My Lords, I will first make a statement on the legislative consent process in relation to the Elections Bill. The provisions in the Bill will considerably strengthen the delivery of UK parliamentary general elections and other reserved polls. There has been open and positive engagement between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations in the development of the measures in the Bill. For a number of measures, coherence and consistency across both devolved and reserved polls was considered beneficial to providing electors with clarity and ensuring operability for electoral administrators and those regulated by electoral law.
To deliver those benefits, we sought legislative consent from the Scottish and Welsh Governments. Given that both the Scottish and Welsh Governments expressed support in principle for a number of areas within the Bill, we are disappointed by their request to remove all aspects that relate to devolved matters. Nevertheless, we respected that request and tabled ahead of Committee the necessary amendments to ensure that the Bill as a whole applies only to reserved—and excepted, as it relates to Northern Ireland—matters. This affects measures relating to the Electoral Commission, intimidation, clarification of undue influence and political finance.
I note that the Welsh Government have subsequently laid a supplementary LCM in which they disagree with the devolution analysis for the digital imprints and intimidation proposals. The UK Government’s position is that our legislation on these issues is reserved and does not engage the legislative consent process. Nevertheless, we note that the Welsh Government are supportive in principle of our proposals in these areas.
While divergence is a natural consequence of devolution, the Government welcome the indication given by both the Scottish and Welsh Governments that they will consider legislating comparably across a number of areas. UK Ministers remain committed to working closely with their counterparts as they develop their legislative proposals to deliver the best outcome for voters, the electoral sector and those regulated by electoral law.
In moving that the Bill do now pass, it may be helpful if I make a couple of remarks at this point, although I do not know whether it is conventional to do so at the start or the finish. I know that all of us on all sides of this House, as has been evident in our debates, share a common desire to keep our elections secure, fair, transparent and up to date so that our democracy can continue to thrive. That, in essence, is what the Bill has been about.
I am grateful to all noble Lords across the House who have engaged in debating the substance of the Bill for their most robust scrutiny, which has gone up to the very last seconds. I thank both opposition Benches for their sustained interest and engagement, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Stunell, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Scriven, who is not here. I am never quite sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is a sub or actually on the Front Bench, but anyway he has played a challenging and useful role.
Obviously, I particularly thank Her Majesty’s Official Opposition and the Front Bench opposite: the noble Lord, Lord Collins, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, and the noble Lord, Lord Khan, who is coming back into the Chamber just in time for his ears to burn, if they can burn in—it is Burnley, is it not?
I thought it was. I thank those noble Lords for their constructive interest in and engagement with these measures. We have not always agreed—sometimes we have—but I have been grateful for their willingness to work with this side and our Bill team on these matters. As a result of this willingness to reach compromises around the House, the Bill leaves your Lordships’ House improved and strengthened.
On our Benches, I thank my noble friends Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, Lord Holmes of Richmond, Lord Hayward and Lady Noakes for their input, which has led to amendments that I also believe have enhanced the legislation. I am astonishingly grateful to my noble friend Lady Scott, who seems to step into every breach when I fall or, if you like, am not sufficient. She has such an impressive capacity to pick up the technical issues and work at pace, and I have been so grateful to her for her good humour and tireless work. It is much appreciated. I also thank my noble friend Lord Howe, who is not here, for stepping into the breach when I unfortunately had my lights punched out by a Covid headache and worse. I fell short then of a promise to all noble Lords that I would be here every hour of every debate. Of course, that could not be helped, but I assure your Lordships, as someone who likes to live up to his word, that it will be a source of annoyance when I look back on this.
Finally, we all want to go, but I cannot let anyone go—I know that people on all sides of the House understand this—without mentioning the extraordinary hard work of the Bill team and the policy officials behind the Bill, many of whom have worked for what may seem like half a lifetime to them on preparing it and putting it together. There are so many of them that it would be invidious to name them all, but many of your Lordships have had direct personal contact with them. They have been enormously professional, good humoured and patient—which you have to be if you work with me—and have lived up to the very highest standards of the UK Civil Service and the quality of public service that we all admire. So, my final thanks are to them.
My Lords, perhaps I may remark to my noble friend Lord Rennard and the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, that in the process of this Bill I have appreciated that it is possible to be quite astonishingly, nerdishly expert on the details of elections to the degree to which the two of them and one or two of our colleagues on the Labour Benches are. That goes far beyond my limited experience, having fought only five elections in my life. They really understand the details in all sorts of ways. I have done some of my electioneering in some of the more difficult parts of the United Kingdom.
I thank the many pro-democracy organisations that have helped and advised us and lobbied about the Bill as it has gone through: Best for Britain, Unlock Democracy, the Electoral Reform Society, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Democracy Defence Coalition. I particularly thank Elizabeth Plummer in our Whips’ Office, who has done superb work with others around the House to make sure that the amendments are there on time.
It is difficult to welcome this Bill. It came to the House accompanied by a number of very critical reports, including one from the constitutional affairs committee of the House of Commons, which said that the Bill in its current form was not fit for purpose. We have improved it a little—we now face ping-pong on some of those improvements—but it is still not entirely what is needed.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said, rather powerfully, this is a constitutional Bill on which there was an absence of cross-party consultation or consensus on the fundamentals of our constitutional democracy—that is a worry. We will have to return to this. The next Parliament, whenever it comes, will have to undertake the job of simplifying and clarifying electoral law, which is what we should have been doing—and have failed to do—with this Bill. Perhaps there are some improvements, and there are certainly some necessary changes in this Bill. There are a number of other areas which we on these Benches bitterly regret and, for that, I can make only moderate thanks to the Minister and the Bill team for what has been achieved.
My Lords, I start by saying that I agree with the noble Lord the Minister that this Bill is improved and strengthened having gone through this House. This Bill is a clear demonstration that your Lordships’ House can really prove its worth when a Bill comes that is not really good enough. I thank the Government and the Minister for bringing forward some important changes and concessions which have improved the Bill considerably.
I also believe that your Lordships’ House has sent a very clear signal to the Government about concerns around, in particular, photographic ID and the independence of the Electoral Commission. I thank my colleagues, my noble friends Lord Collins and Lord Khan, for their support and all the work that they have done on this Bill. I also thank Ben Wood, in our office, who has worked like crazy on this Bill and others, providing really important support.
I thank the many noble Lords who have taken part in debates on this Bill and who have contributed to making it the better Bill that it is today. In particular, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, for his important work demonstrating our concerns around the Electoral Commission. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord True and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for their time and consideration of our concerns. They have given us a lot of time and some of the concessions that we have had are extremely gratefully received and have made the Bill much better. I also thank the officials, because they also gave us that time to try to improve things in this way. I join the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, in thanking the many organisations that have provided time, briefings and the detailed information that has helped us to understand some of the complicated areas of electoral law.
I just end by saying that I hope that we can continue to work together constructively to address the outstanding areas where we believe we can still make more progress.
Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.