is the only place where there has been maladministration.
I am going to enjoy myself at this moment by just reminding the House—some Members may be aware of this, but I fear many are not—that the largest case of personation ever identified and undertaken in this country was by the Liberal Democrats in Hackney in 1998: one hall of residence, which had a capacity of 32 people, managed to have 80 people registered on the electoral roll, courtesy of a Liberal Democrat candidate. I did enjoy that bit.
As I said, the debate will revolve around the question of fraud, and the means of fraud. Quite a few years ago I was asked by Simon Walters, who I think was then deputy editor of the Daily Mail, whether I could identify how you would fraudulently deliver an election result. I asked him how long he had got—because there are so many ways in which you can deliver a fraudulent result.
As the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, identified, it is not purely parliamentary results that matter, but local authorities as well. We have seen, in recent years, substantial fraud cases in Tower Hamlets, Birmingham, Woking and High Wycombe, and we are aware of other cases around the country. I discussed with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, the problems in some of his parts of the country, in west Yorkshire. We have to recognise that there are problems, and we should do something about them before we face a greater problem.
In conclusion, I will identify a particular issue which I will continue to pursue separately from the Bill and of which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Hayman, are aware: namely, the two-signature issue for local government elections, which—I say to the Minister—I hope we can resolve for the elections this year outwith this piece of legislation. I will continue to pursue that until the closing date for achieving that end has passed.
My Lords, I happily add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Moore, for a splendid opening speech. I thank him most of all for making us laugh—I think that might be the last laugh we get with this Bill.
I had hoped that any attempt by this Government to make important changes to our constitution would be conducted with extreme caution and with humility. I say this because, during this parliamentary Session, under this Conservative Government, we have spent a good deal of time repairing the constitutional damage inflicted by the Conservative Government that was in power 10 years ago.
I refer, first, to the cynical moves in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, when at a stroke the Government planned to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 60.
Sorry, to 600. I am sure they would have done the former if they had had the chance. Needless to say, the calculations were that the changes would damage the Labour Party more than the Conservatives. Then, as we know, at the last general election, the Conservatives gained a number of so-called “red wall” seats, and lo and behold the calculations changed: the proposed reduction to 600 would have damaged the Conservatives, and the Government had a Damascus road conversion back to 650 seats.
Then we had the friendless Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the malign effects of which included the shambles at the end of the 2017 Parliament. Thankfully, we are well on the way to getting rid of that Act with the Third Reading of the dissolution Bill tomorrow.
I draw two lessons from this little history lesson. First, major constitutional Bills really must have pre-legislative scrutiny; and, secondly, beware a Government bearing constitutional gifts. The chances are that, whatever the wrapping, the contents will include—somewhere—an electoral bonus for the Government.
So far as the current Bill is concerned, if we had had proper scrutiny, we would have had witnesses being examined such as—as has been mentioned—the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Its extensive research with a representative panel of 6,000 people concluded that the voter ID requirements of the Bill risked disenfranchising around 1.7 million low-income voters.
We know that many people do not have any form of photo identification—a figure of 3.5 million has been estimated. What is known about the demography of this group: their gender, age, social class, income and housing? Given the Government’s form on the politics of constitutional change, what do we know about the likely voting intentions of this section of the population? I say to the Minister: please do not tell me that this has not been considered—that really would be a novelty.
Another hugely controversial part of the Bill, which was dealt with brilliantly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, concerns the independence of the Electoral Commission. We really should not need to be debating whether or not a body with responsibility for overseeing elections and their integrity is to have its strategy and policy document written by the Government—or, to put it more precisely, written by the winning party at the most recent general election. Elections, by definition, are competitive. To allow the winning party to give instructions to the Electoral Commission is comparable to a game between Arsenal and Manchester United in which, prior to kick-off, the Arsenal manager gives instructions to the referee—although some people may feel that happens already.
That brings me to the evidence, or lack of it, for the change of voting rights for people living overseas. The fundamental principle of the franchise in our country is that your entitlement to vote comes from your residence and registration on the electoral roll of a specific parliamentary constituency. We quite rightly make an exception to this for UK citizens who, for various reasons at various times in their lives, live or work abroad, usually with the intention of coming back to the UK, and many of whom will have kept a house to which they will return. The time limit for this is a sensible 15 years.
Now the Government intend to extend this to a vote for life. This surely raises important issues. First, there is the practical problem that the longer someone is away from the UK the harder it is to verify their former UK address. But is there not also an issue of fairness? People who have not lived here for decades and for whom the clear probability is that they will never return are to have the same right to vote in the constituency in which they last lived as the current residents. There may be a major local issue—a hospital closure, fracking, motorway construction, flooding—which is of crucial importance to people living there, who will have to live with the consequences. But someone who has not lived there for decades, and has no intention of doing so again, has the potential to determine the election’s outcome. I do not think that enhances our democracy.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked, “Why don’t they have their own constituency?” Well, the figure I have is that some 2 million people would be enfranchised by this. I am not sure how many parliamentary constituencies that would require.
So let us get some facts from the Minister. Just how many more people are estimated to be eligible to vote under the “votes for life” provision? I have seen, as I said, estimates of up to 2.5 million. So I ask the Minister: how are we going to verify all these overseas people and, when they are added to the electoral roll in individual constituencies, will their numbers be included in calculating the size of constituencies in future parliamentary boundary reviews?
I had better leave out the next bit of my speech as I am out of time. I was just warming up, really.
This Bill about elections and their integrity. No other subject could be more fundamental to our democracy. The Bill is based not on the judgment of neutral, objective observers but on the judgment of a political party that has won an election. That of course is the case with all legislation but, for constitutional Bills, the case for detailed scrutiny, consensus if possible, and as much objectivity as possible, is overwhelming. Sadly, with this Bill, the Government have failed to learn lessons from the serious mistakes they made in the past.
My Lords, like others speaking today, I am concerned that the Bill has some serious flaws. In an unprecedented move two days ago, the Electoral Commissioners wrote to the Government making the following warning:
“It is our firm and shared view that the introduction of a Strategy and Policy Statement—enabling the Government to guide the work of the Commission—is inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy. This independence is fundamental to maintaining confidence and legitimacy in our electoral system.”
Free and fair elections that are above political independence, or even perceived political interference, are vital if we are to ensure that the public have confidence in our democracy and system of government.
I also have concerns about the requirement in the Bill for people voting in UK parliamentary elections and local elections in England to produce photo ID. Can the Minister advise the House what information the Government have regarding the number of eligible voters who do not have some form of photo ID? The most common forms of photo ID are passports and drivers’ licences. The people most likely not to have either and who may not wish to pay for another form of photo ID are the younger or first-time voters and older people. We have seen from international examples, particularly certain states of the United States, that voter ID requirements have reduced turnout in poorer and often black communities. Such practices are unrecognisable to our British democratic system, and it should stay that way.
The Government will, I am sure, argue that this was a commitment in their 2019 election manifesto, so they have a mandate to introduce photo ID requirements. Although winning a majority of seats in the other place, the Conservative Party in fact received 43% of the vote; however, due to the first past the post electoral system, it received 56% of seats.
This brings me to my second point, which is on requiring local councils in England to use the first past the post electoral system. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I am concerned that the Government are using this legislation to impose the electoral system used to elect MPs to the Commons on councils. First past the post is a voting system that tends to favour the two main parties and makes it more difficult for small parties or independent candidates to get elected. It is arrogant to argue that this voting system is better than a proportional voting system used by some local councils in this country, as well as many leading democracies internationally, such as Germany or New Zealand.
Further, there is no evidence that the challenges currently faced in local government are best addressed by imposing an electoral system through the Bill. The Government should be working with local authorities to ensure that they have the resources and systems in place to deliver vital services to communities throughout the country. In terms of voting systems, we can learn from various international examples, including New Zealand, where local communities can decide by plebiscite which voting system they wish to use.
In its current form, the Bill potentially undermines the independence of the Electoral Commission, may disfranchise voters who do not have ID proof, and imposes a voting system on local government rather than allowing communities to decide which system they prefer.
My Lords, I have a very different view of what the Government are proposing and the whole election business. I find the election process in this country severely out of date. It is like a penny farthing machine, if not something worse. Had the Labour Government been allowed to have identity cards as they proposed— Nick Clegg talked about privacy and some said it was too expensive—none of these problems would arise.
People say that that is against our tradition. In India, which had 900 million people on the electoral register last time round in 2019, everybody has an identity card. All 1,300 million people carry an identity card. I have seen them. Everybody can produce their identity at any time—ignorant people, illiterate people, tribals, women, blacks and whites. Again and again, people here make this drama about it being the poorest who are illiterate or unintelligent and cannot get a photo ID. Why are we so patronising about our own citizens?
My children and grandchildren laugh at the fact that we have to go to a booth and sign something there. They have a smartphone; they should be allowed to vote directly online on a phone. We used the smartphone during the pandemic for a number of things and relied on it. It was very useful. Which world do we live in so that, for elections, we have to go through a very old- fashioned system with people counting votes all night? In India, with 900 million people voting, once the ballot boxes are gathered it takes one and a half hours to declare the national result, because we have electronic machines to count the votes. You do not need people sitting there all night putting little pieces of paper by their side and throwing things away, and us then having to rely on the BBC exit poll to know what will happen over the next 36 hours.
Why do we tolerate this peculiar system? I know that we have a great love for treating politics as a medieval system; that is our pride. That is why our parliamentary Chambers have to be overcrowded; we cannot really have seats to ourselves or equipment on each chair so we can vote sitting on our seat. No, that is not in our tradition; it is not in our tradition to have people sitting comfortably in parliamentary seats. No, we are an old democracy, we are the best democracy; therefore, we must be made physically uncomfortable to be able to be in Parliament. Look at the House of Commons. It is so crowded. If every Member of the House of Lords turned up, half of us would not be able to sit. Why do we tolerate that, and why, each time anybody suggests a change, does everybody say, “Oh my God, we cannot have this change, because somebody somewhere will be deprived”?
The Government should have proposed an identity card scheme and implemented it quickly before the next election. We all get an electoral registration note every month or two that says, “Please certify that you are at this residence”. I do not know why it has to be done that many times but, okay, I do it. Of course I have lost my vote by coming here, but I still dutifully fill out the form and send it back because that is my duty, but it should not be necessary.
If we had an identity card, it would have all the information required in one little thing. It should be on your smartphone. My smartphone knows more about me than I myself know. It tells me where I have been. We really ought to think about this whole process and much less patronisingly about those who are deprived. We should ask: what is the best, most efficient and fastest way to get people to vote, and the most comfortable way? They should not have to go to a polling booth; it is completely unnecessary, because we can create an identity—a number with a picture—which can be accurately determined to give that person a vote. We are discussing an antiquated thing and passionately want to keep it antiquated. I do not think I can make any difference to that logic, but perhaps in another 25 years somebody will do it.
My Lords, the Government argue that this Bill will strengthen democracy, but I am not sure how that can be so. For example, in a democracy, how can a Government interfere with and undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission?
There is concern in Wales that the Bill’s provisions regarding the accountability of the Electoral Commission, as currently drafted, are incompatible with the accountability arrangements established by the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020 between the Electoral Commission and the Presiding Officer’s committee in the Senedd. Will the Minister agree to work with the Welsh Government to find a solution to this concern?
The Welsh Government do not support the introduction of voting ID, the placing of unnecessary constraints on postal and proxy voting, or the extension to the overseas franchise, and they will not use voter ID in the elections that they control. There is quite a contrast between what the UK Government believe about democracy, as contained in this Bill, and what the Welsh Government are doing by taking action to improve democracy in Wales.
Although agreement has been reached on the Bill between UK and Welsh Ministers, other than on intimidation and digital imprints measures, so there is no opposition in principle, the Welsh Government believe that they have the competence to legislate on these matters. On intimidation, for example, it is the Welsh Government’s view that every legislature should have the freedom to determine its own disqualification regime for the elections for which it is responsible. The same principle applies to the digital imprint. Would the Minister be prepared to work with Welsh Ministers on the areas where there is no agreement at the moment? I think, from what he said in his opening remarks, he would be prepared to do that; he talked about bringing forward amendments.
Participating in democracy is strongly linked to improved outcomes. Supporting people to overcome the barriers they experience because of their socio- economic conditions is essential to achieving our overall aim of improving participation rates and experiences. To increase participation, the Welsh Government plan to hold pilot schemes with four local authorities for the local elections in May. These pilots will provide new flexibilities for the electorate in Wales and people will be encouraged to make use of them, especially those who might not have originally planned to vote.
The measures the Welsh Government are taking include having advance voting during the week leading to election day. A new polling station will be created in a school for registered students of that school only, and, in two local authority areas, council offices will be used as a polling station for all residents of the county on the weekend before polling day. I hope this will be a successful pilot and will lead to greater participation, in contrast to some of the measures in this Bill. Electors in Wales will have greater choice about when they will vote in local and Senedd elections, but they will face barriers and inconveniences when it comes to the general election. I hope that UK Ministers will have a good look at the results of the pilot scheme when they come out and see whether they can learn from them.
I have received a very good briefing from Age UK, as I am sure many other noble Lords have. Age UK does not welcome the Elections Bill’s introduction of photo ID for in-person voting and has significant concerns regarding the impact this will have on older people. I quote its briefing:
“Older people are more likely to face hurdles when voting, including barriers to accessing transport and limited mobility which make getting to a polling station a lot harder … the proposed addition of compulsory photo ID will add to barriers to in person voting … If photo ID proposals are carried unamended … mitigating measures such as the provision of free photo ID to people who lack these documents should be made as accessible as possible. Additional provision of free photo ID for elections will be costly and complex for local Returning Officers to administer and must be supported by central guidance and funding … Increasing confidence in the integrity of the electoral system is important but with no evidence that personation fraud in the UK is widespread and evidence that in small pilots, over a hundred people were unable or unwilling to return to a polling station to present valid photo ID, it feels that the introduction of this security measure is disproportionate to the threat of personation fraud. Age UK believes the proposal represents a sledge hammer to crack a nut.”
Like many organisations, Age UK opposes Clause 1 on voter identification. With so many organisations opposed to it, I hope the Minister will take note of these remarks. I look forward to his reply.
My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my relevant interests as an elected councillor, and as someone who has been at the heart of elections, local and national, on every occasion for the past 40 years.
This Bill is a crude attempt to curtail our democracy. One of the ways that this is being done is through the requirement to produce photo ID at polling stations. Yesterday in your Lordships’ House, there were fervent arguments from the Conservative Benches that it was anti-democratic to require a security pass to vote in this House, yet this requirement is acceptable for ordinary folk wanting to cast their vote.
Our current elections process is far from perfect. There are significant problems with ensuring that everyone is registered to vote. In 2019, the Electoral Commission estimated that 17% of people, or one in six, are not on the register. For people from Asian and black heritage, that rises to one in four. In every general election I have had calls from people who have not been able to vote because they are not on the register for whatever reason.
One of the Bill’s aims should be to commit to increasing voter registration by giving elections officers adequate resources to do so, and to assure, for example, those fleeing from domestic violence that they can opt out of the public register. Where is the voter registration commitment in this Bill?
Of all the imperfections in our voting system, personation is not a significant one. Let us consider the practical implications of the voter ID proposal. Not everyone will have photo ID. Those who do not will not turn their mind to getting a so-called “free” card from their elections office in time. Some will forget to take it to vote, as the pilots demonstrated. Perhaps the Minister will explain how women who wear the burka are to vote when they will not be able to show their face if there are any men in the polling station. Are they to be disfranchised because of their faith?
Polling clerks will be turning voters away, when those voters will rightly feel that their inalienable right has been removed. Just at a time when we need a system that encourages more people to take part, it seems that the aim of this tawdry Bill is to make it more difficult to vote.
The Minister will no doubt suggest that those who do not want photo ID can apply for a postal vote. That argument will indicate just how little the Government understand about how some voters, often but not only women, have their postal vote used by someone else.
On the change to first past the post for mayoral and police commissioner elections, the Minister said earlier that the Government were getting rid of the supplementary vote system because such systems are confusing. Yet only this last week, the Conservative Members of your Lordships’ House used the supplementary vote system to elect a new Member to their ranks. Was it that confusing for Members of the Conservative Benches?
Maybe that is what has induced this change: it was too confusing for elections to your Lordships’ House.
This Bill is thoroughly anti-democratic. Only a Government determined to seek to control elections would propose that the independence of the Electoral Commission should end. In a most unusual step, the commission has written to the Minister as follows:
“It is our firm and shared view that the introduction of a Strategy and Policy Statement—enabling the Government to guide the work of the Commission—is inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy. This independence is fundamental to maintaining confidence and legitimacy in our electoral system … If made law, these provisions will enable a government in the future to influence the Commission’s operational functions and decision-making. This includes its oversight and enforcement of the political finance regime, but also the advice and guidance it provides to electoral administrators, parties and campaigners, and its work on voter registration.”
This is a thoroughly anti-democratic Bill, and in some of its provisions dangerously so. It discredits our reputation as a torch bearer of democracy and therefore cannot be supported by those of us who love our democracy.
My Lords, I add my voice to those who have congratulated my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham, on his magisterial maiden speech, which might be a wonderful foretaste of contributions to come.
I was a member of the committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which reported in 2020. I shall follow what the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, touched on but want first to add my voice to those expressing grave concern about the independence of the Electoral Commission and the Government’s strategy and policy statement. Others have touched on this much more eloquently than I can.
I too read with interest the report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and its savage criticism of this Bill. I also read with interest the Government’s response to PACAC, in which they stated that the provisions in relation to the strategy and policy statement
“do not give the Government the power to direct the Commission’s decision-making”,
yet, under the Bill, the commission must “have regard to” the statement. These two statements fail the common-sense test.
Following on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, touched on, I shall certainly listen with interest to the arguments for and against voter ID and on whether it is the answer to some of the wider worries about electoral fraud. Yet, at the same time, the Bill has nothing to say about what seems to be a far larger problem relating to the integrity of our electoral process; namely, that many millions of eligible voters are missing from the electoral registers. Other countries with similar registration requirements, such as Canada, seem to be much more successful in achieving higher levels of both completeness and accuracy in their electoral registers.
There are many ideas on how this problem might be addressed—for example, automatic or assisted registration —and we will hear more about this on Friday when the House at long last debates the 2020 Lords committee report on electoral registration. I wonder whether the Minister might give us a foretaste of his arguments in that debate to answer today the argument that the millions missing from our electoral registers are a far greater threat to the wider integrity of our elections than personation.
I too ask why such a fundamentally important Bill affecting the very foundations of our democratic system is being taken through Parliament without the kind of careful consultation and consensus-building that it deserves. There was no White Paper; there was no pre-legislative scrutiny to build understanding and cross-party support; there is no statutory commitment to post-legislative scrutiny, yet significant government amendments have been introduced since the Bill was given a Second Reading in the other place.
This is an important Bill introduced at a time when the integrity of our politics and the observance of the conventions which regulate our constitution are under intense scrutiny. The Minister knows this better than anyone. I look forward to his reply.
I warmly welcome the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham. His witty, erudite and insightful speech shows what an asset he will be here.
The Elections Bill is designed to strengthen the integrity of the electoral process and therefore strengthen UK democracy per se. That is a worthy aim that we should all embrace, but I worry that the Bill takes an overly technocratic and legalistic approach that evades deeper problems and cultural trends that undermine democratic norms today, from assaults on free speech to the fashion for casting aspersions on the capacity and motives of voters. When I am lobbied by opponents of the Bill, who say that the legislation “would not look out of place in Hungary, Russia or China”, I fear that hyperbole and partisan paranoia might distort the important public debates we need to have about democratic elections that this Bill should positively kick-start.
Like other noble Lords I have a lot of specific areas I want to ask questions about in Committee. Will restrictions on third party campaigning lead to disengagement of civil society organisations from political activism? Why on earth did the Government table changing the voting system so late in the day? For now, I have some comments on the alleged voter fraud issue. I welcome the Bill tackling the problems of postal voting. The noble Lord, Lord Pickles, described concerns over harvesting votes, which I think many of us have shared for some time. Of course postal voting is necessary, but it should be a narrow, particular form of voting and not a go-to device so open to abuse. Tightening this would help and would shore up the legitimacy of elections, I have no doubt.
The same motivation is used by the Government to justify the controversial voter ID scheme. However, I am less convinced that this illiberal show-us-your-papers measure is either proportionate or necessary when the data shows such minuscule examples of voter fraud, as we have heard. I do not go along with the overblown conspiracy theories that see voter ID as a dastardly Tory plot of “deliberate voter suppression”, as one Guardian editorial called it, or an evil attempt to rig the system to disempower the poorest and most marginalised. No, I think that kind of discussion is unhelpful. My objections are rather those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, about unintended consequences. Rather than reassuring voters that elections are not being corrupted by fraud, voter ID gives the impression that vote rigging is such a wide-scale problem that we need to change the law. Surely this puts an unnecessary question mark over election results and inadvertently sows suspicion among the public of their fellow voters.
Perhaps one underlying reason for all this focus on fraud is a more worrying problem beyond technical solutions: namely, the increasing disillusion with the democratic decision-making process, as expressed by a greater willingness to refuse to accept the outcome of legitimate votes. We have seen the emergence of the withdrawal of loser’s consent from recent election results. In America, Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” assault on the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election as President is a case in point. Sadly, the precedent for this was set closer to home, in the attempts to frustrate and suppress the democratic result of the 2016 referendum, often led by powerful voices in the establishment, with celebrity QCs turning to the law courts, the People’s Vote campaign, and the likes of John Major—who has been cited by everybody here—and Lib Dem Lords, in fact, calling for a second referendum that demanded going back to the polls until voters gave the correct answer.
While many who oppose voter ID worry about disenfranchising electors now, for me the deeper problem is how widespread it has become to tell millions of voters, many who voted for the first time, that that once-in-a-generation vote should not have counted, with attempts to de-legitimise and tear up their vote by maligning 17.4 million citizens for being duped and not being educated enough to know what they were voting for. So, if the aim of Part 1 of the Bill is to bolster trust in elections, I suggest that far more effective than voter ID would be a robust campaign to restore the value of loser’s consent and to ensure that democratic outcomes are respected, however unpalatable those in power find voters’ choices.
There has also been a lot of disquiet expressed today about proposals to hold the Electoral Commission to account, critiqued as dangerous government interference in the Electoral Commission’s independence. I want to ask how independent the Electoral Commission really is. The commission outed itself as breaking its own impartiality code when the UK had the largest vote in its history. Its chair and commissioners expressed their regret that the electorate voted to leave the EU—in other words, that they voted the wrong way.
These remain sentiments were not just confined to their opinions but were wielded as power, with so much systematic investigation, prosecution, threats of fines and ultimately harassment of leave campaign groups and activists that the present chair of the Electoral Commission, John Pullinger, had to issue a public apology to the likes of Darren Grimes and so on. While leavers have been cleared, there are still those who cite the Electoral Commission investigations as an official stamp of approval to repeat misinformation about the legitimacy of Brexit.
I think it is time we questioned whether democracy benefits at all from a quango set up to adjudicate on and stand above democracy itself. I remind noble Lords that there is already a powerful and fully independent body that can hold politicians and political parties to account. It is called the electorate. I appreciate that my power-to-the-people stance will be dismissed sneerily as populism, but I am rather proud of trusting the people myself.
My Lords, I join in the many congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Moore, on his excellent maiden speech and give him a warm welcome to this House—and perhaps share with him a reflection from when I arrived in this House from the other place six years ago. One of things that first struck me, having been an MP, was that, unlike the other place, we did not have—if I may say so, with enormous respect—a Speaker who had the powers that the Speaker has in the other place. This Chamber functions rather differently. It functions on the principle that we agree on how we will disagree.
That principle, embodied in the way in which we function, is very relevant to the debate on this legislation, because it is part of a sustained constitutional settlement that a nation agrees on how we will disagree. That is why my first request to the Minister, who I know reflects on these issues, is that I hope that spirit can somehow infuse our debates and consideration of amendments to this legislation in the days and weeks ahead.
I would like to make two particular points. First, on the issue of voter ID, I understand that the case for the measure appears to be the precautionary principle, rather than evidence that there is widespread abuse at the moment. I am concerned that there is a risk that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of voters who do not have a photo ID and do not seek the extra document that the Government are proposing may find that they are unable to vote. So I hope that the Minister will consider adding to the list of acceptable robust documentation, as a minimum measure to reduce the risk of substantial numbers of people being deterred from voting by this provision.
Perhaps I might comment on a second issue: voter registration. I very much agree with the points that the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, has just made. The current system is crying out for reform. It needs of course to be robust and it needs to be modernised—and here I am particularly concerned by an issue which I know the Minister himself has focused on, because he chaired an excellent committee of this House on the very issue: young people. One of the arguments used when one talks about the challenges facing young people is that if young people were really bothered, instead of being so apathetic, they should go out and vote, and if only they voted at the same rate as everyone else, politicians would pay more attention.
We did some research at the Resolution Foundation on why young people had a lower propensity to vote. The biggest single factor by far was that more and more of them are in private rented accommodation and it is very hard to get on the register if you are moving around in private rented accommodation. They are not apathetic. They are finding it hard to get on the register, and it would be wonderful if, as part of this legislation, there were bold moves to reform voter registration so that, while protecting legitimacy and rigour, we also ensure that as many people as possible who have a legal right to vote are on the register.
If I may say to the Minister, who has a deep understanding of Conservative history and tradition, as does the noble Lord, Lord Moore, he will be familiar with Disraeli’s bold move in bringing in the 1867 Act —the biggest single extension of the franchise since the Great Reform Act 1832—and with the Conservative Party’s part in the steady process of extending the franchise over a century. There were Conservatives who thought that Disraeli’s move was electorally suicidal and that the Conservative Party should be trying to restrict the franchise rather than broaden it. But Disraeli discerned the angels in marble: the potential voters out there who could be attracted to the Conservative cause. Engels, observing the subsequent election from Manchester, wrote to Marx:
“It cannot be denied that the increase of working-class voters has brought the Tories more than their simple percentage increase”.
He was very surprised at what happened and went on to say:
“Once again, the proletariat has discredited itself terribly”.
I very much hope that as the Minister and the Government approach the fraught issue of this legislation, they approach it in the spirit of Disraeli.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and I very much endorse his remarks. I extend my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Moore, on his very witty and thoughtful speech.
This is a pivotal debate on a Bill where there is much at stake. A number of speakers have talked about ways in which the playing field may be tilted one way or another, but I want to concentrate on what is happening to the referee—the Electoral Commission. Are the Government going to press forward with measures which will throw away the UK’s reputation as a staunch upholder of sound democratic best practice and move another step towards undermining public trust in the integrity of our electoral system, or will they instead take a deep breath and pause to rebuild a consensus for legitimate reform to reinvigorate our democracy? The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, made the case for this with tremendous eloquence and power at the start of our debate.
I am a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life—CSPL—and serve as one of the three political members of that committee, alongside a majority of independent members under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale. Much of what I intend to say is drawn from my experience on that Committee. It was the body that in 2000 first recommended the creation of a fully independent election regulator, which lead directly to the formation of the Electoral Commission. The committee has asserted ever since that a fundamental characteristic of the commission was and had to be its independence from political interference, let alone its domination or redirection by one particular political party. The committee expressed that in our report Regulating Election Finance last July, which said that
“it is imperative that there exists a strong, independent electoral regulator. For the electoral system to be fair and to be seen to be fair, and to command the confidence of political parties and the public, it must be overseen by an independent regulator, protected from political pressures and separate from the government. Such a regulator must demonstrate its impartiality and effectiveness at all times”.
Far from trimming down the Electoral Commission’s independence and remit, our report also recommended,
“a focus on increasing the effectiveness of the system for securing compliance with election finance law,”
It included recommendations among others to:
“Give the Electoral Commission additional powers … to impose more proportionate and meaningful sanctions”
“Transfer responsibility from the courts to the Electoral Commission for granting permission to parties, non-party campaigners and referendum campaigners to pay late invoices or bills from suppliers.”
Those and other measures which I have not quoted are proposed by the committee to enhance the working of the Electoral Commission as a strong independent regulator, as part of a package of robust measures to strengthen our democracy.
In more normal times, the Government of the day, on receipt of such recommendations from the CSPL, would seek to find as quickly as they could a legislative slot to implement them. That is what has always happened before, when the CSPL has made recommendations about the Electoral Commission. Instead, we have this Bill, which undermines the commission’s central function and leaves it beholden to the best interests of the party in power. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, made that point with greater eloquence than me. We might expect to see that kind of thing to be reported from Belarus perhaps, or from Russia certainly, but surely not from Britain. This is not a minority view. The Conservative-led Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the other place said bluntly:
“We recommend that Clauses 13 to 15 of the Bill are removed”.
Those, of course, are the key clauses that would strike the fatal blow to the Electoral Commission’s independence.
Of course, the Government will say that they are a benign and well-meaning Administration, and any inference otherwise is an outrageous and partisan slur. However, we were only one general election away from having a radical left-led Government in Britain that the Minister would be all too ready to demonise and attribute the most ill-founded and evil motives to. Is the Minister confident that these powers, if incorporated as set out in the Bill now, would be good ones to have handed over to them? That, surely, is the test. I want to hear from him when he winds up that he clearly does agree that those powers should be in the Bill and that in future a left-led Government should be free to exercise the options that he says he is so self-controlled that he would never abuse.
The Bill is a depth charge placed under the Electoral Commission that threatens not just the commission but public confidence and trust in the whole functioning of the regulatory oversight of our democratic system. It is not simply a bad legislative package; it has actively displaced sensible proposals for reform, which are queuing up for implementation. The Government all the time are protesting that they have not the time to do the job properly. My noble friends and I will wish to return to many of these matters at subsequent stages of the Bill.
My Lords, I rise with some diffidence, because almost everybody else in the House has much greater personal experience of electoral law than I have. One of us, so we have learned today, has had his visit to the polling station followed by a visit from the constabulary. I join those who congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moore, on his remarkable maiden speech.
I think my credential to speak is that I lived abroad for a while and have a basis for comparison of our system with those of other countries. My impression is that ours is relatively clean, reasonably efficient, well understood and rather well liked—so what is the problem? My first question about the Bill is why, and what is the disease that it is trying to cure? As the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, has just said, why has it been given priority over long-delayed measures responding to very real demands, such as the reform of social care, for example, or more pertinently, for real action against foreign interference and foreign finance in our elections? I would like to find a respectable rationale for the Bill, but I have not heard it yet.
My concerns are particularly about four provisions: voter ID, back to first past the post, denying the local election vote to EU citizens newly resident here, and Clause 13, Schedule 8 and the attack on the independence of the Electoral Commission. In all four, my question is why?
On voter ID, as the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the other place put it, the Government’s answer
“simply is not good enough”.
The experts tell us that personation is very rare. My noble friend Lord Janvrin reminds us that the missing millions is a far greater problem. We know that disadvantaged young people who are on the register, particularly those in minority communities, tend not to have passports or driving licences and, frankly, I do not see them queueing up in town halls to get specific electoral identity cards. There can be very little doubt that the Bill would further reduce participation, not because fraud has been widespread but because we would make voting harder. The conspiracy theorists say that that is the point and that some people have been looking at what is going on in the American Deep South and are taking a leaf from the Republicans’ voter suppression playbook. I do not want to believe that. I tend not to believe in conspiracy theories, but I have yet to hear a good reason why we should act in a way that is inconsistent with wider public policy on social inclusion.
As for first past the post for mayors and police commissioners, in one sense, it is no big deal. I am told that only 17 of the 217 such elections which have taken place using the SV system would have produced a different result under first past the post. Yet something quite important would be lost if we go backwards here. Fewer people in the community would see the winner as someone they had chosen. There would be an enhanced perception that party affiliation, rather than personal quality, mattered most. So why do it? The experts tell us that SV is easily understood. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Unless of course you really want mayors to be more subservient to national political leadership, but do we not believe in more devolution?
Then there is disfranchising the EU citizens lawfully resident here with leave to remain, just because they arrived after Brexit. I have to say that this looks a little like Brexiteer spite. Surely residence, not nationality, is the right test for the local election franchise. If these people pay their council tax, then is it not a case of no taxation without representation? It is like that in Scotland, so why not in England?
Finally, much the most significant of my four points is the attack on the Electoral Commission’s independence. Having lived in America, I am convinced that what America badly needs is an impartial boundary commission to stop gerrymandering and an impartial electoral commission to see fair play in campaigns. So I was rather horrified two years ago when the then Chairman of the Conservative Party called for the abolition of the Electoral Commission—at least the Bill does not do that. However, one cannot say that wiser counsel has prevailed, because what Clause 14 of the Bill does is plain wrong in principle. I do not need to labour the point, because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, put it far better than I could, but supposing we were to give the Government the benefit of the doubt and assume that, in practice, they would never use this new directing power to guide the commission, what about future Governments? Why leave this loaded gun on the table? This is wrong in principle and dangerous in practice.
I look forward to our debates in Committee. I hope the Government will listen and allay my fears. If they do not, I am sure we shall have to truncate their Bill.
My Lords, what a treat it was to listen to the wonderful maiden speech from the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham. Let us hope for many more in this Chamber.
I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I speak to just one aspect of the Bill: photo identification. The Elections Bill will implement photo identification in polling stations in UK parliamentary elections in Great Britain and local elections in England. Councils will offer a free voter card if an elector wants one. Some form of photo ID is needed to deter and prevent personation fraud. At present, it is harder to take out a library book or collect a parcel from a post office than it is to vote in someone else’s name.
In 2003, the last Labour Government introduced photo identification at polling stations in Northern Ireland. It has helped prevent election fraud and has not harmed voter participation. Labour Government Ministers said then that:
“Personation at the polling station will be made much more difficult by the requirement for all voters to provide a specified form of photographic identification … The measures will tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters … to ensure that no one is disfranchised because of them.”—[Official Report, Commons, 10/7/01; col. 739.]
They said they would not be introducing the measure if they believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because it.
If Labour now thinks identification to vote is so wrong, why is it not campaigning to repeal its own laws? Should electoral fraud be tolerated in Great Britain but not in Northern Ireland? Does Labour believe that most European countries which require photo ID engage in so-called voter suppression? Many constituency Labour parties currently require two types of voter identification to vote in Labour Party candidate selections—members are told to bring photo ID. Shadow Minister Cat Smith has attacked voter ID, saying we should consider
“how difficult it is for so many people in this country to have access to ID, because it is expensive—£80-odd for a passport and £43 for a driving licence.”—[Official Report, Commons, 7/9/21; col. 210.]
But photo ID in either of those two forms was required to attend the 2019 and 2021 Labour Party conferences. This is political opportunism by the Labour Party.
Labour has claimed that the rollout of individual electoral registration in Great Britain, as used in Northern Ireland, would lead to mass disfranchisement, yet the electoral register in the 2019 general election was at its highest ever level. Its shrill claims on voter identification are similarly bogus and are also shown to be false by the extensive Northern Ireland experience and the 2018 and 2019 pilots held in some areas of England.
There have been no reported cases of polling station personation in Northern Ireland since the law changed in 2003. Indeed, the Electoral Commission observed in 2015 that
“there have been no reported cases of personation. Voters’ confidence that elections are well-run in Northern Ireland is consistently higher than in Great Britain, and there are virtually no allegations of electoral fraud at polling stations”.
Furthermore, in its 2021 public opinion tracker, the Electoral Commission did not record a single Northern Irish respondent reporting
“I don’t have any ID / I wouldn’t be able to vote”.
International election observers have repeatedly called for the introduction of identification in polling stations in Great Britain, saying that its absence is a security risk. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the OSCE, has said that
“serious consideration should be given to introducing a more robust mechanism for identification of voters.”
Furthermore, our own Electoral Commission has called for the introduction of identification in Great Britain for many years, at least since 2014.
With regard to some noble Lords on the Opposition Benches stating that there is very little voter personation in our elections and that there has been only one successful prosecution, by definition personation is a crime of deception. A low number of reported cases equally suggests that such deception may not be detected. Personation is very difficult to prove and prosecute. Data is limited by the nature of the crime.
Finally, on the possibility that photo identification might deter hesitant minority groups from voting, I find this view somewhat patronising. Electoral fraud undermines the fundamental right to vote in free and fair elections. It deprives voters of their voice and their ability to have their say. Evaluations of the 2019 election pilots found that voter identification increased confidence among ethnic minorities that elections were free from fraud and abuse to 97%. Confidence also increased among younger voters. The Electoral Commission’s research has warned that residents are at greater risk of electoral fraud in ethnically diverse areas. I commend and support the Bill.
It is nice, while welcoming that I follow the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, to disagree with everything he has said, including that he hopes the noble Lord, Lord Moore, who he so enjoyed, will speak more. As a historian, although I have to say not of his eminence, I am slightly worried that, if the noble Lord speaks many more times, we will not get more books out of him. I ask that he keeps a balance, because we like his writings as well.
Much has been made of what I think are the completely unnecessary and indeed harmful mandatory requirements for ID at polling stations. Worse, as we have heard, is that this stands alongside the ability of expats, perhaps out of this country for 20 or 30 years, to vote by post with absolutely no check that they are alive or that they ever lived, worked or went to school here, or anything else. We will not even check that they are not in prison at the time; our own citizens who live here and are in prison are not given the vote, but these people will be. We are talking of people who do not live here or pay their taxes here—this really is representation without taxation. They do not depend on our schools, our health services, our roads, our police, our universities or anything that our taxes and our Government are responsible for but over which they would now be given a vote—even those, as we have heard, who may have no intention of returning here at any time.
It is true that other nations sometimes permit their nationals to vote, but they usually get them to do so at the embassy here; we have often seen them at election time turning up to vote. In fact, to retain your vote in America, you also have to be liable for American tax. So what we are doing is quite exceptional. We are offering those people a vote with no checks, and not even requiring them to do jury service, at a time when 16 and 17 year-olds, whose whole future is in the hands of the Government, still get no vote in elections.
Worse still, these expats will become permitted donors—that is, they can give virtually unlimited amounts of money, with no checks on its provenance, to UK political parties, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and my noble friend Lord Grocott have spoken about. I wonder which political party might be the beneficiary of some fairly opaque offshore money from long-exiled Britons—answers on a postcard, please. We should be reducing, not increasing, overseas donations to our political parties. These sorts of donations, even if declared, will tell us nothing about the people involved, who will have contributed nothing to our civic political life or paid any taxes if they are such long-term non-residents.
So why does the Tory party want to add them to the electoral roll? I will wager that it is not for their votes but for their donations. Indeed, despite my putting down a number of Questions, the Government have been unable to tell me how many of those expats currently able to vote have done so—and if the Government do not know, they probably do not care. It is getting some long-term non-residents into the permitted-donor category that is behind this move. The noble Lord, Lord True, is an honourable man, so if I am wrong and this really is in order to allow our wonderful Labour member in Rome, Harry Shindler—who the Government normally cite every time we talk about this—to vote, the Government will accept the amendment to restrict donations to people who are both on the electoral roll and resident in this country. If the Government refuse to accept the amendment, we will know it is all about enabling wealthy non-residents to fund a British political party. Indeed, at Prime Minister’s Questions today, the Prime Minister reasserted that money would be taken only from those on the electoral register—which is why he is extending enormously the number of expats who can now go on to the register.
We have been reading a lot about how the Conservatives like taking rather large bundles of dosh from money that has originated abroad. The wife of a former Putin finance Minister apparently paid £160,000 for a game of tennis with Boris Johnson. I gather that she is the most generous ever female donor to a political party—and I thought women had good political sense. We know there are many such examples of money from somewhat dubious sources finding its way into, I am afraid, the Conservatives’ coffers. While the Bill is about UK nationals, who is to say that those living abroad may not assist in facilitating such generosity, given the absolute lack of checks? It will be impossible to be sure that they ever lived here, because we do not have records going back over 30 years and no system is being set up to undertake such due diligence. So we risk disenfranchising some people with ID checks while giving the vote to people who do not live here, pay taxes here or have any ambition to return here.
This Bill is not good for democracy. I do not think it is good for the Conservative Party either, because if it gets more donations this way, it will become public, and that will not be in its interests.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham, and welcome him to his place.
I shall speak on two main issues in this debate on the Elections Bill: voter ID, which many noble Lords have already spoken about, and the amendment of the role of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. I shall examine the impact that the Bill will have on the devolved Administrations in those areas.
The UK Government’s commitment to, and insistence on, the production of photographic identification to vote, to avoid the perceived threat of personation fraud, is surely a case of a solution desperately searching for a problem. There is no evidence of widespread personation at elections. Only 33 cases were identified in the 2019 elections out of the 58 million votes cast in all the elections that year, and in total there was only one conviction for personation and one caution. This legislation is taking the proverbial sledgehammer to crack the tiniest of peanuts. It is difficult to understand the UK Government’s motivation here, and difficult to deny the accusation that they are deliberately attempting to disenfranchise those they see as not particularly supportive of them at election time.
The Electoral Reform Society Cymru paints a vivid picture of poll clerks at future elections becoming
“bouncers at the ballot box, turning away potentially thousands of would-be voters each election.”
As the Welsh Government point out in their legislative consent memorandum, the Bill’s provisions would apply only to reserved elections in Wales. I am pleased that the Welsh Government do not support the Bill’s proposals to introduce voter ID, while recognising that the Bill does not seek to apply these proposals to devolved elections in Wales. For me, however, as a Welsh voter, it is helpful to have clarity from the Welsh Government on their thinking on these issues, and to know that in Senedd elections, Welsh referenda and local government elections, voters in Wales will continue not to need photographic ID.
There are, however, interesting times ahead in Wales if this Parliament accepts the UK Government’s proposals. Devolved elections and reserved elections happening on the same day will lead to confusion for voters, as voter ID will not be needed for one set of elections but will be needed for the other. I am sure that our election returning officers will ensure that chaos does not reign.
The proposals to amend the role of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission are extremely worrying, and the introduction of a strategy and policy statement is criticised as being an attempt to impinge on the commission’s independence. Many of your Lordships have already commented eloquently on these changes, and I will not delay proceedings by repeating what has been said. I do, however, want to add comments on the impact of this in Wales. As the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, mentioned, since the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020, the Electoral Commission has been accountable to the Senedd by way of the Llywydd’s Committee—Wales’s equivalent of the Speaker’s Committee—in relation to devolved Welsh elections and referenda. The Act also provides for the Electoral Commission to be directly funded from the Welsh Consolidated Fund.
This Bill, however, appears to disregard the role and the status of the Llywydd’s Committee and gives limited consultation rights on the draft statement to Welsh Ministers in relation to the commission’s devolved Welsh functions. Being overlooked, or perhaps disregarded, in this way is disrespectful to the Llywydd’s Committee and diminishes its status. I believe that the Llywydd’s Committee has been in correspondence with the UK Government, stating that its view is that the Bill
“should be amended to require that the Llywydd’s Committee be consulted if the UK Government intends to issue Strategy and Policy Statements which relate to the exercise of the Electoral Commission’s devolved Welsh functions.”
This, of course, would provide parity with the UK Government’s required consultation and engagement with the Speaker’s Committee. Could the Minister update us on any discussions held between the two Governments about recognising the status of the Llywydd’s Committee?
It is the Welsh Government’s view that consent should not be provided to the Bill. As expressed in their memorandum, they wish to bring forward their own legislation for scrutiny after a period of consultation with stakeholders—a process that this UK Government should have followed in the production of the Bill.
My Lords, I should first declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. My other interests, including my advisory work with a number of metro mayors, are listed in the register. I too enjoyed the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Moore, and welcome him to the House. It reminded me that he once wrote a piece taking me to task for doing a speech about the moral superiority of the Civil Service. It was a powerful piece with only one flaw: I did not make the speech. Somebody else made the speech, but I did enjoy the attention.
Our democracy is precious to our way of life in this country, but it is also fragile. We need only to look at Russia, Turkey and Hungary to see what happens when the democratic process is suborned. We should never be complacent about the risks. It follows from this that any changes to the laws governing our electoral process must be made with extreme care, be guided by clear evidence, enjoy cross-party consensus and be subject to extensive pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation. Had that path been followed by the Government in this instance, I think all sides of the House would have welcomed such a Bill.
There clearly are ways we can improve the security and transparency of our elections in the UK, and we can all agree on those. Sadly, and although there are some positive things in the Bill, this consensual and open approach is not the approach the Government have followed. The Bill is being pushed forward with unseemly haste and with some provisions both deeply flawed and deeply partisan. As such, all Members in this House should be concerned about a Bill that seriously risks weakening—not strengthening—our democracy.
There is not time to do justice to all my concerns, and other noble Lords have spoken on many of them, so I will highlight just four areas of particular concern. First is one that has been commonly mentioned: the undermining of the independence of the Electoral Commission by giving the Secretary of State powers to direct its work through a strategy and policy statement. If we had any doubts about the issues involved here, they should have been removed by reading the Electoral Commission’s extraordinary letter, signed by all bar one of the commissioners, which said in clear terms that they were concerned about these provisions. Given that and the debate we have had today, the Minister should seriously acknowledge the issues and consider urgently rethinking this part of the Bill.
My second concern is the introduction of the requirement to have photo ID in order to vote, which the campaign organisation Liberty, as others have quoted, has accurately called
“a solution in search of a problem.”
It is particularly frustrating given that we have many real problems that are not being sorted. The evidence for personation is tiny—I am a former returning officer—and far outweighed by the evidence that people will be prevented or inhibited from voting by the proposals put forward by the Government. Moreover, we know it will be younger and lower-income people who are most affected. I am very doubtful that we need this at all, but if it is going to go forward there must be much stronger mitigation measures in place, as others have said.
My third concern is the change to the rules on campaign expenditure, which could significantly curtail the campaigning ability of a number of organisations, including the trade unions. Let us be clear about it: these provisions are poorly thought through and laden with unintended consequences. They need to be either taken out or fundamentally revised.
Fourthly and finally is the change in the voting system for the election of mayors and police and crime commissioners from the current supplementary voting system to first past the post. As we have already heard, this was introduced late into the Bill in Committee, so the normal scrutiny was avoided. It has been argued that it is a fulfilment of the Conservative 2019 manifesto commitment. It is nothing of the sort. That manifesto said:
“We will continue to support the First Past the Post system.”
“Continue” is the key word here—a clear reference to retaining the existing first past the post elections, not changing the existing elections run by a different system. It rides roughshod over the original consultation done at the time the London mayoral post was created, which showed a clear majority in favour of a different voting model from first past the post.
I have to say that, despite searching, I can find absolutely no evidence of public concerns about the current voting arrangements. It is, to coin the Minister’s phrase, a tried-and-tested system that has run for 22 years in five elections in London. I am reluctantly forced to conclude that the only reason the change is being put forward is that the current party in power has not been very successful in elections under this system recently. That is not a good reason for changing the system. In short, I see no case for this provision being in the Bill and I think it should be removed.
To conclude, all the available evidence, including the report of PACAC, as we have heard, tells us one clear thing: that there are deep concerns and issues with the Bill that need a great deal more time and consideration than the five days currently being allocated for Committee. Unless the Bill gets proper consideration by this House, I fear that we will be legislating in haste now and deeply regretting it later.
My Lords, I too really enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Moore, and I congratulate him on it. I welcomed him earlier when I was introduced to him in the Long Room, and I have to say that he seemed like a very nice man—for a Telegraph editor.
I do not doubt the Minister’s integrity, but his opening speech was full of inaccuracies and presumptions. I will check Hansard and come back to him on all those, but he mentioned the precautionary principle, which is crucial. [Interruption.] He did not? Well, I will come back to him on anything he did say. This Bill could have been an opportunity to improve our democracy so that every person’s vote counts. Instead, the Government are taking a backward step by forcing first past the post on more elections.
London has enjoyed a much more dynamic and engaging political landscape than the rest of England because the system has allowed people to vote for the party and the candidates they actually like, rather than feeling forced into voting for the lesser of two evils. Indeed, Boris Johnson was elected as Mayor using the supplementary vote system—I guess that is actually an argument against PR; I am sure many of us regret that. It is a great shame that the Government want to trample on this vibrant democracy by forcing the dominance of the two-party system. There is no justification for it and no suggestion that voters want their votes to be constrained in this way. We should be moving away from first past the post, not bringing it back.
Many noble Lords, including Ministers, have said to my noble friend and me that, while they disagree with us on almost everything, they are glad that we make the contributions we do to your Lordships’ House. The Minister can just nod if he agrees with what I have just said. It could obviously be flattery, but there are many more Greens who could make a huge contribution to society through being elected, as well as independents and smaller parties. Many people who are really working hard at a local level can be shut out by these changes. Moreover, there are many people who ought to be elected, who would make incredible contributions to public life and represent substantial sections of the public, but who are shut out by first past the post. The Minister said that the justification for reinstating it is that voters find the alternatives too confusing. That, frankly, is very patronising. Rather than saying it is too confusing, why do the Government not improve civic and political education? I cannot see that the Government are making sense on this issue.
I am possibly the only person in your Lordships’ House who has been elected under proportional representation and first past the post, and under the former I represented far more people than I could when elected as a councillor under the latter. So, I can see the value in proportional representation as something that enables more people to feel engaged with politics. The two Greens in your Lordships’ House will oppose the rollback of democratic choice because we think every person’s vote should count.
Another issue we must grapple with in the Bill is the corrupt funding of British politics. Inevitably, any system that allows the rich and powerful to make unlimited donations—noble Lords might say there is a cap on donations but actually, of course, people can make a lot of smaller donations—will result in undue political influence by those donors. We should be curtailing the influence of big donors on politics. More pressing, especially in light of the new Russian sanctions, are the loopholes that allow oligarchs and shady foreign donors to infiltrate British politics. One example that arose in the 2019 general election was the possibility that huge amounts of money could be donated by one donor, as I said, making lots of different donations. These loopholes have to be closed to protect the integrity of our elections. It is big money and corruption that is undermining trust in politics, as well as the Government, the Cabinet and the Prime Minister. Generally, people are concerned about corruption and lies. The big parties rely on big donors, obviously, but we need them to fix the system.
The Green Party’s position on the injustice of prisoners’ voting rights is that there should be no blanket ban on those rights. It is nearly two decades since the UK was declared to have been in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights for the blanket ban on prisoners’ voting rights. Any decision to deny a prisoner their right to vote should be passed in sentencing, taking into account the particular circumstances of the individual case. I feel this is rather important because, of course, there is a possibility I could be arrested during the protests I attend, and I might get sentenced and sent to prison. Then, I would be doubly denied the right to vote, which I find quite oppressive. If people protesting are subject to the sorts of restrictions the Government are already trying to impose through the policing Bill, they are doubly denied.
The Government’s priorities in this Bill are all wrong. I look forward to working with other noble Lords to improve it and, as far as we can, stop it in its tracks.
My Lords, it was a real pleasure to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham. I have never met him, other than through the written word, though I have to say I must have read thousands upon thousands of those words; I felt a chemistry and was absolutely delighted when he was able to join us.
I support this Bill. I am particularly pleased that my noble friend on the Front Bench is taking it through the House, because those of us who have served on other Bills he has been in charge of know that he has patience beyond belief and a thoroughness which we all ought to recognise. The noble Baroness just said, on voting patterns, that, basically, not having won under first past the post meant that she represented a bigger proportion of the population. When I was elected with a majority of 179 in Northampton South, I believed I represented all of the people of Northampton South, not just a marginal majority, or even a majority. Perhaps she was too influenced by the green movement, and anybody else was not to be represented by her.
I look around the Chamber and I think that we who were elected are in a minority, which says something, just by way of an observation. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench, though, that I think the size of the Bill might have been helped had there been pre-legislative scrutiny, even possibly some kind of Speaker’s conference. Nevertheless, we have a large Bill and a lot of work ahead of us. I just want to highlight a couple of issues that I think are relevant. The report published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, on regulating election finance, was an important one. I know Her Majesty’s Government have responded to a number of the points made, but I suspect that more will come up in Committee and I think it deserves some real in-depth response.
There have been one or two comments about young people not registering. I happen to have two granddaughters, aged 17 and 16—thank goodness, otherwise I would not be the least bit competent in terms of modern technology. I mix with their friends, and they are all on the ball. Okay, they are middle-class; nevertheless, I believe that with modern technology, the online and the Twitters and all the rest of it, young people today, at every level of society, will take an interest—much more than we perhaps did as young people ourselves.
I also draw attention to the evidence given to my noble friend from the RNIB, about the difficulty in voting for some people, particularly the blind. Again, there have been major developments in terms of communication for the blind and the deaf, and I hope we can look at those sympathetically and not leave it totally to the discretion of the returning officer.
On photo ID, I do not have the problems that others seem to have. My noble friend Lord Leicester covered this in great depth this evening. I did have the experience of fighting a by-election in Islington North. I cannot remember whether it was the Times or the Daily Telegraph that observed how it appeared that in one particular community a large number of people—estimated at a dozen—were represented by one particular person who delivered the vote with the voting cards. At any rate, that issue has been dealt with, so we do not have this problem today.
I will raise one other issue that has not been raised by anybody else. As I have just mentioned, I was elected in February 1974 with a majority of 179 votes. I actually lost by nearly 200 on the first vote. I had a tip-off from the deputy returning officer saying, “Break the bundles”. In those days, we voted with elastic bands around 25 votes—four 25s are 100—and a sticker on the top, “Lab”, “Lib” or “Con”. So I duly told my agent, “We need to break the bundles”. Lo and behold, I actually won by about four or five votes the next time. Understandably, my opponent, the Labour candidate, said he wanted a recount—and I ended up with 179. I do think that we need to look at the security or accuracy of voting, so that we do not have to have all these recounts. It must be possible to achieve that in today’s world.
Finally, I return to the fact that, on 19 February 2019, I had a very important Bill—the Extension of Franchise (House of Lords) Bill—which I was pleased to present to this House. It had a Second Reading but ran out of time. That was an important Bill because we are the only upper House, of nearly 200 in the world, where none of us may vote in a general election. The reason given, since 1699, is that we control finance here—but we do not. We do not vote on financial matters; those days have gone. It is high time to address this. With the help of my friend opposite, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs—both of whom have had similar Bills— I hope we can produce a suitable amendment to this particular Bill.
My Lords, I join the lengthy welcome queue to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham. We have friends and—I believe—values in common. We have some differences, including perhaps even some around this Bill. But I have no doubt that he will be an asset to your Lordships’ House.
To be a passionate democrat is not uncomplicated. It often comes with zeal for a particular political persuasion and programme—but surely also a jealous defence of rights, freedoms and the rules of the game. To have the privilege of being in government must surely be to attempt to balance the instinct permanently to campaign, and to use the tools of government in that endeavour, with the precious stewardship of our constitution in general, and our electoral system in particular.
The noble Lord, Lord Moore, referred in his eloquent maiden to the pandemic. For me, some of its most moving moments involved the courage and sacrifices of ordinary citizens, including volunteers and front-line workers, as well as the wonderful scenes of lines and lines of our people queuing for their NHS vaccinations—not unlike people throughout the democratic world, and history, queuing to exercise that precious right to vote. It would be odd and self-defeating for any democratic Government with a clear Commons majority to cast too much doubt on the integrity of our popular mandate in action—still more to be seen to legislate to make it harder for poorer people to vote and easier for the wealthy and powerful, and governing party interests, to influence the administration of the polls. This spring, the minimum wage for people over 23 will rise to the princely sum of £9.50 an hour; and universal credit for those aged 25 and above will rise to £334.91 per month. Therefore, at £75, a passport costs a great deal of money for many of our ordinary citizens.
At the risk of irritating some of my noble friends—and perhaps not for the first time—I have spent a great deal of my working life in concert with Liberals and Conservatives against the principle of compulsory photo ID before ordinary Britons may exercise their fundamental rights. So I shall be listening to, and working with, noble Lords across your Lordships’ House on amendments on voter ID and, furthermore, to achieve automatic voter registration for citizens. If a national insurance number is automatically generated and issued on an 18th birthday, why not a registration to vote?
A poignant moment of contemporary cinema comes to mind. In Ava DuVernay’s 2015 “Selma”—which I commend to all noble Lords, particularly those who propose to spend time in Committee on this Bill—a care home worker, played by Oprah Winfrey no less, seeks to register to vote. A white male bureaucrat accuses her of “starting a fuss”. He proceeds to ask her to recite the preamble to the United States constitution. He asks her, “Do you know what a preamble is?” As a viewer, I had my heart in my mouth, along with—I have no doubt—my democratic friends of all stripes on both sides of the Atlantic. She begins, “We the people”, and proceeds flawlessly—I am not spoiling the film; there is much more to it—before he interrupts with, “How many county judges in Alabama?” She says, “67”, and he replies, “Name them”. She sighs and, on her application, he stamps “Denied”. The rest, as they say, is history.
Well, I am sure we are very grateful to the noble Baroness for that moving conclusion to her very interesting speech. Listening to every speech this afternoon, there has been one subject on which every Member has spoken and agreed: the excellence of the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Moore.
Beyond that, there has not been a particular degree of unanimity. Many noble Lords have real misgivings about this Bill, or aspects of it. I will begin by saying that I enthusiastically support the Bill on one issue: dealing with the gerrymandering of postal votes. I think we can all agree that that does nothing but bring the system into disrepute where it happens—Tower Hamlets has been cited many times.
On the issue of compulsory ID, I am one of those who, unlike the noble Baroness who has just spoken, gave support to the Labour Party’s suggestion that we should all carry those documents. Had that happened, of course, there would have been no problem. But some very important points have been made, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, when he talked about the millions of missing votes.
I agreed very much with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, when he said he did not think there was justification for extending the 15-year limit to those who live abroad. If they have lost contact with their home country, it is by their own choice. Many of them are not taxpayers. If they were, there may be a case, but it is not something I could get enthusiastic about, although I could not help, as a former remainer, thinking that had they had the vote in 2016, the result might have been rather different—but that is another point.
The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, was right when he said that after 22 years it is right that we reassess the role of the commission. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham has taken his seat; I am sorry he was not able to take part in the debate because he and I—he as the shadow Leader of the House and I as his deputy—had the task of speaking for the official Opposition in the debates 22 years ago when the Electoral Commission came into being. Both he and I gave it enthusiastic support. Of course, after 22 years it is right that it should be reassessed.
But I have never seen such chilling words in any Bill from any Government of any party. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in his splendid speech, has already referred to them. The
“statement for the purposes of this section … is a statement prepared by the Secretary of State that sets out … strategic and policy priorities of Her Majesty’s government relating to elections”.
I will not read the rest; the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, read it. But they are indeed very chilling words.
One of the things that has increasingly concerned me over the last couple of years has been the tendency of this Government not to regard themselves as accountable to Parliament but to regard Parliament as a creature of government. We have seen this time and again with Christmas tree Bills and Henry VIII clauses. It is inimical to me as a one nation Conservative that Governments should seek to usurp the role of Parliament and not accept their accountability to it, and take an independent body, which is of course not perfect and could be improved, and make it their creature. That, in effect, is what those clauses—which I hope we will take out in your Lordships’ House—do. They make the Electoral Commission the creature of government.
That is not only chilling—one thinks of what certain Governments might do. Somebody spoke earlier about the 2019 election. If the result had gone the other way, would we on this side of the House have supported a Bill that included clauses such as that? No, we would not. If we live by the mantra of “Do to others as you would be done by”, we have a duty to cut out these clauses. They reflect no credit on government; they do not strengthen our electoral system in any way, by one jot or tittle; they do not belong in a Bill passed by a democratic Parliament—a Bill that should be strengthening our democracy and not weakening it. I finish there, but I really believe we must look at that very carefully and deal with those clauses.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Moore, if he did not know it before, will now have the feeling that this is a slightly peculiar House. We have had a wonderful debate this afternoon with magnificent points made. I have to say I have found most of them critical of the Bill, but nobody has quite dared to call a spade a spade. This is a partisan measure; the great majority of it is partisan and designed to improve this Government’s electoral chances. This Bill out-trumps Trump.
I will give two or three examples—they have all been referred to but not everybody has said them yet. First, voter ID: there is no evidence of any problems arising with the current system. But we now have the evidence of the respectable Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which shows that 1.7 million, mostly low-income, voters will be disenfranchised as a result. Are those natural Labour voters, Lib Dems or Greens, who will be disqualified? Yes. Are they Tory voters? No. One big gain for the Conservative Party.
Take the 15-year limit for overseas voters being able to vote in the UK. This, in the words of the leading constitutional expert Professor Robert Blackburn of KCL, flouts two important principles of the British electoral system: that the basis of the parliamentary system is the representation of constituencies and that the basis of the right to vote is one of residency in a constituency. Let these fundamental principles go hang, for the Government have a more fundamental principle. All those Tory voters sipping their gins and tonics on the Costas should be allowed to go on voting as long as they can, even when they have lost all association with their home country. We know what will happen; anyone who has been in this House knows that we will again start getting letters from these people saying they are pensioners being unfairly kept down because they have not got votes. This is another partisan measure.
Dropped in at the last minute was the substitution of first past the post for the supplementary vote for mayors and police commissioners. Is that really a considered response to the relative weights of electoral systems—something which, as a member of the Jenkins committee, I have spent only too much time thinking about? Of course not. It goes like this: the latest Redfield and Wilton opinion poll gives the Tories 33% of the vote. It gives Labour 39%, with the Lib Dems on 11% and the Greens on 7%. Under first past the post the Tories are doing pretty well—they will soon catch up with Labour and take the lead. But if most of those Lib Dems and Greens have a second preference for Labour—I think that is highly probable—it would be Tories 33%, Labour 57%. They cannot have that, and SV must go. Then there is the end of the independence of the Electoral Commission. If you may be losing the match, there is nothing like shackling the referee.
We really need an election Bill at this time. Most powerfully, we have the unimplemented proposals of the Law Commission for major changes designed to clean up our electoral system. We are not going to get that Bill before the next election because we have got this instead. It demeans those who have brought it forward.
I conclude with one short constitutional point. We are all taught when we come to this place—I was taught it by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack—that as a non-elected House we always give way to the elected House. In general, I would go along with that. But what if the lower House, put up to it by an unusually partisan Government, agrees reforms to elections designed not to make them more democratic but to create a partisan bias in favour of them? Should that rule still apply? In the next Parliament, after an election held under those deeply biased rules, does it apply then? Have I still got to allow everything a House elected under a bent system submits?
I do not answer that question yet because I deeply hope that, in Committee, the Bill will be greatly improved and the particularly offensive proposals it contains, such as those on the Electoral Commission, will be removed. However, if the Government go on pretending that they are doing this to improve our electoral system when they are actually doing it to improve their electoral chances, your Lordships have a right—indeed, a duty—to stand up and be counted.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Moore, whose excellent maiden speech I thoroughly enjoyed.
I share the considerable concerns expressed across the House about the introduction of political control over the Electoral Commission. The reference made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, to the proposals for the Electoral Commission as “chilling” clearly resonated across the House. Does the Minister really support the consequence of Part 3: that the sitting Government—which, somebody mentioned, could be led by Jeremy Corbyn, or perhaps even worse—would have the power to change how our elections are conducted and policed? The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made the point that there is no evidence to support the need for this change.
My concerns about the provisions of the Bill are not limited to Part 3 but pretty much everything that needs to be said has already been said, so I will keep my comments brief. However, the Minister needs to take on board not only the depth but the breadth of concern about a number of the provisions in this Bill. Those have been expressed not only here but by many organisations, parliamentary committees, Conservative MPs and, indeed, Conservative donors.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, quoted, experts in this field have said that this Bill would not look out of place in Hungary, Russia or China. That is one hell of a thing to say about a UK Government’s proposition. It undermines our democracy and risks further reputational damage to the UK across the world. A major donor to the Conservative Party expressed his concerns on Radio 4 this week, saying that the Government are introducing policies that he would not expect from a UK Conservative Government. Surely he is right. Policies such as this one would not have been conceivable under previous Conservative Governments.
The Bill has been condemned from all sides. Free and fair elections are, as others have said, fundamental to our democracy. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee points out that we could expect about 1.1 million people not to vote if the Bill goes through as presently presented with a mandatory voter ID requirement. David Davis, no less, a Conservative MP, describes this Bill as an
“illogical and illiberal solution to a non-existent problem.”
Again, surely he is right. Since 2014, only three people in the UK have been convicted of voter fraud—impersonation, basically. Can it possibly be proportionate to introduce a policy resulting in more than 1 million people not voting in order to prevent an entirely insignificant number of people per election committing voter fraud?
According to the Electoral Reform Society—other noble Lords referred to this point—about 9 million eligible voters are missing from the electoral roll. Surely an important role for the Bill would be to do something about that appalling state of affairs. The voters lost as a result of the Bill would be concentrated among the very elderly, ethnic minorities and the poor, and could therefore significantly change the result of any election. As has already been said, this is a deeply partisan Bill with a very clear intention to skew election results. That is deeply worrying.
Along with others, I sincerely hope that the Government will take back these proposals and think again.
My Lords, I begin by associating myself with two themes that have been part of almost every other speech: first, the importance of a well-organised electoral system in which the public have trust and confidence, which is a critical part of our democracy; and, secondly, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Moore, on his witty and informative speech.
We have before us a very big Bill—my noble friend Lord Naseby had a point when he said that it might have benefited from pre-legislative scrutiny—but, in six minutes, one has to focus one’s comments. I will focus my remarks on an area that has not had much attention so far: third-party campaigning. My interest in this is because I was appointed by the Government to review Part 2 of the rather inelegantly named Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act, hereinafter called the 2014 Act. I argued that, if a properly funded and properly organised electoral system is critical, a vibrant civil society is also a critical part of a well-functioning democracy. It is through the hundreds and thousands of charities, voluntary organisations and pressure groups, which are spread the length and breadth of the land, that our fellow citizens find ways to give power to their voice and opinions.
From time to time, of course, they will seek to speak truth to power, and sometimes power finds that uncomfortable. However, on the other hand, civil society is clearly not staffed entirely by angels, so there will be groups that seek to push the envelope in ways that are to the detriment of the system overall. That is why it became clear to me that, while some groups argued for the complete repeal of this part of the 2014 Act, they were wrong. If we are to avoid some of the unpleasantnesses that have emerged in the American electoral system and which have featured in other noble Lords’ speeches this evening, we need to have a proper regulatory system that balances these two difficult things. Indeed, I entitled my report, Command Paper 9205, Getting the Balance Right.
I will pick up on one general point. Here, I pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and later on by my noble friend Lord Hayward. Many people thought that the 2014 Act was an entirely new Act. It was not. It made amendments to Part 6 of the PPER Act 2000 and now, in Clauses 24 and 27, we are making yet more changes to Part 6 of PPERA. It becomes increasingly difficult and hard to understand the implications of what is being proposed. It seems a pity that a person inevitably has to reach for a lawyer to guide him or her through these statutory layers. It could be argued that the statutory framework that underpins our electoral system ought to be, wherever possible, comprehensible to the reasonably informed reader. Can my noble friend the Minister say when he comes to wind up whether the Government have any plans not just to consolidate the 2000 and 2014 Acts but to take in the Representation of the People Acts, particularly that of 1983, so that we have in one place a statute that covers the conduct of both local and national elections and associated matters?
On the implications of the Bill for third-party campaigning, there are some areas that we might wish to probe in Committee. First, the regulatory period before elections take place, which is set at 12 months, is arguably too long. The rules governing joint campaigning are arguably too complex. The rules defining membership of an organisation are arguably too lax. However, I want to spend my last minute and a half on the other major area of concern: what is known as the intent test.
The 2014 Act broadened the range of activities caught by third-party campaigners to those that
“can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success”.
This, it was argued, had what was called a chilling effect on all third-party campaigning. It is the Electoral Commission that decides what can be “reasonably be regarded”, and it is no criticism of the commission to point out that it is not under direct democratic control. We come to the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, earlier; he and I are on the same side as regards making sure that the power of Parliament against the Executive is properly maintained.
This is not even secondary legislation; it is tertiary legislation. It follows the point identified in the democratic deficit report produced by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of your Lordships’ House in November 2021.
One way around this is for the Electoral Commission to produce a code of practice which would be debated and passed by your Lordships’ House and by the other place. Compliance with it by a third-party campaigner would then have a statutory defence. We might look at this as a way of lancing this boil of suspicion and mistrust.
In conclusion, I absolutely support a proper, organised electoral system. It is important not just to politicians and political parties but to ensure that every one of us has a chance to express our views directly or through organisations which we support. This is why we need to get the balance right.
My Lords, this Bill is part of a power grab by the Government and it is hard to find any redeeming features in it. I cannot support the imposition of photo ID for voting, against which many noble Lords have already spoken eloquently.
Where exactly is the evidence of voter fraud? In 2019, there was a general election, a European Parliament election, local council elections, mayoral elections and police and crime commissioner elections. There were only four convictions and two cautions for voter fraud in all those elections put together.
More importantly, where are the Government’s credentials which show that they are interested in fighting fraud? The Government themselves have seriously facilitated ID fraud on a massive scale. Let me give some examples. For the payment of just £12, anyone from anywhere in the world can form a company in the UK. They can use imaginary names and fictitious addresses—absolutely no authentication check of any kind is made at Companies House. A few days ago, I drew the Government’s attention, through Written Questions, to the names of directors registered at Companies House. These included “Adolf Tooth Fairy Hitler”, “Lord Truman Hell Christ”, “Judas Super-Radio Iscariot”, “Victor Les-appy Hugo” and a “Joseph Smith Jr” who gave his occupation as “Guardian Angel of the Ring of Mormon”, among others. All these were accepted, and these people got certificates of incorporation with which they could open a bank account and connect with the world’s financial systems. In the past 12 years, there has not been a single legislative reform to curb this.
The Government claim that they are interested in fighting fraud. First, they cannot provide evidence of voter fraud. Secondly, their own records show that they have no intention whatever to do so. They are simply seeking electoral advantage by claiming that they are fighting fraud. There is no other reason.
The Electoral Commission tells us that the imposition of photo ID will prevent many people participating in their God-given democratic right. The commission has already fined the Conservative Party for failing accurately to report donations. The revenge has been swift. The Bill neuters the powers of the Electoral Commission and hands them to the Government, who will inevitably use them against campaigners, while those on their side receive less scrutiny.
Scotland uses proportional representation. It would be helpful to know if the Minister is going to force the Scottish Government to abandon that and use the first past the post system. This is what the Government are proposing, for England at least. The UK and Belarus are now the only countries in Europe to use the first past the post system for general elections. It guarantees that a party with minority support will always end up with a huge majority in the House of Commons. This is undemocratic and unacceptable, and must be opposed by all right-minded people.
The ability of trade unions and civil society organisations to engage and campaign is vital to the renewal of democracy and to enabling the voices of people who are marginalised and silenced to be heard. This Bill silences them. It does not advance people’s rights in any way whatever.
People know that the political system is corrupt. It will remain so as long as political parties and individual legislators are funded by private money. Over the years, the Conservative Party has gleefully collected money from Russian oligarchs, smugglers, tax dodgers and other corrupt people. One in three billionaires in the UK donates money to the Conservative Party. But these people do not donate money, they invest—and they expect a return on that investment in the form of compliant laws, toothless regulators, subservient legislators and Governments who keep threatening laws off the political agenda.
The Minister referred earlier to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and said that it works pretty well. No, it does not, and I can give him plenty of evidence. I will refer to just one example, which relates to Lord Ashcroft’s donations to the Conservative Party. Some years ago, he donated £5 million while he was a non-dom—in other words, he was not necessarily paying full taxes in the UK. The political contribution was made by a company called Bearwood Corporate Services. It was registered in the UK but had a director and secretary with addresses in the British Virgin Islands. From where exactly was the company controlled? You can guess. This company never had sufficient profits to fund those political donations. Where exactly did the money come from? It came from a company called Stargate Holdings Ltd, registered in Belize and controlled by Lord Ashcroft. To disguise the origins of that money, it was passed through three UK companies—Astraporta (UK) Ltd, Bearwood Holdings and Bearwood Corporate Services. Each was carefully designed to qualify as a small company under the Companies Act, so that it did not have to disclose its political donations. Astraporta and Bearwood Holdings did not trade with any third party and therefore had no profits out of which they could make the donation. It is clear that the law is being subverted and not complied with.
Finally, freeing political parties from corporate money is a necessary precondition for curbing political contributions in this country. I look forward to working with others who seek to achieve this end.
My Lords, this has been a compelling Second Reading. I too extend a very warm welcome to the House to the noble Lord, Lord Moore, and congratulate him on his maiden speech.
Like many, I find this a worrying Bill. Some things in it are helpful and important, but it represents a missed opportunity. It seems to originate more from the self-interest of the Conservative Party, when it could have been about widening engagement and introducing significant constitutional reform.
In Germany, part of the new Government’s programme is to introduce votes at 16. Here, this was rejected in the other place on grounds that sound very similar to those used by the opponents of reducing the voting age from 21 to 18.
There is no attempt in the Bill to learn from Scotland and Wales, nor to discuss ways in which electoral divergences across the UK might be reduced by England learning from the positive experiences of the other home countries. That should include proportional representation for local elections in England.
Despite what the Minister has said, the Bill contains clear attacks on the Electoral Commission through the Government’s attempts to damage the standing and the independence of the commission from what seems to be its own narrow, party-political interests. We should not allow any Government to control the commission’s strategy, nor its policy priorities. It must be independent of any party and any Government, otherwise it simply becomes a government-controlled quango.
I said earlier that a few things in the Bill would be helpful in principle and subject to further discussion in Committee. I support proposed limitations on proxy voting. Digital imprints and online application services seem right. A three-year period for a signature on a postal vote to be valid before it is renewed seems right. I support the principle of regulations on undue influence and on preventing postal vote harvesting. However, we should reject voter ID at polling stations because, as many have said, it is a disproportionate response lacking evidence of the problem needing to be solved but which will, in turn, create other problems by denying some electors who do not have photo ID from exercising their democratic rights. I hope that the Minister will pay close attention to what the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said on this matter, because it could offer a way forward.
I am concerned by the Government’s wish that new EU citizens in the UK should be able to vote in local elections only through reciprocal arrangements. That means that most will not be able to do so unless the Government pursue reciprocal agreements more actively. If new EU citizens pay council tax, they will face taxation without any right to vote on the policies of their local authority. There is an issue of principle here, to which the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, drew our attention. I would like to explore it further in Committee. Do we believe in the principle that there should be no taxation without representation?
Like many speakers, I have a very major concern in the late addition in the Commons of first past the post voting in mayoral elections and police and crime commissioner elections. The levelling-up White Paper talks of a further devolution of decision-making powers to local leaders, where it says that
“decisions are often best taken”.
It says that there will be a “new devolution framework” and a “revolution in local democracy”. That revolution seems to be mayors elected by the first past the post system, because the Government want an accountable local leader—one person with powers over a big geographical area and a large population. If that happens, I forecast that they will end up as part of Whitehall, because control will stay in Whitehall. There will be funding settlements with elected mayors forced to compete for funding with each other through a process which will be centrally managed by Whitehall and the Treasury. Crucially, there will be no powers over taxation, yet real power requires those levers.
So much for the revolution in local democracy. The Government have been keen to cite Medici Florence as an example to emulate. I can think of several very good reasons why this might be a problem, so I suggest that the Government consider instead the Basque Country and its success in regeneration, which results from very full devolution of responsibilities and decision-making involving private and public sectors working together, and with substantially more powers than the Government are currently proposing for England.
Let me ask the Minister a very specific question. Why do the Government think that a third of those voting being enough to elect a mayor with such significant powers but with no evidence of majority support is the right thing to do? London at least has an assembly. Why do the Government deny this opportunity to other parts of the country? In Committee we will have an opportunity to explore some of these matters further.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moore, on his entertaining and reflective maiden speech. I look forward to his future contributions, especially if he continues to reference approvingly The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists of Hastings, a book which is essential reading on both sides of this House.
As a former general secretary of the TUC, I approach this Bill with a combination of weariness and anger—weary because those provisions on campaigning will without good reason curb and further complicate the role of trade unions, which are already heavily regulated, particularly since the Acts of 2014 and 2016; and angry because it seems a rite of passage for every Conservative Government to ladle another dollop of expensive red tape on trade unions. Meantime, we read regularly of huge donations being solicited by the party opposite, including through cash for access schemes, a subject which predictably does not get a mention in the Bill. My conclusion, shared with many noble Lords in the debate, is that the Bill is irredeemably partisan in its present form. What happened to the traditional efforts to find cross-party agreement on these matters? Even the Committee on Standards in Public Life is getting sidelined. Partisanship, not democratic fair play, is driving government action.
I want to briefly draw the attention of the House to two problems with the Bill. There are more but, in view of the time, I will select just two. The first is of major concern to many noble Lords in this debate. It is the clause providing the Secretary of State with the power to “direct” the Electoral Commission. There is no doubt about what that means. It ends the commission’s independence. This is an anti-democratic move which this House should, and I believe will, oppose.
My next concern has not got so much attention but was certainly raised by my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock. It concerns the provisions of the Bill on joint campaigning. In effect, our concern is that this could affect the right of organisations affiliated to the Labour Party—predominantly trade unions—to campaign in their own right without expenditure falling within the Labour Party’s expenditure limits. This ignores that unions are independent organisations. They choose whether to affiliate to Labour and, whether they do or not, they keep their independence. They are not departments or agents of the party. They retain freedom of action. Individuals are not pressured to pay the political levy. Indeed, they now have to contract in to do so. I am pleased to note, by the way, that 4 million people do so, although obviously some do not. The idea that their organisations should become harnessed in an operation with the Labour Party on all campaigning matters completely rewrites the relationship and is unacceptable to all of us in the union world.
A further worry is that if the affiliated unions and party come to be regarded in effect as one campaigning organisation, expenditure on campaigns incurred by the party, currently classified as Labour Party spending, could be redefined as joint campaigning. This could make unions liable for substantial expenditure by the party merely by dint of their constitutional relationship. As I understand it, the Electoral Commission would be expected to define and adjudicate on what is and is not joint campaigning—and remember that this is an Electoral Commission which could, if the Bill goes through in its present form, become subservient to government direction.
There is no problem here that needs fixing. There is already a great deal of regulation, with strict spending limits and transparency already in place. For example, there is a high bar on transparency on the specific issue of trade unions campaigning for Labour. The Committee on Standards in Public Life thought that there was no problem, provided there was transparency. Therefore, I appeal tonight for the Government to take a leaf out of the book of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and be persuaded to take a much less partisan approach and look again at the Bill on a cross-party basis. There are real concerns here and they need addressing.
My Lords, I compliment my noble friend Lord True on his excellent introduction to this rather complex Bill. I will comment on the topic of overseas electors, which has been commented on several times already. I note in particular the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. There is obviously controversy around some of this, but I will make a few comments about it.
The history of overseas voting goes back a long way to 1918, when service men and women were allowed to vote outside the country. Overseas votes became very significant in 1945 because, as noble Lords know, they contributed around 2 million to the franchise and delivered perhaps 10% to the landslide of that year. However, civilian votes outside the country are relatively new. They started in 1987 and initially were allowed only for people who had moved out of this country for a period of five years. That was increased to 15 years in 2000. The Bill seeks to extend that to life following manifesto commitments made since 2015, including at the last election.
The significance of this is that the UK might proportionately have more of its population living around the world than any other OECD country. The numbers are striking. There are at least 400,000 British citizens living in Spain, 400,000 in Ireland, well over 1 million in Australia and well over 1 million in North America. The current estimate, based on the current arrangement of 15 years, is that the franchise is theoretically open to nearly 1.5 million people. Although the number seems extraordinarily soft, the current expectation is that the franchise might increase to another 3 million people under these arrangements. Thought of in constituency terms, for UK passport holders and UK citizens, the UAE, New South Wales and California could all be larger constituencies than the Isle of Wight. There are great concentrations of British citizens in different parts of the world at this point.
The passage of this Bill provides an opportunity to look at what is really happening with registration and this franchise. Registration is extremely difficult. There have been repeated efforts over the years, including campaigns organised by the Electoral Commission, to get people to register. One way or another it has proved very difficult, for reasons expressed already. There is the remarkable situation of applying by post and waiting for a reply, and plenty of people have found that nearly impossible to do.
The other core issue is the need to register in a British constituency. Noble Lords have made quite a few comments about this. At its heart, this franchise rests on the concept of the declaration of a local connection. That requires people to be resident and non-resident at the same time. They need to register in a constituency where they once voted, which they might not have visited for many years, and at an address that might no longer exist. We ask them to register in a constituency about which, as noble Lords have mentioned, they may know very little and their votes are counted alongside other people in that constituency. Even at 285,000—the peak number of this franchise, which was registered in 2017—that number could affect constituencies quite significantly. There would be enormous electoral effects on the basis of registering votes by constituency in the numbers that might be registered under this Bill.
The Bill comes at a time when other parts of the Government have, in effect, moved on on this issue. We heard views on the concept of taxation and representation, which seems to come up regularly. Before I get to that, the issue of registering people around the world, which is rather old-fashioned, sits uncomfortably with, for example, the EU Settlement Scheme which has been running in this country for the past 18 months. It allows European citizens to register through ID on their phones and is handled centrally by the Home Office. It is perfectly possible to register large numbers of people centrally, using cell phones.
On the topic of taxation and representation—which, of course, we have historically had issues with—it is worth bearing in mind that the last Labour Government extended the tax horizon for our citizens who leave from one year to six years of tax exposure or responsibility to the UK. The period in which HMRC might seek to chase our citizens is fully six years, so we already have a significant need to represent these citizens merely on the grounds of tax.
I am aware of the time limit, so I will finish briefly. I think the comments already made about registering citizens in overseas constituencies need to be looked at. It may be too soon, but other European countries already do this, and it is notable that French citizens in London are represented in the French parliament.
My Lords, electoral law is perhaps a somewhat arcane topic, but it often defines a society because it tells us who are regarded as being citizens with power in a particular society. Electoral law can also define a Government. The Government of Earl Grey in 1830 was known as a reforming Government. It brought in the Great Reform Act 1832, which extended the franchise. I wonder what, in years to come, people will make of this legislation brought in by this Government, contrary to much of the evidence and research quoted extensively tonight.
I will confine myself to two points in this short speech. Much of what the noble Lord, Lord True, said could be described as, “This is the Government making great efforts to extend our democracy.” I have spent quite a bit of time, with the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Ashley Abbotts, looking at citizenship and civic engagement. Back in 2017 and 2018, we looked extensively at the work done by government to extend citizenship education in schools. We have recently looked at it again, and, in truth, we do very little to ensure that children leave school with the most basic knowledge of how to participate as active citizens in this country. We have a low basis of teacher training, and we have no cross-governmental responsibility for ensuring that we have professional teachers qualified to teach this.
While we are quite happy to pay lip-service in legislation such as this, we are unwilling to look at what we need to do to equip our citizens to participate fully, not just in terms of their personal social development but to acknowledge how they play an active part in the decision-making of society.
My second point is about voter ID and voter registration. There is a correlation between those of us who are members of minority groups and who have often had problems and been questioned about our identity and the equanimity, or lack of it, with which we approach the Bill. It is not until you are a member of a visible minority that you really get to understand just how easy it is to fall outside the norms of society. I want to take this opportunity to talk on behalf particularly of non-binary and trans people. They have no other representation in our Parliament. They are a group of people who are quite often—daily—vilified and misrepresented in our country, but they are citizens. They have expressed great reservations about ID. I think that trans and non-binary citizens should be required along with everybody else to prove their identity, but it is up to the Government to make sure that the systems of proof of identity are not based on prejudice or narrow, conventional ideas about what proper voters look like.
Therefore, I want to ask the Minister the following question. This piece of legislation had very little discussion and scrutiny before it came to this House. Will his Government undertake to talk to representatives of all sorts of minority communities about how the legislation will be implemented and what sort of training there will be for the officials who have to implement it, to make sure that it is not discriminatory in the way that is feared?
In this day and age, when commercial companies that truly understand the importance of being able to diversify access to their goods and services can do so in ways that maintain integrity of systems of ID, it is not beyond the wit of a Government to do that. As it stands, this legislation is nowhere near anything that could be considered inclusive. This Government really could do much better.
My Lords, this is a very interesting Bill. It gets us into an even bigger mess than we were in before we started.
I believe in the principle of no representation without taxation. I spent almost 40 years living part of the time in Brussels. I paid my local tax there. I carried my national identity card, which was my voter ID card when I went to vote. It never caused me any problems; I never really thought about it. So I just do not sign up to all the business about the difficulty of having a card.
But the Bill has some very funny things in it. New Clause 1A(3) introduced by Clause 12 gives the right to vote to people who are living abroad and who have never been on the register here. I think instantly of my dear 75 year-old sister, who left Great Yarmouth at the age of seven and has lived in Dublin ever since. I do not know that there will be a branch of Fine Gael, which she has been active in all her life, for her to join here. Really, are we going completely mad, when we are giving the vote to 75 year-olds who left Britain at the age of seven? It happens that when my sister lived here, she was in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. So, from Dublin, she will be able to vote for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Colleagues, we have gone mad, have we not?
I share many of the points made by my good friend Lord Cormack about the Electoral Commission. I am not going to go into the detail as to whether the Government can or cannot, but when every member of the Electoral Commission, apart from our Conservative member, signs a letter such as they have, there is a serious problem and it needs sorting out. We cannot just go ahead with things as they are outlined in the Bill. The Electoral Commission must have enough freedom and free standing to be able to do its job.
I was a strong remainer. I think the Electoral Commission went too far during the course of the referendum campaign, became too partisan and needs some change, but the change needs to come on an all-party basis. We must have a broad consensus, otherwise what happens? There will be a change of government. I am sure the Labour Party is fine and upstanding, but it will certainly be tempted to say, “If they could do it to us, we can do it to them”. This is one of the areas of public life where it is essential to have some agreement between the parties.
I have been kind to the Labour Party for long enough. On the matter of trade unions’ support for funding and campaigning, they have to decide where they stand. Some 30% of trade unionists vote for the Conservative Party. That is not reflected in their political activity. Our colleagues will tell us that, of course, people can opt out, but the trade unions really have to get themselves up to date. In part that means, as Sharon Graham said, they have to start representing their members and stop trying to run the Labour Party. That is important on the way forward, because they do not need to support the Labour Party any more, frankly, than we need Russian money.
Colleagues and friends, I am very unhappy that we get so much money from big donors, because donors do not pay for nothing. These various shady people are not paying for nothing any more than Len McCluskey was paying for nothing. I would like to see a radical overhaul of party funding on both sides, because it has got us to a position where the whole of democracy is now starting to smell. Those on the Liberal Benches may well nod; they have also had their problems. People are looking at it and saying, “It’s not really our democracy, is it? It’s them up there”, so we have to tackle that.
Finally, the move to abolish the alternate vote is a severe backwards step. Personally, I believe in proportional representation; I think it gives us better government. I have worked in Europe for 40 years. People who tell me that strong government comes from our system need to look at places such as Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and the Scandinavian countries—countries that have run very good Governments for a very long time on the basis of proportional representation. It is an idea whose time has most certainly come. It deserves close looking at, and I do not mean look at it as Tony Blair did, when you think you might need it to get into government and then say to Paddy Ashdown, “I’ll give it to you for Europe, but I can’t go any further”.
We need to look at how we run society, and I put it to the House that when we do so, we might find that a PR form of government is a much fairer way of running our society. I think I have upset everybody now.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to take part in this hugely rich and informative debate that has so comprehensively torn to shreds the Bill and the methods by which it arrived in your Lordships’ House. It seems unfair to pick out one speech among so many brilliant ones, but I will highlight the contribution of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, on such a crucial issue. On the global stage, should a nation emerging from dictatorship produce a constitution with an electoral commission under government direction, we would waggle our fingers and say, “Have another go”. I must warn the noble and learned Lord that I intend to ensure that his speech gets as wide a circulation as possible. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, may warn him about the potential consequences of that.
That leaves me with a challenge for I adhere to the principle of trying never to rise in your Lordships’ House unless I have something different and substantive to add. I begin with a statement that may come as a shock. I thank the Minister and the Government for this Bill and welcome its arrival in this House. I welcome it because, in bringing up all these issues—as the Government have found with Clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill—and seeking to make disastrously bad elements of our current outdated, undemocratic, dysfunctional systems worse, while seeking to follow the Trumpian path of populist destruction, it provides us with a wonderful opportunity to show how much we need to radically transform our current system.
Those of us who understand that the people meant what they said in 2016, that they wanted to take back control—control of the planning in their communities, including protecting green spaces; control of their lives through decent jobs with a real living wage; control of Parliament, with a Parliament that actually reflects the view of the people, not just the 44% of those who voted handing over 100% of the power to Boris Johnson—now have a great opportunity. This is a stage to present all those proposals for making the UK a democracy.
This is rather like a bear that has dipped its paws into a bee’s nest and hopes to run away with some honey before its residents can muster a response. Yes, my use of that simile is deliberate, given the issues I raised earlier in Oral Questions over the Prime Minister’s inconsistent responses to my honourable friend Caroline Lucas’s questions in the other place about the Russia report. The Government are going to find that they have raised a swarm of opposition, and one that is determined to rebuild this hive into something stronger, smarter and more efficient, fit for the 21st century. This afternoon I saw the giant billboard from the Democracy Defence Coalition, involving groups including Unlock Democracy and Make Votes Matter, setting out all the things we can use this Bill to make better. Noble Lords who are in Millbank House and who looked out of the window will have seen it, too.
I am going to take a couple of minutes to create a portrait of what we could do to create a decent modern constitution for the UK. First, because they are the future and the generation that will live it, we should have votes at 16. We have them in Scotland and Wales; why should England’s young people miss out? I talk to a lot of 16 and 17 year-olds. They are at least as well informed as the average 60 year-old, and they are experts on being a 16 year-old today in a way that no one who speaks for them in either Chamber can be—and certainly, I am afraid, those in your Lordships’ House are not.
Next there is automatic voter registration. I follow the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, on this. Many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Moore, in his maiden speech—and I must welcome him to the House as a fellow former newspaper editor—noted the gradual expansion of the franchise over history. The final logical step, making sure that everyone actually has a vote, is automatic voter registration, so you do not have to jump through those mysterious hoops. So many people naturally think, if they are on the council tax roll or enrolled in a university, living in official accommodation, that the state knows where they are and who they are. The voices who we must hear most, those struggling in poverty, suffering discrimination and exclusion from society, are the ones who are least likely to be able to navigate the current system. That is obviously the absolute reverse step of voter ID, which is restricting the franchise, going backwards. There is no way the Government can justify this voter suppression tactic, taken straight from the US far right. When only 30% of registered voters turn out in council elections and less than 70% in general elections, there is no justification for acting to reduce the turn out even further.
As the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said, we need a proportional system for electing both the Commons and the Lords. We share the current first past the post system with Belarus. That is not really a recommendation, is it? The Minister in his introduction suggested that PR was too difficult. I say that it is first past the post that is extraordinarily difficult for voters. They have to guess how everyone else in their constituency is going to vote and try and adjust their vote accordingly, very often voting for the party they hate second most to stop the party they hate most getting in. We also need to see decentralisation, power taken out of here and put back into communities.
I finish by circling back to those Russian bears. We have to talk about political fund raising. We need extremely tight restrictions on individual and company donations to parties and campaigns. A maximum of £500 sounds about right. The Green Party in 2015 was a pioneer in crowd-funding political campaigns. Many thousands of people threw hard earned £5, £10, £20 to support our efforts. Combined with state funding for politics, that is how we get the politics of the people rather than a politics of the plutocrats.
The Minister said he wanted a system fit for the modern age. I am happy to work with people around your Lordships’ House to send the Bill out of this House looking exactly like that. It is a great opportunity.
I crave your Lordships’ indulgence on two fronts. First, I was in a Select Committee which removed me from the Chamber for a large part of your Lordships’ deliberations. Secondly, I am going to be the umpteenth speaker to welcome the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham. My grounds for being the umpteenth such speaker is that he was my editor nearly 30 years ago at the Daily Telegraph. If that strikes your Lordships as an implausibly long time ago, I can only say that he was something of a Mozartian child protégé in the world of journalism. He edited the Spectator when he was, I think, nine; the Sunday Telegraph when he was 11 or so; and the Daily Telegraph when he was 14. He was an absolutely model editor, fearless in his criticism of those in high places and absolutely impervious to praise from those beneath. Annoyingly, he now writes a column in the Saturday Telegraph. I say annoyingly, because I write one in the Sunday Telegraph and again and again I find that he has said what I was planning to say but much better—and today’s debate is no exception. He has covered most of the points that I had in mind, so I will confine myself to making just one.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, quoted John Major on the “fragility of the democratic system”. Those words come very easily, but let us ponder for a second how unnatural, how counterintuitive is the system which we have all taken for granted and about which we have become a little blasé. How odd that we elevate process over outcome. How odd that huge human populations care more about the honouring of a set of abstract rules, something that cannot be seen, or touched or heard or smell, rather than about the victory of their candidate—their tribe. Yet it is that counterintuitive and necessarily acculturated, learned notion that has made possible all the freedoms and personal liberties and comforts that we take for granted in modern liberal societies. Because it is unnatural, it is under constant pressure. If we look even at the United States, perhaps the first country founded in the ideal of popular sovereignty, we see how quickly people have moved back to taking a contingent, provisional view of elections. Almost without fail, every election is met by a series of acts of lawfare by whichever party happened to lose. That should not surprise us at all. The surprising thing is that they went for so long without that happening.
That is why I say that the act of voting needs to be enchanted—it needs to be given a little bit of magic and made to feel precious. After all, our vote, statistically, is unlikely to change very much. If noble Lords think back to the last time they cast a vote—not putting themselves in the shoes of a prospective imaginary voter but thinking of the last time they let a ballot drop from their fingers into that big black tin box—did they really think that the consequence of their vote would be more or less parking, or more or less housing or higher or lower council tax? Were they not doing it, at least on some level, out of a sense of civic obligation—a sense of duty?
It is terrifically important, if democracy is to be made to work, that the act of voting be magnified, dignified, almost sanctified, and given a sense of importance beyond the chances of one particular vote in one constituency making a major impact on policy. That is why, when there is a question of balance between potential fraud or devaluation of the vote and extra procedure, however minimal, our instinct should always be towards ensuring that people have absolute confidence in the integrity of the process.
By the way, I do not think it is that big a deal. Personation may not be a big deal, but neither is presenting identification. Most countries in the world do it. Countries with largely illiterate populations manage it. I rather agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Desai, who said that it was particularly patronising to suggest that somehow minorities were not able to vote in the same way as everybody else. In fact, if anything, I would have thought ethnic minorities in this country are more likely to have passports than the general population. It is a bizarre idea that being asked to demonstrate who you are is somehow off-putting. That is not the experience of pretty much anywhere else.
I am glad that the Front Bench opposite agreed on what I think are bigger issues in this Bill: the measures against harassment of candidates and those to crack down on some aspects of postal and proxy fraud. But I come back to saying that if we want people to vote and if we want to get away from the situation in which every recent election has been won by the stay-at-home party—in other words, the group of people who took the trouble to register to vote and then did not bother to vote on the day is always bigger than the single number of votes for any of the other parties—then we have to restore a sense that casting your vote is a thing of importance and dignity.
Of course, that will require some substantive changes. I would like to see a significant shift of power from Whitehall to town halls and from unelected functionaries to elected representatives. But it also involves making people feel that there was something special about that trip and that presenting their ID and casting their ballot was a civic act, one that dignified and elevated the process. If we do not do that, we are giving up on restoring honour, purpose and meaning to the act of casting a ballot.
My Lords, I too very much enjoyed the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Moore—sadly, he is not here right now. Today was the first time we have been in the same room together, but during the Brexit referendum we had a long telephone conversation. Afterwards, he wrote in one of his papers, “I had a conversation with Simon Woolley. I profoundly disagree with him, but he does seem like a rather nice chap”.
I wish to focus on three aspects of this Bill: voter ID, voter registration and citizenship. I would also like it to be known that I will seek to make two amendments to this important legislation if I get the chance.
First, there is almost zero case for our democracy to introduce voter ID to tackle fraud. In the last election, there were six convictions for voter ID fraud, with nearly 48 million people having voted. I tried to work out the percentages for that, but I gave up. It was too complicated—there were too many noughts.
Yes, it was something like that. The Government often point to the suspected corruption in Tower Hamlets. I should remind noble Lords that that was mainly to do with postal votes, so voter ID would have made little difference. Interestingly, the Government have wrestled with Covid restrictions, seeking to weigh up keeping people safe and allowing our businesses and our society to stay open and thrive. They have tried to be balanced and proportionate. When it comes to voter ID cards, any proportionality and balance seems to have gone out the window. On one side, you have a handful of fraudsters—just a handful—from a pool of 48 million people and, on the other, you have the cost, which is anywhere from £40 million to £180 million, and the potential loss of 1.5 million voters, disproportionately from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. It would be laughable if it were not so serious. There is no rationale for voter ID, unless that rationale is to lose voters from our democracy and spend millions that we can ill afford.
As some noble Lords may know, I spent 25 years with Operation Black Vote, being a disciple of Dr Martin Luther King, in a quest, like him, to give the disenfranchised a voice by registering black, Asian and minority ethnic communities to vote. It was one of our biggest challenges; on average, 24% of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are not registered to vote, and when it comes to young Africans and Caribbeans that number goes up to 50%. It was a challenge then and remains one now—made worse, I suggest, because local authorities have fewer resources today for voter registration initiatives than they had 25 years ago when we started.
This legislation could be used for the greatest transformation of political empowerment and engagement since women were given the right to vote over 100 years ago—in 1918, to be precise. All we have to do is adopt automatic voter registration for those who are eligible; that is it. In one wonderful vote, we and the British Government would have paved the way for millions more to have a voice in our democracy. Today, above all, no one needs reminding of the preciousness of sovereign democracy. I am here to inform the House that when I table an amendment, if the Government embrace it and it is accepted, our democracy will shine brighter as one of the most inclusive and representative democracies in the world.
Your Lordships can sense my enthusiasm for automatic voter registration, right? I have been waiting 25 years for this historic moment of change. There is one caveat, though: there is no doubt that automatic voter registration would be transformative but—there is always a “but”—the second part of that, which is equally doable and massively desirable, would be to implement comprehensive citizenship learning in all our schools, starting with primary schools. At the moment it is up to schools and maverick teachers to ensure that citizenship is taught. Citizenship should be on a level with teaching maths and English.
How much do we really value democracy? Our democracy is not under threat from a handful of fraudsters. It is, however, undermined when millions are not registered and do not vote, and when hundreds and thousands of young people, men and women, barely understand the tenets of a vibrant, inclusive democracy. We have the opportunity to change that.
I do not work at Operation Black Vote any more—I head Homerton College at Cambridge University—but I am still a disciple of Dr Martin Luther King. Help his and my dream come true, simply by ushering in automatic voter registration.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham, on his excellent maiden speech. I am sure it is just the first of many wise and witty contributions that we will be hearing from him.
Across the globe, the UK is held as a benchmark and exemplar of liberal democracy. It is not just the venerable age of our democratic institutions but their strength and integrity that make our precious parliamentary democracy the envy of the world. This is something that we should be rightly proud of and is something worth protecting. It is with that in mind that today I will be a positive voice, in that I welcome the Government’s Elections Bill. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Pickles for the work that he undertook in 2016 in producing his report on electoral fraud, and I am pleased to see a number of his recommendations included in the Bill.
I will focus my remarks on a few key parts of the Bill. First, I will address the introduction of voter ID, a policy that I have long advocated. I am glad to see that the Government are taking steps to introduce this much needed and responsible measure. I appreciate that this is a somewhat controversial issue and that some people are apprehensive, to say the least, about this proposed innovation. However, anecdotally, while standing outside a polling station on polling day during the 2017 general election in Harrow West, numerous first-time voters, many having just reached the voting age for that election, came up to us, as tellers, asking what they needed in the form of documentation or ID to be able to cast their vote. When they were told they needed nothing—no proof of ID—they were rather perplexed.
We in this country use ID for many daily and recreational activities, with no issue at all. I hope we can all agree that the integrity of our elections is of greater importance than buying alcohol, or entering a nightclub or pub. Why should the foundation of our democracy be treated with any less security? One of the great vulnerabilities of our system is the potential for votes to be stolen, and we must safeguard against this possibility. Millions of people across the UK use IDs quite liberally on Friday and Saturday nights or even just to collect a parcel.
Some have claimed that those who cannot afford ID would be disfranchised, and this is an argument I have sympathy for. It is therefore right that the Bill explicitly puts in provisions to ensure that every eligible voter, regardless of their circumstances, can access valid ID. The Bill proposes that a broad range of photo IDs will be allowed, but most importantly, it also includes the provision that a free voter card will be available to those without any other form of ID. The Government have gone to great lengths to ensure there will be no barrier for legitimate electors to vote while ensuring that it also strengthens our democratic system.
Included in the Bill are proposals to make changes to the administration of elections that will improve their security and accessibility. I welcome the Government’s attempts to stamp out any potential for voter fraud by including sensible safeguards for postal and proxy voting. Party campaigners will be banned from handling postal votes, a stop will be put to postal vote harvesting, and it will be an offence for a person to attempt to find out or reveal who an absent voter has chosen to vote for.
It is also only right that the Bill takes steps to better support voters with disabilities to exercise their democratic right by removing restrictions on who can act as a companion to a disabled voter at a polling station and requiring local returning officers to provide support for a wider range of needs.
The Bill also addresses the growing concern around intimidation of politicians and campaigners. Many in this House, like myself, have experienced or witnessed activists and those running for office being victims of physical and verbal abuse and intimidation. It is a common issue in modern politics, which I believe that all in this House, and the other place, would like to see the end of.
I too warmly welcome the Government’s proposals that are aimed at finally enshrining in law the rights of certain EU citizens to vote in local elections in England and Northern Ireland, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales. The change to voter eligibility means that EU citizens coming to live in the UK after 31 December 2020 will be able to vote in local elections only if the UK has a reciprocal voting agreement with their home country. A number of such voting treaties are already in place, and I understand that the Government are open to further such agreements with other EU member states. That is a most welcome prospect.
There are millions of EU citizens who have made the UK their home, contributing to our economy, well-being and culture. Likewise, there are over a million British citizens contributing to the economic well-being of the EU countries they now call home.
The right to vote is ultimately a privilege, which bears great weight on the governance and policies of our country. It is right that the British Government safeguard this privilege for British citizens and long-term residents. It is also sensible to take a reciprocal approach to widen the political franchise when it comes to foreign citizens living in the UK. I will be supporting the Bill, and I encourage noble Lords across the House to do the same.
My Lords, the right to vote is indeed a privilege. I want to focus on Clause 9, the provision for the blind and partially sighted to vote. I have a real interest, in that for half of last year I was suffering from a cataract in my one and only eye, complicated by bleeding into the back of the eye. The result was that the printed page appeared to me as a complete blank. All I could do was read, with difficulty, a backlit iPad or laptop with reversed text and with the aid of a large magnifying glass. I could not have read a ballot paper.
Schedule 1 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 provides the rules that govern elections. Rule 29 states:
“(3A) The returning officer shall also provide each polling station with - (a) at least one large version of the ballot paper which shall be displayed inside the polling station for the assistance of voters who are partially-sighted; and (b) a device of such description which may be prescribed for enabling voters who are blind or partially-sighted to vote without any need for assistance from the presiding officer or any companion.”
The device prescribed is known as the tactile voting device or TVD. It is made from a sheet of transparent plastic which is as long as the ballot paper and is placed on top of the ballot paper. On the right-hand side of the TVD are flaps, numbered from one at the top and so on down the page so that the number of flaps corresponds to the number of candidates standing in the constituency. The number printed on each flap is raised so that it can be felt by touch. Adjacent to each flap, the flap number is printed in Braille to assist those who are blind and Braillists. But there is no way for voters who are blind to know, without help, which flap on the TVD corresponds to which candidate, and to which party. It is only the number of the tab that is in Braille. Either the official in charge of the polling station or a member of their close family has to read out the names of the candidates and the order in which they appear on the ballot paper.
In practice, because of that inability to read the names of the candidates on the ballot paper, the vast majority of the 350,000 blind and partially sighted people in the UK currently find it impossible to vote without having to share their vote with someone else, often finding they have to name the candidate they want to vote for out loud. RNIB figures from UK elections in May 2021 found that four in five blind people felt that they were unable to vote both independently and in secret. A survey carried out by the RNIB gave many examples of the impact that this has. One said:
“My helper disagrees with my vote and I have no way to be sure she voted as I wished.”
In 2019, Rachael Andrews, a 46 year-old lady from Norfolk who had no sight in one eye and only partial sight in the other, judicially reviewed these arrangements. Mr Justice Swift in his judgment said:
“A device that does no more than enable blind voters to identify where on a ballot paper the cross can be marked, without being able to distinguish one candidate from another, does not in any realistic sense enable that person to vote. Enabling a blind voter to mark ballot papers without being able to know which candidate she is voting for, is a parody of the electoral process established under the Rules.”
The RNIB subsequently agreed with the Cabinet Office that blind and partially sighted voters would be given an audio player alongside the TVD, which was trialled in Norfolk in the May 2021 elections, with a 91% satisfaction rate. Whether this or another solution is adopted, it is essential that there is a minimum standard of equipment uniformly available in every polling station to ensure that blind and partially sighted people can exercise their vote in secret.
The current wording in the Act is:
“The returning officer shall also provide … a device of such description as may be prescribed.”
This Bill changes the wording by replacing that paragraph with
“such equipment as it is reasonable to provide”.
Reasonable for whom—the particular returning officer, depending upon the resources allocated to him, or the blind voter?
Currently, a companion has to be a close member of the blind voter’s family. That is removed in this Bill and replaced with anyone over 18 years. The dangers of that are obvious and I ask the Minister to explain the change. How could the voter be sure that her companion was giving her an accurate description of the ballot paper? What happened to the results of the audio pilot?
My Lords, I would like to return again to the issue of overseas voters, following in the footsteps of my noble friend Lord Altrincham. Exactly a century ago, his forebear Sir Edward Grigg, a brilliant man, was working as Private Secretary in No. 10 to Lloyd George—but no one should imagine for a moment that the peerage was bought from that notorious famous seller of honours.
Patience is sometimes rewarded—not often, in my experience, but occasionally. It is exactly 10 years ago that, as a fairly new Member of your Lordships’ House, I called, along with other noble friends, for the removal of the 15-year limit on the voting rights of our fellow country men and women living beyond our shores. I set out the case for this extension of the franchise in detail during the passage of what became the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013.
Back then, I was told very politely by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, the Minister with responsibility for electoral issues during the coalition Government, to go away and do some work on the important practical implications of this significant change: the means by which registration to vote could be made as easy as possible, whether votes could safely be cast electronically, the part that our embassies and consulates might play in assisting overseas voters, and so on. These matters were studied by a cross-party group under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. Our report was well received when it was debated in Grand Committee before the general election of 2015. So considerable patience has been displayed by our fellow country men and women living abroad—but at last the promise, thrice delivered, will be fulfilled under this Bill.
The principle that this Bill enshrines is entirely right. I reject the charge that it is a partisan measure. Implementing it will give rise to practical issues, which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, outlined in his characteristically measured way and which the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, described with characteristic and enjoyable gusto. We will no doubt return to them in Committee.
This legislation will bring us into line, belatedly, with other major democracies. The United States of America, France, Italy and the Netherlands, among others, all provide lifelong voting rights for their citizens living in other countries, as do Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It really is high time that the United Kingdom joined the international consensus—rather than “madness”, as my noble friend Lord Balfe suggested.
I have seen for myself the strength of support for lifelong voting rights at meetings that I have addressed in other countries under the aegis of the excellent organisation Conservatives Abroad, chaired by my friend Heather Harper. I have also received much correspondence from those who have lost their votes after 15 years. One lady in her late 70s wrote to me: “Even though I expected it, when I received a letter from Corby Borough Council telling me I was no longer eligible to register as an overseas voter, I was devastated and still am. Since reaching voting age back in the 1950s, I have never, ever not exercised my democratic right to vote. But now I have been disenfranchised.” Never again will such distress arise, thanks to this legislation. The 15-year limit is wholly arbitrary, and I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Cormack is so far unpersuaded that it should be removed.
With very few exceptions, British citizens abroad are debarred from voting in the national parliamentary elections that take place in the countries where they reside. The world over, the parliamentary franchise rests on nationality, not on residence or the payment of taxes. The noble Lord, Lord Wills, who had responsibility for electoral matters in the last Labour Government, said in the course of our debates in 2013 that
“taxation has never been a criterion for voting in this country and it is not now.”—[Official Report, 14/1/13; col. 484.]
If it had been, Disraeli, who has been extolled in this debate by my noble friend Lord Willetts, would have been unable to extend the vote to the urban working class in 1867. Few if any of them paid taxes.
I have a remarkable man at the front of my thoughts today. Harry Shindler, a Labour supporter in his young days, has lived in Italy since the Second World War, when he helped to liberate that country from fascist control. He has devoted himself to two causes: the development of Anglo-Italian relations and the right to vote in elections in his native land. Last year, when he celebrated his 100th birthday, Harry was invested with the OBE by the British ambassador to Italy. It gave him enormous pride. Harry is the chief hero of the long campaign which this Bill brings to a conclusion. I shall always think of the clauses in it relating to overseas voters as the “Shindler clauses”.
Finally, I too applaud the arrival of the noble Lord, Lord Moore. I have known him, though not at all well, since the early 1980s, when the greatest Tory I have ever met, TE Utley, dispatched him to Northern Ireland as a reporter on the Daily Telegraph to acquaint himself with the affairs of that wonderful part of our country. He has long been a staunch champion of the union. I anticipate some tremendous speeches from him on that subject, which is dear to so many of us in this House.
My Lords, elections are a core process within a democracy. Credible electoral processes increase the legitimacy of our political institutions and create trust. Electoral integrity is affected by how inclusive the process is. For these reasons, any elections Bill should command broad cross-party support. How elections are conducted is a matter of public interest. They are not solely in the gift of the governing party.
It is therefore deeply regrettable that this Bill was introduced with insufficient public consultation and that the Government have not taken fully into account reports by the Law Commission, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. PACAC took the view that the Bill should have gone through a pre-legislative scrutiny process. Such scrutiny would have ensured broader support and a better evidence base. As we have heard, grave concerns have been expressed in these three reports that the Bill will add to the existing complexity of electoral law.
PACAC has also said that several of the changes proposed are not set out in the Bill. These will be implemented via a raft of secondary legislation, which will add further complexity to the legislation and enhance reliance on delegated powers, hence reducing scrutiny by both Houses and relevant interested parties. These are serious concerns, particularly for a Bill concerned with the health of our democracy.
The Bill also falls far short of the Government’s stated objectives of making UK elections more secure, modern, inclusive and transparent, and of protecting the integrity of the UK’s democracy. The change proposed in Clause 1, which would require voter ID, will not make elections more inclusive. If we want inclusion, let us work on voter registration, as stated by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley. Strong objections have also been expressed about the impact this would have on certain groups and the possible turnout of voters. The Government’s rationale for introducing this change is not very plausible. The level of fraud alleged is very low and the number of instances that result in a caution or a conviction is even smaller. Concerns have been expressed that the evidence to support an ID requirement is not good enough.
PACAC recommended that the Government should not proceed with this proposal until they had set out the criteria they used in their assessment of the proportionality of introducing this change and the impact on turnout. Will the Government pay heed to its recommendation?
The other area of concern is the changes proposed to the accountability arrangements of the Electoral Commission. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, expressed the implications very clearly and effectively. As he said, they threaten the perceived and actual independence of the Electoral Commission.
The Electoral Commission is not a creature of the Government of the day. It exists to ensure the integrity of elections and guard the public interest. It is an organisation of constitutional significance. Proposals to give the Government the power to designate a strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission will undermine its independence. Of course there should be proper scrutiny of operations of the Electoral Commission and effective mechanisms to hold it accountable, but the Bill’s proposals are not based on sufficient evidence to justify this change. The committee argued that Clauses 13 to 15 should be removed pending a formal public consultation on the proposed measures and that the Government should take into account any recommendations put forward.
The Bill also proposes that the extent to which the Electoral Commission has complied with the statement should be examined by the Speaker’s Committee, and changes to the membership of the Speaker’s Committee are also proposed. Given that the Speaker’s Committee will be examining the commission’s operations, it is imperative that no single party exercises a majority on the committee. Can the Government give an assurance that membership of the Speaker’s Committee will not have a government majority?
Charities and civil society organisations play an important role during election campaigns, ensuring well-informed debates. Several aspects of the Bill will affect the engagement of those organisations and put a higher regulatory burden on them, hence limiting benefits to electoral integrity. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has argued that the Electoral Commission’s guidance covers the relevant issues relating to third-party campaigners and that this legislation will set back that progress. Clause 26 is targeted at organisations which are not transparent. However, registered charities are regulated by the Charity Commission, and their accounts are available online and open to scrutiny. The Government should exempt registered charities and community interest companies from the lower threshold.
Furthermore, there is concern that the proposal in Clause 25 to give Ministers powers to remove or add to the list of third-party campaigners by order could lead to abuse. It would be helpful to have an assurance that these provisions are not intended and will not be used to limit the public interest work of academics or voluntary organisations to inform public debate.
The deep concerns expressed by three reputable bodies about the Bill should give the Government pause for thought to reconsider what they are proposing.
My Lords, much has already been said, but I wanted to speak on Second Reading—not least because it is the tradition of this House that if noble Lords wish to speak at further stages of a Bill, one should speak at Second Reading.
This is an important Bill. I judge it by a simple test, and a very personal one, for I am a believer in active participatory democracy and that active political parties at the grass roots are the custodians of that tradition. I want to know how the Bill strengthens that tradition.
I believe that our democracy and our parties are not just for election day. They should provide a corpus of political opinion to shape policies and political ideas within communities. I join the welcome and tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham. He pointed out the way in which there has been a considerable decline in the membership of local political parties. I am a strong believer in participatory democracy. Some will analyse that mass voluntary political parties were a response to the enfranchisement of the last century. Some will say that, in modern times, they are largely irrelevant. If that is so, I regret it. I find that it is not sufficient for parties to rely on a world of opinion polling and modern communication.
Many of us on these Benches go back a long way in our commitment to voluntary party activism. You can hear my noble friend Lord Cormack talk of these times, including when I succeeded him as the chairman of Lincolnshire Young Conservatives—we all have to start somewhere. My noble friend Lord Hodgson and I went on a tour as senior volunteers in the general election of 1997. We went to 63 key seats, and we lost them all. Given this background, it is not surprising that I will be judging the Bill by the contribution it makes to preserving community focus in politics—
Oh, I have a few more minutes.
It is essential that we have grass-roots activism, grass-roots fundraising and grass-roots presence as a political party on policy-making. I do not believe that this House would wish to see pop-up party machines dominated by centralised political structures.
In his opening remarks, the Minister mentioned the large number of speakers—this reflects the importance of the Bill to our participating democracy. Regardless of party, we all have an interest to ensure that our methods of elections are honest, fair and seen to be fair. That is what this Bill seeks to achieve.
My Lords, it is a privilege to have heard so many important speeches by virtue of my position on today’s list. However, this leaves me little chance of adding anything original to an excellent debate in which we had the great pleasure of listening to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Moore—on which I congratulate him.
I will keep my contribution brief and focus on two specific concerns raised in the comprehensive briefings received from sector organisations, both of which relate to the risk of further excluding groups of citizens who are already challenged to engage in the election processes.
First, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, the Bill weakens the already imperfect protections for blind and partially sighted voters in exercising their right to take part in what is undeniably a visual exercise: the reading of names, the locating of boxes and the marking of a cross which is the act of casting a vote. Current provisions are in place for blind and partially sighted people, including the tactile voting device which we heard described. Even so, there is no way for a person without sight to review candidate lists without assistance. For the majority of the 350,000 blind and partially sighted people in the UK, participation in elections is not a private process, as it is for those of us who are able to see. It involves sharing their vote, often out loud, with another person. Respondents to an RNIB survey described this as not only humiliating but open to fraud, because there is no guarantee that the person helping them will put the cross against the candidate they choose.
The RNIB is concerned that, rather than building on improvements piloted following a 2019 judicial review—a review which described the current situation as
“a parody of the electoral process”—
this Bill will make voting even less accessible. It shifts the responsibility to individual returning officers to determine what provisions they deem reasonable at a local level. This creates uncertainty for blind and partially sighted citizens about what they can expect when voting or, indeed, what they are entitled to. The removal of the crucial phrase, “without any assistance”, obfuscates for blind and partially sighted people the clarity afforded to the majority by the Ballot Act of 150 years ago: namely, that all citizens should have the right to vote independently and therefore in secret.
The second issue I want to address briefly is the potential for photo ID to impact negatively on voter participation. We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, that while the Cabinet Office-commissioned research explored possession of ID with reference to race, disability and age, it failed to ask the question with reference to income status. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation fills this gap. It finds that adults living in a household with an income of less than £30,000 per year are much more likely not to have photo ID compared with those with greater assets—6% compared with 1%. The research also found that some 700,000 low-income adults do not have photo ID in which they would be recognisable. Taken together, this means that around 1.7 million citizens would not possess the photo ID required to vote.
Researchers also asked whether they would be likely to apply for a voter ID card, and while half said yes, a worrying 41% were unlikely or unsure. Assuming the 51% happy to apply for a card did so, this would still leave some 700,000 UK citizens disenfranchised. We know that adults on low incomes in the UK are already less likely to vote or engage in political processes than their high-income counterparts, and this matters because it promotes an unequal representation of interests, and it limits the ability of low-income adults to influence political decision-making. The end result is that social inequalities grow ever deeper.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has warned that voter ID proposals risk disproportionately disenfranchising people on lower incomes. This is not only discriminatory, it is bad for democracy. We should be doing everything in our power to encourage participation—teaching and enabling active citizenship, as my noble friend Lord Woolley so passionately argued. By putting new barriers in place, this Bill risks doing the opposite, further discouraging already disengaged communities from taking part in our electoral system.
My Lords, first, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Like many noble Lords, I welcome the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Moore. He enlightened me, as someone who has not been to Hastings, that modern Hastings is more heaven than hell—and I am sure his fellow citizens will be very pleased to hear that.
This has been a very forensic Second Reading debate. But let us be clear that this is not just any Bill; it is a Bill that has significant constitutional implications. It will be the basis on which our electoral system will take place—the platform of our democracy, which citizens need to have unshakable confidence in, so they can know that their Government and their local elected representatives have got there through a free, fair and independent electoral system.
There are many provisions in this Bill that these Benches have sympathy with: securing the postal vote and dealing with potential fraud in the postal vote, intimidation and digital imprints are a few that we would support. However, we have heard from many noble Lords across all sides of the House that the Bill has significant flaws that the Government have not addressed in the other place. Therefore, it will be down to this House to do its best to ensure that we do our job to scrutinise and reform a Bill that has fundamental flaws and that will change—if it is not amended—the balance of how the electoral system works. It will, in effect, give a balance of power to the party of government. It will give that party an inbuilt set of advantages.
This is not the basis for a free, fair and independent electoral system. It goes against the very notion of fairness that this country is renowned for, and it will diminish our international reputation for having a system that is admired and beyond reproach. That is why, in doing our job, as many noble Lords have said, we should say that there are certain provisions and clauses in the Bill that should not be here and that the Government should seriously consider not going forward as part of the Bill. In particular, Clauses 1, 2, 14, 15 and 17 have significant flaws.
I have to say to the Minister that, when a Bill unites both the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and myself, it means that there is some fundamental flaw in it. It is very clear that if the Minister’s response does not give confidence to the House, we may do something which has precedent and, before it goes to a full Committee of this House, see certain clauses going to a Select Committee of this House—because this Bill has not had the pre-legislative scrutiny it desired. It has serious implications for the electoral integrity of our country. It is beholden on this House to deal with that with the seriousness it so desires and needs. So the Minister’s response has to be far better and more detailed than the shoddy response the Government gave to the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s report. I am sure this will determine whether these Benches and other noble Lords decide whether we desire this to go to a scrutiny committee to seek further investigation before it goes to a full Committee of the House.
There are many provisions in the Bill, including the provision on voter ID, which are very controversial. I have to say, very gently, that I find irony in predominantly male, white, middle-aged and older men telling us that photographic ID is not an issue. When noble Lords from different demographics from those have said that there is a problem, those with the voices that may not be the loudest are again drowned out. We have to listen; voter photographic ID is an issue for certain demographics. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, explained some of the issues to do with black, Asian and ethnic minority voters. My noble friend Lady Barker talked about some in the LGBT community. There is an issue with photographic ID which will mean that some people will not vote.
The Government say that we have to go on the precautionary principle on this, without any evidence whatever that there is significant abuse of personation in voting. Well, if it is about using the precautionary principle in legislation, why not have photographic ID to go into a supermarket just in case you are a shoplifter? The principle is flawed. It will have an effect on people having a right to vote. It is putting up barriers when actually we should be tearing down barriers for people to vote.
There is no significant evidence that anybody on the Government Benches has come forward with that somehow personation is a big issue in the electoral system in the UK. To answer the statistic put by the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, the committee in the other House came up with the figure; 0.00035% of all votes cast in 2019 were suspected and then prosecuted as voter personation. Many have spoken, including the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, about such issues. The cost of this is not actually £180 million. The cost, depending on the number of people who will require voter ID, is somewhere between £180 million and £450 million, based on the report from the other place. So we will be scrutinising this part of the Bill very heavily.
These Benches, as my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford has pointed out, have sympathy for the calls from the RNIB to have on the face of the Bill minimum standards for people who are blind or partially sighted, and that there should be a provision for who the person helping them should be—not just anybody over the age of 18.
Issues of who is eligible to vote from overseas have been clearly shown to be controversial, and in some cases show levels of complexity being added to layers and layers of election law. There is particular concern about those from EU countries. As my noble friend Lord Shipley pointed out, you could have two people who live in the same house, who are from the same country, who arrived on different dates, who both pay their taxes and who do the same jobs, but one would be eligible to vote in local elections and one would not. Therefore, we need to think much more closely about a system of residency rather than a system relating to the country you come from for people to be able to vote in elections in the UK.
As my noble friend Lord Rennard pointed out, very significantly, while we welcome the extension of the right for people overseas to vote and doing away with the 15-year limit, there are clear issues about whether the intention is not just about voting but about the use of donations from very rich people abroad, some of whom live in tax havens and who will fund a particular party in this country. There are real reservations about that. As my noble friend said—and I ask the Minister to respond on it—a commitment was made in 2019 to pass legislation that would ban large donations from anyone resident abroad for tax purposes. Has that been enacted and, if not, why not?
I come to two other issues. The first is first past the post, and its imposition on areas which have a mayoral system and police and crime commissioners. It is absolute nonsense to suggest that the public in this country do not have the ability to understand the alternative vote system. It has been used; it is used again and again. People in Northern Ireland use the single transferable system. If you want to talk about a difficult system, the single transferable vote system is far more complex than that used for mayoral elections, but there is no intention in Northern Ireland to take that away because it is seen to deal with people’s votes in a more proportionate way.
The final issue is the chilling approach of doing away with the independence of the Electoral Commission. I do not think that any of us could add to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said on this. It is absolutely breath-taking that a piece of legislation should talk about an independent regulator of the electoral system having to carry out the priorities of Her Majesty’s Government. That completely takes away the independence of the Electoral Commission, and in no circumstances should it be in the Bill. As I already indicated, these Benches and others will fight that clause.
For elections to be free, fair and independent, they need to be built on a bedrock of a strong and functioning democracy, one that the public have trust in and one that they feel does not favour any one party or anybody who has friends with very deep pockets. That is why we on these Benches oppose many of the clauses in this Bill and will do our best to build a consensus with others across the House to make the Bill better so that it really brings about a platform for free, fair and independent elections to rest on.
My Lords, I, too, start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Moore, on his excellent maiden speech. I must admit that I was a little shocked and surprised to hear him quote Robert Tressell’s book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. For me, the lesson of that book was about the importance of organising and the importance of trade unionism. I spent a lifetime in trade unions, and that was one of the very first books I read that motivated me to carry on my work.
I important thing that I want to start with is the general theme in my concern about the Bill. The ingredients of a thriving democracy are not limited to parliaments and parliamentarians. In countries where Governments fail to protect their own citizens, it falls to civil society to stand up for them and defend their human rights. As a country we understand that, because we invest money in supporting and developing civil society abroad. That is exactly what we are doing in Putin’s Russia, where he can operate under cover of elections once every four to five years; he can attack fundamental human rights, and attack those with no voice or representation as the majority have—it is minorities who are consistently attacked, as we have seen with the LGBT community.
By the way, if I lose my voice, I apologise. I had Covid throughout the recess, and I have now had three days of negative testing, so I am alright to be here.
One of the things we have heard throughout the debate this evening is that the Bill represents a missed opportunity to update our election law on the new challenges facing all democratic countries. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hayward—I was going to say my noble friend, as we are friends outside the Chamber. He is right that this is a missed opportunity, as is my noble friend Lord Lipsey.
Why have we ignored the Law Commission’s statement about ensuring that we have a sensible single framework which every part of the system can understand more easily? Why are we not addressing some of the serious issues about social media, most of which—like Twitter and Facebook—have appeared since legislation was introduced. Why are we not addressing dark money, misinformation and threats from foreign interference? The Opposition will be putting down amendments as soon as possible on this fundamental issue, particularly on illicit financing.
However, it is not just what is not in the Bill that concerns me; it is also what it contains. Like my noble friend Lady Hayman, I support the initiatives that deal with securing postal vote systems, ending intimidation of candidates and digital imprints—we welcome those things. But I am really concerned that the Bill proposes what are in effect further attacks on already highly regulated trade unions, which do anything but level the playing field. I bring this to the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe. I spent two years sitting down in joint party-political discussions, with the Conservative Party and the Lib Dems. We were working together on doing something to end big money in politics. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that we need to focus on ensuring that local communities and activism support our parties—it is people not oligarchs who should be supporting our political parties. But that two years of hard work was completely broken by a partisan attack, which I think all members across this House will recognise, in the Trade Union Act 2016. We looked at ways we could ensure this was not addressed in a partisan way, and we set up committees to look at it but, sadly, it proceeded, if not perhaps in the way originally intended.
The changes in Section 26 are an attack on freedom of speech and association. They appear one-sided and targeted, and will tie non-party organisations up in red tape, breach long-standing conventions about getting cross-party consent for changes and, critically, are completely unnecessary.
I know how concerned many noble Lords across the House were with the 2016 Act and the one-sided way in which it impacted on Labour’s main source of funding, breaching that convention on consent for changes in party funding. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, is absolutely right on the terms of the Speaker’s Committee and how it may be composed. It is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, did not participate in tonight’s debate, because I recall his interventions on the 2016 Bill. He was really concerned about the partisan approach on such a fundamental issue. He felt it was unfair, unjust and actually wrong to our democracy to undermine the principal opposition party. That is not the sort of thing we accept in this country, but it went through. I hope that he will be able to contribute further in the debates we have in Committee on this.
My noble friend Lord Monks mentioned that since 2016 we now have trade unions where members have to contract into their political fund—they cannot be automatically enrolled and members must not suffer any detriment by choosing not to opt in—and 4 million people do. I come back to the point from the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. That is ordinary working folk who make a conscious decision to contribute, not necessarily just to the Labour Party but to ensure that their organisation, as Robert Tressell said, has a political voice that can ensure that their interests are represented just beyond Parliament. That is fundamental in my view.
One of the things that really concerns me—I mentioned it to the Minister—is the failure to provide a sufficient evidence base for the changes or to properly consult trade unions and civil society organisations. This again represents the partisan approach which will undermine democracy in our country. The TUC and the organisation representing affiliated unions were an afterthought on consultation. They were not involved in the first round of discussions. I want to make sure that this sort of attitude does not continue. It is really important that we have proper consultation on things that will seriously impact the ability of organisations to continue to represent their members. The failure to consult, as we have heard in this debate, is echoed by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which concluded its report on the Bill:
“We feel that the Elections Bill proposals lack a sufficient evidence base, timely consultation, and transparency, all of which should be addressed before it makes any further progress.”
The Government’s response to the committee, published on 10 February, failed to address any of its major concerns, as the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, pointed out. The response even contained very contradictory positions, and everyone in this House should be concerned about that.
The changes proposed are compounded by the unprecedented powers given to the Secretary of State in Clauses 13, 14, 23 and 24, with the Government giving themselves powers to remove the right of entire categories of organisation from campaigning publicly at election time. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, said, much of the detail of how the Government’s proposals will work in practice is contained in unpublished secondary legislation. The Government have refused to publish this despite requests from the Electoral Commission.
I turn to an issue which has been of concern to many Members for some time. How do we raise awareness and engagement in our civic society? The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, raised this, as has the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. I had the pleasure to be in a follow-up inquiry meeting of his Select Committee looking at citizenship and civic engagement. I was amazed at how little priority the Government gave to civic engagement and education in our schools, as the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, said. I tried to probe both Ministers and the schools inspectorate about this during the recent inquiry.
The Select Committee report recommended that the Government implement the recommendations of the review by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, on third-party campaigning. In their published response, the Government said,
“rules are not intended to prevent charities and other civil society organisations from undertaking legitimate non-party political campaigning.”
They went on to state that
“the Government wants to work with civil society to ensure that civil society organisations have the confidence to continue their non-party political campaigning and advocacy.”
It is incumbent on the Minister to tell us today how the Government’s work with civil society organisations resulted in the proposals in the Bill. What was the result of their consultations with civil society organisations and charities? They have told me that the Bill threatens to restrict their campaigning in election years by lowering the levels at which they have to register with the Electoral Commission.
The Bill also gives Ministers unprecedented powers to add, remove or define “permitted participants” at elections. This means that Ministers may decide to exclude a type of organisation or a category of individual from spending more than £700 on election campaigning during the 365 days prior to an election day—the “regulated period”. We no longer have fixed-term parliamentary elections, so this could, in effect, be a permanent restriction. I read the article by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, in the Third Sector magazine. I hope that other noble Lords will take the opportunity to do so. If a general election were called for this May, the regulated period would run back to May 2021. Effectively, charities would have to act as if they were always in a regulated period. This would close down civil society activism and the voice that people really want heard, which cannot be healthy for our democracy. It would have a chilling effect. It would be an attack on free and fair campaigning. I return to this point: all political parties need to listen to and hear civil society. It is often the way in which we change our policy. We hear from minorities and groups. We listen and communicate. The Bill will act as a block to that. It is why it is so chilling. It should address the barriers to participation in the democratic process, not put up more.
Evidence suggests that the Bill will make it harder for working-class people, older people, those with disabilities and learning difficulties, as well as black, Asian and minority-ethnic people, to vote. If the Minister does not agree, will he commit to a full and proper equalities impact assessment to work out if this is true? I hope he will respond to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker; it is vital.
One of the things I was struck by in this debate was the point the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, made about young voters. He was absolutely right. They are part of our community but, because of having to live in rented accommodation, with short-term accommodation such as six-month lets, every time a six-month let is up, they fall off the register. It is so difficult to stay on the register. I must admit that when I hear contributions about valuing the vote and how registration to vote should be a privilege, my reaction is that it is not a privilege but an absolute right, and we should be doing everything possible to ensure that people can register to vote. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Woolley: the most important thing is to have a proper system of automatic registration. We should not exclude anybody from the right to vote.
Trade unions represent millions of working people, but the Government have shown in the Bill a commitment to cut those people out of our democracy. My noble friend Lady Hayter is absolutely right on foreign donations. This is another piece of evidence of the partisan approach the Bill takes, which will benefit only one party. That cannot be right for our democracy.
To sum up, during the key stages of scrutiny on the Bill our focus will be on how its proposals will impact on the independence of the Electoral Commission. I heard the comments on that, and it is absolutely shocking. I do not know what justification the Minister will give for it. I remember that when the Electoral Commission was set up there was concern: “It’s made up of people who don’t understand the way that party system works. They don’t understand how elections work. We ought to address that issue.” We did: every single political party has a representative on the Electoral Commission, including smaller parties and the Scottish National Party. They have representation on it, and all of them signed the letter from the Electoral Commission, apart from one. I have huge respect for the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, who is on the Electoral Commission. I share a lot of his concerns about the way parties operate, and it is sad that the partisan nature of the Bill has impacted on the work of the Electoral Commission. There can be no justification for these sorts of changes.
The Bill’s proposals are also a breach of the convention that changes to the political landscape should be with the consent of all parties. We should strive to do that because, as noble Lords have said, what goes around comes around—whichever way round it is. Certainly there will be a Labour Government, and they will be a Government of honour and confidence. However, if we have been attacked in the partisan way that we have been, we will be under huge pressure to take action without the consent of the Conservative Party. That includes saying, “Why don’t we take big money out of politics? Why don’t we have a cap on donations?”. The Tory party would be concerned about such a cap, but no other party would be. We have been doing what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor suggested, going to ordinary folk and making sure that we get the £5, £10 or £20 a week—whatever people can afford. That is who we will be going to, not relying on Russian oligarchs.
We will also come back on the key principles set out in the recent report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I will not repeat what noble Lords have said in this debate, but we will come back on those key recommendations.
On the independence of trade unions and political campaigning, my noble friend Lord Monks made the point very strongly that we are concerned about joint campaigning efforts. In effect, because of the constitutional relationship we still have—I wrote a very good report on the constitutional relationship between the Labour Party and affiliated trade unions—there could be consequences. Some may be unintended, but one clear consequence is that affiliated unions will suddenly be responsible for joint campaigning. It will eat up their political funds and therefore deny them the sort of political voice that we think is very important. Of course, for small, non-party organisations, we will be adding yet more unnecessary red tape in an area that, as we have heard, is highly regulated.
I have gone on far too long. In Committee, we will examine all these clauses and ensure that the two and a half hours devoted to Committee on this Bill in the House of Commons will not be replicated. We will do our job, and we will do it well.
My Lords, it sounds as if I had better get in some supplies of black coffee for the next few weeks. What a pleasure it is to see the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in his place. I know he has not been well because I reached out to him and hoped to have met him before now to talk about the subjects he has spoken about with such passion today. I hope that we can have that discussion, and I am very pleased to see him here. I listened with great care to what he said.
I also listened with care to the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Etchingham—I have to call him my noble friend. I was fascinated by his Hastings connection. He might be interested to know that my grandmother’s family came from generations of poor Hastings fishermen. Indeed, one of them was drowned off the Hastings coast —it was probably a good thing he did not have the noble Lord’s forebear in the boat at the time. In 1846, my great-great-grandfather built a little fishing boat and called it “Free Trade”. That was a good name then —it was an important year for free trade—and it is a good cause now. My goodness, we enjoyed the noble Lord’s speech today.
This debate has felt at times a little like being in that stall on the beach and getting too close to Mr Punch, but none the less, I give considerable thanks to all those who have spoken. Important points have been raised. It is my duty to try to address the concerns raised, not only today but in Committee. I would, however, like to say again that a great deal of work has underpinned this Bill and the measures within it. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that we should be careful of language. We have heard of a likeness to Belarus, Russia and so on. I take and consider concerns, but I reject the characterisation of this Bill as seeking to suppress votes.
The Bill is inspired by fundamental principles that guide our democratic system, including that people should be encouraged to vote. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, that those who are entitled to vote should always be able to exercise that right freely, securely and in an informed way, and that fraud, intimidation and interference have no place in our democracy.
We have to adjust and reform our system—this is more than consolidation; I will come to that in a minute, but consolidation is different from reform—but I cannot promise the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that we will reform it in the way he suggests. There might be difficulties with smartphone voting, for a start. Practically, we believe that the measures we have discussed here today constitute a series of practical improvements to the electoral system. We have worked closely with the electoral sector experts, the AEA, and the Electoral Commission to ensure that the provisions are designed properly. I remind noble Lords that the Electoral Commission is in support of voter identification.
The Minister responsible for the Bill, Kemi Badenoch, and her predecessor, Chloe Smith, took time to meet a wide range of organisations in the voluntary and community sector to inform policy decisions. These organisations have played a part in developing the details of secondary legislation and will continue to do so. I will come to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, later in my remarks.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in what I thought was a very measured speech—I did not agree with it all but I am glad I had a bit of agreement from her on some parts of the Bill—asked about pre-legislative scrutiny, which has come up in the debate, and about post, a subject that I will come on to. The Government have always demonstrated a willingness to listen to and collaborate with stakeholders, but pre-legislative scrutiny is just one way in which the Government can take the views of Parliament as well as the electoral sector and other interested parties. The Elections Bill is a product of a wide range of views and engagement with the electoral sector, civil society, parliamentarians and the Parliamentary Parties Panel. Many elements have come directly from reports and reviews conducted by parliamentarians, such as the 2016 report on electoral fraud by my noble friend Lord Pickles. Four sets of measures in this legislation—namely, those on accessibility, overseas electors, intimidation and digital imprints—have also been directly the subject of government consultation. There are issues relating to accessibility that I will return to.
In addition to that, ahead of bringing forward the legislative proposals for voter identification, we undertook a range of voter pilots in 2018 and 2019 that were independently reviewed by the Electoral Commission. Furthermore, we proactively sought the input and expert eye of those with detailed knowledge of elections operation. I echo the tribute paid by my noble friend Lord Hayward to those who operate elections—people who will be impacted by the measures in the Bill. Since the announcement of the Bill, it has also received scrutiny from the Joint Committee on Human Rights and been debated in the other place, including four evidence sessions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, asked if I would give a statutory commitment to a post-legislative scrutiny requirement in the Bill. I am afraid I cannot go that far, but I will say that it is standard practice for the Government to conduct post-legislative scrutiny of Acts following Royal Assent. In this case it will be important to allow some time for elections actually to take place so that we can effectively review the impact of the legislation.
The Bill already makes provision to evaluate the impact of implementing voter identification following the first three sets of elections. The Electoral Commission already has a statutory duty, unchanged by the Bill, to undertake reports on the administration of each parliamentary election, so a specific statutory requirement risks not allowing for the necessary flexibility to report following elections as they happen. However, I undertake to the noble Baroness that we will enable the House to follow these developments carefully.
The noble Baroness asked, as did my noble friends Lord Hayward and Lord Hodgson and others, why we are not consolidating electoral law. This is a reform rather than a consolidation, but we remain committed to ensuring that electoral law is fit for purpose into the future. We acknowledge that the process of consolidation is a long-term project desired by many. It would take significant consideration and policy development, and the Government’s immediate priority is to deliver this Bill. However, it is a request of which the Government are aware.
Many noble Lords queued up in the debate to say that the provision regarding voter identification was unnecessary. I guess the argument is that not many burglaries take place and have not happened recently in our road. No doubt those who have that view will not be putting locks on their back door. In saying that it is unnecessary, I thought the noble Baroness opposite also appeared to say that she did not think we had done anything about postal fraud. The reality is that the Bill contains many measures to stop the theft of—
Ah, then I misheard. None the less, on cue I can tell the House that we are banning party campaigners from handling postal votes altogether; we are stopping postal vote harvesting; we are extending secrecy provisions; and we are requiring those registered for a postal vote to reaffirm their identities by reapplying for a postal vote every three years. I think I heard a general welcome and support in the debate for those provisions, and I am grateful for that. That was stated by the noble Lord opposite in his wind-up.
The claim that voter identification is unnecessary was addressed by my noble friends Lord Pickles, Lord Hayward and Lady Pidding and the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, among others. It would be remiss if we did not take action in this respect—action recommended by the independent Electoral Commission. It is also backed by international election observers, who highlighted vulnerabilities in our system and repeatedly called for introducing voter identification, saying that its absence is a security risk. I find it strange that the internationalist party par excellence does not pay any attention to those recommendations.
Showing photo identification is a reasonable and proportionate way to confirm that a person is who they say they are and something that people from all walks of life already do every day. Cabinet Office research shows that 98% of electors already own a photographic document. Everyone eligible to vote will continue to have the opportunity to do so and be encouraged to do so, and any eligible voter who does not have one of the many accepted forms of photographic identification, including lapsed identification, can apply for a free voter card from their local authority. Many members of the public have said in the pilots that they felt that the existence of voter identification increased their confidence in the security of voting.
I absolutely agree with my noble friend Lord Willetts, the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, and others that we must encourage people and young people to vote. I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, that we are not persuaded by automatic registration. No doubt, from hearing this debate, we will have the opportunity to discuss this in Committee. We think it contradicts the principle that individuals are properly responsible for registering themselves. That was one of the reasons we introduced individual electoral registration in 2014. The evidence shows that an individual system drives up registration and enhances the accuracy of the register. Online registration transforms the ease with which people can register to vote, and in March 2020, there were 47.6 million entries on the parliamentary registers in the UK—the highest number ever recorded. Instead of introducing a costly and potentially flawed system of automatic registration, the Government are committed to building on what we already have to make things better.
There was some criticism of the proposal to introduce first past the post to London mayoral and police commissioner elections. I will look carefully at Hansard but the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, even seemed to challenge your Lordships to remove those provisions. I remind the House that these were manifesto commitments. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, also said that there was no evidence of any problem. He said that we were accusing electors of not understanding what was going on. Let me give noble Lords some evidence. The Electoral Commission added that the rejection rate in May 2021 was 0.8% for local council elections; for police and crime commissioners, it was 2.7%; and it was 4.3% for the Mayor of London. In the 2021 London mayoral elections, conducted by supplementary vote, almost 5% of the total votes in the first round were rejected—114,000 ballots. In the second preference, 265,000 votes were invalidated. That is more votes than were validly transferred to the leading two candidates, Mr Khan and Mr Bailey. That is quite a significant problem, and I reject the view that there is no evidence for there being a problem.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Gale and Lady Humphreys, asked about Wales. As I said in my opening speech, I welcome the indication that the Welsh and Scottish Governments will consider legislating comparably across a number of areas. UK Government Ministers remain committed to working with our counterparts as they develop their own legislative proposals. On the strategy and policy statement, the Scottish and Welsh Governments have already recommended that the devolved Parliaments do not grant legislative consent to this measure. Therefore, we are preparing amendments, as I said at the outset, such that the statement must not contain provisions relating to the devolved functions of the commission.
The noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Thomas of Gresford—forgive me if there are others who I do not name; I have quite a lot to get through anyway—raised the important issue of assistance for blind and partially sighted voters. As noble Lords who are interested in the subject will know, the current difficulties arose partly because of the imperfections of the existing system that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, spoke about, but there is also a court judgment that needs addressing.
The Government have had extensive engagement on this issue. I assure the House that we are ready to continue that. We are not removing the requirement to support blind and partially sighted voters; we are changing the way it is delivered to ensure that the needs of people with a wide range of disabilities are considered. Our approach will require returning officers to consider more varied and innovative support. That could be people using their own smartphones or devices in the polling station, or the use of a specific magnifier. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach. My colleagues in government and I look forward to further consultation and discussion on this very important subject.
Continuing on that, the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, raised engagement in relation to minority groups. My predecessor, Chloe Smith, conducted a series of round tables last summer with civil society groups, but I assure the noble Baroness that future engagement is also planned with groups that represent those with protected characteristics to work on supporting implementation planning and inform awareness-raising strategies. I will listen and ensure that my colleagues in government are aware of what the noble Baroness said.
There was a lot of discussion about overseas registration, not all of it favourable, although I was very moved by the speech of my noble friend Lord Lexden and his reference to Harry Shindler. The current position —that you are allowed to continue voting for 15 years —was established by the Labour Government in 2002, who determined that British citizens could continue to cast a vote. This did not seem such a shocking thing to the Labour Party then as it says it is now. I do not think that the principle it accepted then is invalidated by the removal of this limit. Why is it that 14 years and 364 days living abroad is fine, but at 15 years and one day Labour says, “We don’t want to know about you. You have no rights”? We believe that the connection that people have with their old country—their home country—does not end overnight in that way.
A suggestion was made by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that the franchise change is to increase political donations to the Conservative Party. I expect to hear some rumbles opposite. The issues at stake in the Bill are matters of principle.
I knew they were coming.
There has been considerable demand for these reforms. Experts of all political stripes are keen to have their say on issues that affect them. The changes are about enfranchising British citizens and broadening their participation. Further evidence of the demand for votes is evidenced by the fact that, in recent years, many more overseas citizens have sought to exercise their voting rights under the current arrangements. In the 2015 general election, 110,000 British citizens living abroad were registered; for the 2019 election this had increased to 230,000. These electors come from all corners of the United Kingdom and are unlikely to share the same political persuasion.
Many noble Lords, starting with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in a typically notable speech, expressed concerns about Part 3 of the Bill. I have heard these concerns—although I have obviously been listening throughout the debate, I would have heard them even if I had just popped in. I hope to persuade noble Lords in Committee that those concerns are unfounded.
The Electoral Commission will remain operationally independent and governed by its Electoral Commissioners. As is the case now, the commission will remain accountable to Parliament, through the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, which is chaired impartially by the Speaker of the House of Commons.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, quoted part of the offending clause, and someone else who spoke—perhaps it was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge—said that there was no requirement for the Secretary of State to even consult the commission. In fact, new Section 4C(2), inserted by Clause 14, says:
“The Secretary of State must consult the following on a draft of the statement … the Commission … the Speaker’s Committee … the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee … the Scottish Ministers … and … Welsh Ministers”.
He must reflect on those, and a proposal must be laid before Parliament, including your Lordships’ House. If your Lordships’ House or the other place have any doubts about it, it is within their power to refuse consent.
It has been suggested that the commission’s requirement to have regard to this statement is exactly the same as the Government directing the commission. With respect, I completely disagree. The statement will not allow the Government to direct the commission’s decision-making. The legal duty to have regard to this statement will not replace or undermine the commission’s other statutory duties. However, we see it as vital that we have an operationally independent regulator which can command trust across the political spectrum. The proposed measures are a necessary and proportionate approach to facilitate parliamentary scrutiny while respecting the commission’s operational independence. As I have explained, the Bill puts the UK Parliament at the centre of the processes relating to this statement, which will be subject to consultation at the relevant Select Committee.
The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, raised the CSPL recommendation to expand the commission’s regulatory powers to include enforcement of civil sanctions for candidate offences. It is important to note the local nature of offences under the Representation of the People Act, which means it is sensible for responsibilities related to candidates to lie with returning officers, local authorities and the police. Where appropriate, these can be referred to prosecution services and resolved through the courts. The Electoral Commission, by comparison, deals with wider scale campaigns run by political parties and third-party campaigners.
On Part 4, on expenditure, many noble Lords agreed with aspects of these proposals. However, I have heard the concerns raised by my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts and others. I can assure my noble friend that we will be ready to engage. Charities and third-party campaigners subject to the lower tier expenditure limits will be subject to lighter-touch regulation proportionate to smaller campaign spend. They will not be subject to spending return requirements and donation reporting controls. This will ensure minimal regulatory burden for campaigners in scope. That said, it is completely reasonable to expect organisations spending significant amounts of money campaigning in our elections to follow rules and report their activity, even where they are regulated for other purposes.
I speak with great respect for the old and humane tradition of the Labour Party as the champion of working people, and the noble Lord opposite, the noble Lord, Lord Monks, very understandably expressed concerns about what the impact on trade unions might be. The new measures will not prevent any eligible UK-based group, including trade unions, campaigning. The measures are simply intended to strengthen the principle of spending limits already in law and protect the level playing field by ensuring that groups cannot unfairly expand their spending limits where they are conducting joint campaigns.
My officials met Trades Union Congress representatives about the Bill, but I totally appreciate the concerns of noble Lords. My officials and I welcome further discussions with noble Lords and stakeholders. I hope to reassure them and to consider any concerns that they have. In those conversations, I will address the points that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, made. I am committed to ensuring that all campaigners are clear about the rules and able to participate in our elections, as they always have been.
Noble Lords will be pleased that Parts 5 and 6—they may have noticed that I got only to Part 4—were generally supported. I thank noble Lords throughout the House and on the Front Benches opposite for that, and hope that the support will be sustained throughout the Bill. On that happy note for me, I conclude by again thanking all Peers who took part in this debate for their valuable contributions. We will read Hansard carefully. I look forward to engaging with them further, over a late black coffee if need be, and in more detail in Committee and throughout the remainder of the passage of the Bill.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.