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Voter Authority Certificates

Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 2 May 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the number of registered electors who have acquired Voter Authority Certificates, and (2) the effectiveness of the scheme in practice.

My Lords, over 89,500 applications have been received for voter authority certificates. The Government have never had a target for applications and are pleased with the initial rollout. A three-stage evaluation will begin after May’s elections, seeking to understand how the policy measures are implemented and their impact on electors and election staff. Publication of the first review is expected in November 2023, with further reviews after each of the next UK general elections.

My Lords, the Government estimated that around 2 million people who are on the electoral register do not have one of the forms of photo ID required this year. Around 1.6 million of those people have elections on Thursday—but the figures show that more than 1.5 million do not have the local authority certificate and will be unable to vote on Thursday, unless by any chance they have acquired another form of photo ID in the meantime. So perhaps 1.5 million people could be denied their vote. Is the spending of £180 million of taxpayers’ money over 10 years a successful investment for the Conservatives if it blocks this many people from voting?

My Lords, there are multiple reasons why voters have chosen not to apply for a voter authority certificate at this time. Not everyone will have elections in their area, for a start, and not everyone will choose to vote in a polling station. Those who vote by post or by proxy will not need voter identification and therefore have no need to apply for a VAC. While we would not seek to predict turnout on 4 May, in previous local elections over the past decade a significant proportion of votes have been cast by post. For example, in the May 2022 local elections, postal votes comprised 38% of overall turnout and proxy votes a further 1%. We also have to accept that, while we hope that every elector takes part in the democratic process, this is simply never going to be the case and many will choose not to vote. The cost of this is £2.42 per elector over a 10-year period.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the best form of voter authority certificate would be an identity card? Will she also reflect on her own remarks about postal voting? Where there has been manifest corruption in recent years, it has been not at the ballot box in the station but among postal voters.

The discussion about ID cards is a whole new question that I do not intend to go into. As for postal votes, the Elections Act 2022 contains further measures on postal votes to secure that vote.

My Lords, if I heard the Minister correctly, she said there would be a review this autumn on these local election results and another review after the next general election and so on. What is the point of a review if things will continue to go on as if nothing has happened, no matter how bad the election was in terms of voter turnout? Surely, what is required if the review shows a drop in voter turnout is not another review but an abandonment of the whole policy.

I do not think it is an abandonment of the whole policy. We expect the Electoral Commission, as an independent regulator, to provide some analysis and some early, interim reports on the May elections some time this summer. We will learn from that and, if any changes need to be made, we will consider those changes.

Will the Government ensure that adequate, accurate records are kept of the number of potential voters who are turned away because of inadequate documents?

Yes, my Lords; it is in legislation that local authorities will count the numbers, anonymously, of electors who are turned away and we will look at those and at all the other evidence from the electoral returning officers when we look at how this has worked.

Does my noble friend have any idea why the opposition parties should be against ensuring that the ballot is properly conducted and secure?

No, I do not, because it was the Labour Party, supported by the Liberal Democrat Party, that agreed in 2003 to Northern Ireland having a similar system. They voted for it and I cannot understand why they are not voting for it this time.

My Lords, we have heard about the review, but the review has to be meaningful, otherwise it is pointless. So, given that the Minister has previously stated that this will consider evidence from polling stations, what exactly will that evidence include, what steps have been taken to prepare for it and what guidance has been given to electoral staff?

Both the Electoral Commission and the Government have been working with electoral staff continuously since the Act came in. What will be collected at polling stations will include the numbers and the reasons why electors have been turned away, if they have, whether they returned and whether they voted later, as well as other aspects of the policy. This will just be adding to what they would normally collect in a polling station.

My Lords, will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise for those Conservative leaflets that have been distributed in Norwich and other places, specifically telling people that they do not need ID to vote?

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there seem to be different restrictions in different local authorities before they issue ID cards? I had a message from someone who had been on the electoral roll since 1999. They were initially denied a certificate and had to go back with four different proofs of ID before the authority agreed to issue one. Is this normal practice, and will she look into it?

It does not sound like normal practice. If the noble Baroness would like to give me some further details, I will look into it. I cannot discuss an individual case.

My Lords, I take this opportunity to thank noble Lords on all sides who supported the passage of the Ballot Secrecy Act, which was given Royal Assent a few moments ago. Further to this particular Question, can I ask my noble friend to re-emphasise the fact that those people who return, having previously been refused the ballot, will be recorded as well, so that there will be a clear record not only of those who are turned away but who return?

My Lords, the Minister is making a pretty bad fist of a very poor case. She mentioned 2003 in Northern Ireland, where there was manifest data on impersonation. If she does not know the difference between Northern Ireland and the British mainland over the past 40 years—before 2003—I cannot really help her. But 2003 was also the year when voluntary biometric ID cards were introduced, in an attempt to make sure that access to public services was not misused, to help in the control of immigration, to make sure that there could not be voter impersonation on the British mainland, and for a dozen other good reasons.

That scheme was unilaterally abolished by the Liberal Party when they were in the coalition. They are the very same people who are now crying out for some decent method of identification. It is the only way to make sure that there is no impersonation in voting.

My Lords, I do understand what happened in Northern Ireland in 2003. Let us get it right. Personation in polling stations is very difficult to identify and prove. By definition, it is a crime of deception. If you listen to the people of Northern Ireland, you will hear that they are more satisfied with their voting system than people in this country. We should allow our residents to be as satisfied with ours. If you look at what comes from polling, you will see that two out of three people in this country would feel more confident in the voting system if there were photo ID.