I must inform the House that the reasoned amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition has been selected. I also want to add that I will only call people who have put in to speak and who are here at the beginning of the debate. They will be expected to be here for the wind-ups as well.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I look forward to a thorough and thoughtful debate across the House. Indeed, our work in Parliament is a key pillar of our democracy, a democracy that is underpinned by free and fair elections. Like many public services across the UK, our electoral services have not been untouched by the pandemic. Earlier this year, we faced unprecedented challenges in delivering the most complex combination of polls in memory during a pandemic. Many suggested we should postpone the elections for a second time, but I was not willing to deprive people of the chance to have their say without having done everything in our power to try. That was why the Government provided an additional £32 million of funding, sourced over 5,000 volunteers to support electoral teams and took creative steps to ensure that people could cast their vote. I am proud of the ingenuity and determination displayed by so many to ensure that our citizens were able to exercise their democratic rights. That is no less than I would expect, given the passion and capability of what is often a small number of election staff in our local authorities, to whom I pay tribute today. We cannot take them, or the system, for granted.
We are the stewards of a fantastic democratic heritage. We committed in our manifesto to secure the integrity of elections, restore constitutional balance and defend our democracy against increasingly sophisticated threats. This Bill keeps our elections secure, fair, transparent and up to date. Part 1 of the Bill is about getting the basics of our elections right by updating the security and integrity of the ballot. That is why it introduces new measures that will stamp out the potential for voter fraud from our elections. There are some who suggest that this is not a problem, but I would like to disagree.
Interlinked types of fraudulent criminality are a very real threat to the integrity of our elections. Clear evidence of this was seen at the 2014 election scandal in Tower Hamlets, where the mayoral contest was declared void due to corrupt and illegal practices. The judgment in the case and the witnesses who spoke at the trial tell a story of harm and fraud that struck at an entire community and fatally undermined democracy. Recalling crowds harassing voters, one witness reported:
“I got into conversation with an elderly lady who was frightened to go in and vote and said that she had decided not to vote as a result of the intimidation.”
Another witness described her experience of having her vote stolen by a campaigner for a candidate she did not support. She recalled:
“They came to me and took my signature and then took the blank ballot paper from me. I normally go to the polling station. I told them I was used to doing it myself and didn’t understand why it was different this year.”
Crucially, although it is much harder to identify and prosecute, we know that personation was also one of the corrupt and illegal practices that took place in Tower Hamlets. The Electoral Commission has noted that
“the majority of people in communities affected by electoral fraud are victims rather than offenders.”
This is unacceptable. Why should criminals get two votes, or even more, and their victims lose their voices?
Would the Minister accept that, while some of these measures might be necessary, we have only a 30% turnout in some of our elections and this could make turnout even lower due to the added bureaucracy and the added information that people will need to provide in order to cast their ballot?
I am pleased the hon. Lady has made that point so early in the debate. I join her, as I want everyone here to do, in welcoming turnout and in wanting to raise registration and participation in our elections.
I will more precisely address the points that the hon. Lady understandably makes because, no, I do not think these measures will damage turnout. The point is that the vulnerabilities in our system let people down. The 2016 report on electoral fraud by Sir Eric Pickles, now Lord Pickles, leading international election observers and the Electoral Commission all agree that those vulnerabilities are a security risk. As the noble Lord Pickles said,
“our well-respected democracy is at threat from unscrupulous people intent on subverting the will of the electorate”.
We must do our utmost to guard against that, and we must have measures in place to discourage and prevent it.
Part 1 of the Bill therefore introduces what many would consider to be an obvious requirement—the requirement to prove that the vote a person is casting that day is theirs and theirs alone.
Does the Minister agree that voter ID is actually voter suppression, and that this Bill misses an opportunity for real engagement in not giving 16 and 17-year-olds the opportunity to vote? Does she agree that this is the perfect time to do that?
The short answer is no, no and no, and I am happy to explain why. I am sure we will get on to this in the debate, but the point about voter identification is that it is not voter suppression or voter disenfranchisement, which is a word we occasionally hear thrown around. In fact, I look forward to Labour Members explaining why their reasoned amendment suggests that people will be removed from the franchise for general elections. Where in the Bill is the clause that does that? They will not find it, of course, because it is not there. The Bill does not do that, and we should be careful with the words we choose to use, such as “voter suppression” and “disenfranchisement.”
We already have an election check, but the check is so outdated and unfit for purpose that many have forgotten it. People already identify themselves when they go to the polling station, but it is a Victorian test of saying their name and address. The world has moved on, and we need to move with it. Showing photo identification is a reasonable and proportionate way to confirm that a person is who they say they are. Many people would question why it is not already the case.
A pensioner can bring their bus pass as identification, but the Bill disproportionately disadvantages young people who cannot bring their student card or university or college identification. Will those young people not be disproportionately affected, and should we not expand the range of identification that is recognised by the Bill, as a minimum?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is getting into the detail of what is actually being proposed, which is excellent. He makes the important point that schedule 1 has a widespread and broad-based list of identification. In fact, 98% of the population hold those forms of ID.
These proposals were trialled in 2019, and during that trial 2,000 people were turned away for not having the correct form of identification. Of those 2,000, 700 did not return to vote. Whether it is voter suppression is a question of semantics, but it is hardly encouragement, is it?
Under this Bill, as is clear in the impact assessment and the associated documents, there will be a widespread public communication campaign to ensure awareness so that people know what to bring with them to the polling station, which is only right. That is exactly what we would expect, because we want people to be able to take part in our elections.
The Minister is making an excellent speech introducing the Bill. There is another side to this issue, as pointed out by the Electoral Commission’s research showing that two in three people would feel much more confident in the security of our voting system if there were voter ID. Surely that has to be taken into consideration by those who have been intervening.
My right hon. Friend makes my next point for me, and she is right. It is important that we think about what will increase confidence in our elections, and I would love the message to go out loud and clear from the Chamber today, and from the reporting and discourse on this Bill, that we all want participation and we want to talk up our election system rather than talking it down.
I understand there are genuine concerns about this change and our plans to implement it, which is why I have met many organisations that represent voters from different backgrounds to understand what challenges it may present. I will continue to listen and to benefit from their wisdom.
I was concerned to hear the Minister imply that concerns about voter suppression are somehow party political. Does she accept that the cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, found that the
“introduction of a voter ID requirement may have a discriminatory impact on certain groups with protected characteristics who are less likely to hold…photo ID, including older people and people with disabilities”?
Inclusion Scotland backs up that concern. Given that cross-party finding, what plans do the Government have to mitigate any discriminatory impacts on these groups?
It might not have been the intention of the hon. and learned Lady to assist me in making this case, but she does because she allows me to make the critical point that this scheme is underpinned by a free local voter card. I have already mentioned that 98% of people already hold the identification that will be asked for by the scheme. For those who do not, we are making sure there is the free alternative of a local voter card.
When we cut through the noise, is it not true that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that we cannot have definite security in our elections if we do not have photo ID? Is it also not the case that we are being asked to continue a practice that puts us outside international standards?
That is exactly the case. Indeed, countries around the world already operate this system with ease, and not only other countries. This policy is already successfully and easily operated inside our own United Kingdom, and we need to learn from the Northern Ireland experience.
The Minister alludes to Northern Ireland, which already has this in place. What analysis, if any, have the Government made of the situation in Northern Ireland? Can she tell me that the scheme has not had a negative impact on voter turnout in Northern Ireland? What analysis has there been, and by whom?
There is a considerable evidence base on what has happened in Northern Ireland, and the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), would be only too happy to respond further to that point later in the debate. Both he and I are happy to say that there is not a clear direct link between turnout and this scheme, because turnout can be influenced by lots of different factors. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) will accept that, especially when he thinks about how much turnout he would like in a future referendum, for example.
We need to put in place a scheme that commands confidence, that aids people’s confidence in elections and that will not be discriminatory. In answer to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), the work we have done through our pilots, modelling and analysis, through the Northern Ireland experience and through working with organisations shows us we can be sure that, with the free local voter card, there will be an opportunity for everybody who is eligible to vote to continue to do so. That is fundamental to the concerns that have been expressed.
I am pleased that the Minister is taking fraud seriously and has come forward with sensible proposals. Is it not the case that, in a world of mass fraud, we are all getting used to having to provide ID and digital identification? Is it not the case that many employees, including Members of Parliament, need a photo pass even to go to work?
I will make two points on that. The first is that we show identification in everyday life, and reasonably and proportionately so. For example, we show it when we pick up a parcel or apply for a range of other services. Let me give a word of reassurance to my right hon. Friend and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who is sitting behind him: what we have with this scheme is not a form of ID database, beyond, of course, that which is already there in the electoral registers. I offer that reassurance in response to an alternative argument that may come out in today’s debate compared with what we often hear from the left.
I am surprised that I need to use the words of a former Labour Government to say this, but I cannot do it plainer than this. When they introduced this policy in Northern Ireland in 2003, they said:
“If we believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because of this measure, we would not be introducing it at this time.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 April 2003; Vol. 646, c. 1248.]
The Electoral Commission also states:
“Since the introduction of photo ID in Northern Ireland there have been no reported cases of personation. Voters’ confidence that elections are well-run in Northern Ireland is consistently higher than in Great Britain, and there are virtually no allegations of electoral fraud at polling stations”.
Let me make some progress and set out what else is in this wide-ranging Bill. I must stress that it is not just in-person electoral fraud that this part of the Bill will combat, and that is important because criminals use all kinds of corrupt behaviour together, as we saw in Tower Hamlets and, sadly, elsewhere. Voting by post or by proxy are essential tools for supporting voters to exercise their rights, and they must remain available options for voters who may not wish to, or cannot, vote at a polling station. So this Bill also introduces sensible safeguards against the abuse of postal and proxy voting.
Does the Minister agree that often the victims of postal vote harvesting are those who come from many of the groups that the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) mentioned, including those who do not have English as a first language, and that this is a good protection for them and for our democratic process?
I fear that that may be right. I know that my hon. Friend and others have experience, for example at council level, where they may have seen this happening at first hand. Today, I want to allow a Bill to make progress that will give confidence that a person’s vote is theirs alone, and that is vital. Did we not see that before when we introduced individual electoral registration? Voices were saying that it, too, would never work, but did we not see that it was about reducing the influence of the head of the household on who was allowed to register? That is an important point to remember.
The part of the Bill on postal and proxy voting includes new limits on the number of postal votes that may be handed in by any one individual, and a limit of four on the total number of electors for whom a person may act as a proxy. In order to tackle “vote harvesting”, the Bill is also making it an offence for political campaigners to handle postal votes issued to others, unless they are family members or carers of the voter.
Of course, stealing someone’s vote is not always done by personation or by taking someone’s ballot physically. As I mentioned, an equally sinister method that we have seen is people using intimidation, or pressuring people to cast their vote in a certain way or not to vote at all. That is known in the law as “undue influence”. The existing legislation on undue influence, which, again, originated in the 19th century, is difficult to interpret and enforce, so we are providing greater clarity, ensuring that there can be no doubt that it is an offence to intimidate, deceive, or cause harm to electors in order to influence their vote.
I have touched on the ways in which the Bill will combat the silencing of democratic voices by those seeking to influence or steal an individual’s vote, and I will now touch upon more ways in which the Bill will empower our citizens.
The Minister will be aware that loud claims of personation were made by the Trump campaign in the United States, which were completely without any basis or evidence, and which led to an assault on the Capitol building in Washington that suspended democracy itself. Does she think that as a Minister she should be promulgating an evidence-free claim that personation is a widespread problem that needs solving, with the cost being to deny millions of people their vote?
Does the hon. Gentleman, as an experienced Member of this House, think he should be promulgating such nonsense? I do not think so.
One of the truest pillars of our democracy is the trust that we place in our citizens’ choices and the respect we give their decision. While we make voting in elections more secure, we also want to ensure that voters who may still require additional support to navigate that system, such as those with disabilities, have that support. This is why we are introducing key changes from our call for evidence on access to elections, extending the requirements on returning officers to support a wider range of voters with disabilities and extending the definition of who can act as a “companion” to anyone aged 18 or over.
In the same spirit, looking a little further afield, part 2 of the Bill will ensure that the voices of British citizens across the world can be heard, and their vote taken into account on matters that do affect them, by removing the 15-year limit on voting rights of British citizens living abroad.
On people with disabilities, clause 8 talks about people who are blind and about
“such equipment as it is reasonable to provide for the purposes of enabling, or making it easier for, relevant persons to vote”.
Blind people still find it difficult to have this access through existing legislation. Does the Minister not consider that that measure actually weakens the provision that blind people have? Will she meet the Royal National Institute of Blind People and listen to its views, because it has serious concerns about the clause?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman makes that point, because I know a number of hon. Members care about it, and rightly so. I can reassure him and everybody here today that I have been working with the RNIB for months and indeed years to make the improvements we need to the system for allowing blind and partially sighted voters to cast their vote. In answer to his specific question, I do not think that the measures in this Bill weaken that support; I think they strengthen it, by ensuring that a wider range of voters with disabilities—or, should I say, a wider range of disabilities—may be properly supported at the polling station. That is important, as we would not wish some to be unsupported by a phrasing in legislation that is now outdated and overly narrow—that is what our reform seeks to tackle.
On the Minister’s point about empowering citizens, she will be aware of reforms in Wales and Scotland whereby any legal citizen, no matter their nationality, can vote in our respective parliamentary elections and local elections. This Bill seems to be limiting the ability of European nationals to vote in local elections in England and in Westminster elections. Why is Westminster going on a totally different path from Wales and Scotland?
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point, because there are two things to be said. The first, which I shall come to shortly in my remarks, is about how we are updating the franchise to reflect the position of EU citizens. The other important thing, which is worth making clear at this juncture, is that parts of the devolution settlements apply to electoral policy and so it is important to be clear that in this Bill we are looking at measures that will apply UK-wide—a full analysis is available, of course, in the Bill documents. That means we will have consistency at parliamentary elections, but a natural consequence of devolution is that there may be differences at other levels. I think we would both accept that and seek to work to make those arrangements a success for voters who may experience both sets of arrangements and for the hard-working election staff who may administer both sets.
As I have completed my remarks on overseas electors, I shall carry on moving through the Bill. At this point, I wish to address the Liberal Democrats’ reasoned amendment. It may come as little surprise that, regrettably, they take two opposite positions in one amendment: on the one hand they would like British citizens to participate more—indeed, that was their manifesto position—and on the other hand they do not. The official policy of the Liberal Democrats is to support votes for life, and the policy paper that they published in July 2019 said:
“There is no reason why”
“should be treated any differently to those who continue to live in the UK.”
I agree. The Bill puts in place tougher measures against foreign interference and foreign money, but overseas British citizens are just that—British—and are therefore able both to vote and to donate. There is a long-standing principle, originally recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1998, that permissible donors are those on the UK electoral register.
I shall come to campaign finance shortly, but is that all the right hon. Gentleman has to say on overseas voters?
Let me turn to the voting rights of EU citizens, an important subject that has been asked about. Part 2 of the Bill updates the voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens who reside in the UK and moves to a more reciprocal model that fits our new arrangements. We stand by our commitments to those EU citizens who were resident here before our exit from the EU, so any EU citizen who was a resident before the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020 and has legal immigration status will retain their voting and candidacy rights. That goes beyond our obligations under the withdrawal agreement. For EU citizens who have moved to the UK following our EU exit, local voting and candidacy rights will be granted on the basis of bilateral agreements with the individual EU member states that will reciprocate arrangements for British citizens who live there.
We all want to make progress this afternoon, so let me move on as fast I can through the rest of the Bill. I have set out the ways in which the Bill will bolster the security of our elections; let me move on to the enforcement of electoral law. A critical part of our electoral system is and must continue to be effective, independent regulation, and the Electoral Commission has a vital role to play. Lord Pickles found that the
“current system of oversight of the Electoral Commission—by the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission—does not provide an effective third-party check on its performance”,
so we think it is right for Parliament to have an increased role. The Bill will introduce a strategy and policy statement that will provide guidance to which the commission will have to have regard in the discharge of its functions. It will be subject to statutory consultation, parliamentary approval and regular review.
We will also improve the parliamentary structures that hold the regulator to account. The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission currently has a limited remit; the Bill will therefore give it the additional power to examine the commission’s compliance with its duty to have regard to the strategy and policy statement. That will allow Parliament to better scrutinise the work of the commission. Together, the reforms will facilitate parliamentary scrutiny of the Electoral Commission’s work while respecting its independence.
It is a shame that Her Majesty’s Opposition’s reasoned amendment misrepresents scrutiny by Parliament and misunderstands—or again wilfully misrepresents the fact—that the commission remains governed, in law, by its commissioners. We are also clarifying that the Electoral Commission should not bring prosecutions, and that prosecutions should remain with the existing prosecution authorities.
Let me move on to political finance, which right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned. We already have a comprehensive regulatory framework for campaigning that is rooted in the principles of fairness, transparency and the importance of a level playing field. We want to ensure that our electoral law continues to uphold those principles, which is why part 4 of the Bill will update and strengthen our political finance laws to restrict all third-party spending to UK-based entities and eligible overseas electors; to increase transparency around third-party campaigning at elections and the registration of new political parties; and to prohibit parties and campaigners from unfairly expanding their spending limits. The Bill will ensure that campaign spending can come only from sources that have a genuine and legitimate interest in UK elections, by restricting all third-party spending to UK-based entities and registered overseas electors, above a £700 minimum threshold.
On the regulation of third-party campaigners, it is right that those who campaign at elections and seek to influence voters are subject to transparency requirements and rules that maintain a level playing field. Those principles already apply. The Bill seeks to balance the burden of regulation, relative to the level of campaign spending, with the importance of a thriving and diverse public debate.
The Bill will not change the definition of what constitutes controlled expenditure for a third-party campaigner. The Electoral Commission already provides guidance, developed with third-party groups, on what constitutes such expenditure. To ensure that any other legitimate categories of third party that may emerge in future are not significantly restricted in their ability to campaign, a power will be given to the Secretary of State to amend the list of legal entities eligible to register as campaigners under section 88(2) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Any change to that list made via a statutory instrument will be subject to the affirmative procedure and therefore subject to parliamentary scrutiny in both Houses. The Opposition amendment is simply wrong: the last time I checked, democratic parliamentary procedure on an SI is not “unilateral” change by a Secretary of State.
Yes, I am. What we are doing in the Bill, as I have already explained, is moving undue foreign influence out of our politics. We are doing that with this new category of campaign regulation that we are introducing. I have just referred to it and it includes an above £700 minimum threshold. It ensures that campaign spending can come only from sources that have a genuine and legitimate interest in UK elections.
We discussed this matter in Westminster Hall back in 2019. As one of my colleagues reminded us, in 2019, the Conservative party received £400,000, with one donation coming from the household of a former Russian Minister under Vladimir Putin eight months after the Salisbury poisonings. There was also money from a personal friend of the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Does the Minister not agree that this does not go far enough to stop this happening again?
I have three points. First, this Bill does the right thing, as I have just explained. Secondly, the Conservative party does the right thing with regard to our donations, as I am happy to explain and defend at any time. Thirdly, I am already having to pass through so many pages in my briefing to find the bit about the SNP because there are quite a few points about how it handles its donations as well. I do think it is important that a person gets their house in order before they accuse others.
Let me move on to the important matter of notional expenditure. We are talking here about measures that will deliver better transparency for voters and candidates. I am sure that many in this House will welcome the clarification of the law on notional expenditure that is included in the Bill, which will ensure that candidates and their agents can continue to conduct full campaigns without the fear, as found by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee,
“of falling foul of the law through no fault of their own”
and inadvertently causing candidates to exceed their spending limits.
I will go on now to the new electoral sanction of intimidation. A free choice for voters means that anyone entitled to stand as a candidate must feel able to do so. Without a broad range of candidates for voters to choose from, we diminish representation in this country. I am sad to see a rising number of incidents of people trying to exclude others from the debate through violent or illegal behaviour. Voters do not expect violence in our elections. People should not be fearful of expressing their views or standing up in public service. That is why the Bill introduces an additional sanction that will bar an individual found guilty of intimidating a candidate, campaigner or elected representative from running or holding office for five years on top of their sentence.
I am just concerned that the hon. Lady has moved on from dealing with part 4, which deals with regulation of expenditure, before answering the question put by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), which is: what will the Government do about the recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life? The Committee published a very full report after a year of work on 7 July suggesting a number of recommendations—I think that it is 47 practical steps to modernise and streamline the way in which donations and spending are reported regularly to then enforce. Will she tell us which if any of those recommendations she will bring forward as Government amendments.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall try to be as quick as I can in concluding my remarks.
The answer to the hon. and learned Lady is that, first, we will be responding in full to what the CSPL said. There are some very good points and ideas in there that we are already able to deliver through the Bill, such as diminishing the extent of foreign influence through political finance in our system. There is also much more that has been drawn out over many years by other bodies. I am talking about the Select Committees here, Members of the Lords, the Association of Electoral Administrators and many, many others. There is a lot of discussion and debate about how we should keep our electoral system safe. I am proud to introduce a Bill that does the most important and pressing of those, and which will have the overall effect of keeping our elections safe, modern, transparent, fair and inclusive.
Part 6 of the Bill introduces a new digital imprints regime, which will be one of the most comprehensive in the world. I think that Members on both sides of the House will welcome that, because we all agree that voters all, rightly, want to know who is talking. The Bill will require digital campaigning material to display a digital imprint explicitly showing who is behind it—all year round and wherever they may be in the world. This provision will deliver on recommendations made by many to improve public trust and confidence in digital campaigns at future elections and referendums.
Political and election material will be included. I look forward to discussing the finer details as we work through the Bill. It is incredibly important that we have that transparency so that voters can make their choice as they think best.
Before I close, I need to deal with the Labour party’s amendment and its position—or, should I say, its many positions? It is a mystery to me why the Labour party seems to think that identification is good enough for its own members, but not for the British electorate. One person, one vote: it is a really simple formula. Why would anybody believe that criminals should get two? This is not what we ought to believe. Why does the Labour amendment say that the Bill restricts the general election franchise? I do not think that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) will be able to explain why, because it does no such thing. Why would the Labour party be doing this? Because it has its own murky interests in making it up and misrepresenting the Bill. Perhaps the other parties—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Until this point, the debate was going quite well, but that allegation is a disgrace. I ask you to withdraw it, Minister. Everyone in this Chamber works very hard in elections and it is in everyone’s interests to have elections that are well run and well respected. That kind of insult makes people denigrate our democracy, which we fight day in, day out to protect, and which we cherish—
Thank you for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I do hope that the other parties who supported today’s amendment have those high standards to which we all aspire. They will be able to judge clearly where they see politicking at play. I also hope that the House can judge that as clearly as was set out in the judgment of the Tower Hamlets case, which stated that the convicted perpetrators
“spent a great deal of time accusing their opponents…of ‘dividing the community’ but, if anyone was ‘dividing the community’, it was they.”
The judge went on to say,
“The real losers in this case are the citizens”.
As I have set out, the Government’s vision for UK democracy is a system that is secure, fair, modern, inclusive and transparent. We have a strong history; a robust constitution; a model of democracy that is copied around the world; a thriving tradition of campaigning and passionate public participation; and the highest standards of security, fairness and transparency.
The improvements in the Bill will raise confidence even further in our elections. They are reasonable, proportionate and carefully planned measures that command support and come from common sense. I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move,
That this House declines to give a second reading to the Elections Bill, notwithstanding the need for legislation around digital imprints and some accessibility improvements for disabled voters which do not go far enough, because it infringes on the right of expression of the electorate by allowing the Secretary of State to unilaterally modify and select which groups are allowed to campaign during an election period, creates unnecessary barriers to entry for voting, makes the Electoral Commission subordinate to the executive, would serve to restrict the franchise and thereby reduce the overall number of people able to participate in any future UK General Election and does not make provision for the UK Parliament to match the devolved nations in Scotland and Wales by extending the right to vote to 16 and 17 year olds and other disenfranchised groups.
It is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate. Let me begin by quoting: the law governing elections is “voluminous”, “fragmented” and “extremely complex”, with some provisions
“dating back to the 19th century”.
I used that quote from the Law Commission’s 2016 report back in 2016, when I first became Labour’s shadow spokesperson for elections, a role that I still hold. Since 2016, it is like nothing has happened. The Government did not make any changes on the back of those recommendations, and the Elections Bill continues to make absolutely no progress on them or on the recommendations of many reports that have been published since. In fact, over the past decade the Government have failed to take any action to modernise our electoral laws or to close the loopholes that allow foreign money to flood into our democracy; this Bill actually makes that threat far greater and does not reduce it at all. I think the reason is very clear and those of us on the Opposition Benches have seen right through it: it is because these laws will lead to benefits for the Conservative party. In the Bill we have before us, the Government have not reached out for cross-party consensus as is typical for a Bill of this type which massively changes electoral law and deals with constitutional matters. It would be normal to see a Speaker’s Committee put together before such massive changes were brought forward. There has been no attempt by the Government to reach out for a cross-party consensus on a matter as important as our elections and our democracy.
This Bill is a huge missed opportunity to modernise our electoral law to bring it into the 21st century and try to encourage people to participate in our democracy. Indeed, our democracy is stronger when more people take part in it. In this Bill we see that the leaders would like to choose the voters. I believe that the voters should choose the leaders of their country, yet the flagship part of this Bill is very much about the leaders of this country choosing who are the voters.
For years now, I have stood opposite the Minister responsible for the constitution and we have talked about many ways of improving our democracy. I had hoped that this Bill would contain some of the many topics that we have discussed across the Dispatch Box and in Committee, to expand the franchise to make it more inclusive. That might include spending the £120 million that will be spent on the electoral ID system to encourage registration to make sure that the millions missing from our electoral roll are included, making it easier for homeless people to register to vote—but no, none of that is included in this Bill, which would in fact serve to reverse decades of progress. I draw attention to the recent changes made by the Welsh Labour Government to expand the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds.
Some of the Conservative Members here today should consider the implications of this Bill for their constituents whose votes they perhaps relied on to get into this House, and how difficult it is for so many people in this country to have access to ID, because it is expensive—£80-odd for a passport and £43 for a driving licence. This is a paywall to the ballot box.
Is the hon. Member saying that 2% of his electorate should not have access to democracy? That appears to be what he is saying. Yes, 98% of people might well have valid ID, but 2% of the entire UK electorate is a very large number of people. In fact, to use the Government’s statistics, 3.5 million people do not have access to valid photo ID. It seems that one arm of the Government does not quite know what the other arm of the Government is doing. The Cabinet Office is saying that it is fine and everyone has access to ID, but the DCMS is saying that we cannot have ID requirements for access to social media sites because not everybody has ID. It seems they say one thing from one Department and another thing from another Department.
The reality is that requirements for ID discriminate against some groups more than others. Concerns have been raised from across the House and from charities and campaigning organisations that disabled people, older people, younger people and people without the spare cash to buy that passport or driving licence are going to be disenfranchised.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no such thing as a free service? If local councils are indeed going to be providing voter ID, it will be at public expense. The £120 million that is due to be spent on that could be better spent on voter registration and boosting turnout rather than a disproportionate attempt to control the voting of a minority of people.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. In fact, the Bill contains no details about how local authorities are going to roll out this so-called voter ID, which, as she points out, is not free: it will cost the taxpayer money. This is an expensive waste of taxpayers’ money trying to look for a problem to solve.
We know fine well that voter ID will be an additional barrier for voters. It will be an additional barrier even for the voters that have the relevant ID, because they have to remember to take it with them. We are all Members of Parliament—we all go out and campaign—and we know fine well that sometimes on a wet and rainy Thursday it is awfully difficult to get voters down to the polling station. We should be making sure that our elections take place on public holidays. We should be exploring the idea of weekend voting. We should be looking at ways of modernising our democracy for the 21st century. This Elections Bill does nothing to modernise and everything to put barriers up to participation. The 160 pages of this Bill were written during a global pandemic. At a time when our doctors and nurses were in our hospitals wearing bin bags because of a lack of personal protection equipment, this Government were drawing up legislation to put barriers up to democracy, wasting taxpayers’ money on expensive policies designed to benefit the Conservative party.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for giving way. Does she agree that it is important not just to look at the Bill in isolation? When we add it to things such as the boundary review and the scrapping of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, those of us who are cynically minded see a plan to skew the next election.
The hon. Member is absolutely right: this Bill cannot be seen in isolation. Indeed, the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill is before the House currently and allows the Government to decide when an election is held. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill restricts the right to protest. We have to see the Elections Bill in the round and recognise that pieces of legislation are coming one after another. It shows that this Government are scared of transparency and scared of accountability.
Frankly, in the time of a pandemic, it is disappointing that the Government are spending time to restrict democracy and not making sure that we have the support we need for our young people to recover or that we are dealing with the crisis in adult social care. There is so much more that this Government should be getting on with doing, but instead we have this 160-page Bill that restricts democracy and rigs elections in favour of the Conservative party, and it is an absolute disgrace.
Turning to the voter ID part of the legislation, the pilots that took place in 2019 were in just 10 local authority areas in England. This is a UK-wide policy; that is not a reasonable look at the country. The type of voter ID that the Government wish to bring in was trialled in only one of those 10 areas: only in Woking has it been trialled. The Government have the idea of rolling out a policy that could disenfranchise 3.5 million people having only piloted it in Woking. They have the confidence to think it will work across the whole United Kingdom. I believe it is reckless and disenfranchising.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady; she is always extremely generous. Does she completely disregard the recommendations of the OSCE that identification at ballots is an important part of the security of the ballot? That is an internationally recommended part of the electoral process. Does she completely dismiss that recommendation?
It is a pleasure to see the right hon. Member in his place, and it is always a pleasure to debate these issues with him in very many forums. The OSCE recommendations are designed to give broad brushstrokes around the global issues of democracy. It is true that some countries require ID at polling stations, but they are countries with a national ID card. We do not have a national ID card in this country. It is not part of our culture and I would certainly oppose it, were it proposed. In fact, I believe that the Prime Minister said that if he were ever asked to produce an ID card, he would eat it. I think there is probably consensus that we are not seeking a national ID card, which is why it is so surprising that this piece of legislation requires ID to exercise the basic fundamental human right of voting in a democratic country.
This is my final point on this, and then I will give way. There is currently a case before the Supreme Court, brought by Mr Neil Coughlan, who is challenging the legality of the pilot trials. That case is not due to be heard until 15 February next year. If the judge makes any rulings from which we could learn something, it will be too late for this piece of legislation. I suggest to the Government that their attempts to rush this Bill through before we hear from the Supreme Court is reckless.
There is nothing in the Bill about how local authorities are meant to be administering the ID. Frankly, Ministers are living in an alternative reality, where they seem to believe that people are constantly trying to impersonate their neighbours to steal a single vote. I just think that is utterly bizarre. There have been four cases of voter impersonation fraud in the past 10 years. That is from 243 million votes cast. To put that in context, someone is more likely to be struck by lightning three times.
I take it that the hon. Member is referring to successful prosecutions, but one of the problems is that people are not prosecuted when they ought to be. I made a speech on 19 December 2019—I am sure she has pored over every word of it—in which I pointed out that election officials in Wycombe are not holding people to account even they are walking into a polling station repeatedly in comedy disguises, doing things like changing their glasses, changing their hat, putting sunglasses on, wearing a different coat or whatever. They are not being prosecuted, and that is the problem.
It appears to be all happening in Wycombe. I believe that I was there for the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and I know he takes a keen interest in this issue, so he will know well that where there are widespread examples of voter personation, which is a serious crime, it should be tackled. That is why the law is different in Northern Ireland, where there was a culture of organised crime and gangs stealing hundreds of votes through personation at polling stations; that was legislated against. There is no evidence of that in England, Scotland and Wales, so legislation is not needed. Where there are examples of voter personation, it is right and proper that it is tackled, but as there are not such examples, the Bill is just legislation that puts up another barrier to legitimate voters’ ability to vote.
In the voter trial areas, which were in just a handful of local authorities, we know that 700 voters at local elections who were turned away did not return to use their vote. Given the tiny numbers of accusations of voter personation and the huge numbers of people who were turned away because they did not have ID, we know that the Bill will disproportionately disenfranchise legitimate voters.
Thank you for your generosity and time. You said clearly that you think the proposal to introduce voter ID is an attempt to rig elections. Is that why the Labour party requires voter ID to vote in local party gatherings and has a long history of that? Have you attempted to rig your own elections?
I reassure the hon. Member that I have been a member of the Labour party since 2004—a relatively active member—and I have never been asked to show ID at any meetings. Even if I was asked, I would say that political parties are membership organisations—we know that members are often expelled from political parties, as it often hits the headlines—but the right to vote in elections in a democracy is a fundamental human right. That is slightly different from being a member of a political party.
The hon. Lady makes a good point and is absolutely right. Studies from the United States show that voters from black and Hispanic backgrounds are disproportionally affected by requirements to show ID. Indeed, there are many similarities between the repressive voter suppression laws in some US states and this legislation. I believe that in Texas a voter can show their gun licence to vote but they cannot show a student ID, and in the Bill student ID is not a valid piece of identification but a bus pass is valid. It seems that one type of ID is more valuable than another, and it seems that the type of person likely to hold that ID is very much considered when drawing up the acceptable list.
I turn to changes to the regulation of the Electoral Commission, which seem to be political interference in the regulation of our elections. There is no doubt that the Government’s setting the strategy and policy document for the Electoral Commission is a dangerous precedent. When we look to similar democracies such as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, we see a complete separation between Government and their electoral commissions. Indeed, at this morning’s meeting of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Helen Mountfield, QC, a barrister at Matrix chambers, said that the Bill arguably breaches international law and that the removal of the Electoral Commission’s independence is “legally problematic” and breaches the UK’s constitutional standards. To be blunt, we would not allow, say, an arsonist to decide the fire brigade’s strategy and policy direction, and we certainly would not let shoplifters decide the police’s strategy and policy direction. It therefore seems a little bit odd that when it comes to regulating political parties, some parties—those in government—seem to have an awful lot of power to decide the strategy and policy direction of that.
On the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, this is a Committee that already has an in-built Government majority, and the legislation seeks to strengthen and increase that majority. If we saw this happening in any other democracy around the world, I do not think we would sit back and say that that looked okay. It does not look okay—it does not pass the sniff test—and that bit needs to be changed.
The Bill is riddled with cheap attempts to dodge scrutiny. That seems to be the theme that runs throughout this legislation. In a free and open democracy, democratically elected Governments are scrutinised by opposition parties and civil society. That is part of what makes democracy healthy, and the freedom for civil society to do this and to hold those in power to account is the sign of a strong democracy. This Bill is an attack on some parties more than others, and I would say that the attack on the trade unions—the 6 million people who are members of trade unions—is an attack on all working people’s rights to campaign for fair pay at work and health and safety in the workplace, and it is actually an attack on the people who have got our country through the pandemic.
I am really grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because this piece of legislation is alienating civil society. In particular, charities are really concerned about the measures in this Bill because it is going to have a chilling effect on their campaigning, but most of all push them into having bureaucratic reporting processes. Does she agree that these parts of the Bill need removing?
I agree entirely. Trade unions are already incredibly heavily regulated, and charities will feel stifled and gagged by the legislation before us.
Finally, I want to turn to what the Government are calling the so-called votes for life section of the Bill. Indeed, if we wish to expand the franchise, I would very much support the Government if they wanted to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. However, it appears that, at one fell swoop, we seem to be advancing more rights to people who do not live in this country than to people who do live in this country.
There is nothing in this Bill that actually helps overseas electors get their ballots back in time. One of the complaints I have heard most from overseas electors is that they do not get their ballot papers in time and cannot get them returned to the UK in time for their votes to count. There is nothing in this Bill that explores the many different options of using modern technology to speed up this process to make sure that overseas electors currently registered under current legislation can actually use their vote. Instead, the motivation behind the change to remove the 15-year limit is about creating a loophole in donation law, and it will give rich Conservative donors unlimited access to our democracy in allowing them to bankroll the Tory party.
I look forward to the Committee stage of this Bill, and I cannot wait to get into the detail of the clauses in Committee with the Minister, but I shall finish by saying that I do believe this Bill tarnishes our democracy. It is an opportunity missed—an opportunity to modernise our electoral law, put it into one piece of legislation and make it fit for the 21sst century, and to use £120 million to encourage voter participation instead of putting up barriers. The Labour party will therefore be voting against this legislation today. I hope that all Members in this House will consider the implications for their own constituents, and I commend the reasoned amendment in my name and the names of others.
Let me start with a comment relating to the question the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) raised about the duty on Governments to be more than fair when they are dealing with electoral legislation. Governments should not, even by accident, put in place electoral legislation that advantages themselves over their opponents. However, I do have to say to her that the most egregious example of that was under Gordon Brown, and the more sanctimonious the Minister, the worse the outcome sometimes. It is incumbent on us to make sure that we do not even accidentally disadvantage the other side in elections.
I want to focus on just one thing today, which is the issue of voter ID. The very fact that the phrase has “ID” in it will tell everybody I am against it—they understand that—but it is not for the conventional reasons. This is not an ID system with a database behind it; it is just an ID card that people have to present. Our country has over the centuries been different from other countries: we do not allow our policemen to come up to people and say, “Can I see your papers, please?” It is important to maintain that distinction between the citizen and the state, particularly when we are talking about the fundamental rights of the individual, such as the right to vote.
The Government quite rightly claim that voter fraud undermines our democracy—the battle on that has already occurred to some extent—but the primary voter fraud has been in postal votes, not in personation. We all know how it has occurred in communities up and down the country, and we should deal with it ruthlessly and prosecute. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who used to serve with me as a Minister in the Brexit Department, that the answer to his question is that the prosecution should happen in his constituency. That is what should happen, but let us be clear: since 2014 only three prosecutions have occurred. There have been 30-odd allegations but only three prosecutions, and that is out of many tens of millions of votes cast. So there have been 30-odd allegations, three prosecutions and zero election outcomes influenced; that is what we must bear in mind.
On the back of that, Ministers will want to introduce mandatory voter identification. It is an illiberal solution—unsurprisingly coming from the Cabinet Office, as that is what it always thinks up—in search of a non-existent problem. [Interruption.] I have at least some support on my side of the House.
The Government’s own research found that those with disabilities, the unemployed, people without qualifications, people who had never voted before and ethnic minorities were all less likely to hold any form of ID; those are the sorts of groups we are talking about. In two groups—the over-85s and the disabled—between 5% and 10% had no photo ID. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has warned that the introduction of voter ID may have a discriminatory effect on those groups and other protected groups, and the trial referred to by the Liberal spokesman, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), when 700 people did not vote as a result of photo ID being required, took place in a set of areas where the numbers of people in these groups were very low; it was basically the southern English test area, not central Bradford or wherever.
This is very serious. We are talking about quite a significant fraction of our population. There are 2 million people in the groups I have described who will have to be met by some ID system, and that must be balanced against three voter convictions. That is the problem we are facing.
Has my right hon. Friend looked at schedule 1, which contains a very broad list of valid means of identification? I would be very surprised if anybody in the country today did not have one of them, and my right hon. Friend also knows that there is the provision of free ID from the local council.
The point I would make is that I am quoting from Government research. I did not do this research; it is Government research. By the way, since my hon. Friend draws me to Government research, Lord Pickles, a real old pal of mine, did a study on this. I have read it and, to summarise, the conclusion was, “I can find no evidence of personation but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, and of course even if it isn’t happening now it might well happen in the future.” It is the precautionary principle gone mad in the centre of our constitution.
The Government answer, as we have heard several times, is free photographic ID. Nevertheless, the Government’s own research again found that about 42% of people without the ID would not take it up. That is really very serious. These groups are going to be disenfranchised because they do not take it up, and they will turn up at the polling station and find that they are unable to vote. This is in pursuit of three convictions.
This is where I differ from the hon. Gentleman. I think that the Government are trying to do their best. I do not think that this is a deliberate action, but I think that the pressure on the Government—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman laughs, but listen: I lived through a Labour Government deliberately gerrymandering the system, frankly, so I do not want to take any lectures on that. I think that the Government are trying to do their best. They have the wrong idea in pursuit of a problem that does not exist, but they are nevertheless trying to do their best. But there is a greater—
I will take another day to give lectures on points of order.
The simple truth is that there is a greater responsibility on the Government than on anyone else to do the right thing and to avoid errors working to their own advantage. That is what I am arguing here today. This voter ID scheme is an illiberal idea in pursuit of a non-existent problem, and that is what we need to address. We need to get rid of it, and that is what I will seek to do on Report.
Fundamentally, this Bill is an attack on democracy that will disenfranchise millions, entrench more powers with the Executive, and remove the power of the Electoral Commission to scrutinise. Like many others, I urge Members not to look at the Bill in isolation but to view it in the wider context of the other legislation going through the House at the moment with respect to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, citizens’ right to peacefully protest, and even the proposed privatisation of Channel 4. That paints a very bleak picture for our democracy.
When the Bill first appeared, in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year, the headline-grabbing proposal was voter ID, whereby photographic evidence would be required before an individual was allowed to cast their vote. However, as we have heard from many others this afternoon, voter fraud at polling stations barely reaches the height of minuscule, and the evidence that we have heard from those on the Government Benches has been based on personal anecdote. We have to ask: what is the problem they are seeking to solve?
Seeing a Government introduce such radical policy changes without a shred of evidence to support those changes sets alarm bells ringing among those of us who believe that every Government should be trying to remove barriers that prevent participation in the democratic process, rather than raising them.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about not taking the Bill in isolation and looking at the cumulative effect. Does he agree that it is definitive of a Government that have lost any confidence in their ability to outrun their outrageous false claims, their untruths and their broken promises that they have to bring this measure in to try to gerrymander the system?
I could not agree more, and I will elaborate on that as I go through my speech.
In all the debate and discussion that have followed the Queen’s Speech in May, the Government have had ample opportunity to produce the evidence that these proposals are a proportionate measure to deal with an identified problem, and they have not. The reason they have not is that there is absolutely no evidence for them to produce. As one leading, albeit unelected, Scottish politician recently said:
“They can’t cite any evidence of it because I don’t think there’s any evidence to cite. In terms of this particular part of the Queen’s Speech, I think it’s total bollocks, and I think it’s trying to give a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, and that makes it politics as performance.”
It is not often that I agree with the former Scottish Conservative leader, Baroness Davidson, or whatever her title is at the moment, but on this occasion she was absolutely spot on.
In the absence of any evidence that voter ID is the answer to an identified problem, we can only conclude that, for the Conservative party, the problem is not folk turning up at polling stations without photographic ID, but that certain folk turn up at polling stations at all.
I do not regard any findings of the OSCE, but what I think is important in this place, looking at UK-wide elections, is that we have a measure that works for United Kingdom general elections, and this is one that absolutely does not. The right hon. Gentleman says we should be reinventing the wheel and starting from scratch. There is a debate to be had, but the imposition of this kind of voter ID now is absolute nonsense and there is no evidence whatever to justify it. This is, therefore, actually a ploy to stop people going to the polling station in the first place. I believe it really is as crude as that. The Government plan appears to have been to conjure up a demon, convince people that that demon is posing a threat to them, and then allow themselves to introduce draconian and totally disproportionate measures to slay the demon they have just invented.
The fatal flaw in that argument is that there never was a demon. No matter how the Government have tried to spin this, people know that there never was a demon and that there is nothing to see. Now, the United Kingdom Government stand accused of a sleazy attempt to gerrymander the register for their own electoral gain.
I would say gently to the hon. Gentleman on the Tower Hamlets issue, which I believe went back to 2014, that to change an entire voting system on what went on in one particular London borough—the anecdotal evidence I have heard is that it was more to do with postal voting than personation. This measure is to do with personation, which has been proven not to be a problem.
This is an utterly reprehensible proposal that would be more at home in Donald Trump’s Republican party than in the United Kingdom. What is more important and more chilling is the brazen way in which the Government are doing it. They seem not to care. We always know it will not be the well-heeled and the affluent middle classes who will struggle to produce a passport, or a driving licence. We know and they know it will be the young, the poor, the marginalised and the minority communities who do not have a passport or do not drive, who will struggle to manage to collect a voter ID card. They will be affected by this registration.
The Government know that there are already between 2 million and 3 million people who do not have that ID. They also know that there are about 9 million people not registered. I think they should be spending an awful lot more time getting people on to the register than organising to take people off that register.
If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to reduce this debate to that level, he is perfectly welcome so to do, but this is about a fundamental right for people to exercise their democratic right to vote. I urge him to take it a bit more seriously.
Yet again, this highlights the differences between what is happening here and what is happening in Scotland. If ever there was a reason why we need our independence, it is to get away from draconian legislation such as this. In May, when the Scottish National party won an unprecedented fourth term, we did it with a record number of people turning out to vote in a Scottish Parliament election. That does not happen by accident; that was by design. The SNP Government led the way by extending the franchise to all 16 and 17 year olds and, more recently, by allowing all eligible refugees in Scotland and those foreign nationals with settled status the right to vote. It is because we extended that franchise that we now have a thriving, healthy and robust democracy in Scotland. It is telling that, as Scotland, and indeed Wales, extend that franchise, this place seeks to do the exact opposite.
Over the summer, we learned that the Bill goes far beyond plans for voter ID. If it is passed, the Government will assume powers over the running and scrutiny of all future elections. The Bill reveals plans to strip the Electoral Commission of its powers and the independence it enjoys at the moment, and put it directly under the control of the Government, forcing it to conform to a strategy and policy statement which will be written by the Government. This means that the Government—the Executive—will be giving political direction to the organisation whose job it is to independently scrutinise and adjudicate on the fairness of elections. At a time when its powers should be extended, this Government are stripping the Electoral Commission of its powers and making scrutiny far more difficult.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. On extending the Electoral Commission’s powers, it has previously said that it does not have enough powers to keep the major parties in check and that overspending and breaches of electoral law have become business as usual, because it cannot fine them enough. Is this not all about taking further control rather than accepting open elections?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are heading down a dangerous road and I urge Government Members to think carefully before proceeding.
One would have hoped that, at a time when democracies across the world are under threat from the influence of hostile actors, Governments could have taken this opportunity to introduce legislation to tackle those shadowy groups—those unincorporated associations—with anonymous sources of cash that are seeking to influence UK politics. However, given that openDemocracy recently revealed that since 2019, the Conservative party has accepted £2.5 million in donations from these shadowy groups, it was never going to be the anonymous, deep-pocketed bankrollers of the Conservative party who would be targeted in the Bill.
This Bill was always designed to hit the poor, the disadvantaged, the trade unions, the charity campaigners and civic society activists, because it will be the Secretary of State who will get to unilaterally decide who can campaign, what they can campaign on, when they can campaign, how much money they can raise and what they can spend those funds on. At a stroke, a Government Minister could ban a whole section of civic society, including trade unions and charities, from engaging in elections and campaigning or donating. It is fundamentally anti-democratic and people should be outraged by it. But, of course, if those people are unhappy and want to take to the streets to protest, this Government are already planning to block off that avenue to them.
A charity has the right to advocate on behalf of its members and the people it represents. A charity must have the leeway and the bandwidth to advocate. To block that off screams of the anti-democratic road that this Government are determined to go down.
What we have here is a Government who are allergic to criticism, who are terrified of scrutiny and who are determined to give themselves, through this and other pieces of legislation, the powers to silence their critics. They want to prevent public displays of dissent and weaken their political opposition while, at the same time, entrenching the advantage that they already have, all at the expense of democracy.
Aneurin Bevan famously said that in the struggle between poverty and property, when poverty rises, property will attack democracy. Is this not what we are seeing in terms of voter suppression, getting rid of the right to peaceful protest, and attacking the judiciary and our fundamental democratic rights?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman: we are heading down a very, very dangerous road. The public have to be made aware of that and Government Members have to be aware of where this could lead.
We would not take this in any other walk of life. If this was a casino, we would demand that it be shut down and the owners arrested for loading the dice, marking the cards and allowing the dealers to have aces hidden up their sleeves. If this was a football match, there is no way that we would accept the home team manager being the referee and the assistant manager sitting up in the VAR box. Why, then, are we being asked to accept this? Why are we being asked to let this Government play fast and loose with something as fragile and as precious as our democracy—something that so many have done so much to defend? Why are we being asked to let this Government undermine those independent institutions that are specifically there to scrutinise our elections and preserve the public’s trust in a free and fair electoral system?
This is little more than a grubby attempt to gain electoral advantage. Why are we being asked to potentially disenfranchise millions of poor people and disadvantaged communities? Why are we being asked to accept that a Government Minister can unilaterally decide who can or cannot campaign for what they passionately believe in? Why are we being asked to turn a blind eye to those incredibly rich and powerful bodies that seek to buy their way to influence and power in the UK Government?
Our democracy, as I said, is under sustained attack. The arithmetic of this place means that the only people who can prevent this anti-democratic slide are Conservative Members. If they decide to fall meekly in line with what the Government say and nod this truly, thoroughly anti-democratic legislation through, I fear that history will judge them as those who facilitated one of the darkest days for democracy in the history of this country.
As ever, I will seek to calm the House, if I can, as I perambulate around a few of the issues that the Bill presents. I suggest to the Minister, as an early judgment, that it is perhaps a curate’s egg of a Bill. I will explain why I have come to that assessment, but we must understand at the outset why these matters are important. They are important to protect everybody—democracy itself in its entirety, clearly, but also candidates, agents and volunteers for all political parties who are actors in our great democratic process—and to give due regard to those who ultimately deserve consideration: the voters.
Having listened to the debate so far, I think we need to hit two issues on the head. I suggest gently that it is slightly anachronistic to compare democracy in this country with the events that we saw after the US presidential election. To those who would have us believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with our system, I suggest that they could be accused of suffering from Gerald Ratner syndrome, whereby they completely undermine what they wish to improve.
It is a shame that the Bill was not subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, which might have ironed out issues that have caused a degree of contention. Indeed, it could be suggested that the Bill would have benefited from consideration beforehand by a Speaker’s Commission, which is a cross-party entity—none of us has the monopoly on virtue when it comes to elections or matters pertaining to them.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said several interesting things about ID. I have a great deal of sympathy for what he said: notwithstanding the substantial list in schedule 1 of acceptable forms of ID, there is work to be done.
May I briefly mention the Speaker’s Committee? I am a member by virtue of chairing the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, and for no other reason. I agree that the Speaker’s Committee would benefit from having no majority from a particular party. I see colleagues who are members of it frowning at me, but I simply say that I would be willing to sacrifice myself if we needed to remove a Conservative member. I do not wish to take away from the importance of the Committee’s work, but if it were necessary for me to discharge that heavy burden on to somebody else, I might well do so. I do not want to cause even more offence to Members on the Treasury Bench, as I do occasionally, but I do ask whether it is appropriate to have two Ministers of the Crown as members of the Committee. I think that there is some work to be done; perhaps we will come back to the matter on Report.
On the vexed subject of the Electoral Commission, it is fair to say that opinion is mixed, but the commission is ultimately a regulator—perhaps the most sensitive regulator, because it regulates what we, and those at other levels of representation, do as candidates. o I simply say that we should tread carefully, perhaps recognise some of the work that has been done recently, welcome the new chair of the organisation, and judge it in the years to come.
I appreciate that many other Members wish to speak this afternoon, so with that, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will conclude my remarks.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), and to speak in the debate.
I want first to discuss clause 1, and the Government’s ill thought out and extremely damaging proposal to require photo ID at polling stations. There is clear and resounding evidence that voting in this country is already safe and secure. Putting these additional barriers in the way of people exercising their right to vote will only weaken our democracy and further erode our trust in the political system, which is already quite weak.
Of course, this proposal will have a greater impact on some groups than on others. Several Members have drawn attention to that, and I want to echo some of their comments in outlining which groups will be most affected. Young people are likely to be impacted, and constituents of mine such as 16-year old Elliot have contacted me with concerns about the Bill suppressing youth engagement in politics. I have been doing quite a lot of work in my constituency in trying to enable young people to get politically engaged. Another barrier will affect older people, who may struggle to access the ID that they will now need. A number of Members, especially Conservative Members, have said that it is not a particular barrier, but I know that many people who have voted throughout their lives, in many cases for the Conservative party, will be disenfranchised.
A 91-year-old constituent wrote to me recently. He told me that he had just given up his driving licence because he is now housebound. Asking him to apply for a new form of ID, in my view, is unreasonable and ludicrous. Another constituent with multiple disabilities also contacted me. That constituent has never had a passport or a driving licence, and is extremely concerned, fearing that the process of application for a new form of ID will be difficult to complete.
I should like the Minister to clarify some points. What assessment have the Government made of how the new law will affect people with disabilities? The Bill provides extremely limited information about the new voter card: there is nothing about the application process, nothing about deadlines, nothing about what documents will be required, and nothing about how long the card will be valid for. The Bill simply says that this vital information will be set in out in future regulations, but as the Electoral Commission has said, we need to have it during the Bill’s passage, and unfortunately it is not there. Will the Government commit to providing full information on voter ID before the Bill moves to its next stages?
Earlier this year, 17 leading civil society organisations called on the Government to think again about requiring photo ID at polling stations. They included Stonewall, the Electoral Reform Society, Operation Black Vote, My Life My Say, and Silver Voices. It is not just the Labour party that is saying this. I urge the Government to listen to the growing consensus from across the political divide, and from impartial charities and representative groups, and to drop this terrible idea.
Let me now turn briefly to clause 25, on joint campaigning by registered parties and third parties. It is of course right for us to have a robust system of electoral finance monitoring and controls, but I have concerns about how the Bill could restrict legitimate campaigning by trade unions and other organisations. I echo the comments of the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). Trade unions are democratic membership organisations that are already highly regulated when it comes to the financing of campaigns, and the Labour Party is proud of its intrinsic link with the trade union movement. This Bill redefines campaign activity that is currently classified as party spending as joint campaigning, potentially making unions liable for substantial expenditure by the party. That is both unfair and illogical. The Committee on Standards in Public Life has recently stated:
“When considering calls for greater regulation on non-party campaigning it is important to be mindful of the role of non-party campaigning in the broader ecosystem of democracy and pre-election debate.”
Trade unions must be able to engage in the democratic process, campaign on behalf of their members and support political parties without onerous regulations, which will not increase transparency or make election spending fairer. I urge the Government to reconsider how these clauses will operate, and to bring forward revised proposals during the passage of the Bill.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is good to be higher up the batting order. I want to highlight to the House that I serve on the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and that I was acquitted at Southwark Crown court of an electoral law offence under the Representation of the People Act 1983 on 9 January 2019, as Members will be aware. There are three minor issues that I would like to talk about this afternoon, as well as one major one and one potential omission from the Bill. I hope that some of these points can be addressed as the Bill makes further progress.
There has been much huffing and puffing on voter identification this afternoon, as there always is on this topic. It is perceived by some as a means to restrict voting, but I do not believe a word of that. We have ID with us at most times of the day, when we want to collect a parcel or indulge in age-related activities such as going to the pub. I do not think there are many in this House who campaign as actively as I do for civil liberties, and I see absolutely no conflict in this legislation.
Has my hon. Friend encountered a situation in which a voter has lost their polling card and, when they are told that they can still go to the polling station, they are astounded that they do not need any form of ID? In fact, many people who lose their polling cards are nervous about going to vote at all, so having ID might encourage people in that situation to go and vote.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that interesting observation. We have all heard this on the doorstep. When people say, “Oh, I’ve lost my card”, we say to them, “Don’t worry, just go!” So yes, perversely the ID card could actually increase turnout, which is the converse of what some people say.
The mischief that clause 1 is intended to address is that of personation. People claim that it is non-existent, and I know that very few cases go to court, but I disagree with those who say it is not taking place. I will not highlight to the House how easy it is and how it has undoubtedly happened in many constituencies. Clause 2, on postal voting, amends paragraph 3 of schedule 4 to the Representation of the People Act 2000, on absent voting in Great Britain. This will restrict the right to a perpetual postal vote to three years, which is good common sense.
Clause 3 brings in a new offence of handling postal votes. Again, a great idea, but in practical terms it is difficult to know how it could really be effective. Let us hope that the threat of prosecution will be enough to bring people away from the appalling activity that, in parts of the country, we would have to call postal vote farming. There have been some convictions for this, which is all to the good. However, I think there is a wider debate to be had on whether postal votes serve the good of the democratic process.
In some local authorities, postal votes arrive two weeks before voting day. I have often wondered how many of those who vote early, who might be floating voters, find themselves thinking in the last few days when the election is getting exciting, “D’you know what? I’ve changed my mind! I wish I’d waited till the end.” That is a problem as we get an increasing number of postal voters. It is almost like that old saying, “For you the war is over”, because they are no longer in the election process.
The increase in postal votes was implemented by the Labour party amid fears that the number of people engaging in elections was going down. I remember, because I am of a certain age, when people had to have a good reason to get a postal vote, such as being on holiday or working away, or being infirm or ill. A debate needs to be had as to whether that was a better process. I value elections and the process of going to a booth, and I am not convinced that the widening of the postal vote mandate that we have seen over the years has not just widened the risk of fraud, harvesting and coercion, away from the reasonable security of the polling station—I have good, robust feelings about the security of the polling station.
On overseas electors, as long as a person is within the net of UK tax they should have the right to vote. Obviously, a person who goes abroad to work for a few years will lose the annual tax charge, but to get rid of their domicile takes a lot longer. A person can be within the net of inheritance tax for a very long time, and it is sometimes difficult to get rid of it completely. I am very comfortable with where this is going.
The change in the Bill that is relevant to me, of course, follows the result of my 11-week trial at Southwark Crown court behind glass, which concluded in acquittal on 9 January 2019. I did not enter the House as the MP for South Thanet to have a lengthy trial based on very abstract and ambiguous legislation. The issue at stake was the construction of section 90ZA of the Representation of the People Act 1983, relating to the meaning of “election expenses,” and section 90C of the same Act, relating to accounting for discounted or free goods and services and the requirement, or not, for a candidate or agent to give assent and proper authorisation for expenditure in order for it to be a valid election expense.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that assistance.
The matter was tested at the Court of Appeal in front of no less than the Lord Chief Justice, who ruled in summary that authorisation by the candidate or agent is a key feature of an election expense. The Electoral Commission—I make no comment as to its motivation—was dissatisfied with the outcome at the Court of Appeal and took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in an entirely contrary way, that spending could be construed as an election expense without receiving formal authorisation or proper deemed authorisation if it is of assistance to that candidate.
Two of the highest courts in the land—one said this and one said that. How on earth is a candidate or agent meant to make any sense of such legislation? I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for listening to my contributions in the House on this matter and for listening to the private Member’s Bill that I introduced some years ago to amend the 1983 Act appropriately so that proper authorisation has to be given. I now see those words in the Bill almost in their entirety. In clause 16, proposed new section 90C(1A) of the 1983 Act requires clear direction, authorisation or encouragement by the candidate or their agent for an election expense to be so. Thank God we have some clarity.
I would not want to see anybody in this House, friend or foe, go through what I went through. It was not fair, because we had ambiguous legislation. Finally we have a power in this Bill that means we will protect each other for the right reasons. Whether or not we like someone’s politics, it will apply to everybody.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay). The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), in his excellent speech, made reference to the way in which the Scottish electoral system is becoming far more inclusive by expanding the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. Of course, similar efforts are under way in Wales, where the most recent Senedd election saw the franchise extended to all those over the age of 16 with residency rights. As discussions in Wales turn to consideration of the size of the Senedd and further reform of the electoral system, we can say that Welsh democracy is becoming more inclusive, at a time when perhaps the situation at UK level is to the contrary.
Some of the proposals in this Bill are to be commended, including the new sanction on intimidation of candidates and of voters. However, as has been discussed a lot this afternoon, the Bill does introduce a new barrier to democratic participation. As others have eloquently argued this afternoon, the introduction of voter ID requirements is baffling, as it appears to be the Government’s attempt to address a non-existent problem. I appreciate that we will not have agreement on this issue this afternoon, but it is worth reiterating that in 2019 there were 33 cases of polling station irregularities, in an election where more than 32 million ballots were cast. The Electoral Commission’s electoral fraud data details that there have been three convictions for in-person personation since 2014. I understand that we are not going to be able to agree on this point, but surely the Government will consider their own evidence, and the Cabinet Office’s own research found that 27% of those without photo ID were less likely to vote if photo ID was required. When the Minister sums up, it would be good to hear exactly what the Government’s plan is to try to encourage voting among people who have expressed to the Government that they are less likely to vote if photo ID is required.
Another question that arises from the Bill is whether the Government have considered the implications of some of the measures on devolved elections and constitutional arrangements. An example that comes to mind is this year’s Welsh election, where the Senedd general election was held on the same day as the police and crime commissioner elections. If that were to occur again, voters would be required to show photographic ID in order to vote in the PCC election but would not be required to do so for the Senedd election. That exemplifies some of the complexity that the Law Commission identified in its report and the recommendations for electoral laws to be rationalised. My question simply is: have the Government assessed how this would impact turnout and participation in devolved elections? Have there been discussions with the Welsh Government and the Senedd on that point?
Other worrying aspects of the Bill are some of the changes relating to the operation of the Electoral Commission and the strategic priorities of that body, which have been mentioned this afternoon. As the Electoral Commission is funded by, and is formally accountable to, the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd, as well as to the UK Parliament, the UK Government must make it clear that the proposed strategy and policy statement outlined in clause 12 and the related development and approval processes will not undermine the very important relationships that the commission has with the devolved Parliaments. Indeed, the Electoral Commission itself has called for that.
I will draw my remarks to a conclusion, but I will just say that an opportunity has been missed to consolidate and modernise electoral law, which both the Law Commission and, more recently, the Committee on Standards in Public Life have called for. I hope that some of their recommendations can be incorporated into the Bill in future stages.
I suppose I have been in this place long enough not to be surprised by anything that happens in this Chamber, but I have to say that I am astonished by the level of synthetic outrage that has been generated by part 1 of this Bill. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), an old friend, gave the game away when he said that it has the word “ID” in it. For him, anything with “ID” in it is a blue rag to a bull. All I can say, as someone who has been privileged to be an international observer of elections on behalf of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, is that ID is common practice around the civilised world. It is not a panacea and it is not going to solve all ills, but it is a useful tool in the prevention of fraud. I think I am right in saying—my hon. Friend the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that ID has been used in Northern Ireland elections since 2003. If that is so and it is good enough for Northern Ireland, it is surely good enough for the whole of the rest of the United Kingdom.
My main purpose, in taking the Floor for just a few moments, is to say thank you to my hon. Friend the Minister for delivering something for which many of us have been campaigning for some time: the extension of the right to vote, in perpetuity, for expats. I am particularly grateful for part 2 of the Bill and clause 10, which ought to be known as Harry’s clause. Harry Shindler is 100 years old. He is the oldest living member of the Labour party. Harry and I have worked together on this project, with others, for a number of years. It will be a joy to his heart to be able, at the age of 102 or 103, to vote in a general election. Harry could have taken Italian citizenship—he fought at Anzio, came back to the United Kingdom and later retired to Italy—but, proudly British, he refused to become Italian to be able to vote.
At the next general election, Harry will be able to vote. That is one of two issues that expats want to be delivered. We are delivering on one; I hope that Harry and I will both also live to see the day when we deliver on the second, which is the extension of expat pensions in perpetuity.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a true privilege to stand here today, among these green Benches, as the Member for Chesham and Amersham.
It should be said that, like so many constituencies, Chesham and Amersham is more than just two towns. We are a collection of proud and vibrant communities, going from the Chalfonts in the south through to the Lees in the north, taking in the Missendens, the Kingshills and so many other villages along the way. Soaring above it all are the magnificent red kites.
In representing the constituency of Chesham and Amersham, I follow the late Dame Cheryl Gillan. I know that many Members and former Members alike mourn her loss. Please let me take this moment to give my condolences to the many colleagues, friends and family members who all sorely miss her. I can only say that I intend to carry on her tradition of speaking truth to power and standing up for my constituents.
Dame Cheryl and I proudly share a Welsh heritage, and it so happens that Chesham and Amersham is something of a destination for Welsh émigrés. One of our most famous late residents was Roald Dahl. If people look closely enough around Great Missenden, they will find, hidden in plain sight, little details and clues to locations from his stories—stories that, like many in this place, I grew up reading.
The inspiration for Matilda’s library is still used by local people today. Danny’s dad’s petrol pump from “Danny, the Champion of the World” can be found, too—along with those pheasants that Danny and his father so loved. Crown House, otherwise known as Sophie’s orphanage from “The BFG”, still stands. I am, however, still on the hunt for a giant peach and a big chocolate factory.
At the heart of the inspiration for many of those wonderful stories is the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty, and our woodlands in particular. There is therefore a grim and unwelcome parallel between the story of “Fantastic Mr Fox” and the scene that greets people there today. The damage that Boggis and Bunce and Bean’s diggers wrought as they tore up the land while hunting that Mr Fox echoes the current destruction now taking place thanks to the works around High Speed 2. It is bad enough to watch it from street level, but once you get up and above the works and see the full scale of it, it is devastating. What you see makes your heart sink, where before the views could make your heart sing.
Something else that makes your heart sink are the roads around Buckinghamshire. I call them roads, but they are more like an assault course for unsuspecting drivers. The shocking state of our roads is something that my constituents are desperate to see fixed, but sadly this Government are more interested in fixing a problem that does not exist. There is no evidence of mass voter fraud in this country and yet, with this Bill, the Government want to introduce voter ID at elections. Why? This Bill will result in countless voters being turned away at the polling booth for no good reason. We should be encouraging more people to participate in elections, not introducing barriers to voting. Far from strengthening our democracy, this Bill makes it harder for people to vote and undermines our independent elections watchdog. Like all Members here, I did not enjoy the universal support of every voter, but everyone should be able to cast their vote unimpeded.
It goes without saying, however, that, no matter how any one person voted, every constituent in Chesham and Amersham will be listened to, will be heard and their interests represented in this place by me, and I greatly look forward to working with colleagues across this House.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I echo your congratulations to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) on not only an excellent maiden speech, but a very gracious one as well? We on the Conservative Benches really appreciate the tribute that she paid to our late colleague. I felt like I was getting to know her constituency all over again after a number of visits there during the by-election. Every village appeared to be a film set and actually was. I did not realise that it was the most photographed area of the country and it is extremely beautiful. The hon. Lady steps into big shoes left by our friend, Dame Cheryl, and I wish her very well in the work that I know she will be doing to well represent the constituents of Chesham and Amersham and, by the sounds of it, to continue the tradition of being a very strong advocate not of HS2, but of her constituents.
Our democracy, like others, is a very fragile thing. Elections are pivotal in the democratic process and I really applaud the Government, but particularly my hon. Friend, the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, for all that they are doing to put democracy first in their agenda. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said quite rightly that the Government have greater responsibility than anybody to ensure that the measures that are put in place are impartial—that they will not be favouring one side or the other. I do not agree with the points that he makes on voter ID; I think that the Bill is absolutely right. Ministers will have to do a great job of work in explaining voter ID to the voters well in advance of any election and I know that they will put that as a priority.
I just want to focus on two measures in the Bill and two measures that are not in the Bill. I would like to highlight my support for two measures, and the first is around the intimidation of candidates. The Bill introduces a new and very welcome electoral sanction to protect those seeking to be elected from abuse either in person or online. The vast majority of people who have stood for election have experienced some sort of aggressive behaviour and this is having a deleterious impact on certain groups. The Minister will know from our conversations the concerns that I have about the impacts on women putting themselves forward for election. We know from research that two out of three women in the UK said that their fear of abuse or harassment was a reason for not pursuing a career in politics. That is not good enough. In a democracy where we are strong because of our representative nature we have to tackle these things head on, so thank you to the Ministers for championing this new sanction in the Bill.
Secondly, there is the accessibility of polls. We sort of take it for granted that everybody can get to vote, but when we look at the evidence in the legislation, we see that the fact that it covers only tactile voting devices is way out of date, so, again, I applaud the Ministers for their tenacity in making sure that the requirement on returning officers is far broader than that; they should be commended for that.
Let me turn to the two issues that I hope I might turn the Ministers’ eyes to as the Bill proceeds through its various stages. The first will come as no surprise to them: it is the length of elections. [Interruption.] There is quite a lot of support for that on these Benches. The Bill is silent on the length of general election campaigns. When I was elected, election campaigns were 25 days. When many colleagues were elected to the Government Benches in 2019, that period was 36 days. The change has happened because we have rewritten the law, and done a carve-out for bank holidays and weekends. It is nonsense that the legislation is drafted in that way. We have to acknowledge and discuss the real consequences for our democracy of the length of election campaigns, but we have not done so enough. Those consequences include the engagement of voters, periods of uncertainty for the economy and the period without an effective Government. The issue is also not covered in the Government’s engagement plan.
Will Ministers please continue to look at this matter, and listen to me again on this gripping subject on Monday when we discuss the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, when I hope to move new clause 1, which has the support of not only Government Members, but Opposition Members as well?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that having a short election would help in situations such as the recent recall of Parliament on the situation in Afghanistan, or the decisions that we have had to make at short notice during the pandemic? Having a shorter election campaign would facilitate a Government being put in place to make those important decisions.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, he is a co-sponsor—and, in fact, a co-conspirator—on this entire issue, as are many Government Members. I look forward to hearing his dulcet tones on this matter again on Monday.
The second issue that I want to cover is the sensitive matter of the eligibility of candidates in parliamentary elections. There are measures in place that veto certain people from standing in general elections, so this is not a new concept in our legislation. When we are elected we are, as individuals, in unique and powerful positions of trust; we have to accept that. Parties do vet candidates, but sometimes—we know—those procedures do not work as they are intended.
Currently people cannot stand to be elected as an MP if they have been made bankrupt, but there are no similar bars for other—possibly more serious—offences. Anybody who is convicted of a sex offence is not barred from standing for election. This is about existing offences that have been tried in court, not allegations. The Centenary Action Group is suggesting an amendment to bring that offence into scope, so that we can strike a better balance between upholding the democratic freedom that people have to stand for election and safeguarding our constituents, who very often, as we all know, include children and vulnerable adults.
Many councillors who deal with issues such as those we deal with here are subject to quite stringent police checks. Now, I am not advocating that course of action, but we have to think about this carefully so that our positions are not open to abuse. I do not imagine that there are many people in this place who would think that a convicted sex offender would have a place on these green Benches.
May I first say how pleased I am to see the Minister, my constituency neighbour in Norwich, back in her place? She may have been back before today, but this is the first day that I have been back, so I welcome her to her place.
I will start with a question. If your policies are unpopular with most voters and your own party’s demographics are shrinking, what do you do? Do you change your policies so that your party’s platform is more appealing to more voters, or do you make it harder for people to vote? After reading the Bill, I think we now have this Government’s answer.
Such is the extent of the crisis of democracy, there is truly no shortage of issues that the Elections Bill could have addressed. Our first-past-the-post electoral system already means that millions of people’s votes are wasted. When the House of Commons and the House of Lords are taken together as our legislature, half our legislators are not elected. We do not even have a constitution that is publicly accessible or that has public consent. This Bill does nothing about any of these issues or the many more real problems in our elections and our democracy. Instead this Government are pouring oil on the bonfire of democracy that is taking place not just in the UK but across the world.
When public confidence in the running of elections is at its highest since 2012, we are left to ponder the obvious question: whose interests is this Bill actually serving? It certainly is not the interests of the estimated 2.1 million people who will be put at risk of being excluded from voting because they do not have recognisable photo ID. Nor does it serve the interests of working people and civil society. Their right to freedom of expression in elections through trade unions in campaigning will be hamstrung by punitive red tape and put at risk through the Government’s control of the Electoral Commission. I think it is pretty clear: the beneficiaries of this Bill are this Government and their vested interests. It is this Government who benefit from the disproportionate exclusion of the very voters hit hardest by their policies. It is the wealthy tax exiles, not members of the public, who will benefit from rules that will enable overseas electors to influence parties in elections through donations.
However, as even Conservative Members have noted, the most cynical aspect of this Bill is of course the phantom problem of voter fraud that has been summoned by this Government to create a smokescreen for naked self-interest.
The hon. Gentleman says that voter fraud is not an issue, yet in my constituency during a by-election less than a month ago, over 30 pre-filled-in voting ballots were found dumped in a bin in a church. My community of Rutland and Melton is perhaps not normally considered a hotspot of voter fraud. If there is not voter fraud going on, why are we currently having to investigate such ballots being found around our country?
That is a fair point. Let me retort with an alternative statistic for you. There were 34 allegations of impersonation in the 2019 general election, out of 58 million votes. I took out my calculator and that works out that there was 0.0000058% fraud in the last election.
The Government have produced a piece of legislation straight out of the far-right playbook from the United States to look for a problem that does not exist. This tactic is drawn straight from the authoritarian playbook of racist American legislators. Their voter suppression laws have been and are being used to reinstate Jim Crow-era mass disenfranchisement via the back door. The Southern Poverty Law Centre, which has commented on such legislation, says:
“The real reason these laws are passed is to suppress the vote, and that is in fact what happens.”
We have a crisis of democracy precisely because established institutions have failed to represent the public as a whole—failed to challenge economic self-interest in favour of the common good. The truth, as this Government know, is that their ideology of destructive and unequal growth, fuelled by oil and gas, is not shared by the British public. Even the super-wealthy see the uninhabitable world this system is creating. They choose to flee to private islands or hide out in vast compounds in the depths of New Zealand and elsewhere. This Bill, along with the protest ban and the attacks on the independent judiciary and human rights, is a buttress against the public. Authoritarian control is being shored up because this Government know they cannot win public consent freely and fairly for policies that will continue to impose poverty on an ever-greater number of people so that wealth can be extracted for a few. [Interruption.] You sit there looking incredulous, yet that is what your politics and your policies do, day in day and day out.
I wonder whether the hon. Member is aware that actually voter ID is very common in other countries. You said that it is a racist policy to bring back Jim Crow laws from the US. Are you aware that the world’s most successful multi-racial democracy, Canada, uses voter ID, as well as highly respected democracies such as Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Italy and France? They all use voter ID.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire will also know that many of the countries he mentioned already have ID cards fully in use by their populations. As you well know, we do not have them here. I know you are talking about a regional ID scheme, but if you are talking about a national ID scheme, fine, make that comparison. I do not believe you are, so I do not believe it is a fair comparison.
I will conclude with my question to Members on the Government Benches: how comfortable are they with Government Front Benchers who are eroding the fabric of our fragile democracy? When will they speak up and express misgivings like the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) about the Government’s fleeting, rocky relationship not just with the truth but with democracy? Choose soon, because history will not judge your silence well.
Mr Deputy Speaker, it is the second time you have done that to me; the first time was my maiden speech.
I welcome this essential Bill. What I want is a fair vote for everyone, and that is why I was very pleased to lead the first Adjournment debate of this Parliament on 19 December 2019. Further to the speech of the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), I am clear that in Wycombe, the victims of electoral malpractice are ethnic minorities. Overwhelmingly, it is ethnic minorities whose votes are stolen, in some cases very deliberately.
First, I want to welcome some provisions and then, if I have time, I will say where the Bill could go further. On postal votes, proxy votes and voter ID, I welcome the provisions in the Bill, but I particularly want to emphasise, because I suspect no one else will, the importance in the undue influence measure of provisions about spiritual injury and spiritual pressure. I have thousands of British Muslim supporters in Wycombe, and I know from my friends and supporters that they were accused in the most strident and offensive terms, which I will not repeat, of being apostate, because they declined to vote for the Muslim candidate. That is an absolutely outrageous way to polarise our politics. If I did it as a Christian, there would rightly be national outrage, so I am pleased to see that provision in the Bill.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and I draw his attention to the words of the judge in the Tower Hamlets case, who made the same point. He said:
“The real losers in this case are the citizens of Tower Hamlets and, in particular, the Bangladeshi community. Their natural and laudable sense of solidarity has been cynically perverted into a sense of isolation and victimhood, and their devotion to their religion has been manipulated—all for the aggrandisement of Mr Rahman.”
That is the reality of these sorts of fraud cases.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am clear that in speaking in support of the Bill I am standing overwhelmingly for my ethnic minority voters in Wycombe. I am absolutely clear about that in my mind. I am clear that they are the most strident supporters I have on this matter in my constituency.
I will not repeat the matters that I raised on 19 December, because that took several times longer than the time I have remaining, so I will point out five areas where the Bill could go further. The first is that many people are incorrectly listed on the electoral roll, entitling them to vote. Many of the issues are already illegal, but there is a strong argument that if the electoral roll was much more tightly governed, the opportunity for criminality, and particularly the misuse of postal votes, would be reduced.
There needs to be a national check for uniqueness, but without a national database. I am grateful to the Electoral Commission for meeting me; I have shown it a technique that could be used with a kind of digital fingerprint to guarantee uniqueness. We need to ensure that people only vote once in the UK. I have seen a WhatsApp message where somebody said, “I have voted in Birmingham; I am now coming to Wycombe to vote against Baker.” I do not mind people voting against me if they are so convicted, as it were, but I do mind them voting twice.
The second point is that people register to vote at an address where they do not reside. I could take Members to a small Edwardian three-bedroom house in Wycombe where 12 electors are registered to vote. We absolutely know that they do not reside there. It is very important that people register to vote only where they reside. It is also important that people do not end up abusing the postal vote system by applying for a postal vote on someone’s behalf and then casting it without their knowledge. We also can give examples of where that can be done, although I do not have time now.
Thirdly, there are instances where foreign nationals here legally in the UK—very welcome they are, too—and with a national insurance number are not entitled to vote. We have examples of some people of Turkish nationality and some EU nationals. In some cases, people just do not know that they are not entitled to vote in a national election. We need to ensure that we tell them. I could give anecdotes of people who find they have inadvertently voted and wished they had not, because they had no intention of breaking the law, so we need to educate them.
Fourthly, I realise and accept that at this stage the Minister almost certainly cannot do anything about the national uniqueness of the electoral roll—I put that on the record so that we can come back to it—but this is an area where I think he could go further. When someone wishes to make an objection to someone’s name being on the roll at a particular address, the name of the objector must be disclosed. That is a reasonable principle of justice to ensure that the accused knows the name of their accuser. The point for me is about when their name is disclosed. It seems that just as an accused person is revealed when they are charged—not when they are arrested—so it could be the case that a person challenging the electoral roll is named publicly only at the moment when someone is charged so that that person knows who their accuser is for the purposes of the criminal justice system and the accuser does not end up exposed to intimidation for challenging registrations on the electoral roll. I make that case because such challenges need to be made and there is a problem with people either not making them or making them and subsequently feeling they were or could have been intimidated.
Finally, the Minister needs to do much more to educate voters about what the law is. For example, I am sorry to say that we cannot assume that just because a postal vote is completed by an elector in their own home, it has been completed freely. I know of one lady from an ethnic minority community who asked to cancel her postal vote because it had been taken from her and given to a candidate. I personally reported that candidate to the police. That is just one example concerning the treatment of women, which is not equal everywhere. In particular, I fear that women are not being given the opportunity to cast their vote freely. However they choose to vote, they should have their choice. In so far as it is up to me, I am not having this country go back to the pre-suffragette era in which women’s votes were abused. That requires us to be realistic and understand that some women cast their votes at home under duress.
I welcome the Bill and am grateful to the Minister, who will have my full support. Let us not listen to some of the nonsense we have heard today.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I apologise to colleagues for this brief intervention, but I have heard that the all-party parliamentary China group has invited the ambassador of China on to the estate next week. As one of many in this place who has been sanctioned by the Chinese Government, I find that reprehensible, because Mr Speaker himself condemned the sanctioning of Members of Parliament here in very strict terms.
I have notified the chair of the all-party group, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), as well as the vice-chair, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who I see in his place. I wonder if you would give your view, Mr Deputy Speaker, about whether such a visit should happen. The representative of the Government who have sanctioned us, trolled us, broken some of our email accounts and taken our characters around the world is coming to Parliament next week, and I think that is unfathomable.
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary China group—in fairness, one of 22 vice-chairs—may I say to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) through you that I very much share his concerns? It is obviously necessary for us to engage in every way possible, but when the engagement is of the nature he described, that goes beyond normal engagement, and that should be a matter of concern across this Chamber.
I am extremely grateful to Sir Iain Duncan Smith for his point of order and giving me forward notice of it, as well as to Alistair Carmichael following on. I am also grateful that he informed the chair of the all-party parliamentary China group. The Speaker and Deputy Speakers are not responsible for the operation of APPGs. In the first instance, I suggest that he put his points to the officers of the APPG in question. Indeed, the vice-chair having said what he did gives incredible strength to the arguments.
Further, if the right hon. Gentleman believes that the APPG has breached the rules, he is advised to contact the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. He might also wish to know that the Standards Committee is undertaking an inquiry into APPGs. As he just stated, it is a matter of public record that Mr Speaker is very concerned about the sanctioning of any Members of this House by the Chinese Government for carrying out their duties as Members of Parliament.
Can I first say to the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution that I am glad to see them back at the Dispatch Box? I also commend them for their passion for the legislation they are bringing forward on behalf of the Government. I do not necessarily agree with the vast majority of it for very simple reasons, and I want to bring my words to three specific points on voter identification, assistance for excluded groups and the regulation of expenditure.
First, on voter identification, I am glad that the right hon. Member for—I can never remember his constituency. [Hon. Members: “Haltemprice and Howden.”] Exactly. It is double-barrelled and it always gets me. I am glad that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) is here on voter ID. I do not necessarily share the same opinion, for a very specific reason. One other hon. Member, the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), has already mentioned the OSCE report on voter ID. There has been a failure to recognise in the debate so far not only that the vast majority of nations that use them have used them for a long period of time, but that some of them—for example, Estonia—not only use them to allow a citizen to go and vote, but to allow them full access to the vast majority of records the state owns on them. Therefore, your ID card—your digital ID card—will allow you to read your medical records, your police record and a vast swathe of public information held on you, the citizen. Their digital ID is yours; it is not the state’s.
The idea that also needs to be discussed and highlighted quickly is the idea that we do not have ID numbers in the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. The vast majority of us over the age of 15 have a national insurance number and the vast majority of us have an NHS number. Those of us representing Scottish constituencies also have our community health index—called the CHI. The issue about voter ID-specific cards is therefore a worry to me. Why are we duplicating a specific voter ID card when ID numbers already exist? Why go to the expense of creating and duplicating existing structures? I am afraid that I did not hear the answer to that in the Minister’s opening speech, and perhaps they will come back to it, if they wish, in their conclusion.
I think the onus in the legislation is on local government to provide the cards. Where does the ownership of the card reside: is it with the Government or with the local authority? The Minister mentioned the fact that it would not be connected to any databases, and that gives me the idea that it is owned not by the local authority, but by the Government. Therefore, there needs to be clarity about that ID in that it is not connected to any other single database other than someone’s voter number on the voter roll. That needs clarification.
On assisting those who are excluded, there has been no mention so far, for example, of the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma community. A proportion of the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma community still lead a nomadic lifestyle, and they will find it extremely difficult—moving from local authority to local authority or between the nations of the United Kingdom—to access a specific local authority to give them a specific voter ID. Perhaps the Minister can say a few words about that in summing up because the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma community in recent months has found some of the legislation that has gone through this place very difficult.
Then we come to the regulation of expenditure, and I referred in my intervention on the Minister to unincorporated associations. Much has been made by Government Members about the independence of charities, for example. Not all charities that use the word “charity” are actually registered charities; they are usually unincorporated associations. They are the small organisations in each of our constituencies that go about their business doing civic duties and civic activity. But the unethical and unprincipled element of the unincorporated associations which needs to be clarified in this Bill is about how they are utilised to undermine democratic principles and fund political organisations by the back door.
There needs to be clarity in the Bill. The Minister needs to identify why we cannot use existing ID numbers that we already have, and how we can tackle the issue of the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma community and also make sure that unincorporated associations are not a back door to undermining the very principles of democracy across these islands.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate to express my support for the new legislation to strengthen the integrity of UK elections and protect our democracy, but I want to begin by thanking the many people inside and outside Parliament who worked so hard, particularly over the last year, to preserve and protect our democratic process despite the ensuing chaos caused by the pandemic. We owe a debt of gratitude to the workers and volunteers who administer our elections, and we owe special thanks to Lord Pickles because without his work and dedication to tackle electoral fraud in our voting system, I doubt this Bill would have come before us so soon.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution for getting this done despite the competing priorities of Government and her own personal battle. At a time when Government could be forgiven for prioritising other incentives, the refreshing display of focus and determination we are seeing today from the Government reflects a belief in the need to strengthen the integrity of our elections and protect our democracy.
Many Members will recall that only in the last Parliament I put forward my own private Member’s Bill on this topic, and I am glad to say that many of the changes I proposed around postal voting then have found their way into this Bill.
Many Members on the Opposition Benches have argued strongly that this Bill unnecessarily introduces measures that will make it more difficult to vote in future elections, that the UK has relatively low levels of proven electoral fraud, and that voters should feel confident about their vote, or that this might disenfranchise voters. In truth, the opposite is the case. This Bill will strengthen the security of our voting process by introducing a requirement for voters to show an approved form of photographic identification before collecting their ballot paper to vote in a polling station. There are already checks in place to confirm a voter’s identity when they register to vote and to vote by post. However, there are no similar checks in place at polling stations in Great Britain to prevent someone from claiming to be someone else and voting in their name.
This Bill will bring the rest of the UK in line with Northern Ireland, where photographic identification has been used successfully since 2003. For those concerned that any eligible voter who does not have one of a broad range of accepted identification documents will be precluded from taking part in the democratic process, the Bill and the Minister have made it clear that a proposed voter card will be available from their local authority free of charge. Furthermore, the Elections Bill places British citizens’ participation at the heart of our democracy, supporting voters to make their choices freely, securely and in an informed way without fear of interference.
Stealing someone’s vote is stealing their voice, so I welcome the Government’s attempts to stamp out any potential for voter fraud by including sensible safeguards for postal and proxy voting, which will see party campaigners banned from handling postal votes, put a stop to postal vote harvesting, and make it an offence for a person to attempt to find out or reveal who an absent voter has chosen to vote for.
I also welcome the steps taken by this Government to introduce a new electoral sanction to protect campaigners and those standing for or holding elected office from inexcusable intimidatory or abusive behaviour both in person and online, something many Members on both sides of this House have experienced and feel strongly about. As my hon. Friend the Minister has said:
“Robust debate has always been a fundamental part of our democracy, and freedom of expression is part of its appeal—but a line is crossed when disagreement mutates into intimidation and abuse that shuts down free debate.”
Finally, I welcome the steps taken in the Bill to better support voters with disabilities to exercise their democratic right by removing restrictions on who can act as a companion to a disabled voter at the polling station and requiring local returning officers to provide support for a wider range of needs. In my constituency of Southport, this is not only appropriate but necessary to strengthen the integrity of our voting system and ensure voters, irrespective of their age or disability, can participate. Too often during elections, I am contacted by residents—they have an above average age demographic—who are dissuaded from taking part in the democratic process not because of their apathy, but because of a lack of confidence in a system that makes it too difficult to vote in person with a disability.
The Bill builds on the good progress that the Government have made defending democracy. The changes that it will deliver will work alongside the measures in the online safety Bill and the counter-state threats Bill, which were announced in the most recent Queen’s Speech, to protect our globally respected UK democracy from evolving threats and ensure the systems that underpin it are fit for purpose in society today. It will introduce a number of important changes that the Electoral Commission and others have previously argued will bring benefits for voters, including extending imprint rules to digital campaign material, allowing more flexible support for disabled people, and improving transparency. I will be supporting the Bill, and I encourage hon. and right hon. Members across the House to do the same.
This Bill is an affront to our democracy. It will interfere with and undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission, it will impose excessive and unnecessary restrictions on campaigning groups and, worst of all, it will not only disallow the voting rights of millions who do not have ID but lead to an even lower level of voter engagement. This Bill is unnecessary, costly and a Conservative power grab.
Although the proposal to introduce voter ID has been widely covered already, I feel that I must emphasise that we should be working to encourage and support the people of the UK to exercise their democratic right to vote, not disenfranchising them. That is particularly likely to be the case for the most disadvantaged groups, who are already the most marginalised in our society.
I would like to bring to the Minister’s attention a joint statement on voter ID by a coalition of 19 Welsh organisations, which highlights how proposals in the Bill risk the disenfranchisement of already marginalised groups in Wales that they work with and represent, including homeless people, people with disabilities, older people, ethnic minorities, young people, Gypsies and Travellers, and the Roma community in Wales. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that joint statement.
In contrast, I am extremely proud that the Welsh Government have taken exactly the approach that I feel is needed by taking action to encourage young people to vote—16 and 17-year-olds voted for the first time in Senedd elections in May this year—and making it easier for people to vote across the board. We are also looking to trial polling stations in schools and colleges to tackle low youth turnout at elections, and we are considering putting polling stations in supermarkets and leisure centres. These steps will make it easier for people to vote and make our democracy a more vibrant one where everyone’s vote counts.
If the Government press ahead with their proposals, my constituents will notice a stark difference between Welsh elections and Westminster elections. They will enjoy easy and accessible elections for local government and the Senedd, and they will face enormous barriers and inconveniences when it comes time to elect their MP. I would be interested to hear what discussions Ministers have had with the Welsh Government on the proposals in the Bill.
There is much more to this Bill than voter ID. It threatens the independence of the Electoral Commission with Government and parliamentary interference. It gives the Government and the Tory party the ability to set the strategic plan for the body that oversees elections. That is significant, as the Electoral Commission has investigated many key Government allies in recent years, including Vote Leave, and the Conservative party for its 2017 election spending. It is clear to me that these proposals will undermine the Electoral Commission and stifle oversight and criticism.
I also have grave doubts about the proposals surrounding third-party campaigners and the impact that they may have on important campaigning groups, charities and trade unions. The majority of campaign work during elections is done by individuals and groups that are not members of political parties, and results in increased voter registration and turnout. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life commented,
“third-party campaigning is a good thing, because it encourages people to vote”.
What we should be doing is putting measures in place that encourage people to vote, as we are doing in Wales. This Bill does the opposite, and I oppose it.
I welcome the Bill. The provisions within it are long overdue. Given how thoroughly the ground has been gone over on some of the main planks of this legislation, I do not intend to go over it again. I do, however, wish to raise a number of technical points relating to the governance of local elections. Having stood in local elections as a candidate, or acted as an agent for more than 20 years in the seat I now represent, I have some experience of that.
First, I welcomed the changes to the nomination process for this year’s set of local elections, whereby only two signatures were required on the nomination paper, instead of the normal 10. This greatly reduced the administrative burden for both political parties and independent candidates in the local elections, leading to a considerable increase in participation, especially by independent candidates and those from minor parties, and making it easier for major parties to field candidates across wards they might otherwise have struggled to do so in. I hope the changes will be made permanent. I understand that this system, or one very similar to it, has been in place in Scotland since 2007 without either incident or much controversy. I hope that such a measure will be incorporated in the Bill.
Hon. Members will also be aware that many metropolitan boroughs are undergoing local government boundary reviews at the moment, meaning that in short order they will have what are known as all-out elections. Most metropolitan boroughs normally elect by thirds, with three-member wards. Broadly speaking, those wards tend to be very large compared with some of the more rural areas, with electorates ranging from roughly 10,000 to 20,000 depending on the local authority.
In all-out elections in three-member wards, the number of candidates can of course triple, so five candidates can become 15. That can lead to very long ballot papers, which can lead to confusion for electors, especially the elderly, and can be very difficult to tally for counting staff, given that candidates from the same party are scattered across the ballot paper. This can turn a count that would normally be completed in a few hours into a daylong event.
I propose that, when multiple candidates are up for election in the same ward, candidates should still be listed individually on the ballot paper, but should be grouped on the ballot paper by political party for the ease of the public in finding their candidates of choice and for the ease of counting staff in tallying votes at the count. That change would reduce confusion for electors and considerably foreshorten the length of local election counts in this type of all-out elections.
Finally, there is the matter of the relatively recently established metro Mayor elections. [Interruption.] I know, I know. Currently, mayoral elections can overlap with local elections in the metropolitan authorities they cover. Unfortunately, this has led to unforeseen consequences for the administration of these elections, particularly the count. Earlier, I alluded to the fact that local election counts in a metropolitan borough such as Wigan can be over in an hour or two in normal circumstances. The recent combined local and mayoral elections in Greater Manchester, including polling day, took three days to administer as opposed to the normal one. On the Friday of the count, staff had verified the ballots cast in the local election by 10 am, but were forced to wait until 4 pm before they could start counting them due to issues with the verification of the mayoral ballots—a six-hour wait before counting could even begin. The mayoral ballots had to be verified again on Saturday morning before they could be counted. Most staff and counting agents were exhausted after three very long days across—
I draw the attention of Members to the fact that I am a member of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission.
I consider it a privilege to take part in our political landscape, where democracy comes in different shapes and sizes and where it is the voters’ place to march in the streets and to choose who they put in this place. The presence of non-party campaigners—charities and campaign groups in the third sector—add a diversity of voices and expertise to our politics, bringing overlooked issues on to the political agenda and in so doing helping us all to make better decisions. That considered, clause 23 seems almost incomprehensible to anyone who values having a participatory democracy or an engaged society. The clause essentially hands Ministers the power to create conditions on whether certain bodies can take part in the electoral process, or remove them all together. They could be used, for instance, to bar anyone who has been in police custody from campaigning, which would take out thousands of environmental campaigners. It could even be used to create an outright ban for certain organisations, such as trade unions.
Additionally, lowering the spending limit for groups to register as non-party campaigners to £700 essentially hands the Government the power to disqualify any group from campaigning, while the new limitations on joint campaigning could clamp down on electoral pacts. I find that somewhat ironic given that the party of Government here, only four months ago, were calling for just such Unionist pacts in the Scottish elections.
This piece of legislation gives the Government of the day power over what kind of campaigning they consider acceptable during election periods and who can campaign. It is a naked attempt to swing elections in the ruling party’s favour by letting them write the rules for their own re-election. The Government or Opposition parties do not have to agree with what campaigners are calling for, but we should at least accept the right to participate. Instead, by narrowing our public life and stifling what makes our politics pluralistic, this Government are reading the same playbook as Orbán and Hungary.
Even Parliament is being attacked. Clause 23(2) explicitly ensures that this place will have no power to annul a statutory instrument that seeks to amend or remove the list of who counts as a non-party campaigner. This compounds the Bill’s attack on accountability, with the Electoral Commission’s independence being shattered by the new requirement to conform to a strategy document written by the Government, and its powers to prosecute being removed.
These might seem like technical changes, but they tie into this Government’s broader agenda of shrinking participation in extra-parliamentary political life until democracy is something that happens only in this place. If the Government get their way, which, by the sounds of it, looks quite likely tonight considering their insistence on keeping their unfair majoritarian voting system, we will soon be living in a society where the right to protest is severely restricted by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, where the Electoral Commission is toothless, and where even the process of going to vote is complicated unnecessarily by the requirement for voter ID restrictions.
It is only a few years since similar measures saw the US downgraded by the “Democracy Index” to a “flawed democracy”. Is that the trajectory for this country? Is that really the Government’s vision for a country that they make such a song and dance about loving—a disenfranchised and disengaged electorate with nothing to protect them from the insulated ruling classes fiddling the rules to stay in power?
With so much of what we see from the Government, it is impossible not to draw contrasts. The Scottish Government have increased the franchise to include 16 and 17-year-olds, asylum seekers and those serving custodial sentences with less than a year remaining. Scotland just held its most inclusive election ever, while this Government seemingly advocate leaving politics to the Etonians. Whenever this Government take steps to frustrate democracy, they justify them by conjuring scenes of rampant voter fraud. This simply is not the case and the Bill must be opposed.
There have been moments today, listening to Opposition Members, when I have felt like I have been missing my tin foil hat. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) and I turn up to all these events united in a purpose, because we both lived through an experience in Tower Hamlets that is incredibly difficult to forget. When I am told that there is no problem with our elections, I find it very hard to square that with my experiences.
One of the key things, as I mentioned in a recent Westminster Hall debate, relates to what happened in Tower Hamlets. There was a tremendous injustice and a court case that overturned an election. Some people involved included one of my political mentors, Councillor Peter Golds. However, we were not campaigning for the Conservatives to win an election. This was not about the Conservatives—for some strange reason, the Conservatives are not a great electoral force in Tower Hamlets. It was very much about an independent group that had won the election, and in fact, the Labour party was the runner-up.
During the campaign, we saw postal vote harvesting on an immense scale. We saw a level of personation that was mind-blowing to those of us who care about our democratic system. We saw intimidation and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) mentioned in what I thought was an astoundingly good speech, “undue spiritual influence”. That had been on the statute book for a long time but no one considered it particularly relevant any more. There was a great injustice and those of us who were political campaigners could see it play out, because after a while we knew what we were looking for. No matter who we complained to—the Electoral Commission or the Metropolitan police—no action was taken.
I appreciate all the points that Opposition Members have made that there is not really an issue because there are very few cases, but we had a court case on these issues that was brought not by any of the authorities that oversee elections, but by four members of the public who acted as electoral petitioners. They were the ones forced to undertake that action, because our system was failing. When people say that there is no issue in this country, that personation is not a problem or that we should be looking at every other issue that has been listed today, I say politely that we have ignored this issue for a long time and our authorities would not act.
The judge in the Tower Hamlets case, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) quoted earlier, said:
“The real losers in this case are the citizens of Tower Hamlets and, in particular, the Bangladeshi community…Even in the multicultural society which is 21st century Britain, the law must be applied fairly and equally to everyone. Otherwise we are lost.”
No, I cannot easily recall such an issue, and I hope that that is never our approach in this House.
I appreciate that Opposition Members have raised many points that they feel equally strongly about, but I just think that they are in the wrong ballpark. If they were being consistent, they would be campaigning to repeal the voter ID laws in Northern Ireland, which are incredibly successful and were brought in by a Labour Government.
I just think that there is a huge inconsistency in what has been happening today. I am no fan of the Electoral Commission, which I think could be abolished and replaced tomorrow with something considerably more successful, but the commission has called for voter identification. My right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) has repeatedly made the point that international organisations have called for voter ID to be brought in. The vast majority of people in this country have an ID that they use day to day. For those who do not, who are absolutely a fair group of people to talk about, there is a readily available system in the Bill with financial support to ensure that they are not disfranchised. I honestly cannot work out why the Opposition are making such a song and dance about a system that will be strengthened.
I am pretty sure that I dealt with the point about numbers in the first part of what I said. In regard to the idea that millions will be disfranchised, I think a number of 3.5 million was produced by the Electoral Commission. That is now five years out of date—forgive me if I am off by a year or two—and does not take into account the range of identification that can be used under the Bill, so in fact the number goes down substantially. Further to the point about the Bangladeshi community, 99% of ethnic minority people in this country have some form of identification that would allow them to vote under the Bill, so, again, I cannot quite understand why such a song and dance is being made.
Having trust in our electoral system is so vital to this country. All of us who are willing to stand up for those who have had their votes taken away stand in support of the Bill.
The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) appeared to accuse some Members on the Opposition Benches of having tin foil hats, but I have to say that that was a particularly shiny and reflective contribution.
The reality is that the Bill will create more problems than it seeks to solve. The short-term effect of voter identification will be to suppress turnout, particularly among people for whom it is already low. As others have said, the Government are effectively trying to stop what they consider to be the wrong kind of voters getting to the polls in the first place. What is someone supposed to do if they turn up on a wet Thursday night, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) said, and at quarter to 10, just before the polls close, they discover that they do not have their ID on them? They will effectively be disfranchised because they cannot go back and pick it up. The Electoral Reform Society estimates that at least 2.1 million people without photo ID will miss their chance to vote.
Let us consider what this Bill could have done. It could have introduced automatic voter registration. It could have expanded the franchise to match what is happening in the devolved nations, and it could, as others have said, have created room for experiments to make it easier to vote in different places and at different times from those that we are traditionally used to in this country. I also echo the concerns of the RNIB. I think that Ministers rightly want to ensure that there is support for everyone who has particular requirements when it comes to votes, but that can be a both/and; it does not have to be an either/or.
As my SNP colleagues have already said, this has to be seen in the wider context. The repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, even the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020—all those are laws that enhance the power of the Executive and reduce the ability of voters and legislatures to hold the Executive to account. The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which will be considered next week, means that only the Government—indeed, only the Prime Minister—will know the date of an election, and only the Government will know when the different regulated periods will actually kick in and people can campaign accordingly. That will make it very difficult for everyone else, irrespective of whether they are a political party or a third party, to understand how they are supposed to fit into those regulated periods. On top of that, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will give the Government increasing powers to shut down dissent and suppress opposition. As for the United Kingdom Internal Market Act, it is the greatest power grab since devolution. The UK Government are now routinely legislating at will, and with complete disregard for the consent or otherwise of the devolved Parliaments.
Let us compare and contrast that with what is happening in Scotland. The Scottish election in May was held on the widest and most diverse franchise ever enacted in these islands: 16 and 17-year-olds, European nationals and refugees with settled status were all acknowledged and welcomed into democratic participation. What this Bill will bring about is a UK Government elected on an increasingly narrow and difficult franchise, and devolved Governments elected on increasingly wide and more inclusive franchises. That will have consequences for the legitimacy and the mandates of those respective Governments. Today, this Government are breaking one of their key manifesto promises while trying to deny the Scottish National party and the Green party in Scotland the right to implement their manifesto pledge on an independence referendum.
There is a tradition in this House of Representation of the People Acts that have sought to widen the franchise and make it easier and fairer for more people in different parts of society to vote. What we are presented with today is a Misrepresentation of the People Bill—a Bill which, possibly for the first time since 1832, will seek to reduce the number of people eligible or able to vote, will suppress democratic participation, and will put up greater barriers to political engagement. European nationals—the Minister keeps asking about this—who could vote in local elections in England are now no longer able to do so, as a direct result of the Bill. That is a reduction of the franchise, and it is part of a wider Tory agenda to centralise and control, but what it will do is strengthen the mandate and the legitimacy of the devolved institutions—and that includes the mandate for a second independence referendum.
Let me directly address the comments just made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) by warmly welcoming the Government’s proposals in the Bill, particularly those aimed at finally enshrining in law the rights of certain EU citizens to vote in local elections in England and Northern Ireland, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales.
As Members will recall, I, along with some others, have long championed the rights of UK citizens living in the EU and EU citizens living here in the UK. Safeguarding those rights has been an essential promise in our leaving the EU. In the UK, there are millions of EU citizens who have made it their home, contributing to our economy, wellbeing and culture. Likewise, there are over a million British citizens contributing to the economic wellbeing of the EU countries that they now call home.
Following the motion on citizens’ rights that I put before the House in February 2019, the House reaffirmed its determination to protect the rights of citizens affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It was the only occasion, as far as I can recall, when the House was absolutely unanimous on a major Brexit issue. I am very proud of having helped to protect the rights of millions of innocent people.
This Bill builds upon those commitments by ensuring that EU citizens with settled status will continue to hold the franchise for local elections in England, elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and elections of police and crime commissioners in England and Wales. The Bill will provide EU citizens with the necessary protections and peace of mind by ensuring that their voices continue to be heard at local and regional levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
I very much praise my hon. Friend for the work he did on protecting the rights of EU citizens. I think the whole House was grateful to him for that. I support the view on reciprocity. Does he think that the UK Government should encourage other EU countries to enable British citizens who live there to vote?
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. That is exactly the ask that I have for Government Ministers this evening.
For EU citizens who may have arrived and settled after the implementation period’s completion—that is, from 1 January this year—I would like to welcome the additional steps this Government have taken in the form of bilateral arrangements with several EU member states, to which my hon. Friend has just alluded. Agreements are already in place with Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Poland. They mean that citizens of those nations who may have arrived after the transition period will also be afforded the right to vote in our local elections, and similarly, reciprocal arrangements will apply to British citizens resident in those countries. That goes beyond the obligations envisioned by the EU in the withdrawal agreement, and the Government are to be commended for their choice to enter into bilateral arrangements with those individual EU member state countries, ensuring that wherever possible we enhance the rights of UK citizens living in those countries as well as the citizens of those countries living here.
Not at the moment.
I understand that the Government are open to further such agreements with other EU member states, and that is a most welcome prospect. It would mean that their residents and British citizens could benefit from future voting arrangements. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Greece, I recently met the secretary-general of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Demiris, in Athens, and informed him of the UK Government’s offer to enter into bilateral agreements with EU states on the granting of mutual franchise rights in municipal elections, as envisioned in this Bill. I would welcome the Government writing to me to explain what measures they are taking to proactively encourage uptake of their offer to enter into such bilateral agreements.
I think the Minister is nodding to suggest that she will write to me on that matter.
But the Government have gone further still. EU nationals who do not fulfil the qualifying criteria set by the Bill—for instance, those who have come to the UK post the implementation period completion date of 1 January 2021 and do not hold settled status, but who were elected into a public role as defined by the Bill in schedule 7—have the protection afforded by the provision of part 4 to continue in office for the period of their elected term. Again, this is a sensible, welcome measure to protect the rights of those EU citizens. I will be supporting the Government’s Bill, and I very much look forward to seeing these important rights finally enshrined into law.
I want to take a few seconds to place on record my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) on her excellent maiden speech. I am sure it is a matter of easy consensus in the House that Lib Dem maiden speeches are all too rare these days, and I thought my hon. Friend’s speech was exceptionally fine. As a former Chief Whip for my party, I was delighted to hear her declare her intention to prosecute her constituents’ case with an independence of mind to match that of the late Cheryl Gillan.
“If I am ever asked, on the streets of London, or in any other venue, public or private, to produce my ID card as evidence that I am who I say I am…then I will take that card out of my wallet and physically eat it in the presence of whatever emanation of the state has demanded that I produce it.”
Those are not my words, but the words of the Prime Minister. I think we should watch the Division lists this evening with some interest. I have no doubt that he will perform that feat of gastronomic improbability while lying in front of a bulldozer to stop the creation of a third runway at Heathrow.
The difficulty that the Government face in introducing the Bill is that their proposals for voter identification seek to produce a solution for which there is no obvious problem. That is not to say that voter personation does not happen. We have heard instances of it described today, and indeed we knew for many years that it was a substantial and real problem in Northern Ireland. That is why, having identified the problem, it was right for the then Government to act to end it. But to justify the measures in this Bill, the Government should first have provided evidence to show there is a problem, and they have singularly failed to do so.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) said the Bill would have benefited from prelegislative scrutiny, and he is absolutely right. The cost-benefit analysis is to be seen in the pilot that the Government carried out in 2019 when, of the 2,000 people who were turned away from polling stations, 700 did not return, which should give us serious pause before we go down this road.
If the Treasury Bench, having missed the opportunity for prelegislative scrutiny, are able to get this Bill, in its current form, through both Houses—I anticipate that will be a bigger ask in the other place—they should undertake a programme of post-legislative scrutiny to ensure that the promises they make tonight are honoured in the execution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) told me that she appears on the electoral register as Christine Jardine, but her passport shows her married name. That is by no means unusual, as in Scotland one’s name is the name by which one chooses to be known. That sort of thing could have been teased out by prelegislative scrutiny, but it is now too late.
There are many other issues about which I am concerned but, unfortunately, time is against me. I will vote against the Bill tonight.
The first time I went to a polling booth, I brought some ID with me. I assumed that surely I would need to prove who I am, so I was stunned when I was told, “Actually, no, you don’t need to show any ID.” I remember little 18-year-old me thinking that democracy is our most valuable asset, yet anyone can vote in someone else’s name without anybody checking.
It is often said that justice not only needs to be done but needs to be seen to be done, and the same could be said of democracy. Democracy not only needs to be fair; it needs to be seen to be fair. We have to accept that we have a problem in this country. At the last election, a constituent came to me after he went to vote but found that somebody had already voted in his name. There was nothing he could do. His vote was stolen. Would Opposition Members say to him, “Well, actually, the Government should not do anything to stop your vote being stolen in future”?
It is often said, and many Opposition Members have been saying it, that the rate of voter fraud in the UK is very low, but how would we know? By definition, it is a hidden crime. Reported cases are low, but we do not know the actual rate. The truth is that, without safeguards, bad practice drives out good practice, or it can do. Like MPs’ expenses or phone hacking by journalists, if people do bad things and others see them get away with it unpunished, those people will think they can also do it.
I worked for the Prime Minister when he was Mayor of London. I was not as directly involved in Tower Hamlets as some of my hon. Friends, but I knew many of the politicians. The electoral fraud happening there was an open secret for years, totally undermining local democracy. I wondered why nothing was done about it, and I was very frustrated.
Absolutely. Peter Golds is one of the politicians I talked to at the time, and he has done excellent work in trying to restore trust in democracy in Tower Hamlets. Ridiculously, it was not until 2014 that the courts annulled the election; we should never have been able to get into that situation. There are endless stories in the media about voter fraud. Confidence in the integrity of democracy is being eroded, and there is a clear solution. The Electoral Commission said, after its research, that two thirds of voters say they would have more confidence in the security of the voting system if there was a requirement to show voter ID. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) has said, the OSCE, which normally bothers itself about the emerging democracies in eastern Europe, said after the 2010 UK elections that
“serious consideration should be given to introducing a more robust mechanism for identification of voters.”
I agree with that.
I also agree with Opposition Members that this must not lead to the disenfranchisement of voters. However, as we have heard, 99% of voters already have a photo ID of some sort and those who do not can get free photo ID from their local council. Labour introduced voter ID in Northern Ireland in 2003 and there is no evidence of disenfranchisement there. As I mentioned, many of the leading and most respected democracies in the world have already got voter ID—Norway, Sweden, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria have it. We are in many ways an outlier in Europe. Voters are losing confidence in democracy in Britain and we have a duty to ensure that democracy is both fair and seen to be fair. We must introduce voter ID, and I commend this Bill to the House.
I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am pleased to be called to speak in the debate on this Bill as it directly threatens the functioning of our democracy. On 13 July, I held a Westminster Hall debate on the Government’s voter ID proposals, when I made the point that voting is safe and secure in Britain. The introduction of photographic voter ID will only work to reverse decades of democratic progress in the UK. As we have heard, according to academic research 99% of election staff do not think that fraud has occurred in their polling stations and 88% of the public say that they think our polling stations are safe. So this Bill offers a solution without a problem. There was just one conviction for personation out of more than 59 million votes cast in 2019.
The Electoral Reform Society has said that in the US and the UK the richer someone is, the more likely they are to have photo ID, and that gets to the nub of the issue. It does not matter how the Conservative party tries to dress it up, these plans will make it harder for working class, older, black, Asian and ethnic minority people to vote, and for those who are unemployed or disabled to do so. According to the Cabinet Office’s figures, this move is going to cost the taxpayer £120 million over 10 years.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has warned the Government that photographic voter ID will disproportionately impact voters with protected characteristics, and if voters are disenfranchised, it would violate article 1, protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights, which was incorporated into domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998. The Windrush scandal showed how some communities struggle to provide official documentation, and we have seen the severe consequences of that. Some 3.5 million citizens do not have access to any form of photo ID, and the Government’s solution of free voter ID also does not stand up to scrutiny, because their own research found that 42% of those without ID would not apply for a voter ID card. The Association of Electoral Administrators has raised serious concerns about the huge administrative burden that will be placed on already overstretched local authorities. So can the Minister confirm that the plan is to make councils such as my local Luton Borough Council, which has had more than £150 million stripped from its budget in the past 11 years, deliver and enforce photo ID cards, alongside the added burden of registering millions of new overseas electors, and on top of boundary changes? The proposed plan is not credible and it is out of touch with reality.
In my concluding remarks, I very much wish to echo the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) about our opposition to the Bill’s attack on free and fair campaigning by non-party activists such as trade unions and charities in respect of campaigning for or working with political parties to a joint goal. This legislation erodes our democracy and takes votes and power away from working people, and I will be opposing it.
I can do no better than repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) said about voter ID, which has been explored a lot today. I should add that I have heard many odd conspiracy theories from the Opposition in this debate, not least from the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), who said that Vote Leave was a branch of the Government. I think David Cameron and George Osborne might take issue with that.
In the brief time I have, I want to focus on the parts of the Bill that deal with online campaigning, digital media and digital imprints. Probably one of the most dangerous and pervasive abuses in our political system has come through the growth of social media. I am lucky: I am a man—I do not get the horrific abuse that women get when they stand in politics. Men can have sympathy with that but not empathy, because I have never been told that I am going to be raped and murdered, that my children are going to be killed or anything like that, but women experience that on social media on a daily basis. The provisions in the Bill to crack down on the intimidation of candidates and people who put themselves forward for public services are extremely welcome.
There is an important point to be made about faith in democracy. Lots of people have mentioned the American election, and I also want to do so. What happened on 6 January was an utter disgrace, and everybody who values democracy believes that, but it was mainly amplified to that public by social media and the outputs that stirred it up. We cannot stop that, but when there are other campaigns with conspiracy theories underneath, we can demand that there be an imprint on social media content to say where it has come from.
In general election campaigns, conspiracy theories are pushed that seek directly to undermine the validity of democratic arguments. We in this Chamber may have huge disagreements, but we all know that we cannot have a democracy unless we disagree with each other, and there should be an honest debate about that among us. If stuff is being published and we do not know where it comes from, we have to question its validity. Equally, if we say that it is from the Conservative party, the public will view it as a message from the Conservative party and certain things will be built in in respect of how people interpret and view that.
The steps in the Bill that cover the development of electronic media over the past couple of decades are an important, modern way to address an issue that so far has not been addressed. As an overall package of measures, the Bill has my full support.
Much of the opposition to the Bill has been focused on concerns about voter ID, but there are broader concerns that I wish to address.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has produced a detailed report of the human rights implications of voter ID, and I commend it and our recommendations to the House. I believe in evidence-based policy making, and from the evidence the Committee heard we concluded that the voter ID measures risk making voting less accessible to some people and will have a discriminatory impact on some voters with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, including the disabled, certain ethnic minorities and Gypsy and Traveller communities.
We on the Committee want the Government to explain why they have concluded that a voter ID requirement is necessary and proportionate, given the very low number of reported cases of fraud at polling stations; the even lower number of convictions and cautions; the potential for the requirement to discriminate against voters with protected characteristics; and the lack of any clear measures to combat potential discrimination faced by those groups, including disabled people and older people. I hope that I might hear from the Minister the answers to those question, which were posed by a cross-party Committee of MPs and peers.
Many Members ask why the Government are focusing on voter ID, given the lack of evidence that it is a significant problem. I wonder whether perhaps it is in the Bill to distract us not just from what else is in the Bill that should not be there but from what is missing. Part 4 seeks further to regulate third-party campaigning in elections, but an opportunity to comprehensively update our rules on transparency in political finance has been missed. As other Members have said, the lack of transparency in respect of donations from unincorporated associations is a particular concern.
Indeed, I do, but I do not think that the Government want to grasp that thorn. We already know that some Tory and Unionist associations in Scotland are doing rather well out of dark money from such sources.
It is part 3 that contains perhaps the most egregious aspect of the Bill. The Government seek to take to themselves the power to prepare a strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission. I know that the Bill also says that Parliament must approve that strategy, but, with the Tory majority on the Government Benches, it is unlikely to be more than a rubber-stamping exercise.
The Speaker’s Committee is the primary mechanism through which the Electoral Commission is accountable to Parliament. It will have the job both of evaluating the commission’s performance against the statement to be produced by the Government and of holding the commission accountable. However, as I understand it, for the first time ever, the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission is now composed of a majority of MPs from the governing party. Accordingly, the independence of the commission and its accountability to Parliament—not to the Government, but to Parliament —is under real threat from part 3 of this Bill. This Bill is not the way to enhance the independence and role of our democracy watchdog. Part 3 needs radical amendment in line with the recommendations by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, including powers to obtain information and an increase in the maximum fine for wrongdoing.
Before I sit down, I will renew the request that I made to the Minister during my intervention. It is very good to see her back in her place, but I would like her to answer this question: how many of the 47 recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life are the Government prepared to accept and bring into this Bill by way of Government amendment? I would be grateful if she could answer that question in her summing-up.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) with whom I have campaigned for many days and hours in Tower Hamlets. My first experience of Tower Hamlets elections was the infamous 2014 election, which was later declared void. As a polling agent at Three Mills Primary School in the Isle of Dogs, I watched from afar as voters ran a gauntlet of activists brandishing leaflets. The activists were very aggressive to voters, especially women, as they entered the polling station. When I went in to speak to the police officer about it, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Tower Hamlets, innit.”
What I saw at Three Mills Primary School was not the worst. The Mawrey judgment quotes a Labour polling agent who said that she was with her husband in the car and people were banging on the windows with leaflets. She said:
“The situation was so bad that I thought there was going to be some sort of accident. I could not even open a door and we had to go down another road.”
An election was stolen in Tower Hamlets, but despite all the intimidation, it did not actually cross the threshold of an electoral offence, so I am glad that that aspect is being tightened up. There has been a constant refrain today that fraud is rare, but it is like a curate’s egg; if it is bad in parts it affects the whole, and it has been partially bad in Tower Hamlets, Slough, Birmingham and elsewhere. I welcome both the reform to handling proxy votes and postal votes and the introduction of voter ID. As Mawrey identified in his judgment, there was at that election in Tower Hamlets an appreciable amount of impersonation by false registration.
I would like to focus the limited time that I have on the police, because there has been constant talk about the fact that there is no evidence of electoral fraud. Well, there will be no evidence if the police do not investigate it. Before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee this morning, Peter O’Doherty of Thames Valley police said that the situation was much improved. I did not embarrass him by saying that he was starting from a very low base. Mawrey, in his judgment on conduct at polling stations, said:
“In the light of the two other groups of statements, an unkind person might remark that the policemen and polling staff had appeared to take as their rôle models the legendary Three Wise Monkeys.”
There has been a whole catalogue of allegations, and I do not have time to go through them this afternoon. Many of the allegations that have arisen from the Rahman trial have not been investigated by the Metropolitan police. I think that there is scope—I appreciate that it is outside the scope of this Bill—for complex electoral fraud to be taken out of the hands of the police and possibly placed with a specialist unit.
I will give my right hon. Friend one example, of which there are many. In the Mawrey judgment of 2014, Kabir Ahmed was found to have used a false address to register a vote, but no further action was taken. Having had no action taken against him, he was elected as the Aspire candidate in the Weavers ward by-election in Tower Hamlets last month. There are people who are getting away with it, and people will continue to get away with it if no action is taken.
I support the Bill but there needs to be a culture change, with the development of specialist officers, perhaps from a different agency within the police, other than a county force. I welcome these measures, but they are just a start. If we are going to increase the number of convictions for electoral fraud, we need to ensure that we have the systems in place properly to investigate these cases, and then we will have numbers to show how widespread the problem can be.
As you may know, Mr Deputy Speaker, Aneurin Bevan famously said that in the struggle between property and poverty, as poverty grows, property will attack democracy. That is what we see today. We need to answer the question: cui bono? Who benefits? We know that 3 million people do not carry photo ID and that 40% will turn away from voting if they forget their ID, which people often do. Something like 30% of people do not vote in general elections anyway, and our focus should be to increase the franchise, not decrease it.
Poverty is spiralling upwards. Universal credit is going to be cut, and 7 million people in Britain are in hunger and poverty. We know that the plan is to tax jobs with national insurance, rather than a progressive tax. This Bill is designed to ensure that those who are hit hardest—the poorest—will find it more difficult to vote. I very much support evidence-based policy, but this is not evidence-based; it is looking for the evidence. To tighten up on personation, we could just get the police to do more checks within the existing law.
These provisions are part of a pattern of consolidating power and preventing democracy from turning the Government over to another political party. We have seen it in the banning of the right to peaceful protest; with the up and coming review of judicial power; with the boundary changes, the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and even the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. All those things consolidate power and do not support the fundamental values that all parties should support: justice in the rule of law, democracy and human rights. We see the restriction on what charities and communities can say, while we allow overseas donors more influence in our politics. We see the Electoral Commission politicised. We saw the rhetoric of the Trump supporters, who said, “Stop the steal”, alleged personation and stormed the White House. We are supporting that sort of thinking, which is without basis.
This Bill is a missed opportunity. As has been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) and others, in Wales we are moving forward with democracy, including through 16-year-olds having the vote and proportional representation options in local government. Our focus should be to enhance, renew and embolden our democracy, our human rights and the rule of law, but I fear that this Bill is part of a pattern to diminish them, and that over time we will all regret this fundamental mistake.
Even before I was elected to be MP for Keighley, it was clear that the framework in which elections took place left the door wide open to electoral fraud. In fact, my constituency is deemed to be at high risk of such fraud, with one in five reports of electoral fraud coming from the West Yorkshire area. These includes cases of bribery, false statements and exerting undue influence on voters.
The key reason for the problem is the national postal vote system. Changes to the system are required. The Bill shows encouraging signs, shortening the time in which someone may register to vote by post, prohibiting political campaigners from handling postal votes and limiting the number of electors on whose behalf someone may hand in a postal vote. All those measures will help, but I fear that we could do more to protect the postal vote system. That is why I politely ask the Government to explain how the changes to postal voting will help to stop electoral fraud in its entirety. What reassurances can the Government give that merely shortening the amount of time that someone can have a postal vote before simply renewing it will stop such a postal vote being misused in that shortened period? Equally, how will prohibiting political campaigners from handling postal votes in public stop what we all know goes on behind closed doors?
In Keighley there are known situations with the head of the household guaranteeing multiple postal votes to candidates, postal vote harvesting, false registration, undue pressure being put on individuals to pass across their postal vote, and multiple individuals being registered to a single household when it is known that they are not all residing there in their full capacity. In Keighley we have known about these issues for far too long.
I hope that the Bill, as it progresses, will help to address some of these issues, but I would like the Government to go further to address some of the others. For example, why not have postal votes apply only for specific reasons such as for those who are sick or elderly or those who can demonstrate that they have to be away from home for specific reasons? More debate is worthy on that. Likewise, the right to automatic renewal for a postal vote should be reviewed, and when a reapplication is made for a postal vote, proof of identity must be given.
Our elections are precious. What I want to see in Keighley and beyond must be shown to work and must be done to improve our electoral system, particularly for postal voting.
I have two caveats and two anecdotes. First, all legislation requires to be taken in the round and in the general context that Members have mentioned, and that is why I am concerned about this Bill as a whole as opposed to just specific aspects. Secondly, it is a privilege to be an elected Member, and we have a duty to nourish and cherish democracy. In that respect, this Bill fails because it challenges democracy.
Of my two anecdotes, one describes what needs to be done to support the democratic aspects that we should all welcome as elected Members, and the second is a warning about the apparent direction of travel. First, I commend to the Minister, and anybody else in the House, “Civic Literacy” by Professor Henry Milner, formerly of Laval and of Oulu in Finland, whose book explains what works about why people vote. He correlated and contrasted why countries such as Belgium and Australia, where it is a criminal offence not to vote, have a lower turnout than in Scandinavian countries where it is not. He explains the aspects that matter. Much of it is not about legislation. It is perhaps very laissez-faire, but in a much wider context. It is about public sector broadcasting, which is why comments made about Channel 4 are important. It is about a quality press. It is about civic education in schools. These aspects are important and that is the direction of travel we should be pursuing.
The hon. Member is explaining some very noble values about the democratic process, all of which I agree with, but can he explain why in his current party, Alba, and in his previous role as a Scottish Government Minister in the SNP Government, he denied hundreds of thousands of Scottish women and men the right to have a vote in the Scottish independence referendum, which was about breaking up the very nation that they came from? Can he please explain why there was a democratic deficit there?
That is a past debate, and the people of Scotland will decide the future in a referendum in due course.
Let me deal with the warning. It comes not from the OSCE, which has been mentioned, but from the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. I remember a friend of mine who worked for it sending me a CD of what had happened in the Soviet Union as it was about to collapse and before the Commonwealth of Independent States—the Russian Republic—was formed. The Heritage Foundation moved in, giving lectures to people who became oligarchs—governors of huge tracts of land probably larger than the United Kingdom. They were taught two things about democracy. The first was, “Don’t bother about turnout, because the lower the turnout, the higher the leverage for you.” That was teaching people about democracy—those who had not had it since the Russian revolution. That is the direction of travel. Secondly, it was about demonising minorities. When we look at Putin’s Russia, we see voter suppression and indeed demonisation of those from the Caucasus or elsewhere.
That is the threat that we face. We have to take actions as a legislature that encourage people to participate, not take steps that discourage people from participating. That is about electoral politics, and it is what we should be doing.
I cannot remember who it was, but someone made comparisons with the southern states of the United States and what we are sadly seeing replicated not just in the Jim Crow states but in other states. The direction of travel is not perhaps yet south of the Mason-Dixon line, but the direction being pursued by this Government with this piece of legislation and with wider aspects is most definitely the type of thing that we used to think was left in the history books. Those things come from the Mason-Dixon line and were fundamentally about disenfranchising people whom those in power did not wish to vote, because they knew that the ability of the wider electorate to participate would threaten their power. It is for that reason that I oppose this Bill.
As many colleagues have said, confidence in our electoral system and the ballot is crucial. Members may not be aware, but we experienced a very troubling incident in 2017 in Newcastle-under-Lyme. It was a case of incompetence, rather than fraud. In the general election of 2017—I was not a candidate then—approximately a thousand people in Newcastle-under-Lyme were disenfranchised. Approximately 500 students who tried to register when the snap election was called were not registered in time, and approximately 500 people who sought postal votes because they were going to be on holiday did not get their postal votes. This was incompetence, not fraud, but an investigation was carried out. It did not go to an election court.
The Association of Electoral Administrators produced a report on the failings of the council at the time, and the strength of feeling among the voters who missed out on their votes was very strong. One constituent of mine, who applied for a postal vote and did not receive it, wrote a letter to the chief executive of the council:
“For me a vote is not merely a mark on a paper; it symbolises my inalienable right to choose who shall govern me and set the tenor of my life for the next five years. This right and privilege has been won for us over many generations by brave and dedicated men and women and is a precious gift. That I have been robbed of it by some administrative incompetence is an insult to their legacy and a grave disservice to me.”
That is how he felt about being robbed by incompetence, but we have heard today of many cases where people have been robbed of their votes by fraud.
We have heard anecdotal evidence from individual Members. My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) gave us a case, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) described very troubling cases. We have heard Government Members who directly experienced what happened in Tower Hamlets in 2014, including my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Tom Randall) and for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher). People had their votes stolen. We all want people to vote—I completely subscribe to what my constituent said—but we want them to vote once, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said—and the Bill will ensure that happens. It will make sure that people cast their votes once and once only, and not under the duress that we have seen far too often.
I do not have time to go over some of the other cases, such as the Slough case or the Birmingham case, which was described as “a banana republic”. The judge in the Slough case at the election court in March 2008 noted:
“Recent legislation has addressed and largely solved the problem in Northern Ireland but there has been a flat refusal to introduce similar measures in mainland Britain.”
Finally, over 13 years later, we are introducing those measures that were called for under a Labour Government way back in 2008. I welcome what the Minister said in her speech.
People need ID to collect a parcel, to use a concessionary bus pass and even to attend Labour party meetings, as others have said. People need ID to vote in Northern Ireland—legislation introduced by Labour. As for the issue of why people should be disenfranchised by not having ID, we have addressed that point in the Bill—there will be free ID for everybody. We will make sure that people know how to access that ID.
I do not have time to go into the other elements of the Bill that I support. I hope to be able to engage with the Minister as the Bill progresses through Committee and on Report. I wholeheartedly support this legislation.
My constituency regrettably has seen proven electoral fraud. Local politicians have gone to prison for electoral offences. It continues to have wards with postal vote rates that are way in excess of the national average, and local concerns about personation were sufficiently serious that my council had to install CCTV cameras at polling stations on the day I was elected.
One of the worst arguments—we have heard it regularly today—against voter ID at polling stations is the claim that there is no evidence of a problem. We have a system that largely operates on trust, making it almost impossible to detect acts such as personation, yet critics of this Bill take this failure to detect an undetectable crime as proof that it does not exist. Quoting statistics is pointless. Any of us can have a guess at its prevalence, but, having spoken directly to people who were denied a ballot paper because they were marked as having already voted when they had not, I take my own view.
Opposition Members may say that there is not a problem, but leaving our electoral system wide open to abuse is a problem in itself. That is what their argument misses completely. When most members of the public realise how unchecked and uncheckable our system is, they are shocked. That applies doubly to new arrivals in our country who have often seen electoral malpractice for themselves in other parts of the world, where elections are far from clean. It was notable that during the Government’s photo ID trials, confidence in our electoral system increased most among ethnic minority voters. They are at the most risk of having their votes stolen and are most grateful for safeguards to protect them.
I turn quickly to postal votes. Irregularities are easier to spot, but they can also occur at much greater scale. In 2008, three Peterborough Labour candidates were convicted of electoral fraud offences. They were diverting postal ballots to addresses that they could access, collecting them and fabricating votes. The main protagonist received a 15-month sentence. That was postal vote harvesting with a capital H, but other forms have not been addressed. Still now, every time we have an election, those same activists are seen and photographed leading postal vote teams and pictured telling at polling stations. They have even turned up to recent elections. At my count in 2019, the same people were there.
This is an issue in Peterborough and we cannot bury our heads in the sand. For that reason, this is a long-awaited Bill that will clean up democracy and restore faith in the electoral system in my city.
Last week, my daughter turned 18. It was a day of enormous pride for her and for us. I would like to say that she was proud because she was adopting her civil responsibilities in full, but actually it was because she could buy alcohol. She celebrated the fact by getting on her bicycle with a friend and bicycling off to the local village shop. She was asked to present ID, and she was delighted to do it as part of the rite of passage of attaining adulthood. The point of that story is that we require ID when the act being undertaken is either important, such as collecting parcels or learning to drive a car, or personally damaging, such as buying alcohol or cigarettes or—it is a cheap joke—attending Labour party conferences.
In my view, the right to vote is as important as collecting a parcel, and the theft of a person’s right to vote is every bit as damaging to society as the 17-year-old buying a pint. It is a key right of citizenship, and it provides the basis of all our political power in this place and around the country. I think it extraordinary that up until now this right has not been protected in any way other than being asked to give a name.
ID protection is long overdue to maintain public confidence in the system. We have heard evidence from hon. Members that two thirds of the population would have their confidence in the fairness of voting increased with photo ID, and research on the 2019 voter ID pilot found that, among ethnic minorities, a staggering 97% of respondents said that they had increased confidence in elections being free from fraud and abuse when photo ID was used. This is really important stuff. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Tom Randall) and for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) that this is not the PR stunt that Opposition Members suggest; it is real. The risk of electoral fraud does exist and needs to be tackled. We have heard the evidence from Tower Hamlets and Birmingham that shows how ethnic minorities in particular are targeted and how their rights have been infringed more than any other section of our community’s. They deserve better, and that is why the Government are standing up for them.
The Opposition say that there is no hard evidence of fraud. That is reminiscent of the response of the Labour Government back in the day when they were faced with the evidence of organised electoral fraud by sitting Labour councillors in Bordesley Green and Aston. The election judge said that
“there is likely to be no evidence of fraud, if you do not look for it. Especially if a policy decision is made not to look for it.”
He described Labour’s position as
“a state not simply of complacency but of denial.”
We have heard the same denial today.
I am glad that the Government are not complacent on electoral fraud and, unlike Labour, not in denial. Photo ID is the right step to take to look for fraud. I fully support the Bill.
It is a pleasure to close this debate on behalf of the Opposition, and I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare), for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) for their contributions. I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) on her excellent maiden speech, really bringing her constituency to us—I feel that we lived part of her beautiful constituency—and I am sure she will be standing up for her constituents in the years ahead.
Labour will be voting against this legislation today. My colleagues on the Labour Benches behind me have laid out in clear terms the dangerous consequences of this legislation. This legislation is unnecessary and expensive, costing £120 million over the next 10 years—at least. It will have a chilling effect on democracy and it is an attack on free and fair campaigning. This legislation will see legitimate voters turned away from polling stations and local councils tied up in mountains of red tape and expense. It is a shameless attempt by the Government to rewrite the rules and rig democracy in favour of the Conservative party.
If passed, this legislation will reverse decades of democratic progress in the UK. The Government have not been honest with us here today or with the British public about the true intention of this Elections Bill. It has been presented as a quick-fix solution to polish up our democracy and introduce integrity into our system, but the truth is that our democracy does not have an issue with integrity; it is the Conservative Government who have the issue with integrity.
This Bill will disenfranchise millions of voters, and we all know that the Tories do better in elections the lower the turnout. It is time to be honest about what this Bill will mean in practice. This Bill will make it harder for working-class people, older people and people with disabilities, as well as black, Asian and minority ethnic people and people with learning disabilities to vote. If Government Members do not agree, will the Minister commit to an equalities impact assessment to work out whether this will be true? There are concerns from so many groups representing those people saying that it will disenfranchise those groups of people.
The voter ID proposals are simply not proportionate to the risk of voter fraud. The Electoral Commission’s own advice, following the pilot schemes in 2018 and 2019, is that
“we are not able to draw definitive conclusions, from these pilots, about how an ID requirement would work in practice”—