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Representation of the People (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2024

Volume 838: debated on Monday 13 May 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Representation of the People (England and Wales and Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2024.

My Lords, in 2022, Parliament passed the Elections Act, which, among many other measures, introduced measures to amend the franchise to reflect the UK’s new relationship with the EU and protect the rights of UK citizens living in EU countries. Last year, two statutory instruments were passed, one for England and Wales and one for Northern Ireland, which flowed from that aspect of the Elections Act. These included new registration requirements for applications from EU citizens in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The majority of these changes came into effect on 7 May.

I bring forward this instrument today to amend a drafting oversight in both regulations. This instrument will correct that oversight by replacing a flawed definition, thereby implementing the original policy intention. The erroneous definition has resulted in certain EU citizens with particular combinations of nationalities being legally required to provide immaterial eligibility information when they register to vote. For example, it will require an individual with French and Commonwealth dual nationality to provide this information despite them having the same voting eligibility as someone with a single Commonwealth nationality. That should not be necessary for a qualifying Commonwealth citizen, as they have voting rights in the United Kingdom. This is because the eligibility of an individual with more than one nationality to participate in elections is established based on whichever of their nationalities grants them the greatest voting rights.

One of the primary intentions of the two current instruments was to allow EU citizens who chose to make the UK their home prior to the end of the implementation period—that is, before the UK left the EU—to continue to have the same right to vote and stand. This group of electors is referred to as “EU citizens with retained rights”. People applying to register to vote under the retained rights criteria, referred to as “relevant EU applicants”, must make a legal declaration that they meet the criteria of an EU citizen with retained rights and that they have been legally resident in the UK since the end of the implementation period.

“Relevant EU applicants” were intended to be defined as individuals who are citizens of the 19 EU member states with which the UK does not have a reciprocal voting and candidacy rights treaty, and who are not citizens of Ireland, Cyprus or Malta. These exemptions exist because Irish citizens’ UK voting rights long pre-date the EU, while the voting rights of Cypriot and Maltese citizens derive from their Commonwealth citizenship.

The five countries with which the UK has voting and candidacy rights treaties are Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, Poland and Denmark. Citizens of those countries will not lose their voting rights in the United Kingdom. However, due to an oversight, for which I apologise, the requirement to indicate that they fulfil the retained rights criteria unintentionally applies to particular applicants with dual nationalities. The current legal definition of a “relevant EU applicant” means that citizens of the 19 relevant EU countries who also have another nationality which is British or Commonwealth, excluding Cyprus and Malta, or citizenship of a treaty partner state are legally obliged to indicate that they fulfil retained rights criteria as part of their application to register to vote, even though that answer is irrelevant to determining their eligibility.

While this issue exists in law, if an application to register to vote from a relevant dual national is received by an electoral registration officer and the applicant has not indicated that they fulfil the retained rights criteria, that application would technically be incomplete. As such, the electoral administrator would have to get in touch with the applicant to require this information, even though the answer to the question will make no difference to the outcome of their application.

In practice, this issue creates the potential for confusion among applicants, who could object on the grounds that being asked to indicate that they fulfil retained rights criteria is unreasonable. Worse, this confusion could even result in people abandoning an application to register and disenfranchising themselves. It also creates the potential for an increased administrative burden on electoral registration officers.

This new statutory instrument amends the definition of a “relevant EU applicant” in the England and Wales regulations, as well as the equivalent term used in the Northern Ireland regulations. The new instrument defines a “relevant EU applicant” as someone who is: a citizen of an EU member state; is not a citizen of an EU member state which has a treaty with the UK and/or; is not a British citizen, a qualifying Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. This will provide an enduring resolution to the issue, by which the affected dual nationals I referred to earlier will no longer legally be required to provide immaterial information as part of their application to register to vote. Until this instrument comes into force, measures have been put in place to minimise the extent of the issue.

Having set out the background to this statutory instrument, I hope that the Committee will appreciate the need to swiftly make the straightforward legislative amendment. It will remove the legal requirement for certain dual national applicants to provide immaterial information and revert to the original intention of the regulations. I beg to move.

My Lords, I take this opportunity to welcome my noble friend Lady Scott, back to her position. We have missed her through many SIs that we have discussed in this Room at different stages, and we are pleased to see her back. That is particularly so, because a number of people in this Committee, not least my noble friend Lady Scott, as well as the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Khan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, helped me to pass the Ballot Secrecy Act through the Lords and the Commons. That Act was implemented for the first time at the elections on 2 May. Now that it has completed its course and been fully implemented, I express my appreciation to them for their involvement at one stage or another in achieving that legislation. I merely observe that, unfortunately, in my polling station there was no notice relating to the Ballot Secrecy Act, but I will live with that.

While that legislation was going through, I wrote to my noble friend the Minister, raising the question of comments made in a ministerial write-round. She said that she could not comment; I well understand that, and I do not expect her to do so now. However, in her absence—I am sure it is not because of it—I have since received clarification that the Electoral Commission’s counsel’s opinion was received by officials on 26 August, which was a month and three days before a ministerial write-round said that we had been given some “headline information”. However, I appreciate the clarification at last.

To come back to this SI, the noble Lords, Lord Rennard, Lord Wallace and Lord Khan, and I, met the new chief executive of the Electoral Commission a few weeks ago, and we discussed the sheer quantity of pages of statutory instruments that are being passed in relation to all elections law. This error—the Minister has acknowledged that it was an error, and that this is intended to put it put it right—indicates the sheer quantity of pages that one is dealing with. I make a request of whoever are the next Government: there is a desperate need for the consolidation of all electoral legislation. To be honest, it is a mess at the moment, which I think we all agree on. There may be slightly different interpretations on one or two matters, but there is no question but that elections law needs consolidation. In that meeting, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, identified that we had considered in Grand Committee some 1,100 pages of SIs arising out of the Elections Act. It is impossible to give adequate scrutiny to that sheer quantity of legislation, and much of it arises from the lack of consolidation.

I seek specific clarification in relation to the one point that I wanted to raise. I referred just now to the elections of 2 May but I think I heard the Minister identify that this did not apply on 2 May. I think I heard her refer to the date of 7 May in terms of implementation, in which case my supplementary question becomes otiose—that is, did it have any implications for 2 May? Can my noble friend confirm that she used that date? I conclude with that question.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, and I commend the enormous amount of work that he does in the whole area of electoral space.

It is customary to thank the Minister for explaining; on this occasion, I say that with particular passion, because this is a very complicated SI, and the circumstances that led to its being necessary were clearly very complicated. As the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, just said, that is a reflection of how difficult it is both for electoral returning officers, but even more so for voters or potential voters—people out there on the street—to understand what is happening.

I assume that this situation came to light when people were affected, so I wonder whether we know how many people were affected by the circumstance that this is correcting. Looking at the list of countries here—Malta, Cyprus, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Luxembourg and Ireland—when I knock on doors and note the view on the street, most people who are not engaged in day-to-day politics have a general view that “since Brexit, European citizens don’t have a vote”. I think that this view is very widely held. What will the Government do, with a general election forthcoming, to ensure that all those who have a right to exercise their vote, as residents of the UK with these various criteria, have a chance to know this as individuals and will encounter the right answers if they ask questions at their local council office or other relevant place?

My Lords, I take advantage of the fact that I have been relieved of the chairing of this Committee by my noble friend Lady Fookes to make one point. It follows the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, with which I wholly agree.

Last Thursday, I went to the Electoral Commission and had a discussion with the chief executive, with other colleagues. We were talking about various aspects of the preparations that they are making for the next general election. However, it will come as no surprise to anyone, and I rise only to make it clear to the Committee, that arising from that discussion was that there is bipartisan support for the point that I am making and which the noble Lord made. There is a crying need for the consolidation of electoral law. I very much hope that in a modest way, the Hansard record of this Grand Committee can be used as further proof of that, and that a future Government will find the legislative time to do this. It will be widely supported when it comes.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, has once again demonstrated the essential truth of one of his major campaign pledges during the 1993 Christchurch by-election—that he would be very good at scrutinising secondary legislation. It is always a pleasure to work with him on such matters.

I am tempted to ask the Minister how often the Government have had to bring forward measures such as this, as a tidying-up and housekeeping exercise, since the Elections Act of 2022 became law. I will resist. However, the current measure is one of numerous examples of the Government appearing not quite to understand what they were doing in seeking to implement a Brexit deal which lacked details when it was agreed.

In considering what is before us today, the Shadow Minister in the House of Commons, Florence Eshalomi, explained that understanding this measure required understanding five or six different Acts and regulations spanning over 40 years of legislation. To correct the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, it was in answer to a Question of mine in this place some time ago that it was revealed that at that stage there had been 16 statutory instruments involved in implementing the Elections Act 2022, running to 803 pages, all of which have been added to since then by one, two or three further statutory instruments. This is simply the latest of them. The scale of the statutory instruments required by the Elections Act has presented a significant problem, not just for Ministers but particularly for those responsible for the conduct of our elections. I believe that the burden may have become intolerable and the risk of mistakes in the conduct of our elections has been increased significantly by this complexity.

First, can the Minister update us on government thinking about what we are all asking for—the proper consolidation of all our election laws, as recommended by the Law Commission, which has done much work on this subject?

Secondly, does the Minister accept that the Government’s explanation of the difference in voting rights between EU citizens from Ireland, Cyprus and Malta and those from the 19 EU countries with which we do not have voting and candidacy treaties is an anomaly that requires a fundamental review of the franchises for all our UK elections? In particular, does she accept that the principle of residency would be a good basis for the local election franchise, as those who pay for and receive services from local government should be able to vote for the people in charge of those local authorities? The principle of no taxation without representation is a good one. The Government seem obsessed with removing people from the electoral rolls, making it unnecessarily hard to register and then harder to vote if you are among the categories of people without acceptable photo ID from the very tightly drawn list.

Thirdly, what steps will the Government take to ensure that the different levels of voting rights applying to different EU citizens will be explained to them all?

Finally, what progress is being made with the 19 EU member states with which we do not have treaties concerning voting and candidacy rights to agree such treaties, bringing EU citizens in those countries into line with those from Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, Poland and Denmark?

That said, the measure has our support as it provides some clarification and corrects mistakes that were inadvertently made.

My Lords, the fact that we are here yet again emphasises the enormity and complexity of the Elections Act and electoral statute. I echo the comments by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, supported by my noble friend Lord Stansgate, about consolidation of all electoral legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, indicated in a meeting with the chief executive of the Electoral Commission, there are 1,100 pages of SIs as a result of the Elections Act. We should never have to come to that situation again.

It is critical that our electoral law is as legible and transparent as possible, not only for the health of democracy but, as I have repeated to the Minister previously, for the workload of our understaffed electoral teams, which are tasked with keeping the integrity of our elections intact. Mistakes in legislation in this area make that challenge even harder. They could create confusion and concern among dual nationals who are entitled to vote, by not only collecting unnecessary information from those looking to register but increasing the workload of electoral officers, who already have to tidy up databases and deal with queries from so many different members of the public who are confused as to why this question is being asked in the first instance. Unfortunately, rather than helping our electoral administrators, the Government have introduced an Elections Act that significantly increases the load on them.

This is the second correction the department has had to make following the Elections Act. Given that the consequences of these mistakes could potentially change the franchise, what steps is the department taking to proactively review that the legislation is working as intended so that no other potential consequences are being missed? I would be grateful if the Minister could outline what support is being provided to electoral officers to carry out the amendment to the franchise for EU nationals. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that there are no mistakes in the system? What is the Minister’s response to the report on voter registration from the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, which highlighted a creaking system without any efficiency and with the huge challenges presented by the Elections Act? I would welcome her thoughts on that.

I recognise the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, that this is a complicated area of law; we appreciate that. In summary, we support this draft statutory instrument, but I would welcome reassurance from the Minister on the points I raised and those eloquently raised by noble Lords across the Committee. I look forward to her response.

I thank noble Lords for their contributions today. I will go through a few of the issues that were brought up.

First, the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, is absolutely right: the instruments in this amending SI had no effect on the elections held on 2 May. The changes to the franchise for EU citizens came into force on 7 May; that date was chosen specifically so that there would be no impact on the May local elections.

We have heard quite a lot about consolidation, as we did when the Elections Bill, which is now an Act, was going through. I think that will be for subsequent Governments to look at. This is complex; there are huge numbers of pieces of legislation impacting on top of each other within the elections arena. As the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Khan of Burnley, brought up, that is something which will have to be done by subsequent Governments.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, brought up the numbers affected. I do not know those numbers, but I will have a look and write to her. On the oversight occurring in the first place, as I said, I apologise—but it is recognised that, even with stringent checks in quite complex pieces of legislation such as this, there is always a chance of unintentional errors. Regrettably, sometimes they are overlooked and, unfortunately, this is one such case, but the main thing is that we are dealing with it now.

On the issues around differences in voting rights for residency, this instrument is focused on amending a definition in existing regulations. Those regulations have already been passed in Parliament—as I say, they came into force on 7 May—and there are no further plans to revise any of them. I remember well the debates held on the changes being introduced by those regulations, and this is not the time to go over them again. It is certainly not the time at this early stage, when the regulations have only just gone into law, to put forward further revisions.

The Electoral Commission will keep an eye on all these issues as they are put into place, as will the department. Of course, if there are any issues or problems, we will keep an eye on that. That was a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley. It is important that we keep a close eye on any changes, particularly to electoral legislation, as it is complex. If anybody who wants to register to vote goes on to the Electoral Commission’s website, all the details are on there—and people do that. Also, our wonderful election officers in our local authorities are usually the first contact that people have. Even if they are complex voters, all the information will be given to them by our local authorities as well, which is important.

I think that is everything I had to answer. I know that the House believes that ensuring the smooth running of our democratic processes is of paramount importance. This amendment is therefore important, and I thank noble Lords for supporting the instrument to get this right. I commend it the Committee.

My Lords, the Minister has referred to the Electoral Commission’s website and to the excellent work done by local authorities in registering people to vote. How does she explain the fact that, according to the Electoral Commission, we have 8 million people who are either not registered, but should be, or are incorrectly registered?

I do not know about “incorrectly registered”. I will take that back and look at the numbers but we have to accept that, in any democracy, some people just do not want to vote. I do not know whether noble Lords have been knocking on doors but I have; there are certainly people in this country who do not want to vote, for whatever reason. That impacts on us all as politicians and party members. We should encourage people to want to vote but, unfortunately, some people do not want to do so. We are not a country that forces people to vote.

I want to respond to that response. The Minister talks about knocking on doors. I am sure that we have all encountered people who think, “But I’ve got my driver’s licence and I pay my council tax. I must be registered to vote because I’m on the system”. Does the Minister acknowledge that significant numbers of people who would like to vote do not find a way to navigate the system—or, indeed, do not know that they have to navigate it until it is too late?

No, I do not accept that. The Electoral Commission and the Government have always been out there advertising and promoting the need to vote in this country, as have the political parties. Since we have had to have voter ID, that has not seemed to be an issue; most people have it and know that they have only to go to their local authority to get a voter identity document if they do not. I do not think that that is the case; I think that some people do not want to vote.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 5.32 pm.