Committee (4th Day) (Continued)
Clause 2: Power to make regulations about registration, absent voting and other matters
85: Clause 2, page 1, line 10, at end insert—
“(2) Before laying before Parliament any regulations under Schedule 2, the Secretary of State must provide the legislation in draft to any committee of either House of Parliament which the Secretary of State deems relevant.”
My Lords, my Amendment 85 is about providing legislation in draft to any committee of either House of Parliament which is deemed relevant by the Secretary of State. The reason for tabling this amendment is the same as in previous debates: with very little pre-legislative scrutiny, we really need to see the detail of the legislation ahead of debate. So, this is about seeing that legislation in good time so that we all know exactly what the expectations are and what detail is going to be provided.
The other two amendments are about private renters and private tenants. I briefly draw the House’s attention to some analysis published by the Mayor of London’s office in 2019 which demonstrates that private renters are less likely to register to vote and so are missing the opportunity for their voice to be heard at national and local level. City Hall analysis of the electoral roll and housing in London found that boroughs with the highest number of private renters had some of the capital’s lowest levels of voter registration.
That analysis is backed up by national estimates from the Electoral Commission which show that 94% of owner-occupiers are registered to vote, compared to just 63% of private renters. The reason for this seems to be that many private renters move home frequently, often due to insecure tenancies. Across London as a whole, 25% of households were privately renting at the time of the most recent census and only 86% were registered to vote, which is a lower rate than other areas. One of the reasons for this is the stability of people in private rented accommodation.
I come back to the point that there is nothing in the Bill to help increase the number of people on the electoral register, which I think will be a theme throughout its passage. I know that this Bill is not about housing, but housing is in the same department—both areas are covered by DLUHC—so it would be good if the Minister could point out to his department that private renting could be reformed to increase stability for tenants, so that they are not constantly on the move. In that way, we could increase the number of people registered to vote and try to keep that more stable. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 85 in this group would require the Secretary of State to publish any secondary legislation under Schedule 2 of the Elections Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. My officials are working at pace on the secondary legislation and it will be shared with Parliament in due course. Any legislation under Schedule 2 will be subject to the affirmative procedure and therefore will have to be laid in draft, debated and approved by each House of Parliament, thus giving opportunity for sufficient scrutiny.
Amendments 86 and 87 seek to place a requirement on the Secretary of State to publish reports and hold a public consultation on measures to increase registration levels among private tenants. I agree with the noble Baroness opposite that the high turnover in this type of accommodation sometimes raises questions. She will know that the Government are seeking to improve the position of private tenants in other legislation, but I certainly take note of her point.
Registering to vote is extremely easy and it takes about five minutes to complete an online application. Since its introduction the register to vote website has revolutionised the ability of electors to participate, with over 60 million applications to register since 2014. In the last election a record number of people registered to vote—47 million. The Government are pleased that the register to vote service has the highest available accessibility rating for a website—a triple A rating—under the web content accessibility guidelines, for those noble Lords who are particularly interested.
I should add that it is for EROs to ensure that their registers are as complete and accurate as possible. It is the Electoral Commission’s duty to promote electors’ participation in our country’s electoral events. The commission runs an annual voter registration campaign encouraging those eligible to take the short time to make an application to register. I am sure it will have taken note of what the noble Baroness has said. Supporting registration in this way is a responsibility of the commission at national level and of local authority EROs at local level. It is our role to ensure that the EROs and the EC have the tools necessary to fulfil these functions.
Therefore, it is not clear to the Government that any specific strategy to increase the registration levels of private tenants is necessary. I acknowledge the points the noble Baroness has made, and I beg her to withdraw her amendment.
Amendment 85 withdrawn.
Clause 2 agreed.
Amendments 86 and 87 not moved.
88: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Evidence of full name
In Rule 6 of Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 (nomination of candidates), in paragraph (2)(a) after “full names” insert “, as evidenced by a birth certificate or passport”.”
My Lords, this is a small group of technical amendments, and I will speak to Amendments 88 and 91 first. When I quoted Richard Mawrey of the elections court on Tower Hamlets earlier today, I referred to Mr Kabir Ahmed. He had actually changed the spelling of his name to ensure that it was impossible to trace him from his previous electoral background from one borough to another. It is not a common case. I checked with the AEA, and it said there was no requirement that people should use a standard name. This is a probing amendment to establish how we can go about ensuring that people validly put in genuine nominations and do not try to hide their background.
Equally, Amendment 91 concerns an anomaly which has already been dealt with by the Senedd in Wales—the use of commonly used names. It makes sense as it stands but in this regard I give credit to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, my colleague in room 23. Where somebody uses their given name, as per christening, they are not entitled to use it in terms of nomination papers. For example, Harold Wilson would not have been allowed to give his name as Harold Wilson and James Callaghan would not have been entitled to give his name as James Callaghan, because they were not “commonly known as” names but their middle names, and this is currently illegal. Therefore, all I am trying to do is to set right an anomaly which I am sure was never intended.
Moving on to Amendment 89, as my noble friend the Minister knows, during Covid we reduced the requirement for nomination signatures from 10 to two. I wrote to him on 17 January raising the possibility of extending this allowance—that we stick with two signatures rather than 10. If there are objections based on the fear that there will be large numbers of candidates because you have reduced the required signatures from 10 to two, first, it did not happen last year, and secondly, a better way of imposing a restriction would be to require a deposit rather than 10 signatures. I am dealing with these amendments briefly because I am conscious the House wants to make progress.
Of the two other amendments in this group, one deals with the curious anomaly of incorrect declarations. If, by chance, an inaccurate declaration of a result is made and the wrong person is declared elected, it is necessary to hold a by-election. That happens surprisingly regularly, virtually every year, even though people are aware of it. It is an unnecessary expense, and I am working on the basis that all parties would come to an agreement at the count that there had been a declaration error. I am conscious that even in a general election—as in West Bromwich at the last election, where we came very close to an error—incorrect declarations are regularly made. It is an anomaly that these declarations cannot be corrected at a count where all parties are in agreement. I just wanted to put on record that there ought to be a solution to that.
My final amendment in this group concerns something I touched on at Second Reading: the mess we have in electoral law, in that there are exclusions for police and crime commissioners which do not apply to local councillors, and which do or do not apply to Members of Parliament when standing for election. It seems logical to me that we should have the same exclusions for any election, not just a hotch-potch in terms of the requirements of exclusions.
I have covered the five amendments very quickly, and I hope I have done it sufficiently satisfactorily for people to understand the objectives. As far as I am concerned, most of them are probing amendments, but on Amendment 89, I really do believe that the reduction in the number of signatures from 10 to two for local government elections should continue to apply. I beg to move.
My Lords, I would like to comment on Amendments 88 and 89 because for me—and I have read quite a lot of the background—I fear they represent solutions in search of a very significant problem.
Amendment 88 requires the production of a birth certificate or a passport to secure nomination as a candidate. It is not clear to me what widespread problem is being solved by this, nor what problems might actually be created by introducing such requirements. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, has given one or two specific examples, but it seems to me that a solution which then requires every candidate to produce a birth certificate or a passport when they put in a nomination form is excessive. It is also not clear to me why a passport and a birth certificate have been selected as forms of identification but not a driving licence, which contains a name, or a national insurance number, behind which exists a name. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, because it does seem to be a proposed solution to a problem which is not that significant.
Amendment 89 would reduce the number of signatures for local nomination from 10 to two. I understand the circumstances in which, during Covid and the pandemic, the reduction to two was wise, because there were difficulties with people speaking to each other. However, in general terms, reducing the total number of signatures to two seems insufficient for nomination to elected positions that carry substantial responsibilities. I remain of the view that 10 is a better number than two.
My Lords, these amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, the bulk of which are new clauses to be inserted after Clause 2, relate to the administration of elections.
Amendment 88 deals with the nomination of candidates. At present, the Representation of the People Act states that the nomination papers must include the candidate’s full name. The effect of the noble Lord’s amendment would be that a candidate must provide a birth certificate to evidence this. Although I understand the noble Lord’s concerns that the process currently lacks this kind of specific identity check, there is currently a safeguard in the sense that candidates must be registered to vote, and identity checks can take place during the process of registering to vote. None the less, the noble Lord raises valid points on what checks take place on candidates, and I hope the Minister can provide assurances.
Amendment 89 also deals with nomination papers but focuses on the number of electors who must assent to the nomination. The noble Lord has the full support of these Benches for that amendment. Under the current system, regulated by the Local Elections (Principal Areas) (England and Wales) Rules 2006, a candidate must collect the names of a proposer, a seconder and eight other electors. In total, this means that 10 electors must be found.
Amendment 91 also relates to nominations but instead would have the effect that a candidate might select their commonly used name. This seems an entirely sensible step, but I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether this is already possible under current regulations. The Committee will no doubt appreciate that many candidates do not use their full name. For example, in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, ballot papers do not list the Prime Minister as Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.
Amendment 90 has a different focus and relates to the declaration of a result. Under this amendment, where a result is incorrectly declared in local elections and there is agreement between all candidates, a revised declaration may be made. I would be interested to hear what recent examples there have been of an incorrect declaration. Although it seems entirely right that there should be a means of challenging this, we should also consider whether there is a role for the returning officer in the process.
Finally, with Amendment 208 the noble Lord draws attention to the variation in criteria used for excluding candidates for certain elections. In its guidance to prospective candidates, the Electoral Commission warns that the full range of disqualifications is complex. There would certainly be merit in increasing the understanding of those exact disqualifications. As always, I look forward to the Minister’s response to see whether he can give any assurances in this area.
My Lords, the amendments proposed by my noble friend Lord Hayward seek to make a number of changes concerning aspects of the electoral process. I thank my noble friend for his continuing engagement on and interest in electoral matters, which is respected across the House. I will address his amendments in turn. I recognise the intention behind them; the Government share his interest in clarifying and streamlining electoral regulation, but we must be mindful of the length of the changes already contained in the Bill, which has been subject to consideration. In that context, I hope he will understand if they are not all changes we can take forward in this legislative vehicle, but we will continue to work with him and others to undertake the consideration needed for the changes to electoral law separately where appropriate and where there is an opportunity to do so.
Amendments 81 and 91 concern the naming aspect of nomination rules. I understand the noble Lord’s intention to ensure there is no room for confusion for voters on the personal identity of a candidate standing for election. However, in relation to Amendment 88, I am advised that candidates are already required to state their full name in their nomination paper. I can confirm also that it is already an offence for a person to give a name in their nomination paper that they know to be false. This includes giving a name with a different spelling. We do not therefore consider it necessary to make the changes set out in the amendment. I hope my noble friend is reassured that the law already includes appropriate safeguards against candidates providing false information.
On Amendment 91, under the current law, a person who is nominated as a candidate must give their full name but may also provide a commonly used forename or surname, which must be different from any of the names already given, which they would like to have included on the ballot paper. However, this does not facilitate the use of a middle name where someone is commonly known by such a name. The suggestion of my noble friend that a middle name might be allowed as the “commonly known as” name has some merit and I remain open to further discussions on it.
Similarly, I and the Government remain open to further discussion and collaboration on the proposal in Amendment 89 for the numbers of subscribers for local election nominations to be reduced from the 10 currently required. Minister Badenoch has written to my noble friend to set out the Government’s position; we are supportive in principle, but we must remember that the decision to reduce temporarily the number of signatures required to stand for certain polls for May 2021 was taken in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was only ever intended to be a temporary solution and the Government have not yet consulted on or conducted research into the impact of making the change last year.
As signatures are presently seen as a necessary check—the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, spoke about this—to ensure that candidates have some level of support within the local electorate, and the policy seeks to avoid having candidates with no real hope of being elected on ballot papers, which can increase the burden on administrators and cost to the public purse, the Government wish to consult further with the Parliamentary Parties Panel and others to identify views and issues. As I say, we heard dissent from the Liberal Democrat Benches on that. This is not to undermine in any way the statement in principle made by the Minister to my noble friend, but to ensure there is careful consideration of the consequences of such a change. Subject to the outcome of that consultation, we will look to start the necessary work to put any new arrangement in place for elections in May 2023. I have asked my officials to keep my noble friend updated on progress.
Amendment 90 proposes to reform the process around incorrect declaration of results. Once a result is declared and made public, the result stands and can be undone, as my noble friend explained, only through a formal election petition process, a court process which serves as a safeguard against elections being improperly run or adversely affected by illegal activity. The law purposefully sets clear requirements and a short timeline in which to bring a challenge. I recognise that this has led to issues in the past where an incorrect name has been called out as winning a seat and then a petition was required to resolve it. Fortunately, in recent years such a problem has been addressed by the returning officer, with the agreement of candidates, correcting the initial mistake before they have finalised their declaration process, although that does not cover all the instances my noble friend was talking about. While we are sympathetic to the issues he has raised, any statutory changes in procedures for the certification and declaration of results have the capacity to have an impact on the outcome of elections. This requires careful consideration. We will consider it further, but there is no time to complete such consideration effectively within the time allowed for passage of the Bill.
Finally in this group, Amendment 208 would require the Government to consult on the variations in criteria to stand at different polls. We hold elections to a wide variety of offices and bodies in this country, which necessarily perform a wide variety of functions. Consideration is given to the criteria for disqualification of candidates on a case-by-case basis to suit the functions of the role for which the person seeks election.
There are good reasons for having different disqualification rules for different offices. For example, the rules governing who can be a candidate in police and crime commissioner elections and hold the office of a police and crime commissioner are the strictest of all those for elected roles in Great Britain, because the role is focused on direct oversight of the police, and because of the need for public trust in the management of police forces.
I am sorry to disappoint my noble friend on this, but the Government’s view is that a consultation on the requirements for standing at different elections and on disqualification rules is not an immediate priority. For this reason we cannot accept the amendment, but I can assure my noble friend that—as he knows from the engagement we have had—he has put these points on the table for consideration, and they will not be lost for consideration even if they cannot be addressed in the Bill. In the light of that, I ask him to withdraw his amendment.
I thank my noble friend for his positive replies to a number of the amendments, and I apologise for the fact that, in my need for haste earlier, I did not give credit to both him and his officials for having taken the time to discuss these issues with me. I should therefore put that on the record now. In light of his broadly positive approach to the amendments —as I said, they were primarily probing amendments on technical matters—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 88 withdrawn.
Amendments 89 to 91 not moved.
Schedule 2: Power to make regulations about registration, absent voting and other matters
Amendment 91A not moved.
Schedule 2 agreed.
Clause 3 agreed.
Amendment 92 not moved.
Schedule 3: Restriction of period for which person can apply for postal vote
92A: Schedule 3, page 99, line 2, leave out “3” and insert “5”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would probe the expiration period of postal votes.
I will move this amendment on behalf of my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock. At the outset I want to make it clear that we support steps to ensure that the use of postal votes has integrity, and we want to ensure that any evidence of abuse is properly dealt with. So there are issues in the Bill on which we concur. But I will make the general point that, certainly from 2001 to 2005, when there was a push to open up postal voting, I have been on the register for a postal vote. That was mainly because my job at that time involved travelling all around the country, campaigning in other constituencies, which meant I was rarely able to vote in my own.
If my noble friend Lady Quin had been here, she would have given us some specific examples from Tyne and Wear, where used to be her constituency. She saw turnout go from an average of 20% to 50%, and she points out that eight of the top 10 constituencies for postal voting were in the Tyne and Wear area. So there is clear evidence that, in terms of engagement, involvement and trying to increase turnout, postal votes have a very important role.
That is why we want to probe a little more, particularly with Amendment 92A, on why postal votes expire after three years when Parliaments last longer. We would prefer five years, as we have put down in our amendment. I would like to hear from the Minister why the Government have set the limit at three years, and what the conditions for that are, when five years might be more appropriate. We would be pleased to hear his arguments.
The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, has raised other issues, and I want to ask again why the number of postal votes that may be taken to a polling station is in secondary legislation. If there is an issue of principle, why is that not in the Bill, rather than in secondary legislation? Those are my brief comments, in particular on Amendment 92A. We really just want to probe why the Government have set a period of three rather than five years. I hope we can ensure that postal votes remain an important feature of our electoral system.
My Lords, I wish to speak to the amendments in my name in this group, namely Amendments 96A, 96B, 96C and 96D. The Government have proposed limiting the number of postal votes a voter can hand into polling stations or to the returning officer to two. This would be specified in secondary legislation and is not on the face of the Bill in Clause 5. Secondary legislation could also require that the person must complete a form if handing in a postal vote. While we on these Benches recognise that there have been cases of postal vote fraud reported at some elections, the rationale for the limit of two has not been set out. In any case, whatever limit is specified may be easily circumvented.
Clause 5 ultimately derives from the recommendation in the report from Sir Eric Pickles—as he then was; now he is the noble Lord, Lord Pickles—on securing the ballot in 2016. It said:
“Completed postal ballot packs should only be handed in at a polling station by the voter or a family member/designated carer acting on their behalf—a limit of two should be applied for any one person handing in completed ballots and require an explanation as to why they are being handed in and signature provided.”
The justification offered in the report, that postal votes handed in on the day might be subject to less scrutiny and checking than postal votes arriving sooner, is simply inaccurate. All returning officers perform the same checks on postal votes regardless of when they are received. Placing a limit on the number of postal votes that could be handed into a polling station might be an effective tool in deterring people from turning up at polling stations with a higher number of postal votes. However, it would not stop industrial-scale vote harvesting. This is because, under the Government’s proposals, a person could still collect any number of postal votes and post them prior to polling day, although any political campaigner who did so would certainly commit an offence under the new Section 112A of the Representation of the People Act 1983 inserted by Clause 4.
It is unclear how the secondary legislation will be cast in respect of council offices, where returning officers are usually based. For example, does using a postal box in the wall of the office constitute returning by hand to the returning officer? If it does, it would mean posting boxes at council offices would have to be sealed during the election period, or a member of staff would have to be stationed at said postal box 24 hours a day in order to prevent people returning more than the prescribed number of postal votes. This would create unnecessary difficulty in delivering other items to a council. Perhaps legislation is intended to capture only the handling of postal votes, at a reception desk for example. Moreover, there seems to be no reason why someone who posts a voting pack back in a posting box at council offices should face any additional hurdle compared with a person posting in a post box elsewhere.
So Clause 5 will not prevent postal vote harvesting and could easily be circumvented. Yet the Government’s proposal will cause additional complexity and delay, for example if a form has not been filled in, or a voter turns up at an office or a polling station with too many postal votes. Potential lengthy or adversarial discussions about the fact that the postal vote would be rejected could take place.
The reason I am asking for an amendment to Clause 5 to include a limit of five and not two, notwithstanding the problems I outlined, is that it would enable family households to hand in votes more easily, as there are fewer households with more than five adult members. I also think that any limit should be set out in the Bill, rather than the Secretary of State being able to determine it in secondary legislation. I ask the Minister to clarify how these provisions will operate at council offices, where returning officers are based, and to give a justification for the limit of two, particularly in light of the fact that many households have more than two adults living there.
My Lords, these amendments investigate some of the safeguards for postal ballots introduced in the Bill. I welcome the underlying sense of the comments made: the Committee recognises that, as we move through the suite of arrangements which the Government suggest to protect electoral integrity, there is more support here than there was for the first measure.
Clauses 3 to 7 require voters to apply more frequently for a postal ballot, ban political campaigners from handling postal ballots, introduce, as the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, just explained, new limits on the number of postal ballots that can be handed in, limit the number of electors for whom someone can act as proxy and increase secrecy protections for absent voters. As has been said, all these changes implement recommendations in the report by my noble friend Lord Pickles into electoral fraud, which suggested addressing weaknesses in the current system. We submit that they are sensible safeguards against known vulnerabilities and, taken together, they will reduce the opportunity for unscrupulous individuals to exploit the process and steal votes, as we have seen in Tower Hamlets—often referred to in your Lordships’ House—but also in other locations mentioned during debates in the other place, such as Peterborough, Birmingham and Slough.
I noted the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, on her amendments and her amendment probing the expiration period of postal votes, in which the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, also expressed an interest. Currently, an elector may have a postal vote on an indefinite basis as long as they provide a signature sample every five years. The noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, has benefited from this.
The Pickles report recommended that voters should reapply for a postal vote at least every three years as a safeguard to prevent postal voter fraud. More frequent applications would not only enable EROs to regularly assess a person’s application and confirm whether they are still an eligible elector but give an opportunity for someone who was initially pressurised—that is obviously not the case for the noble Lord—into having a postal vote to break out of that situation and thus not have their vote influenced on an ongoing basis. Additionally, ensuring that electors’ details are kept up to date and that each postal voter’s signature is refreshed more frequently will reduce the likelihood that their postal vote is rejected should their handwriting change over time. You have only to ask my wife to hear how illegible mine has become in recent years.
The Government consider that the timeframe of three years still enables a person to have a postal vote for a reasonable length of time, while ensuring the person normally replies during every Parliament.
My Lords, had the noble Lord not made a very legitimate intervention, I would have read the next sentence. While an indefinite postal vote presents a significant security concern, we must also recognise that annual applications for overseas electors goes too far in the other direction and creates an excessive burden for administrators. That was perhaps the implication of his intervention.
Therefore, in order to ensure that arrangements remain harmonious across domestic and overseas electors, we will extend the registration period for overseas electors from one up to three years and tie the three-year postal vote cycle in with the new three-year cycle for renewal of overseas electors’ declarations. Overseas electors will be able to reapply or refresh their absent vote arrangements as appropriate at the same time as renewing their declaration. This alignment between absent vote and renewal arrangements will encourage overseas electors to remain on the register.
We recognise that this means more time spent on processing by electoral administrators. To balance that, we are working to introduce an online application process. This will benefit electors and is very much welcomed by administrators in reducing handling of paper and enabling automation.
Of course, the Government recognise the importance of having transitional provisions in place for existing long-term postal voters, so under the Bill those voters will continue to be able to vote by post until either the 31 January following the commencement of the provision or, if this is sooner, the 31 January following the commencement date by which the postal voter would normally be expected to provide a fresh signature. These arrangements will ensure that the change is phased in over a reasonable period of time. Electoral registration officers will be required to send a reminder to existing postal voters in advance of the date they cease to have a postal vote and provide information on how to reapply for a postal vote.
The amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, to Clause 5 seek to prevent the powers of the clause to limit the number of postal votes that can be handed in from being used to impose any limitations on handing in via a council posting box and set a minimum of five for any limitation imposed in secondary legislation. There is significant concern that permitting a high number of postal votes to be handed in could facilitate electoral fraud and undermine the integrity of elections. This has been a long-standing issue in elections and has undermined confidence in the system. It does a disservice to many legitimate electors who make use of postal votes for valid reasons. Setting a limit on the number of postal votes that can be handed in is therefore necessary in our judgment. This clause will allow regulations to require persons handing in postal votes to complete a form giving details of the numbers they have handed in, which will help promote compliance with the new requirements and aid investigations into allegations of fraud.
However, I heard the point the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, made about the number, and his suggestion of five. We will keep his suggestion in mind as we continue to work with the Electoral Commission and electoral stakeholders on the issue as we develop the legislation. However, we will maintain the position that the permitted number should be confirmed in secondary legislation, giving time for further consultation. This is the right place for such details and allows flexibility for change should it be needed later if the figure initially established does not prove to be right in practice. I hope that with those assurances noble Lords will feel able to withdraw or not move their amendments.
Amendment 92A withdrawn.
Schedule 3 agreed.
Clause 4: Handling of postal voting documents by political campaigners
93: Clause 4, page 2, line 12, after “person” insert “knowingly”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would mean that an offence is only committed if the person knowingly handles a post voting document.
My Lords, I stress that this is a series of probing amendments to try to better understand the sort of guidance that might be issued and ensure that people engaged in campaigns and the electoral process are not caught out by some genuine error or mistake. I know from when I have been out campaigning that somebody will often say, “Do you mind taking this postal vote to the postbox?” or something like that. People ask for all kinds of assistance innocently, so it is really important that we do not catch people out. We have also raised the question of how families and households may operate. Again, clear guidance needs to be provided.
We know, as the noble Lord the Minister has indicated, the abuses that have taken place in terms of harvesting postal votes, forced registration in households and those sorts of things that we need to stamp out to ensure the integrity of our electoral system. In doing so, we want to make sure that we are not using a heavy hand and that people who may do something innocently are not criminalised. I hope that the Minister understands why we have tabled this series of amendments: it is to probe and get a better understanding of how we would deal with those sorts of innocent situations that should be dealt with more clearly by guidance. I beg to move.
My Lords, these probing amendments seek to test the defence for political campaigners set out in Clause 4, which bans said campaigners from handling postal votes issued to other persons. Clause 4 is designed to address activities and behaviours that have been a cause for concern at previous elections, such as the practice of postal vote harvesting whereby voters are coerced or tricked into completing their postal voting statement before handing over their papers with the ballot paper unmarked to campaigners to be taken away and filled in elsewhere.
Amendment 93 seeks to provide that a person commits an offence only if they knowingly handled a postal vote issued to another person. The clause currently provides that it is a defence for a political campaigner charged with the offence to show that they did not dishonestly handle the postal voting document for the purpose of promoting a particular outcome at an election. This Government entirely share the concern that no offence should criminalise innocent behaviour. For this reason—
I thank the Minister for her explanation. In preparing for this particular debate, I looked at the defence that is set out on page 2 of the Bill—I thank the Minister for reading that into the record. It further says, in new Section 112A(5), inserted by Clause 4, that
“the court must assume that the defence is satisfied unless the prosecution proves beyond reasonable doubt that it is not.”
The burden of proof there is upon the prosecution. I mention this because, as a political campaigner who quite often gets asked to take a postal vote and hand it in on behalf of an elector, it is clearly of considerable importance to know that we are—if you like—excluded from the purview of this particular offence.
I think that all of us campaigners have been asked the same question many times on the doorstep.
This Government entirely share the concern that no offence should criminalise innocent behaviour. We have been especially careful to target the wording of the new offence to ensure that it is reasonable and proportionate where somebody acts with honest intentions. For these reasons, the Government consider that the offence provisions are appropriately worded and are therefore unable to accept that amendment or the others in this group.
In fact, against the concerns of Amendment 94, new Section 112A(2) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, inserted by Clause 4, already provides that a person who handles a postal voting document for use in a relevant election does not commit an offence if they are responsible for or assist with the conduct of that election and the handling is consistent with the person’s duties in that capacity.
Amendment 95 seeks to exempt legal guardians from the offence. There is an exemption in the clause for a political campaigner, if they are close family—
“spouse, civil partner, parent, grandparent, brother, sister, child or grandchild”—
of the other person whose postal vote they are handling. Legal guardians are not included, as they do not have the relevant powers when acting for adults, and their powers are primarily to do with decisions about a person’s medical care and their finances.
Amendment 96 also seeks to change the definition of political campaigner for the purposes of postal vote handling offences to include those who have donated to a campaign. The definition in the Bill is comprehensive and includes candidates, electoral agents and members of a registered political party who carry on an activity designed to promote a particular outcome at an election. Donating to a campaign is not the same as actively canvassing. Therefore, I am not persuaded that it should be amended to such a disproportionate extent. For this reason, I beg that the amendment is withdrawn.
Amendment 93 withdrawn.
Amendments 94 to 96 not moved.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5: Handing in postal voting documents
Amendments 96A to 96D not moved.
Clause 5 agreed.
Clause 6: Limit on number of electors for whom a proxy can vote
96E: Clause 6, page 9, line 7, at end insert—
“(2) Schedule 4 must not come into force until the Secretary of State has made a statement to Parliament on the impact on people with disabilities.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would probe the impact of proxy vote limitations on people with disabilities.
My Lords, I have tabled Amendments 96E to 96J. Similar to the last group, these are probing amendments on the proposals for proxy votes. During the progress of the Bill, the Government have given a number of instances to demonstrate where proxy voting has been abused in the past. It was notable in the PACAC oral witness evidence that Helen Mountfield QC said that, in her view,
“It is uncontroversially a good thing to stamp down”
on people holding multiple proxy votes. PACAC agreed with the Government that it is sensible to limit the number of proxy votes that can be exercised by individuals to two for domestic electors and four for overseas electors.
My Amendment 96G is the same kind of probing amendment on proxies as that just spoken to by my noble friend Lord Collins on postal votes. What happens if somebody accidentally voted on behalf of four or more electors, without appreciating that this was no longer allowed? It is just about ensuring that people are given proper guidance and information by local authorities and that the local authorities have the proper guidance and information, so that these sorts of mistakes do not happen.
I have just mentioned PACAC. The Electoral Commission also made a few points, because proxy voting is clearly an important option for people who cannot vote in person. It said:
“Changes to limit the number of voters for whom a person may act as a proxy could disadvantage some people who need someone to vote on their behalf.”
That comment was the reason behind tabling Amendment 96E, which probes the impact of proxy vote limitations on people with disabilities. Clearly, people with disabilities often need some support or someone to vote on their behalf.
As we know, when a voter applies to appoint a proxy, to protect against fraud, they are already required to state their relationship to the proposed proxy and the reason they cannot attend the polling station. My Amendment 96H is because I thought it would be interesting to draw attention to economic crime and election fraud, and to probe whether there is any evidence or information of any connection between the two. That is the purpose behind that particular amendment.
In the 2019 UK parliamentary general election, we know that some overseas voters struggled to find a proxy in their constituency. Tightening the limits on the number of people for whom a voter may act as proxy could potentially make it harder for overseas electors to cast their vote. This is where my Amendment 96F comes in. It probes why the number of four electors was chosen. Has the impact on overseas electors been taken into consideration?
Finally, Amendment 96J looks to probe the application of this particular schedule to parliamentary by-elections. Do Ministers have any information as to whether there has been any kind of impact assessment? Has any thought been given to the impact on different kinds of elections, in particular by-elections? I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. These Benches concur with a lot of what she had to say. When I asked why the number of postal voters should not be in the Bill, the Minister replied that it was better to deal with it flexibly, under secondary legislation. I note that the Bill states that the number of proxy votes which can be used by an elector is four. What is the difference between having this in the Bill for proxy voters but not for postal voters?
My Lords, I have a question more out of ignorance than expertise. I am old enough to have gone round as a young man in the days when different parties competed in treating the matrons of care homes, and relying on them to collect all the votes up and make sure that everyone voted in the right direction. I am sure that that no longer happens—let us hope that it is something that we left behind in the 1960s. However, this raises questions about care homes. How are people assisted to vote? Who posts their votes for them or holds their proxies? I wish for a little assurance about this.
My Lords, in answer to that question from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, keeping the numbers at four and not allowing anybody to have as many proxy votes as they like will help control this sort of behaviour. We all know that it happened in the past.
I will get an answer on why postal votes are to be in guidance and proxy votes are in the Bill, and write to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven.
I turn to the amendments concerning the measure in the Bill designed to strengthen the current arrangements for proxy voting. Currently, somebody can act as a proxy for up to two electors and for an unlimited number of close relatives in any constituency in a parliamentary election, or any electoral area at a local election. This can give rise to situations where somebody could cast an extremely large number of proxy votes, over which they could also exercise undue influence. This is where the issue of care homes and such like comes into play.
The Bill introduces a new limited of four on the total number of electors for whom a person may act as a proxy in UK parliamentary elections or local government elections in England. Within this figure, no more than two may be domestic electors—that is, electors who are not overseas electors or service voters. All four may be overseas electors or service voters. This approach will tighten up the rules on proxy voting, while also providing appropriate support for overseas electors and service voters wishing to appoint a proxy.
We of course intend to phase in the measures for existing proxy voters, so that all voters will have advance notice of the changes to enable them to prepare for their new requirements. We currently intend to phase in this change over the course of a three-year period. We will work with the Electoral Commission and electoral stakeholders in order to publicise the changes and the new requirements. Electoral registration officers will also be required to send a reminder to existing proxy voters in advance of the date they cease to have a proxy vote under current arrangements, and will provide information on how to reapply for another proxy vote.
Turning to the amendments, I have heard the concerns which motivate the amendments that we are debating and I will address each amendment in turn. With respect to Amendment 96E, the Government share the concerns that the new requirements should not have an adverse impact on voters, particularly voters with disabilities. I can reassure noble Lords that it will still be possible for a disabled person to apply for a permanent proxy vote to enable them to participate in the democratic process. It is only the number of voters on whose behalf a proxy can vote that will be affected. We are also carrying out extensive engagements on these changes, alongside the rest of the measures in this Bill, including with disability groups, to ensure that they are aware of any changes.
I note the proposal in Amendment 96F to reduce to three the number of electors for whom a person may act as a proxy. While two was the original recommendation in the Pickles report, we have, as I set out, expanded this to four, in recognition of the particular needs of overseas and service voters. I am not persuaded that a reduction to three would strike the right balance.
Amendment 96G would amend the statutory question that may be put to a person voting as a proxy when applying for the ballot paper, which asks if they have already voted as proxy at an election for more than four electors. It will be the electoral officers who will ask the question, so they will remind the person that they have four. If they have done more than four, it is an offence. The amendment would add the word “knowingly” to the question. We consider this as unnecessary, as a person will know how many times they have voted, and on whose behalf, and so will be able to give a clear answer to this question if it is put to them.
I now turn to probing Amendment 96H, which seeks to add to the list of questions that a returning officer can ask a proxy voter whether they have been convicted of offences under the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 and have been sanctioned. The statutory questions which the returning officers will be required to ask proxy voters are designed to establish if the proxy is seeking to vote in breach of electoral law—for example, by voting on behalf of more than the permitted number of electors. I understand the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, but it would be inappropriate to require polling station staff to ask questions that do not relate to the elector’s ability to vote or act as a proxy. For this reason, we cannot support the amendment.
Finally, Amendment 96J would provide that the proxy voting measure does not apply in relation to parliamentary by-elections. Once the measure is commenced, we see no good reason why we should specify that the new proxy rules should not apply in UK parliamentary by-elections. The reasons for introducing the measures are equally strong for all elections. I ask the noble Baroness not to press her amendments.
I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. I was particularly pleased to hear that disabled people will be able to apply for a permanent proxy vote; that is very useful to know. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 96E withdrawn.
Clause 6 agreed.
Schedule 4: Proxy voting: limits and transitional provision
Amendments 96F to 96J not moved.
Schedule 4 agreed.
Clause 7: Requirement of secrecy
97: Clause 7, page 9, line 13, after “communicate” insert “, or attempt to communicate”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment expands the offence to include attempting to communicate the number or other unique identifying mark on the back of a ballot paper sent to a person for voting by post at a relevant election.
My Lords, the amendments in this group all relate to the secrecy of the ballot. Amendment 97 from my noble friend Lady Hayman would expand the offence to include attempting to communicate the number or other unique identifying mark on the back of a ballot paper sent to a person for voting by post at a relevant election. Amendment 100, meanwhile, expands the offence to include those who obtain or attempt to obtain information or communicate at any time to any other person any information as to whether a person voting by post at a relevant election has spoilt their ballot.
The purpose of these amendments is to draw attention to the various ways that an individual could circumvent the secrecy of the ballot for nefarious purposes. I am sure the Minister would agree that legislation must cover each of the possible intrusions. Given that this is not the only legislation that deals with voting in private, I hope the Minister can assure the House that this amendment is not necessary and that this is already an offence.
Government Amendments 83, 99, 101 and 102, meanwhile, each make minor changes to inserted Section 66(3A) of the Representation of the People Act 1983. These all appear to be technical amendments which I have no intention of opposing, but I look forward to the Minister explaining their purpose in more detail.
Government Amendment 103 ensures that no criminal liability arises where information is sought from, or given by, a postal voter at an election for the purposes of an opinion poll or exit poll. Again, this amendment seems to be a technical clarification which has been rightly introduced.
Finally, Amendment 109 from the noble lord, Lord Hayward, allows for a more general debate on the secrecy of the ballot. It would mean that the Secretary of State could issue guidance on steps that presiding officers or clerks should take to ensure the secrecy of the ballot in polling stations, including debarring anyone accompanying the elector into the polling booth, unless on grounds of infirmity. This raises issues similar to those raised in earlier amendments from my noble friend Lady Hayman regarding how we can ensure that votes remain private. The noble Lord is right to table this amendment and to draw attention to further ways that this principle could be compromised. I hope the Minister can allay the House’s concerns ahead of Report. I beg to move.
My Lords, earlier this evening the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, made reference to the original secret ballot of the 19th century. To a large extent, what we have seen over the last 150 years is what should happen: a ballot should be secret, in that one person goes into the polling booth alone, marks their vote and then casts it in the ballot box. Unfortunately, because of a series of interventions, with the Electoral Commission and others denying who is interpreting the legislation in whichever way, this issue has been called into question. I am going to cite Tower Hamlets again, but I know that this problem is broader than that. Too regularly, presiding officers in polling stations are faced with a problem whereby people attempt to accompany somebody else into the polling booth, effectively to influence the casting of that ballot.
I can do no better than to quote research undertaken in 2018 by Democracy Volunteers, an organisation of lawyers who operate a system of reviewing the processes of elections, within Tower Hamlets and other similar locations. I make no apologies for quoting the research in full:
“QUESTION 9. Was there evidence of ‘family voting’ in the polling station? … In 58% of polling stations our observer teams identified so-called ‘family voting’. OSCE … describes ‘family voting’ as an ‘unacceptable practice’. It occurs where, generally, husband and wife vote together. It can be normalised and women, especially, are unable to choose for themselves who they wish to cast their votes for and/or this is actually done by another individual entirely. It is a breach of the secret ballot. We identified this in 58% of polling stations (74 separate occasions). As family voting, by definition, includes more than one person this means that we observed this 74 times in the 764 voters we observed. This means that over 19% of all the voters who we observed were either engaged in, or affected by, this practice.”
This is the key qualification:
“We would, however, like to add that the vast majority of cases of this were prevented, or attempts were made to prevent it. However, we believe that this constitutes an unacceptably high level of family voting in an advanced democracy and further steps should be taken to discourage and prevent it. However, this activity is generally not the fault of polling staff, in fact we commend the staff for being so active in their attempts to prevent it.”
As one of the observer teams said:
“Family voting is a definite concern in Tower Hamlets. At the best-run polling stations, the Presiding Officers kept an active watch for potential cases and took steps to prevent it happening. They took care to issue ballot papers to family members one at a time, and then direct them to polling booths in different parts of the room. With three members of polling staff, this meant that while two clerks checked the register and issued papers, the”
“could remain vigilant for possible family voting or other problems. All the observed cases of family voting took place when the”
“was absent or distracted, or their attention was elsewhere.”
There is no criticism here of the polling staff; they try to do their best. But I am afraid, as this report from Democracy Volunteers identifies, that this is a far too pervasive problem, and we need clear guidance. Most people believed that we had clear guidance for a century and a half, but because of varying interpretations, my amendment is an attempt to ensure that we move away from this practice and back to what was originally intended.
As the noble Lord, Lord Khan, identified, I have tried to allow for those people who need accompaniment. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, in a previous debate, there may be other people in similar circumstances who need assistance. Generally, the assistance will come from a polling officer, but there may be special reasons why somebody needs accompaniment from a member of the family. However, these should be virtually unique occasions, not—as the report from Democracy Volunteers identified—a pervasive problem. I therefore believe that my amendment is attempting to tackle a problem which is quite widespread and needs clarification, and that it is in the best interests of conducting elections across the country.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. As an aside on families and secrecy of the ballot, I have had to ask somebody to be a proxy only once: during the very fraught referendum on Brexit, I had to ask my husband. I can tell your Lordships that, to this day, I still do not know which way I voted. I think I know which way I voted, but the secrecy of the ballot is absolutely sacrosanct, and I do not know.
On a more serious point, these Benches support the raft of amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and those in the name of the Minister that support the secrecy of the ballot. The only difference we have with the noble Lord, Lord Hayward—this has been an ongoing issue with him—is that if guidance has to be given on such issues, it probably would be better coming from the independent Electoral Commission rather than the Secretary of State, although we do not dispute that such guidance would be helpful. However, we understand from previous discussions and debates with the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, why he seeks the Secretary of State giving such guidance, but if it was to come, we feel that it should come from the Electoral Commission. With those points, we support these amendments.
My Lords, the figures that the noble Lord gave will of course be of concern to the Committee and to any reasonable person following our proceedings. I have just been reading the Ballot Act 1872, Section 2 of which makes it clear that the vote shall be secret. It makes no reference to anybody conducting a voter and is particularly scrupulous, because of the great concern that there might be intervention by public authorities, that the presiding officers and staff in polling stations are kept completely apart from the act of voting; all they can do is check that the official mark has been made. The noble Lord’s point is well made, whether it is the Electoral Commission or the Secretary of State—although one would hope that the Secretary of State would be acting on the Electoral Commission’s advice on this matter anyway.
My Lords, as has been said, these amendments are to Clause 7, which concerns the important issue of the secrecy of the ballot for postal and proxy voters. The clause extends the requirements currently in place to protect the secrecy of voting for persons voting in polling stations to postal and proxy voting. These sensible change implementations are an important recommendation from the Pickles report.
First, in bringing forward government Amendments 98, 99 and 101 to 103, we have listened to feedback from political parties about the scope and effect of the provisions as drafted. Currently, the clause includes provisions that make it an offence for a person to obtain, attempt to obtain or communicate to anyone information about whether a postal voter has voted or about the candidate for whom they have voted. As drafted, this applies for the whole period that the elector is in possession of their postal ballot paper, which could be up to three weeks.
We now recognise that this approach goes beyond what is helpful to protect the voter and strays into unnecessarily criminalising not only legitimate political activity to engage electors in campaigns but important public information, such as opinion polling. The amendments would limit the scope of these provisions by providing for it to be an offence for a person to seek information about for whom a postal voter has voted at the time they are completing their ballot paper, or to communicate such information obtained at that time. Campaigners could therefore seek and communicate information that they obtain outside this period. This is in line with the protection for voters in polling stations, who are protected when they are in that polling station.
The amendments would also remove the restriction on asking whether a postal voter has voted so that campaigners can ask a postal voter whether they have voted, to encourage them to do so. Further, under the amendments, the offence would not apply to opinion-polling activity asking how a postal voter has voted, or intends to vote, to avoid criminalising opinion pollsters. The amendments seek to address the unintended consequences that the provisions, as they stand, would have. They would narrow the scope of the provisions so that they do not prevent legitimate campaigning by political parties and candidates outside the time when a person completes their postal ballot paper or legitimate opinion polling at any time.
I reassure noble Lords that the measures will improve the integrity of the postal vote process by reducing the opportunity for individuals to exploit the process and coerce other voters. They will give greater confidence in the integrity of absent voting; I therefore urge the Committee to accept these amendments.
The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness seek to provide that attempting to communicate information about a person’s postal vote as well as actually communicating the information is covered in the secrecy offence. Also, the amendments seek to include in the offence obtaining or attempting to obtain information or communicating information about whether a person voting by postal vote has spoilt their ballot. The Government consider that these amendments are unnecessary, as I have explained. The amendments that the Government have tabled seek to bring the protection for postal voters into line with that for those voting in polling stations.
The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness would mean that there would be inconsistency in the requirements for voters in polling stations and postal voters, which would not favour them. I note that, currently, it is an offence for a person to obtain or attempt to obtain information or communicate information as to the candidate for whom a voter has voted in a polling station, and we are applying this to postal voters.
Spoilt ballot papers are not included in the existing provisions, which relate to the time when a voter is casting their vote. It is for the returning officer to decide if a vote has been spoilt and cannot be counted. That cannot be done before it is cast. To try to include such a provision could lead to uncertainty about the scope of the offence and the role of the statutory independent returning officer in making any such determination. The Government therefore cannot accept these amendments.
I turn to the amendment from my noble friend Lord Hayward, which would provide the Secretary of State with a power to issue guidance on the steps that presiding officers or clerks should take to ensure the secrecy of the ballot in polling stations. I reassure noble Lords that the Government take this and the concerns that have been raised very seriously. The Government’s view is that the secrecy of the ballot is fundamental to the ability of voters to cast their vote freely, without undue pressure to vote in a certain way. The Government fully endorse the principle that someone’s vote must be personal and secret, and that no elector should ever be subject to intimidation or coercion when voting. There are already provisions in place in electoral law to ensure the secrecy of voting in polling stations. The current legislation requires that voters should not be accompanied by another person at a polling booth except in specific circumstances, such as being a child of a voter, a formal companion or a member of staff.
Returning officers and their staff in polling stations are responsible for making sure that these requirements are upheld. In this way, they are supported by the Electoral Commission, which issues guidance to returning officers and polling station staff to help them to undertake their duties.
I note that the Electoral Commission guidance specifically advises polling station staff that they should make sure that voters go to polling booths individually, so that their right to a secret vote is protected. Therefore, I do not consider that it is the role of government to issue such guidance as provided for in the amendment. However, given the important concerns that have been raised on the secrecy of voting, Minister Badenoch will be writing to the Electoral Commission and the Metropolitan Police to confirm our common understanding of the position set out in legislation—that the only people who should provide assistance at a polling booth are polling station staff and companions who are doing so only for the purpose of supporting an elector with health and/or accessibility issues that need such support. We are confident that the Electoral Commission will be able to respond promptly, and I reassure the noble Lord and the rest of the House that we will report back on this matter.
For these reasons, I hope that the amendments from the noble Baroness and the noble Lord will not be pressed.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response and the noble Lords, Lord Hayward and Lord Scriven, for their contributions. I want to say how impeccable the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was in reading the Ballot Act 1872 in the space of this debate, and I congratulate him on his reading skills. In doing so, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 97 withdrawn.
Amendments 98 and 99
98: Clause 7, page 9, leave out lines 21 to 24
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment leaves out paragraph (c) from inserted section 66(3A) of the Representation of the People Act 1983.
99: Clause 7, page 9, leave out lines 25 to 28 and insert—
“(d) obtain or attempt to obtain information, in the circumstances mentioned in subsection (3AA), as to the candidate for whom a person voting by post at a relevant election (“V”) is about to vote or has voted;(e) communicate at any time to any other person information obtained in contravention of paragraph (d).(3AA) The circumstances referred to in subsection (3A)(d) are where V is about to mark, is in the process of marking, or has just marked, a ballot paper sent to V for voting by post at the election.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment inserts, in substitution for paragraph (d) of inserted section 66(3A) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, provision clarifying the scope of the prohibition on obtaining or communicating information about the candidate for whom a postal voter has voted.
Amendments 98 and 99 agreed.
Amendment 100 not moved.
Amendments 101 to 103
101: Clause 7, page 9, line 33, leave out “any of paragraphs (a), (c) and (d)” and insert “paragraph (a) or (d)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment updates cross-references in consequence of the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 9, lines 21 to 24.
102: Clause 7, page 9, line 37, leave out “any of paragraphs (a), (c) and (d)” and insert “paragraph (a) or (d)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment updates cross-references in consequence of the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 9, lines 21 to 24.
103: Clause 7, page 9, line 38, at end insert—
“(3BA) Subsection (3A)(d) and (e) does not apply where the purpose (or main purpose) for which the information is sought or communicated is its use for the purposes of—(a) a published statement relating to the way in which voters intend to vote or have voted at the relevant election, or(b) a published forecast as to the result of that election which is based on information given by voters.(3BB) In subsection (3BA)—(a) “forecast” includes estimate;(b) “published” means made available to the public at large or to any section of the public, in whatever form and by whatever means;(c) the reference to the result of the relevant election is a reference to the result of the election either as a whole or so far as any particular candidate or candidates at the election is or are concerned.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that no criminal liability arises where information is sought from, or given by, a postal voter at an election for the purposes of an opinion poll or exit poll.
Amendments 101 to 103 agreed.
Clause 7, as amended, agreed.
Amendments 104 and 105 not moved.
Clause 8: Undue influence
106: Clause 8, page 10, leave out line 30 and insert—
“(1) After section 114 of RPA 1983 insert—“114A Undue influence(1) A person is guilty of a corrupt practice if the person is guilty of undue influence.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment inserts section 114A into the Representation of the People Act 1983, which contains a new undue influence provision that applies in relation to parliamentary elections and in relation to local government elections in England.
Amendment 106 agreed.
We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 106A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire.
Well spotted. The amendments are the wrong way round on Today’s Lists—apologies. The Marshalled List takes priority over the printed list so we will go back and take Amendment 106ZA.
106ZA: Clause 8, page 11, line 10, after “person” insert “or political party”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would expand the list of activities which may constitute undue influence to probe whether causing or threatening financial loss to a political party should be included.
I shall move this amendment very swiftly because I was intending to spend most of this speech discussing what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said about his amendment, but I have missed my opportunity on that.
Amendment 106ZA is about expanding the list of activities which may constitute undue influence to probe whether causing or threatening financial loss to a political party should also be included. At the moment, it just refers to financial loss due to persons, but clearly undue pressure could be put on political parties, particularly the smaller political parties, around potential financial loss if they go down certain policy routes, for example. It is just to probe that, so I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 106A. As I have already said to the Minister, this is very much a probing amendment. Clause 8 is an important clause. We all recognise that it has to be in any elections Bill. I note that in various references to the clause the statement is made that there is a need to clarify the law on undue influence. One of the things I asked the Minister in advance was whether he could tell us how often there have been successful prosecutions for undue influence, because it is not that easy to prove.
My experience of elections in Bradford is that intimidation—the sort of stuff in new subsection (4)(a),
“using or threatening to use violence against a person”—
has on occasion been quite evident, particularly when Respect and Labour were contesting for support in central Bradford constituencies, between cousins and, in one election, between supporters of two different Labour candidates. We will talk about that off the Floor.
That is the clearest example one can get from this clause. Some of the others are much more difficult to demonstrate. I assume that the new subsection
“causing spiritual injury to, or placing undue spiritual pressure on, a person”
arises from the Pickles report and the experience in Tower Hamlets. I could entertain noble Lords for quite a long while about my experience of spiritual influence. My wife and I once spent a very long evening with a crate of Guinness with the nine Catholic priests in the Manchester Moss Side constituency. They talked to us about the most important issues in the campaign, which were abortion, Northern Ireland and Catholic schools. The following night, Father Kelly took me round the Irish social clubs, saying as we went that I had to recognise that we would be the only two people there who were not drunk and who did not claim to have a cousin interned in Northern Ireland. I could also tell various stories about Methodists and Congregationalists, but the hour is late.
Spiritual influence is an interesting and difficult concept. It is easier with closed denominations than open ones. I recognise that there will be occasions where this might come up in the various factions in different religions, but my point in tabling the amendment is to ask: is the Minister advised that these are sufficiently clearly defined to be of use in bringing successful prosecutions? If so, congratulations. If not, ought we to take some of them back and consider further?
My Lords, I will follow on from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, on undue influence. I think that a large part of this stems from Richard Mawrey’s judgments in the Tower Hamlets case. Anybody who has not experienced what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has clearly seen in places such as Bradford and Kirklees and I witnessed in Tower Hamlets will not appreciate what one is talking about, which is a serious problem. The first time I went to an election in Tower Hamlets a friend of mine, Councillor Peter Golds, to whom my noble friend Lord True referred, identified this: “See those people there? See that person there?” We are talking about people standing 100 metres to 150 metres away from a polling station. They walk alongside people going to vote. They stop people going into the polling station. When complaints are made to the police, the police feel that they are powerless to intervene. Anybody who has not experienced that sort of undue influence cannot appreciate the intimidation involved. I welcome the clause and the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, because it is an important change to electoral law.
My Lords, the underlying issue here clearly might lead to concern in certain circumstances, but the point I took the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, to be making is that this is a very new category of injury. I have never seen in legislation before the concept of “spiritual injury” or individuals being placed under “spiritual pressure”. Could the Minister give us any precedents for these terms in legislation so that we can get some idea as to what other matters they have referred and how they might actually be applied?
Although we can understand the issue, how do we define what counts as spiritual pressure? If, for example, a religious group put out literature supporting one candidate or another, as often happens, would that count as undue spiritual pressure? There could be a freedom of speech issue here, which I do not think we want to get into, so it would be useful if the Minister could explain to us other contexts in which this has been used so that we can get some idea of what a proportionate judgment on “spiritual injury” and “undue spiritual pressure” might be.
I want to follow on from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, because his concerns were also mine. I am not clear what the definition of some of these issues would be in law and how they would be taken by the courts. Are there issues like this in legislation elsewhere and has there been interpretation by the courts, particularly regarding spiritual injury? For example, if someone was to stand up in a Catholic church and ask for people not to vote for candidates who supported abortion, would that constitute spiritual injury? Would that be undue spiritual pressure in determining which way people vote?
This is a very finely balanced issue, and I have not come across it before. Therefore, the Minister needs to explain very specifically where the lines and the boundaries are. It is a balance between people having the right to freedom of speech and of faith—I say that as somebody who does not have a religious faith—and the issue of them not being unduly influenced or forced to go against what they believe in. It would be really interesting to hear a clear definition and clear examples from the Dispatch Box for us to be able to determine exactly what this means in legislation.
I shall give my noble friend an American example, which has been debated in the United States very recently. There have been Catholic bishops who have suggested that President Biden should be denied communion, as a Catholic, because he is not prepared to be sufficiently anti-abortion. That, it seems to me, would be undue spiritual influence—although the spectacle of a Catholic bishop or archbishop being prosecuted for undue spiritual influence would be quite an interesting one.
I will elaborate on the noble Lord’s point. There is a difference here, in the ordinary reading of the words, between pressure and intimidation. I took the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, to be referring to intimidation, which is clearly something that we want to guard against. But what constitutes spiritual pressure? As noble Lords have just said, would a sermon in a church constitute pressure? A reasonable person might think that it would; after all, it is not serving much of a purpose if there is no pressure. This is a lay man speaking, but I think there is a difference between pressure and intimidation. We want to guard against intimidation, but we absolutely do not want to curb freedom of religious speech.
This is unexpectedly lively, but the focus really is on new sub-paragraph (3)(e). I think most of us would say that there is, if you like, a simple lay person’s interpretation of new sub-paragraph (3)(a), (b), (c), (d) and, for that matter, the catch-all of new sub-paragraph (3)(f), which is
“any other act designed to intimidate a person”.
In the light of new sub-paragraph (3)(f), it may be that the difficulties of new sub-paragraph (3)(e) are best avoided by their omission, because if such spiritual injury was demonstrated, it would come under new sub-paragraph (3)(f).
I just point out that the preceding activities have “using or threatening”, “damaging or threatening”, “causing or threatening”, but new sub-paragraph (3)(e) has “causing spiritual injury”; not “threatening” to cause spiritual injury. Obviously, it depends on one’s personal understanding of what spiritual injury might consist of, but the threat is surely going to be offered far more often than the reality will be delivered, if I may put it in those terms, although it does not mean that it is not effective. There are some problems in the straightforward interpretation of what new sub-paragraph (3)(e) really says, why it does not say “threatening” to cause, as does new sub-paragraph (3)(c) and (d), for instance, and why it is necessary, separate from the catch-all of new sub-paragraph (3)(f):
“doing any other act designed to intimidate a person”.
I want to bring a little bit of local colour to new sub-paragraph (4)(e). In 1992, I stood for the Liberal Democrats in Hazel Grove. On the Sunday before polling day, every Catholic church in the constituency had a letter read out from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, which clearly expressed the view that a vote for me would be a major spiritual error. I failed to win that seat by 923 votes. I do not attribute the result to that letter, but noble Lords will understand that I had a sense of grievance for some time afterwards that this letter had been read out.
This brings me to my second critique of new sub-paragraph (4)(e)—it is a little bit in the eye of the beholder. If that provision had been there in 1992, I would have gone straight to the returning officer to say that this was a clear case. It would be an invitation for people to complain about things which were in fact simply within the bounds of free speech, fair comment, and so on—even if it was unfair in the opinion of the recipient.
There is a double problem. First, what is “spiritual injury”? Secondly, do we mean causing it, or threatening to cause it? Do we think that the injury is to the voter who is deterred from voting for a candidate, or to the candidate by virtue of the voter not supporting them? I suggest that we are not very clear what we are trying to pin down. The Minister might like to carefully consider what the disbenefit would be of removing new sub-paragraph (4)(e) and simply relying on new sub-paragraph (4)(f) to deal with cases where “spiritual injury”—or threats of it—was part of the reason there had been intimidation.
My Lords, in Christian teaching, the alpha comes before omega, so I was a bit puzzled, like others, that Z comes before A. I was set up to answer the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, first, and I hope that the noble Baroness will not be offended if I do that.
In any case, both are seeking to probe the reference to “spiritual injury” and “undue spiritual pressure” in the clarified offence of “undue influence” of “an elector or proxy”. The “undue influence” offence is intended to ensure that all electors and proxies are able to cast their vote free from intimation and malicious interference. It is true that the 2015 Tower Hamlets petition, about which my noble friend Lord Hayward spoke eloquently, demonstrated that protection from undue influence remains highly relevant and important in 21st-century Britain. However, the existing offence of undue influence dates back to the 19th century. Indeed, the freedoms of religious authorities and priests to hold and express political views were first set out in a judgment in 1870, and those freedoms remain. However, the complexity and outdated terminology of the current offence makes it difficult for the police or prosecutors to apply it, leaving electors and proxies without necessary protection.
I was asked about convictions. According to our data, between 81% and 86% of allegations of undue influence lead to no further action at all, with only one court case initiated in the last eight years. While the defendant was found guilty of undue spiritual influence in the Tower Hamlets petition, Commissioner Mawrey highlighted insufficient clarity in the law, as well as the high bar which was required to convict someone of intimidation. The commissioner recommended that the offence of
“undue spiritual influence … be more clearly articulated”
and brought in line with 21st-century language and society, to ensure that it remains enforceable. The Law Commission, in its 2016 report into electoral law, similarly called for the offence to be restated more clearly. All respondents in the Government’s public consultation in 2018, entitled Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information, agreed that the offence required greater clarity.
The drafting of the clarified offence was subject to a targeted consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, Police Scotland, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and others. None of the stakeholders raised any concerns about the proposed modernised offence that is before your Lordships.
We have redrafted the offence to capture three overarching categories of activity—harm, deception in relation to the administration of an election, and intimidation—where these activities are carried out with the intention to induce, compel or cause
“an elector or proxy … to vote in a particular way or to refrain from voting, or otherwise”
impede or prevent
“the free exercise of the franchise of an elector”,
or on account of an electoral proxy having, or having been perceived to have, voted in a particular way, or refrained from voting.
As per the recommendation from the Pickles review, we retain reference to “undue spiritual influence”—a term previously there within the category of “harm”. New subsection (4)(e), as inserted by Clause 8, would replace the current wording of
“spiritual injury, damage, harm or loss”
with “spiritual injury” and “undue spiritual pressure”, on which noble Lords are asking questions. To elaborate, “spiritual injury” is intended to cover the potential detrimental impact to an individual’s spiritual well-being that could be directly caused by another individual. This could include, for example, excluding a person from the membership of an organised belief system or banning them from attending a place of worship.
Paragraph 289 of the Explanatory Notes provides examples of activities that would be captured under “undue spiritual pressure”, although ultimately that is a matter for the courts. To summarise, these would include actions to suggest that to vote or not vote for a particular candidate or party is a duty arising from a person’s spiritual or religious beliefs and it would improve or reduce a person’s spiritual standing, or would lead to specific spiritual consequences such as going to heaven or hell.
This clarified “undue spiritual pressure” was drafted with the intention of drawing more clearly the line between legitimate spiritual influence, which the Government recognise is inherent in all positions of spiritual authority in all religions, and improper or inappropriate pressure that amounts to undue spiritual influence. The provision was constructed to strike a balance to ensure the protection of electors while, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, quite rightly said, preventing encroachment on freedoms of thought, belief or expression. This would not stop, for example, a religious leader expressing their opinion on political or other matters that have implications for the principles of that religion, or the behaviour of religious groups for whom not voting is an established doctrine. This is about ensuring that all electors and proxies are able to cast their vote free from intimidation and malicious interference. Therefore, the Government cannot support this amendment.
Amendment 106ZA seeks to include reference to a “political party” in new subsection (4)(d) under the undue influence offence. That would mean that the activity of causing or threatening to cause financial loss to a person would explicitly include causing or threatening to cause financial loss to a political party, as proposed by the noble Baroness opposite. Legally, the reference in new subsection (4)(d) to a “person” already captures both a natural person and a legal person, such as a company, organisation or indeed political party, where it has a corporate personality. The effect that the noble Baroness seeks is already achieved by the term in the Bill through the clause as currently drafted. Therefore, while well-intentioned, this amendment is unnecessary. I respectfully ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment on the basis of that clarification.
I hope that these explanations are helpful to your Lordships. I repeat that the balance has to be articulated, and has always been articulated, in case law, alongside more recent protections provided through the European Convention on Human Rights.
My Lords, I think it is the sense of quite a few of us that it might be wiser to remove the phrase “causing spiritual injury to” because that is, I think, the most difficult element of it. I think most of us would understand
“placing undue spiritual pressure on”.
I respectfully suggest that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, might be a useful person to consult on this. Some of us may remember the occasion when, as Lord Chancellor, he attended a requiem mass for a Catholic judge in Glasgow and was threatened with exclusion from his own church, very clearly threatening to use spiritual pressure. He has presumably thought all of this through extremely well.
I thank the Minister for explaining the efforts that have gone into defining “undue influence” rather better. I still feel that we are looking at something which we all know is there but we are not at all sure that the police, let alone the Crown Prosecution Service, are going to want to take on very much. This is an area involving the boundaries between campaigning, free speech, improper behaviour and downright offences which we will probably have to live with, unsatisfactorily, because that is part of the nature of democracy.
My Lords, it has been a particularly interesting debate on the definition of spirituality and so on. We need to get more definition and clarity in order to move forward, so that there are no unforeseen or unfortunate consequences.
I thank the Minister very much for his clarification. It makes perfect sense to me now and, on that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 106ZA withdrawn.
Amendment 106A not moved.
Amendments 107 and 108
107: Clause 8, page 11, line 23, at end insert—
“(7) This section does not have effect in relation to a local government election in Scotland or Wales.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that the inserted section 114A does not apply in relation to local government elections in Scotland or Wales.
108: Clause 8, page 11, line 23, at end insert—
“(1A) In section 115 of RPA 1983 (undue influence)—(a) in subsection (1), after “influence” insert “in relation to a local government election in Scotland or Wales”;(b) in subsection (2), after “influence” insert “in relation to a local government election in Scotland or Wales”;(c) in the heading, after “influence” insert “: local government elections in Scotland and Wales”.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment confines the existing undue influence provision, section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, to local government elections in Scotland and Wales.
Amendments 107 and 108 agreed.
Clause 8, as amended, agreed.
Amendment 109 not moved.
Schedule 5: Undue influence: further provision
Amendments 110 to 118
110: Schedule 5, page 109, leave out lines 23 to 32
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment confines the amendment to section 80(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 so that it does not cover incapacity where the holder of a devolved office in Scotland or Wales is reported guilty or convicted of undue influence.
111: Schedule 5, page 110, line 4, leave out paragraph 3
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the amendment to section 80A of the Local Government Act 1972.
112: Schedule 5, page 110, line 41, leave out from beginning to end of line 7 on page 111
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment confines the amendment to section 4(1) of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 so that it does not cover incapacity where the holder of a devolved office in Scotland or Wales is reported guilty or convicted of undue influence.
113: Schedule 5, page 111, line 15, leave out paragraph 5
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the amendment to section 31 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973.
114: Schedule 5, page 113, leave out lines 15 to 25
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment confines the amendment to section 21 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 so that it does not cover incapacity arising where the holder of a devolved office in Scotland or Wales is reported guilty or convicted of undue influence.
115: Schedule 5, page 114, line 2, leave out paragraph 8
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the amendment to Schedule 1A to the Government of Wales Act 2006.
116: Schedule 5, page 114, leave out lines 14 to 23
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment confines the amendment to paragraph 9(1) of Schedule 5B to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 so that it does not cover incapacity arising where the holder of a devolved office in Scotland or Wales is reported guilty or convicted of undue influence.
117: Schedule 5, page 115, leave out lines 4 to 9
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment confines the amendment to section 66(3) of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 so that it does not cover incapacity arising where the holder of a devolved office in Wales is reported guilty or convicted of undue influence.
118: Schedule 5, page 115, line 24, leave out paragraph 11
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes the consequential repeals made by paragraph 11 of Schedule 5.
Amendments 110 to 118 agreed.
Schedule 5, as amended, agreed.
Clause 9: Assistance with voting for persons with disabilities
118A: Clause 9, page 11, line 29, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—
“(a) in paragraph (3A)(b), for “a device” substitute “equipment”;(aa) after paragraph (3A)(b) insert—“(c) such equipment as it is reasonable to provide for the purposes of enabling, or making it easier for, relevant persons to vote in the manner directed by rule 37.”;”
My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 118A on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, who cannot be in his place today. I am doing this to allow for debate at this time on Amendment 122A, which is on the same topic. Amendment 118A is a retabled version of Amendment 120 and this has been done in order to place it in the correct part of the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, has already spoken to his amendment on an earlier day, he has nothing further to add.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 122A, on an issue that I do not think has received sufficient attention for a long time: the significant group of voters who lose their votes at each election because they inaccurately fill out the verification forms to be enclosed with their postal vote forms. The problem is that, depending on the whims of a particular returning officer, a voter could be doing this, year in and year out, at every election, without realising that the vote they thought they had cast has not actually been validated because of an error—perhaps on the voting paper itself but, in my experience, it is far more likely to be an error on the verification form required to go with it.
I have listed certain categories of voters in my amendment—for example, those with failing eyesight or those with limited or no literacy. To fill in the paperwork that allows one to complete a postal vote form can be incredibly complex. There is a range of options open to returning officers. My own personal experience of filling them in is that some are straightforward and some are mind-bogglingly difficult. Those voters who are particularly vulnerable ought to have an automatic right, whereby an agent of the returning officer should, if requested, be able to visit them and assist them in the completion not of the voting paper itself—the experience I have is that that is rarely spoiled—but of the verification form that goes with it.
The percentages are very high indeed. In a local election in the area I once represented, one could easily see 300 postal votes that were lost because of this. In a general election, one is multiplying that, and anything up to a thousand votes could be lost, purely because people have been unable to accurately complete the paperwork. Some will do that carelessly, but there is a whole range of more vulnerable voters who, given the opportunity for assistance, would complete the verification form accurately and then vote and have their vote counted.
It seems to me that, whether it requires legislation or clearer guidance to returning officers, this is a rather important point in ensuring that maximise the actual turnout in elections, rather than the theoretical turn out of those who have returned postal votes but do not have them counted. The numbers are significant if we multiply across the country those that I have seen locally. It is a significant group of voters, and it is through no specific fault of their own—other than, for example, their literacy or their failing eyesight, which is the example I am most familiar with.
Better advice from returning officers would be appropriate. I put this forward as an option, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for speaking on behalf of my noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond. We did debate his Amendment 118A, and we are in contact with him on the issues he raised, so I am happy with that.
Amendment 122A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, would require that the returning officers consider whether to appoint designated people to assist electors in completing their postal votes at home or at other locations for various reasons. I commend the spirit of this amendment in looking to improve the accessibility of elections for people who may struggle to mark their vote. We know that there are people who, for many reasons, do that, but I contend that it is not necessary, given the existing assistance avenues already in place.
When voting by post, it is important that the postal vote is completed by the person to whom it is given. When someone is unable to sign the postal vote, as is required, they may get a waiver of their signature. If they need help from the returning officer, they may attend a polling station where staff are empowered to assist electors to vote, or a companion can assist them in a supervised environment. If the person cannot attend a polling station, they may appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. This proxy may themselves choose to vote by post. An elector may also appoint an emergency proxy to vote on their behalf up until 5 pm on the day of the poll in certain unforeseen circumstances.
For these reasons, while I understand everything that has been said, I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.
Amendment 118A withdrawn.
Amendment 119 not moved.
Amendment 120 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Clause 9 agreed.
House adjourned at 10.16 pm.