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Draft Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2023

Draft Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2023

Debated on Wednesday 6 December 2023

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: David Mundell

† Bailey, Shaun (West Bromwich West) (Con)

† Blackman, Bob (Harrow East) (Con)

† Britcliffe, Sara (Hyndburn) (Con)

† Clarkson, Chris (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)

† Colburn, Elliot (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)

† Day, Martyn (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP)

† Eshalomi, Florence (Vauxhall) (Lab/Co-op)

† Freeman, George (Mid Norfolk) (Con)

† Glindon, Mary (North Tyneside) (Lab)

† Hamilton, Mrs Paulette (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab)

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

† Long Bailey, Rebecca (Salford and Eccles) (Lab)

† Mahmood, Mr Khalid (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab)

Mishra, Navendu (Stockport) (Lab)

† Mohindra, Mr Gagan (South West Hertfordshire) (Con)

† Morrissey, Joy (Lord Commissioner of His Majesty's Treasury)

† Walker, Mr Robin (Worcester) (Con)

Leoni Kurt, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 6 December 2023

[David Mundell in the Chair]

Draft Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2023

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the Draft Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2023.

With this, it will be convenient to consider the draft Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2023.

It is a pleasant surprise to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. In their manifesto, the Government committed to removing the 15-year limit on voting rights for overseas electors. That proposition was tested at the ballot box, and I remind Opposition parties of who won at the ballot box. We are delivering on that promise.

Last year, Parliament passed the Elections Act 2022, resolving to extend the franchise to all British citizens living overseas, including eligible Irish citizens, who were either previously registered to vote in the UK or were previously resident in the UK. I am delighted to bring forward two statutory instruments that flow from that Act and make good on that manifesto pledge. If approved by Parliament, these instruments will together make necessary changes and improvements to electoral registration processes across the United Kingdom from 16 January 2024 to coincide with the commencement of the franchise change.

To ensure that registration processes are workable for applicants and for administrators—to whom all who stand for election owe such a huge debt of thanks—we have worked closely with our delivery partners and stakeholders across the electoral sector and have engaged with representatives of British citizens overseas on the design of the process. We have created a process that ensures that our democracy remains secure and fair, and is modernised and transparent. Nothing in anything that I am proposing undermines, weakens, frustrates or challenges our electoral process. I believe the proposals will make it more resilient and more robust.

Let me say a few words on registration by outlining the changes these instruments will make to the registration application process to enable overseas electors to apply, and to enable electoral registration officers in Great Britain and the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland to determine their eligibility under these new criteria. These instruments ensure that there are robust processes to verify an applicant’s identity and establish their eligibility to register at their qualifying United Kingdom address.

The Elections Act 2022 established two conditions for registering to vote as an overseas elector. Going forward, an individual can apply under the previous registration condition or, if they have never registered, the previous residence condition. Applicants who have previously registered to vote in the UK should apply in respect of the address where they were last registered under the previous registration condition. For the first time, applicants who have been previously resident in the UK but have never registered to vote can apply in respect of the address where they were last resident under the previous residence condition. That is an important point: the new or renewed voter will need to be able to demonstrate clearly and conclusively a link to the register to which they are applying to be a member. They will not just be able to choose at random somewhere where they either wish they had lived, hoped that they had lived or would have lived because the political party that they choose to support has a particularly marginal seat in that immediate geography.

Applicants will, as now, be required to complete a declaration as part of their application. That is important. These instruments update the declaration requirements to reflect the new eligibility criteria. When determining an application, electoral registration officers must check—no “might check” or “should check”—the applicant’s identity and connection to their qualifying previous UK address.

To check the applicant’s identity, as now, the applicant’s national insurance number will be data-matched by the Department for Work and Pensions. Digital improvements mean that this process will be quicker than the current identity checks. Where an applicant cannot provide a national insurance number or this cannot be matched, they will now be able to provide documentary evidence. This new step, introduced by the instrument for Great Britain, brings the process into alignment with existing practice, maintains integrity and eases the administrative burden on applicants and administrators by reducing recourse to attestations.

As now, an attestation from a qualified elector—that is, a statement from a UK-registered elector who is not a close relative—may be used to verify an applicant’s identity where verification by documentary evidence is not possible. To verify an applicant’s connection to their qualifying address, as now, in most cases electoral registration officers will be able to rely on checks against previous electoral registers in most cases. Registers are currently typically held for 15 years and we expect that they will be retained for longer in the future.

Where registered checks are not possible, the instrument enables several ways to verify an applicant’s connection to their qualifying address, including a DWP data match and checks against local records where available. The instrument also gives registration officers the power to request several types of documentary evidence originating from reputable sources, such as the UK Government, local authorities and banks; these are to be provided by the applicant. We have considered stakeholder feedback on documentary evidence available to overseas applicants and have provided flexibility in these measures while retaining integrity. I pause for a moment to say that, where there has been the need for a balanced judgment between interpretive ease and the need to maintain integrity, integrity has won through on every occasion. That is so important.

An attestation from a qualified elector can also be used for qualifying address verification where the use of documentary evidence is not possible. This is in close alignment with the process for verifying the identity of both overseas and domestic electors.

I now turn to the renewal process and absent voting arrangements. Currently, to stay registered, an overseas elector must reapply annually. This instrument implements a new fixed-point renewal process that enables overseas electors to remain registered for up to three years. In Great Britain, overseas electors’ absent vote arrangements will also be tied to the registration renewal process, meaning that an overseas elector will be able to renew their registration and their absent vote arrangement at the same time.

These changes will benefit the elector. Enabling that elector to maintain their registration and absent vote in this way means that, when a parliamentary election is called, the elector’s absent ballot can be issued without delay. That is helpful to those administering the elections in order to ensure the smooth delivery of relevant paperwork. This improved process will also maintain the accuracy of registers, minimise time-consuming processes and reduce workload.

Registered overseas electors will be able to renew their declaration within the last six months of their current registration period. The instruments will ensure that overseas electors are made aware in good time when they need to renew. Electoral registration officers will be required to send a first renewal reminder after 1 July during the year that an elector’s current registration period is due to expire, with a second reminder to follow a reasonable time thereafter, enabling registration officers to manage the process alongside their other diverse and onerous responsibilities. The instrument applying to Northern Ireland does not amend absent voting arrangements, as electors registered in Northern Ireland are automatically entitled to use proxy voting as part of the existing process.

These instruments maintain integrity of registration processes, including by setting requirements for attestors and applying a limit to the number of individuals an attestor can attest. Within an electoral year, an attestor may provide identity attestations for a maximum of two individuals and, separately, address attestations for, again, up to two individuals. We believe this to be a necessary and proportionate measure that maintains integrity whilst ensuring accessibility for overseas applicants who can now be attested by any qualified UK-registered elector, not just an overseas one.

In addition to the changes I have just outlined, these instruments make further improvements to the registration process. They make it easier and quicker for overseas applicants by enabling electronic submission of information, including copies of documentary evidence. In some cases, these can be provided at point of application to speed up the process. Overseas electors registering in Great Britain are also now able to apply for a postal or proxy vote online, following the introduction of the new online application services as of 31 October this year.

We continue to work closely with the sector, including the Association for Electoral Administrators and the Electoral Commission, in preparation for implementation; and we will provide funding for additional costs incurred in line with the new burdens doctrine. We are also working closely with the Electoral Commission—I am due to have my first meeting with it next week—because as we know, it has the statutory responsibility to promote democratic engagement.

The commission is undertaking a targeted communications campaign to both engage with British citizens overseas and to promote awareness through their friends and family. My Department will be working alongside other Government Departments, including the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to facilitate the commission’s plans for awareness-raising, and to amplify its activity through Government communications channels where value can be added. That is a sensible use of our consulates and embassies overseas.

I hope in setting out the details of these two statutory instruments that the Committee will appreciate the thinking that sits behind them, and the firm commitment to robust integrity and resilience. I know that hon. Members will consider them carefully, and I commend them to the Committee.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Mundell. I thank the Minister for his opening remarks. He is right to highlight some of the areas where the Government feel they have been robust on this matter.

We should celebrate Britain as a country with strong and historical international links, and that millions of British citizens call another country their home. Overseas voting provides an important link for British citizens abroad, across the world. We on this side of the Committee are clear that those who have a strong connection to this country and their community should still have a say in how it is run. We do not oppose the principle of overseas voting and giving citizens who still have a strong connection to the UK a voice in our elections, and that includes people who still have a strong connection to our local services and communities, but we need to consider it carefully—[Interruption.] Is that my timer?

Like many hon. and right hon. Members in this House, I am proud to represent the community that I grew up in. I know how important it is that those who live in our area, who pay their taxes and are part of the community, feel represented. As much as we support the rights of overseas voters, it would be wrong if people with little connection to this country, who may have moved a long time ago and not used any services or paid any taxes in decades, diminished the voice of my constituents and others across the country. We do not think that is right, and it is not in line with the principles of a representative democracy.

We must consider how we strike a balance in our rules. There are voters who still feel a connection to the UK despite living away from it for 30, 40 or many more years, but the policy of removing the cap on this important principle will undermine the balance between enfranchising those people and maintaining integrity in our democracy. Removing the cap will reduce the voice of people who live here, work hard here and contribute to their community, and open up our system to abuse. That is why the Opposition will oppose the regulations. Although I do not think that there is a moral disagreement about some of the issues with votes for life, I fear that the risk of abuse of the system proposed by the Government is far too great.

First, the registration rules proposed by regulation 26H mean that some overseas voters require only the attestation of the identity and past location of another overseas voter. I hear the Minister outlining that there will be additional data material to help to prove an identity. We understand that it may be difficult for legitimate overseas voters to verify their identity, but there seems to be a risk of manipulation of the system to allow those eligible for the scheme to have their pick of which seats they want to vote in.

We have to consider the fact that under our first-past-the-post system, every single vote has a massive influence. Some 30 seats were decided by fewer than 1,000 votes at the last general election. While I am sure that very few will attempt to abuse the system in that way, it could have a large impact on marginal seats when votes are added up around the world. When we think about those seats, we think about many colleagues in this room, although my majority is higher than 1,000. Can the Minister assure me that there will be additional safeguards to prevent fraud? I understand that there is a tight limit on attestation, and that those attesting for another voter will need to sign a declaration of their truthfulness, which is right; but those measures may not be enough to prevent people from trying to abuse the system in a way that could impact the next general election.

The new rules also create a huge loophole in our donation laws. The current rules on UK donations mean that those who donate more than £500 must be on the electoral register. We have to be honest and say that we cannot pretend that the current system is perfect, but it is an important safeguard against money flooding into our political system from foreign and hostile states. Our current system is one where those who are on the register have a clear and recent link to the UK. We think that opening the electoral register as widely as the Government are doing today goes far beyond what our current donation rules were set up to do. It will allow those with tenuous links to the UK, who have spent most of their lives in states that may even be openly hostile to our aims, the right to massively influence our system. The reality is that it will be impossible to ensure that the huge numbers of potential donors in our system are not vulnerable to manipulation by hostile actors. There is already clear evidence of attempts by these actors to influence UK democracy. It will also make enforcement of our rules much harder, given the difficulties that we may face in challenging those who fall foul of donation laws while in another jurisdiction.

The Government know the risk that those hostile actors pose to the UK and our allies. Just this year, we have seen the attack on Britain’s Electoral Commission, although I am happy to hear that the Minister will be meeting the Electoral Commission soon. We have also seen it clearly happen in Ukraine. Therefore, it is beyond belief that the Government are seeking to risk opening up our system at such a critical time for our world.

I know that there are British citizens who still feel a connection to the UK, and they will welcome this rule change, but this rule will also be welcomed by those who want to undermine our democracy and funnel money into our politics. We must not allow that to happen. We must strike the right balance to empower voters without enabling undue influence, but I am afraid that these regulations go nowhere far enough to doing that. I hope that the Minister will think again and that everyone will oppose the regulations today.

Thank you, Mr Mundell. I cannot help but contrast the different situations in these islands. Through voter ID, we are actually making it harder for domestic voters to vote, while we are expanding the ability of millions of others abroad to vote. I have no direct opposition to making it easier for people to vote—I think it should be made easier for them all to vote—but my concern about this measure relates to the risk of overseas influence and foreign money, particularly the potential for unincorporated associations to be used by registered electors overseas and thereby disproportionately skew politics in this country. On that basis, I will be happy to support the Opposition in a vote.

I shall deal first, if the shadow Minister will forgive me, to the comments made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk. On the basis of the data compiled after a very thorough assessment of the May local elections, I dispute fundamentally that there is any evidence that it has been made harder for people to vote. Our system has been made more robust and more resilient to meet the challenges of the time. That the Government have some sort of malign intent to suppress turnout or legislation is a trope that has been trotted out by several people involved in politics in recent times. The hon. Gentleman is smiling. I would call him a friend—we were in the same 2015 intake—but such a mindset is entirely alien to our history and to our processes in all the reforms to widen representation, going back to 1832, 1867 and other Acts. We need to ensure that our democracy is robust and resilient to challenge and that it meets the purpose of modern times, and I refute wholeheartedly any idea of suppression, gerrymandering or falsification, or the sorts of things that sit alongside that.

I thank my shadow, the hon. Member for Vauxhall for—I hope she will not take this the wrong way—the gentle and considered way that she approached this debate. I very much welcome her and her party’s support for the broad principles that underpin the regulations. She is absolutely right to ask the questions that she has, and I will endeavour to, if not answer, then certainly address them.

I am tempted to say, on the broader of question whether this will work, the answer is, in essence, this: we believe that it will. A huge amount of resource, time and engagement has been spent to arrive at this position. This is not a “back of a fag packet” piece of legislation. I know the hon. Lady knows that, and she was not suggesting that it was. However, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. As we saw in the May elections, quite a lot of the things that people were concerned about with regard to voter ID did not come to pass. Some issues have manifested themselves, however, and work needs to be done. This is an iterative and organic process; it will be reviewed and it is able to be tweaked and changed. I am grateful that any future tweaks and changes by this Government or a subsequent Government will be done from the starting point that the broad principle of democratic inclusion is enshrined.

I think it is worth remembering that what we are doing here is not particularly novel. The 15-year qualification is an entirely arbitrary figure. Other democracies have all sorts of conditions, and Canada, France, Estonia and the USA have no limits in their voting rights. We are not breaking new ground here as a point of democratic principle.

False attestation is a criminal offence. People will need to know that, and the full weight of the law will be brought to bear on people who falsely attest. Let us be absolutely honest: we fool our constituents if we maintain that by the passing of a statutory instrument or piece of legislation, we, with a stroke of a pen, remove human instinct and human nature. Is somebody going to do a false attestation? A pound to a penny, somebody will. If we discover them, the full weight of the law will be deployed against them. Tweaks and changes can be made in order to respond to that, but fear of the bad should not stop us trying to do some good. I would argue that what we are trying to do this afternoon is some good.

The hon. Member for Vauxhall raised a really important question when she asked whether somebody can pick a seat: “I support party X, and this seat is particularly marginal, so I’m going to pretend that I live there.” Well, they could try to pretend to live there, but they would not get on the register and would not get a ballot, because they would have no proof at all of being a resident there at any time or of having any connection to the place. That will have to be monitored. I make the pledge that those who are involved in our electoral processes, including the Government from a policy point of view, will look at that. The impact on marginal seats—though I do not think the seat of the hon. Member for Vauxhall is marginal—

I do not think my seat is marginal—I add the caveat of “currently”—but we shall see what happens.

With regard to fraud, the hon. Lady makes an important point. We want our elections to be clean. Why do we want that? These are important principles. We want elections to be clean because we want the victors to understand that their victory is legitimate. More importantly, we need the defeated to understand—[Interruption.] That was a very peculiar noise of support, but I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington for it. I am not quite sure if there are any tablets for that, but she was a nurse, so she may have better news on that than I do.

Marginality is an important issue, and as I say, proof of residence and connection will be important. Party donations are exactly the same. Illegal and proxy donations are illegal now. The parties that receive donations have to go through due diligence and checks, and the Electoral Commission provides overview. The National Security Act 2023 is very welcome because it addresses in great part the point that the hon. Member for Vauxhall rightly made. That Act and the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act 2023 create data-sharing opportunities between a raft of organisations, including Companies House and the Electoral Commission. They are hugely important in trying to minimise—we hope to obliterate, though I make the point again about human nature—this problem. The levers and buttons to push to tell against this sort of behaviour and bring serious offence charges against perpetrators are there. The Electoral Commission itself publishes quarterly returns.

Having addressed the points that the hon. Lady rightly, sensibly and properly asked, I hope I have been able to persuade her and her not to divide the Committee, but that is entirely up to her. A lot of work and thought by officials and others has gone into the instrument to make it, as I say, resilient, fair and robust. I believe we have achieved that, and I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Question put.


That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2023.


Motion made, and Question put,

That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Overseas Electors etc.) (Amendment) Regulations 2023.—(Simon Hoare.)

Committee rose.