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Ballot Secrecy Bill [ Lords ]

Debated on Tuesday 7 March 2023

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Steve McCabe

Abrahams, Debbie (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)

† Amesbury, Mike (Weaver Vale) (Lab)

† Blackman, Bob (Harrow East) (Con)

† Bristow, Paul (Peterborough) (Con)

† Cates, Miriam (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Con)

† Daly, James (Bury North) (Con)

† David, Wayne (Caerphilly) (Lab)

† Higginbotham, Antony (Burnley) (Con)

† Hunt, Jane (Loughborough) (Con)

† Jardine, Christine (Edinburgh West) (LD)

† Johnson, Dr Caroline (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

† Moore, Robbie (Keighley) (Con)

† Norris, Alex (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)

Paisley, Ian (North Antrim) (DUP)

† Rowley, Lee (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

† Smith, Cat (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)

† Tolhurst, Kelly (Rochester and Strood) (Con)

Luanne Middleton, Bradley Albrow, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 7 March 2023

[Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Ballot Secrecy Bill [Lords]

Before we begin, I have the usual reminders for the Committee from Mr Speaker. Please switch electronic devices to silent. You should not have food or drinks during the sitting. Hansard will be grateful if Members could email their speaking notes to

My selection and grouping for today’s sitting is available online and in the room. No amendments have been tabled; therefore, we will have a single debate on all the clauses in the Bill.

Clause 1

Amendment of the Representation of the People Act 1983

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.

Before I speak to the clauses of the Bill, I want to acknowledge all the work of my noble friend Lord Hayward, who sponsored the Bill in the other place. He is a man of tremendous knowledge of the subject, and it is a great privilege for me to sponsor the Bill in the House of Commons. I am grateful to noble Lords of all parties in the House of Lords who have worked together on the Bill. I thank Ministers and the Department, who have already been engaged with the Bill and improved it through amendment in the Lords.

The House of Commons has had an opportunity to debate the issues that the Bill seeks to address through my Westminster Hall debate on 14 December 2022, which considered the integrity of the voting process. I am grateful to the Minister, who responded then and who is with us today.

The Bill seeks to address issues of family voting, which is where an individual seeks to influence or guide another person, often a family member, when casting their vote. Democracy Volunteers, an independent organisation approved by the Electoral Commission and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has identified, in its observations of elections and its reports, that family voting is an issue of concern across the country. Despite the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, the Electoral Commission has identified that the practice of family voting was not illegal.

This is not a party political issue. Baroness Hayman of Ullock in the other place said:

“We supported the Bill at Second Reading and continue to do so…We need to make sure that we have…an understanding of exactly what is acceptable when people vote in a polling station.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 November 2022; Vol. 825, c. 1158.]

Lord Rennard said:

“Clarity is what we need on these issues if the proper principles behind the Bill are to be enforced. I hope we will proceed very speedily with this Bill becoming law.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 November 2022; Vol. 825, c. 1157.]

Clause 1 sets out the amendments to the Representation of the People Act 1983. A person will commit an offence if they are with another person at a polling booth, or near another person at a polling booth, with the intent to influence that person in a particular way of voting or to refrain from voting. Importantly, the clause is drafted to avoid criminalising innocent behaviour. The intent provision ensures that someone who is with another seeking to influence a vote, whether a bystander or an innocent family member, will not be liable to conviction themselves. Particularly importantly, it also means that someone who is assisting a person who is voting, such as a formal companion of someone who is blind or a presiding officer assisting a disabled voter, is not captured by the clause. That will include those accompanied by a child or children standing together alongside a parent.

The Bill does not have an impact on elections in Scotland or Wales. I understand that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is making the devolved Administrations aware of the issues in this area and the intention to update the law.

Clause 2 provides for the amendment of Northern Ireland legislation. Elections are excepted matters and are not within the competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly. These provisions were introduced in the House of Lords by Government amendment. Clause 3 deals with the extent, commencement and short title. The measures that I have outlined will come into force on a day to be set out in regulations by the Secretary of State. That will allow for the necessary training to be undertaken and preparations made.

In conclusion, the Bill will provide the measures needed to ensure that the practice of family voting no longer undermines the secret ballot. Having a clear offence in law will provide the clarity and certainty that our polling station officials and police need to ensure that the practice is stamped out, and should in many cases improve equality in our voting processes. Some 150 years after the introduction of the secret ballot, we will ensure that all people—all individuals—are free to vote as they wish in secret.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough on introducing the Bill. I do not think anyone on either side of the House will dispute the importance of the secret ballot or the fact that, in a strong democracy, everyone casts their vote for the candidate or party they wish to vote for without any undue influence. Indeed, the secret ballot was a demand of the Chartists, so it is a long-standing demand. I congratulate the Member for bringing the Bill forward, but I will make a few points, and I hope to catch the Minister’s ear.

The legislation goes some way to allowing people to cast their vote for the candidate for whom they wish to vote without undue influence, but it strikes me that there is perhaps a gaping hole in the legislation in that it does not cover postal votes. I draw the Minister’s attention to the Law Commission report on the reform of electoral law, which clearly sets out the weakness in the system around postal votes. Indeed, the commission’s reports on electoral law over the years have consistently pointed out that UK electoral law is fragmented, that some of it is very old, and that it has not been brought together in one consistent piece of legislation.

That makes electoral law challenging for electoral administrators, and confusing for candidates and political parties. Frankly, I suspect that the general public have no chance of fully understanding the complexities of electoral law. The Law Commission has for a long time called on the Government to rationalise electoral law into one single piece of legislation—I suspect that these days it would have to be four pieces of legislation, because of devolution to the countries of the United Kingdom. That would go some way to assisting those of us who participate in elections to understand, abide by and uphold the law.

I am not planning to take up much of the Committee’s time. To conclude, our democracy is always strengthened by participation and encouraging people to take part in democracy. When I first saw the Bill and heard the conversation around family voting, it struck me that perhaps the Committee could send a positive message and encourage parents of children under the age of 18 to take their children with them to polling stations, to show them what is behind the mysterious door of the polling station and how to cast their votes. Then, when they come of age and are entitled to vote, they would perhaps not be daunted by the mysterious place that is a polling station. If people do not know what is behind that door, it can be intimidating to go and vote for the first time. So perhaps another positive that could come out of the Committee is that united message of encouraging parents to take young children with them, and to lift the shroud of mystery around polling stations.

I rise to ask a simple, straightforward question. The Bill applies to parliamentary elections across the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. It applies to English local elections and Northern Ireland Assembly elections. As was said, it does not apply to Scotland or Wales. Rather than just informing the Administrations in Scotland and Wales of this modest change to legislation, have there been any approaches to see whether the Sewel convention could be used, so that the legislation will automatically apply to Wales and Scotland, with their consent?

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr McCabe.

I thank the noble Lord Hayward for sponsoring this important Bill in the other place and I congratulate him on securing its swift progress through to its Commons stages. I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough on his work in this area and on the case he made for the Bill this morning, which was very good and a handy way to start the discussion.

This is a short but important Bill for the integrity of our elections and our democracy more widely. As was covered during debates in the other place—they are very much worth a read, and it was helpful that the hon. Gentleman brought them into this debate, because some of those contributions were excellent—it is crucial that our democratic process is free from abuse and intimidation. That was the spirit of the 1872 Act, 151 years ago, which curtailed many of the terrible practices that occurred in elections before its passing. As was explained in the other place, however, a clear and identifiable problem remains with the Act as it stands: it does not give presiding officers the right tools to tackle the problem of people being compelled to vote one way, or not at all, by others.

It is unacceptable that such practices still occur. The intimidation of voters is contrary to all our democratic principles, but the law as it stands lacks clarity on the matter. That has been acknowledged by the Electoral Commission, which it is helpful to note. There is therefore clearly a case for changing the legislation and making such practices an offence. The Bill will do exactly that.

I associate myself with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood about a bigger piece of work to consolidate our electoral law in one place. The Law Commission report is a good starter. Those points were well made, and I share them.

Important reassurances were given in the other place—I am sure the Minister will reiterate them—about disabled voters continuing to have any assistance they need to vote, where necessary. That practice, which is right and proper, will not be impacted by the Bill. Last week, I took part in an event—as did the Minister—organised by the My Vote My Voice campaign, which aims to improve participation in voting by adults with learning disabilities and/or autism.

I have had similar such conversations about voting with people with Usher syndrome, those who are deaf and blind more generally, and those who are blind. They all say the same thing: they want hurdles to voting lowered so that they can vote with greater confidence. Happily, the provisions in the Bill do not impair that, but there is something to be said for going above and beyond the Bill, building out from it to ensure that the right technologies are available or that there is staff training. The hon. Member for Peterborough also talked about staff training and how—including under the Elections Act 2022—there should be more training on how to ensure that people living with disabilities can vote independently. We would not then have to worry about another person being there, because the assistive technologies are there—those exist, and that is what such electors want. I hope we build out from this legislation in that way.

To conclude, it is important that we have good, strong law in this area, to provide a clear understanding of what is and what is not acceptable practice at a polling station. The Opposition support the Bill and look forward to its timely passing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.

I am pleased to say that the Government also support the Bill, which is being sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough. We are grateful for his efforts and work in this regard. I join him in paying tribute to Lord Hayward, who has been an absolute stalwart in pushing forward this important agenda and ensuring that the Bill is before us today. He is joined in the Public Gallery by a number of others with interests in this area, including Councillor Tanner and Councillor Peter Golds.

My hon. Friend’s Bill arises from concerns over so-called family voting, which we have discussed, which is when family members or others accompany voters into a polling booth in a polling station for the apparent purpose of influencing or guiding how they cast their vote. The Government share the concerns expressed about the issue and we are committed to safeguarding our democracy against those who would harm it. That is why we are supporting the Bill.

I will run through the clauses briefly, but I do not seek to detain the Committee for too long. Clause 1 makes a number of important changes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough explained, it outlines that a person commits an offence if they are with a voter in a polling booth, or near it, but it also sets out the reasons why people would not be committing an offence in appropriate instances, which have already been outlined—with those who need assistance or are disabled.

As the hon. Member for Nottingham North said, both of us in the past few days have been to events—I am grateful to him for supporting and helping to organise an event last week—at which the importance of greater participation and greater involvement in the democratic process was clear. Those events aim to encourage and support those who need additional assistance, which is a vital part of the electoral system, although we must also ensure that we can do the things that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough is requiring under the Bill.

I hope the hon. Gentleman can see some of the changes that are being introduced in May, particularly with regard to people with sight loss and trying to provide a greater range of options and technology to support them, as a step forward and part of that broad agenda.

I certainly support the good intentions of the Bill, but I seek clarification. How would election officials—returning officers—demarcate somebody who was going about their normal business? I know this will be reflected across the Committee Room, but if my wife and son came along, quite innocently, when I was voting and we went our separate ways, how would that natural family event be demarcated from somebody coercing or applying undue influence at the ballot box?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments because he raises an important point, which is: how will we interpret the legislation? Clause 3, which my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough has outlined, provides that additional guidance will need to be put in place to give greater clarity for those who are running individual polling booths. That might not be their day job, and they might come from another part of a local authority and might be taking part in only that one electoral event, so it is right that there will be interpretation and guidance with respect to the Bill. It will be for the Electoral Commission and others to provide that as part of the overall process. Hence, clause 3 outlines the approach we suggest.

Before I come to clause 3, let me refer to clause 2.

When the Government produce that guidance, would it not make sense for it to say that when two adults were going to a polling booth together, they would need to be doing so in circumstances whereby they were, for example, giving assistance to a disabled person? Therefore, the presumption would be that everyone should go separately, rather than there being a need to prove intent, because it is always difficult to know what is going on in someone else’s mind.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her suggestion. This exchange is highlighting some of the challenges around the level of prescription that needs to be in the process versus the level of discretion. That is one reason that we legislate in this place and a separate body provides interpretation.

The ultimate decision about whether things are appropriate or not appropriate in individual polling booths is down to the presiding officer in that polling booth. Presiding officers will take decisions based on the law and the guidance around the law, and the situation on the ground. I have been the elections Minister for only a few months, but I can see that there is an incredible amount of legislation and guidance in this area. That legislation and guidance provide significant prescription—it is important that there is consistency and clarity across the country when electoral events happen—but equally, guidance can never provide every piece of information for every scenario.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and will feed it into our consideration, but it will be for the Electoral Commission to provide guidance and further information.

The Minister will be glad to hear that the interventions have inspired another question from me. Will he confirm that the guidance is to be drawn up by the Electoral Commission? If so, the commission will be guided or influenced by the Hansard report of the Committee’s proceedings and the conversations we have had. However, after listening to the interventions that have been made from both sides of the Committee, it strikes me that a lot of pressure is being put on returning officers to interpret events. The Law Commission has been clear in its reports that the pressure on returning officers is increasing and the guidance is increasingly fragmented. We might be reaching a point at which the Elections Act is going to add to those complications.

Does the Minister have any concerns that encouraging people to be returning officers might be a challenge going forward, given their legal responsibilities, and the pressures of applying the law and interpreting events in polling stations? Indeed, I was not registered to vote at the last polling station I went to; I went with my partner. There were elections in Scotland and none in my part of England at the time. I think I jokingly said to him, “Vote Labour.” Can the Minster clarify that would not be a breach of the law? I am quite confident that he did not go and vote Labour.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments; she raises an important point. The guidance will be drawn up by the Electoral Commission in the normal way. As part of that process, there will be opportunities for people, including from outside this Committee, to make their views known. Ensuring that there are sufficient people to support both local and general elections is a long-term challenge within local government. Finding people to staff polling stations has been a general challenge for a number of years.

I have been talking to the Association of Electoral Administrators about the issue, and I spoke with Solace—the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives—only last Thursday. My colleagues and I will continue to do that. There are several challenges, but we are also looking at alternatives and ways to mitigate those issues. Local authorities are putting a huge amount of work into the preparations for May to ensure that the right number of staff is available, whether they are employed by the individual local authority or elsewhere in the normal way.

I hope that the guidance will provide clarity on some of those examples. I am a relatively smaller-state Conservative, but I recognise that, in certain parts of the law, it is important that there is sufficient proscription about what is happening. There should be sufficient clarity on the guidance, and enough consistency around the country for there to be no suggestion of a problem. I am sure that the Electoral Commission will read Hansard and take note of the hon. Lady’s point.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough indicated, clause 2 will ensure that the provisions cover Northern Ireland as well as England, given that elections are excepted matters. We have already talked about clause 3 to some extent. It will give the Government the opportunity to set out the day or days on which the regulations will come into force. That is what we talked about a moment ago with regard to guidance, clarification and ensuring consistency underneath the legislation, with time to work through the process.

I turn to a couple of additional points that have not been addressed so far. In her initial intervention, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood talked about postal votes. She will be aware that there are further changes coming in under the Elections Act 2022. They will require, for example, people to reapply for postal votes every three years. I hope she can see that there is tightening going on in this place.

The Government will always look at other challenges, issues and opportunities going forward. As the hon. Lady outlined, there is a long-standing desire on the part of the Law Commission to look at how we can make this area more clearcut. The Government will continue to discuss it, and I hope that in time we can move in that direction. I know the hon. Lady will accept that this is a significant piece of work, and we need to think it through, as and when that may be appropriate.

Finally, on the point made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough indicated, there have been discussions with the devolved Administrations, although I am happy to provide separate information outside this Committee to answer the hon. Member’s specific question.

This is an important area of policy and an important proposal. Again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough on bringing the Bill forward and I look forward to it going on the statute book. As we have all indicated, both in this Committee and previously, clarification of the law in this area is important. That is why the Government are supporting the Bill, and I urge other Members to do so.

I do not want to talk for too long, but I will say a few words of thanks to close. I reiterate my thanks to the noble Lord Hayward and my personal admiration for him and the way he has pushed through this Bill. I also thank Councillor Tanner, who has been a source of advice and support on this, and thank all colleagues for serving on this Bill Committee, as well as the officials. Particular thanks go to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, who was one of the first to volunteer for this Committee. She shares my passion for these issues.

I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate. The hon. Members for Caerphilly and for Weaver Vale, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham made interesting points. I thank the shadow Minister, who made a good and powerful speech. The cross-party nature with which the Bill has been taken through Parliament shows this place at its best. We can produce good legislation when we all work together. Finally, I thank the Minister and the officials from his Department. This legislation is incredibly important. Today, we are upholding the integrity of our democracy.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.