Committee (5th Day) (Continued)
139: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
“Voting by convicted persons sentenced to terms of 12 months or less
In section 3(1A) (exceptions to the disenfranchisement of prisoners) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, after “Scotland” insert “or a parliamentary election”.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would allow prisoners serving a sentence of 12 months or less to vote in UK parliamentary elections.
My Lords, perhaps I may be forgiven for my second intrusion into the Committee by all those who are toiling so hard on it day after day.
It may be a bit trite, but in a democracy, all citizens are presumed to have the right to vote. That is the way by which they have a say in making the laws that govern them: demokratia. The Joint Committee of both Houses appointed to consider the draft voting eligibility (prisoners) Bill in 2013 concluded that the vote is a right, not a privilege. It does not have to be earned, and its removal without good reason undermines democratic legitimacy.
In the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the purposes of sentencing are said to be
“the punishment of offenders … the reduction of crime … the reform and rehabilitation of offenders … the protection of the public, and … the making of reparation by offenders to persons affected by their offences.”
Where does the disfranchisement of a prisoner come within those aims? It obviously has nothing to do with the reduction of crime, the protection of the public or the making of reparations. If it is regarded as an act of retribution, part of the punishment of offenders, it is doubtful that the prisoner thinks it significant in any way, compared with his loss of liberty.
This does not concern itself with proportionality: a prisoner loses the vote by the act of imprisonment, not by the nature of his crime. A person imprisoned for dangerous driving is in exactly the same position as a person serving a life sentence for rape or murder. Of course, unconvicted prisoners, convicted prisoners awaiting sentence and people imprisoned for either contempt of court or debt, remain eligible to vote.
Your Lordships will remember that the first case in the European Court of Human Rights in 2001 was the case that made Mr David Cameron sick. In subsequent cases, the European court held that it was disproportionate for there to be an automatic and indiscriminate blanket disfranchisement of prisoners. It said there was a need to discriminate between less serious and more serious offences with some regard to individual circumstances. In his autobiography, Mr Jack Straw said with some pride that as Justice Secretary at the time he had
“kicked the issue into touch, first with one inconclusive public consultation, then with a second.”
When the matter came before the House of Commons in 2011 on a free vote Mr Cameron was very clear that prisoners should not have the vote:
“no one should be in any doubt: prisoners are not getting the vote under this Government”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/10/12; col. 923.]
Mr Sadiq Khan confirmed that Labour’s policy was, and always had been, that prisoners should not have the vote.
Despite the views of the two largest parties, in its 2013 report the Joint Committee supported, by a majority, the restoration of the right to vote to those sentenced to imprisonment of 12 months or less. It concluded that, if the UK wanted to disobey the European Court of Human Rights decision in Hirst, our doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty gave us power to withdraw from the human rights convention system altogether, but while we are part of that system, as we still are, we incur obligations that cannot be the subject of cherry picking. Dominic Raab, currently the Lord Chancellor, but then not in office, said at the time of the committee’s report, in characteristically restrained tones,
“This report proposes the most politically spineless and morally confused of all the options floated to date. It would give the vote to imprisoned terrorists, rapists and paedophiles, in the vain hope that we can buy a compromise with Strasbourg.”
I have yet to hear of any terrorist, rapist or paedophile sent to prison for only 12 months or less, which was the recommendation of the committee that he was criticising.
In the dispute with the European Court of Human rights, there was eventually a compromise with the Council of Europe, the guardian of the European convention, in 2018 when the UK Government agreed to allow prisoners released on temporary licence to vote in elections. The European court’s file was closed, but not the issue.
While England has stood still, Wales and Scotland have been more progressive. In Scotland, after extensive consultation, the Scottish Elections (Franchise and Representation) Bill was passed in April 2020—the first Bill in the Scottish Parliament to receive a two-thirds supermajority of 92 votes to 27. The Scottish Bill extends the electoral franchise in local and Scottish elections to prisoners serving a sentence of less than 12 months, as the 2013 committee recommended for the whole of the UK. The franchise in Scotland now extends to anyone legally resident in Scotland, including refugees and those granted asylum.
In Wales, as a result of recent legislation, some 1,900 prisoners and 20 young offenders serving four years or less will be able to vote in the May elections for the first time and will ultimately be able to vote in elections for the Senedd. Some 37% of them are held in prisons in England, but they nevertheless will be able to register to vote in an area in Wales with which they can show a positive connection. In the consultation period for the Welsh Bill, the Senedd’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee visited Parc prison in Bridgend and spoke to prisoners. Some said that although they were in prison, they still had children, family and friends outside who were affected by political decisions. Political choices by the Government have an impact on the lives of prisoners and the prisoners wanted to have a stake in society. Their complaint was that they were told that prison is about rehabilitation and reintegration, but when it came to voting, they were not to be entrusted with the vote.
So there it is. Mr Raab can choose, with all his bluster about terrorists, rapists and paedophiles, to inflict a Victorian-type civic death on an offender the moment the prison doors clang shut. It is done under the Forfeiture Act 1870 of 150 years ago. It is a relic of Locke’s heavily criticised 1689 theory of the social contract. What does that achieve in the 21st century? In Europe, it aligns us with Russia and Belarus, not the overwhelming majority of European countries that now permit prisoners to exercise their right to vote. Today, this modest amendment will return the franchise to those sentenced to one year’s imprisonment or less. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendment, to which I have added my name and which has been so well introduced by the noble Lord. The House of Commons Library briefing note on prisoners’ votes details the sorry tale, as has the noble Lord, of how the issue has been kicked into the long grass without a satisfactory resolution, following the ECHR ruling that an indiscriminate ban on all serving prisoners contravened the European Convention on Human Rights and subsequent calls from the Council of Europe. The result has been, in the words of one expert commentator, “minimalist compliance”. When it comes to prisoners’ votes, it is a question of “out of sight, out of mind”, just as prisoners themselves are.
The recent prisons White Paper included, in a section on the purposes of prisons, the need to
“promote rehabilitation and reform to reduce reoffending.”
It would be facile to suggest that, of itself, giving short-term prisoners the vote would lead to rehabilitation. But to withhold the right to vote from them, together with some of the things said by Ministers when it was a live issue—the noble Lord quoted David Cameron on the subject, in particular—indicates a punitive rather than a rehabilitative view of the role of prisons. On Thursday, my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti argued powerfully for the right to vote as a fundamental civil and political right. It is a basic right of citizenship. To withhold this right from short-term prisoners is in effect to say that they are not citizens. As the noble Lord said, it has been described as a state of civic death, one which affects black and minority ethnic groups disproportionately, according to the Prison Reform Trust.
Of course, as Governments of all hues like to emphasise, citizenship is about responsibilities as well as rights. My noble friend described it as an “ethical duty”. What better way to instil a sense of civic responsibility in prisoners than to encourage them to see themselves as fellow citizens with a stake in the country and the right and responsibility to express their views through the vote. As Conservative MP Peter Bottomley once argued,
“Ex-offenders and ex-prisoners should be active, responsible citizens. Voting in prison can be a useful first step to engaging in society.”
The Electoral Commission has in the past considered the practicalities involved and concluded that they are perfectly feasible. As has been said, the UK is one of only a handful of European countries which automatically disenfranchises sentenced prisoners. All the amendment would do is extend the vote to those sentenced to 12 months or less, which is a very modest step, but one it is high time we took. It may not be popular, but few people will have heard the case for it, given that most politicians have been so against it. In the name of citizenship and fundamental rights, it is time that a Government had the courage to take this modest step.
My Lords, it is again my great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, and agree with everything she has said. I offer Green Party support for Amendment 139. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said in introducing the amendment, this is a long-term situation where the UK has not complied with its human rights obligations. This is an occasion where I am not going to hold this Government solely responsible; the Labour Government had five years to remedy the situation and the coalition Government had five years to fix it, yet here we still are.
The Green Party policy, as is the case in many things, would go rather further than the amendment. Our policy is that all prisoners should have the right to vote except where the sentencing judge, taking into account the nature of the offence, decides to make the loss of the vote explicitly part of the penalty. The obvious cases where that might happen would be in a case of electoral fraud, for example, or perhaps where an oligarch who has used some of their ill-gotten gains to attempt to buy a political party or a certain political outcome.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, the question is what prisons are for when it comes to more standard types of offences. Are we cutting people off from society, further reinforcing social exclusion and distancing them from the norms and values that we are hoping they will absorb before they go out into society? After all, nearly everyone who is in prison will eventually go out into society. Are we actively trying to rehabilitate people and equip them for a life outside prison?
Voting is a fundamental part of our society. The blanket denial that says that once you are in jail you cannot vote is a way of saying, “We’re not going to do anything to improve the world that helped to put you into this place”. We know the situation of so many people in prison and the huge disadvantage and inequality that is a background to people who are there. So the amendment does not go far enough but it is an important first step.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on the amendment, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, on moving it. As always, I thank my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett. I am sorry that I am outwith my party’s position on this but there are hawks and doves in both main parties when it comes to penal reform, and indeed when it comes to the law-and-order arms race that I believe has been a problem in our country for too many years—perhaps for my whole adult life.
I remember Lord Hurd addressing the Conservative Party conference when I was a relatively small person—even smaller than I am now. Those were the days when all party conferences were televised in total—can you imagine?—and it was a time when people were calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty. He, as a Conservative Home Secretary, faced that audience down and explained to them why that was a terrible thing. Later in my life and career I had the privilege to congratulate him on that moment, which he remembered, and it was something he could be proud of.
I believe this change will come because I am an optimist about the course of progress in world events. It may well be a Conservative Home Secretary and Government who do the “Nixon in China” thing, but whoever does it, I think they should. I will not cite the European Court of Human Rights, as some would groan and expect me to do. I do not pray in aid its judgments; I pray in aid basic principle and practical logic.
I agree with the points that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, made about the purposes of incarceration. We accept that some people in extremis need to be incarcerated for certain offences for the reasons of retribution, rehabilitation, public protection and deterrence, but none of those four traditional justifications for incarceration after criminal conviction explains why, on a blanket basis, you would take away someone’s vote—particularly people, as in this modest amendment, who will be out very soon and who we want to reintegrate and rehabilitate as best we can. Frankly, we want politicians, activists and voters to be a little bit more concerned about those people whom we are still subjecting to this Victorian notion of civic death.
I will not bore the Committee with those endless Churchillian quotes about how we judge a society by how it treats its prisoners. Instead, I will quote the new and very dynamic chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Andrea Coomber QC, who says: “Denying prisoners the vote only ostracises them from the civic engagement that marks a healthy democracy. Voting, particularly for those who will soon be released, is an important signal of a commitment to rehabilitation and reintegration. We should be championing prisoner voting, not banning it.”
My Lords, I heard all the contributions from all sides of the House, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, for his introduction, which quite accurately set out the history. I have read the parliamentary Commons briefing as well. The reality is that the position of the Labour Party has not changed, and we do not support this amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have spoken. Amendment 139, as has been said, seeks to extend the franchise for parliamentary elections to prisoners serving a term of 12 months or less. This Government believe, in common with the party opposite, that when a citizen commits a crime that is sufficiently serious to detain them in prison, they have broken their contract with society. In addition, the Government have made their position clear. We said openly in our manifesto:
“We will maintain the ban on prisoners voting from jail.”
Prison means the loss of a number of rights and freedoms, not least the right to liberty and freedom of association. The Government believe that the loss of voting rights while in prison is a proportionate curtailment of such civic rights. As such, we cannot support this amendment.
I thank those who have supported me in this amendment. I am particularly grateful to those on the Labour Benches, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, who have spoken in favour.
I just wonder about the Labour Party. In Cardiff, it moved to bring about voting for prisoners, seeing it as an important part of its remit from the people of Wales. Here, however, it is dismissed in a sentence: “We haven’t changed”. The Labour Party is a little bit split. I am not sure what it said in Scotland; I will have to look that up after this and investigate.
This is the way the world is going. You can stand in the way if you like, but ultimately the vote will be given to prisoners, just as it is in most democracies around the world. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 139 withdrawn.
Amendment 140 not moved.
141: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
“Automatic voter registration
(1) Registration officers must take all reasonable steps to ensure that all persons eligible to register to vote in elections in the United Kingdom are so registered.(2) The Secretary of State must by regulations require public bodies to provide information to registration officers to enable them to fulfil their duty under subsection (1).(3) Regulations under subsection (2) must apply to the following public bodies—(a) HM Revenue and Customs;(b) the Department for Work and Pensions;(c) the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency;(d) the National Health Service, NHS Wales and NHS Scotland;(e) schools and further and higher education institutions;(f) local authorities;(g) HM Passport Office;(h) police forces;(i) the TV Licensing Authority;(j) Job Centre Plus;(k) the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Local Communities;(l) the Department for Transport;(m) the Department for Health and Social Care;(n) the Home Office; and(o) the Ministry of Justice.(4) Regulations under subsection (2) may also apply to other public bodies. (5) Registration officers must—(a) use the information provided by the public bodies listed in regulations under subsection (2) to register otherwise unregistered persons on the appropriate electoral register or registers, or(b) if the information provided does not contain all information necessary to register a person who may be eligible, contact that person for the purpose of obtaining the required information to establish whether they are eligible to register and, if so, register them on the appropriate electoral register or registers.(6) If a registration officer has registered a person under subsection (5), the officer must notify that person within 30 days and give that person an opportunity to correct any incorrect information.(7) Where a person is registered under subsection (5), that person must be omitted from the edited register unless that person notifies the registration officer to the contrary.(8) Nothing in this section affects entitlement to register to vote anonymously.(9) The Secretary of State may issue guidance to registration officers on fulfilling their duties under this section.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would require registration officers to enter eligible voters on the register, and provide for them to receive the necessary information from a number of public bodies.
My Lords, we had not pre-planned who would speak but, having attached my name to this amendment and being one of the two people here to do so, I will speak, with some unexpectedness, in favour of it.
Amendment 141 introduces a carefully planned and worked-through plan—as noble Lords can see—for automatic voter registration. It is a great pity that, given the time of this debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, is not able to be with us, but I hope that we might return to this on Report. It would be particularly interesting to hear from both the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Woolley. Many of the issues that the noble Lord addresses in this amendment were similarly addressed in his speech on voter ID and the importance of allowing the engagement of everybody in our electoral process. I urge people who have not read or heard that speech to catch up with it because it is an important one.
To put the case for why we need automatic voter registration, when I was reflecting on this, I thought it sounded like the sort of thing that we would normally do in Grand Committee in the Moses Room, looking at some detailed statutory instrument and going through the dusty tomes. But this is of course far from a bureaucratic detail. Rather, to bring in automatic voter registration would be the long-delayed completion of a democratic progression of a couple of centuries, right through the 19th-century reform Acts and the 20th-century women’s suffrage. It is a vital step in ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote actually has that vote available to them. The fact is that people do not have that practical opportunity now.
As I said at Second Reading, just because the Government are trying to slash away what little democracy we have in this country with many elements of this Bill, it does not mean that we cannot use this opportunity to set out a way forward to reform and repair our archaic and dysfunctional UK constitution. For there are what is known in shorthand as the “missing millions”— people who are eligible to vote but not registered for the right. An Electoral Commission study from 2019 suggested that their numbers exceed 9 million, while more than 5 million people are incorrectly registered. Those millions are not some random sample of the population. It is the young and those in private rental accommodation, many of whom have to move often, who are massively underrepresented on the rolls and by our so-called democracy. This ties into the debate that we were having earlier about votes for 16 and 17 year-olds. Those people are least likely to vote Conservative.
This amendment, therefore, is about not just people’s individual rights but ensuring that our electoral results reflect the views of the people. The background to this is individual electoral registration, which was introduced in 2014. It cleaned up the messes—I am sure that I am far from the only Member of your Lordships’ House who has knocked on the door of a very small flat at which there are apparently 16 people registered, and it is not a case of fraud but various people have moved in and out and names have been added without any being removed. However, it also cleaned out millions of people who should have been on those rolls, particularly young people and students at university.
This is a really important point and I hope that the Minister might be able to address it. It is not even easy to check whether you are registered correctly. The Electoral Commission website says—this is the only information it provides—
“contact the electoral services team at your local council”.
That is how you go about checking whether you are on the electoral roll. It is a far from simple, easy process. Can the Minister say whether the Government plan any improvements on that simple step so that people can check whether they are registered?
To briefly address the details of this amendment, automatic voter registration need not be complicated or introduce a large bureaucratic burden. Schools and colleges could register young people as attainers—those about to become voters—and university students could be registered by their universities. Changing the address on your driving licence, which is something everyone is legally obliged to do, registering for council tax, or having contact with the Department for Work and Pensions are all things that could feed into the electoral roll—they are how the Government know where people are.
I will make one final point, because I am sure other people will have many other things to say on this important amendment. Of course, automatic voter registration will not guarantee that people turn out to vote. Already, typically, fewer than 70% of people on the roll turn out for general elections, and often 30% or fewer in council elections. But giving people the opportunity by making sure their name is on the rolls as it should be without them having to go to extraordinary efforts has to be essential to make any claim of calling this country a democracy. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, as it is to add my name to this amendment also in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Woolley of Woodford, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Warsi. I do not need to repeat the compelling points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, but I will just say this. We all know that to have the option of voting is a fundamental right, just as to pay tax when it is owed is a fundamental duty. The Government worked very hard, as they should, at ensuring that when people reach the age of 18, they are automatically registered for tax purposes. I really believe in taxation, obviously. They are right to do it, and it ought to be increasingly easy to do that in our automated world. If the Government can do that, why on earth would they not do the equivalent thing when people reach whatever the age of majority is—we argued about that—to ensure that people are registered.
We have had the arguments about voter ID, which is ID when you turn up and choose to vote. No doubt, we will come back to those, but this is an earlier step. If the Government are really serious, as they tell us they are, about not disfranchising people and making sure they have this possibility of exercising their right, why would they not at least ensure they are automatically registered, with all the information and all the tools available to the state? If I may say so to the Minister: if the Government would listen on this issue and be prepared to have discussions, it might go some way to ameliorating concerns about potential voter suppression in relation to ID when people to turn up to vote at the polling station.
This is an infinitely sensible proposal, infinitely possible to achieve. A quarter of the way into the 21st century, with all the wit and wisdom we have at our disposal, and all the resources the Government have, if we are really serious about ensuring people are not disfranchised, they should be automatically registered when they reach voting age.
My Lords, the exacerbation of the political exclusion of poorer and marginalised communities—Gypsies, Travellers and Roma in particular —consequent on this Bill was thoroughly aired in Committee on 17 March, when, I regret, I was unable to attend, and on Second Reading. I read Hansard carefully, and I will not rehearse the powerful arguments made by my noble friends Lady Hayman of Ullock and Lady Lister and the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, and acknowledged by the Minister responding—the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook.
I would just add, in support of Amendments 141 and 144B, that only this week, colleagues from Friends, Families and Travellers—I declare an interest as president and my other related posts shown in the register—and the Roma Support Group made the points at a meeting with DLUHC that people from their communities already have difficulty in meeting the identification requirements for exercising their right to vote and would feel even more left out of the system under the Bill’s proposals. The fact that postal voters would be exempt compounded their sense of injustice.
As I understand it, the Government do not actually know the relative proportion of minority ethnic turnout to vote. Nor did their voter ID pilots establish this basic national social evidence. In my opinion, the Government would be well advised to consider positively the assistance offered by these amendments in making sure that no one is left out.
As the Bill stands, Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, and other marginalised citizens, are in effect discriminated against, when they should be enabled to join the mainstream. The proposals deter rather than enfranchise people. They subvert democracy. These amendments would help right that wrong. I urge the Government to adopt them.
First, it is important to establish that there is a problem. I quote from the briefing supplied by the Electoral Commission to your Lordships on these amendments:
“There is more that could and should be done to modernise electoral registration processes in Great Britain, to ensure that as many people as possible are correctly registered.”
I believe I heard the Minister make the same point—that he believes it good public policy to get people registered. The Electoral Commission’s most recent estimate is that
“between 8.3 and 9.4 million people in Great Britain who were eligible to be on the local government registers were not correctly registered”.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said, those figures were collected in December 2018. It says there are another 360,000 or more people in Northern Ireland not correctly registered. It also made the same point as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett:
“Our research found that young people, students and those who have recently moved are the groups that are least likely to be correctly registered.”
Courtesy of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, I would say that Travellers are very much in that group of under-registered people.
The Electoral Commission has published feasibility studies which identified that there is potential to evolve the current system. Those studies are reflected in the amendments before your Lordships today. Amendment 141 is one route to it—the two are not exclusive but it is one route—and Amendment 144B is another, to which we have added our names as well. It provides simply that, when a person is issued with a national insurance number, they receive their application for the electoral register.
The Electoral Commission makes two more points in its briefing:
“the education sector … could help EROs identify attainers and other young people. Also, data from the Department for Work and Pensions could potentially be used by EROs to register young people to vote automatically when they are allocated their national insurance number ahead of their 16th birthday.”
I do not want to frighten the Minister; the Electoral Commission is not suggesting that they would vote from their 16th birthday but simply that, as attainers, that would be an appropriate time for them to apply to be put on as an attaining voter.
At least in theory, I think we are all in favour of all qualified UK citizens being on the electoral roll and we would all say that we would like them to exercise their vote. This legislation increases the number of people eligible to go on that register by virtue of what the Bill proposes to do in relation to overseas electors. We will debate that shortly.
Clearly, the Government do not have a problem with having a larger voting roll. They share the Committee’s view that it is desirable, in principle, that all eligible people should be on the roll, and yet, so far, they have been extremely resistant to doing that, as far as attainers in particular are concerned. In the light of the evidence that the Electoral Commission has produced, that it is a significant number and that there are solutions, and in a situation where the Minister has in front of him two amendments proposing practical ways to solve that problem, I hope that in winding up he will be able to say that he will take this back, give it further consideration and perhaps produce an appropriate government amendment on Report.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord True, has made two sets of powerful arguments about the right to vote. First, he made a series of powerful arguments in favour of photo identification as a right to vote and, just now, he talked about the rights and responsibilities of citizens with respect to prisoners’ right to vote. Would an acceptance of this amendment not represent some consistency, and a rejection of this amendment represent some very clear inconsistency in the following sense? What would the Minister do about a situation where someone turns up at a polling station with a British passport and a British driving licence on which their address is registered, and they are then refused the right to vote? They will have complied with everything the Minister argued for in the discussion of identification, but they will be denied the right to vote because of a variety of complexities that still bedevil our registration system.
Surely it is appropriate that there are democracies—Norway, Australia—in which a presence on the register and the right to vote are automatic and ensured by modern data systems that can easily do the job. Surely, if he has a degree of consistency in his arguments about this Bill, the Minister will support these amendments.
My Lords, throughout Committee I have kept coming back to the impact assessment. Right there on the front page of the impact assessment it says:
“What are the policy objectives of the action or intervention and the intended effects?”
“To ensure that those who are entitled to vote should always”—
“be able to exercise that right freely, effectively and in an informed way”.
That is the intended consequence, the stated intention of the Bill before us: that those who are entitled to vote
“should always be able to exercise that right”.
People cannot exercise that right if they are not on the electoral roll. It is an absolute condition of always being able to exercise that right.
The amendments before us are absolutely bang on the money, in terms of what the intended policy of the Bill is in the impact assessment. As citizens of this country, we are all given automatic rights and responsibilities. Through that, we get certain certificates or automated numbers. We get our national insurance number automatically. We do not have to apply; it is automatically granted to us at 16. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said, we are registered for taxation automatically. We get our NHS number automatically. If noble Lords asked the vast majority of the public if they would object to being automatically registered, I have seen no evidence that says people would reject that proposition. Whether people then go to vote is down to the politicians to encourage them, enthuse them and get them to the polling station.
The very fact that the Government’s policy is to “always” ensure that people are able to exercise their vote in an automatic, easy and effective way means that these amendments should be accepted by the Government. If they are not, I would ask the Minister to explain why not having automatic registration, and keeping what is on the face of the Bill, would actually meet their objective to
“ensure that all those who are entitled to vote should always be able”
to do so.
My Lords, in speaking to my Amendment 144B, I would like first to take the opportunity to thank the Patchwork Foundation for its very helpful briefings on this matter. I will be brief because we have already heard that the current system of voter registration really is not working to the benefit of many people, and that voter registration rates are disproportionately low among young people and some minority groups.
There is confusion among eligible voters about how and when to register. The University of East Anglia carried out a survey in 2016 which found that two-thirds of electoral registration officers reported that citizens had complained to them about the voter registration process being bureaucratic, and that this had discouraged them from registering. Surveys of poll workers have also found that the most common problem that they encounter is citizens asking to vote when they are missing from the electoral register. Furthermore, a poll conducted by YouGov before the 2019 general election found that 16% of respondents believed that they were automatically registered to vote if they paid their council tax, and 17% believed that they were automatically registered when they turned 18. There is a lot of confusion and we belief that AVR will go a significant way in tackling the disparities and the inefficiency of the current system. It would diminish the impact of cyclical registration patterns, which can put so much pressure on voting infrastructure and the officials who are running and managing it. It would also go some way in bridging the current gaps in registration across various ethnic and social economic groups, as other noble Lords have said.
The UK is one of the few liberal democracies that does not already have some sort of system of AVR in place. Of 40 liberal democracies assessed by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and the University of East Anglia, the UK came out as one of just six countries that does not have a system of either automatic or assisted voter registration. Where it is in existence, it has proved very effective at encouraging first-time voters to vote. By contrast, the UK is witnessing a fall in the number of young people registering to vote.
We have had quite a discussion on this, and I will finish by saying that this is terribly simple and straightforward. As other noble Lords have said, people are already written to ahead of their 16th birthday with their national insurance number. If we can do that, why can we not at the same time have an automatic registration to vote? We have the means to do it, so why do we not just get on with it?
My Lords, I thank the Committee for the debate; it is a debate we had two years ago when we were discussing a previous Bill. If applying to vote was difficult or time-consuming, the Government might have more sympathy for this proposal, but it is not. It can be done online, by paper and post, in person, or by telephone, where the registration officer offers these services. Online, it takes five minutes and can be done anywhere, anytime, on a smartphone or a tablet; I have done this recently myself.
As a small but very positive step to encourage young people to vote, HMRC now includes additional information on registering to vote on letters issuing the national insurance numbers, and this practice has been in place since the end of September 2021.
These amendments contradict the principle that underpins individual electoral registration: that individuals should have ownership of, and responsibility for, their own registration. At this point, I say that some members of our communities do not want to register—we have all probably met people who do not want to go on the electoral register. Automatic registration would threaten the accuracy of the register and, in doing so, enable voting and political donations by those who are ineligible.
Registration officers are responsible for maintaining complete and accurate registers. They have broad powers to request information from anyone or any organisation to support the maintenance of their electoral register. They have a duty to identify individuals who may be eligible to register and invite them to do so. The recent canvass reforms have relieved some of the pressures that EROs previously faced, and introducing a form of automatic registration would undermine the success of the reforms thus far.
Relying on the services listed in these amendments would be costly and time-consuming. I am unaware of any single public service that, as part of its application procedures, captures all the data required to determine eligibility to register to vote: name, address, age, nationality and immigration status.
I do not know, but I will look into that with the team.
Automatic registration therefore risks not being truly automatic or adding ineligible people to the register. For example, under the EU voting and candidacy rights changes provided for in the Bill, very few EU citizens who arrived to live in the UK after 31 December 2020 will have the right to register to vote, but most will be issued with a national insurance number. Moreover, most national insurance numbers are issued before someone is 16, which is too young to be added to the register, even as an attainer, in England and Northern Ireland. Therefore, the Government have no plans to introduce automatic registration at this stage, and I request that this amendment be withdrawn.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and a number of other noble Lords asked what we are doing to encourage registration. Since its introduction, the register to vote website has revolutionised the ability of electors to participate, with over 60 million applications to registers being submitted since 2014. In the last UK general election, a record 47 million people were registered. We continue to refine and adjust the way that the digital system works to improve its security.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, brought up accessibility. It is very pleasing to see that the register to vote service has the highest accessibility rating—AAA—under the web content accessibility guidelines. It is also the responsibility of the Electoral Commission to promote participation, and it runs an annual campaign to encourage eligible voters to register.
I will ask a question, because this may impact on another group. The Minister mentioned that we will not know whether EU citizens who have come here properly after a certain date have the right to vote. The Government have signed agreements with a number of EU countries—Spain, for example—that will allow EU citizens to vote from them. Why is that a problem, in terms of this issue? How many EU countries have we signed reciprocal voting arrangements with?
No, I think we will deal with that later—but if we do not deal with that today, I shall make sure that the noble Lord gets a note on it, because I do not have a list of them to hand.
We have no plans to introduce automatic registration, and I request that the amendment is withdrawn.
Could the Minister address the inconsistency to which I referred—that someone with a British passport and a British driving licence, obeying the requirements in this Bill for identification for voting, could be denied the right to vote because they are not registered?
My Lords, this has been a very interesting and informative debate and I thank the Minister for her answers, and thank all noble Lords who have participated.
To pick up some points from the Minister, she suggested that it was not difficult or time-consuming to register. Perhaps this is not something that most people in your Lordships’ House do very often, but moving house is up there just below divorce and death in terms of people’s level of stress. Moving house is something that many people in our society, particularly younger and poorer people, find themselves doing regularly at six- or 12-month intervals—and now we are going to make this extra thing that they have to remember when there are so many other things they are worrying about. Perhaps when people are younger, the first or second time they move they do it religiously, but by the time they get to the sixth, or the eighth or the 10th time that they move, and they have so many things to worry about, it is unsurprising that they do not. It is difficult, when it is mixed in with that whole difficult experience.
The Minister made the point about people owning their own registration and that they might get registered accidentally when they should not be. Of course, the form that automatic registration could very easily take would be to change your driving licence address in the box and then respond to the questions about whether you were eligible to vote, providing any extra information that might be needed. I shall have to go away and look at this, but all the information that you have to provide for a driving licence would be sufficient, I should have thought, for voting. I shall go away and look at that.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, brought up an interesting point about complications around EU citizens, which we will come to—but again that could be answered by a tick-box arrangement.
One key point has come out of this debate, well highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, but also by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti. This is a balance to voter ID. I do not agree with voter ID but, if you are going to have it, as the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, said, and you turn up with your paperwork, and you are still told, although you have your passport, that you are not really a proper citizen because you have not ticked a box on a website, that is going to create some real anger.
I am not sure that the Minister really addressed the important points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, who so often in your Lordships’ House is a champion for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, and many other excluded groups in our society. For all kinds of reasons, it is so much more difficult for those citizens, and we should be going to extraordinary efforts to make sure that their voice is able to be heard.
I pick up also the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, about the Government’s own impact assessment. If this is the aim of the Bill, it is very hard to see why the Government should not be taking these steps.
I make the final point that I raised a question with the Minister that was not answered—whether the Government are looking to make it easier to check whether you are correctly registered. You may have moved two or three years ago in a mad flurry—maybe your relationship had just broken down and that was why you moved—then there is an election coming, and you think, “Did I register to vote or not in that difficult period?” You would then have to know what council you are in and find its electoral services and send them an email or ring them up—and we all know what ringing a council up is like. Are the Government doing anything to improve that? If the Minister cannot answer that now, perhaps she could write to me about that, and perhaps she could commit to that before I withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 141 withdrawn.
Amendments 142 and 143 not moved.
144: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
Within 3 months of the passing of this Act the Secretary of State must commission research into the desirability of electronic voting, including—(a) lessons to be learnt from similar systems in other countries,(b) the accessibility and inclusion benefits which may result from such a system, and(c) the use of block chain and distributed ledger technologies, with the aim of ensuring security and immutability of votes cast.”
My Lords, it is a pleasure to move this amendment. I will speak to Amendments 144 and 209 in my name and I will not trespass on others’ eloquence when speaking to their amendments in this group.
Had I had a sharper pencil when I was drafting, I could have probably made Amendments 144 and 209 into the same amendment. I did not so they are not, but they are very closely linked. They speak to the opportunity that comes from the new technologies now available to us to potentially—it is only potential—use innovation to drive inclusion in our electoral process.
Amendment 144 is concerned with electronic voting. It is not suggesting that we move to electronic voting; it is simply suggesting that within three months of the Bill becoming an Act, it is something worth considering. The amendment talks about considering some international comparators. Estonia is particularly helpful in this instance, being probably the most digital state—certainly in Europe—and which has a very effective and efficient means of electronic voting. It goes so far, and I will come to more of the areas where we could go further in this country when I discuss Amendment 209.
Similarly, with electronic voting we can address many of the issues discussed on day two, particularly on Amendments 119 and 120, about accessibility and inclusion. Electronic voting potentially offers the opportunity for everybody to vote in an accessible and inclusive manner. There is also the consideration of what technology can be used. Certainly, distributed ledger technology offers a range of possibilities to assist with underpinning the integrity and security of electronic voting.
Amendment 209 takes a similar approach when it comes to the electoral register. This would be a step further than the situation in Estonia, because although in Estonia you can vote electronically via the electronic voting machine, there is not a system behind that which can trace the vote from the point of the voter registering in the first instance to being eligible to vote in that environment. If we had the electoral register put on a distributed ledger technology, we could have full traceability, immutability and, crucially, auditability of every move, of every vote—of every element of that system. You could permission particular actors to be the auditors of that. It would ensure far greater safety and security than the current system. It would be extremely difficult to drive an electoral fraud through such a system because you would have to engage so many actors to pull it off. The immutability of the technology would alert, in real time, all those permissioned people to be aware of it.
There is much more I could say on the technologies, but I will not. The crucial point is that if we looked, experimented and proof-of-concepted some of these technologies, we could potentially drive accessibility, inclusion, and the independence, secrecy, security, safety and integrity of every vote and, through that, the entire electoral process in the UK.
Crucially, these amendments are not asking for revolution, transformation, that we move to e-voting, or to an electoral register based on a distributed ledger technology platform. They are simply suggesting that there is something in these technologies that it is worth the Government considering and experimenting with and proofing some of their concepts. I look forward to my noble friend the Minister’s thoughts and response. I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak to Amendment 150 and on some of the broader issues. I was quite worried, listening to the last debate and the Government’s answer. They now seem to be saying that they are not interested in broadening the number of people who vote, filling in the gaps in the register, or in much modernisation of the system, because they are quite happy with the inconsistencies that we have.
I think that the United States and the United Kingdom are the two democracies with the largest number of people eligible to vote who are not on the electoral register in each state or local authority. That is a scandal. It suggests that some of those behind this Bill are concerned with voter suppression, or at least with discouraging people from voting who they do not think may vote Conservative. That should worry us all. I fear that we are heading towards a bad-tempered Report, because the Government will railroad this through without any consultation or discussion.
On these proposals, I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, that modernisation and digitisation is where we should be going. When in government, I was concerned with the digitisation of Whitehall, and I agreed very strongly with Francis Maude, now the noble Lord, Lord Maude, on the efforts which he was making to push digitisation through a rather reluctant Whitehall and a group of largely uninterested Ministers. I much regret that, since 2015, the Government appear to have lost momentum on all that. There are ways of linking government databases without sharing all the information that could make life much easier for citizens on whom the Government hold a fair amount of information which is relevant to them.
I was deeply affected by what happened with the Windrush scheme, when all those people were told that they had no right to be in Britain, or that they had not been living in Britain for the last 20, 30 or 40 years. There was information in various Whitehall departments demonstrating that they had been here, but the Home Office did not look for it. In terms of modernising the electoral register, in terms of managing the vote and in terms of managing another couple of million applicants for overseas voting, who need to be checked properly when they come on to the register and need to have the chance to vote within a tight time scale, digitisation is clearly part of the answer.
The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, and my amendment, are saying that the Government should be looking at this. Other Governments are way ahead of us in this. Everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said in Committee on a previous day about how astonishingly old fashioned our electoral process is, compared with many other democratic states, is absolutely on target. I hope that the Minister might at least give us a very slight indication that the Government might be just a little interested in this, even though it would be very dangerous for them to encourage more people to vote.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holmes, for his introduction to his amendment. I thought what he said about the opportunities that are available for new technologies to drive inclusion in our electoral process is really important if we are looking to the future. We completely support his aim to encourage the Government to invest much more in technologies in this area. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, let us catch up with many other countries which are looking to do this and looking to invest more in this in the future.
One thing we do know is that electronic voting machines are often more accessible for disabled voters. I give the example of the United States, where visually impaired voters can use an audio interface while those with paralysed limbs can select candidates from a screen using head movements. There are all sorts of different innovations that we should be looking to investigate and see how we can bring them into our own system.
I turn to my amendment. The Government’s 2019 manifesto—I go back to their manifesto—included a commitment to
“make it easier for British expats to vote in Parliamentary elections”.
I also say, as part of that, they should be looking at the Electoral Commission’s research after the elections since 2015, which has consistently found that overseas voters have experienced difficulties in voting from outside the UK. This is mainly because many did not have enough time to receive and return their postal vote before the close of the poll.
I am aware that the Government are looking at ways to improve that, but it strikes me that as the Electoral Commission also recommends that the Government explore new approaches to improve access to voting and draws on evidence from other countries, there is an opportunity here, which is why I tabled the amendment. I hope that this will encourage the Government to consider more research into digital technologies and look at what is happening in other countries in order to drive inclusion and enable a quicker and more efficient system for those voters who live outside the UK.
My Lords, these amendments both seek to improve and expedite means of voting for British citizens living overseas. My noble friend mentioned Estonia and although Estonia has e-voting, it still uses paper ballots and less than half of Estonian voters use the e-voting system, which relies on the national ID card as a credential to vote. The blockchain technology which supports its system, although advanced in security, is not foolproof and hackers are becoming more and more sophisticated.
That leads me to Amendments 144 and 209, which would require the Government to conduct research on electronic voting and technological solutions to increase the security of the electoral register. I fully understand that electronic voting and further technological solutions supporting our processes may sound attractive in the light of ongoing digital advances. However, all electronic changes are large-scale programmes and we are currently not persuaded of the need for them and are wary of the risks that they may usher. In particular, electronic voting is a double-edged sword.
The selection of elected representatives for Parliament and other public offices is regarded as requiring the highest possible level of integrity, and the introduction of electronic voting would raise a number of issues. We know that electronic voting is not seen to be suitably rigorous and secure and could be vulnerable to attack or fraud by unscrupulous hackers and hostile foreign states.
Security is not as necessary for that as it would be for voting.
Amendment 150 from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, would require the Government to ask the Electoral Commission to make proposals on how to facilitate the participation of overseas electors in parliamentary and local government elections while maintaining the security of the election process. I highlight the fact that British citizens resident abroad who are registered as overseas electors are not currently permitted to vote in local elections, though they may participate in parliamentary elections. Overseas electors are, by definition, more likely to be directly affected by decisions made in the UK Parliament than by decisions made by local government. For example, decisions on foreign policy, defence, immigration, or pensions may have a direct impact on British citizens abroad. The Government have no intention to change the franchise for local elections in this way.
In a similar vein, Amendment 151, tabled by the noble Baroness, would require the Government to consult on the possibility of introducing digital ballots for overseas electors within six months of the Bill passing. Ballot papers are printed on specific papers with security markings on them as a measure to prevent fraud. This cannot be replicated when printing on home printers and it would raise concerns as to the secrecy and security of the ballot if such measures were removed. Furthermore, the votes of overseas electors could then be easily distinguishable at a count if, for example, they were printed on different paper. That cannot be appropriate. As such, the Government cannot support the introduction of a “print and return” system for ballot papers.
On a wider interpretation of “digital ballots”, the Government hold the position that, at present, there are concerns that electronic voting by any means is not suitably rigorous and secure and could be vulnerable to attack or fraud. Due to these concerns, the Government could not support any alternative online voting option for overseas electors. This consultation, therefore, would be a poor use of time and resources.
The provisions in the Bill will enable overseas electors to remain registered for longer with an absent vote arrangement in place ahead of elections. The registration period for overseas electors will be extended from one year to three years. Additionally, electors will be able to reapply or refresh their absent vote arrangements as appropriate at the same time as renewing their registration. We are also introducing an online absent vote application service allowing electors registered in Great Britain, including overseas electors, to apply for a postal or proxy vote online. It is anticipated that an online service will alleviate some of the pre-existing challenges for electors and electoral administrators, by reducing the need to rely on manual processes. In addition to benefiting citizens, these changes will benefit electoral administrators by reducing workloads during busy electoral periods.
Additionally, the Government have already improved the postal voting process for overseas electors registered in Great Britain by working with Royal Mail and the British Forces Post Office to expedite dispatch abroad and funding the use of the international business response licence which expedites the return of ballot packs from overseas in a large number of countries, as well as covering any postage costs that might otherwise be incurred.
In summary, the Government have already taken steps to improve voting methods for overseas electors, without risking the integrity of the ballot, and will not consider these amendments. I urge that the amendment is withdrawn.
My Lords, I have the greatest respect for the Minister, but that was an extraordinarily disappointing response. The amendments merely asked the Government to consider these areas, but the response was, “We will not”. From the Minister’s response, we would take it that the current electoral system is without difficulties or problems. The intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, was germane, because one could register online with whatever means one chose, with no real checks. It probably boils down to still messing around with gas bills as some kind of proof of identity, but where is the quality of that? Nowhere. At this stage, I will withdraw the amendment, but I have to say that that was an extraordinarily poor response.
Amendment 144 withdrawn.
Amendments 144A to 144D not moved.
144E: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
“Qualification for standing in local authority elections: temporary housing exception
In section 79(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 (qualifications for election and holding office as member of local authority), at the end insert “; or“(f) he or she may have otherwise qualified under any combination of paragraphs (a) to (e) if he or she had not been provided temporary housing outside of the area by the local authority.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would protect the right of people in temporary housing to stand for election where the local authority provides temporary housing outside of the local authority area.
I move and speak to Amendment 144E, which noble Lords will have noticed appears in the name of my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, but operating on our normal lark and owl rota, this one falls to me at the owl end of the evening.
We have just been talking about some major issues around the Bill and our whole electoral system. Here, we are doing something that some might regard as a more traditional aspect of your Lordships’ House: the scrutiny, modest measures, cleaning and tidying and curing of small injustices. Amendment 144E amends Section 79(1) of the Local Government Act 1972, addressing the situation where people have been placed by their local council into temporary housing outside the area for which they wish to stand for election.
We know that housing is now a huge issue. Many people are struggling to find housing, many people are being displaced and many local councils are struggling to find housing. The amendment comes from the case of a person who contacted our office who wants to stand in the forthcoming local elections and, through absolutely no fault of their own, under the current rules have been made ineligible to stand because they have been placed in temporary housing outside the local authority area.
It is obvious that this is not an isolated case. It is a factor of the current qualifications for standing in local elections. It is a case of instant disqualification. Someone may have been in an area for decades and be really embedded in that area, part of that community and have something to offer it but, because of the lack of housing—perhaps a failure of the local authority—they are suddenly unable to stand and to contribute. Of course, this can affect any candidate, regardless of their party or their social or economic situation. Perhaps they have been evicted because a landlord is selling the home they have been living in, perhaps they are fleeing domestic abuse. There is a whole host of other reasons why people might need temporary accommodation. They may have been planning stand in the forthcoming election for years, but the placement outside the borough scuppers all their hard work.
This is a small, modest amendment that would affect only a very small number of people, but it would address a basic injustice. I hope that I will get broad support across the Committee for the amendment and the Government might feel able to move modestly on it. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak briefly to this amendment, which would protect the rights of people in temporary housing to stand for election where the local authority provides temporary housing outside the local authority area. At any given point, close to 100,000 households live in temporary accommodation, according to quarterly statistics published by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, is right to draw attention to their right to participate in the democratic process, and I fully support the intention behind her amendment. We on these Benches fully support the points she made. Those who live in temporary accommodation are often most in need of their voice being heard, especially at local authority level. The suggestion that they would be prevented from standing for the relevant local authority due to the fact that their temporary accommodation is located outside the boundary is absurd. I hope the Minister will accept the case behind the amendment and work with the noble Baroness to find a solution to the problem.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the amendment. Although admirable in its intent, it introduces an unwelcome subjective element into the current objective criteria that specify qualifications for election as a member of a local authority. It presupposes that an individual, if moved by their local authority into temporary accommodation out of the area where they are standing for election, would otherwise satisfy the qualification criteria had they not been moved by their local authority.
The qualification criteria for local elected office must be beyond doubt. The amendment as drafted would remove the demonstration of consistent connection with an area that the current criteria rightly demand. The amendment would introduce a subjective qualification that the individual believes that they would otherwise categorically have remained eligible within the existing criteria, but this is not objective; it could be neither proved nor disproved. It would be unreasonable for the local electorate to be asked to consider voting for someone who may no longer have a strong connection with the local area nor any demonstrable proof that they would otherwise have maintained that contact.
There are other criteria for standing in local elections, and I think it is important that anyone in this situation looks at those—specifically, that they have been a local government elector for the last 12 months and that they have during the last 12 months preceding that day occupied as owner or tenant any land or other premises in that area. If they work in that area then they can stand for local election, or if they have resided there for the whole of those 12 months before they were moved just before the election. Also, there is the case that they are a member of a parish or community council. There are other points for people to consider.
We have looked at this and will give it further thought, because it is an interesting concept that has not come up before. We do not make any promises, but we will look at it. At this moment, though, the Government cannot accept the amendment and I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw it. Maybe we can have further conversations.
My Lords, that was a very short but productive group. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley, for his offer of support.
I note that, with 100,000 households affected, we are not just talking about a few people; there is a significant group here. To respond to the Minister, we often think about people being moved long distances from an area, but it could literally be to the other side of the road—that would still technically be out of the area. However, I very much thank the Minister for her constructive response. I will not go through it line by line now, but I would very much like to work with her to see how we can address this issue.
I just make the point that, if you had resided there for the whole 12 months—maybe you were moved into temporary accommodation the day before—there are obviously areas there that do not help. With regard to working, again, people may volunteer in the area but maybe what they spend much of their time doing is not work in terms of that qualification. However, I very much take encouragement and I hope to work with the Minister in future to see what we can do with this. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 144E withdrawn.
144F: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
“Return of election deposits where a candidate's party elects at least one MP
(1) Rule 53 of Schedule 1 to RPA 1983 (forfeiture of deposit) is amended as follows.(2) After paragraph (3) insert—“(3A) Where a candidate has been authorised to use a party description under rule 6A of these rules, the deposit shall be returned as soon as practicable after any candidate using the same party description is elected in any constituency at that general election.”(3) In paragraph (4) after “paragraph (3)” insert “and (3A)”.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would return the election deposits to all general election candidates whose registered party elects at least one MP.
My Lords, I rise again to speak to amendments in my name, starting with Amendment 144F, which moves us back to a larger scale. It would amend the part of the Representation of the People Act 1983 that deals with deposit forfeiture to return election deposits to all general election candidates whose registered party achieves at least one MP. Those Members of your Lordships’ House who are still paying acute attention at this hour of the evening might have noticed that I have to declare an interest at this point.
The “one MP” point is not chosen randomly or for self-interest. It surprises many voters when they find out that to stand in a general election you have to pay a £500 deposit. Maybe many say, “A one-off payment of £500 is not that large a sum of money”; it is for many people in many communities, but maybe it does not seem that much. However, put that at a national scale: to take the example of the Green Party in the 2019 election, 465 lost deposits cost us £232,500, the best part of a quarter of a million pounds. I am aware that for some political parties that might look more or less like change down the back of the sofa, but to us it is a massive sum of money, a sum that in our case is largely raised by crowdfunding at a local level, people putting their £10 or £20 in to support local democracy.
What we have is a very odd situation—here I come to why the “one MP” criterion is in the amendment—because, in our system, we have what is known as Short money. It was introduced in the Commons in 1975 and is available to all Opposition parties that either secured two seats or one seat and more than 150,000 votes at the previous general election. It is payable to qualifying parties as £18,400 for every seat won at the last election, plus £36 for every 200 votes gained by the party. When people say to me, “I think my vote is being wasted because it didn’t elect someone”, it is always worth pointing out that it does have an impact in terms of Short money.
In the context of this amendment, we have a situation where with one hand the state deliberately gives money to parties that have won at least one seat and got a certain number of votes but, with the other, takes it away in terms of the election deposits. This is, in effect, a tax on democracy. If we look at the comparison with many other democracies around the world—on earlier groups we were talking about comparisons in many ways and how we appear to fall short compared with other democracies—it is interesting that many other democracies in Europe and other parts of the world fund the operations of their political parties on a regular basis, not just in parliament but in terms of funding research and election campaigns. They acknowledge that, if we do not all collectively fund politics, the people who do fund it are the ones who then get the politics that they have paid for. We are now in a situation where we are getting politics paid for by a relatively small number of people, and election deposits make that far worse.
I will be interested to hear from the Government what their current justification for election deposits are, but I expect that they might say the £500 deposit discourages frivolous running for office and joke candidates—at which point I would invite them to look at any list of candidates standing in any general election or high-profile by-election, as it does not really seem to do the job.
If the Government do not like Amendment 144F and the immediate step to end this tax on democracy, I have the alternative Amendment 212F, which is a simpler and less immediate action. It calls for a review of election deposits and the exploration of alternatives. If the Government were to acknowledge that there is an issue here that deserves to be explored and should be considered, Amendment 212F is a way of getting to that by taking a longer and more considered view of how we might approach this situation and end this barrier to democracy. As we were discussing on an earlier group, the Government said in their impact assessment of this Bill that their aim is to improve access to democracy. Taking away the deposits could be one important step for that. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness has come up with a very cunning plan and I have to say that, as a Liberal Democrat, I can see its merits immediately. I just say one thing to her, which is that it is usually a mistake to put all your dice on one number. There is about £250,000 at stake if that seat were, by any mischance, to be lost. That may be a good reason for me to be more enthusiastic about her second amendment than her first, which might be a case of being careful what you wish for.
Nevertheless, she has raised some important issues which are clearly relevant to all political parties other than the big two—it has to be said that the big two also waste money on lost deposits, although I am sure they do not think of it as being wasted so much as an investment for the future. That said, it is an interesting argument to link this to the payment of Short money from parliamentary funds to support those political parties which are represented in the other place. It will be interesting to see whether the Minister is in any way tempted to assist small parties with a £250,000 bounty, as compared to the very much bigger sums of money which he and his colleagues can summon up on demand when a general election arises.
My Lords, I hear what the noble Baroness says, but there are many reasons for a deposit. It is a well-established practice and I do not accept that it is necessarily a barrier, bearing in mind the facilities that being a registered candidate gives you—not least free postage for an election communication to every elector. There are certainly a lot of things you can already benefit from as a properly accredited, validly nominated candidate. There are lots of responsibilities to that, so I do not see grounds for change.
However, that does not mean I am opposed to some sort of examination of precisely how the deposit system impacts on candidates. The noble Baroness said that an argument might be made that it acts as a barrier to participation, but then she said that, when you look at general elections, a lot of candidates are thrown in, particularly in high-profile seats. It is a form of registration; you get your money back if you get sufficient support, so I do not see the grounds for changing.
My Lords, I am afraid that, having been able to be reasonably accommodating on the previous amendment, I cannot meet the noble Baroness on this one for very similar reasons to those argued by the noble Lord opposite. The reality is that candidates have to provide a deposit of £500, which is lost if they get less than 5% of the vote. It is designed, as the noble Lord said, to ensure that, normally, only those who are serious about seeking public office will put themselves forward for election. However, it does not seem to have deterred Lord Buckethead over the years I have been following elections, although I suspect the figure under the bucket may have changed—he has been around a long time.
As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, candidates at parliamentary elections are entitled to have an item of election material sent to electors free of charge by the Royal Mail. Paying the deposit gives candidates access to over £20,000 of public money for this purpose in a typical case. This is a factor in the level of deposit required from candidates.
The noble Baroness proposes that, at a general election where a candidate standing wins one seat for a party, all other candidates standing for that party would be entitled to have their deposit returned regardless of the level of vote they receive. At a general election, there are a series of individual contests in individual constituencies across the country, as the Green Party knows very well from its successes. We submit that it would be a significant change for a result in one constituency to have any impact on contests in others. You can have very different results down the road; that is germane to a general election. While candidates can be members of parties, they stand for election on an individual basis and the law views them as such in terms of deposits.
As the noble Baroness sees it, this would help her party, which secured a little more than 2.5% of the vote nationally. The noble Lord, Lord Stunell, said it might help other parties. However, the reality is that, as she acknowledged, the Greens were not so popular, because they lost their deposit in 465 constituencies, which was up from 456 lost deposits in the previous election—they actually lost more. This amendment would require, as the noble Baroness acknowledged, nearly £250,000 of taxpayers’ money to be returned to Green candidates who had been rejected by taxpayers at the polls.
We would also need to consider very carefully the implication the proposal would have in individual constituencies. It could unfairly and, in my submission, inequitably disadvantage single, local independent candidates—we all know them, people who have strong issues in a local constituency, who put themselves on the line. They may get more of a share in a particular constituency than this national party, and then find someone they had beaten gets their deposit back, but they do not. A level playing field for elections is essential for our democratic processes, so I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that this would need a lot more consideration before we could go near this. The Government constantly review electoral activity, but I regret to say that we cannot support this change, and I urge the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, to withdraw this amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lords who have participated in this short debate and thank the Minister for his response. I would perhaps question the classification of general elections as measures of popularity; they are reflections of popularity, since people have to deal with the first past the post voting system. If we look at the last election, it might have been taken as a measure of popularity where votes more or less matched seats, and people knew that their votes counted. It was the last European election where the Green Party got 11% of the vote and finished ahead of the Conservative Party in that particular measure of popularity under a different voting system.
I wish to pick up on a couple of points. Both the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, picked up the point about the one seat issue. I take their points, but the fact is that, with Short money, there is already a legal situation that says one seat means you will be regarded as a national party. I am interested in the Minister’s comments, with his strong stress on each seat being an individual contest, which does not really seem to be the way the Conservative Party has been fighting recent elections, or the way recent elections have been treated by the media.
On the Minister’s point about disadvantaging single local candidates, around the country at a local council level we are seeing groups of candidates representing their local area—I am thinking of Herefordshire, but there are other areas where significant groups of councillors have come together as representatives of their local area, and they might want to run in a number of seats where they represent the council, and that is a very large sum of money.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, said it is not a barrier to participation because you get your money back if you get sufficient support, but that implies you are able essentially to gamble £500. While there are many people in our society who can say, “Well, here is £500—I will get it back or I will not”, there are an awful lot of people for whom that is not a financially viable situation, who do not have access to that £500 to start off with.
I think this has been the start of a conversation. I took encouragement from the comment by the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, that the idea of a review might be of interest to the Labour Party. I think that is something that I might look to take forward in the future, and I hope we might be able to work on that. This has been very much the start of a conversation which has a long way to run, but at least it has been started. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 144F withdrawn.
Clause 12: Extension of franchise for parliamentary elections: British citizens overseas
145: Clause 12, page 14, line 34, at end insert—
“(c) on that date a red notice has not been issued in respect of the individual by Interpol.”Member’s explanatory statement
This probing amendment would prevent those who have been issued a red notice by Interpol from being overseas electors.
My Lords, I have tabled my Amendments 146 and 147 mainly to probe what kind of checks and balances are taking place for who can register for a vote as an overseas elector. This is because our main concern about the overseas elector section of the Bill is that it could undermine the integrity of our electoral process if not done well. I have mentioned in previous debates concerns raised by local government and others about the pressures on our councils and election teams, which are already overworked and underresourced. These changes to who can register as an overseas elector will in some areas greatly add to the pressures and workload, so they will need support in making sure that everyone who applies is a proper person to be on the register.
I also draw attention to the fact that we are very worried that the proposed changes could create a loophole in donation law that would allow donors unlimited access to our democracy—in other words, foreign money to be able to bankroll election campaigns from potential offshore tax havens. I will not go into any detail now, because we are going to debate this in some detail on Monday.
Whether we agree with removing the 15-year limit or not, it does not seem right to me that expats will be granted more flexibility in registering a right to vote than some people living in this country. My noble friend Lord Collins will talk about this in the next debate.
I want to briefly talk to my Amendment 148. The issue of sanctions is pertinent at the moment, given Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has led to new legislation and designations of Russian individuals and businesses. This has shone a light on the complexities of sanctions legislation and the importance of the entire statute book complying with such declarations. The purpose of this amendment is to highlight that election law must too be implemented in accordance with any sanctions legislation. There is clear evidence that Putin’s regime has sought to undermine democracies around the world, and it is entirely possible that, in the future, it may seek to do the same in relation to the UK. For this reason, public bodies in the UK that organise and facilitate elections must work closely with the bodies responsible for maintaining our compliance with sanctions. Ultimately, this means ensuring that sanctioned individuals play no role in elections. But given the complexities of holding elections, this is easier said than done. That is why we have tabled this amendment—in the hope that the Minister is able to explain how the Government can help to ensure that elections are held with consideration of sanctions legislation, to prevent foreign interference from hostile actors. I beg to move.
My Lords, I wish to speak to the two amendments in my name, Amendments 147A and 147B. They are meant to be helpful, in the same way that the amendments I put down on postal voting numbers and handing them back at city halls or town halls were meant to be helpful—helpful in the sense that they come from briefings from and discussions with those who administer the elections. What those people are saying is that they welcome the move from annual to three-yearly registrations for overseas voters, but that the new three-year period might not help with the administrative burden because general elections can be five years apart. Therefore, people registering late and not every three years, as the tendency is, will mean that the problem from the impact assessment that the Government are trying to solve—about late registrations posing
“challenges for persons who choose to vote by postal ballot and live further away from the UK”
in getting their vote back—may not be solved by what the Government are doing.
I seek clarification from the Government. What advice has come back from the discussions they have had with electoral registration officers? Do they feel it would solve the problem to move to the three-year gap or that, in their view, a five-year period for re-registration would help to deal with the problem that the Government identify in their own impact assessment?
My Lords, overseas voting extension is an important part of this Bill, one of the many bits that is substantially changing the pattern of voting. It could add a couple of million extra voters and deserves better than the treatment it is getting at present. Some of us may wish to discuss whether we will oppose Clause 12 standing part on Report just to make sure we have a proper discussion. I have been struck, in everything I have read and discussed with Ministers and officials, by the fact that this has not been thought through and has been poorly prepared. If I were unduly suspicious, I would say that Ministers are more interested in getting donations from people who will then come on to the register than they are in really getting proper overseas representation.
We know where this comes from: the campaign that Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, when he was head of the Conservative Party’s international office, took to encourage overseas voters, particularly retired British expatriates in Spain and France, to register. Academic research that I found, which the Minister, when I spoke to him, appeared to be unaware of, showed that the distribution of votes—I do not know whether the Minister is listening to me; he may not be interested—in constituencies had been lopsided from the start. It was always concentrated in London and the south-east. Now, it continues to be very lopsided. The Minister said that he was unaware of the distribution of votes by constituency. I found it out quite easily, through the Office for National Statistics. I am sorry it was not available to him. It ranges from over 2,000 in several north London constituencies, to 25 or so in various Welsh constituencies. If we double that, the maldistribution of overseas voters in different constituencies will entirely undo the redrawing of the boundaries to make them more accurate, which is just going through.
The academic research in the mid-1990s suggested that two-thirds of overseas voters in 1992 had voted Conservative, but only in small numbers. After the introduction of individual electoral registration allowed Conservatives abroad to mount a registration drive on individual registration from abroad, numbers rose from 33,000 in 2010 to 106,000 in 2015. The Conservative Party International Office encouraged targeted donations from abroad to marginal seats in the 2015 general election, showing that donations were a very important part of this. After the referendum, the numbers registered surged to over 300,000, which perhaps suggests that the Conservative assumption that they are all going to vote Conservative may have been a little shakier than they had intended.
There are many weaknesses with the proposals as they currently stand. First, in a Bill that tightens identity checks for domestic voters, the identity checks for overseas voters are extremely weak. Furthermore, the Government do not know who the overseas citizens are, how many of them there are or where they live. I put down a series of Written Questions six months ago, and the answers I got to most of these was “We do not have the figures”. I asked the Foreign Office what information it had, and it said that it plays no role in the registration of overseas voters and it does not expect to play any role in assisting them to vote. If the Minister had looked at comparisons of the way in which other Governments handle overseas voting, he would have noted that embassies and high commissions play a very active role in this. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, reminded me that the largest polling station in Australia is at the other end of the Strand in London. The British Government apparently do not want to get involved in that, and it would be very complicated.
The problem we were discussing about digitisation and how to get the balance out and then get them back in a short campaign, remains and is already a grievance with overseas voters.
The absence of preparation, therefore, is absolutely clear. The problem of how you identify fraud is very considerable if the Government have such little information on where citizens are and who they might be. The identification checks are very weak, and the powers given to the Secretary of State to take whatever measures he thinks appropriate to provide information campaigns suggest that a particular Secretary of State might decide that Portugal, Spain, Italy or France are where he wants to concentrate their efforts, rather than on those who retired to Jamaica or southern Nigeria or Pakistan.
Or Belgium: exactly. There are many weaknesses in this. We put down another amendment, which comes in the next group, suggesting that the appropriate answer is overseas constituencies. The idea that people should vote in constituencies in which they have not lived for 50 years is absolutely absurd. My conversation with my local ERO suggested that trying to check on whether they actually have lived there or not might prove an impossible task.
This is a very shaky part of the Bill. My conversation with the Minister and officials suggests that they have not thought this through; it seems the Minister is not interested in thinking it through any further. I suspect, therefore, that it is the donations that they are really interested in, and this leaves me very discontented with this part of the Bill.
My Lords, I want to ask some technical questions, without necessarily knowing what the correct answer is myself. I hope that the Minister, if he is not able to answer today, would be prepared to write to provide a further explanation.
I start by referring to some of the text of Clause 12. On page 14, line 13, under the new section “Extension of parliamentary franchise”, there are various conditions that a person has to satisfy. They have to be,
“not subject to any legal incapacity to vote (age apart)”
et cetera. I take it—perhaps the Minister can consult the Box to get an answer to this—that that is to make sure that nobody overseas registers who is under age. I assume that is the meaning of that. If I am wrong about that, then there might be a whole set of questions arising, but that seems to be the common-sense explanation for those two words in brackets.
I want to move on to the next page of the same clause. New Section 1B is headed,
“British citizens overseas: entitlement to be registered”.
The proposed new section sets out that, essentially, there are two ways in which one can qualify to be registered. The first is as a former elector in a United Kingdom constituency. There will be discussions about that, I am sure, but the second is what I want to focus on at the moment. The second condition is that you were a former resident in a UK constituency. We already know that there is quite a large number of people who are not registered, because we discussed earlier on that the Electoral Commission’s estimate is that in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there are somewhere between 8.6 million and 9.8 million people who are currently resident but not on the electoral roll. There is, therefore, quite a large pool of people who, presumably in approximately equal proportion, will be overseas now. There is no special preference for people who have registered being the people who have migrated.
So my question is: does this legislation grant voting rights to someone who left the UK with their parents as a baby and moved to Switzerland, say, to claim their vote alongside their parents, once they reach the age of 18 overseas? If it does, I note that there does not seem to be any requirement for that baby to have been born in the United Kingdom; they need to establish only that they were resident here. As far as I can tell, there is no specified minimum period for that residence.
I will take a case that is not entirely hypothetical. Parents who came to the United Kingdom, having been working in Ghana, with a baby who was born in England, move to Switzerland six months later. It seems that nothing is set out in the legislation to prevent that baby from claiming their vote on reaching 18 while still living overseas. I want to check that I have not misunderstood what the legislation is saying there and that, by virtue of that brief period of residence, they would be eligible to vote and—I suppose I could add—to make a donation. If that is true, I know of two British nationals now in their 50s who will be very happy to take up the offer.
But I want to know whether that really is the extension to the franchise that the Government want or whether I have actually missed something and, in some other part of the RPA—or Schedule 9 or goodness knows where else—there is something that would prevent that absurd outcome.
My Lords, I will first answer the noble Lord, Lord Stunell: it is late and I do not have all the answers, but we will get a letter to him as soon as we can to answer his questions.
Amendment 146 seeks to place a time limit on overseas electors’ connections with the UK. Imposing a new time limit, albeit a longer one, does not deliver on our manifesto commitment to introduce votes for life. The Government’s view is that any time limit is arbitrary in an increasingly global and connected world. Length of time outside the UK is not a certain indicator of how a person feels about their British identity or a measure of the interest that they take in this country’s future. The Bill sets a sensible boundary for the overseas franchise. Previous registration or residence denotes a strong degree of connection to the UK.
Amendments 145, 147 and 148 seek to prevent people who have committed offences or been sanctioned under the described Acts, or those who are subject to an Interpol red notice, from registering as overseas electors. Domestic electors are not required to declare whether they have ever committed offences under the Acts described, and the Government will not impose these requirements on overseas electors. Overseas electors would be subject to the same restrictions as domestic electors in respect of offences relating to personation and postal vote fraud that result in a temporary bar from voting upon a person being convicted or named as personally guilty of that offence.
In a situation where a domestic elector would not be permanently barred from voting, we would wish to treat an overseas elector equally—
The Minister has just said that exactly the same restrictions would apply to overseas voters as to voters in the UK. If an overseas voter had been sent to prison in Switzerland, say, for 18 months, would they be able to vote from prison there, or would we have a mechanism for making sure that they were not competent to vote in that situation?
I think that is a hypothetical question, but I shall certainly get a legal opinion on it.
On Amendment 148, as the noble Baroness said, all those issues on sanctions should be dealt with on Monday, within the group on donations, if she does not mind. I think that is the sensible place to have that debate. Therefore, I urge her not to press the amendments.
Moving on, Amendments 147A and 147B seek to increase the period for which an overseas elector would be registered to vote without having to renew their overseas declaration from three to five years. The Government cannot accept this amendment as it would create a cycle that is unworkable in practice for overseas electors and electoral administrators. This is because the three-year declaration renewal cycle provided for in the Bill ties in with the need to reapply for a new postal vote every three years, provided for elsewhere in the Bill.
For obvious reasons, most overseas electors vote by post. Combining the two saves the elector time and the administrator—therefore, ultimately, the taxpayer—money. It also means that more overseas electors will remain properly registered to vote, with an absent vote arrangement already in place before an election is called. This will reduce the need for last-minute applications, close to elections, which threaten to overwhelm administrators and leave the elector without a vote. This amendment would break the cycle and therefore lose the benefits that I have just described.
I assure the noble Lord that the approach taken by the Government to extend the registration period for overseas electors to three years from 12 months currently was developed closely with electoral administrators. It was felt by them that a three-year registration period reflects the fact that overseas electors can vote only in UK parliamentary elections, which typically happen every four years or so.
I shall certainly ask the team to go back and check. I do not know whether it was Solace or another group that has been working with the policy team on this. We will check that out for the noble Lord and see why there is a difference.
Furthermore, the Bill carefully balances the need to ensure that registers are kept accurate and that overseas electors’ contact details are up to date, which is particularly important to ensure that they receive a postal ballot. I hope the noble Lord will consider these points and not press his amendments
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response. I will just make a couple of points. One is that there is quite a bit of concern about this part of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, talked about concerns about proper checks, which is what we are very concerned about—making sure that those checks are done so that the people who are asking to come on to the register who have not been in this country for a long time are proper people to come on to the register, and the checks and balances have taken place properly and correctly. Also, if that is going to happen, what about the support for local authorities and election teams? It could be a lot of work in some areas. At some point, it would be good to return to this issue.
I completely take the Minister’s point about looking at sanctions in more detail in the debate on Monday. That is a particularly important thing that we need to spend some time on, even if the broader debate is not one that the Government want to spend time on. We need to look at that. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 145 withdrawn.
Amendments 146 to 148 not moved.
Clause 12 agreed.
149: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Creation of overseas constituencies
(1) Within six months of the passing of this Act, and prior to section 12 coming into force, the Secretary of State must lay a report before Parliament on proposals for overseas constituencies.(2) A report under subsection (1) must consider proposals on—(a) the most suitable deployment of overseas constituencies;(b) the ratio of nationals per MP;(c) the impact on existing UK constituencies;(d) the local administration of ballots;(e) the appointment of returning officers; and(f) the form of proportional representation best suited to electing Members of Parliament to represent overseas constituencies.(3) In preparing a report under subsection (1) the Secretary of State must consult—(a) the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the House of Commons;(b) the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords;(c) the appropriate committees of the Scottish Parliament, Senedd Cymru and the Northern Ireland Assembly;(d) the Electoral Commission;(e) the Association of Electoral Administrators; and(f) any other person they consider appropriate.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment requires the Secretary of State to report on the creation of overseas constituencies.
My Lords, if the Government were in a mood to try to build any sort of consensus on the Bill, which they clearly are not, I would hope that they would be willing to consider accepting some part of this amendment; it does not say that we should necessarily create overseas constituencies but that we should at least consider them.
If I may anticipate the Minister’s comment that this would be an enormous innovation, I point out that the extension of the franchise to people who have lived abroad all their life is itself an enormous innovation. If I were to follow the line that he has argued on former subjects—that we should be looking at the practice of other countries—overseas constituencies are a practice in a number of democratic countries for very obvious reasons. If you are looking after your overseas voters, they have lost their links with their local constituencies, they are much more distant than they were and they have a different set of interests and it is therefore perhaps appropriate for overseas constituencies to be created.
It may be that we have not yet thought this through. I suspect that the Government have not thought about it at all because they do not have the numbers or any of the practice or documentation that the French, for example, have about their overseas citizens with support from their embassies, consulates and others. Nor have we looked into what we do about dual and triple nationals, an increasingly large and difficult category, as we have discovered in our relations with Iran and China in recent years, which takes us into the question of how we might redefine British citizenship as such in a much more global world. The question of how parties fund keeping in touch with overseas voters is the most sensitive one because we know that one of the underlying structural biases in our electoral system is that one party has two-thirds of the funds available for political parties and the others have a great deal less, so we know which party will be able to keep in touch with the overseas voters it wants and the others will not be able to do so.
Having said that, I hope the Minister will recognise that there is a case for looking at this. The current proposals will concentrate overseas voters, by and large, in London, Surrey and other home county constituencies. We do not know the implications of that. A Conservative Peer of my acquaintance told me that the one overseas constituency in France which consistently votes left is the one that includes London; he suspects that there might be some similar interesting differences in where people are living as opposed to where they come from, but at least we ought to be looking at that as part of the package. I therefore ask the Government not to close their mind to this and not to demonstrate that getting this done without thinking through the implications is all they are really concerned with. As part of approaching this major extension of the British franchise, they should look at this, as other countries have done. I beg to move.
I have very little to say other than that it is a very interesting suggestion and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for bringing it forward and giving us food for thought. I had no idea that France had overseas constituencies until he tabled his amendment and I looked into it. It is an interesting suggestion.
I fear that at this late hour, I will disappoint the noble Lord. This amendment would require the Government to prepare a report on proposals for the creation of overseas constituencies. The Bill will allow overseas electors to continue to vote in constituencies to which they have a significant and demonstrable connection. This constituency link has always been and continues to be a cornerstone of our democracy. Creating overseas constituencies is therefore not something the Government are considering. To commission a report on the topic is unnecessary. Overseas electors will continue to register in the constituencies to which they have a significant and demonstrable connection.
As the amendment acknowledges, there are extensive and complex bureaucratic challenges to implementing overseas constituencies. There would, for example, be ongoing complexities regarding how constituency boundaries and their electorate would be determined and maintained with a constituency stretching across multiple countries and being affected by fluctuating migration. Furthermore, electoral administration for overseas constituencies would have to be done in a very different way from the current process, whereby it is undertaken by local authorities. We would need to address matters such as: who would be responsible for maintaining the register of electors and administering the polls for an overseas constituency. Overseas constituencies would not fit in with the existing arrangements for organising constituencies and delivering elections, and establishing them would require the consideration of a range of complex issues. I hope the noble Lord will feel able to reconsider this suggestion and withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, that is not at all surprising as an answer. I point out that the extensive and bureaucratic challenges to which the Minister refers are involved in extending the vote to overseas voters in the first place. Those challenges will be met by local registration officers in Britain, but if we are to have a different relationship with our 5 million to 7 million citizens abroad, we need to look at it in a rather more rounded way and consider how we manage it. It is not a question of just extending the vote and leaving it like that.
After all, we have got into some difficulty in recent years with the question of how we relate to overseas citizens, particularly our dual nationals when they are imprisoned in the other countries of their nationality—and these are not particularly friendly countries. That needs to be thought about.
What I hear from the Government throughout the Bill is that they are not interested in anything except their current agenda. They are not interested in thinking through the implications of some of their proposals. I have talked to Canadian Senators about how they cope with these voters. I am aware of the French system; I am surprised that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, was not. The Britain, Ireland and Nordic constituency is one of its five overseas constituencies. Many people in London are French and therefore vote in French elections. In the last presidential election campaign, Macron came to address a large meeting in London as part of his campaign. If we were to move in that direction, of course British politicians would need to think about which other countries they would go to campaign in. There are some large implications of this which, if I may say so, the Government appear simply not to have thought through as they push this through.
That is the problem with an awful lot of this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord True, will be responsible for having assisted and enabled a thoroughly badly thought-through Bill to become law. That will be on his conscience and his responsibility. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 149 withdrawn.
Amendments 150 and 151 not moved.
Schedule 7 agreed.
Clause 13 agreed.