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Elections: Personation

Volume 792: debated on Tuesday 4 September 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the level of personation at elections in Great Britain.

My Lords, the Electoral Commission publishes information on allegations of electoral fraud at elections, including those of personation. In due course the Electoral Commission will publish a report covering polls held in 2018. On 3 May this year, pilots requiring voters to present ID before voting in person were held in five local authorities. In July, the Electoral Commission and Cabinet Office published their respective evaluations of the pilots.

My Lords, the Minister declined my invitation to the Government to assess the level of personation by contacting returning officers to see how many tendered ballot papers had been issued. So I asked the Electoral Reform Society to do the job. Using freedom of information requests, it received responses from 239 returning officers, showing that in the general election last year the total number of alternative ballot papers across those 239 council areas that had to be issued when someone turned up at a polling station and found that their name had been used to claim a vote, or perhaps that their vote had been given in error and the wrong name crossed off, was a mere 49. So what justification could there be for rolling out compulsory voter ID at all polling stations?

My Lords, compulsory voter ID was recommended four years ago by the independent Electoral Commission. It has repeated that recommendation several times since. On the Electoral Commission sit representatives of all three parties, including the noble Lord’s own. I remind him that the chair of the Electoral Commission said on this subject last year:

“We have been pressing for this change”—

that is, voter ID—

“not because we believe that voting for someone else … is … a … problem now. But the opportunity for fraud of this kind is clearly there. We want to address this before it becomes a problem, and part of a wider reduction of trust in the system”.

He went on to say that to collect a parcel you have to produce ID, so it is reasonable that you should have to do so when you vote. He went on:

“Unfortunately this proposal risks becoming a political football”—

a sport unknown in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is more to this than just voter impersonation? It is about the very probity of local government. In the inquiry that I carried out for the Prime Minister, I saw many forms of personation and fraud, but it was not the other place that was the target; it was local government. It was to take three or four wards and control a council, which releases hundreds of millions of pounds in contracts and grants. People who do not care about the probity of elections do care about the probity of contracts.

My Lords, the House is grateful for my noble friend’s report, Securing the Ballot, which included some 50 recommendations, nearly all of which are being pursued by the Government, including some that go directly to the issue that he raises: namely, the probity of local government. My noble friend will know better than anyone else that, if the level of corruption in a local authority reaches an unsustainable, unacceptable level, the Government can put in commissioners—which is exactly what my noble friend did with Tower Hamlets.

My Lords, why does the Minister think that so few cases have been investigated and so few prosecutions brought? Is there some failure on the part of the authorities, or is it the case that, while we must always remain vigilant and a greater police presence at polling stations is one way to do that, this crime is committed on very few occasions?

The noble Lord is quite correct to say that there are relatively few convictions. According to the Electoral Commission report for the past year there were 200 allegations of personation in the past four years. He asks the good question: why is it difficult to prosecute? If you think about it, if you go to a polling station and try to vote and you find that somebody else has already voted in your name and you are disfranchised, it is quite difficult to find out who voted in your place. That may be one reason why there are relatively few prosecutions in the case of personation. The introduction of voter ID would of course reduce the risk to a minimum.

Is my noble friend aware that there is still one weakness on the register, namely that of students who are on the register both at their university and at home? Should this not be looked at? I talk as a former honourable Member for a university town who at the time had a majority of 142.

I remember that election well: my majority was 808. My noble friend raises the important issue of students. There were many allegations that some students at the last election voted twice. This issue was raised by Ministers with the appropriate body within the National Police Council, which is pursuing it. There is, I think, a small number of issues outstanding. In many cases, where a student voted twice, on one occasion it would have been as a proxy for another student.

My Lords, is this not one of the many challenges, with associated costs, that would be very simply addressed by ID cards? That is the solution. Why did the coalition Government allow themselves to be led by the nose by the Liberal Democrats and abolish the ID cards that had already been introduced?

I think that the commitment to abolish ID cards was in my party’s manifesto in 2010, as well as in that of the Liberal Democrats. The House will know that the Government are not minded to introduce ID cards. We are making good progress in reducing electoral ballot fraud through voter ID and I think that that is a more proportionate solution than the one proposed by the noble Lord.

Would my noble friend not agree that there is enormous support in the country for the proposition advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan? Manifestos are not infallible and have occasionally been proved to be wrong. Will my noble friend please think again?

My noble friend invites me to make comments way above my pay grade. I am a humble Lord in waiting and spokesman for the Cabinet Office and the Government have made it absolutely clear that they have no plans to introduce ID cards. I will, however, make sure that my seniors in government are aware of my noble friend’s question.

My Lords, my majority when I was first elected was just nine. Is the Minister aware that in the London Borough of Bromley this May, at least 154 could not vote as they did not have the appropriate ID when they tried to do so? Mortgage documents were acceptable as ID but rent books were not. Freedom passes were okay but student travel ID was insufficient. Does this not add up to discrimination on a gerrymandering scale?

No. If the noble Lord looks at the evaluation carried out by the Electoral Commission, he will see that it says:

“The number of people who did not vote because they couldn’t show identification was very small”.

The vast majority who came without the right identification returned later with the correct identification. If he looks at the percentage of all voters who never returned, he will see that the percentage varied between 0.06% and 0.4%. In no way does that constitute what the noble Lord calls “gerrymandering”. Finally, the evaluation concluded that there was,

“no evidence to suggest particular demographics were more affected than others”.

So I wholly reject his assertion that gerrymandering is involved in introducing this recommendation from the Electoral Commission.