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Passports: Strike Action and Voter ID

Volume 828: debated on Monday 20 March 2023

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government (1) what assessment they have made of the effect of strike action in April on passport applications and (2) what steps they will take to ensure that those with delayed applications will not be prevented from voting in elections on 4 May.

My Lords, His Majesty’s Passport Office is working to manage the impact of the strike action. We have comprehensive contingency plans. There are currently no plans to change the published processing times for passports in response to the proposed strike action.

A passport is only one form of identification which is acceptable for voting purposes. The full list can be found on the government website. The public do not need a passport to be able to vote. This strike action should not have any impact on people being able to vote in May.

The current 10-week delay in passport applications is frustrating for travellers. The five-week strike will cause further problems. It will also reduce the number of people who have one of the specified forms of photo ID to let them vote if they have elections on 4 May. The uptake of local authority voter ID cards has been pathetic. During debates on the then Elections Bill, Ministers referred frequently to the Post Office’s ID requirements for collecting a parcel. Will the Government now consider allowing the forms of ID that are accepted by the Post Office, including bank cards or utility bills, to be used for voting, or are they really trying to suppress the vote?

The noble Lord asked two questions. First, in relation to the Passport Office, the department remains confident that the 10-week service standard for the return of passports will continue to be met. As the Minister with superintendence of the Passport Office, I have been very proud of the work that it and its excellent staff have done in recovering from the massive surge in applications which followed the Covid pandemic. The Passport Office remains fully resourced, following a significant increase of more than 1,200 staff between April 2021 and last summer. Last week, 99.6% of standard UK passport applications were processed within 10 weeks. More than 2.2 million applications have been processed in 2023.

I turn to the issue in relation to voting. As I have already said, a passport is only one form of ID which is acceptable for voting purposes. Expired forms of identification will be accepted, as long as the photograph is a good enough likeness. We estimate that around 80% of the eligible voting population hold a valid UK passport. This increases to around 85% when those whose passport has recently expired are included. On the basis that such a high proportion of voters hold a valid or recently expired passport, we do not plan to change our processing times. As the noble Lord has observed, anyone eligible to vote who does not have an acceptable form of photographic identification can apply for a free voter authority certificate.

My Lords, we know that voter ID fraud among those who vote at polling stations is absolutely minimal. It is extremely likely that, even if people have photo ID, they will not remember to take it to the polling station when they go to vote. There will therefore be a considerable number of people who do not vote in elections if the Government stick to their requirement that everyone turns up at the polling station with photo ID. Will the Government therefore withdraw their photo ID requirement for people voting at polling stations?

I am afraid I simply do not agree with the noble Baroness. This Parliament has passed an Act to require people to present voter identification and that is what will happen.

There is a simple failsafe. It is really important that people can vote and, having sent off their passport, they might not think that they will need it. But every time the Passport Office receives an application, it sends an email that says, “We’ve safely got your passport”. Attached to that email could be a little notification saying, “If you’re relying on this as your ID for voting, please make sure that you have one of these other forms”—or it could signpost them to the free voter certificate, which would kitchen-sink this so they can vote.

I thank my noble friend for that suggestion. Great efforts are made to advertise the availability of the voter authority certificate. Anyone concerned that a document that they intend to use will not be available by polling day may also apply to appoint a proxy up to 5 pm on polling day itself—so considerable steps have been taken to address my noble friend’s point.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, has come up with a very practical solution to this potential problem. Can the noble Lord undertake to the House and the noble Baroness that he will look at her suggestion and come up with a more considered answer?

I can certainly indicate that careful consideration is given to these issues. As always, we will consider all the recommendations and advice given to this House, including from my noble friend.

My Lords, should we remind ourselves that photographic evidence has been required at polling stations in Northern Ireland for many years and that the system there has worked extremely well?

I thank my noble friend, who is of course correct that paper identification has been required at polling stations in Northern Ireland since it was introduced in 1985, and photo identification since 2003, when it was introduced by the last Labour Government. It has proven to be highly effective at stopping fraud and preventing the crime of stealing someone’s vote.

My Lords, I will add to the last question and publicly commend the Passport Office—or certainly one unit within it, the international section—for providing an absolutely exemplary service. Would the Minister care to add to my positive remarks?

I am incredibly grateful to the noble Viscount for his comment, which I will pass on. I am always very impressed by the Passport Office staff. Their work to turn around delivery times has been exemplary across the Civil Service, and it is most regrettable that the action taken by the PCS will imperil this.

My Lords, this delay in passport applications will undoubtedly lead to some people not having the relevant voter ID available to them on the day in order to vote. Another uncertainty is being put in front of potential voters. The Minister has been saying that people can apply for local authority voter identification, so I will give him some figures to show how minimal that is. In my council area of Kirklees—I have relevant interests—there are an estimated 4,000 voters who will need voter ID from the local authority. There have been 278 applications to date, many of which have been returned for lack of a good-quality photo. What are the Government going to do to make sure that every voter who turns up on 4 May can cast their vote?

I believe that I have already answered that question a number of times in the course of proceedings in this House and I will not repeat it again.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that it is not only passports that are registered as a document of note for voting? Many documents other than passports are approved. Would he care to run through them?

I thank my noble friend; he is indeed correct. Some 20 forms of identity document would suffice including: a passport—needless to say—issued by the UK, any of the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, any British Overseas Territory, an EEA state or Commonwealth country; a national identity card issued by an EEA state; a driving licence; a blue badge; an older person’s or disabled person’s bus pass; an Oyster 60+ card funded by the Government of the United Kingdom; a Freedom Pass; a Scottish national entitlement card; a Welsh concessionary travel card for those aged 60 and over or disabled people; a senior, registered blind, blind person’s, war disablement, 60+ or half-fare SmartPass issued in Northern Ireland; or an identity card bearing a proof of age standard. I do not think I need to carry on.

Plainly, that was an issue that the noble Lord should have raised—and no doubt did raise—during the debate on the Elections Bill. It is quite a long way from the topic of this Question, which is about the strikes by the PCS.

Can my noble friend the Minister, having gone through that extensive list, say whether the department has made any estimate of how many people do not have any of the forms of documentation that he listed?

Well, of course, elections fall within the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities rather than the Home Office, but I am delighted to make that inquiry and write to him, and deposit the answer in the Library of the House.

My Lords, following the question from the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, is the Minister aware of the different political culture in Northern Ireland, and the fact that in the 1983 general election there were clear justifications for the introduction of some form of ID? There has been no such justification in Great Britain. The returning officer for Northern Ireland said that, after the introduction, it took at least 10 years for turnout levels to return to their previous levels, as a result of the introduction of ID. The Minister read a list; as a canvasser, I would not be able to read out that list to everyone on the doorstep—but the Post Office list is a very good list and it would extend the right to vote to many more people.

I am afraid that I do not accept that there is no need for the voter identification provisions. In any event, as I say, those matters have been approved by the other place and by this House—so that, I am afraid, is that.

My Lords, can I ask the Minister what he is doing, what the Government think and what assessment they have made about postal votes, because they are not monitored in the same way and ID does not have to be produced in the same way? Voter fraud instances have been higher in postal votes than they ever have for people voting in person.

I am afraid that this question, too, is an awfully long way from the Private Notice Question in relation to the action taken in the Passport Office. As to forms of identity for voting in person at polling stations, if the noble Baroness wishes to put a Question about postal voting, she can put it to the relevant Minister in DLUHC.

My Lords, like many in this House, I am registered to vote in two places. I have had no information from either local authority about the need for voter ID yet. It is only a number of weeks before the election; at what point are people going to be informed by local authorities of both the need for voter ID and the ability to apply for a local authority voting card?

The noble Lord is perhaps fortunate in that I received notice last week, together with my council tax bill for the coming year. I understand that that is fairly wide practice.

Is the Minister prepared to instruct those conducting elections to monitor those people who have been refused the right to vote, and publish those figures?

As I say, that is not a Home Office issue, so I am afraid that the answer is no: I have not given that instruction. No doubt the noble Lord can make inquiries of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

European citizens are, I guess, allowed to vote in these circumstances, and they only have European documents. The Government may wish for these to be added to that already extensive list.

The noble Lord asked me to write to him because my question was not apparently pertinent to the Question on the Order Paper. Could he confirm that he speaks for the Government?