My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the other place yesterday by my honourable friend Kevin Foster, Minister for the Constitution. The Answer is as follows:
“The Government took all the legal steps necessary to prepare for the European parliamentary elections and put in place all the necessary legislative and funding elements to enable returning officers to make their preparations. We worked with returning officers, the Electoral Commission and other agencies, such as the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers and the Association of Electoral Administrators, to support the smooth running of the polls. The Government are greatly appreciative of electoral administrators’ hard work inside and outside of election periods, which resulted in a higher turnout than for previous European parliamentary elections.
Electoral registration officers are under a statutory duty to ensure that people who are eligible to vote in elections have the opportunity to do so. For the recent European parliamentary elections—as for all previous such elections—this included making sure that EU citizens who are resident in the UK and registered to vote in local elections were made aware that they needed to complete a voter registration and declaration form, commonly referred to as a UC1 or EC6, so they could vote in the UK. The Electoral Commission supported EROs in this and encouraged them to take additional steps to raise awareness of this requirement locally, through social media channels and other means.
The UC1 form implements a requirement under EU law. EU Council Directive 93/109/EC requires all member states to send the details of any EU citizens’ declarations to the state they are a citizen of, “sufficiently in advance of polling day”, to ensure that an EU citizen does not vote twice in the same European parliamentary election. This is not a new requirement and has been in place for previous European parliamentary elections. Similar provision applies to UK citizens living in other EU member states. The UC1 form was accessible on the websites of the Electoral Commission, local authorities and Your Vote Matters.
On 5 April, the Electoral Commission published guidance for local returning officers and EROs on the upcoming European parliamentary elections. In it, the Electoral Commission reminded EROs to prepare and issue UC1 forms to EU citizens on the electoral register. On 3 May, the Electoral Commission published guidance advising EU citizens to avoid registering to vote using unofficial registration sites. The guidance further stated:
‘Any EU citizen who wants to vote in the European Parliamentary election in the UK must also print, complete and return a declaration form stating that they will only vote in the UK’.
The guidance also included a link to the Your Vote Matters website, where the form could be downloaded”.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord in thanking returning officers and electoral staff for all that they do, and obviously I make my usual declaration as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Does the noble Lord accept that this is a very unsatisfactory situation where people were denied their right to vote? Is it not another example of why we urgently need to review, amend and update all the laws on elections, electoral registration, campaigning and, of course, the functions and purpose of the Electoral Commission?
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response. I am sorry if anybody who had done the right thing was thereafter denied the right to vote. As he knows, the Electoral Commission will undertake its normal inquiry into this election, as with any other election, and of course we will reflect on the results.
On the noble Lord’s general point, I repeat what I have said on an earlier occasion—probably in response to a question from him: we have an analogue system in a digital age. We are taking some steps: for example, imprints on digital communications; and the Electoral Commission is issuing statutory guidance to distinguish between candidate expenditure and national expenditure. But I repeat my acceptance of an offer that he made earlier to have an all-party meeting with the Minister for the Constitution to see whether we can find a consensual way forward to make sure that we have an electoral system fit for the digital age and fit for purpose.
My Lords, given that the Prime Minister dithered for four weeks between the agreement to extend the Article 50 process, on 11 April, and the official go-ahead for the EP elections, on 7 May, should not the Government take the principal blame for the foreshortened period and the consequent problems that were left in the hands of the electoral authorities? This was also, of course, the main cause of the difficulties with postal votes for UK citizens overseas. Does the Minister accept that this major democratic deficit would not have occurred if the Government had accepted the recommendations made by the Electoral Commission four years ago as a result of difficulties with the previous European parliamentary elections?
As the Minister has just said, and as he has repeated on a number of occasions, we are now faced with a legislative hiatus. Would this not be a good opportunity not just, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, to look at the overall problems with electoral law but particularly to look at the problems that occurred with the last referendum so that we can get it into a better shape before we have the next one this autumn?
The noble Lord raises a number of points, and I shall try to deal with all of them. We were working with the Electoral Commission on streamlining the process following its recommendations after the last European elections, but given the result of the 2016 referendum it was not the Government’s policy to take the reforms forward because our policy was to leave the European Union before the end of March 2019 and therefore before the next election was due.
On his accusations of dithering, I think I can rebut those. On 5 April, when it was clear that we would not be leaving the EU as planned, the Electoral Commission issued guidance that EROs should identify all EU citizens on the local government register and send them the UC1 declaration form accompanied by relevant information about what to do if they wanted to vote for a UK MEP. It also asked the EROs to take additional steps to raise the profile of this requirement. Perhaps I could write to the noble Lord about the arrangements for postal votes.
On the noble Lord’s final point, were there to be another referendum later this year, as he implied, he will know that there would be primary legislation to bring that into effect, and he would have the opportunity to propose any amendments that he wished to the current regime.
My Lords, the Minister may well want to write to me with the answers to some of these questions. I declare an interest as someone who has had a residence in Brussels for the last 40 years, although of course I have been able to vote in only the last couple of elections. I think there is a misunderstanding about what this directive says. The Minister stated that all member states are required to,
“send the details of any EU citizens’ declarations to the state they are a citizen of, ‘sufficiently in advance of polling day’”.
What is the definition of “sufficiently in advance”, and how many declarations did we send to other member states? Could he write saying how many declarations were received from each member state for the elections in 2014 and 2019? Could he also tell us what use they were put to? When I filled in my declaration in Belgium, I was not asked for an address in the United Kingdom, so how is this used to check that people have not voted twice? As a further complication, being a joint citizen of the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom, this year I registered myself in Brussels as a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. How, in any way, could the Republic of Ireland know this, since I am not eligible to vote in the Republic of Ireland as it has different regulations? I just ask—
My Lords, could the Minister resist any temptation to spend too much time, energy and public money on dealing with all these questions? Of course, the simple way to avoid all the difficulties that Members have identified with these elections would have been to observe the decision of the British people in 2016 to hold no more of them. Can he help the House, at least in one respect, to avoid any further waste of money? There was a reference in his Statement to the fact that full funding was provided to returning officers for all their needs; I am sure that is the case. Can he tell us precisely what the cost to the taxpayer has been for holding these totally unnecessary elections; or, if he does not have the information available now, can he put it in the Library?
I agree with the noble Lord that, had the other place agreed the withdrawal agreement that was put before it, we could have avoided these elections. It so happens that I have in front of me some information relating to his question. The cost of the last European elections was £109 million, but that was shared with local elections. The amount of money set aside this time, when they did not coincide with local elections, was £159 million.
My Lords, would it not help to calm those who were understandably upset by recent events if this House used much of the time we have at the moment, while we are treading water, to take the moral high ground and pass legislation giving full rights to EU nationals living in this country?
My Lords, was part of the problem the fact that some of the electoral advice given to the various returning officers was not accurate? Many local authorities used discounted mailing, rather than Royal Mail. This made a massive difference to the number of days that posted items took to reach those eligible to vote. Should that not be put right in instructions from the Home Office to the electoral returning officers?
As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, the Electoral Commission will carry out its normal review and inquiry into the European elections. It will certainly look at the issue raised by the noble Lord that some of the forms do not reach the people eligible. The Government will of course take notice of any recommendations made.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will recall that, at the weekend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggested that the Conservative leadership election makes it now practically impossible for us to leave in good order on 31 October. Mr Michael Gove, as a candidate for that leadership, has also suggested that we might take rather longer. This begins to open up the prospect that we could indeed have the 2020 local elections before we get to the point of deciding whether we finally leave. We need to make absolutely sure that the position of EU citizens resident in Britain and their right to vote is clarified before we come to the next round of elections in which they are entitled to participate. Can he ensure that the Electoral Commission has that fully in mind?