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Recall Petitions: Voter ID

Volume 831: debated on Monday 10 July 2023


Asked by

My Lords, the Answer is, yes, it is set out in legislation that voter identification is required in order for an elector to sign the signing sheet in person at an MP recall petition.

My Lords, at least 14,000 people without ID were not able to vote in local elections, even on a date known to them in advance, so they had time to get ID if they did not have a passport. But recall petitions are sudden, unexpected and speedy, with no national awareness campaign. There is a petition in Scotland with just 40 days to obtain that photo ID, if you do not have a passport, and then to sign in person, as the Minister said. Three Tory recall petitions could have happened; two were saved by the MPs resigning, but one may still be to come. Given that 10% of voters are needed to trigger a by-election, anyone being unable to obtain voter ID in time makes recall less possible. How convenient for the Government. So will the Minister agree that a review is urgently needed if the recall procedure is to work as the Government first intended?

I am sorry to disappoint the noble Baroness but I cannot agree that we should look at this again; it was not long ago that we looked at all this in the now enacted Elections Bill. On the 40 days, I assure the noble Baroness that the election department has been working on the voter identification process where anyone needs a VAC. It also wrote to all the electorate about the process, giving clear instructions that people would require voter ID, and instructions on what voter ID was available for them to use and, if they could not, where they could get a VAC.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Electoral Commission report clearly demonstrates that all the fuss about the effect of voter ID has proved to be an exaggeration? We are talking about less than a percentage point. Does my noble friend further agree that, given that it is part of our voting system, it would now make some sense to re-examine the qualifications for voter ID, particularly among the young? Will she keep those categories constantly under review?

My noble friend is right. We are very encouraged by the first interim report from the Electoral Commission, but there is a lot more work to be done. It was only an interim analysis; the final analysis will be published in the autumn. The Government are looking both qualitatively and quantitatively at the May elections, and the report will be out by the end of November. When we get those reviews, we need to see if any changes need to be made, including on voter ID and young people.

My Lords, many constituencies have several hundred overseas voters; some have over 1,000. The extension of overseas voting rights would increase those numbers very considerably. What arrangements do the Government have in hand to make sure that, in the event of a recall petition in a constituency, its overseas voters are informed in a timely fashion so that they can participate?

My Lords, there will be a lot of changes in respect of overseas voters. I will have to write to the noble Lord on recall petitions.

My Lords, I lived in Brussels for 40 years and voted in Belgium. I had a voter ID card throughout that time, and it was never an issue with any of the parties there. Is this not a bit of a false debate?

My noble friend is right. We have had this debate over and over again, and it is clear that many countries, including Northern Ireland, have voter ID. It works very well, and the people of Northern Ireland are very happy with it. We agreed to do this in our manifesto and will continue to do so. We look forward to it working as well here as it does in many other countries.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, talked about the initial report from the Electoral Commission. Our concern is that it showed that many thousands of people were turned away, many of whom did not return. We do not know the impact on those who were put off going in the first place, so the Government should not be complacent about that. It concerns me that we have by-elections and elections for recall petitions coming up, but the Government will not act on any of the recommendations and the final report is not coming out until September. Why will the Government not pause the process until they can be more confident about the outcomes?

My Lords, the Government are confident about the outcomes. The initial evidence shows that it was a very successful first step. We are pleased to see the Electoral Commission’s report, according to which there were continually high levels of satisfaction with our voting system; 89% of polling station voters said that they were fairly or very satisfied. That is good, and a higher figure than during similar elections in 2019.

My Lords, I was one of the earliest proponents of this recall mechanism, in 2008. The then leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, liked the idea and put it in the 2010 manifesto—but then the rats got at it. Instead of it being a mechanism through which ordinary constituents could demand a recall, we had to have an initial procedure whereby the Privileges Committee, in effect, picked out which of its numbers from the other place it did not want. Will my noble friend the Minister look again at returning to the principle of diffusing power from Parliament to the electorate, rather than concentrating it in the hands of parliamentary committees, so that we return to the idea that only the voters determine the composition of another House?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an interesting point. The Government have no plans to look back at the way in which recall petitions are done, but I am more than happy to talk to him further on this issue and take it back to the department.

My Lords, the Minister has repeated that, in the Government’s view, 14,000 people being turned away from the polling station represents a success. Could she tell us what a failure would be?

My Lords, there are many reasons why those people did not vote at that time. The Electoral Commission made clear in its interim report that it was satisfied, and it said that it needed further time for further evidence. Let us wait until November, as we said in legislation that we would, when we will get both the qualitative and the quantitative evidence.

My Lords, I do not agree on this occasion with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and her comments about recall petitions. As I understand the law, there is a requirement that 10% of the electorate sign the petition, but the petition stays open ad infinitum until the conclusion of the period, despite the fact that the 10% threshold may have been met after five, six or seven days. Is there not a need to review the recall petition legislation in order to avoid unnecessary cost and duration of this process?

No, my Lords, I think my noble friend is wrong in this case. The Government feel that recall petitions should remain open even when the 10% threshold has been reached, mainly because if somebody gets a letter saying that they have a right to sign a petition, it should not be closed until the time given in that letter, and they should have their right to sign.

Can the Minister reassure the House that the Government will take steps to make a record of electors who go to sign their name at a recall petition and are refused for lack of voter identification?

My Lords, the Government have made it very clear that they will look at all the data from any petition or election, as they did in May this year.

My Lords, in my part of the United Kingdom we have had voter identification for decades now, and in fact, we have some of the highest turnouts at elections anywhere in the United Kingdom. I am sure the electoral commission of Northern Ireland and indeed the Electoral Office will be more than happy to share what they have learned about voter identification over many years, and the Minister may wish to avail herself of that advice and assistance.

I thank the noble Baroness. We have already availed ourselves of the electoral officers in Northern Ireland, where this has been such a success. It will be in this country as well.