Committee (6th Day)
Relevant documents: 13th Report from the Constitution Committee, 5th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 21st Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
152: After Clause 13, insert the following new Clause—
“Voting by EU nationals
In section 1(1) (entitlement to vote in parliamentary elections) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, for paragraph (c) substitute—“(c) is a Commonwealth citizen, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland or a relevant citizen of the Union; and”.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would allow EU citizens to vote in UK parliamentary elections.
My Lords, I regret that the noble Lord, Lord True, is unable to be with us. I gather he is down with Covid, and I send him sympathies. I hope I have not caught it from him—we shall press on. This creates some further difficulties in completing the Bill, on which I hope I may briefly remark. We need to have some discussions between Committee and Report. I hope there will be some—time is short and they need to be fixed up very quickly. As many of us have remarked, the state of the Bill is unsatisfactory. We know that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said that the Bill was unfit for purpose as presented to the Lords. We have explored many areas already in Committee, such as overseas voting, which we debated late at night in our previous sitting, when it was quite clear that the Government did not have answers to a number of our questions. How that will be implemented if the Bill is passed is, to put it mildly, extremely unclear and probably very messy.
We all regret the missed opportunity of this Bill. It is clear that there will have to be another elections Bill within the next two to three years to achieve what the Law Commission proposed, which is a simplification and rationalisation of our electoral law. This Bill is not that.
This group of amendments deals with the tangle of voting rights left by imperial history and various other things, which the Government appear not to be concerned to rationalise. We have rights for Commonwealth citizens. We have had rights for EU citizens. We have no rights for long-term residents from the United States, which is extraordinary given the Conservative Party’s long feeling that we were closer to the United States than any other country.
My Amendment 152 is a probing one to spark a discussion on how we might think about rationalising the system. EU citizens resident in this country for a very long time—there are 100,000 French citizens in the London area alone, for example—have had the right to vote in British elections. Some would say that they should no longer have the right to vote in British parliamentary elections, but the case for the right to vote in British local elections for those who are resident here, pay council tax and contribute to other British taxes seems to me strong. As far as I am aware, the Government have no particular clear ideas on any of this.
Amendment 155 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, takes us to a recommendation of a number of reports that preceded the Bill: that we should move towards a residency requirement. That seems a rational suggestion. It has a clear principle, unlike the present situation. A residency requirement, at least for voting rights in local elections, would be a very sensible way forward. I am very sorry that it is not in the Bill as drafted.
The rationale for extending rights to overseas voters does not seem to go along with a refusal to recognise that the argument for extending the rights of residents to local voting ought to be considered in the same context, but, sadly, the Bill leaves that as tangled as before. Part of the problem is that the concept of UK citizenship is also a tangle of historical legacies and anomalies.
I find it odd that the Government are happy with this. Do they not consider that a wider reform with a clearer rationale for the changes proposed is now needed? Why is it not in the Bill? The passage of this Bill in its current form will require a successor Bill as soon as possible by this Government or their successor. I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak on this amendment because, when I arrived here in 1965, I had an Indian passport and I was surprised when, during the 1966 election, someone said to me, “Have you voted yet?” I said that I did not know I had voting rights in this country. He said, “Get on with it and get yourself registered.” This explained to me that, in the UK, we were subjects, not citizens. It was as subjects of the monarch that we qualified. Since the monarch also ruled over the Empire, all subjects of the Empire were equally qualified to vote in the election.
As far as I remember, the notion of citizenship only came with our membership of the European Union. We began to talk of ourselves as citizens, and we had differently coloured passports and things like that. However, the muddle that the noble Lord referred to in moving his amendment is that we are not clear as to what entitles us to vote. Is it our status as subjects of an empire? Is it our status as local taxpayers, as used to be the case before the universal franchise came in? Is it residency? If there is ever another, better version of this Bill, perhaps the first part of it should clarify the status of an individual under which he or she is qualified to be a voter. Until the muddle is clarified, we will have to proceed with a compromised mish-mash of rights.
My Lords, I also pass on my best wishes to the noble Lord, Lord True, for a speedy recovery. Having had it myself fairly recently, I can say that it is a horrible illness.
I want to move on to the question of Northern Ireland and speak in favour of Amendment 156 in my name, which the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, has signed. It would ensure that EU citizens lawfully resident in Northern Ireland can continue to stand for election and vote in Northern Ireland district elections after the end of the Brexit transition period. It is primarily a probing amendment, however.
In the EU-UK withdrawal agreement, the UK Government committed, under Article 2.1 of the Northern Ireland protocol, to ensuring that certain equalities and human rights in Northern Ireland would continue to be protected after Brexit. Does the Minister—I appreciate that he is filling in at rather late notice—agree with the assessment of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland that the Bill as it stands risks stepping back from those commitments and may in fact be in breach of the UK’s obligations under Article 2.1 of the protocol? Will he undertake to set out, either in response to this amendment or in writing following this debate, the Government’s assessment of the relevant provisions of the Elections Bill in the context of their conformity with our commitments under Article 2.1 of the Northern Ireland protocol?
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, in support of Amendment 156. I also pass on my good wishes to the noble Lord, Lord True, for a speedy recovery. I agree with the thrust of the amendments in this group; as a democrat, I believe in a fully functioning democracy in which all residents are allowed to register to vote, exercise their mandate at elections and be candidates in elections. That is what a functioning democracy is about. Universal franchise is vital in a liberal democracy and should be one of the hallmarks of the UK—free, fair and unencumbered elections.
Amendment 156, in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, deals with that specific Northern Ireland situation. It is a probing amendment. We seek to delete paragraphs 7 to 9 from Schedule 8, which would ensure that all EU citizens lawfully resident in Northern Ireland continue to be able to stand as candidates and vote in district council elections in Northern Ireland.
I was a councillor in Northern Ireland for many years, as was the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, across the Chamber. We valued our time in local government as a learning curve. Many of those who participated in those elections and many new residents in Northern Ireland would also value that participatory part of democracy, in voting in district council elections and having the ability to be a candidate. I can think of a colleague in Derry and Strabane District Council, who is originally from Kenya, and is now a serving councillor.
This section does not apply to British and Irish citizens; it applies to EU citizens who have arrived to reside in Northern Ireland since January 2021 and whose country does not have a reciprocal agreement with the UK. I remind your Lordships, and particularly the Minister, that this is in some ways reminiscent of the “I” voter situation in Northern Ireland, which was removed by the Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act 1989, when everybody in Northern Ireland was granted universal franchise. I remind the Minister that elections and the right to exercise one’s franchise are very emotive issues in Northern Ireland. Please do not go down this road and create further problems with other EU nationalities and create barriers on the island of Ireland. It is highly important that that does not happen, because this is an emotive and politically charged issue, as it deals with EU citizens and excludes them; it could be perceived as a discriminatory provision.
The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, referred to the equality and human rights commissions in Northern Ireland, which are concerned that this provision of the Elections Bill could contravene Article 2 of the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol, which states that there must be
“no diminution of rights, safeguards or equality of opportunity”
provisions, as set out in the Good Friday agreement, resulting from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It could be perceived that this provision, within paragraphs 7 to 9 of Schedule 8 to the Bill, could contravene those rights under Article 2 of the protocol. If passed into law, this provision would create two new types of EU citizenship for the purposes of UK elections law—a qualifying EU citizen and an EU citizen with retained rights—in addition to the EU citizens who do not fall into either of these categories.
The right of EU citizens to vote in local district council elections in Northern Ireland was underpinned by EU law until the end of the transition period. I declare an interest as a member of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland Sub-Committee in your Lordships’ House. We have engaged with Minister Burns, a Minister for the Northern Ireland Office in the other place, on this issue and we have received a response. An identical response was received by the equality and human rights commissions.
In my humble view, so far in those responses the Government have still not set out in full their assessment of the relevant provisions of the Bill in terms of compliance with Article 2. Will the Minister do that today? If that is not possible, will he write? It is most important that that is done to satisfy the concerns of both commissions.
Further, will the Minister and his colleagues commit to meet both commissions in Northern Ireland, either via the Cabinet or the Northern Ireland Office, to discuss Article 2 provisions under the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol and how this contravention and these issues can be addressed to ensure that there is a full, participatory democracy that excludes nobody and includes all?
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 155A in my name, which would give the right to vote in local elections to all those liable to pay council tax to that authority. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, who spoke last week on an amendment concerning the right to vote in parliamentary elections for 16 year-olds who pay income tax. As he pointed out, there is an important principle: there is a connection between a requirement to pay tax and the right to vote. Mine is a probing amendment. Taken as a whole, this group raises the question of whether the key factor for the right to vote should be nationality, residence or liability for taxation—issues which the Bill does little to address.
The Minister will not need to be reminded of the events that took place 3,269 miles to the west of here on 16 December 1773, when a large number of tea chests were thrown into Boston Harbor in protest against the imposition of taxation without representation. Because my aim with Amendment 155A is to secure the right to vote in local elections for all those with an obligation to pay council tax, that would mean taxation with representation. The amendment takes as its starting point the position of those who are required to pay council tax but who cannot vote in the local elections that will decide how the money they pay is spent. There is a principle at stake here: it becomes almost an issue of consumer rights.
In some cases, notably that of EU citizens, a resident here before 31 December 2020 will keep their local vote. However, the right of EU citizens to vote in local elections following our withdrawal from the EU is being denied to those arriving after 31 December 2020, except where reciprocal arrangements or agreements are in place. The implication of this is that citizens of Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, Poland, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta will be able to vote in local elections, but citizens of other EU countries or non-EU countries will not. Except that, if citizens of those other EU countries lived in Wales or Scotland, they would be able to vote in local elections, and indeed for elections to the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments.
Am I alone in finding all these differences very hard to justify? The decisions in Scotland and Wales seem to me to be eminently sensible, although they should go even further and extend the right to vote to non-EU citizens who are paying council tax in those countries.
I want to see the franchise widened and a connection clearly made between taxation and the right to vote. I hope the Minister will be willing to think further about the complications that the Bill will introduce across the United Kingdom. I wish that we were still a United Kingdom, but with so many different rules in different places, with different categories of the right to vote, it is getting far too complicated. My amendment might well solve the problem.
I shall contribute briefly, following the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, in support of Amendment 155A. I too fully support the principle of “no taxation without representation”. If the Minister is unable to support this amendment, I wonder whether he could explain to the House why the Government do not accept this incredibly reasonable principle. How can they not agree to that? I do not get it.
The complexity and confusion referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, will inevitably be caused by introducing different voting rights for EU citizens who arrived in the UK before 2021 and those who arrived in or after 2021, and for those have arrived from one EU country rather than from another. It seems that Scotland and Wales are extremely sensible, as they have managed to adopt residence-based voting rights. The case for a UK-wide approach on this issue is incredibly strong and the Government will need a powerful argument to deny it. I hope they are able to make a sensible decision and accept the amendment.
My Lords, I add my name to those who have expressed their regret that the noble Lord, Lord True, is not in his place to respond to today’s debate. All I can say is that I wish him a good recovery. If he is watching us online, I do not know whether that will aid his recovery or delay it.
The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and other Members, including my noble friend Lord Desai, have all identified that this is an important part of the Bill but it is a mess. It is really difficult to encapsulate what we are trying to talk about, but I wanted to intervene to make one point. One of the general principles that we should apply is that if you have the right to vote, however that is defined, then you should also have the right to be a candidate. You may say that that is a rather simple and obvious thing to say, but I shall give the Committee an example: between 1969 and 2006 we had a period where there were people with the right to vote but not to be a candidate. It is remarkable, really, that it was only in 2006 that the law was changed to allow people from the age of 18 to 21 to be a candidate as well as being an elector. I have good personal reasons for being very well aware of that fact. I wanted to introduce the principle that there is a good case for having a system whereby, if you have the right to vote, you can also be a candidate in the election in question.
My Lords, I also wish to speak in this part of the debate in Committee on these amendments.
I have to be totally honest with the Committee: when I was asked to be part of the team on this Bill, I was not an expert on elections other than that I had been a candidate and I had been the leader of a council and seen election officers’ work close up. As we have progressed through the Bill, some issues have become clearer but some have confused me even more as we have debated them. This is a part of the Bill that really confuses me. What is the basis of the electoral franchise in the UK? What is the platform that is easily understood by a citizen? This is an example of why electoral law needs to be simplified.
I want to deconstruct what that means in the terms of my noble friend Lord Shipley’s Amendment 155A. Let us take it down to ordinary citizens. In a local authority area, you could have someone who owns a holiday home, and so has an address there, but they never live there. They rent that accommodation out for 52 weeks a year, yet they have a right to vote there. They do not use the services and do not contribute other than in council tax. Another person lives there for 365 days a year, works in the local area and pays taxes, volunteers at the local food bank, is an upstanding member of the community and gets involved in litter picks, is an active citizen in the community, uses the bin service, wants to get involved in planning and is affected by planning policy, has friends who use social care, wishes to use the library—and library services are starting to charge—and uses all the local services but, because of either where they came from or when they came to the UK, they do not have a vote. Yet someone in that area who has no connection other than that they can purchase a holiday home can vote.
I very much agree with the thrust of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. In the light of that, would he apply a similar argument to the extension of the franchise, contained in a different part of this Bill, to some 2 million overseas electors who have not been in the country for 40, 50 or 60 years and do not pay taxes here? Does he agree that that is an oddity in our electoral system as well?
The noble Lord is just slightly ahead of me, because I was going to come on to that. I will answer his question, but I was just pointing out very clearly the inconsistencies in what happens at local level. I will then answer his question on the other issue with what I was going to say, because if the Bill passes in this form, we will have to consider that. Will the Minister explain in very simple terms, to somebody who is not an expert in elections but just an ordinary citizen, how that can be justified? There must be a sense of fairness as the basis for people voting at local elections.
On national issues, if the Bill passes, we could also be in the situation referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Take somebody who has not been in this country for 50 or 60 years: they have no family here; they do not pay taxes here; they left when they were 18 and have never worked here. They will be able to vote. At the same time, there are some people who have been here for 20 or 30 years, who pay their taxes and work here, but because of their status, they cannot vote. Can the Minister explain how that would be perceived as fair and a good platform for our electoral process? It seems to me that this is an important matter. This is the whole basis on which people not just pay tax and are citizens but actually influence services and taxes that affect their very life by being resident here. But as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, if the Bill passes, people who have not lived here for 50 years will have the right to vote and influence government policy, even though it does not directly affect them.
My Lords, I wish to send my good wishes to my noble friend Lord True. I hope that if he has got Covid at all, he has it very mildly—he might think that preferable to another day on this Elections Bill Committee. I certainly wish him well, as I am sure we all do.
I made common cause with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on various occasions in the past, and I shall do so again when we get to Amendment 197 in group 6 on donations. However, I am afraid that I part company with him on this occasion, and I take a rather different—some might say old-fashioned—view.
I go back again to my Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement and some of the evidence that we got and lessons that we learned while going through that episode. As good citizens, we all have rights, but we have an equal and opposite number of responsibilities. Unless each of us understands the balance between those two things, our society might become fractured.
One of the things that most obsesses me about our modern society is the increasingly widely held view that to compromise is to show yourself as weak. Modern social media shows us with reinforcing messages that we are right—and we all want to be proved right—and has fed that view in a very bad way. But compromise is the oil that makes our society work, and without it, as I said, it will become fractured and tense. I am spending a few seconds on this because it shows what a highly complex matter it is to be involved in the detail of a country—the balance that needs to be struck and for which, for younger people, good citizenship education is really key and important.
Although I will support the Government if they are going to reject the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I have to say that, after all the work that we have done and all the good words we have heard about citizenship education, today’s White Paper of 60 pages has only one mention of citizenship education in the whole thing. How will we get people to connect with what it means to be a citizen if we do not get that properly taught? I regard this as a very sad and sorry miss by the Government; I hope that something can be done about it as we develop the White Paper and the proposals in it.
I accept that the rights that come with citizenship in this country include a right to vote and, of course, it is absolutely essential that we encourage people to use that right. However, it is also a privilege for which earlier generations have strived, fought and occasionally, unfortunately, died. Having the right to vote is not like getting a driving licence or even a passport. The act of voting goes to the very heart of how our country is run, the philosophy and practices that we follow and the values that we endorse. Put simply, to be entitled to vote, you need to show pretty irrevocably that you intend to make this country your home, by becoming a citizen; then, of course, you are welcome to join the rest of us in deciding how the country is run.
Reading through some papers for this debate, I noticed that this country was described by a US commentator on a final dispatch before she returned to the United States as
“complex, incorrigible, often infuriating, endlessly perplexing, stroppy, ironic and fiercely disputatious”.
We are trying to decide how our Government are to deal with a society that can be described in that way. I am afraid I cannot accept that someone who pops over from, say, France should be able to vote in our elections any more than I should be able to vote if the situation were reversed. In short, the privilege of voting requires a combination of long-term commitment, physical presence and an understanding of current British life and how it is lived therein. I note that Amendment 155 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, seems to be groping towards some further developments in that area and I have some sympathy with what she is trying to achieve, particularly for those resident in a country where there are reciprocal voting arrangements, but I fear that her approach is probably too complex or possibly too open to abuse of this great privilege.
I have two final points to make. First, as I said, I can see the arguments for widening the franchise in cases of reciprocal rights being given by another country. That is an argument to which we shall come in more detail in Amendment 154 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, in support of which I expect to speak. Finally, some noble Lord—probably the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, or the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—will say that my remarks run completely counter to the provisions of Clause 12 extending the right of British citizens anywhere in the world indefinitely to vote in UK elections. Such an accusation would be correct. I think the Government have misjudged this issue, to put it no higher, and that our manifesto commitment was a plain mistake. For someone to be able to emigrate to Australia or retire to Jamaica and have continued participation in UK elections over tens of years seems plain wrong, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said. What can a person know about life in Britain after an absence of 20 or more years? Why should they have an equal say to a person who has lived here and contributed to the life of this country throughout that period? However, the fact that this is an ill-advised policy does not mean that we should add another ill-advised policy to it, and I am afraid that I regard the policy proposed in Amendment 152 as just that.
My Lords, I offer Green support for the general trend of these amendments. I also join the rest of the House in wishing the noble Lord, Lord True, a quick recovery. I very much agree with the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, and disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. If someone is here contributing to society and is a part of this community—maybe that is only for 20 or 30 years and maybe they will eventually go back to the country they came from, to care for their elderly parents or another reason—they should have a say. They have chosen to make this their home and we should recognise that with the vote.
It is really interesting if we look at the overall context of the Bill—and I very much agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, about the general sense of confusion and the lack of a real sense of clear direction—that where there is a sense of direction, it is utterly the wrong direction. As we were talking about with voter ID and offering a positive alternative of automatic voter registration, we have seen a trend over centuries for more and more people to have the right to vote. Yet, what we have done right now with the Brexit situation and with the rules as they currently are with the Bill without these amendments is that fewer and fewer people are having the right to have a say. That is a diminution of what democracy we actually have.
I very much agree with the comment from the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, that if you are able to vote, you should be able to stand. There is a really interesting case study related to that of the kind of tangles that electoral law can get itself into. Between 1918 and 1928, there were certain groups of women who could stand but not vote. The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918—with 27 words, it is the shortest law on the statute book—created a rather strange tangle where women were able to stand, and indeed some women did stand, when they could not vote for themselves. That really is an illustration of how you can get yourself into a mess when things are not properly thought through.
I have some very specific questions. I am aware that the Minister has kind of been landed with this, so I entirely understand if he might wish to write to me later. One of the things that perhaps many of us in your Lordships’ House do not think about very much is that there is another reason to be on the electoral roll beyond voting: being on the electoral roll is good for your credit rating and improves your access to credit. I will confess, it is something I have used many times on the doorstep to encourage people to go on the electoral roll. One of the things we will do with this current change is to make access to credit more difficult for some people, such as EU citizens who do not qualify for the vote. As we are seeing with all these complications, I wonder whether the Government have really looked at this situation and considered whether it is appropriate to allow that to continue when we are randomly taking that right away from people.
We have already heard very clearly laid out from a range of noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, all the complicating factors about whether you are allowed to be on the electoral roll or not. Are the Government confident that they have given full and clear instructions to all the local authorities in the land to ensure that they are able to implement this effectively? Are people on the roll rightly when they should be? With local elections coming up, I am sure all of us, except perhaps the Cross-Benchers, know people who are out now knocking on doors and talking to voters and potential voters. Is there a place where the Government have set this all out very clearly so political campaigners out encouraging people to get involved can find out who is eligible to vote and who is not? That would be a very useful practical resource to have.
This is something that has just occurred to me as we have been going through the debate: I imagine that to vote when you do not have the right to vote is an offence. Are the Government going to provide directions to acknowledge that some people, with the best will in the world and no ill intention, will end up voting in this coming and future elections when they do not have the right? I think people in that situation should be protected, given the complexities that we have all just heard outlined.
I will briefly make two other specific points. On an earlier group, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I think, noted how Scotland has given refugees the right to vote. Given the situation that we see in a world with more and more refugees, and as we will, I hope, welcome more refugees here, I wonder whether the Government have considered that.
I declare my position as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong. Of course, BNO passport holders have the right to vote, but their children will not—so it could literally be that someone who was born in Hong Kong on a certain day has the right to vote, but a person born there one day later does not. So have the Government considered the situation of the children of BNO passport holders who have come here with their parents now? The Government have said that they are looking to allow, from September, the children of BNO passport holders to come on their own—so might that not be another group to consider?
Since I have just introduced several other layers of complexity, is not the obvious situation to base this right to vote on residence? If people have made themselves part of the community and contributed to it, that should be the basis of the right to vote.
My Lords, I will speak briefly to Amendment 156 in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. I too extend my best wishes to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, for a speedy recovery.
This amendment is specifically to do with Northern Ireland, and its basis rests on an interpretation of Article 2 of the Northern Ireland protocol to the withdrawal agreement. The ability to stand for election and vote of EU citizens who were resident at the end of the transition period—or the implementation period, as it was called—on 31 December 2020 is clearly preserved. There is no argument about that; it is set out and is the legal position. So we are talking here about EU citizens who arrived in the UK—or Northern Ireland—after that. I understand that this is a probing amendment, but it is worth pointing out that EU citizens who have arrived since 1 January 2021 will move to a position whereby voting and candidacy rights are granted where there is an agreement with the European Union member state that they came from—they are preserved on a bilateral basis. That is the normal accepted position.
There has been a reliance on an interpretation of Article 2 of the protocol, and a lot of claims are made, appealing to not just the letter but the spirit of the Northern Ireland protocol, with all sorts of extravagant positions that would otherwise not be deemed to be rational or even democratic. People talk about taxation with no representation, and laws are now made over vast swathes of the economy of Northern Ireland, despite no Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, for which elections will take place on 5 May, or of this or the other House being able to have any say or vote on them. People are running for election to the Assembly in Northern Ireland to make laws for Northern Ireland, yet, in vast swathes of the economy, they have no powers whatever—those laws are imposed on them by the European Union on a dynamic basis, in over 300 areas of law. In a modern 21st-century democracy, that raises severe problems about the democratic deficit.
I return to this particular amendment. Article 2 of the protocol confers no right on Northern Ireland citizens to have voting rights in an EU member state in which they choose to reside. Therefore, it would seem bizarre to argue that it confers rights on EU citizens to vote in Northern Ireland district elections—that seems totally incongruous and spurious, and it is a wrong-headed argument. For that reason, I would obviously oppose that amendment if it is pressed.
My Lords, I too wish the noble Lord, Lord True, a speedy recovery and a quick return to duty, hopefully in time for Report. I am sure that the noble Earl would be pleased by that.
This has been a very good debate, because it has focused on broader issues of principle which we need to probe the Government on. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is absolutely right, as we have said at a number of stages, that this Bill represents missed opportunities. It is not so much what is in it as what is not in it that has been a problem. I am sure that the amendments which we have tabled will be considered. If they are not in this legislation, we will return to these broader issues of principle. The one thing that we would have all hoped for in terms of that right to vote is clarity, which we do not get here for all kinds of reasons, not least legacy reasons. Noble Lords have spoken about the complications that we will now face which we had not faced previously, not least that we will have some EU citizens with the right to vote and some without the right to vote, based on when they arrived—an arbitrary date as far as they are concerned.
Of course, the principle that we have sought to highlight in our amendment is what sort of qualification would make sense, would be clear and would be easily understood. We bandy terms such as “no taxation without representation” around, but lots of people who should be perfectly entitled to vote do not pay tax, particularly council tax. Residency is an important principle and perhaps the missed opportunity that this Bill could have addressed more properly, not least because of that legacy. I am not arguing at all for a change in what happened in the Brexit vote. We have left the EU. However, there is a legacy that we must consider there, particularly on people who have made their home here.
I must declare an interest, not least because in my household, with every general election that comes around, we are denied the right to vote. I wish we could vote but we cannot. My husband has lived here for 27 years; he has been a taxpayer, a national insurance payer and a council tax payer. He is a member of the Labour Party, has campaigned for candidates and has voted in every local election that he has been permitted to. The legacy of that will continue. The complication is that it will not apply to other EU citizens who establish the right of residency, who work here and who pay tax here. After a certain date they will not have that right to vote. It causes unnecessary complication.
Throughout this Bill I have readily agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, particularly on citizenship education—and by the way, citizenship education should not be limited to citizens of the United Kingdom. The rights and responsibilities of living in this country should be understood by all who live in this country, and we would create a much safer society if we undertook that responsibility. That is why we should consider a right to vote based on the clear principle of residency. Maybe we will not have the opportunity in this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said that people who just pop over here should not have the right to vote. However, because of our legacy as an empire and our legacy in terms of the Commonwealth, it is a bit ironic that a student from Australia on an overseas experience visa can land in this country and get the right to vote, but my husband, who has been here for 27 years and paid tax, does not. It does not really make sense.
This is, sadly, a missed opportunity. Amendment 156, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and my noble friend, deals with precisely that issue: instead of clarity we end up with confusion, with some people having the right to vote and others not, but both having the right of residency and to work and pay tax and national insurance. This country will have to consider that at some stage, if not now. I hope the Minister will understand why we have tabled our amendment. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, that this is a missed opportunity. I am sure none of these amendments will be agreed to, but I hope that the principle we are trying to establish will be considered in the future.
My Lords, I begin by conveying the regret of my noble friend Lord True that he is unable to be in his place today because of illness. As a result of his indisposition, the Committee finds itself with a deputy Minister in the shape of me. That is a privilege for me, but I am only glad that I am so ably supported by my noble friend Lady Scott in this endeavour.
My Lords, this group of amendments deals from various perspectives with the voting franchise in the context of UK national elections. I hope that I can be of help to noble Lords in setting out the Government’s approach to this issue and the logic that lies behind it. I was grateful to my noble friend Lord Hodgson for what he said in connection with Amendment 152, which I shall begin with.
The purpose of Amendment 152 is to require the Government to allow EU citizens to vote in UK parliamentary elections. It may be helpful if I explain our policy position on this. Our policy has always been that after our exit from the EU there should not be a continued automatic right to vote and stand in local elections solely by virtue of being an EU citizen. The provisions in this Bill are based on two main planks: first, to respect the existing rights of those who chose to make their homes in the UK before the end of the implementation period; secondly, to look to retain rights on a bilateral basis where possible.
Amendment 152 would extend the parliamentary franchise to EU citizens where no such rights previously existed. In a similar vein, Amendment 156 seeks to allow EU citizens to continue to vote and stand in local elections in Northern Ireland. Those who are nationals of an EU member state have never been able to vote in UK parliamentary elections by virtue of their EU citizenship. If an EU citizen becomes a British citizen, they will be eligible for the parliamentary franchise from that point.
The Government stand by their commitment to EU citizens resident before EU exit, and the Bill ensures that any EU citizen who was a resident before the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020 and who has retained lawful immigration status will retain their voting and candidacy rights in England and Northern Ireland. This goes beyond our obligations in the withdrawal agreement. EU citizens who arrived after the end of the transition period will move to a position whereby local voting and candidacy rights rest on the principle of a mutual grant of rights through voting and candidacy rights agreements with individual EU member states.
On Amendment 156, the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Ritchie, and the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, referred to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. As was rightly said, both those commissions have sought clarification on EU voting and candidacy rights in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. The UK Government’s position is very clear and has been explained to both commissions. Removing voting and candidacy rights from EU citizens arriving in Northern Ireland after the implementation date does not run counter to article 2 of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Article 22 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union confers a right to vote and stand as a candidate in municipal elections only in respect of EU nationals who are resident in another member state, having exercised their rights of free movement and residence. As the UK is no longer a member state, EU citizens self-evidently no longer enjoy the right to reside here, so the ancillary article 22 right to vote and participate in municipal elections is no longer applicable to it in this context. This is entirely consistent with part 2 of the withdrawal agreement, “Citizens’ rights”. I hope that is helpful.
I submit to your Lordships that the Government’s approach is a sensible and fair one, whereby established rights are recognised while moving to new bilateral agreements with individual nation states in the EU. I am afraid, therefore, that the Government cannot accept either of these amendments.
Amendment 155 is intended to extend the parliamentary franchise to foreign nationals with certain types of immigration status in the UK. The right to choose the next UK Government is rightly restricted to British citizens and those with the closest historical links to our country. In this respect, the UK is in line with international norms. Citizenship is the normal criterion for participating in national elections in most democracies, including the UK.
Amendment 155A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, proposes to enfranchise all who pay council tax in the relevant local authority area. Taxation has never been the basis for representation in the UK in modern times. There is a long-standing principle in the UK, as originally recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 1998, that those who do not pay income tax, such as those earning less than the tax-free personal allowance, rightly remain entitled to vote. Similarly, full-time students are legally exempt from paying council tax but still have the right to vote in local elections. So, I submit that that connection between taxation and voting does not exist. The Government hold to that principle and therefore cannot support Amendment 155A.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, asked me a number of questions. I will arrange for a letter to be sent to her, but I will comment on her point about credit scoring and being on the electoral roll. The noble Baroness is, of course, not wrong in pointing out that credit reference agencies use the electoral roll to enable lenders and other service providers to confirm someone’s identity. However, it is true to say that lenders look at the entirety of the information on a person’s credit side, as well as other factors, to decide whether to lend to somebody. Lenders and other providers of financial services can ask for other forms of identity and confirmation.
The noble Baroness also asked whether we were taking steps to inform local authorities about the measures being taken. The Government are very conscious of the competing priorities that local authorities have and, particularly, electoral registration offices, both in relation to their business as usual activity and in the new activity that will be conferred by the Elections Bill. We are committed to working closely with the electoral community throughout the development of secondary legislation and implementation planning. We will commit to funding all new burdens incurred by EROs as a result of implementing this policy, as is customary.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, raised an issue from his personal experience. I believe that it is one that we will reach when we come to consider Amendment 154 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, so perhaps we can come to it at that point.
In summary, the Government have no plans to extend the parliamentary franchise in this way, either to EU citizens or to foreign nationals, and in consequence I am afraid that I cannot support these amendments.
Before the Minister sits down, he rightly said that taxation has not historically been used as a justification for the right to vote, but have the Government actually looked at it? In the context of a Bill that will supposedly rationalise and make sense out of our electoral system, have the Government looked at the idea that taxation would be a good, sensible rationale for the right to vote—at least at local elections, where it would be a lot more straightforward than national elections?
My Lords, I understand where the noble Baroness is on this. I think one has to distinguish national elections from local elections, and the rules do so in respect of the various categories of individuals who live in this country. To answer her question directly: the Government have looked at this issue and we do not believe that a change is warranted. As I say, we do not deny the vote to those who happen not to be earning. Equally, we do not grant the vote, in general elections, to foreign nationals who happen to pay council tax. I think there are good reasons for that.
Before the Minister sits down, can I clarify what he has said about liability for payment? My Amendment 155A relates to the liability to pay council tax. Where people are excused, they might otherwise be liable to pay council tax but, because of government legislation, they have been excused the need to do so. I make the point that although I planned this as a probing amendment, I now realise we have a much bigger issue to address, and we will need to discuss this further on Report.
My Lords, this has been a very useful debate, which has yet again exposed how unco-ordinated and ill thought through this Bill is. I strongly agree with what the Minister said: local elections are different from national elections. Indeed, in the late-night debate we had last week on overseas voting, it was pointed out that overseas electors are allowed to vote in our national elections but not in our local elections. If there is a good, rational argument for that, then there is an equally strong argument why long-term residents in Britain should be allowed to vote in local elections but not in national elections. If one were to think these things through, and clearly the Government have not, we would be moving in that sort of direction.
Similarly, if we had automatic voter registration, the complexities of residents and non-residents would be clearer. Incidentally, the logic that says overseas electors are not allowed to vote in local elections because they no longer have any connection with the local area goes completely against the logic that they should be allocated to constituencies, which they have lost touch with over the decades since they were in Britain. That is why I put down the amendment on the creation of overseas constituencies, but that has not been thought through either.
We all understand, as someone said to me at the weekend, that the Bill is driven by staff in No. 10 who are above all concerned with increasing the chances that the Conservatives win the next election. One of the strongest arguments for prioritising overseas voter registration over other categories is that they are thought to be more likely to vote Conservative.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. As I understood it, it was official Liberal Democrat party policy to scrap the 15-year rule that has existed up to now on overseas voters. Can he confirm that that is the case, because that is what the Bill does.
Yes, and to create overseas constituencies. I am looking at the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, who was deeply shocked to be told by the noble Lord, Lord True, in a meeting a few weeks ago when he recommended the creation of overseas constituencies on the French model that that was Liberal Democrat policy. I hope he has now recovered from the shock.
There are tremendous problems with the Bill and the failure to connect all these dimensions. We will come in the sixth group to one of the other reasons why the Conservatives want to push ahead with extending the rights to overseas voting without thinking through the other dimensions of it, which the Liberal Democrats have thought through—the expectation that, once overseas voters are on register, they will be able to increase the systemic advantages—
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for talking about people thinking through the consequences of legislation, and of amendments. I remain puzzled by the Liberal Democrat policy that these 2.5 million additional people, who have never lived in this country, other than maybe for a very short time when they were very young, and who do not pay taxes into or own property in this country—not that that should be a qualification to vote, of course—must now be given the right to vote, should they choose to do so, in British general elections. There are lots of ramifications that the noble Lord has not thought through.
There are lots of ramifications that we have discussed extensively. I am happy to discuss them with the noble Lord off the Floor. What I am objecting to is dashing ahead with this without the creation of special constituencies and a number of other things that would begin to match the demand for them to come in.
The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, might be disappointed to hear me say that we do not disagree on very much. I strongly agree with his emphasis on citizenship. The badge of a liberal democracy is active citizenship. One of the things that most concerns me about the drift of politics and legislation in this country is that we are heading towards a much more passive model of citizenship and a much more populist model of democracy. That is another thing to which, in broader terms, we must at some point return.
For the moment, having recognised that the Government have not worked out what they want on all this, and that they have inherited a tangle of historical rights to vote and denials of the right to vote, I am happy to withdraw my amendment. I hope this might just possibly be one of the issues we will discuss between Committee and Report.
Amendment 152 withdrawn.
153: After Clause 13, insert the following new Clause—
“Members of the House of Lords: voting at elections to the House of Commons
(1) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a member of the House of Lords is not disqualified by virtue of that position from voting at elections to the House of Commons.(2) This section comes into force 24 months after the day on which this Act is passed.(3) This section extends to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.”
My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I speak to Amendment 153 standing in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. On his behalf, I express his regret that he is not able to be here today. He is away on urgent matters, but I am sure he will be here at later stages of the Bill if we need to debate this again.
There is a very simple proposition in this amendment: that Members of this House should be entitled to vote. That is an argument that has gone on for many years. Indeed, I traced it back to 1699, thanks to the excellent report from the House of Lords Library, but it may have started even earlier. They have done a good job. They produced that report when I put forward a Private Member’s Bill on this subject. It passed this House, but I will come on to what happened to it when it got to the House of Commons. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, also put forward a Bill, but his was talked out. He and I are united in our wish to see progress on this matter.
The situation is anomalous. Part of the debate on this amendment has been covered in that on the previous amendments. I could have extracted some quotations in support of this if I had been quick enough to write them down. Members of this House can vote in local elections. We can vote for the devolved Administrations. We can vote in referenda. Previously, we could vote in European elections. It seems anomalous that there is one election in which we cannot vote. It is quite difficult for local government returning officers to know that we are not entitled to vote when they prepare the electoral list, as we are there for other things. I have never quite understood how they discover that we are Members of this House—they are clever people. At any rate, mistakes are sometimes made. Historically, Members of this House have voted and then there has been a bit of a row about it, because they were on the voting list and were not excluded from voting in parliamentary elections. It is an anomaly.
It is also an anomaly that Members on the Bishops’ Benches can vote. Though they may not exercise their right to vote for other reasons, they certainly have it. If we look abroad, United States Senators can vote for Congress, which seems fairly parallel to the position we are in. Indeed, according to that excellent House of Lords Library report, of the 189 countries in the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the United Kingdom is the only country in which members of the second chamber cannot vote in general elections for the first chamber. We are the only country, yet some of the arguments against must apply elsewhere.
I agree that most of the British population are not aware of this. Indeed, when I talk to friends, I have to remind them that I am not allowed to vote when it comes up in conversation. I am fully aware that the masses who sometimes demonstrate in Parliament Square are not going to assemble there to support our right to vote. However, not every change in this country has to be the subject of enormous demos, much as I enjoy some of the demos and have been on them—that was a debate we had on the police Bill, and it is not appropriate today. The fact is that this is still an anomaly.
In preparing for today’s debate, I had to remind myself of some of the arguments against. There was a debate in 1936. It was introduced by a predecessor of a Member of this House, Lord Hailsham, and the proposal for reform was put forward by Lord Ponsonby, whose son is now in this House, so there is a tradition in this. They had a much longer debate than we will have today, I trust, for the sake of the Front Benches on both sides. The then Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, said in talking about reform that
“it is not a wise thing to attempt to deal with a problem of this character piecemeal because, inevitably, you would get questions the answers to which might affect the attitude which your Lordships would take with regard to one particular proposal and the attitude you were going presently to take with regard to some other proposal on the other side of the picture.”
That is quite a complicated sentence, but I think it means he is against piecemeal reform. It is arguments against piecemeal reform that have bedevilled discussion on this.
I do not understand the argument why opposing piecemeal reform is a good thing. In our British tradition, pretty well all reforms are piecemeal, even from people who are on the political extremes. We normally progress piecemeal; we do things stage by stage. The argument that everything should be done in one go seems rather weak. I cannot resist quoting from the reply by the previous Lord Ponsonby. Admittedly, the proposition at that time was twofold: that we should have the right to vote; and that Members of this House should be entitled to stand in House of Commons elections. I would not suggest that at all, and most of the debate was about that second point: Members of the Lords being able to stand in House of Commons elections. Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede made this comment:
“It is perfectly absurd to say that this is a matter of the reform of the House of Lords or reform of the House of Commons. It is, if I may respectfully say so, an old trick of the noble and learned Viscount”—
that is, Lord Hailsham—
“to use a magnifying glass in order to make a mole-heap into a mountain and then all the more easily to destroy it.”—[Official Report, 12/2/1936; cols. 568-73.]
I liked that phrase, so I had to bring it in somewhere into our debate today.
The point is that the actual arguments against have been mainly opposition to piecemeal reform, the argument that we should not cherry pick, as if cherry picking was some reprehensible human activity. The second argument is that we already have influence on legislation. Of course we do; so do American Senators. The point in an election is to influence who are to be the Government of the day. Legislation comes later. It is because we do not have the right to influence who will be the Government of the day that I propose this amendment. The Joint Committee on Human Rights wrote some time ago, when there was a coalition Government, to the then Deputy Prime Minister, who again used the piecemeal argument as one reason not to do it.
I shall be brief. I remember that one or two people sitting here today objected to my Private Member’s Bill that passed this House. I know who they are, and I can see them, but perhaps they have changed their minds. I speak like a right reverend Prelate: I like repenting sinners, and perhaps they are repenting sinners by now. My Private Member’s Bill passed here about nine years ago, but it then had to go to the House of Commons. There is a procedure in the House of Commons—not a very healthy one; most of your Lordships will know it. If a Bill from here goes to the Commons and is called, if one voice says “Object!”, it kills it. No argument needs to be put forward; indeed, the identity of the objector is kept secret, it is not revealed.
I wrote to several MPs who I knew tended to object as a matter of course and asked them not to. I was in the Gallery watching, and I do not know who shouted “Object!”, but somebody did. I have reason to believe that the objection was not Back-Bench but government-inspired, on the argument that the coalition Government did not want piecemeal reform, they wanted to wait until there was reform to everything.
This is such a basic proposition that nobody in their right mind can really object to it. The constitution will not be undermined. We will not change the structure or powers of the Lords. All we are doing is giving us as individuals the right to vote. Many of us canvass and campaign in elections but then, come election day, I have asked people to vote but we are not able to vote.
As a token of my seriousness, the original version of my amendment said that it should be enacted within 12 months. I thought that was pretty difficult for returning officers and local government to get the voting lists right, so I have made one change and it now says that it should be brought into being in 24 months. This is a serious proposition; I urge your Lordships to support it.
My Lords, I generally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. He makes some extremely powerful speeches in this House and when he is talking about refugees, I am generally 100% behind him. But I do oppose this amendment, and I oppose it for one simple reason that I will put before your Lordships very briefly: we do not have the vote because we are permanent Members of Parliament. It is as simple as that. United States Senators are not permanent members of the Senate: they come up for re-election on a rotating basis every six years. We do not.
There is another argument to be had. I am personally—and your Lordships know this—in favour of a non-elected second Chamber. I am in favour of that for many reasons, including the gridlock that would inevitably emerge if there were two elected Chambers. But that is not what we are debating this afternoon. We are permanent Members, we are here, and it is for that reason and that reason only that we do not vote for the other House: because we have this permanent responsibility. Whatever the result of the next general election—in 2024, 2023 or whenever it happens—we will still come back here. That is the reason why it is illogical and unnecessary to argue that we should have a vote in general elections. It would make absolutely no difference to the result, because even if everybody in your Lordships’ House cast a vote around the country, you are talking about significantly fewer than 1,000 votes—I wish we were talking of no more than 600 but that, again, is another issue.
So, I hope we can move on quickly and stick with the Bill in this particular phase as it is. Like others, I send my warm good wishes for the speedy recovery of my noble friend Lord True, and I assure my noble friend Lord Howe that he has my total support on this issue.
My Lords, I came into this Chamber absolutely not caring about the outcome of this—I was waiting for subsequent groups. But actually, having heard both speeches, I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. In spite of all the respect and affection I have for the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I cannot see that what he said makes any difference at all. So what if we are permanent? We come and go, we do not always survive very long here, we can retire or die, so I do not see the relevance of what he is saying. And, of course, he pointed out that if we all voted it would not make any difference. We all have our views and we all vote in other ways in other elections, so I salute the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for his thorough examination of this problem and I completely support him. I had never given it a thought before—I had not minded about not voting, but now I do.
My Lords, I am sure we all hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, lasts for a long time in this House. She is a great asset to this place, particularly given the brevity and pointedness of her speeches. I have to say that I agree with my noble friend Lord Cormack, because there is no doubt that he is constitutionally absolutely correct—and he has the better argument.
However, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, hit firmly on one point in his speech: in the registration document which we all have to fill in to vote in local elections and so forth, often, there is no category for “Lord”, “Lady” or “Baroness”. I do not know what other Members’ experience has been, but I had some difficulty, living in Hammersmith and Fulham, filling this in. I rang up the registration office and said, “I can’t vote in national elections—are you aware of this?” They said, “There is no category on the computer that allows for this, so we will have to put you down and just rely on your native honesty that you do not actually vote”. Well, I can assure the House that I am an honest person, as are all its Members. None the less, there is a discrepancy and a difficulty here, and I hope the Minister can draw it to the attention of others.
In the six general elections since I have been a Member of this House, I have always found people to be very surprised that I was unable to cast a vote in them, even though I campaigned in all of them. They find it ironic that I have been campaigning for my party, and its predecessor the Liberal Party, for some 49 years, but I now no longer have a say on who will be the Prime Minister of the country.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I am not an opponent of piecemeal reform of this House; I am actually rather in favour of radical reform, and quickly. However, if we had objected to piecemeal reform, this place would be the same as it was in the 19th century. All the progress on reform of your Lordships’ House has been piecemeal, and this amendment would also be an example of piecemeal reform. The principle of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was debated extensively when it formed the basis of two recent Private Members’ Bills, and there was a clear logic to the proposition. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 ensured that Peers lost the power of an absolute veto on legislation, or to determine any financial measure. As Peers, we have no opportunity to vote at a general election to help decide who becomes Prime Minister. Therefore, in those debates on the Private Members’ Bills, I supported the principle of Peers being able to vote in general elections, but I also emphasised that it is not my party’s immediate priority. There are many measures in this Bill which may have considerable impact on future elections, but this is not one of them. As the noble Lord, Lord Horam, pointed out, if membership of the House were evenly distributed across 650 constituencies, there would, on average, be one extra voter on top of some 73,000 others. Therefore, it would be unlikely to make a great deal of difference to the election outcome—although it was of course Churchill who said that “one vote is enough”.
The issue we are debating is really one of principle. As an issue of principle, it is ironic, in my view and that of my party, for any Peer to argue for their right to vote in general elections without also arguing for the right of our country’s voters to have a say in who becomes a Member of this House. There are other priorities. Before we argue for our right to vote in general elections, we must address the problem of 9 million people being missing from or incorrectly recorded on the electoral registers. Our last debate showed that there is a real need to address major inconsistences in the right to be included in our electoral registers. For these reasons, we support this amendment but, while it is logical, it is not our priority.
My Lords, one of the things which today’s debate has proved is that logic has never been the basis of enfranchisement in this country or of its constitution. The constitution is what it is because of the way it has developed. As far as the logic is concerned, let me try this. The weight of my vote to elect someone to the House of Commons may, theoretically, be one in 73,000, but in rejecting government legislation it is one in 800—or, given how many noble Lords are present, one in 400. When I was asked to come here, I had a choice. I could have said, “No, I am not coming to this place because I would lose my right to vote”. I chose to come here and that is a very big sacrifice because, as noble Lords have said, we are here for life. Of the 193 upper Houses to which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, referred, not one is unelected, although maybe a few people in them are unelected. However, we are unelected and, therefore, we are here.
They follow us, which is quite nice; they are part of the Empire. I would rather that we be removed from here and replaced by elected Members—this is the futile movement for which I have fought all these years. However, the privilege of being legislators for life is so great that we must make a small sacrifice for it. Not being able to vote at a general election is one such small sacrifice.
My Lords, I did not speak on the Bill on Second Reading, because I was not able to be present, although I have followed debates very closely on a number of issues. I would like to ask the Minister a couple of questions on this issue. My noble friend Lord Dubs, in his persuasive speech, certainly convinced me that it needs to be looked at in the light of two things in particular. First, he mentioned that Bishops were able to vote, which I was surprised at. That means Bishops who are Members of this House can vote in parliamentary elections.
None the less, while they are Members of this House, it seems rather odd that they are allowed to vote in parliamentary elections. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, leads me on to the second point, which is that we are able these days to take retirement from the House of Lords, and many people have done that. I am sorry that I do not know the answer to this, but is it possible for those who are no longer active Members, and are not able to speak or vote in the House, to vote in parliamentary elections? If not, that is surely an anomaly that needs correcting. The Government should look at this issue again, in the light not only of the speech by my noble friend Lord Dubs but of the anomalies that exist and seem odd in the current situation.
My Lords, I support the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Rennard. I am not going to repeat the arguments; I support them, and the House has heard them. This anomaly can be dealt with without opening the Pandora’s box of reform of the House of Lords. I spoke in support of the Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, and I heard the then Minister’s answer. I do not want to be too presumptuous, but I think I can hear the Minister’s response already, with all the same arguments rolled out. I simply ask him one question: what is the practical downside of accepting this amendment? What is the danger? What is the risk?
My Lords, I also apologise for not speaking on Second Reading; I was unable to. I was not planning on speaking in this debate, but the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, raised the point of some of us being here permanently. I have been here a mere 30 years, but I cannot actually see the fact that I have been here 30 years as a legislator making that much difference to the country. I would love to say that being a Back-Bench Liberal Democrat is the bedrock of our whole system, but I cannot really put that forward. When I came here, it was the mantra that only Lords, lunatics and criminals could not vote, but that is no longer the case—though it depends on what bracket you put us in.
I have one question for the Minister. I am standing as a candidate in the local election, and my wife is standing as the agent for the Liberal Democrats in Islington. The complexity of the forms you have to fill in, with the understanding of the minutiae and detail, is incredibly difficult. What is the cost to the country of us being taken off the electoral register? Everybody has to be trained; it has to go through the whole system; it has to be part of the process. The cost is not insignificant for 800 people to be treated in a different category. Of course, it goes into a number of different areas. If the Minister could give us an indication of just how much our privilege of being taken off the register, so we can carry on with this view that we are a permanent part of the process, would cost, and whether that is worth it, I would be very interested.
My Lords, I have a question—and I did not come in to speak either. Since I have been a Member of this House, which is 20 years, there is at least one Member—I think only one—who was here when I arrived, subsequently got elected to the other place and is now back here. Yes, he is here today. At the time that he left this place and got elected to the other place, was he able to vote in the election he stood in? I am not sure what his status would have been.
My Lords, we talk about piecemeal reform, and changes to this House have not necessarily been a result of legislative change or even reform. I have mentioned in previous debates the excellent book by Antonia Fraser about the debate on the Great Reform Act 1832. What I found most fascinating was that most Members of the House of Commons were sons of aristocrats and were put there by their fathers to have proper training to come into the House of Lords. Of course that was in the days when the powers of this House were great, as noble Lords have mentioned.
What recently shocked me even more—and I have cited this too—were the diaries of “Chips” Channon, who, when he was writing pre-war, leading up to the 1938 Munich debacle, mentioned that most of his friends in the House of Commons were sons of aristocrats who eventually ended up in this House. I hope things have changed. Constitutionally, things have radically changed, quite rightly, in the powers of this House, which can no longer challenge the democratic mandate of the House of Commons. The question is not simply about whether we are here for life or not; it is about what we do here. Even where we have particular circumstances of power, I am one of those people who would not use it to challenge the democratically elected House of Commons.
My noble friend made a very powerful case, and the point that struck me was that not many people in the public out there are aware that we have not got the vote. I remember campaigning in the 2017 election and a young, radical activist stopped me and asked if I had voted yet. When I explained I could not vote for Jeremy Corbyn, she nearly issued an internal disciplinary notice. Once I had explained, I was eventually forgiven. But I think it is a point worth making that most people assume that everyone in this country has a free and fair democratic right to vote, and it just seems ridiculous that we do not.
My Lords, this amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, who is joined on the Marshalled List by my noble friend Lord Naseby, brings us to a topic on which each of them has tested government policy on a number of occasions in the past, including, as I recall and as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned, through my noble friend’s Private Member’s Bill in 2019. On the latter occasion, my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham set out the Government’s response, and I therefore hope it will not come as a shock to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that my response today bears an uncanny resemblance to the one given to the House previously.
I understand and respect the case that noble Lords have articulated on this issue. However, I am afraid it is not a case I can accept, and the reason is clear and straightforward and was well articulated by my noble friend Lord Cormack. Noble Lords will be aware that although, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly said, the role of this House has changed over time, our place in Parliament still gives us a position of influence not held by other citizens. My noble friend Lord Sherbourne asked what the downside would be of accepting the amendment. Enfranchising noble Lords to vote in general elections would give Peers two ways of being represented in Parliament. Members of this House have an opportunity to debate and vote on legislation. To provide a vote for Peers in UK parliamentary elections would undermine the principle that all citizens are equally represented in politics.
When Parliament is prorogued for a general election, MPs cease to be Members of Parliament. They therefore become ordinary voters, if I can put it that way.
In our democracy, everyone should have a voice, but the Government’s view is that Peers who are Members of this House have that by virtue of their participation in this Chamber. That principle has been upheld for more than 300 years, including by the courts. It has not altered over successive Governments: in fact, in the debate on his Private Member’s Bill nearly three years ago, my noble friend Lord Young reminded the House that, as recently as 1999, Section 3 of the House of Lords Act explicitly enfranchised hereditary Peers who are not Members of this House and disfranchised Peers who are.
The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, asked whether Peers who have retired from this House have the right to vote. My understanding is that they do, because they ceased to be parliamentary Peers at that point.
The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, asked about the cost of taking parliamentary Peers off the register. I doubt that that cost has been computed by anybody—of course, there must be a cost—but it is a very considerable privilege that we as Peers have, and I for one would argue that it is not unreasonable for that privilege to carry a public cost.
I think the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, was that a distinction must be made on the register between different types of election, and that that carries a cost; he can correct me if I am wrong in assuming that.
This House is a respected voice that adds depth and, I hope, wisdom to our legislative process. It allows us, as its Members, full participation in the life of the nation. The Government therefore have considerable reservations about this proposed new clause, and I ask the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I never thought that so many different sorts of opinions would come out of the woodwork. It has been absolutely fascinating. The arguments have been somewhat different from the last two or three times we debated this issue. I just want to comment on them briefly.
As regards the voting list—this is a technical point—my understand is that there is no obvious way in which when we register we can declare that we are Members of this House. Somehow, in some local authorities, the polling clerks are aware of it but, in others, they are not. I am always mystified by that; it is not clear. I have known of people who have not been debarred from voting and could have gone to vote—they did not do so but they could have—simply because it was not obvious to the polling clerks that they were Members of this House.
On my noble friend Lady Quin’s comment about Members of Parliament, again, it is purely a technicality that they cease to be Members of Parliament during the period of an election campaign. Nobody knows about it except for a few nerds like us—sorry, nerds like me. It just means that they are technically not MPs. However, for all practical purposes, of course they are; they still get representations made to them, constituency casework and so on. Even during the election campaign, they cannot just say, “No, I’m not prepared to do it.”
The noble Lord cannot get away with that. When Parliament is dissolved, as distinct from being prorogued, the House of Commons does not exist and everyone must seek election or re-election to it. As the noble Lord knows only too well, there are occasions when Members of Parliament lose their seats—so of course it is right that they should have a vote for somebody in Parliament when there is no House of Commons. He is really not giving the argument the justice it deserves.
I just want to say to my noble friend Lord Cormack that, if a Member of Parliament is in a constituency that they do not represent but is on the register, they can vote for that constituency in a by-election even though they are still an MP.
Well, we are getting into the realm of pub quiz questions. I am perfectly aware of the point that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, made. My argument is that the public are not aware of it. It is a distinction that I did not know about until the first time I was trying to get re-elected in the Commons; I had no idea. I bet that 99.9% of the public would think that this is an amazing anomaly and would not attach very much weight to the argument, although I am perfectly aware of it. All I am saying is that, sometimes, these are very technical points. They do not take away from the fact that this is an anomaly where we, as individuals who in every other respect are members of a democracy and can vote, cannot vote in general elections.
This may have been the case for 300 years, but we unearth a lot of issues that we have had for hundreds of years and do not necessarily always go along with them. We change them from time to time. Women used not to have the right to vote. It was a tremendous victory when the suffragettes won the right to vote. So I would not use the argument that it has been like this for 300 years and therefore we are not going to change it.
I would like to come back to this on Report but, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 153 withdrawn.
154: After Clause 13, insert the following new Clause—
“Commonwealth citizens: reciprocal franchise
(1) The Representation of the People Act 1983 is amended as follows.(2) In section 1 (parliamentary electors)—(a) in subsection (1)(c), for “a Commonwealth citizen” substitute “a citizen of a Commonwealth country in which British citizens are entitled to vote in general elections”, and(b) at the end insert—“(3) For the purposes of subsection (1)(c), a country is deemed to be “a Commonwealth country in which British citizens are entitled to vote in general elections” if it is specified as such in regulations made by statutory instrument by the Secretary of State. (4) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (3) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.”(3) In section 4 (entitlement to be registered as a parliamentary or local government elector), in subsection (1)(c) after “Commonwealth citizen” insert “of a Commonwealth country specified in regulations under section 1(3)”.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment will ensure that the right of Commonwealth citizens to vote in UK general elections will in future be confined to citizens of those Commonwealth countries that grant to British citizens the right to vote in their own general elections. The amendment will not affect Irish citizens with whom the United Kingdom has had reciprocal voting arrangements since 1922.
My Lords, I gave notice at Second Reading that it was my intention to bring forward an amendment on votes for Commonwealth citizens in general elections—and I repeat that. We have had a very good debate on local elections and got into a lot of technicalities, but this is now about general elections.
My suggestion is that, to vote in general elections, the basic requirement should be citizenship of the UK. That is clear, simple and logical, and I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, agrees. In the wider context, however, it would be a pity to take an action that might be perceived as unfriendly to the Commonwealth. We should therefore introduce the principle of reciprocity; I will come back to that point.
At present, all Commonwealth citizens have the right to vote in not only our local elections but our general elections without becoming British citizens. That is the case whether or not their countries of origin permit British citizens to vote in their general elections; as I will explain, most of them do not. In practice, as things stand now, Commonwealth citizens in the UK can simply put their names on the electoral register. Indeed, now that the register is reviewed every month, they could acquire the right to vote very shortly after their arrival. By contrast, foreign nationals in the UK must first obtain British citizenship—a process that takes five years or so.
A word about the background—as I mentioned at Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, a Labour former Attorney-General, recommended in 2008 that this virtually automatic right for Commonwealth citizens should be phased out. He made three points, which briefly were that: first, most countries do not permit non-citizens to vote in national or even local elections; secondly, the UK does not have the same clarity around citizenship as other countries do, which is quite important; and thirdly, it is right in principle not to give the vote to citizens of other countries living in the UK until they become citizens of the UK. All that makes perfect sense. It is just a pity that it was not listened to at the time.
I just mentioned reciprocity and I am grateful to the House of Lords Library for its research into this. Only about 10 of the 53 Commonwealth countries grant British citizens the right to vote in their general elections, and nearly all those countries are small Caribbean islands. It would be wrong to remove the vote from nationals of those countries that continue to grant it to British citizens, so my amendment therefore makes that one small group of exceptions.
Sadly, no action was taken on this matter by the Labour Government at the time, nor by subsequent coalition or Conservative Governments. However, this Bill provides an opportunity to deal with it quickly and, I hope, quietly.
The effect of my amendment would be to put virtually all those coming legally to live in Britain on the same footing—namely, they would be entitled to vote when they had achieved British citizenship and not before.
On the numbers potentially involved, according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of Commonwealth citizens has increased by about 100,000 a year in the past five years. At this rate, very generally, about half a million would be able to vote in a general election without having acquired citizenship.
As a further point, and not an unimportant one, the present law is expressed in what one might call Home Office speak. That is picked up by the Electoral Commission, the website of which says:
“Any type of leave to enter or remain is acceptable, whether indefinite, time limited or conditional.”
That is absolutely extraordinary. In practice, it means that any Commonwealth student or work permit holder can register to vote before an approaching general election and so could their adult dependants. This right could even be extended to visitors, as most get six months’ leave when they arrive, as noble Lords know. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned, this makes no sense. I would be grateful if the noble Earl, Lord Howe, would confirm that I have correctly explained the meaning of these words on the Electoral Commission website, which corresponds to the Home Office website. Could he also confirm that British nationals overseas are Commonwealth citizens for the purpose of voting? I believe they are.
Migration Watch, of which I am president, has made a rough estimate of the numbers involved. If one takes just the top 10 Commonwealth nationalities, the number of entry clearances granted in 2021 was about 360,000. If visitor visas are included, the total is over 500,000. If Hong Kong is included, it would add those who are adults among the 100,000 who have already arrived. I realise that may sound a little techie, and these numbers are not exact, but they are certainly not insignificant. I leave it to noble Lords to consider whether election agents in the relevant constituencies would be able to work it out. I suspect that they might.
It is important to be clear that my amendment would not take the vote away from anyone who now has it, only from future arrivals until they became British citizens. I add a final note on Irish citizens in the UK. As most Members know, they have had the right to vote in general elections since 1922, and vice versa. These arrangements would not be affected by my amendment and nor should they be.
To sum up, this amendment is about four matters: first, the simplification and rationalisation of the system, as the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, pointed out and which the noble Lord, Lord Desai, called for; secondly, reciprocity and therefore fairness; thirdly, a basic requirement of citizenship; and fourthly and perhaps most importantly, maintaining confidence in the electoral system. There can no longer be any justification for this anomaly. My amendment makes a simple and sensible change, and this Bill is an opportunity to get it done.
Before the noble Lord sits down, could I ask a question? He referenced my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith. If he recalls, this issue came up during the debate on voting rights in the referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Green, referenced this as the second issue that my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith raised in his report: what is a British citizen? Does he think that fundamental question has been properly addressed for this purpose?
A lot has changed in 14 years, but the thrust of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said is absolutely right. We now have a system that has developed somewhat in defining what a UK citizen is—I accept that—but it is not too difficult, is quite well known and has been discussed recently. I do not think that undermines his recommendation or the logic of saying that the clear thing, if you want to vote in this country, is to become a citizen, and you know how to do that.
My Lords, I have great sympathy with the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington; I am sorry he looks so surprised. We need to sort out what we mean by UK citizenship. I cannot now remember which election it was when I was canvassing in Southwark and I came to a block that had a large number of Congolese-born people and a large number of Tanzanian-born people. The latter had the right to vote; the former did not, although I deeply suspected that some of them had got themselves on the register, somehow or other, because the local people were not quite sure who was what. This is at least as much a legacy of empire and our great-grandparents’ day as the sacking and pencils in polling stations, which the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, was talking about. Both need to be modernised and it is high time we did so.
I ask the Minister whether he can tell us when Mozambique joined the Commonwealth and whether that meant that all Mozambiquans in Britain immediately gained the right to vote. I think I am right in saying that Rwanda joined the Commonwealth and that must have given them the vote, as well. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, if he were in his place, would remind us that he has campaigned for Algeria to become a member of the Commonwealth. The hypothetical question of how many voters we would be adding each time a new country became a member of the Commonwealth is interesting.
Of course, we should be sorting out the categories of our voting. We have been saying that all afternoon. The noble Lord, Lord Green, is entirely right on this and I hope that the Government take some notice, but I suspect that they will not act on this unfortunately illogical and messy Bill.
I declare an interest as a former electoral commissioner. First, I agree with the remarks made on the previous amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that this Bill should have included the findings of the Law Commission, which have cleared up a lot of the complexity of language involved in legislation. It sometimes goes back to the Victorian times and is really a wholesale mess, frankly. I was glad that the Law Commission came to such clear conclusions.
Of course, the noble Lord will appreciate that the Law Commission by itself cannot alter anything and does not alter the law as it stands. None the less, I agree with him that it is a missed opportunity that we have an Elections Bill of this kind but are not able to take into account the views of the Law Commission. When I was on the Electoral Commission, it would have wanted the Law Commission’s findings to be taken into account as soon as practically possible, as it certainly would now.
I will speak briefly on Amendment 154. I am sure we are all wondering what my noble friend Lord Howe, who has nobly stepped into the situation, has in his brief. I am afraid to say that he probably has a note from the FCO saying, “No, old chap, don’t agree to this because it might upset the Commonwealth”. That is the sort of line that I suspect he has there; he is nodding, so maybe I have hit the nail on the head. The noble Lord, Lord Green, made the point in his argument about reciprocity that there is a simple point here —if people from particular countries wish to vote, they can have a reciprocal arrangement. A few do, but not many. That deals with the Commonwealth point.
The wider point, which has been made several times during the discussion on this series of amendments, is that citizenship is an important issue. As the noble Lord, Lord Green, said, the Goldsmith report made this point very well in 2008; it is a wonderful report. The issue was also covered by this House, by my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, who is not in his place at the moment, in the report of the committee on citizenship that he chaired in 2017-19. It concluded that
“it strikes us from our research that what is missing is any clear, coherent or ambitious vision of why citizenship should matter in the UK in the 21st century”.
In other words, on two separate occasions, widely spread and backed by different parties, this House has made it clear that it is unhappy with the role of citizenship and the way it is decided in our voting system. Therefore, we need some clarity on this issue, and it is a pity that the Bill does not go into that as much as it should.
To allow people who are not citizens of this country to vote in our elections seems to me to simply devalue the whole idea of citizenship. Why should people who are not citizens vote in our elections? People should qualify for citizenship, as they can in the appropriate way, and then be allowed to vote. That treats citizenship as a valuable thing, which I believe it to be. Therefore, as the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Collins, have argued, we should look at this and give clarity to the whole idea of citizenship, which is what the amendment does. The noble Lord, Lord Green, has therefore performed a public service in moving this amendment, and I hope the Government will listen to what he says.
My Lords, this is the third occasion on which I have had to say that, given the way our constitution is, it is obviously not an exercise in logic. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, is right that the Bill should have been an occasion to sort out in a clear, straightforward, logical way what the qualifications are that give somebody a right to vote in this country. The right to vote in this country has been based on the principle of the Empire. In 1858, Queen Victoria’s declaration for the Indian empire, a very important document, said that she would treat all subjects of her Empire as equal. She meant that the people in this country were the same part of the Empire as people in India. One of the leading Indian nationalists in the 1870s described that as a Magna Carta for India.
Mahatma Gandhi fought in South Africa for the rights of indentured labourers on the grounds that, being Indian subjects of Queen Victoria, they had the same rights as the white settlers in South Africa. He did not get very much, but that was the principle on which he fought.
I shall come to that; this is the beginning of a lecture that will take some time.
When I arrived here, I was the holder of an Indian passport. India had become a republic in 1950. Just as we recently saw in the exercise of persuading the Jamaicans not to become a republic, becoming a republic takes a Commonwealth country out of the reciprocity relationship because the country can then choose whether to give reciprocal rights. That is Jamaica’s choice, not ours.
We have to be aware that our original right to vote was as subjects—we are still subjects—of the Crown, and the whole notion that we are citizens is an entirely European import. We became citizens only when we joined the EU; we ceased to be citizens when we left. The notion of citizenship is not relevant. We are not a democracy: the Crown in Parliament is sovereign; people are not sovereign. That is the constitutional position. Noble Lords can challenge me if they wish.
I am not disputing the principle of what the noble Lord is proposing, because he has explained very clearly and patiently that there ought to be reciprocity or symmetry. The Commonwealth itself is an anomaly because it is not a symmetrical association of equal states. Her Majesty the Queen heads the Commonwealth because of her position as the Crown and she has asked the Commonwealth Heads of Government to agree that His Royal Highness Prince Charles will head the Commonwealth when he succeeds her. So the Head of the Commonwealth will always be the British monarch. The Commonwealth is not a society of equal nations; there is an asymmetry there.
We are not French; we are British. We do not believe in logic; we believe in convention, tradition and evolution, and therefore there is an anomaly. If the Government want to have a logical structure, let them bring a Bill that in the first clause defines who has the right to vote in this country and why, and who does not have the right to vote, despite being a resident, taxpayer or whatever. That exercise has not been carried out, and so we have an anomalous position. That is the beauty of the constitution—it is not a logical construct.
My Lords, I was sorry not to be able to speak at Second Reading. It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Desai. Logic, clarity and lack of reciprocity call for Amendment 154, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Green, to be taken seriously and for the questions he has raised to be answered. I look forward to hearing positively from my noble friend the Deputy Leader. I will not delay the House.
My Lords, I have some sympathy with the points made, but I wish this amendment could have been debated in the group of amendments we had on the entitlement to vote, because I do not really want to move away from the principle I articulated before. Not everyone wants to lose the status of their nationality. For example, my husband does not want to give up his Spanish citizenship, which he may have to do. A number of European countries have started to change but they did not allow dual nationality. A lot of people could lie about that, but he does not want to give it up. I certainly do not want to give up my nationality.
When we were in the EU, we were in the comfortable position of being, as we used to describe ourselves, EU citizens; we could locate and meet our families in our respective countries with ease. Now that has changed and we accept that, but I do not quite understand why we do not accept that there is a settled status, where someone has lived in the country for 27 years, paid tax, national insurance and everything else—they have taken the responsibility of a citizenship—but for one reason or another do not want to take formal citizenship, and why that should preclude them from having the right to vote.
It is crazy that, as I mentioned, an Australian student who comes over for their OE can immediately apply for the right to vote. I would rather the debate focused on what entitles somebody to vote. We have talked about taxation, we have talked about responsibility, and I say that clear levels of residence should establish some basic rights, so that we treat people who live here equally, and when they contribute to the success of our country we should acknowledge that.
I come back to what the noble Lord, Lord Green, said. One of the issues his amendment ought to probe and cause us to think about is: what is a British citizen? He says that British nationals (overseas) are not included. We can make commitments suddenly; for example, we made a commitment to Hong Kong citizens who are BNOs because of the breach of an international agreement. I have no doubt that in future, as we have done in the past, we will want to protect our legacy. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, spoke about the legacy of British Empire, which of course we cannot ignore, and things have changed.
I welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Green, has tabled this amendment but we need to consider it in the light of all the amendments we have had on the right to vote and what the qualifications are. I do not think we should ignore residency.
My Lords, with Amendment 154 we return to the franchise. The purpose of the amendment, as the noble Lord, Lord Green, explained, is to require the Government to confine the voting rights of Commonwealth citizens to citizens of countries that grant British citizens the right to vote in their general elections. The effect of this would be to limit the franchise to Commonwealth citizens from countries where British citizens are entitled to vote in general elections.
I take this amendment seriously but perhaps I could clarify the position as it relates to Commonwealth citizens. First, it is important for me to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, in particular, that there is no blanket voting right in this country for Commonwealth citizens. The right to vote applies only to qualifying Commonwealth citizens: those who have leave to remain in this country or have such status that they do not require such leave. The noble Lord, Lord Green, asked me to expand on that definition. The definition of “Commonwealth citizen” is a broad term and is not limited to citizens from Commonwealth countries listed in Schedule 3 to the British Nationality Act 1981. It applies equally to other types of British nationality defined in Section 37 of that Act. This includes Hong Kong British nationals (overseas), British overseas citizens and British Dependent Territories citizens. It also includes British Overseas Territories citizens.
I acknowledge that the approach adopted in relation to Commonwealth citizens is different from that that we take towards other categories of foreign nationals. However, there are sound and well-rooted reasons for that difference. The rights of Commonwealth citizens to vote are long standing and reflect the historic connections and well-established links with the Commonwealth of this country and Her Majesty the Queen, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, outlined.
How did those rights originate? The Representation of the People Act 1918 provided that only British subjects could register as electors; others, defined in the Act as “aliens”, were excluded from voting. However, the term “British subject” then included any person who owed allegiance to the Crown, regardless of the Crown territory in which he or she was born. In general terms, this included citizens who became Commonwealth citizens under the British Nationality Act 1981, as I mentioned. The Government gave assurances during the passage of that Act that the new definition of “British subject” would not alter the possession of civic rights and privileges, such as the right to vote.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, is once again perfectly right.
Successive Governments and Parliaments since 1981 have concluded that the existing voting rights of Commonwealth citizens should not be disturbed, and it is on this basis that the Commonwealth citizens are granted the right to vote in UK elections.
I have enormous personal sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and his husband in the situation he has outlined. The best answer I can give him is to refer back to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Desai. As a country, we have found ourselves at various times in our history as members of different families of nations; for example, the family of EU member states and the family of Commonwealth nations. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the links and historic traditions, and hence entitlements, relating to each such family are different from one another. Our formal ties with the EU have been severed. Our ties with the Commonwealth endure. The weight of history plays a very considerable part in all sorts of aspects of our national life—
The noble Earl says that our ties with the Commonwealth endure. I agree with the sentiment but the reality, as the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said, is that the relationship with Commonwealth countries has changed fundamentally, and is continuing to change. As Prince William said yesterday in his press statement—I have forgotten the exact words but it seemed relevant to me—the relations endure but Commonwealth countries change. The fact is that we have not changed what we define. With all these different British nationals as a consequence of our imperial legacy, we find it very difficult to define citizenship in that regard. That is why I come back to this fundamental point. I am not arguing that my husband has a special right as a former EU citizen. I am saying that someone who has lived here for 27 years, and paid tax and national insurance, should have the right to vote. It is residence that I am arguing for, which is what a number of noble Lords have been making the case for.
My Lords, I understand that. It is clear that this is an argument that runs very deep. We may or may not return to it on Report but if there is anything else that I can add to the remarks that I have made, I will ensure that a letter is sent to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate.
In short, it is for reasons of history and because of the well-established ties that we in this country have with the family of nations that we call the Commonwealth that the Government have no plans to change the voting rights of Commonwealth citizens. Therefore, I am afraid we cannot support this amendment.
My Lords, it has been a very interesting debate. I welcome the response of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats and note the careful response from the Labour Front Bench. There are wider issues here, and I hope that both opposition parties will look at this and that the Government will, too.
The point that the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, made is a very important one. This loose end, to call it that, rather devalues the worth of UK/British citizenship. We need to sort it; this Bill is a very simple one, this could be a very simple amendment, and this is an opportunity to support it. I intend to bring it back at Report, and I hope that there will be a different reception to it. Meanwhile, I am happy to withdraw it.
Amendment 154 withdrawn.
Amendments 155 and 155A not moved.
Schedule 8: Voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens
Amendment 156 not moved.
Amendments 157 to 160
157: Schedule 8, page 151, line 5, leave out “or Northern Ireland”
Member’s explanatory statement
The reference in paragraph 12(4)(b) of Schedule 8 to a member of a local authority in Northern Ireland is unnecessary in view of how the qualification requirements in section 3(1) of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 operate.
158: Schedule 8, page 151, line 14, after “authority” insert “in England”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement for the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 151, line 5.
159: Schedule 8, page 151, line 15, leave out “in relation to England, a county council” and insert “a county council in England”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement for the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 151, line 5.
160: Schedule 8, page 151, line 18, leave out paragraph (b)
Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement for the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 151, line 5.
Amendments 157 to 160 agreed.
Schedule 8, as amended, agreed.
Clause 28: Disqualification orders
160A: Clause 28, page 40, line 31, at end insert “or
(b) where a person is convicted of an offence under the Terrorism Act 2000.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment intends to probe the circumstances of elected candidates being found guilty of terrorism offences.
My Lords, I have a couple of amendments to Clause 28 in this group, and then further amendments, all looking at disqualification from elected office. My Amendments 160A and 161 to Clause 28 are really just to probe different government decisions as to why the Bill is laid out as it is. Amendment 160A is to probe the circumstances of elected candidates being found guilty of terrorism offences; that is pretty self-explanatory. Amendment 161 was tabled because the Government have put in the Bill that someone could be disqualified for five years from standing for elected office, and it probes the reasoning behind the period of five years. If the Minister could give the Committee some understanding of where the figure came from, that would be very useful.
Amendment 168 to Clause 32 would add fundraising as an activity undertaken for election purposes, because I think pretty much every political party does it as an election activity. Amendment 170 to Clause 33 is tabled so that we can see clearly the details of any disqualification orders given to ensure transparency. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, has an amendment in this group, so I will be interested to hear his introduction to it. Amendment 172 to Clause 34 probes the Government’s intention to vary the offences. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister some more detail on that and how it came to be in its current form.
I shall not give a long speech, as we have a long way still to go on the Bill and it is pretty clear what the Government are looking to achieve by this section of it. There is one issue I will raise, which was raised in Committee in the other place as well, and it concerns the five-year period. Many of the people who go on to intimidate candidates, agents or campaigners—unfortunately, I have been a victim of that, as have many people who stand for elected office—and who commit such crimes and acts, are not really interested in standing themselves to become elected representatives. Some of them are just opposed to the whole idea of how we run our democracies. But is that five-year period going to stop anything? Do the Government think that anything further could be done to manage the problem? Intimidation is becoming an increasingly difficult issue which, sadly, anyone putting themselves forward for public life at any level has to deal with.
We support the Government in their really important effort to do something about intimidation of candidates, be it physically or through social media. The Opposition are happy to work with the Government if there are ways in which we can continue to improve the situation, support people who put themselves forward for public office and protect them from this kind of behaviour. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, referred to my Amendment 171 in this group, to which I would like to speak. Before I do, and with the indulgence of the House, I refer to some comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, in Committee last week:
“However, given the important concerns that have been raised on the secrecy of voting, Minister Badenoch will be writing to the Electoral Commission and the Metropolitan Police to confirm our common understanding of the position set out in legislation—that the only people who should provide assistance at a polling booth are polling station staff and companions who are doing so only for the purpose of supporting an elector with health and/or accessibility issues that need such support. We are confident that the Electoral Commission will be able to respond promptly”.—[Official Report, 21/3/22; cols. 750-1.]
I raise that because the Minister wrote to the Electoral Commission and the police last week in very clear terms, covering the points made by, I think, every Member in the debate, and emphasising that there should be no element of doubt. Noble Lords will note that the Minister said that it was hoped that the Electoral Commission and the police would respond promptly. I quote from the letter the Minister wrote to those two organisations. In the penultimate paragraph, she says:
“I would be grateful for a quick response … to reassure Parliament that the secrecy of the ballot is upheld at those polls”—
that is, in May—or the Government may be minded to
“strengthen the law in this area, given the constitutional importance”.
I hope that the Electoral Commission and the Metropolitan Police will respond promptly, so that this matter does not have to come back at Report, as it may well have to do. I thank the Committee for its indulgence while I dealt with that, but it is important, given the general view that was expressed.
I move on to my Amendment 171. I am sorry here to possibly be raking over bad memories for the noble Lord, Lord Collins, who has said on a number of previous occasions that he was involved in the Tower Hamlets affair several years ago—and this is driven by the issue of Tower Hamlets and Lutfur Rahman. Lutfur Rahman was banned for five years, which may be where the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, about five years comes from. That was the maximum penalty available to the election court.
The issue is current because Lutfur Rahman, having been banned for the maximum time available to an election court, is now in a position to stand at the upcoming local elections for mayor in Tower Hamlets. Lutfur Rahman has issued an election leaflet in which he identifies himself as the potential candidate for mayor, with the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin—I did give her notice that I would be referring to her—and Ken Livingstone as prime supporters. That is probably not the ultimate dream team that one could imagine for an election campaign.
The significant thing about this is that Lutfur Rahman can stand again, and he can do so not only because the election court has this maximum but because our election law needs bringing up to date—a matter that I referred to at Second Reading and to which a number of noble Lords have referred on many occasions. Lutfur Rahman is going around Tower Hamlets issuing leaflets that say, in his own words reported recently in East London News:
“I have never acted dishonestly”.
He then goes on to refer to the election tribunal.
Well, Mr Rahman, if you have never acted dishonestly, why is it that in the judgment issued on 23 April 2015 in the High Court of Justice of the Queen’s Bench Division, Richard Mawrey QC, sitting as the judge in the High Court, said—I quote from the formal conclusions in paragraph 672 onwards—
“the First Respondent Mr Rahman was guilty … of corrupt practices”;
then, in paragraph b),
“Mr Rahman was guilty by his agents of illegal practices”;
in paragraph c),
“Mr Rahman was personally guilty”;
in paragraph d),
“Mr Rahman was guilty by his agents”;
in paragraph e),
“Mr Rahman was personally guilty”;
and, in paragraph f),
“Mr Rahman was personally guilty”?
There are seven different offences of which he was found guilty, and two others where he was found guilty with other people. Yet he seems able, despite the fact that he says he has never done anything dishonestly, to go around already for this election saying “I have never been found guilty of anything”.
The judgment by Richard Mawrey is quite interesting and depressing. It shows the lengths to which Lutfur Rahman and others were willing to go. In paragraph 248, Mr Mawrey refers to Mr Rahman’s
“close cronies, some of whom … have little to recommend them beyond blind loyalty to their leader.”
At a later stage, Mr Mawrey says, in paragraphs 295 and 296:
“As a generalisation, politicians … avoid answering the question … Mr Rahman exemplified this trait to an extreme level. Faced with a straight question, he proved himself almost pathologically incapable of giving a straight answer.”
In paragraph 298, he says:
“Sadly, it must also be said that he was not truthful. In one or two crucial matters he was caught out in what were … blatant lies.”
Lutfur Rahman has said, as I quoted earlier, that he has “never acted dishonestly”. This judgment is a series, almost a litany, of offences that we can only imagine. The judgment given by Richard Mawrey was then referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal:
“The matter was heard on 18-20 December 2017. Mr Rahman was Struck Off the Roll.”
So we have somebody who has been not allowed to continue his office as mayor, who has been struck off the solicitors’ roll and who was banned for the maximum available time, yet he is now entitled to stand again for that role. He is also going around issuing messages saying that people claim
“I was found guilty of … corruption … These claims relate to an election tribunal”.
They do not relate to an election tribunal; they relate to an election court. He goes on to say that
“Lord Justice Lloyd-Jones and Mr Justice Supperstone said that the findings ‘did not amount to a finding of criminal guilt’”.
They amounted to breaches of election law in seven different ways.
Lutfur Rahman is appealing for votes in a sectarian manner in Tower Hamlets. He is not appealing for votes in the interests of any broad community. He says in his election broadcast that he “feels the pain” of the community. He does not. He feels the desire to rehold an office from he has been banned and should have been banned for a much longer period. He is not serving the Bengali community in Tower Hamlets; he is serving himself and, in the words of Richard Mawrey, “his cronies”.
It is on that basis that I believe we have the ultimate example of the need for a ban to apply for more than five years. This man should not have been allowed to contest another election at any point.
My Lords, very briefly from these Benches, most of these probing amendments seem reasonable and we look forward to the response of the Minister on the points that have been raised. I will just raise four points.
First, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. I have listened throughout Committee to his detailed analysis of what has happened in Tower Hamlets. I think it is important as we go through the Bill that we remember what has happened in Tower Hamlets, but we must not use it as the sole basis on which to make the law of the land; we have to listen to what has happened there, but making electoral law has to go much wider than just the Tower Hamlets case.
Having said that, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, I want to probe why it is five years in particular. Five years is one election cycle, or could be one general election cycle. If somebody has committed quite a serious election fraud, having a five-year, one-term ban seems rather lenient to most people who would be looking in. What analysis was done by the Government in determining that five years was the particular period?
On Amendment 172, it is pleasing that, if the Secretary of State is going to vary, omit or add to the list of offences, it will be done on the affirmative procedure. Can the Minister give an example of what type of variation would be required? One can understand omitting, one can understand adding, but what kind of variation do the Government foresee could be laid by the Secretary of State? With those comments from these Benches, and my omitting when I first spoke to also wish the noble Lord, Lord True, a speedy recovery and wish him back to his place for Report, we look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
First, I thank my noble friend for bringing the Committee up to date with the letter from the Minister to the Electoral Commission and the Metropolitan police that we discussed at our previous sitting. The letter is one thing, but I now wait for the responses to it. I will make sure that my noble friend Lord True knows about that so that we can keep the pressure on to get those responses. That is important.
The act of intimidation and those who perpetrate it have no place in our democracy. Clause 28 would create a new disqualification order for offenders who intimidate those who contribute to our public life. This would be a five-year ban on standing for, holding and being elected to public office. It can be imposed on those convicted of intimidating a candidate, elected office holder or campaigner. After all, it is simply not right that those who try to damage political participation through intimidation are allowed to participate in the very same process that they tried to undermine.
There is no single offence of intimidation in criminal law. Therefore, the new sanction would potentially apply to a wide range of existing intimidatory criminal offences, as listed in Schedule 9. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, asked what more could be added to that, and I will get some suggestions for him.
I will get an answer for the noble Lord and write to him.
The list includes, but is not limited to, stalking, harassment, common assault and threats to kill. By creating a new sanction instead of a new electoral offence, we would enable the protection from intimidation all year round, not just during an election period, and extend protection in law to two additional groups: future candidates and elected office holders.
We understand the noble Baroness’s view on intimidating those not wanting to stand—they just want to intimidate. I will take it back because it is a valid point, but I imagine the answer is that there are other laws for that sort of intimidation that do not affect electoral law. I will ensure that the noble Baroness gets an answer.
For the disqualification order to be imposed, the intimidatory offence must be aggravated by hostility related to the status, or perceived status, of the victim being a candidate, elected office holder or campaigner. This ensures that the disqualification is imposed only in instances where political participation is genuinely at risk. The disqualification order is, of course, in addition to whatever other punishment the court applies to the offender for the underlying criminal offence. I think that is extremely important.
Amendment 160A probes the circumstances of an elected candidate being found guilty of terrorism offences. I can confirm that anyone committing an act of terrorism against a candidate, future candidate, campaigner or holder of elective office would already be subject to the disqualification order as currently drafted in addition to the penalties associated with that specific crime. If the offender was a holder of elective office, their office would be vacated in accordance with Clause 29. I therefore urge the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment.
I heard what my noble friend Lord Hayward said about Amendments 161 and 171, but I am not going to comment on that case because I do not think it would be right to do so. These amendments seek significantly to increase the period of disqualification or incapacity arising from the imposition of the disqualification order or from committing relevant electoral offences, respectively. Changes of this significance require very careful consideration to ensure that these penalties continue to reflect the crime and do not become disproportionate.
The fixed five-year disqualification period provided in Clause 28 is consistent with the existing incapacity arising from a corrupt or illegal practice as provided by Section 160 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. I think that that answers the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. The period of disqualification for the proposed disqualification order is designed to strike the right balance between ensuring a sufficient deterrent while remaining proportionate, given the potential interference with the right to participate in free and fair elections, most recently protected under Article 3 of Protocol 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights. I therefore urge the noble Baroness and my noble friend not to press these amendments.
Before my noble friend moves off that point, and picking up a comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, although I have referred on a number of occasions to Tower Hamlets, I have done so because that is the most extreme example. Does my noble friend agree that there are other examples of election offences around the country which may be considered minor, but are indications of the sort of problems we are facing in a number of areas?
My question was slightly different. I appreciate that the Minister tried to answer, but what assessment has been carried out to see whether five years is still relevant? If it is benchmarked against a five-year period within the Representation of the People Act, was that assessed against the types of crime that we are talking about and was that still seen to be the correct benchmark?
It is considered to be the correct benchmark taking into account proportionality and the fact that many of these crimes will have further consequences because other crimes have been committed.
Amendment 168 seeks to widen the definition of a campaigner in Clause 32 explicitly to include fundraising activity as an activity undertaken by a campaigner for election purposes. I can assure the noble Baroness that fundraising activities for a registered party and a candidate are already implicitly captured, as provided by the broad wording that defines campaigners as engaging in activity to “promote or procure” support. However, we will explore options to clarify this further in the Bill’s Explanatory Notes. I thank the noble Baroness for tabling this amendment, but I ask her not to press it.
Amendment 170 to Clause 33 would require a Minister of the Crown to publish a statement outlining the details of the disqualification order in the event that a person were to be elected to the House of Commons while subject to a disqualification order. Further, we note the noble Baroness’s opposition to Clause 33 more generally. As explained, the new disqualification order disqualifies offenders from being elected to various offices. Clause 33 would ensure that this disqualification applies to membership of the House of Commons. To clarify, while the other relevant elected offices already have provisions which state that an election is void because of disqualification, there is currently no equivalent provision in relation to the election of a Member to the House of Commons.
Therefore, Clause 33 has an important role to play in ensuring that the new intimidation disqualification order operates as intended and as I suggest the electorate would expect it to operate. There is no reason why those elected to the House of Commons should be treated as a special case or held to a lower standard than any other elected office in this country. Anyone convicted of a politically motivated criminal intimidation-related offence should not be sitting in the other place for the duration of the disqualification period.
Turning specifically to Amendment 170, I reassure the noble Baroness that it would not be necessary. Although there is no notice requirement in Section 7 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, in the event that a seat becomes vacant, there will be a Motion for the Speaker to issue their warrant to make out a new writ for the election of a new Member to fill that vacancy. The writ would then be issued, and Members of the House of Commons would be made aware that a vacancy has occurred. I therefore urge the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment.
I now turn to Amendment 172, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, which proposes to limit the regulation-making powers to amend Schedule 9, which lists the existing criminal offences of an intimidatory nature in respect of which the intimidation sanction can be made. The purpose of Clause 34 is to future-proof the new intimidation sanction so that it remains relevant and can continue to apply to offences of an intimidatory nature, recognising that the nature of intimidation and abuse can shift, and indeed is currently shifting, particularly online. A relevant example of this is the online safety Bill, introduced earlier this month: it proposes new communication offences originally recommended by the Law Commission last year.
In addition to enabling Ministers to respond to and add new offences, the clause ensures that the list provided in Schedule 9 remains accurate through powers to omit offences from the list and vary the description of offences already included in it, if and when any of the listed offences are amended or repealed in law. These provisions will require that any statutory instrument laid using these powers is subject to parliamentary scrutiny under the affirmative resolution procedure. This will ensure that Parliament can scrutinise and decide whether to accept any proposed changes to Schedule 9. I therefore ask the noble Baroness not to press Amendment 172.
I thank the Minister for the clarification she has provided, particularly around my amendment seeking to include fundraising. It would be extremely helpful if that could be added to the Explanatory Notes. She also explained that the Government want to future-proof intimidation sanctions, particularly online. When the Minister talked about varying the offences, did she mean just varying the descriptions of offences as things change to make sure they are always up to date? It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that.
So the “varying” bit is just to do with the description of the offence. I thank the Minister.
As the amendments I have tabled show, my main concern is the fixed five-year period. Other noble Lords have raised that issue too—the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, rightly said that that is only one parliamentary term—so it would be good if the Government could look at that again. I will make another suggestion. If the Government are going to stick with the fixed five-year period, what would happen if there were a repeat offence? Would there be another five-year period, or is there an option to look at a greater sanction if such an offence were committed again? Otherwise, it is not a deterrent if the people just miss out every now and again. It would be good if the Government could have another think about that; otherwise, this issue will come back on Report, because there are clearly concerns about it.
I thank the Minister for her comments on the intimidation of candidates’ agents and campaigners. I am aware that she rightly said that other offences are available for people to be convicted of if they are found to have behaved like that. I know that this is not part of the Bill, but often the effectiveness of the police’s response to such intimidation varies greatly across the country. It would be good if the Government could also consider that in some form or other. For the moment, I withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 160A withdrawn.
Amendment 161 not moved.
Clause 28 agreed.
Schedule 9 agreed.
Clause 29 agreed.
Clause 30: Candidates etc
Amendments 162 to 165
162: Clause 30, page 42, line 23, after “office” insert “or a relevant Scottish elective office”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that references to a candidate in clause 30 continue to include a candidate at an election for the office of member of the Scottish Parliament or member of a Scottish local authority, notwithstanding the amendments in Lord True’s name to clause 35 which narrow the general definition of “relevant elective office”.
163: Clause 30, page 42, line 27, leave out “for a relevant elective office”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement relating to the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 42, line 23.
164: Clause 30, page 42, line 30, after “office” insert “or a relevant Scottish elective office”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement relating to the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 42, line 23.
165: Clause 30, page 42, line 34, leave out “relevant elective”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement relating to the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 42, line 23.
Amendments 162 to 165 agreed.
Clause 30, as amended, agreed.
Clause 31: Holders of relevant elective offices
Amendments 166 and 167
166: Clause 31, page 44, line 2, after “office” insert “or a relevant Scottish elective office”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that references in clause 31 to the holder of a relevant elective office continue to include the holder of the office of member of the Scottish Parliament or member of a Scottish local authority, notwithstanding the amendments in Lord True’s name to clause 35 which narrow the general definition of “relevant elective office”.
167: Clause 31, page 44, line 4, after “office” insert “or a relevant Scottish elective office”
Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory statement relating to the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 44, line 2.
Amendments 166 and 167 agreed.
Clause 31, as amended, agreed.
Clause 32: Campaigners
Amendment 168 not moved.
169: Clause 32, page 45, line 37, after “office” insert “or a relevant Scottish elective office”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that “relevant election”, in clause 32, continues to include an election for the office of member of the Scottish Parliament or member of a Scottish local authority, notwithstanding the amendments in Lord True’s name to clause 35 which narrow the general definition of “relevant elective office”.
Amendment 169 agreed.
Clause 32, as amended, agreed.
Clause 33: Election etc of a person to the House of Commons who is subject to a disqualification order
Amendment 170 not moved.
Clause 33 agreed.
Amendment 171 not moved.
Clause 34: Power to amend Schedule 9
Amendment 172 not moved.
Clause 34 agreed.
Clause 35: Interpretation of Part
Amendments 173 to 176
173: Clause 35, page 46, line 24, leave out paragraph (b)
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment removes member of the Scottish Parliament from the definition of “relevant elective office” for Part 5.
174: Clause 35, page 46, line 27, after “authority” insert “in England, Wales or Northern Ireland”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment, and the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 47, line 1, remove member of a Scottish local authority from the definition of “relevant elective office” for Part 5.
175: Clause 35, page 46, line 35, at end insert—
““relevant Scottish elective office” means the office of—(a) member of the Scottish Parliament, or(b) member of a council constituted under section 2 of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment inserts a definition of “relevant Scottish elective office” for Part 5.
176: Clause 35, page 47, line 1, leave out paragraph (b)
Member’s explanatory statement
See the explanatory amendment for the amendment in Lord True’s name at page 46, line 27.
Amendments 173 to 176 agreed.
Clause 35, as amended, agreed.
Clause 36 agreed.
Schedule 10: Disqualification orders: minor and consequential amendments
Amendments 177 and 178
177: Schedule 10, page 160, line 33, leave out paragraph 4
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment omits amendments currently made by the Bill to sections 35 and 36 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973.
178: Schedule 10, page 161, line 19, leave out paragraph 6
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment omits amendments currently made by the Bill to section 17 of the Scotland Act 1998.
Amendments 177 and 178 agreed.
Schedule 10, as amended, agreed.
Clause 37 agreed.
Clause 38: Definitions relating to parties etc
Amendments 179 and 180
179: Clause 38, page 48, line 1, after “office” insert “or a relevant Scottish elective office”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that the definition of “candidate” continues to include a candidate at an election for the office of member of the Scottish Parliament or member of a Scottish local authority.
180: Clause 38, page 48, line 5, after “office” insert “or a relevant Scottish elective office”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment ensures that the definition of “future candidate” continues to include a future candidate at an election for the office of member of the Scottish Parliament or member of a Scottish local authority.
Amendments 179 and 180 agreed.
Clause 38, as amended, agreed.
Clause 39: Requirement to include information with electronic material
180A: Clause 39, page 48, line 28, leave out “reasonably practicable” and insert “possible”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment replaces “if it is not reasonably practicable to comply” with “if it is not possible to comply” to ensure that the majority of electronic material is within scope of the bill’s intentions.
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendments 194A, 194B, 196A and 212C. I am a relative interloper on this Bill as I was not able to speak at Second Reading. Part 6 has taken a long time to come in Committee, but the digital aspects of election campaigns are nevertheless of great importance. For the convenience of the House, I thought it best to group all these digital amendments together, although they cover rather different aspects of digital campaigning.
Before I start, I will say that I was looking forward to a joust with the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, but I send my best wishes to him for a speedy Covid recovery. On the other hand, it is a pleasure to see the versatile noble Earl, Lord Howe, taking part in these proceedings.
Digital campaigning is of growing importance. It accounted for 42.8% of reported spend on advertising in the UK at the 2017 general election. That figure rose in 2019; academic research has estimated that political parties’ spending on platforms is likely to have increased by over 50% in 2019 compared to 2017. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life said in its report in July last year, Regulating Election Finance:
“Research conducted by the Electoral Commission following the 2019 General Election revealed that concerns about transparency are having an impact on public trust and confidence in campaigns.”
In that light, the introduction of digital imprints for political electronic material is an overdue but welcome part of the Elections Bill.
The proposed regime as it stands covers all types of digital material and all types of appropriate promoter. However, a significant weakness of the Bill may exist in the detail of where an imprint must appear. In its current form, the Bill allows promoters of electronic material to avoid placing an imprint on the material itself if it is not reasonably practicable to do so. Instead, campaigners could include the imprint somewhere else that is directly accessible from the electronic material, such as a linked webpage or social media profile or bio. The evidence from Scotland’s recent parliamentary elections is that this will lead in practice to almost all imprints appearing on a promoter’s website or homepage or on their social media profile, rather than on the actual material itself. Perhaps that was encouraged by the rather permissive Electoral Commission guidance for those elections.
Can this really be classed as an imprint? For most observers of the material, there will be no discernible change from the situation that we have now—that is, they will not see the promoter’s details. The Electoral Commission also says that this approach could reduce transparency for voters if it is harder to find the imprint for some digital campaign material. It seems that
“if it is not reasonably practicable to comply”
will award promoters with too much leeway to hide an imprint. Replacing that with
“if it is not possible to comply”
would ensure that the majority of electronic material is within the scope of the Bill’s intentions. What happened to the original statement in the Cabinet Office summary of the final policy in its response to the consultation document Transparency in Digital Campaigning in June last year? That says:
“Under the new regime, all paid-for electronic material will require an imprint, regardless of who it is promoted by.”
There is no mention of exemptions.
The commission says it is important that the meanings of the terms in the Bill are clear and unambiguous, and that it needs to know what the Government’s intent is in this area. In what circumstances do the Government really believe it reasonable not to have an imprint but to have it on a website or on a social media profile? We need a clear statement from them.
As my noble friend Lord Wallace said, Amendments 194A and 196A really should be included in the “missed opportunity” box, given the massive threat of misinformation and disinformation during election campaigns, particularly by foreign actors, highlighted in a series of reports by the Electoral Commission, the Intelligence and Security Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, as well as by the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, on which I sat. It is vital that we have much greater regulation over this and full transparency over what has been paid for and what content has been paid for. As the CSPL report last July said,
“digital communication allows for a more granular level of targeting and at a greater volume – meaning more messages are targeted, more precisely and more often.”
The report says:
“The evidence we have heard, combined with the conclusions reached by a range of expert reports on digital campaigning in recent years, has led us to conclude that urgent action is needed to require more information to be made available about how money is spent on digital campaigning.”
It continues in paragraph 6.26:
“We consider that social media companies that permit campaign adverts in the UK should be obliged to create advert libraries. As a minimum they should include adverts that fit the legal definition of election material in UK law.”
The report recommends that:
“The government should change the law to require parties and campaigners to provide the Electoral Commission with more detailed invoices from their digital suppliers … subdivide their spending returns to record what medium was used for each activity”
“legislate to require social media platforms that permit election adverts in the UK to create advert libraries that include specified information.”
All those recommendations are also contained in the Electoral Commission report, Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters from as long ago as June 2018, and reflect what the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation set out in its February 2020 report on online targeting in specifying what it considered should be included in any such advert library. The implementation of these recommendations, which are included in Amendment 196A, would serve to greatly increase the financial transparency of digital campaigning operations.
In their response to the CSPL report, the Government said:
“The Government is committed to increasing transparency in digital campaigning to empower voters to make decisions. As part of this, we take these recommendations on digital campaigning seriously. As with all of the recommendations made by the CSPL, the Government will look in detail at the recommendations and consider the implications and practicalities.”
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report last December followed that up, saying at paragraph 216:
“The Government’s response to the CSPL report on electoral finance regulation provides no indication of which of its recommendations (not already included in the Bill) the Government is likely to adopt … prioritise for consultation or when or how the Government proposes to give legislative effect to recommendations that will not be included in the Bill. The Government should give clarity on its next steps in this regard.”
So the time has come for the Government to say what their intentions are. They have had over six months to do this, and I hope they have come to the conclusion that fully safeguards our democracy. I hope the Government will now see the merits and importance of those amendments.
On Amendment 194B, the CSPL also recommended changes to electoral law regarding foreign actors. We had some discussion about this issue during the debate on Amendment 35. The CSPL says at paragraph 6.29 of its report:
“As we discuss in chapter 4, the rules on permissible donations were based on the principle that there should be no foreign interference in UK elections. However, the rules do not explicitly ban spending on campaign advertising by foreign individuals or organisations.”
It specifically refers to the Electoral Commission’s Digital Campaigning report, which said:
“A specific ban on any campaign spending from abroad would … strengthen the UK’s election and referendum rules.”
It quoted the DCMS committee’s February 2019 report, Disinformation and “Fake News”, which said that
“the UK is clearly vulnerable to covert digital influence campaigns”,
and the Intelligence and Security Committee report, which stated that if the commission
“is to tackle foreign interference, then it must be given the necessary legislative powers.”
These are powerful testimonies and recommendations from some very well respected committees. As a result, the CSPL recommended:
“In line with the principle of no foreign interference in UK elections, the government should legislate to ban foreign organisations or individuals from buying campaign advertising in the UK.”
This is very similar to a recommendation in the Electoral Commission’s Digital Campaigning: Increasing Transparency for Voters report of 2018, which I referred to earlier. In response, the Government said: “We are extending this”—the prohibition of foreign money—
“even further as part of the Elections Bill, to cover all third-party spending above £700 during a regulated period.”
However, the current proposals in the Bill have loopholes that foreign organisations can readily use, for instance through setting up multiple channels. A foreign actor could set up dozens of entities and spend £699 on each one—something very easy for online expenditure.
Amendment 194B would ensure that foreign entities were completely banned from participating at all and would make absolutely certain that the Government’s intentions were fulfilled. Again, I hope that the Minister will readily accept this amendment as strengthening the Bill against foreign interference.
Turning to Amendment 212C, tackling societal harms caused by misinformation and disinformation is not straightforward, as our Joint Committee on the Online Safety Bill found. However, consistent with the report of the Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust, chaired by the much-missed Lord Puttnam, we said:
“Disinformation and Misinformation surrounding elections are a risk to democracy. Disinformation which aims to disrupt elections must be addressed by legislation. If the Government decides that the Online Safety Bill is not the appropriate place to do so, then it should use the Elections Bill which is currently making its way through Parliament.”
There is, of course, always a tension with freedom of expression, and as we emphasised in our Joint Committee, so we must prioritise tackling specific harmful activity over restricting content. Apart from the digital imprint provisions, however, the Bill fails to take any account of mounting evidence and concerns about the impact on our democracy of misinformation and disinformation. The long delayed report of the Intelligence and Security Committee on Russian interference of July 2020 was highly relevant in this context, stating:
“The UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations and must therefore equip itself to counter such efforts.”
Protecting our democratic discourse and processes from hostile foreign interference is a central responsibility of the Government. The committee went on, very topically, to say:
“The links of the Russian elite to the UK—especially where this involves business and investment—provide access to UK companies and political figures, and thereby a means for broad Russian influence in the UK.”
“We note—and, again, agree with the DCMS Select Committee—that ‘the UK is clearly vulnerable to covert digital influence campaigns.’”
The online harms White Paper published in April 2019 recognised the dangers that digital technology could pose to democracy and proposed measures to tackle them. Given the extensive regulatory framework being put in place for individual online harms in the Online Safety Bill, newly published last week, why are the Government reluctant to reaffirm the White Paper approach to elections and include it in this Bill? The Government responded to our Joint Committee report on this issue last week by saying that they agreed that misinformation and disinformation surrounding elections are a risk to democracy. However, they went on to say:
“The Government has robust systems in place that bring together governmental, civil society and private sector organisations to monitor and respond to interference in whatever form it takes to ensure that our democracy stays open, vibrant and transparent”
—fine words. They cite the Defending Democracy programme, saying:
“Ahead of major democratic events, the Defending Democracy programme stands up the Election Cell. This is a strategic coordination and risk reporting structure that works with relevant organisations to identify and respond to emerging issues”.
So far, so vague. They continue:
“The Counter Disinformation Unit based in DCMS is an integral part of this structure and undertakes work to understand the extent, scope and the reach of misinformation and disinformation.”
The Government, however, seem remarkably reluctant to tell us through parliamentary Questions or FoI requests what this Counter Disinformation Unit within the DCMS is. What does it actually do? Does it have a role during elections? Given that government response, it seems clear that the net result is that the Elections Bill has, and will have, no provisions relating to misinformation and disinformation.
Amendment 194B is a start and is designed to prevent one strand of disinformation, akin to the 640,000 Facebook posts that led to the Capitol riots of 6 January last year, which not only has immediate impact but erodes trust in future elections. The Government should pick this amendment up with enthusiasm but then introduce something much more comprehensive that meets the concerns of the ISC’s Russia report and tackles online misinformation and disinformation in election campaigns.
I would of course be very happy to discuss all these amendments and all the relevant issues with Ministers between Committee and Report stages.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, on an extremely full exposition of his amendments, which makes me almost superfluous but I will add something anyway. The Minister is leaving, but I just say to him that the Government appear to want to get this excruciatingly poor Bill through before Prorogation. If they are going to do that, will they please accept some of the more sensible amendments so that the Bill contains some useful stuff that we can all use as politicians to make the whole process much fairer? The growing complexity of digital marketing makes online campaigning a major battleground for political dirty tricks; we all want to avoid that.
In 2019, political parties used data from Experian Marketing Services and Facebook to target specific campaign messages to individual voters. They also used Facebook services that allow advertisers to find customers similar to an existing group of customers. This allows targeting by age, location, interests, likes and a whole host of other personal data. The big risk of this, of course, is that political parties can promise anything to all people in a way that they could not before. We have politicians lying to our faces—the Prime Minister stands up and lies at the Dispatch Box. We all see him doing it; some of care and a lot of us do not. We can see it; it is happening. Now, however, there is an industry that would allow politicians to target their distortions of the truth on specific groups of people. The same candidate could target Brexit supporters with a pro-Brexit message, remain supporters with an anti-Brexit message and everyone else with a message saying that Brexit is a waste of time and we should all be getting on with more important things.
The threat to the integrity of our democracy is obvious; this is something we really do have to tackle. We need to move on with the times and be a bit more modern about accepting that we have a problem. There is a real risk that whichever party uses dodgy digital marketing in the most egregious and misleading ways will be most likely to win an election. We are at risk of a digital arms race in which truth and integrity are impediments to getting elected. I urge the Government to pick up at least some of these amendments, which would make our whole political system much clearer, cleaner and fairer.
My Lords, I support these amendments, so comprehensively introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, in particular Amendment 194B. It is clearly right that overseas actors should be specifically banned from interfering in our political process and publishing propaganda online. It is relatively easy for them to do that.
Clause 39 imposes a duty on those publishing election-related material to make clear the source of that material. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has made clear that this is a loophole big enough for most people to get through; it is simply not enough. It would be naive in the extreme to assume that those who wish to influence our elections are not wily enough to circumvent these sorts of stipulations, and neither are they likely to be put off doing so by the fact that they would be breaking British law, as Amendment 194B would insist.
The bots that churned out online propaganda ahead of the referendum amounted to interference in our electoral process on an industrial scale. We cannot say categorically whether they affected the result, but we know they tried. Yet the Government have neither investigated what happened nor done anything that we can see to prevent such online terrorism. As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, put it, “So far, so vague”.
As others have mentioned, the Russia report from the Intelligence and Security Committee was highly critical of the Government’s failure to examine what had happened and to take action, yet the Government continue to resist anything tangible. That is why a cross-party group of MPs and Peers, of which I am one, has filed a legal action to try to force our Government to investigate and protect the integrity of our electoral system. That action has today been filed with the European Court of Justice. It will, of course, take a while before it produces anything, and I hope that in the meantime the Government take action that would render such legal action—to prompt them into doing what they should do—unnecessary.
Does the Minister believe that Clause 39, even with this amendment, will prevent malign interference in the UK’s electoral process? Does he really believe that what is being done quietly is having any effect at all? Does he not think that the time has come, if the Government are taking real action, for us to be told about it and for the need for it to be enshrined in law?
My Lords, I would have rather welcomed being targeted by a foreign Government in the various elections I stood in. It would have been relatively straightforward to have turned that around—I would have used more traditional methods of communication—and exposed it. But I am not quite sure how we would be able to take North Korea, Mr Putin or whoever through the courts in this country for any remedy or preventive action. Donations, of course, are an entirely separate issue, but these amendments are on electronic communications.
I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and I will respectfully give a different point of view on his Amendment 180A, which is very well intentioned but rather misses the point about transparency and where the digital age is going. The concept of putting in an imprint to demonstrate who has put a particular advert or piece of propaganda out there is very valid.
It is quite feasible that I will not be standing at the time of the next general election, unless some odd mayoralty is formed that I suddenly decide I should run for. I have had my day fighting elections. But if I was, I would think about how I could harness the latest technology so that people’s clothes would carry my name and slogan. Particularly at football matches, you regularly see straplines that change every few seconds; I would have them at strategic locations, firing out different messages. If others were doing so at prime locations and I had sufficiently robust funds to allow me to join in with using those advertising methodologies, I would certainly look to do that.
When it comes to proper transparency, it seems to me that the concept of, say, an agent having to have everything declared precisely on a website is far more useful for the efficacy of elections than anything that would anticipate that, for example, the latest high-tech jumper I am wearing, advertising a candidate, could somehow be spotted to have on it something that could then be used to hold me to account. It seems to me that some of the tried and tested methods could be more useful for the intention—here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones—of ensuring that there is maximum transparency and legality in elections. I would be interested in the Minister’s views on whether this section of the Bill is sufficiently future-proofed for where technology will be next week, never mind next year.
My Lords, I will briefly intervene, having heard the noble Lord, Lord Mann. It is important to understand that, as far as Clause 39 goes, the amendment talks about making sure there is some way of identifying the message you have. Of course, if it says “Vote for Mann” it might be a reasonable presumption that it had been sponsored by somebody supporting the candidacy of Mr Mann, as it would be. But the evil, if I can put it that way, of much social media advertising is that it is not clear what it is doing. You have negative campaigning as well as positive campaigning. It is not necessarily done in a way that makes it obvious that what you are reading is not a news item or a fashion page—to pick up the point from the noble Lord, Lord Mann—but it nevertheless conveys an important message to a particular category of reader. So I ask the Minister to address the substance of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones’s Amendment 180A.
“Reasonably practicable” has already been completely circumvented in Scotland, so we know it does not work there. It is inconceivable that whatever lessons were learned by campaigners in Scotland will not immediately transfer to campaigns across the United Kingdom. It is a good challenge for the Minister to explain what is wrong with “possible” and maybe, behind that, to say whether the Government have decided not to implement the clear advice of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Electoral Commission, both of which, I respectfully suggest, might be offering advice that is slightly more researched than that of the noble Lord, Lord Mann.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones for the amendments he has brought forward with a great deal more expertise about this new dimension of campaigning than I have. I first learned about this new dimension of campaigning when I looked into post-Soviet Russian politics and discovered the new term “political technologies”, used by campaigners working for Putin to mould public opinion and to try to interfere in other countries, using the newly available digital media to help their efforts.
Of course, this also costs money. As we have seen in the United States, the use of digital media, data mining and negative campaigning—as has already been mentioned —is one way in which, unfortunately, American politics is being debased. We do not want that to happen in Britain.
There are those close to this Government who are good political technologists and we have seen some of their work already. They also have access to a great deal more money than any other political parties, and if we want to hold future elections on anything like a level playing field, we need some tight rules to cope with this rapidly changing area. Part 6 at present starts down that road but, as we have heard, it is weak and has not taken account of recommendations from the CSPL and the Electoral Commission. I very much hope that the Minister will take back that it needs to be strengthened.
We all recognise that we are now up against a very tight deadline for this Bill in this Session. I have said on a number of occasions since the Bill first reached this House that it is better to get it right than to rush it through. If it has to be held over or has to start again, it is better to do that than to leave a deeply unsatisfying Bill with opposition parties feeling that they have been misled and cheated, with the rules biased in a number of ways against them.
I say to the Minister: please take this back as a matter of urgency. This is an area which, as we all know, contains a number of new threats to democracy from the way in which our younger generation, in particular, now live online, and we need to have some strong safeguards.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for his excellent introduction to a range of amendments. We should not simply think that negative campaigning and threats to our election process are new things as a result of new technology. These sorts of things have been going on for many years. Certainly, I have seen a political party put one leaflet down one street saying one thing and then another down another street saying the complete opposite.
All of these things are addressed effectively through effective transparency, with people knowing exactly where this information comes from. I think the noble Lord, Lord Mann, is right there. That is why it is important that the Minister specifically addresses the point in Amendment 180A. I am worried that we spot a problem, understand the issue, say we are addressing it in legislation but then create a loophole where everyone can escape.
I am grateful for Adobe sending me its briefing on this issue. It basically says that we have the technology and there is a standard being developed for content authenticity initiatives—CAI—which, if adopted, and it is being adopted, can address this issue. I do not understand why we have this loophole. Technology can ensure that the imprint of who has created and published the content is there. I do not see the circumstances where it is not possible. Even if it is not possible on the face, they now have the technology to point out easily how you find it. Therefore, as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones says, I do not see why we have this wording of “not reasonably practicable”. I am not even sure I would agree that it is not possible. It is possible—the technology is there so we should do it.
Noble Lords have referred to the Russia report. We said at the beginning of Second Reading—and I am not going to make a Second Reading speech—that the Bill is a missed opportunity. It could have embraced a lot more and the issues identified in that report will need to be addressed in future legislation as they have not been addressed here.
I hope the Minister can specifically address the issue in Amendment 180A; I particularly hope she has seen the briefing from Adobe and the industry which says that this is possible. They have created a standard which they expect everyone to adopt—in fact, Facebook, Twitter and others are all adopting it. If they are adopting it, can we not use the legislation to ensure that it becomes compulsory for all political actors to comply with this legislation and that we do not have a loophole?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for a very thorough piece of scrutiny of this part of the Bill. I think it would be useful if between now and Report we had a meeting with him and other interested parties to discuss this further and also address some of his very in-depth speech that I will not answer this evening because we might be here all night. We will get answers to him very quickly so that we can discuss them when we have that meeting.
The noble Lord, Lord Mann, and many others are right: this is fast moving. What we see today is probably not what we will see in five years’ time, and we need to future- proof. I think we all understand that.
There were some very specific questions that I will answer upfront because that will give some context to what else I am going to say. First, on digital imprints, it is important that “reasonably practicable” is understood. It should be read as commonly understood; “reasonably practicable” is commonly understood. The Electoral Commission and the police will need to interpret this phrase in context in the course of their enforcement of the Bill. The statutory guidance will provide further details on the location of this imprint and what is required. There will be further guidance on this.
A number of noble Lords spoke about the Intelligence and Security Committee and said that political adverts should include an imprint. The Government’s digital imprint regime delivers the ICS’s recommendation to introduce a requirement to add an imprint on digital paid-for political advertising. As digital campaigning is not confined to election periods or geographical boundaries, the regime is intended to apply all year round, UK-wide, and regardless of where in the world content is promoted from. Following a conviction or a civil sanction, the courts can make an order or the Electoral Commission may issue a notice to anyone, including social media companies, requiring them to remove or disable access to infringed content. Failure to comply with a notice or order would be a criminal offence.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, brought up the issue of targeting messages. Targeting messages at voters is a legitimate activity that allows campaigners to maximise their resources and target their message at the right audience. All campaigners must comply with direct marketing and data protection laws when using personal data in their campaigning, but it is a legal activity.
Understood. Listening to the debate, two words have come out, and we will reflect those. One is “safeguarding”, and one is “transparency”, as the noble Baroness has just said. Those two things are important as we move forward with the Bill.
The provisions in Part 6 of the Elections Bill will introduce one of the most comprehensive “digital imprint” regimes operating in the world today; that is the positive thing. However, it is crucial to take a proportionate approach to the scope and application of the regime to ensure that it is enforceable and to avoid stifling political debate. It is for this reason that the Government do not support the noble Lord’s amendments, as we consider that they would introduce unreasonable burdens on campaigners and therefore risk restricting freedom of expression.
Due to the way some digital platforms are designed, it will not always be practical to display the imprint as part of the material itself—for example, in a text- based tweet where there is a strict character limit. Amendment 180A would not give campaigners the much-needed level of flexibility and therefore risks unreasonably hampering their ability to campaign on particular digital platforms. I have listened to the points made about new technology coming out; it is important that we keep an eye on that, so that if that is possible in the future—
I am not asking my noble friend to reply this evening, because this is a complicated question, but I think I heard the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, say that the digital material would not have to have an imprint on itself and that it could refer you by a link to another page. If that is the case, we could have a situation where if you are retweeting things, you may get even further away from the reality of what is happening. It was also not clear to me, because of the Government’s reaction to an earlier amendment, whether a third-party campaigner had to disclose on their home page that they were registered as a third-party campaigner. I am not sure that I have the links quite right here. If the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, was correct, perhaps my noble friend could unpick that when she writes to us after today. I am not asking her to reply to that now.
I take note of that and will make sure that my noble friend understands the unpicking of all of that.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that this flexibility does not amount to allowing campaigners to place the imprint wherever they want. Under our regime, campaigners would be required to ensure that their imprint is displayed as part of the material and only when this is not reasonably practical may the imprint be located elsewhere—as my noble friend said—but it must still be directly accessible from the campaigning material. Those who do not comply will be committing an offence.
Turning now to Amendment 194A, the Government are mindful that transparency requirements on campaigners remain proportionate and that they are not unduly discouraged from participating in public life. Candidates and registered campaigners already have to detail their electoral spending in their returns to returning officers and the Electoral Commission and provide invoices for payments over a certain amount. Invoices provided to the Electoral Commission are then made available for public scrutiny. The practicality and impact on campaigners of requiring them to submit more detailed invoices or receipts about digital activity would need to be looked at very carefully, as the detail provided is determined by the suppliers themselves and not necessarily by the recipient.
Similarly, in relation to Amendment 196A, the Government welcome the steps already taken by many social media companies in this area. We continue to keep transparency rules under review, but given the steps taken already by platforms such as Facebook, we do not propose to mandate centralised libraries of digital political content. Requiring all campaigners promoting paid political advertising to themselves maintain a library of those adverts with specified information for at least 10 years risks adding a significant and unreasonable administrative burden on campaigners, particularly smaller groups that rely on volunteers or groups that are established only for the lifetime of a particular election campaign. We know that some small campaigns happen and, in our opinion, keeping a library for 10 years would be unreasonable.
Amendment 194B seeks to ban foreign actors from promoting political advertising—an issue a number of noble Lords brought up—within scope of the digital imprint regime targeted at the UK electorate. With regards to the noble Lord’s proposal to outlaw advertisement of paid electronic material, as set out in Clause 40, by non-UK residents and entities, he will be reassured to hear that electoral law already sets out a stringent regime of spending controls to ensure that only those with a legitimate interest in UK elections can campaign. Measures in Part 4 of the Elections Bill will stop ineligible foreign spending on electoral campaigning by restricting third-party campaigning above a £700 de minimis threshold to UK-based or otherwise eligible campaigners. This includes spending on any digital advertising that is seeking to encourage UK electors to vote in a particular way. Anyone who incurs expenditure in contravention of this will commit an offence. Therefore, this will by nature prohibit much of the advertising that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has identified in his Amendment 194B. The noble Lord is shaking his head; this is something we can discuss further at our meeting.
Amendment 194B also contains a proposal to ban the promotion of other electronic material, as set out in Clause 42, by non-UK residents and entities. It is important to note that Clause 42 applies only to a list of types of electoral entity, such as candidates, registered political parties and third parties. This approach is aimed at ensuring that members of the public are able to express their political opinions online without requiring an imprint on election material that is not a paid-for advert. This list of electoral entities is almost entirely made up of UK-based entities, and therefore the noble Lord’s amendment in this area would have little effect—the one exception being individual registered overseas electors who have registered as third-party campaigners. The Government cannot support any amendment that would seek to silence UK overseas electors as they are a legitimate part of our democracy. For these reasons, the Government ask the noble Lord to withdraw this amendment.
Amendment 212C would create a new offence which would seek to criminalise any false statements made by candidates and campaigners on the integrity of the electoral process. We have a tradition of robust political debate and freedom of speech in British democracy. We have been clear in our position that arguments which can be rebutted by rival campaigners and a free press as part of the normal course of political debate should not be regulated. Our electoral regulation should empower voters to make those decisions but not dictate them.
The Government recognise that disinformation and misinformation is an ongoing challenge, and that is why there are robust systems in place that bring together governmental, civil society and private sector organisations to monitor and respond to interference in whatever form it takes to ensure that our democracy stays open, vibrant and transparent. We recognise that there is a role for regulation—for example, as provided by the clarification of undue influence in Clause 8, which would include deceiving voters in relation to the administration of an election. However, any regulation needs to be carefully balanced with the need to protect freedom of expression and the legitimate public debate which is also crucial to a thriving democracy.
Generally, any new offence requires very careful consideration and development, and assessment of its impact. Clarity of language is crucial to ensure that an offence is proportionate, achieves its intended impact and does not unduly limit free speech. For example, the noble Lord’s proposed amendment includes no reference to intent. Therefore, the new clause as drafted could criminalise unintentionally false statements and could therefore be very broadly applied. This clause could also discourage people from raising legitimate concerns where they exist, for fear of the statement being considered false, or lead to a flurry of vexatious claims and counterclaims.
Overall, this clause would infringe on the freedom of speech of campaigners and candidates. Because of this, I respectfully urge the noble Lord not to press this amendment. In saying that, I repeat that we will read very carefully all noble Lords’ speeches on this subject, and we will offer a meeting to those who are interested. We will follow up with a letter covering anything that I have not managed to answer.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft. I am sure that we all wish her well in her lawsuit, which is clearly being taken for all the right reasons. I thank the Minister for her response, particularly her invitation to discuss this further, but the actual response she gave today did not score that many runs as far as I was concerned.
If you look at the intent behind all these amendments —prohibiting foreign interference, greater transparency over digital advertising, expenditure and content, preventing misinformation and disinformation—these are all things we should be striving for to make sure that we have a more vibrant democracy and to prevent damage to it. The Government have pushed back on them, and I am afraid that this is really not acceptable in this day and age. If I could respond to what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said about digital, there is a difference. We have seen the power of the algorithm to amplify in a really unhelpful, dangerous and sometimes harmful way as far as individual harms are concerned, and it is true of democracy at large as well.
I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Mann. He is clearly an extremely creative campaigner, and walks around with an electronic sweater that advertises—or used to advertise—his electoral qualities. We have to be alert to new forms of campaigning, but we are where we are; this Bill purports to be a way of dealing with digital campaigning, but it does not do the full job. That is exactly the point that we really need to be aware of.
I heard what the Minister had to say about “reasonably practicable” and so on, but the Electoral Commission guidance itself was not that clear for the Scottish parliamentary campaign. It was quite permissive, so as a result, the imprint appeared mostly either in the social media bio or on the website. It did not appear on the actual material itself, so the intent there was not achieved, and I doubt very much, if the guidance is the same—based on the same wording—that that will not be the case in the implementation of this particular provision. The leeway is too great, so it is not comprehensive.
As far as the other aspects go, I will look very carefully at what the Minister said, but, as far as advert libraries are concerned, she is repeating what the Government have said on a number of occasions: “Oh, fine, social media are already doing this.” The whole purpose of regulation in this area, however, is to specify what needs to be contained in those advert libraries. It is not enough to say, “Oh, yes, Facebook is doing it here and Twitter is doing it there”—although Twitter is no longer doing political adverts, there are other platforms such as Instagram.
As far as foreign actors are concerned, the Minister has simply repeated my own words back to me about the £700 limit, so I do not think we advanced the argument very far. As for false information, misinformation, or disinformation, the example I gave in Amendment 212C was simply, in a sense, designed to elicit a response from the Government about their intentions. Clearly, they do not seem to have any particular intention, despite the fact that their White Paper on online harms actually dealt with the subject fairly comprehensively. The question comes back to the Government about misinformation and disinformation. Their response to a whole range of committees—the CSPL, the ISC, and the Electoral Commission itself—seems to be pretty blithe. The question increasingly is: if they are not prepared to regulate misinformation or disinformation, which are threats to our democracy, what are they going to wait for: until we have a clear electoral travesty? If not now, when? No doubt, we will return to this at some later stage, but in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 180A withdrawn.
Clause 39 agreed.
Clause 40: Electronic material to which section 39 applies: paid-for material
Amendments 181 to 183
181: Clause 40, page 49, line 25, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
“(2) The first condition is that the sole or primary purpose that the electronic material can reasonably be regarded as intended to achieve is a purpose within section 41.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that the condition in clause 40(2) is met only where the sole or primary purpose that the electronic material can reasonably be regarded as intended to achieve is a purpose within clause 41.
182: Clause 40, page 49, line 30, at end insert “as an advertisement”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that the condition in clause 40(3) is met only where the promoter of the relevant material, or the person on behalf of whom the relevant material is published, has paid for the material to be published as an advertisement.
183: Clause 40, page 49, line 33, at end insert—
“(5) Where the material is published on a website or mobile application of the promoter or the person on behalf of whom the material is published, the reference in subsection (3) to a person paying for material to be published does not include the person making payments related to setting up, operating or maintaining the website or mobile application.(6) In subsection (5) “mobile application” means application software designed and developed for use by the general public on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that, in a case where electronic material is published on a website or mobile application of the promoter or person on behalf of whom the material is published, the reference in clause 40(3) to a person paying for material to be published does not include making payments related to setting up, operating or maintaining the website or mobile application.
Amendments 181 to 183 agreed.
Clause 40, as amended, agreed.
Clause 41: Purposes referred to in section 40
Amendments 184 to 188
184: Clause 41, page 50, line 1, after “future candidates” insert “, in their capacity as such,”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment modifies the purpose in clause 41(2)(c) so that it refers to influencing the public, or any section of the public, to give support to or withhold support from a relevant candidate or future candidate only in their capacity as such a candidate or future candidate.
185: Clause 41, page 50, line 11, at end insert “in their capacity as such”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment modifies the purpose in clause 41(4) so that it refers to influencing the public, or any section of the public, to give support to or withhold support from a particular candidate or particular future candidate only in their capacity as such a candidate or future candidate.
186: Clause 41, page 50, line 17, at end insert “in their capacity as such”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment modifies the purpose in clause 41(6) so that it refers to influencing the public, or any section of the public, to give support to or withhold support from an elected office-holder only in their capacity as such an elected office-holder.
187: Clause 41, page 50, line 19, after “office-holders” insert “, in their capacity as such,”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment modifies the purpose in clause 41(7) so that it refers to influencing the public, or any section of the public, to give support to or withhold support from a relevant elected office-holder only in their capacity as such an elected office-holder.
188: Clause 41, page 50, line 36, leave out subsection (11)
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment has the effect that references to a referendum in clause 41 include a poll held under section 64 of the Government of Wales Act 2006.
Amendments 184 to 188 agreed.
Clause 41, as amended, agreed.
Clause 42: Electronic material to which section 39 applies: other electronic material
189: Clause 42, page 51, line 14, at end insert—
“(4) The third condition is that neither the promoter of the material, nor the person on behalf of whom the material is published, has paid for the material to be published as an advertisement.(5) Subsections (4) to (6) of section 40 apply in relation to subsection (4) as they apply in relation to subsection (3) of that section.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that clause 42 does not apply in relation to electronic material where the promoter of the material or the person on behalf of whom the material is published has paid for the material to be published as an advertisement.
Amendment 189 agreed.
Clause 42, as amended, agreed.
Clauses 43 and 44 agreed.
Clause 45: Exceptions to section 39
Amendments 190 to 194
190: Clause 45, page 53, line 20, leave out “by a person (“A”)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment, and the other amendments to clause 45 in the name of Lord True, clarify that the republication exception in clause 45 can apply where both the original publication and the later republication are carried out by the same person.
191: Clause 45, page 53, line 22, leave out paragraph (a)
Member’s explanatory statement
Please see the first amendment to clause 45 in the name of Lord True.
192: Clause 45, page 53, line 23, leave out “published by B” and insert “previously published”
Member’s explanatory statement
Please see the first amendment to clause 45 in the name of Lord True.
193: Clause 45, page 53, line 26, leave out “by A”
Member’s explanatory statement
Please see the first amendment to clause 45 in the name of Lord True.
194: Clause 45, page 53, line 31, leave out “publication by B” and insert “previous publication”
Member’s explanatory statement
Please see the first amendment to clause 45 in the name of Lord True.
Amendments 190 to 194 agreed.
Clause 45, as amended, agreed.
Amendments 194A and 194B not moved.
Clause 46: Offence of breaching section 39
195: Clause 46, page 54, line 25, at end insert—
“(4A) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under subsection (1) in relation to the republication of electronic material to prove that—(a) the electronic material had previously been published,(b) the person reasonably believed that when it was previously published—(i) section 39 applied to it, and(ii) it was published in compliance with that section, and(c) it was not materially altered when it was republished.(4B) In subsection (4A)(c) the reference to electronic material not being materially altered includes a reference to the electronic material retaining—(a) the information within section 39(3), or(b) the access to such information,as a result of which the person reasonably believed its previous publication complied with section 39.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment inserts an additional defence into clause 46 in relation to the republication of electronic material. The defence applies where material has previously been published, the person charged with the offence reasonably believes that, at the time of the original publication, clause 39 applied to the material and it was published in compliance with that section and the material was not materially altered when it was republished.
Amendment 195 agreed.
Clause 46, as amended, agreed.
Schedule 11 agreed.
Clause 47 agreed.
Clause 48: Enforcement by the Commission
196: Clause 48, page 55, line 32, after “(referendums)” insert “where the referendum in question is a referendum to which Part 7 of PPERA applies and the electronic material is published during the referendum period (within the meaning of that Part) for that referendum”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides that the Electoral Commission is able to enforce the offence in clause 46(1) in relation to the publication of electronic material which can reasonably be regarded as intended to achieve a purpose within clause 41(9)(referendums) only in relation to a referendum to which Part 7 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 applies and where the material is published during the relevant referendum period.
Amendment 196 agreed.
Clause 48, as amended, agreed.
Clauses 49 to 51 agreed.
Schedule 12 agreed.
Amendment 196A not moved.
Amendment 196B had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Clauses 52 to 59 agreed.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.45 pm.