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Voter Identification

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities if he will make a statement on the roll-out of voter identification.

Democracy is precious. The United Kingdom’s electoral system has a hard-earned reputation for transparency and integrity, and that needs regular review and, where appropriate, enhancement to ensure that it works today just as it did in the past.

One of the most basic principles of voting is that the people who cast their votes are eligible to do so. The introduction of voter identification at polling stations from May will be another lock in ensuring that the integrity of our democracy is protected for the long term. Nor is this anything new: voter identification has been in place in Northern Ireland for nearly 20 years. As for elections in Great Britain, this Government stood on a manifesto that said we would introduce it, won on the basis of doing so, introduced legislation to fulfil that commitment, and are now delivering on that promise. We will not shirk our responsibilities to protect the integrity of the ballot box.

According to Government research, about 98% of the electorate already have an accepted voter ID, whether it is a passport, a driving licence or one of nearly 20 other eligible types of identification. That includes, for some, expired identification, in order to maximise participation. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people already have what they need to fulfil this new protection at the ballot box. For those who do not, the Government have made available a voter authority certificate, which can be applied for today. It is free of charge and can be issued to everyone who wants it in readiness for May. To date, more than 21,000 applications have been made. Hon. Members will likely have seen—as have I, along with many millions of others—the extensive communications campaigns now under way, run by the Electoral Commission and, at a local level, by individual councils. Those will continue all the way up to May.

There are few tasks more important in public life than maintaining the trust of the British public in our electoral institutions and our electoral processes. A huge amount of work is under way, and that will continue until May. I am grateful to officials, to the Electoral Commission and to councils up and down the land for the work that they are doing. We are taking action to strengthen the integrity of those institutions and processes and to protect the sanctity of the vote. It is now incumbent on all Members—having had the debate and having resolved to do this last year—to send a collective clear signal that this change is important to protect the integrity of the ballot box, and that we should all get ready for this to happen in May.

For months and months, Members on the Opposition side of the House have fought the Government’s voter ID plans tooth and nail. We have warned that this is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, at an exorbitant cost to the taxpayer, and that it is a thinly veiled attempt to make it far more difficult for people to vote.

This morning I was appalled to read new statistics relating to the Government’s botched roll-out of voter ID, revealing that of the estimated 2 million people who will now need a new form of ID—a voter authority certificate—in order to vote, just 1% have applied for it. And of that tiny number—not even 21,000—a tiny minority are older people or young people, groups who we were warned risked being disenfranchised under these new plans. We are just 10 weeks away from the local elections. Safeguarding our democracy and the fundamental right to vote should be the priority of any responsible Government.

I therefore urge the Minister to answer the following questions. What are the Government going to do to fix this? In particular, how are they going to target groups who have limited access to the internet to ensure that they do not lose out? What engagement will take place with local authorities and what support will be provided? It seems absurd that local authorities might have to pay the cost of the Government’s botched roll-out of voter ID.

Will the Minister commit to, at the very least, pausing this year’s roll-out? He will be aware of the Electoral Commission’s analysis that this roll-out means that the May elections cannot be run in a

“fully secure, accessible and workable”

manner. Will the Government expand the list of acceptable forms of ID so that fewer people have to apply for a local authority certificate? Many Members were rightly concerned when it was revealed last autumn that some forms of student ID were not included in the list. Do the Government have any handle on the level of awareness among the general public regarding the need to bring ID with them to vote in May? I would say that the Government were sleepwalking into a disaster, but I am afraid that, to me, this looks a little more cynical.

We are clearly going to have a discussion today in which hon. Members have every right, should they wish, to use quite outrageous rhetoric in relation to this basic, fundamental change to ensure that we protect the integrity of the ballot box. I would encourage them to think carefully about how they approach this during the urgent question.

To answer the hon. Lady’s questions specifically, I need to take on this notion that there are 2 million people who need voter ID. That is absolutely not correct and I hope that hon. Members will stop reiterating it. Of those 2 million people—which is an estimate—a large number will not have elections in their area this year. Secondly, of that group, a number will choose not to vote, much as we would like them to do so. They may have chosen never to vote, and although we would encourage them to do so, that is ultimately the purpose of a democracy: people have a right to vote and a right not to vote. We are seeking to encourage them to vote and seeking to guarantee that integrity. There may also have been a choice for people to change to postal votes. We are continuing to work to encourage take-up where it is necessary, but it is fundamentally incorrect for hon. Members in this House to suggest that some form of target is being missed.

The hon. Lady also asked what we were going to do to target groups. We are already doing that. We have engaged on multiple levels at multiple times with those who could be hard to reach, and we will continue to do that all the way up until May. It is not correct that local authorities are paying the cost, as she suggested. New burdens funding has been paid and there will be a true-up process afterwards to ensure that people are not out of pocket. The list of means of identification that the hon. Lady asked to be expanded already had more than 20 on it, including passports and driving licences. As I said in my initial response, that includes some instances where expiration had happened. I would encourage the Liberal Democrats and other hon. Members to understand that we are seeking to ensure that the sanctity of the ballot box can be protected, and I wish that they would support these reasonable and proportionate measures to do that.

Personation and multiple voting by individuals is notoriously hard to prove, which is one of the reasons that very few people get prosecuted. But we know it goes on, so does my hon. Friend agree that, in order to safeguard the validity of voting, it is vital that people can substantiate who they are when they go to vote?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

“Personation at the polling station will be made much more difficult by the requirement for all voters to provide a specified form of photographic identification.”—[Official Report, 10 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 739.]

Those are not my words but those of the Labour Minister who introduced photographic identification in Northern Ireland in 2003.

The implementation of a voter identification scheme has always been a solution in search of a problem. We are more likely to be struck by lightning 54 times than to be queueing behind a person committing vote fraud at a polling station. Nevertheless, for their own purposes, the Government chose to force through voter ID legislation this time last year.

For months, those who administer and monitor our elections—the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Local Government Association, the Electoral Commission—all warned the Government that there was not enough time to safely implement the scheme for May or for those without ID to get a voter authority certificate. The Minister disregarded this expert advice and pushed ahead anyway, and the complacency that we have heard today is breathtaking.

I am sorry if the 2 million figure is such a problem for the Minister, but the reality is that the applications that have been made represent just over 1% of those who will need this. At the current rate of sign-up, it will take a decade to get credentials to everyone who needs them, but there are only 72 days to polling day. We are risking widespread disenfranchisement. When is the Minister going to wake up and act to prevent these voter ID requirements from locking huge numbers of people out of our democracy at the next election?

The hon. Gentleman continues to perpetuate the myth that this is some form of suppression. He is absolutely incorrect. Putting aside party political views, we have a responsibility in this place to make sure that we are temperate with our language, particularly when it relates to something as important as the ballot box. [Interruption.] He chunters that I should listen to the experts, but if this urgent question had not been granted—although I am grateful for this opportunity to respond to it—I would have been in a meeting right now with the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Local Government Association and the Electoral Commission, to continue my regular interactions about making sure that this works.

Given that under the existing system people have to fill in a registration form in order to vote in an election, why should it be more difficult for people who have shown themselves capable of registering to vote to bring along a piece of identification when they come to exercise that right?

My right hon. Friend is right. An estimated 98% of people already have this ID and, as I have indicated, we are providing additional ID for the people who choose to vote but do not have ID at the moment, so that we can ensure that May is as successful as it can be.

If the proposal for voter ID is such a sensible and necessary requirement, as the Minister claims, can he tell us why fewer types of ID are to be acceptable for voting than the post office will accept for collecting a parcel? It would seem that there is some gerrymandering going on. Some types of student ID and Oyster cards for the under-30s will not be accepted, but Oyster cards for the over-60s will be accepted. How does the Minister explain that? If the Government are disenfranchising young people, how many would they see as a success in that regard? Does he also accept that what we are now seeing would be objected to in some of the more regressive US states?

Voter ID is a policy that has been implemented by many countries across the world. It is pretty standard, including in parts of the European Union, which the hon. Gentleman’s party is keen to get back into. In 2010, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe carried out a review of the elections in the United Kingdom at that point and it was clear that there was a weakness in our system around ensuring that identification was provided. I would gently encourage the hon. Gentleman to come off the talking points and to look at what is actually the case. An example in question is the Oyster card point, which continues to be raised by Members in this House. It is extremely simple to answer that question. Members should go and look at the eligibility for 18-year-old Oyster cards and at the eligibility for 60+ Oyster cards. They are different. The eligibility for the 60+ card involves significantly more requirements, including a passport or a driving licence. Of course it will be the case when we try to expand the level of identification that can be used, as we try to ensure that people can take it to the ballot box, that we are going to say yes in some instances and no in others, if that eligibility is different.

The proof is in the pudding. We had a successful pilot in Swindon where the turnout was up. Would the Minister agree that for each of those on the long list of my many Labour opponents over the years, in their respective selection meetings, their members required voter ID? If it is good enough for them, surely it is good enough for all of us.

My hon. Friend is right. That was also the case in the recent Wakefield by-election, where I believe the Labour candidate was selected on the basis of photographic ID. What is good enough for the Labour party should be good enough to secure the integrity and sanctity of our ballot box more widely.

If I go to the polling station at the local government election, I can produce my passport, which I do not normally carry, or my driving licence. If I do not have either, I could produce my pensioner’s travel pass issued by South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority. However, if I were a young person—

I thank my hon. Friend. If I were a young person with a travel pass issued by the same authority, I could not produce it at the polling station. Quite simply, what do the Government have against young people? Why are they discriminating against them? Why are they finding every reason to disqualify their forms of ID? Is it because the Government do not expect that many young people will vote for them?

I am grateful to my near constituency neighbour for his question. No, it is absolutely not the case that we are discriminating against anybody. We want maximum participation in elections, and we want to ensure the integrity of the ballot box. I gently draw his attention to the Government research that found that younger people are more likely than the general population to hold a form of voter ID. His logic does not apply.

As we have heard, constituency Labour party meetings regularly request voter ID. I therefore challenge Labour Members to put their money where their mouth is and waive those requirements, if they are so confident that voter ID is not needed. Will the Minister remind the House of this programme’s success in Northern Ireland not only in tackling fraud but in increasing voter confidence?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There has been voter ID in Northern Ireland for 20 years, and it has run successfully. There is absolutely no reason why that will not be the case in the United Kingdom as a whole.

I agree with the Minister that the integrity of our democracy is incredibly important, but I suggest that the best way to strengthen security at the ballot box is to increase turnout, which would reduce voter fraud.

Two million people do not hold valid ID, and will not hold it in May. I remind the Minister that access to photo ID is a luxury and, in a cost of living crisis, the reality is that many of our constituents cannot afford the luxury of paying £82 for a passport or around £40 for a driving licence. They are being priced out of the ballot box. I urge him to look again at the list. After the May elections, will he make a statement to the House outlining what actually happened and how many people were turned away?

One of our reasons for offering a free voter authority certificate, which 21,000 people have already taken up, is to address precisely that question.

Picking up a parcel, borrowing a library book and voting in internal Labour party elections are all activities for which photo ID is required. Does the Minister agree that this battle, this argument, has already been won? Opposition Members would do better to ensure free and fair elections by encouraging photo ID sign-up in communities that do not have it.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why we are focusing on making sure that people are aware of this change and vote in a way that reflects the change so that May is successful. There is a huge amount of work to do to secure the integrity of the ballot box for the long term.

The Government were warned that their voter ID scheme would disenfranchise many people, and specifically disabled people. The Royal National Institute of Blind People’s tracker survey found that 13% of blind and partially sighted people have no photographic ID. We know that not much additional resource is going into local authorities, so would it not make sense for the Government to invest significantly in making voting accessible and inclusive for everybody, including blind and partially sighted people?

The hon. Lady takes a keen interest in this area, and she will be aware that we are making changes to encourage blind and partially sighted people to get more involved in the electoral process and at the ballot box in May, which is one of the reasons I met the Royal National Institute of Blind People on 8 February. I will continue to meet all organisations representing these areas to ensure that this works as well as it is able to in May.

Many people who do not carry ID tend to be in already marginalised demographics, and now they will be disenfranchised. The Tories are “trying to gerrymander”. I do not always agree with the editor of The Spectator, but he is right on this occasion, is he not?

No, he is not, for the reasons I have provided. Many countries around the world have voter ID to ensure the integrity of the ballot box, and I encourage the Labour party and the hon. Lady to encourage their constituents to get involved. It will be happening.

Rather than rail against a very sensible measure to improve the integrity of elections, would Opposition parties not do better to focus on supporting councils and the Electoral Commission to encourage people to check what identification is needed and, if they do not have it, to get the free voter authority certificate, which is readily available?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Now is the time to ensure the successful delivery of this policy. Work is under way in the Department, the Electoral Commission and councils, and it is for all parties in this place to ensure that the people who vote for them are aware of the change of responsibilities coming in May, to ensure that they continue to do so.

This Tory Government always lecture us about wanting to deregulate and not interfere in the freedoms and liberties of individuals as they go about their daily lives. All the independent research indicates that voter ID will disadvantage people who are least likely to vote Tory. What is it that attracted the Minister to this measure?

It is safeguarding the integrity of the ballot box for the long term, which the Labour party seemed to care about when it was in government in 2010. Its lack of care right now demonstrates its lack of interest in going into government in future.

I thank the Minister very much. He probably knows what I will say but, having had voter ID for more than 20 years, it has become second nature in Northern Ireland. Free photographic ID is provided and can be used to fly to the UK mainland or to purchase age-restricted products. It is a simple process that can be facilitated with a simple form and photograph. It has cut down on fraud, and I stand behind the principle of one person, one vote, which it protects. Does the Minister agree that the free provision of electoral ID is an essential component of any legislation?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is one of the few people in this place with experience of voter ID. I encourage the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats to listen to what he says about its long-term success in Northern Ireland.

Seventy-two days out from the elections, the electorate do not know that they need to carry voter ID. It is one thing to say that people who are used to doing it will continue to carry voter ID, but people who do not know about it will not carry voter ID. Will the Minister set out everything he will be doing to communicate what each electorate will have to do between now and the election to get this ID?

The Electoral Commission, which undertakes regular advertising in advance of elections, has been engaged to do this, and its campaign began in early January and will continue until May. The polling cards going out to every household that votes will carry a clear message to indicate what is happening. We have provided individual budgets so that local authorities can reach out to make sure that their communities are aware of the coming change.

The census shows that 40% of people in Wales do not have a passport, compared with 2.9% in Westminster. We will have no experience of voter ID in Wales until May 2024, so how on earth will the Minister assess any potential and entirely unintentional voter suppression in Wales, given that we might have a general election before then?

The research indicates that 98% of people across the United Kingdom have ID. Where there is a gap, I encourage those who are concerned to make sure that their electorate are aware of the coming change and to highlight the point of that change, which is to ensure the integrity of the ballot box for the long term.

A total of 505 people over 75 years of age have applied for the Government’s voter ID document in the past month—that is fewer than the number of MPs in this House. Young people, too, are disproportionately disadvantaged. Will the Minister reflect on the fact that what he is taking part in is an erosion of a fundamental British freedom, a fundamental British civil liberty: the right to vote freely? We are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be impersonated at the ballot box.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has managed to get in material for his usual social media clip. The reality is that we are trying to ensure the integrity of the ballot box for the long term. Ninety eight per cent. of people have access to ID. We will continue to work right up until May to ensure that those who do not have ID, but who want it, have it for the May elections.

The turnover of voters in my Glasgow Central constituency is significant, due to a large student population and the housing mix in the city, which makes turnover high in general. Can the Minister explain how people will understand the requirements for voter ID in Westminster elections, when there are different franchises and different elections? The challenge for many of us when campaigning in elections is in getting people registered at all. Surely it will be the case that people will turn up on the day expecting to vote, but will not be able to do so.

The hon. Lady makes the important point that there are differences in how elections are run in some of the devolved Administrations, but that is nothing new. I say to her gently that her Administration are consulting on a proposal to greater vary how elections are run within the United Kingdom, and I encourage her to talk to the devolved Administrations about that. We will continue to do what we have outlined, which is to highlight the change to make as many people as possible aware of it and to encourage people to ensure that they can still vote, and vote in a way that is protected and has integrity.

Just 1% of those who are eligible have signed up to the voter ID scheme. It will take 10 years to issue the new ID to those who need it, but, with local elections just 10 weeks away, would it not make more sense to go back to the drawing board? The Government must come up with plans to boost voter turnout, not suppress it.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan). It is incorrect to perpetuate this 2 million number. A number of those people do not have elections this year. Ultimately, it will be down to people to decide whether they wish to get a voter authority certificate. I encourage them to do so. I hope that they will do so, but, ultimately, it is the choice of an engaged citizenry how to do that. We will continue to highlight and advertise this change to those people up to May and beyond.

I am proud to represent young people in my constituency and also the students at Oxford University and at Oxford Brookes. One of them wrote to me, saying:

“It is outrageous that the over-60s Oyster card will be considered valid ID, but the 18-30 card will not. This is clearly an attack on young people and will disproportionately impact their ability to vote.”

The fact is—we all know this—that younger people are less likely to vote. We encourage them to do so at every opportunity, but, because they are transient, many do not know whether they will be in one constituency or another. What are the Minister’s plans to target young people in particular so that they can make sure that they are not disenfranchised? Can he seriously stand there and say with a straight face that this has nothing to do with the fact that most of them will not be voting Tory?

When I was a student in the hon. Lady’s constituency, one thing I was told by tutors at my college was to look at the detail. The detail on the Oyster card for 18-year-olds is different from that on the over-60s Oyster card. That is identified on the website, and I encourage the Liberal Democrats to look at it.

My Liverpool, Riverside constituency has some of the most disadvantaged wards in the country and many of my constituents, particularly young people and black people, will not have access to valid ID. The Minister has spoken about the integrity and sanctity of the ballot box. Can he explain how many cases of fraud have been identified, and will he commit to undertake a review after the May elections?

On the hon. Lady’s final point, absolutely we will review what happens in May. We have already committed to that both in this place and elsewhere. We want to learn from the experience, just as Labour wanted to learn from the engagement at the introduction of this scheme in Northern Ireland in 2003. We will absolutely do that, but if the hon. Lady has concerns about reaching out to communities in Liverpool, I encourage her to speak to her council, which has been given additional money to undertake communications to do that very job.

I now ask constituents when I knock on doors whether they know about producing voter ID, and so far this year not one has known about the requirement and not one has been in favour of it. Voter turnout depends on familiarity with where we go to vote and what we do. Low turnout is a much more serious problem for our democracy than the de minimis level of fraud. Does the Minister think that turnout will go up or down as a result of these measures?

As the hon. Gentleman has highlighted, we all want high turnout. We all want the maximum number of people who can vote to do so. That is one reason why in other parts of the Elections Act 2022, we are extending the franchise. This is part of a broad group of measures that seek to protect the integrity and sanctity of the ballot box while ensuring that as many people who wish to vote can do so.

What does the Minister think the overlap will be between those least likely to have the requisite ID and those least likely to vote for the Conservative party?

I think that I have already answered that question, but I encourage the hon. Gentleman, in readiness for the elections that will take place in his area in the future, to spend his time highlighting to his constituents how we are protecting the sanctity of the vote, rather than making cheap shots such as that.

As of today, just 118 people have applied for the voter authority certificate in Cheshire West and Chester. I urge the Minister to apply some common sense to this. We have had debates on the principle of this, but can we pause the roll-out to ensure that we have integrity of the franchise for all?

As the hon. Gentleman outlines, it is important that we have integrity of the ballot box. I have explained multiple times why this is an important initiative to ensure that. If he has concerns about what is happening in Cheshire West and Chester, I encourage him to take it up with the leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council, who has been given additional money to make sure that they communicate with those in hard-to-reach areas so that the May elections are successful.

The Government’s website says that to apply for voter authority certificates, people need a recent digital photo of themselves. Even if applying by post, people will need access to a printer so that they can print off the form. This really misses the point that many people, especially elderly people and those on low pay, do not have access to a computer. It is also estimated that more than 3 million over-65s have no access to the internet, and more than 7 million adults have very poor literacy skills. How will the Government make sure that those with poor literacy and digital skills and those with no access to a computer or the internet will be able to exercise their basic and fundamental right to vote in elections?

There is no requirement for a person to be computer literate or to go through online processes to acquire a voter authority certificate. Alternative processes are available and have been used, and I have data on them. We want to make sure that those who do not have computer can still have a voter authority certificate should they want to have one.

The Minister knows that many council seats are currently decided by a handful of votes. Does he accept that, inevitably, there will be a change in how a number of seats are won or lost and that, in turn, the control of particular councils will be determined by a handful of votes in a number of seats? Does he anticipate that the Government will have to go to court charged with voter suppression and an intentional corruption of our democracy, because people will simply forget to bring their voter ID—it is not that they do not have it—and that will change the outcome? Those people will say that they had forgotten their ID, that they would have voted for X or Y, but they did not, and that will be the margin that determines the future of that council, which is a disgrace.

Many council seats have been decided on a very small number of votes in Northern Ireland for 20 years. The change brought in by the Labour party in 2003 requiring voter identification in that country is now being applied elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I gently ask the hon. Gentleman, when there are next elections in his area, to encourage his constituents to recognise that voter ID is here, and it is here in order to protect the sanctity of the ballot box.

Introducing further barriers to voting is like shadow boxing a phantom foe. The Government’s changes threaten to disenfranchise millions and place an administrative burden on local authority staff. It was reported yesterday that fewer than 1,300 people aged under 25 have registered for the new paperwork. Can the Minister explain why it is okay for members of the Conservative party to elect the Prime Minister via an online ballot, while ordinary people face voter restrictions when they go to their local polling station?

One of the principles of liberalism, which Liberal Democrats often forget, is equality before the law. Equality before the law requires processes to ensure integrity. I gently highlight to him a quote from the former hon. Member for Montgomeryshire in 2001, when he spoke on this subject on behalf of the Liberal Democrats:

“we accept the need for a Bill…The Liberal Democrats also welcome the Government’s intention to introduce an electoral identity card”. —[Official Report, 10 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 706.]

What has changed?