Skip to main content

Voter ID

Volume 829: debated on Wednesday 3 May 2023

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 27 April.

“It is vital that we keep our democracy secure. This Government stood on a manifesto commitment not only to protect the integrity of our elections but to enhance it. On that basis, this Government won a majority. We have introduced legislation to implement that commitment and we are now in the process of delivering on our promise. Voter identification is central to protecting our electoral system from the potential for voting fraud. Its implementation at the local elections next week brings the rest of the UK in line with Northern Ireland, where people have had to bring photographic ID to vote in elections since 2003. I remind the honourable Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who is chuntering from a sedentary position, that that legislation was introduced by the then Labour Government under direct rule.

The data collection processes for polling stations are set out clearly in the Elections Act 2022 and the Voter Identification Regulations 2022. Polling station staff will record details of any electors turned away—should there be any—for the purposes of complaints or legal challenges and, in the short term, to provide data to evaluate the policy, which will be conducted by the Government and the Electoral Commission in line with the legislation that was voted on, debated and passed by this House.

The Electoral Commission has published suggested templates of the necessary forms and has updated its guidance in the polling station handbook to reflect the new processes. As required by legislation, the Government will publish a number of reports on the impact of the voter identification policy. Our intention is that the first of those reports will be published no later than November 2023. The data collected will be a significant part of that evaluation.

There are few tasks more important in public life, as I am sure every member of a political party represented in this House and the general public would agree, than maintaining the British public’s trust in the sanctity of the ballot box in our democratic processes. We on the Government Benches take that duty very seriously. I look forward to our first experience of the policy in polling stations in Great Britain on 4 May.”

My Lords, the Government implemented this rushed programme for voter ID against the advice of the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Local Government Association, which all said that it needed more time. Does the Minister now agree that they were right, given that around 1.5 million people eligible to vote do not have the accepted ID or certificate? Tomorrow’s election will be the greatest restriction of the franchise in our democratic history, taking the vote from seven times as many people as were given the vote in the Great Reform Act. What will it take tomorrow for the Government to rescind this policy? How many people will the Government allow to be turned away before admitting that this experiment has failed?

No, I do not agree that we have done it in haste, because I have spoken personally to the LGA and many leaders across the country who are having polls. I have also spoken to the Electoral Commission. The processes that were put in place worked well; the IT worked well, and we will know after tomorrow what the outcome is. As I said yesterday in this House, the number of people who have not registered for a voter authority card will come out in the data. Whether or not we need to look at any changes, this Government and the people of this country want voter ID. Two out of three people asked said they would feel more confident in our democratic process if it was in place.

My Lords, I return to a subject that I raised yesterday. It would be so much easier and sensible for all of us if we had an identity card that we could produce on all necessary occasions. There would then be no question of some people not having one of the designated documents, because they would all have the same. Could this please be looked at again if, as I suspect, the figures from tomorrow are disappointing?

Just to let my noble friend know, the Government have no intention of looking again at identity cards, as I said to him yesterday.

My Lords, allowing for postal votes, there will be more than 1 million people legally entitled to vote tomorrow who will not be able to do so because of the new requirements. The number of people who do not go to the polling station because of them will never be known; nor will the number of people turned away at the entrance to polling stations ever be known. If the Electoral Commission’s review suggests that wider forms of ID could be accepted, such as the items on the Post Office list for collecting a parcel, will such a change be made before elections in 2024? The cost saving would be substantial. Will the Minister undertake to tell us what that saving would be? She said yesterday that the government scheme would cost £2.42 per elector. There are about 48 million electors, so that would be a cost of £116 million. Which party is this expenditure most likely to benefit?

As I have said before, we will look at whether there need to be any changes after the Electoral Commission and the Government have collected the data they require from returning officers. We said that we would do that; there will be a review by both Houses of Parliament at the end of this year, and the Electoral Commission will review it as well. We expect its interim report in early summer. That is when we will need to look at whether any changes need to be made.

My Lords, I appreciate the difficult position that the Minister is in, but can she set out a list of all those people who are eligible for a proxy vote organised up until 5 pm tomorrow—election day? It was a mystery to me; I had never heard of emergency proxies. Apparently, they are available to people who, for example, cannot use the photo pass they were planning to use; it is not just an illness or disability issue. Where is the list, because it is very confusing on the websites, of who can get organised for a proxy up to 5 pm tomorrow? Are local authorities organised to do that for people who might have problems? Has this happened before or not?

In certain circumstances where a person has an emergency that means that they cannot vote in person, they can apply for an emergency proxy. There is full guidance on the Electoral Commission’s website. I should stress that the circumstances where an application for a proxy vote may apply are specific and very limited. Emergency proxies are available if a person’s photo ID is lost, stolen, destroyed or damaged, and the deadline to apply for a voter authority certificate has passed. This can also be used if an anonymous elector’s document is lost, stolen, destroyed or damaged. As the noble Lord said, applications can be made up to 5 pm on polling day.

Can the Minister confirm that the measures being introduced by the Government are very similar to those that were introduced in Northern Ireland, which have been generally welcomed by both Houses?

My noble friend is absolutely right: those measures were brought in in Northern Ireland by the Labour Government in 2003. They have been highly successful, and, in fact, the people of Northern Ireland have a higher rate of satisfaction with their electoral system than we do in England.

My Lords, are the Government alive to the prospect that they have set the bar too high for forms of photo ID for younger people in particular? The chance that someone would be so keen to vote fraudulently that they would make a fraudulent Oyster ID card as an 18-plus as a way to gain access to a polling station is vanishingly small. In that review, will they be alive to widening out the forms of photo ID for younger people?

Yes, obviously, but it is interesting that, when the research was done on the number of people in this country who had photo ID, it was higher for younger people. It was 98% for the whole of the country, but 99% for young people between 18 and 25. But, yes, we will look at that. I know that the Oyster card has been an issue, but there is a real reason. Oyster cards for younger people have a different process which is not as secure as that for older people’s Oyster cards.

My Lords, mention has been made of a review, and it is critical that it happens correctly. That requires three sets of information. The first is how many people were turned away; the second is the precise reasons for their being turned away, and the third is the time of day that they were turned away, because if it was before, let us say, half an hour before the close of polls, people may have been able to go and get the required documentation in some cases. Will the Government have the correct data on which to form an opinion?

Councils are required by law to record data in polling stations. There are two purposes for that. The first is in the case of any complaints or legal challenges, as we know. That data is on individual electors formally refused a ballot and whether they later returned and voted successfully; it will be sealed and retained in case it is needed. The second set of data will be captured in the short term to help evaluate the voter identification policy. That data will be anonymised and will include both the number of electors turned away and the reasons why, as well as whether they returned and voted later; it will also include data on other aspects of the policy, such as the number of times a voter authority certificate is used. As I have said, that data will be used by both the Government and the Electoral Commission in their evaluations. I do not think that the time of day when those electors came to a polling station will be in the evaluation, but I will certainly get the House an answer on that.