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Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2024

Volume 836: debated on Monday 26 February 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2024.

This statutory instrument, and the Representation of the People (Postal Vote Handling etc.) (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2024, were laid before your Lordships House on 10 January. They flow from the Elections Act 2022 and deliver on the Government’s manifesto commitment to stop “postal vote harvesting”: the dubious practice of collecting large numbers of postal votes to be returned by someone other than the voter to whom the ballot paper is issued. One instrument applies these measures to parliamentary and Northern Ireland Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, and the second to local elections. The equivalent measures for Great Britain have, of course, already been passed by this Parliament.

These statutory instruments will set a limit on how many postal votes any one individual can directly “hand in” to the returning officer, and complement other Elections Act provisions protecting the integrity of the absent vote process. These include banning political campaigners handling postal votes issued to another person, and ensuring the secrecy of absent voting. One of the instruments also contains some technical amendments relating to the changes to EU voting and candidacy rights, which I will touch upon later.

I will set out the measures related to limiting handing in postal votes in more detail. Currently, there are no restrictions on who may hand in postal votes and how many may be handed in by any single person, and no record of who has done so. This is not acceptable because it creates opportunities for unscrupulous individuals to undermine the integrity of postal voting. For example, voters could be coerced into handing over their unmarked ballot paper, or completed ballots could be tampered with out of sight of the voter before being returned. Even if they are acting legitimately, where individuals are seen to be handing in significant numbers of postal votes in one go, it can easily create the perception and suspicion of impropriety, which can be damaging to confidence in the electoral system. Retaining public confidence in the democratic systems of our country is, of course, critically important.

We are therefore intent on striking the right balance between being mindful of security, keeping the electoral process accessible and ensuring that confidence in our electoral systems is reinforced. Under these regulations, a person, in addition to their own postal vote, will be able to hand in the postal votes of up to five other electors, including any for whom they are acting as proxy. We consider this a reasonable limit that will support the integrity of postal voting.

In Northern Ireland, postal votes can be handed in at the electoral office. Unlike in Great Britain, where postal votes may be returned to the polling station, in Northern Ireland handing in postal votes at polling stations has never been permitted. This prohibition will not change as a result of these measures. A person handing in postal votes will be required to complete a form setting out basic information. Where the forms are not completed, those, and those in excess of the limit, apart from the person’s own, will be rejected. Any postal votes that have been left behind in the electoral office without an accompanying form, including those posted through or pushed under the front door, will not be counted as they will not have been returned in accordance with these requirements.

The new forms make these changes clear to the voter. In addition, the rules will be published as widely as possible by both the Electoral Commission and the chief electoral officer. After the poll, the chief electoral officer will, where possible, write to the persons whose postal votes have been rejected under these requirements to notify them that their vote was rejected, and the reasons for that.

The regulations before us today also make some small changes in relation to EU voting and candidacy rights. The Representation of the People (Franchise Amendment and Eligibility Review) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2023 implemented changes to the previously automatic right of EU citizens to vote and stand in elections. These regulations amend those 2023 regulations, so that where the eligibility of EU citizens to remain on the register has been reviewed, duplicate notices do not have to be issued.

Additionally, where an election is originally scheduled to take place before the franchise changes come into force, but following the death of a candidate the poll is rescheduled for a date after the changes, these measures will ensure that candidates and registered EU citizens remain eligible to stand and hold office at that poll.

I hope noble Lords agree that these measures are sensible safeguards against the potential abuse of absent voting and will reduce the opportunity for individuals to exploit the process. I hope that, following my setting out the details of these statutory instruments, the Committee will appreciate their careful and considered design for supporting absent voters. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his presentation of the facts concerning both statutory instruments. I declare an interest in two respects: first, as a member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House; and secondly, as a participant in elections in Northern Ireland for the past 43 years, either as a candidate or as a party worker. In all those elections, I was well aware that postal votes provided the elderly, the infirm, students and those on holiday with the opportunity to vote by post or by proxy. I welcome legislative efforts to protect postal and postal proxy voting arrangements, because there was no doubt that there was actual fraud, as I saw for myself. I saw it in the last election in which I was a participant, and whenever I failed to get re-elected as the MP for South Down. There is no doubt that electoral fraud took place in the polling place and through postal votes, through a large degree of postal vote harvesting. We saw people going into the electoral office with hundreds of completed ballot papers in the prescribed envelopes, duly certified by a family member.

I have always been afraid that there might be those who seek to steal postal votes, particularly from the infirm, in order to seek electoral advantage. We have heard many examples of that, so I am pleased that legislative action is being taken. However, what legislative action will the Government take to protect the polling place itself at parliamentary, Assembly and local government elections in Northern Ireland, in order to protect voters and prevent vote stealing? People who had perhaps not voted in previous elections, and who turned up to vote in the 2017 parliamentary election and were definitely on the register, discovered at 6 or 7 o’clock that evening that their votes had already been cast by somebody else.

There needs to be some legislative means to protect the polling place, both inside and outside, because in some places voters are subject to constant haranguing by party workers; indeed, we have all been victims of that. What can be done to ensure that photographic identities are protected and cannot be copied or photoshopped, as must have been the case in the instance to which I referred?

I would also like to know from the Minister whether discussions took place with the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland and the Electoral Commission before these instruments were made. If they did, what was the view of both organisations? In addition, are the Government confident that there will be full access to the franchise through this legislative means for those who are elderly, those on holiday, and for students, and that there will not be any denial of the franchise or any means of obviating these new legislative measures? We have seen examples of that.

Whenever the ballots are open to party political workers some few days before the actual polling place is open, will those workers have an opportunity to be informed of the number of postal votes issued, the number delivered, and the number rejected because they did not have the proper accompanying identification with them?

In any event, and in conclusion, I welcome the instruments as they stand and as they relate to the protection of the franchise in council and Assembly elections.

My Lords, I am just interested in what the Minister said in relation to postal votes. He remarked that they are sometimes pushed through the door. I am not saying that he implied anything by saying that, but by listening to the way it was said you could nearly think that maybe there was something very improper about that. There has been no alternative up to now other than to push them through the front door—and certainly not through the back door.

As regards postal voting, if I go to the polling station, I must produce ID; there is no need for that at all if I get a postal vote. It strikes me that the potential for where abuse might occur is always with postal voting. I am not saying that it is on a wide scale, but I listened to what the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, said, and found myself concurring with much of it.

The other thing I want to emphasise is on voting on the day. It is imperative that there is a police presence inside the polling station. That can be reassuring to the public who come to vote. Some come in trepidation and fear because very often, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, rightly said, there is quite a hostile atmosphere outside from political activists coming to the polling station who do not always have a great regard for the rule of law. Indeed, they have very little respect for those who may not vote exactly how they guess—because that is all they are doing—they will. That needs to be looked at.

However, I have to say in favour of Northern Ireland that it has led the way on this matter. We have been able to get a fairer system of voting—if that is the proper word. Take remote, isolated areas, not least border areas: a minority community there might not feel very comfortable about coming to vote, hence they resort to postal voting—perhaps “resort” is not the right word either, but they will avail themselves of the postal voting system. That must be protected too. We can turn this thing down so tight that there is no degree of flexibility, because all we are trying to do is protect the genuine voter coming to vote. It is not those who are abusing the system who will feel pushed out here, because they will not; they will still have their ways of doing things, which are often very provocative. Indeed, sometimes quite a bit of agitation is applied.

Elderly voters who apply for a postal vote are vulnerable because activists—for the sake of a better word—will call at their door and tell them, “You’ve got a postal vote; I’ll deal with it”. That is highly suspect and must be dealt with in a way where the postal voter can be assured that their postal vote will go the way they want it to go, not the way the activist who arrives on their doorstep surmising, “Oh, here’s a number of postal votes, we’d better call here”, wants it to go. I have no problem with election workers assisting people, but that is all they should be doing.

I can give an example of where I called at a door; I did not know that there was a postal vote in it at all. The man said to me, “I want you to mark my postal vote”. I said, “Well, you’ve got the wrong man. I’ll not be marking your postal vote. What way do you want to vote?” He said, “I want to vote for you”. I said, “What about the second preference?” He said, “Oh, there’s no second preference. What’s that?” I hasten to add that I did not touch it in any way. The man was genuine—I like to think that I was genuine too—but this can open itself up to a lot of abuse.

Those issues need to be given some diligence. It is important that a police presence is there, both inside and outside our polling stations, to reassure voters.

My Lords, I shall be extremely brief because we support these SIs. Trust in elections is absolutely key to our democratic system. The review by the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, identified several areas where measures could be strengthened to reduce the risk of electoral fraud; these SIs stem from that, and are welcome.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked about consultation, but the instruments say that consultation took place with the Northern Ireland electoral bodies and the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland. This is not always the case but I understand that, in this case, consultation took place. That is very much to be welcomed.

My only substantial question for the Minister regards training on these changes for the electoral officers in Northern Ireland and making sure that the changes are communicated properly. Can he give us an assurance that this will be done in good time ahead of the forthcoming general election? Can he confirm that there will be provision for sufficient resources to be made available in order to implement these changes?

The Minister will know that, when these SIs were debated last week in the House of Commons, some concern was expressed about the definition of “political campaigner”. Can he confirm that these changes will also be communicated to the political parties in good time? Can he say a little about how the definition of “political campaigner” will be monitored in practice?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these SIs, which put in place new rules on the handing in of postal votes in local, parliamentary and Assembly elections in Northern Ireland, as provided for by the Elections Act 2022. An equivalent SI for Great Britain has already gone through both Houses, with noble Lords participating in the recent debate here in January.

The Act established that it was an offence for a “political campaigner” to handle postal votes other than in very select circumstances. These instruments set out the new rules for members of the general public, which will sit alongside the other measures that the Act brought in. We on these Benches will not oppose the SIs but we want to probe the Minister on their impact. It is always worth noting that, long before the 2022 Act, the Labour Party had for years been signed up to the Electoral Commission’s code of conduct for campaigners, which bans campaigners from handling completed postal ballots.

We seek clarity on who is covered by which provisions. Colleagues in the Commons, as the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, said, raised the issue of the need for good understanding and communication on who is covered by the definition of a political campaigner, so people have absolute clarity on which set of rules applies to them. If a person puts a party poster in their window during an election, are they a political campaigner? How will electoral officers be supported to adjudicate on whether someone is a political campaigner or not?

We would like to see more clarity for voters, so that votes are not lost by mistake. Can the Minister give more detail on how the regulations will be made clear to voters, in order to avoid any votes being lost due to people being unaware or unsure of the new requirements?

Finally, I want to pick up on support for electoral officers, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and other noble Lords. Without a doubt, these changes will place some administrative burdens on our electoral administrators. The pressure on local authorities is significant; electoral administrators up and down the country are stretched and are getting their heads around the changes the Government are making, as we pointed out several times during the passage of the Elections Bill. In the light of the numerous SIs that have come before us, these changes will create an unprecedented level of work for electoral administrators. Will electoral officers be further resourced in Northern Ireland? Will they be strengthened to deal with the impacts and changes outlined? My noble friend Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick spoke about the consultation, which is referred to in the Explanatory Notes, but can the Minister tell us about the nature of the feedback from the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland and the Electoral Commission? I look forward to his response.

My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in this short debate. I shall try to respond to a number of the points that have been made. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, and the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, who have extensive experience of elections in Northern Ireland, in both fighting them and campaigning as candidates. I have participated directly in only one election in Northern Ireland, in 2010—without a great deal of conspicuous success, I am afraid to say.

I am grateful to noble Lords. Both the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, and the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, spoke about protecting polling stations. Of course, we will keep that under close review. Any question of a police presence at polling stations would be a matter not for the Government but for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in consultation with the Chief Electoral Office. Of course, we keep the issue constantly under review and take it very seriously. That said, notwithstanding some of the comments that have been made, my understanding is that the police and the chief electoral officer are clear that organised electoral fraud at polling stations or polling places is not currently a significant issue. However, I take on board the noble Baroness’s comments and will look closely at the issue.

On engagement with the chief electoral officer and the Electoral Commission, I assure noble Lords that extensive and significant consultation took place. I refer specifically to the questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. These issues were discussed at length, and I can confirm that the Electoral Commission and the chief electoral officer were fully supportive of the changes the Government are setting out in these regulations.

Concerns were raised about the potential denial of the franchise. The Government are satisfied, through our consultations with the Electoral Office and the Electoral Commission, that these regulations are a fair and proportionate measure which will help to protect the integrity of the election system in Northern Ireland and the postal vote system.

The noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley, referred to the definition of a political campaigner. He will be aware that this is set out in the legislation. For the record, it is worth setting it out for the Committee. A political campaigner is a candidate, election agent or sub-agent; somebody employed or engaged by a candidate for the purpose of assisting the candidate’s activities; a member of a registered political party who conducts activity designed to promote a particular outcome at the election; someone employed or engaged by a registered political party in connection with the party’s political activities; or a person employed or engaged by a person within any of the previous categories to promote a particular outcome at the election, which further applies to anyone employed or engaged by such a person to help promote a particular outcome at the election.

Of course, with any new system, we will need to see how this beds in, and we will keep it under review. If changes are necessary, we will come back to Parliament with them.

We are clear that the changes will be communicated directly to electors via forms, including declaration of identity and polling cards. The Electoral Commission and the chief electoral officer will also use all avenues open to them to publicise the changes, including their websites. Both the Electoral Commission and the chief electoral officer are seized of the importance of this and of making sure that the changes are clearly and widely understood by voters.

In conclusion, I know that all noble Lords believe that preserving our democratic processes is paramount. I hope the Committee will agree that these instruments enable us to ensure the integrity of the electoral system and maintain confidence in it by introducing, where we can, what I regard as sensible safeguards against the potential abuse of absent voting. I am therefore pleased to be able to introduce these measures.

Before the Minister sits down, can he tell the Committee about extra support and resources for electoral officers? Perhaps I missed what he said about that.

Of course; I apologise to the noble Lord. In Northern Ireland, all electoral delivery is the responsibility of the chief electoral officer and his staff. Local authorities in Northern Ireland are not involved in that at all. I can assure the noble Lord that we are working closely with the chief electoral officer to identify the specific impact of each of these measures and that any additional resource will be kept under review in that context.

I asked about the reconciliation of postal votes, which happens about three days before polling day in electoral offices. One party-political worker from each party goes along to that and the postal ballots are opened. Will there be a register showing how many postal ballots were submitted, and those that were rejected and accepted?

That is my understanding. As I outlined in my speech, where votes have been rejected, the electoral officer will write to the individuals concerned to let them know why, where possible.

That probably covers most of what was raised in the discussion. I commend these instruments to the Committee.

Motion agreed.