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Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (Amendment) Order 2017

Volume 787: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2017

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (Amendment) Order 2017.

My Lords, in speaking to this order I shall speak also to the Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2017. The purpose of these instruments is to modify provisions in the Representation of the People Act 2000 to enable the pilot scheme provisions to apply to combined authority elections and local mayoral elections. These provisions were brought into effect in 2000 and used extensively in pilots in 2007. There has been no piloting of changes to the voting process since 2007 but new polls have been introduced to other local authority elections; namely, elected local mayors and mayors for combined authorities. At present, the 2000 Act piloting provisions do not fully apply to these new polls.

Earlier this year, the Government announced that they would be conducting pilots for voter identification at the local elections in May 2018, in line with their manifesto commitment to,

“legislate to ensure that a form of identification must be presented before voting”.

Voter ID is part of the Government’s commitment to improve the security and resilience of the electoral system that underpins our democracy, and will ensure that people have confidence in our democratic processes. Five authorities have indicated their intention to run voter ID pilots at the local elections in May 2018: Woking, Gosport, Bromley, Swindon and Watford, while Tower Hamlets will pilot new security features for postal voting. Watford and Tower Hamlets will also be holding local mayoral elections in addition to their local council elections.

The powers to alter electoral conduct rules for the purpose of running pilots are contained in Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000. Section 11 of that Act enables the Secretary of State to apply measures trialled in a pilot scheme generally, taking into account any report on the scheme provided by the Electoral Commission under Section 10. Currently, these sections make provision to conduct pilot schemes in local authority and Greater London Authority elections.

As I indicated a moment ago, two of the local authorities that plan to conduct pilot schemes in May 2018 for local government elections will also be holding a local authority mayoral election on the same day. These polls are usually held in combination, for the benefit of electors and administrators. The proposed changes will allow pilot schemes to be conducted at both these polls. This will ensure that voters have a smooth voting experience. It would be confusing for voters if the provisions being piloted applied to one poll but not the other poll being held on the same day. The changes will also facilitate the effective administration of the polls being held.

More generally, the statutory instruments we are considering will enable pilot scheme orders to be made that are intended to improve the voting experience for voters and make the electoral process more secure. The pilot order schemes will also allow evidence to be collected for statutory evaluation by the Electoral Commission of the impact of voter ID in polling stations. That evidence and evaluation will inform the Government’s decision about how most successfully to meet their manifesto commitment to introduce voter ID nationally. There are currently no pilot schemes planned at a combined authority mayoral election—“metro mayors”, as the media have termed them—but the order will facilitate any pilot scheme orders for combined authority mayoral elections to be held in the future.

I turn briefly to the detail of the proposed changes. As I explained, Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 enables the Secretary of State to, by order, make provision for running pilot schemes relating to the conduct of local government elections in England and Wales. Section 11 allows the Secretary of State to apply those changes generally. Section 10 as drafted does not enable changes to be made to the conduct rules for local mayoral elections. Also, provisions in Section 11 that enable measures tested in a pilot scheme to apply generally and on a permanent basis do not encompass conduct rules for local mayoral elections. When the mayoral rules were made in 2007, provision was made to apply Sections 10 and 11 of the RPA 2000 to mayoral elections. However, a further modification was needed to enable changes to be made to the mayoral conduct rules as those rules are made under the Local Government Act 2000. Sections 10 and 11 enable changes to be made only to conduct rules made under the Representation of the People Acts. This was a technical oversight. The regulations make these modifications to enable pilot scheme orders under Section 10 of the RPA 2000 to make changes to the mayoral conduct rules. This will enable pilot scheme orders to be made that will facilitate voter ID pilot schemes during local mayoral elections in the short term, and any other pilot schemes in the longer term.

I turn to the Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (Amendment) Order 2017. Similar to local mayoral elections, Sections 10 and 11 of the RPA 2000, as currently drafted, do not enable the conduct rules for combined authority mayoral elections to be modified. When the combined authority mayoral order was made in 2017, provision was made to apply Sections 10 and 11 of the RPA 2000 to combined authority mayoral elections. However, a further modification was needed to enable changes to be made to the 2017 conduct rules, made under the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009. Again, this was a technical oversight. The order makes these modifications to enable pilot scheme orders under Section 10 of the RPA 2000 to make changes to the combined authority conduct rules for the purpose of conducting pilots.

We are also taking the opportunity to address a technical issue concerning the subscription of candidates’ nomination papers at combined authority mayoral elections. The order will amend the definitions of “elector” and “local government elector” to clarify who may subscribe a nomination paper. A subscriber must be of voting age on the day of the poll and they must be on the local government register of electors on the last day for the publication of the notice of election, which must be published no later than 25 working days before polling day. It also includes new versions of the form of the nomination paper for use by candidates of the combined authority and mayoral elections as a consequence of these changes.

The provision for the combined authority mayoral elections did not contain the limitation of the register being the one produced by the last day for publication of the notice of election, which is the case for other polls. This meant that administrators had to check subscribers on the register up to that date and beyond it, which opens up scope for confusion and error, as this was unlike the position for other polls. This change brings the provision in line with those for other polls and therefore also supports more effective administration when polls are held in combination. These amendments will make combined authority mayoral elections consistent with other polls on this issue and provide certainty to candidates and administrators on who may subscribe a nomination paper.

Our principal stakeholders, the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators, have been consulted on these draft statutory instruments and they are content. Furthermore, they have expressed support for voter identification pilots in general. The Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission will undertake detailed evaluation of the pilots, after which the Government will announce the next step towards implementing voter ID nationally.

We consider that these instruments are necessary for the conduct of electoral pilots in respect of local mayoral elections and combined authority mayoral elections, and that they make the law governing candidates’ nominations at combined authority mayoral elections consistent with other polls. I commend these instruments to the Committee.

My Lords, again I draw the attention of the Committee to my registered interests as an elected councillor in Kirklees and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I understand, appreciate and welcome the technical changes in these two statutory instruments, which ensure that the opportunity to take part in the pilot for voting ID, among others, can include mayoral elections.

My noble friend Lady Thornhill is currently the elected Mayor of Watford, which is one of the pilot areas in next year’s elections. No doubt it was that and the Tower Hamlets situation that have triggered these SIs. I asked my noble friend Lady Thornhill what sort of ID they were using. It is quite interesting: they require people to bring their polling cards as their form of identity when they vote. Failing that—because those involved in elections know that polling cards constantly get lost—they can bring other forms of written ID. Interestingly, they are not required to provide photographic ID.

I am concerned that, following the report by Eric Pickles, the Government seem to be focusing their attention on voter identification in order to improve the integrity of the ballot, rather than focusing on the area where there is evidence of larger fraud: the use of postal votes. I am concerned, and have been for a long time, about the abuse of postal votes, for a number of reasons. One reason is that for some families in some communities—where the whole family votes by post—a secret ballot does not exist. In particular, that has a negative effect on women’s rights to express their own opinion when they vote. That issue, unfortunately, has not been addressed through this.

I also draw the Minister’s attention to the widespread use of postal votes in areas whereby they are collected and filled in by others. We know this from court cases. Despite the best efforts, which I accept have been made, to improve the identifiers on postal vote applications and hence on the form and the ballots as they are completed, in my experience they might have reduced but certainly have not prevented continuing abuse of the postal voting system.

Lastly, when it comes to voter identification, we need to learn from the experience of those of us who have been involved in elections. I will relate an experience I have had to illustrate the point. It took place a few years ago, but I will not say in which area it was. A guy drove his car down the street and pressed the horn. People came out of various houses. The man in the car handed out polling cards and off those people went to vote. Linking the polling card with the person has not prevented abuse in the past and I am not necessarily convinced that voter ID would reduce it now. It might also prevent some people voting because they would not want to have photographic identification.

I am all in favour of improving the integrity of the ballot because it has been eroded over the past few years, but I am not convinced that we have found the solutions. Having said that, I totally support these statutory instruments.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, has just referred to improving the integrity of the ballot. That is precisely what was behind the debates we had some years ago on electoral registration, which I opposed most vigorously, as indeed did some of my noble and honourable friends. The reason was quite simple. We are wasting millions of pounds on electoral registration when in fact we should be doing what the noble Baroness herself said. We should be concentrating our efforts on where the real fraud lies, and that is in selected areas. I remember moving an amendment to do something precisely to that effect in this place. We had a Labour Government at the time but they rejected it. We should not have been wasting money on a national scheme; we should have concentrated our efforts on those areas with a real problem. We knew that where there was a problem, local authorities themselves would ask for additional resources to sort out the issues. Of course that is why we still have some fraud in the system.

I want to go a little wider on this. The noble Baroness referred, I think, to polling cards. Again, there is an inconsistency because she wants to enforce some kind of system to make sure that ID works. Well, why not go the whole hog and have ID cards, which would sort out the whole problem? In those circumstances we could do away with electoral registration. We would go down exactly the same route as I did the other day with the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Young, at the Dispatch Box, because he knows that the ID card is the way to sort this problem out.

I want to turn to something else regarding the nomination form because there has been some discussion about nomination papers. I have always believed that when a candidate stands for public office, there should be a declaration of interest. Why should there not be a full declaration of interest on the nomination form which is published by the local authority, whether it be a candidate for a parish council, Parliament or whatever? The public would then know the interests of the person standing. The problems with these people standing for public office often arise out of the fact that they have an interest which subsequently turns out to have compromised the positions that they are taking within their respective authorities. I put that to the Minister—I do not expect an answer today. However, let us now consider the whole question of declaration of interests by candidates being published at elections where everyone can see them.

Lastly, I raise the whole question of the voting system. One of the great—I suppose it was minor—contributions I have made in my modest political career was to devise the supplementary vote system. I named it in my house, brought it here, and in the end it was adopted by the Labour Government and is still in operation in mayoral elections. I would like to see an audit on how effective it has been, because there is still some criticism of the supplementary vote. My view is that it works. When you check through the election results over the year in the various authorities, whether that is in police authorities or whatever, and you look at where it has worked, it has worked in some interesting areas. Have the Government done an audit of how it operates, and how effectively?

My Lords, I will make only a few brief remarks on the order and the regulations. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, I refer the House to my interests as a councillor—in the London Borough of Lewisham—and as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

In general I am supportive of the order and the regulations—I have no problem with them as such. However, there are some issues. As we have heard, one of the themes in the review is fraud. Issues of fraud have been reported far and wide over a number of years in the media and there have been a number of court cases in which people have, quite rightly, been prosecuted and some sent to prison, deservedly so. I think we all agree that we want to make sure that fraud is driven out of our electoral system, and if these go some way towards helping to do that, that is well and good and I support it.

We have had a number of pilots in this area of policy over a number of years—I certainly remember that the Labour Government, and particularly Jack Straw, loved pilots. I just hope that if we have these pilots, we will make a decision on them and move them along a little. I am all for pilots but I want a conclusion as well. If they are seen to improve the electoral system, we should go ahead with them.

On the nomination papers, obviously that is fine. I am surprised that we need to do that, but I am happy that we agree those nomination papers.

I may have heard the Minister say that we consult the people we normally consult, which is the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators—two fine bodies. I have certainly made the point—if not to the Minister then to other Ministers sitting in that position on behalf of the Government—that the one group that is always missed out is the political parties. We have some experts in these areas. I was a member of the Parliamentary Parties Panel, which is the statutory body that the commission consults, and I then became an electoral commissioner, so I sat on the Electoral Commission. I can tell your Lordships that at no point did these bodies consult on these issues with the political parties. They do not. They might say that they do, but they do not, and it is a shame. They might say that we do not need to on this one, because these are purely technical matters. There are people from all parties—we all know some of them very well— who are expert in these areas and can give valuable information, insight and experience. It is a shame; the Government should as a matter of course add in the political parties and formally consult them as well. It would not be a great problem for the Government to do that. We should certainly not rely on the Electoral Commission. As I said, it is a good body and great people—and great commissioners—work there, but I do not want it to consult, because it will not. It does not; it will talk to the administrators, and as this is a technical issue and not a campaign it will not involve the parties. Maybe we should think about that.

My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours makes a valid point about ID cards and fraud. That certainly would have dealt with the issue. The issue is of course that some people do not have ID or what is acceptable ID when you go along to the polling station—what would be acceptable? Everyone has a passport or a driving licence, so what will not be acceptable? That is an issue to deal with. Also, Northern Ireland has a little electoral card, which is very popular, especially among young people, because they say, “It gets us into pubs and clubs because it proves we’re 18”. It is not an ID card but an electoral card provided by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland.

My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours mentioned the supplementary vote. All these systems are interesting and useful. I prefer the alternative vote, because it spreads the vote around more evenly than the supplementary vote, but other systems are definitely worth looking at.

Having said that, I support these measures as far as they go. I look forward to the noble Lord’s response.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate, all of whom have indicated their broad support for the measures before the Committee but have raised a number of other issues. A number of those who have spoken are vice-presidents of the Local Government Association. I am not, but I was a vice-president of a predecessor body called the AMA. I was expelled either for rate-capping or for abolishing the GLC, which may well be spent convictions.

I will deal with some of the issues raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, is quite right that there are a range of recommendations in the Pickles report. We are dealing with some of them, such as those on harvesting votes by political parties and behaviour at polling stations. They are being dealt with on a separate track.

Tower Hamlets is piloting postal vote ID, to pick up the point the noble Baroness made, so we will have more information on what the options are for dealing with the issue of potential fraud with postal votes, which she raised. In principle, postal votes are a good thing because they help drive up participation in the democratic process. They are a very convenient way of voting, so I would not want to move away from the system we have of postal votes on demand, but we will discover more from Tower Hamlets about how one can drive up the integrity of the system.

Turning to some of the other points made, I take the point that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, made about trying to target the pilot schemes on particular areas where there are known to be problems. The approach we have adopted at this stage is to invite local authorities to take part in the pilot schemes, rather than be prescriptive, which is the approach he was in favour of. Tower Hamlets, which is an area where there has been some difficulty, is taking part in one of the pilot schemes on postal votes.

So far as declarations of interest are concerned, my experience is that the interests of candidates are widely advertised during the process of the campaign— quite often by their opponents. Putting them on the ballot paper would make the ballot paper very cumbersome. I think the noble Lord’s suggestion was that they might go on the nomination paper. We will look at that in conjunction with the Electoral Commission.

On the supplementary vote, there is a Private Member’s Bill coming up in the name of my noble friend Lord Balfe looking at alternative methods of electing local councillors. He is in favour of some form of PR for local government, so if the noble Lord is free on a Friday, there will be an opportunity for him further to develop his views. The supplementary vote is of course used at the moment, as the noble Lord said, for local mayors, combined authority mayors, the London mayor and the PCCs, so it is already embedded in part of the process. I do not think we have any plans to use it more widely.

Does the Minister not see the merit if we target where the problem is and then getting rid of the individual registration scheme? I see no benefit whatever in the scheme other than to deal with a problem in particular areas, which will be dealt with anyhow under other arrangements.

Individual voter registration was introduced, I think with the support of the Opposition, by the last coalition Government. It is now there and it is an improvement—

I think the Minister will find that it was initially introduced by the Labour Government, then of course the coalition Government changed the rules when they brought the Act in at the start of that Government.

But I think there was broad all-party support for individual voter registration, which was the point I was making. So we have a lone voice, which I respect, but it is an improvement on the previous system, where it was up to the householder to put people on the voters’ list. Where we are now is a much better system.

On the issue I was talking about a moment ago, we will have a look at declarations of interest but, as I said, putting it all on the ballot paper would make it more difficult for electors to understand. It could lead to errors and confusion in completing the ballot paper. I also mentioned registration. Changing the registration system has ensured that false names cannot be put on the register to allow ghost voters to cast fraudulent ballots, which had been a significant issue in the past.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, raised postal vote fraud. I am advised that there is no evidence of organised postal vote fraud since personal identifiers were introduced in 2007. Tower Hamlets will pilot changes to postal voting. On the Watford pilot, if a poll card is missing, the elector can cancel it and be issued with a new poll card to enable them to vote. Poll cards are one of the types of photo and non-photo IDs being tested in the 2018 pilots and, as she said, not all of them will involve having photo ID. We are addressing 48 of the recommendations in the Pickles review and will consider measures to improve the integrity of the postal vote process. The 2018 Tower Hamlets pilot will shed some light on how to take this further.

On advising the parliamentary parties—so in response to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy—I used to be on a parliamentary panel set up by the Electoral Commission. We had regular meetings with the Electoral Commission and all three parties were represented on that panel. Of course, the political parties are represented on the Electoral Commission itself, so when we consult it I would hope that it might touch base with the political representatives on the commission. If not, they will have read this exchange and I am sure they will change their procedures to take on board that criticism. The noble Lord is right that the political parties should be consulted—of course, they are consulted right at the end, as we are doing at the moment in dealing with these statutory instruments.

The ID card system in Northern Ireland is voluntary. You can either get an ID card or use your passport, or some other system. It is very much a voluntary process.

If I have not dealt with all the questions raised, I will certainly write to noble Lords but I welcome their contributions and I commend these instruments to the Committee.

I have just a couple of points. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours talked about specific areas. When I was a commissioner, people at the commission would always talk about hotspots but it was never very clear about what was meant and where they are. That is part of the problem; they always went on about hotspots and I remember discussing them, but I could not get much progress at all.

On these instruments, yes, the commission does a good job and consults the political parties through the Parliamentary Parties Panel, which I was a member of as an official for many years. I was one of the first four political commissioners on the commission and when we had our board meeting, we would look at broad-brush things such as policy. We were not sitting and looking in detail at such regulations. Something is missing here. It is not intentional but it is missing and it would be useful to get that on the record and at some point to have it looked at. That is not a criticism but something that has fallen through the cracks.

Motion agreed.