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Integrity of the Voting Process

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2022

I will call Paul Bristow to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up—that is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the integrity of the voting process.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I start by paying tribute to Lord Hayward, who has introduced the Ballot Secrecy Bill in the other place. It is a crucial piece of legislation, and my remarks will focus on the contents of the Bill and the intent behind it.

Few things are more important than exercising our democratic right by voting. The integrity of our elections can sometimes be threatened. Two main problems have been identified in the UK: voter fraud and forced family voting. There is an attempt to tackle voting fraud through the introduction of voter ID. That is controversial; some will think that it is the right thing to do, while others will not. Personally, I think it is absolutely right to put protections in place to tackle any type of voter fraud at polling stations.

The Ballot Secrecy Bill seeks to tackle the issue of family voting, which is when two or more people attempt to vote together in a polling booth, affecting, directing or overseeing the votes of another person in an attempt to influence their decision. The term “family voting” sounds like a friendly thing; it sounds uncontroversial, but that is not the case at all. Quite often, family voting involves malign influence or an attempt to influence someone who perhaps does not have English as a first language or who is inherently vulnerable. That cannot be right; it fundamentally goes against everything we believe in about the secrecy of the ballot.

Families often fight. To give the example of my own wife and me, I would not say we fought significantly, but we certainly had a few cross discussions about whether Britain should leave the European Union. I was very much of the opinion that Britain should leave; she took the alternative view—at least I am led to believe that she cast a vote for the alternative view. I am also led to believe that she now supports how I vote—certainly, she supports her local Member of Parliament when there is an election. But that is entirely up to her to determine; it is certainly not for me to do so.

Politics is sometimes a controversial thing, and families will fight and argue when it comes to the right way forward. That is their right. It is absolutely wrong for another person at or near a polling booth to attempt to influence someone voting. That is absolutely the wrong thing to do. The police need more powers to deal with that and tackle the issue of family voting. The chance of imprisonment or a fine will deter perpetrators from doing that. That is what the Bill is all about.

It is not just me talking about family voting. There are organisations that talk about it. Notably, the United Nations development programme describes family voting as

“the situation in which the heads of family (often extended family and often male heads of family) influence other family members in how they cast a vote… Family voting can be a serious violation, especially when it is malicious, i.e., when it is carried out with the intent of influencing or removing the freedom of choice of a voter. In these cases, family voting violates the central principle of voter secrecy.”

It goes on to say:

“Family voting often stops women from casting a vote of their own choice. In many situations, while the woman physically casts her own vote, she is under a strong cultural expectation to obey her husband or father and vote for the candidate or party that she has been instructed to vote for. The influence may extend to accompanying the female family members to the voting centre in order to oversee the casting of the vote”.

That cannot happen in the United Kingdom in 2022, but it obviously is happening and I will go on to set out evidence that suggests that.

The Bill is intended to ensure that police, electoral staff and others have powers to address this issue. It is vital that voters can cast their vote in secret. Once at the polling station, nobody should be able to influence who a voter votes for or whether they vote at all, and nobody should know how a voter has cast their vote.

This is not a party political matter. As I understand it, the Ballot Secrecy Bill was supported by all parties represented in the House of Lords, and support was not divided according to political party. A new clause was tabled by Baroness Scott of Bybrook to cover behaviour intended to influence a vote either in or near a polling booth, which was supported by parties of all colours in the other place.

The secrecy of the ballot is, and must remain, a priority for presiding officers. It is their responsibility to maintain order at polling stations and to make sure everyone has the right to vote freely and without intimidation. I pay tribute to all those who work in that capacity, including presiding officers and all those who monitor elections, not just in Peterborough but across the country. They are professionals and often have to do their jobs in difficult circumstances.

Peterborough has had challenges with electoral malpractice in the past. A great deal of effort has been invested by Peterborough City Council and those responsible to clear those issues up. My experience in Peterborough, when we talk to people about family voting and the idea of casting votes in secrecy, shows that there is a grey area in the law. Activists do not know what they should be encouraging or what the law looks like, and nor do the police—who sometimes seem reluctant, or do not know how, to react to allegations of electoral malpractice—presiding officers, polling agents and other staff. This is a grey area, and perhaps the lack of clarity on what power the police have is one reason why family voting is so widespread. Hopefully, the Bill will address that.

We need to empower presiding officers to deal with suspected offences, and we need to involve the police where necessary. We need a system where voters are accompanied only by appointed companions, acting in accordance with rule 39 of the parliamentary election rules and the equivalent rules for other elections, or by children under the supervision of the voter, and not by someone who may intend to influence the voter’s voting intention or infringe their right to vote in secret.

There are times when it is right for a voter to be accompanied by another person. For example, people would not be punished if they were in a polling booth to assist a grandparent, but only if they intend to influence a voter. There must be an intent to influence someone, eliminating the potential for prosecuting the intended victim. In certain circumstances—for example, when a voter is disabled or unable to read—an eligible companion or the presiding officer can assist them. That will give reassurance that such assistance is still possible where necessary. The Bill and my comments here today do not seek to stop such a practice. The Bill also means that children can still attend a polling station with their parents, and it does not prevent people from coming into a polling station if they have a young child with them.

Where is the evidence to suggest that such practices are a problem in the United Kingdom in 2022? I would like to draw attention to a report by the Democracy Volunteers, a non-governmental organisation that specialises in electoral reform, on the May 2022 elections, which outlines just how widespread family voting is. Some of the report’s findings were concerning, especially the claim that staff in polling stations were reluctant to intervene when they saw family voting. This is not a criticism of polling station staff, as this is a grey area, as I pointed out, but that is exactly why legislation is needed: to make sure there is clarity, and that everybody understands their responsibilities.

In the report, 1,723 polling stations were observed across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The observations lasted between 30 and 60 minutes. At 25% of those polling stations, family voting was witnessed. It is important to note that I am not talking about 25% of all ballots in those polling stations, but in 25% of the polling stations at least one example of family voting was witnessed by those observers. The problem is not exclusive to any one area, and affects all parts of the United Kingdom, as can be seen when we break the figures down further; it was observed in 21% of polling stations in England, 42% in Northern Ireland, 19% in Scotland and 34% in Wales.

Perhaps I could offer an explanation for the figure for Northern Ireland, which is double that for England. We have two systems of voting in Northern Ireland. For Westminster elections, it is a straight x vote—a voter nominates one person. For the council elections and Northern Ireland Assembly elections, the voting system is proportional representation. A voter marks the candidates 1,2,3,4,5, up to 9, or whatever it might be. That is confusing for many people. I understand from the spoilt votes that are cast in my constituency and others that there is some confusion among people; they mix up the two systems. There is also perhaps the pressure that they feel to get in, and as a result of the queue of people after them and so on. I think that is in part an explanation of why the Northern Ireland figure is so high.

Absolutely; the hon. Member makes a very powerful point. The argument he makes is for simpler voting systems. Often, PR systems, which we see in other parts of the United Kingdom, are complicated, not straightforward. There is not a binary choice in who to vote for. That might in some way explain the higher figure in Northern Ireland.

The report also states, worryingly, that in more than 70% of the cases of family voting that were observed, the voters were women. Those figures are astounding and shocking. On equality grounds alone, we need to stamp this practice out. Women and polling station staff are being intimidated. It is an ugly practice, and we have to get a grip on it in the United Kingdom in 2022.

Democracy Volunteers also reported on the 2022 English mayoral elections, where family voting was witnessed in Croydon, at 35% of 63 ballot boxes; Hackney, at 26% of 50 ballot boxes; Lewisham, at 35% of 57 ballot boxes; Newham, at 36% of 50 ballot boxes; South Yorkshire, at 13% of 24 ballot boxes; Tower Hamlets, at 32% of 96 ballot boxes; and Watford, at 14% of 42 ballot boxes. This is a serious problem, and widespread activities of this nature across different parts of London, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland prove that.

I draw attention to the report by Democracy Volunteers on the 2019 parliamentary by-election in my constituency, Peterborough, in which I came a majestic third. The report states:

“Family voting was not simply localised to a couple of polling stations, it was identified across the constituency and ‘family voting’ should be challenged in whatever circumstances it occurs. Our observer team saw ‘family voting’ in 48% of the polling stations attended”.

That means that at almost half of all polling stations in Peterborough, family voting occurred in that 2019 by-election. That is appalling. The behaviour of those people, who clearly have no respect for the secrecy of the ballot, is wholly inappropriate, and is becoming a rising threat to British democracy.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, which I back wholeheartedly. In Keighley, voters are going to the ballot box intimidated, and encounter threatening behaviour on their way into the polling station. Complaints have been made to polling staff and the police. As for where the balance of power lies, the issue of whether people are empowered to take action is a grey area, as he outlined. Although he is clearly referring to families, does he agree that the issue extends to intimidating behaviour among friends and in wider community networks? We have to get on top of that, and I support him wholeheartedly.

My hon. Friend makes a characteristically powerful point. He has been a champion in this area; he, like me, campaigns for the integrity of elections and ballots. I completely agree that the intimidation of individuals, whether by someone in the family or in the wider community, while they are making a private judgment about who they feel will best represent them needs to stop. He has my full support on any measures—perhaps we can introduce them together—to strengthen the law in this area.

We need to create a level playing field. The Government have committed to that already through the Elections Act 2022, which I strongly applaud. Voter identification will prevent voter fraud and tackle intimidation, while increasing transparency and preventing interference in our elections. I completely and utterly support that. The Bill tabled by the noble Lord Hayward would continue that work. I hope that the Minister recognises the importance of that work, and of what I have said today. We have a responsibility to uphold our values and traditions. Secret voting was introduced by the Ballot Act 1872, and the fact that it is still a problem in 2022 is wholly wrong; 150 years later, that is unacceptable. I hope we will do something about it soon.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) for instigating the debate, and for the strong argument that he has made for change in this area, particularly given the enduring concerns expressed by Democracy Volunteers and others over a long period throughout the country. He is absolutely right that the key principle for the Government in their approach to elections is to ensure the integrity of the ballot box and the system, and to ensure that it works for everyone. We are committed to doing that in any way we can. He highlighted a number of broader points, which I will come on to.

Before I speak about the Ballot Secrecy Bill, which is before the House of Commons at the moment, I too pay tribute to Lord Hayward for all his work in the other place in recent months. Good debates were had there—I read them in Hansard—and they demonstrate the acceptance across all political parties of the challenge, and a willingness to find solutions to the issues that have been highlighted. I therefore welcome the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government today.

As I say, the Government believe that the integrity of our electoral system is fundamental to the health and strength of our democracy. The 2019 Conservative manifesto affirmed a commitment to protecting our electoral system, so that it continues to command the trust of voters and the public.

I will quickly and directly answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough rightly asked. He expressed concerns about family voting, which that Bill seeks to tackle. He has highlighted some examples of where there are problems, or perceived problems, around English as a second language, and where people are inherently vulnerable. He made a powerful point about those scenarios and others in which the problem may apply. The Government accept those concerns, and believe that it is of fundamental importance that people can vote in secrecy and without the threat of interference from others. We are committed to working with my hon. Friend and hon. Members on all sides of the House to safeguard democracy against those who would do it harm.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government supported the Ballot Secrecy Bill when it was in the other place, and I can absolutely confirm that we will continue to do so now that he has taken it up in this House. It is pleasing to note that the Bill is making progress. I put on record my thanks to Democracy Volunteers, whose work my hon. Friend outlined. It did a significant amount of work in the recent elections, and highlighted concerns that gave rise to the legislation and the proposals before us.

Under the Ballot Secrecy Bill, a person will commit an offence if they accompany a voter into a polling booth, or are near the polling booth when the voter is in it, with the specific intention of influencing that person to vote in a particular way, or to refrain from voting. The Bill is intended to strengthen the existing law on the secrecy of voting. Importantly, as my hon. Friend highlights, the measures are intended to give greater clarity on the law as it stands, and to ensure that presiding officers in polling stations have the confidence to challenge inappropriate behaviour wherever it occurs. That was also mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore).

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough is right that this is about proportionality and ensuring that we do not preclude people from going into the polling station where it is reasonable for them to do so. It is also about making sure that those in charge of the station have a very clear understanding of when things are reasonable and when they are not, and are able to take action when unreasonable things occur. There should be clear penalties in the law when that is judged to have been the case. All told, when this Bill’s passage is concluded, should it be the will of the House, voters should enter a polling station alone in almost all circumstances when casting their vote, and should not be accompanied by another person unless they are appointed companions or children under the supervision of the voter. We look forward to continuing to support the Bill as it progresses.

In the few minutes I have left, I want to talk about why we think voter integrity and ensuring the security of the ballot box is so important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough has outlined, we have brought forward a number of measures on the subject, particularly through the Elections Act 2022. This is my second debate this week in which I have responded for the Government on elections. The first one was slightly better attended, but that did not have anything to do with the subject under discussion. It was somewhat more histrionic. That was on Monday night, when we talked about voter ID. I much prefer these kinds of discussions, where Members have the opportunity to explain the issue, and then we talk about them in a temperate, calm and careful manner, with the gravity that the issue deserves, and without the histrionics demonstrated on Monday night.

It is vital that we get policy in this area right. If we do not, people will be prevented from taking part in an activity that is fundamental to the premise of a civilised society: choosing who rules them and who makes the laws on their behalf, and kicking people out of power if they are not making laws in the way that they would prefer.

We have to be cognisant as a country of the fact that our systems may not be perfect, and that fraud goes on. We have to look at opportunities to reduce that fraud over time. That is one reason why, in local elections from May next year, and then in subsequent elections, we are making it a requirement for people to show photographic identification to vote. That is a controversial issue in some parts of this place, but when I speak to my constituents they tell me that it is a logical and reasonable thing to do. We have to show identification to pick up a package, buy alcohol or access certain parts of the high street and licenced premises, so it seems entirely reasonable and proportionate that photographic ID is needed for the very grave, important and serious act of determining who makes laws, who is the next Government and who is in charge of the country.

Secondly, we have brought forward changes to absentee voting and postal voting, including through a number of provisions to make postal and proxy voting more secure, and to determine any person or any group who might seek to undermine the integrity of the electoral system. As an example, the Elections Act 2022 addresses the harvesting of postal votes by introducing a ban on political campaigners handling postal voting documents that have been issued by somebody else. The Act includes a provision that means that nobody will have a permanent postal vote, and a person’s entitlement to vote by post is reviewed at least once every three years.

There has also been more general strengthening of protections for voters. The Elections Act has updated the offence of undue influence to ensure that all electors and proxies can cast their vote free from intimidation, harm, and deception. That has made sure that the offence remains fit for purpose, given the technological changes in the last 20 years or so. It does that by providing broader legal protections for voters from different types of intimidatory behaviour, as well as through clearer legal drafting, which assists authorities when they are enforcing those protections. That should help the police to deal with intimidatory behaviour anywhere, including the behaviour in or around polling stations that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley highlighted.

In the short time that I have left, I thank again my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough for both securing this debate, and for being willing to support and ensure the progress of the Bill. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his question on Northern Ireland, and my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley for his contribution, and for highlighting his support for the Bill. It is an important part of continuing to ensure the strength, health and integrity of our democracy. We are grateful to the Members of the other place who instigated it. We look forward to continuing to support it in the coming months.

Question put and agreed to.

11.27 am

Sitting suspended.