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Ballot Secrecy Bill [HL]

Volume 825: debated on Friday 18 November 2022


Clause 1: Ballot secrecy

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Leave out Clause 1, and insert the following new Clause—

“Amendment of the Representation of the People Act 1983In the Representation of the People Act 1983, before section 63 insert—“62C Influencing voters at polling booths(1) A person who—(a) is with another person at a polling booth, and (b) intends to influence that other person to vote in a particular way or to refrain from voting,commits an offence.(2) A person who—(a) is near a polling booth when another person is at that booth, and(b) intends to influence that other person to vote in a particular way or to refrain from voting,commits an offence.(3) For the purposes of this section—(a) a “polling booth” is a compartment in a polling station in which voters can mark votes screened from observation;(b) assisting a person with voting, in accordance with rule 39 of Schedule 1 or any other legislation, is not influencing that person to vote in a particular way or to refrain from voting;(c) a person may be near one polling booth while at a different polling booth.(4) A person who commits an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction—(a) in England and Wales, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months, to a fine or to both;(b) in Scotland or Northern Ireland, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months, to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to both.(5) This section does not have effect in relation to an election in Scotland or Wales under the local government Act.””Member's explanatory statement

This amendment replaces the provision in Clause 1.

My Lords, in moving Amendment 1, I shall speak also to my Amendments 2, 3 and 4. I am pleased to say that the Government are supporting the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Hayward. In doing so, we have tabled Amendments 1 to 4 to address issues with the drafting of the Bill, to ensure that the provisions are proportionate and to avoid any unintended consequences. The Government have worked with my noble friend in preparing the amendments and I am grateful for his support and expertise in resolving these matters.

My noble friend’s Bill arises from concerns over so-called family voting; that is, family members accompanying voters into a polling booth in a polling station for the apparent purpose of influencing or guiding how they cast their vote. I draw noble Lords’ attention to the report published by Democracy Volunteers on the May 2022 elections, which highlighted instances of this practice. It was reported that staff in polling stations were reluctant to intervene when they saw it occurring. These findings are clearly a cause for concern.

We have listened to the concerns raised by noble Lords on this issue at Second Reading. The Government share these concerns and are committed to safeguarding our democracy against those who would harm it. We consider it important to ensure that there is clarity in the law on this issue, and that presiding officers in polling stations have confidence to challenge inappropriate behaviour where it occurs.

I will now set out the details of changes made by the amendments. Amendment 1 proposes a new clause which replaces the current Clause 1 and makes changes to the wording of the offence provisions in the Bill as currently drafted. Under the new clause, a person would commit an offence if they are with a voter in a polling booth and/or are near a polling booth when that voter is in that booth, with the intent of influencing that person to vote in a particular way or to refrain from voting.

The amendments are drafted to avoid the offence criminalising innocent behaviour, particularly where two voters are in a polling booth but only one intends to influence the other. By adding the requirement for intent, the offence as amended would capture the would-be offender and avoid capturing the victim. The amended clause provides that a formal companion who has completed the necessary paperwork, or a presiding officer assisting a disabled voter, would not be subject to the offence when acting in that capacity. This gives reassurance that disabled voters will continue to be able to have assistance when voting, where necessary.

The offences in the current draft of the Bill are described as “corrupt practice” and the penalties for them are out of step with those for existing secrecy offences in electoral law. The amendments therefore provide that a person found guilty of the offence on summary conviction will be liable to up to six months in prison or a fine, or both, creating consistency across legislation. The amendments remove from the Bill the exemption from the offence for persons aged under 18. The offence would apply if a person above the age of criminal responsibility seeks to influence a voter. I reassure noble Lords that the approach being taken is consistent with the drafting of other electoral offences and does not prevent a child accompanying a parent into a polling station.

The amendments provide that the measures apply to UK parliamentary elections and local elections in England. Under the amendments, the Bill will not now apply to local elections in Scotland and Wales, which are the responsibility of the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, but we are making the devolved Administrations aware of our plans to update the law in this area and will encourage them to consider taking similar steps in relation to their own elections.

Amendment 2 introduces a new clause that applies the offence provisions to local elections in Northern Ireland and elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. These elections are excepted matters and outside the competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the Government consider that the new offences should apply also to these polls.

Amendment 3 makes necessary changes to Clause 2. In particular, it provides that the measures in the Bill will come into force on such a day or days to be set in regulations by the Secretary of State. This will ensure that there is sufficient time for Electoral Commission guidance to be updated and polling station officials to have training on the new offence before it comes into force.

Amendment 4 amends the Long Title of the Bill to align it with the provision made by the Bill as amended.

In conclusion, it is of fundamental importance to our democracy that voters are able to vote in secret without being coerced or having the threat of coercion. It is the Government’s view that the effect of the Bill as amended, once commenced, in combination with the existing law, is to empower presiding officers to deal with suspected offences under the Bill. This means that presiding officers will be able to ensure that voters are accompanied only by appointed companions acting in accordance with rule 39 of the parliamentary elections rules and the equivalent rules for other elections covered by the Bill, or by children under the supervision of the voter, and not by persons who may intend to influence the voter’s vote or infringe the voter’s right to vote in secret. I urge noble Lords to support these necessary amendments and I beg to move.

My Lords, much has changed since we debated this Bill at Second Reading on 15 July. I pause initially to draw attention to the time as indicated on the annunciator—14:00 hours—as one of the things that has happened since Second Reading is that Sir David Butler died only a few days ago and his funeral commences at 2 pm this afternoon. I and, I am sure, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, are sorry that we are not present at that funeral. Like so many, I learned at Sir David’s feet—if I can use the term “at his feet” to mean from a television screen. His sheer enthusiasm and skill at communicating the detail of election results and general psephology—a word he first used in books—was substantial. I am sure we will all miss him, particularly because he is probably the last link we have with the 1945 general election. He was also president of the Pebble Club, of which I am pleased to be a member.

When I first spoke at Nuffield College, I thought I had achieved the ultimate. I now find myself speaking on election law in the House of Lords Chamber, and I feel I may have doubled up on lifetime achievements in election matters.

With those few comments on Sir David, I thank the Minister and her officials for the assistance I have received throughout, the varied ministerial teams since 15 July and the opposition spokespersons, as we have progressed. The Minister referred to democracy volunteers, and I also thank Michael Bleakley, who I probably bothered to hell in trying to establish precisely what I should do, and when and how I should do it. I appreciate his patience with me in achieving what we now have.

I am pleased that this series of amendments are government amendments. The Minister will not have seen me smiling from the Bench behind her when she quoted, in conclusion, the comments I was going to make on the reasons why I have been converted to these amendments. I did not think the wording was perfect originally, but I understand the logic and I think it is sound. As the Minister also said, I hope that these amendments will give an opportunity to the Electoral Commission, which has also provided assistance over the last few months, to change its guidance so that it is clear to all and sundry how to behave in a polling station, without stopping those who need assistance or accompaniment—whether they are disabled in some form or are accompanied by somebody underage—from receiving it.

Overall, these amendments meet with my approval. I am pleased that they are being taken forward by the Government. I welcome their support on this matter and I hope that the Bill will be able to progress with the amendments included.

My Lords, I spoke from these Benches in support of the principles of this Bill last July, and I do so again. Once again, I pay tribute to the great tenacity of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, in pursuing this serious and important matter.

Like him, I would like to pay tribute briefly to the late David Butler. When I was an undergraduate student of politics and economics at Liverpool University 44 years ago, the standard textbook was Butler and Stokes, from which I learned, although I have devoted most of the years since to trying to overcome his conclusion in that book that a candidate’s personal vote was worth only about 500 votes. I discussed this with him on a number of occasions and as a result of elections since then, he revised his opinion considerably. We very much miss his contribution to politics and are sorry that we cannot be with his family and friends this afternoon.

I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, for the work of her department in support of these measures. I must admit that in considering these amendments and discussing them with the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, I thought the Government were perhaps being overcautious, as is often the case when lawyers are involved. However, sometimes they help provide necessary clarification. Clarity is what we need on these issues if the proper principles behind the Bill are to be enforced. I hope we will proceed very speedily with this Bill becoming law.

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I spoke in the debate in July. I very much support the Bill.

I want to make my own tribute to Sir David. I met him many times. He was a wonderful man and will be missed by all of us. He shaped elections and was an absolute giant in this area.

I was very supportive of the Bill when the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, brought it forward in July, and I remain so. I congratulate him on getting government support, which is no mean feat for a Private Member’s Bill. These amendments improve the Bill and I support all of them. They bring the Bill together and make it much more workable. I am sure that all in this Chamber want to ensure that our elections are free and fair, and that when people go into the polling booth they are not intimidated, coerced or made to do anything they do not want to do. At the same time, if people need help to vote, perhaps because they are disabled, this ensures that that help can be there. In that sense, the government amendments really help to shape the Bill.

As I say, I fully support the amendments and the Bill, and I am so pleased that the Government are behind it. If I may go slightly off-piste, I point out that loads of other wonderful Private Member’s Bills have been tabled. I note that the Government Chief Whip is here; I hope she and others will see that there may be others—I have one down—the Government could look at in the same light. I live in hope. I congratulate the noble Baroness on her amendments and the noble Lord on his Bill. I look forward to it becoming law.

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, for introducing this stage of the Bill. I will be brief. At earlier stages, we debated the fact that standards matter and that they are particularly important in ensuring confidence in our voting system. Our laws need to be crystal clear and that is why the Bill is so important. It creates absolute clarity on what is and is not acceptable.

We supported the Bill at Second Reading and continue to do so. It is really good to see that the Government took the concerns raised earlier very seriously, brought forward amendments, which we strongly support, and will now support the Bill and enable it to move forward. We need to make sure that we have good, strong laws and an understanding of exactly what is acceptable when people vote in a polling station. We wish the Bill well and, like the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, we thank the Minister for her attention and for improving the Bill.

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions but mainly for their support for what I consider a small but very important Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was absolutely right: clarification is important in these matters. My amendments clarify and that is important. It is also important to ensure that we have no unintended consequences that would cause trouble, possibly to disabled people and through a lack of understanding of when children can enter the polling booth, et cetera.

I thank all noble Lords so much for their support. I hope we will get this Bill through as quickly as possible. Again, I urge all noble Lords to accept these amendments on behalf not only of myself and the Government but of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, whom I thank for bringing the Bill to the House in the first place. As I said, it is an important Bill and I thank him for the work he has done with us on it.

Amendment 1 agreed.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed.

Amendment 2

Moved by

2: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—

“Amendment of Northern Ireland legislation(1) In the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (c. 14 (N.I.))—(a) in section 111, in subsection (2A), after paragraph (c) insert—“(ca) in the case of an offence under paragraph 26A of Schedule 9, on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months, to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to both;”;(b) in Part 3 of Schedule 9, after paragraph 26 insert—“26A “(1) A person who—(a) is with another person at a polling booth, and(b) intends to influence that other person to vote in a particular way or to refrain from voting,commits an offence.(2) A person who— (a) is near a polling booth when another person is at that booth, and(b) intends to influence that other person to vote in a particular way or to refrain from voting,commits an offence. (3) For the purposes of this paragraph—(a) a “polling booth” is a compartment in a polling station in which voters can mark votes screened from observation;(b) assisting a person with voting, in accordance with rule 36 of Schedule 5 or any other legislation, is not influencing that person to vote in a particular way or to refrain from voting;(c) a person may be near one polling booth while at a different polling booth.”(2) In Schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001/2599), in the table, before the entry for section 63 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 insert—

“Section 62C (influencing voters at polling booths)””

Member's explanatory statementThis amendment provides equivalent provision to new section 62C for Northern Ireland.

Amendment 2 agreed.

Clause 2: Extent, commencement and short title

Amendment 3

Moved by

3: Clause 2, page 1, line 15, leave out subsections (1) and (2) and insert—

“(1) Section (Amendment of the Representation of the People Act 1983), section (Amendment of Northern Ireland legislation)(2) and this section extend to England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.(2) Section (Amendment of Northern Ireland legislation)(1) extends to Northern Ireland only. (2A) This section comes into force on the day on which this Act is passed. (2B) The other provisions of this Act come into force on such day or days as the Secretary of State may, by regulations, appoint.(2C) Regulations under subsection (4) may appoint different days for different purposes or areas.(2D) The Secretary of State may, by regulations, make transitional, transitory or saving provision in connection with the coming into force of any provision of this Act.(2E) Regulations under subsection (6) may make different provision for different purposes or areas.(2F) Regulations under this section are to be made by statutory instrument.”Member's explanatory statement

This amendment provides for the extent and commencement of the new Clauses and for the making of transitional provision, etc., by regulations.

Amendment 3 agreed.

Clause 2, as amended, agreed.

In the Title

Amendment 4

Moved by

4: In the title, line 2, leave out “to require the Secretary of State to publish related guidance;”

Member's explanatory statement

This amendment aligns the long title with the provision made by the Bill.

Amendment 4 agreed.

Title, as amended, agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported with amendments.

House adjourned at 2.12 pm.