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Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Amendment) Order 2022

Volume 825: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2022

Motion to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, these SIs are a key part of the implementation of the Elections Act 2022, which your Lordships debated at some length earlier this year.

The Assistance with Voting for Persons with Disabilities (Amendments) Regulations 2022 are made in consequence of, or to make similar provision to, Section 9 of the Elections Act 2022. The intention of both Section 9 of the Act and these consequential regulations is to improve the support available to disabled voters at polling stations, and they do this in two ways. First, they replace the existing requirement to provide a single, prescribed device to assist blind and partially sighted voters with a broader, better requirement that returning officers provide equipment to assist a wider range of disabled voters to cast their vote independently. They also revoke reference to that device for UK parliamentary elections where its description is included in secondary legislation. Secondly, they replace the unnecessarily restrictive requirement that anyone assisting a disabled voter be either a close family member of that voter or an elector themselves with a requirement that the person assisting be 18 years or over. This will allow people to more easily get support to cast their vote where the person best placed to support them did not meet either of the two previous criteria.

These changes are made for UK parliamentary elections by the Elections Act 2022, and this instrument makes equivalent changes across a range of other polls, including most mayoral elections; local authority governance referendums and neighbourhood planning referendums in England; police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales; and MP recall petitions across the UK. The changes are being replicated at other polls, including English local elections, Greater London Authority elections and London mayoral elections, through separate secondary legislation following the negative procedure that will be laid before the House in due course. These instruments are essential in ensuring that the improvements to support for disabled voters in the polling station introduced by the Elections Act are applied consistently across all polls reserved to the UK Government.

The Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Amendment) Order 2022 has two purposes. First, it amends the spending rules for police and crime commissioner elections for England and Wales to replicate amendments made by the Elections Act 2022. These changes will bring much-needed clarity to candidates and their agents that they need to report benefits in kind—that is, property, goods, services or facilities which are provided for the use or benefit of the candidate at a discount or for free—which they have actually used, or which they or their election agents have directed, authorised or encouraged someone else to use on their behalf. In combination with expanded statutory guidance from the Electoral Commission, which is provided for by the order, this will support compliance with the rules and ensure those wishing to participate in public life can feel confident doing so, clear in their legal obligations.

Secondly, it inserts two additional welfare benefits into the list of qualifying benefits for proxy voting applications for police and crime commissioner elections. This will ensure that disabled people in receipt of new welfare benefits in Scotland who have recently moved from Scotland would be able to make a proxy vote application at a PCC election, without the need for it to be attested, while a decision is pending on the equivalent welfare benefit in the jurisdiction where they now reside. To give an example, if a disabled person who has been living in Scotland and is in receipt of an enhanced rate of new adult disability benefit has recently moved to a local authority in England and wishes to apply for an emergency proxy vote at a PCC election, the proxy vote application will not need to be attested by another authorised person, because the Scottish welfare benefit will be payable for 13 weeks from the time of their move. This means that the applicant for a proxy vote for a PCC election would be on the same footing as a person in receipt of the equivalent benefit in England for that period until they apply for the equivalent benefit in England and Wales.

It is vitally important that these rules also be updated in relation to police and crime commissioner elections to ensure consistency and fairness across the law, that candidates and election agents can discharge their responsibilities with confidence, and that disabled electors get the support they need at UK elections. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her authoritative introduction. In terms of the context of our consideration, can the Minister give a breakdown of the affiliations—political or none—of the PCCs in England and Wales? Again, for context, looking at paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum, does the Minister have data concerning average PCC election expenses based on the last and previous rounds of elections? It would be interesting to be told the lowest and highest moneys expended in those two PCC elections. I do not ask the Minister from whence these moneys came—that really would be interesting.

For a better body politic, what is the Minister doing to try to ensure more interest in PCC elections? How might the citizen elector be persuaded to rate these elections to be of greater importance? What is being done to ensure greater participation? Is it not time to set up a major study of the concept of police and crime commissioners? What has been their success? How can their proceedings be improved? What of the quality of the candidates, and what of their backgrounds? Does the Home Office consult with the Welsh Assembly, the Senedd? Is there a sharing of information and opinion? Do Ministers from those two Parliaments meet? Is it an England and Wales order? It is. Were there consultations between England and Wales ahead of drafting? What kind of consultation was there? Was it ministerial, by officials, or simply by the net?

Lastly, perhaps I might persuade the Minister to consider a visit to north Wales. Our North Wales Police authority is very good. The chief constable and her board work very well alongside the federation and the PCC. I think that that visit would be helpful in providing ministerial insight into Wales and her workings. The police authority in north Wales is an excellent, exemplary organisation. Finally, I commend Mr Andrew Dunbobbin, the PCC. He is a serious and committed citizen, hoping to help things along.

My Lords, I will make a couple of comments and ask a question about the SI on assistance with voting for persons with disabilities. I declare an interest as someone with a disability.

First, I very much welcome the approach. I have turned up at a polling station in a church only to discover that the place for my part of the ward had been moved to the nave, up two steps. I was offered the chance to fill in my ballot paper on the edge of a pew in the middle of the area—much improvement needed. I have to say that the local authority concerned was very apologetic and has since moved a large number of its polling stations.

The whole balance between the new SI and the Electoral Commission’s statutory guidance for returning officers is what is going to make this work. The burden on returning officers seems to have changed from being highly specific—and, in some cases, as with the tactile voting devices, inappropriate and no longer necessary—to being entirely reliant on the training of returning officers and their key staff and the staff present at polling stations on the day. I have talked to people with a range of disabilities, including a family member with visual impairment that has got considerably worse over the years. The draft statutory guidance suggests that all staff should be able to guide people with a wide range of different disabilities, which would require quite considerable training.

I notice that this will be reviewed within five years. It might be helpful to have a review before then because I suspect we are going to find quite a lot of patchy performance, not just between local authorities but between individual polling stations, because we are asking for a large amount of expertise from people who have not had to have the responsibility for that in the past.

My Lords, I will start with the police and crime commissioner SI. This is a sensible change to the legislation as it brings the legal requirements for so-called notional expenditure in line with the Elections Act 2022. Consistency of regulations across all public elections is important, hence our support for this change. However, notional expenditure is a perennial concern for election agents as it is not one over which they have direct responsibility but they are legally responsible for it.

The Electoral Commission guidance will be important in clarifying the rules on expenditure. Can the Minister explain how an election agent or a candidate can be responsible for notional expenditure by a third party which exceeds election spending limits when reported? I look forward to her reply.

I turn to assistance with voting for persons with disabilities. The Electoral Commission has been consulting with people with disabilities about their experience of trying to vote on the day. We have heard from my noble friend Lady Brinton about her experience. The changes proposed in the SI will go some way to making voting accessible for those with disabilities. That must be wholly positive.

The Explanatory Memorandum says:

“There is … no significant … impact on the public sector.”

Can the Minister explain what is meant by “assistive equipment”, which election officers will have to provide in every polling station? What will the cost of that equipment be? There are 188 polling stations in Kirklees, for example, so additional costs can soon mount up. Will the Government be compensating councils under the additional burdens agreement? Perhaps the Minister can tell us.

Can the Minister explain why adults who accompany people with disabilities are not expected to show their ID as an additional security check, rather than completing one of the forms drafted in the papers with this SI? As the Minister will know, the demand for voter ID at polling stations will lead many more to opt for postal voting. What improvements will be put in place to enable people with disabilities or with little English to use a postal vote according to the requirements of the Ballot Act 1872? I look forward to the Minister’s replies.

My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for her thorough introduction of these two instruments.

I will look first at the police and crime commissioner elections order. I know that it is out of scope of the SI, but my noble friend Lord Jones made an important point when he talked about how we really need to look at increasing participation in these elections. They have terribly low turnouts and that is not good for democracy.

As we have heard, the order relates to benefits in kind, referred to as “notional expenditure”, that are given to PCCs. In July 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that there is no requirement that these benefits must be authorised by the candidate or the election agent. That is why concerns arose, which we discussed at some length during the passage of what became the Elections Act: people were concerned that they could be liable for expenses without even being aware that they had been incurred.

We support that this is clarifying what happens now in law around notional expenditure and that this is being replicated for PCCs’ elections. We believe it was right to tidy up the law in relation to notional expenditure in the Elections Act and we supported that during the passage of the Act. But I remind the Minister that I tabled an amendment to the Bill which stated:

“The Secretary of State must publish new guidance to candidates on notional expenditure within the period of 12 months”.

Can the Minister reassure the House that there will be guidance to candidates and their agents on this matter?

I turn to the second instrument, on assistance with voting for persons with disabilities. Again, this implements changes made by the Elections Act 2022, which we discussed earlier this year. One of the things that we looked at in some detail was removing the specific requirement for polling stations to offer tactile voting devices and replacing it with a fairly vague duty for workers at polling stations to support voters with often a wide range of disabilities. It is also worth noting that the RNIB did not think that tactile voting devices were enough and that more needed to be done. So there is much in this to commend.

One thing that came across very strongly in our debates on the Elections Bill was that blind and partially sighted people experience a unique set of challenges when voting. Obviously, voting is fundamentally a visual exercise. Some noble Lords expressed concern about the way this might be implemented and resourced. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, clearly explained those concerns just now.

I say to the Minister that along with others, we will be keeping an interest in this to make sure that returning officers continue to make voting accessible for everybody, regardless of their disability and at every polling station. It might therefore be helpful if the Government could indicate that they too will be monitoring the issue to ensure that the changes being made proceed as intended. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said, a review in five years is a long way off when you have a fundamental change to how people with disabilities will be able to vote. At the end of the day, all we want here—I am sure the Government are in the same place—is for blind and partially sighted voters in particular to be able to exercise their democratic right confidently and independently.

I thank noble Lords on all sides of the House for their contributions. I will try to answer all the questions, but I may not give your Lordships a complete answer, so I will read Hansard tomorrow and make sure that, if any have not been answered, I will do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Jones, went slightly off the SIs, but I understand why. It has been almost 10 years since the PCCs were introduced in 2012, and it is always right that the Government take a step back and review the model and their role on a continual basis. The Government were clear in their 2019 manifesto that they would strengthen the accountability of elected PCCs and expand their role, and a two-part internal review into the role of PCCs was established by the then Home Secretary. This has provided an opportunity to look more closely at how the Government can strengthen that accountability but also the resilience, the legitimacy and the scrutiny of democratically elected PCCs, because we want to ensure that the record of those PCCs is more visible to the voting public. This comes to the noble Lord’s questions about why the people of this country are not really interested in this, and why the election numbers are down. If we can make PCCs more visible, I hope we can increase the public vote and drive up standards.

One of the other things that needs to be done is clarification for the public of the relationship between a chief constable and a PCC, because they need to know that in order to know who to go to, and then they have the right checks and balances. So the Home Office is doing work on this. I think that is probably enough on that.

The noble Lord asked a number of quite detailed questions about the breakdown of spending; I will write to him with the answers.

With regard to visiting Wales, that is a very kind invitation but I will leave it to my noble friend Lady Bloomfield, who I believe is going to Wales tomorrow. She goes regularly, and I am sure that she would love to meet some PCCs in Wales.

I move on to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. As she knows, it can be difficult to access polling stations, particularly in rural areas, but this of course is the responsibility of electoral officers. I do think they are getting better at it, and this Act and the changes that are being made, and the fact that the Electoral Commission now has to take more notice of what is being said and give more guidance to electoral officers about this, mean that things will change even more for the better.

In addition, particularly for those people who have sight difficulties, the work that the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Holmes, have done through the Act to give different polling stations the flexibility to find the best way to enable blind and visually impaired people to vote in a proper way has been fantastic. They are not in their places, but I thank them for the work that they have done on that.

On training, I am sure that the commission will be helping local electoral officers with that. There is indeed a five-year review, which the Electoral Commission is required to undertake and to report the steps taken by returning officers. However, because this is not the way the commission works, I do not expect that it will wait for five years to do it. I am sure that it will keep a rolling view on it, because that is the way that it works, and it is important that that happens.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on costs, the Government will provide new-burdens funding for the implementations of the Election Act, ensuring that local authorities have the necessary resources to implement these new measures while continuing to deliver our elections robustly and securely, which is really important. So there should be no problem with resourcing.

The precise funding requirement for equipment for disabled voters is being considered in conjunction with the Electoral Commission’s guidance for returning officers—so it is being worked on, but the new-burdens funding should cover that.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, also brought up the issue of third-party campaigning, which I know was a big issue when it came up during the passage of the Bill. It is important to note that Section 75 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and Article 34 of the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections Order 2012 already prohibit local third-party campaign spending over a permitted sum that has not been authorised in writing and therefore requires specific authorisation. Where such spending is authorised by a candidate, the candidate must also report on spending incurred by the third party. If a third party, which could include a political party, spends over that threshold without authorisation, an offence has been committed. Neither the Elections Act nor this order alter that principle. That is important, and I know that the noble Lord, Lord True, brought up that principle a number of times during the passage of the Bill.

Where a third party, including a political party, has provided property, goods or services free of charge or at a discount, and the candidate or their agent, or someone else acting on their behalf, has made use of the property, et cetera, that must be recorded by the candidate as a notional expense, and an offence has been committed if it is not. That was an important part of the debate during the passage of the Bill. Perhaps that answers the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, on notional expenditure.

I do not think there is anything else to answer; I think I have answered the questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, in responding to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. So, to finish, these regulations are vital to ensure that changes already agreed in primary legislation are applied to police and crime commissioner elections. Failure to do so would create an unwelcome discrepancy, creating confusion instead of clarity, and would mean that disabled electors were required to obtain attestations for their proxy vote application for police and crime commissioner elections but not for other elections. They are also vital to ensuring that disabled voters get the right support in polling stations at all elections reserved to the UK Government, both through improved provision of assistive equipment and through expanded criteria for who can assist a disabled voter.

I hope that noble Lords will join me in supporting these instruments.

Motion agreed.