Voter ID Pilots

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 3:44 pm on 23rd April 2018.

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Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement 3:44 pm, 23rd April 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if she will make a statement on the Government’s policy on voter ID pilots taking place at the local government elections on 3 May.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

The British public deserve to have confidence in our democracy. There is clearly the potential for electoral fraud in our system and that undermines confidence and promotes perceptions of vulnerability. When fraud is committed in elections, it is not a victimless crime; people’s votes are stolen or someone is elected who should not have been elected.

Earlier this year, the Government announced that they would be conducting pilots for voter identification at the local elections in May this year in line with our manifesto commitment to legislate to ensure that a form of ID must be presented before voting. Voter ID is part of the Government’s commitment to improve the security and the resilience of the electoral system that underpins our democracy and will promote greater confidence in our democratic processes.

In making these changes, we will bring our electoral system in line with others such as that in Northern Ireland or Canada, which operate successful programmes, and recognise that there is an increasing expectation that someone’s vote should be protected and carefully guarded. We already ask that people prove who they are in order to claim benefits, to rent a car or even to collect a parcel from the Post Office, so this is a proportionate and reasonable approach. Democracy is precious and it is right to take that more robust approach to protect the integrity of the electoral process.

The independent Electoral Commission has, since 2014, pushed for the introduction of ID to strengthen the system, and it has welcomed the voter ID pilots as a positive first step towards implementing its own recommendation that an accessible, proportionate voter identification scheme should be introduced in Great Britain. In a recent report for Democratic Audit UK, academic Stuart Wilks-Heeg stated that, after the scheme was introduced in Northern Ireland, there was no evidence to suggest a fall in turnout, but that there was plenty of evidence that fraud declined sharply.

Indeed, it was the previous Labour Government who introduced photo ID at polling stations across Northern Ireland in 2003, and, as I have said, it has not affected turnout there, and it has helped to prevent election fraud. The Labour Minister at the time said:

“The measures will tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters”— ensuring that—

“no one is disfranchised”.—[Official Report, 10 July 2001;
Vol. 371, c. 740.]

The opportunity to pilot voter ID in May 2018 was offered to all local authorities in Great Britain, and five—Woking, Gosport, Bromley, Watford and Swindon—have committed to do so. Proxy voters in Peterborough will also be required to show ID before they can vote on 3 May 2018. I personally have taken the opportunity to speak to each local authority about the design of their pilots and the methods that they have applied to ensure that their electors are aware of voter identification and that each elector’s needs are understood. Local authorities will notify every eligible voter by including information of the ID requirement on their poll card.

No one will need to buy ID documents to be able to vote, and the ID requirements will not be limited to a passport or driving licence. In these pilots, voters can use a wide variety of ID, from marriage certificates and passports to bus passes and bank cards, depending on where they live. If voters do not have the required ID, local authorities are providing alternative or replacement methods to ensure that no one is disenfranchised. Everybody eligible to vote will have the chance to do so.

These pilots will help to identify the best way of implementing voter ID, and we look forward to each authority’s findings. I have responded to the recent letter from the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and I will make a copy of it available in the Library of both Houses. All of the local authorities involved have completed equality impact assessments, and the Electoral Commission will be independently evaluating the pilots, with results published this summer.

We want to ensure that our elections are as accessible as possible, and that there are no barriers to democratic participation. We have recognised that, for example, people with a disability face different issues when registering and voting. We have run a call for evidence to hear directly about their experiences to enhance the Government’s understanding, so that we can help those people to register and cast their vote. We have also recently made it easier for survivors of domestic abuse to register to vote anonymously for fear of revealing their address to an ex-partner, as there were fears that that was preventing survivors from registering to vote.

The aim of the pilots is to protect voting rights, and it comes in the context of protecting and improving our democracy. Pilots are important in order to find out what works best. Electoral fraud is unacceptable on any level, and its impact on voters can be significant. It takes away an elector’s right to vote as they want—whether through intimidation, bribery or impersonating someone in order to cast their vote. The Cabinet Office, in partnership with the Electoral Commission and Crimestoppers, launched the “Your vote is yours alone” campaign only last month to encourage people to report electoral fraud if they see it.

I am passionate about protecting our electoral system. The impact of electoral fraud is real and it is criminal. It steals something precious from a person and undermines the entire system for everyone. I do not want to see our democracy dumbed down; it is rather a shame that the Labour party appears to.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

Thank you for those comments, Mr Speaker, and for granting this urgent question.

The Minister talked widely about the system in Northern Ireland, but the Electoral Commission recommended that, as in Northern Ireland, these trials include measures such as free voter ID cards, which have not been rolled out by this Government. That means that the trials taking place in the English local government elections are very different from what is already occurring in Northern Ireland; it is a false comparison.

It was revealed yesterday that the Equality and Human Rights Commission wrote to the Cabinet Office raising serious concerns about the Government pilots. The commission warned that ID requirements will have a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people—who may not have ID in the right gender or name—and people with disabilities, and that some voters will be disenfranchised as a result. Will the Minister confirm that that the measures being piloted in May do not violate article 1 of the European convention on human rights? What assessment has she made to support this position?

The Windrush scandal has demonstrated that it is difficult for some communities to provide official papers. This could prevent legitimate voters from taking part in our democratic process, which we all value. It is the same hostile environment all over again, shutting our fellow citizens out of public life. Have the Government conducted an assessment of whether any of the Windrush generation will be denied their right to vote on 3 May?

According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Government failed to carry out adequate equality impact assessments. This echoes the same concerns raised by a coalition of more than 40 leading charities and academics earlier this year that called on the Cabinet Office to abandon the pilots. How can the Government justify their positon given this widespread condemnation?

Let us be in no doubt that electoral fraud is a serious crime, and it is vital that the police have the resources they need to bring about prosecutions. However, the Equality and Human Rights Commission raised a valid concern that there was only one conviction for electoral fraud involving impersonation, following the 45 million votes cast last year. That is one vote out of the 45 million votes cast. What steps will the Government take to ensure that the pilot schemes are proportionate to the level of electoral fraud, and that they are not using a sledgehammer to crack a nut?

We cannot allow this Government to pilot discriminatory measures that could disenfranchise legitimate voters who already face a multitude of barriers to democratic engagement. I urge the Minister to abandon the Government’s plans for trialling voter ID on 3 May.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

As I set out very fully—I am very grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to make my remarks in full—I have answered the EHRC very carefully and laid that answer in the Libraries of both Houses so that people can read the full background to these pilots and the parliamentary process that they have gone through. I can confirm that it is my belief that this policy does not violate the first article of the ECHR and that these are not discriminatory measures.

The hon. Lady asked me about the Windrush affair. The relevance of that to this matter is that those from a Windrush background are already eligible to be on the electoral roll in the sense that British citizens and qualifying Commonwealth voters can vote in all elections. I am conscious that a statement on Windrush is to follow, so it would not be helpful if I detained the House by discussing that issue in the detail that it deserves.

The hon. Lady suggested that these pilots are not proportionate. I am concerned if Labour Members think that any level of crime is not worth going after. Is that what we are hearing from them? There is considerable concern about a lack of confidence in our democratic system that is increased when we see a perception of electoral fraud. This policy is designed to increase confidence in our system and to make it harder for someone to commit such a crime against another person. Electoral fraud is not some kind of victimless crime; it hurts a person—a victim—who has had their voice taken away.

I wonder whether Labour Members have instead come here with a different purpose in mind. Do they perhaps think that they are going to lose votes through this policy? I have here a letter written to a local newspaper—it happens to be the Norwich Evening News, a very fine organ—from a Labour party councillor who is concerned that this policy is going to affect

“those most likely to vote Labour.”

Is not that the real story that we see in Labour Members’ concern? Are these not crocodile tears because they are concerned that they are going to lose votes that they perceive they own? I think that is a disgrace.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Is there anything in these pilots, if successful, that would help with the problem of people voting more than once, which some people thought occurred in the last general election? I fully support the initiative to have more honest voting.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

This policy does not directly address the particular concern that my right hon. Friend raises, but I understand why he does so. I share his concern about allegations of any type of electoral fraud, and it would be a matter of electoral unlawfulness if a person were to vote twice in the same election.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Happy St George’s Day to you, Mr Speaker, and to all Members of the House.

This voter ID pilot is nothing more than an expansion of the hostile environment—it is Windrush part 2. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has said that this will disproportionately affect people with protected characteristics. It will affect older people, transgender people, people with disabilities both physical and non-physical, and ethnic minorities. This is an absolutely ridiculous situation. This Government are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The Scottish National party fully accepts that electoral fraud is unacceptable, but it is also infinitesimally small, and those who are perpetrating such things are already being brought to justice.

The Electoral Commission’s figures indicate that 3.5 million people in the UK—7.5% of the electorate—do not have any form of photo ID. Are the Government going to pay for them to have photo ID? If not, this is a barrier that is being put in the way of people exercising their democratic rights. Just at the end of last month, the Government put up the fees for passports to £85 per person for a paper passport and £75.50 for an online passport, further putting the price of getting these voter ID documents beyond the reach of most ordinary working people.

In the case of right to rent, all those who analysed this Government policy said that it would increase discrimination, and that has been found to be so. Those with protected characteristics, particularly ethnic minorities, have found it harder to rent, and the policy is discriminatory. Will the Minister pay due attention to the findings of the pilots, and will she bring them before this House for full discussion and full scrutiny before she moves this forward any further?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I fear the hon. Lady did not catch the part of my opening remarks where I made it clear that passports and driving licences are not the only type of identification being asked for in these pilots, and nobody will need to purchase ID documents to be able to vote. Indeed, the authorities in question are using a range of ID, some of which is photographic and some of which is the kind of routine identification someone would use to be able to pick up a parcel from the post office or indeed, as I saw this morning when some constituents came into this place, to sit in the Gallery and participate in democracy here.

The key point is that these pilots are doing something that people regard as proportionate and reasonable by using routine identification that we already use in everyday life. Indeed, we would use ID to apply for benefits and to do a range of other things under Government services. We would, of course, also use ID to register to vote in the first place. This is only another part of the same voting process for which we already ask people to prove who they are.

The hon. Lady asked me whether I would bring the pilot results back to the House. I can confirm that I will be keen to ensure that the House is updated on the progress of the pilots, and I will be considering them in terms of my ministerial responsibility. As I said, the Electoral Commission is conducting its own independent evaluation of the pilots and will publish that this summer.

My final point is that the independent Electoral Commission supports the introduction of ID to strengthen the system. The Electoral Commission thinks that it is important to have a proportionate voter ID scheme such as I have described to protect our voting system’s integrity. The hon. Lady seems to be overlooking that rather important supporter.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

If I buy an item and am out when it is delivered, I then have to go down to the Royal Mail sorting office with photo ID to collect that item. Why is it so unreasonable that I have to prove who I am to exercise my democratic right—something money cannot buy?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

That is precisely right. We are talking about a precious and intangible thing: the right to vote as we think fit and the right to enjoy confidence in the democratic system. That is what these pilots are about. My hon. Friend allows me to repeat the point that I would very much like to go out to citizens of the pilot areas. If anyone is concerned that they might not have the ID that is being spoken about, they should speak to the local authority, which will organise alternative arrangements. That is the crucial point—nobody who is eligible to vote will miss the chance to do so.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

The Minister is making a pretty poor job of defending the indefensible. Is it not the case that what she is setting out today is not only a huge hammer to crack a nut but actually, in disguise, a blatant attempt at voter suppression, by making it very difficult indeed for those who already have difficulties to vote? Many of those people come to visit me in my advice surgery because they cannot prove their identity to access benefits; she now wants to take their democratic rights off them.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

We are talking about people who are already eligible to vote then being able to confirm who they are when they come to do so. I am concerned that I have just heard from the hon. Lady that she does not even stand by the previous Labour Government’s decision to do this in Northern Ireland, which has not damaged turnout and has reduced the impact of fraud. Why does she stand against reducing electoral fraud?

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

Bromley is one of the pilot areas. My hon. Friend the Minister might like to know that in every single case where a person has contacted the local authority to ask if they have the requisite ID, they have had it, and certificates have not been necessary; that Bromley residents will have had five mailings, which is more than any ever before at a local election, and there has been specific targeting of older people through 500 community organisations and more; and that not one person I have spoken to on the doorstep has had any difficulty with the system, and many welcome it. Does she accept that this is a wholly bogus attempt by the Opposition to discredit an entirely sensible pilot?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

It is incredibly important that electors hear that reassurance from their Member of Parliament, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend has been able to put that on the record. I can confirm that Bromley is offering the choice of photographic and non-photographic identification, and electors can also apply for a certificate of identity, free of charge, from the local authority. That is the crucial point. Every elector who is eligible can secure alternative arrangements should they need them. What we are hearing from the Opposition is a self-interested argument. Instead of doing voters down they should talk our democracy up.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Will the Minister apply the same criteria to postal voters and postal voting?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I can confirm that in addition to the five pilots that we are primarily discussing there are three pilots to strengthen postal and proxy voting processes, and I am equally supportive of those.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford

The Minister has done a really good job in explaining the pilots and taking no notice of the scaremongering from the Opposition. Will she confirm that she remains absolutely committed to increasing the participation of traditionally under-represented groups in our electoral system?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I certainly will. I mentioned earlier the case of people who have been obliged to register to vote anonymously. It is extremely important that we come together in a cross-party manner in the House, as we did for anonymous voting, so that we can help people to register to vote in a way that secures their safety. We are talking about a way to improve the voting system overall and protect people from a type of crime—electoral fraud. It is incredibly important that we look at all citizens’ interests in having a system in which they can be confident.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

May I first congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their third child?

Will the councils taking part in the pilot register and publish the number of people who are turned away because they do not have the correct identification, and will they identify in that number how many are legally entitled to vote?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I would certainly expect the authorities to have the capability to be aware of such data. As I have laid out, the Electoral Commission will conduct a full evaluation and I have no doubt that we will make sure that we can assess a range of data. I was a little concerned to hear one of the hon. Lady’s colleagues on political television yesterday saying that the Liberal Democrats would accept a low level of electoral fraud. I am very concerned to hear Opposition parties in the House say that it is okay to have a certain level of crime and that they would not support sensible, proportionate measures that will protect the voting system for everyone.

Photo of Justin Tomlinson Justin Tomlinson Conservative, North Swindon

The fantastic elections team in Swindon is proud to have been selected for one of the pilots. Despite all the heckling and scaremongering from the Opposition, not all hope is lost for the Labour party, as only last week, the North Swindon Labour party used exactly the same voter ID scheme for the selection of my latest parliamentary opponent.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I think that that is a lesson in doing what you say and saying what you do.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Scottish National Party, Dundee East

In her opening statement, the Minister spoke about potential electoral fraud. In her first answer, she spoke about perceptions of fraud. The measures are wholly disproportionate to deal with perception and potential, because any obstacle will drive people off the register. As her Government say that they support frictionless trade, why does she not abandon the proposal and continue to support frictionless democracy?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

We are doing something that other parts of the world already do very successfully. I have named Canada and mentioned Northern Ireland. We are talking about something that is entirely proportionate and reasonable, and that produces successful elections in trusted democracies. The real issue is that people should be able to have confidence in the system, as I said earlier. It has been hard to have confidence in the system in the past, given examples such as the electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets, which was extensive and of grave concern to many people. We are looking at measures that will help people in places like Tower Hamlets and around the entire country have greater confidence in their voting system.

Photo of Anne Main Anne Main Conservative, St Albans

I feel I am living in a parallel universe where it is somehow discriminatory to introduce the pilots now but not in Northern Ireland in 2003. I heard about the five leaflets informing voters. What was done to ensure that those who do not have English as a first language were made aware of the need to find voter ID?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

That is an excellent question. As I said earlier, each local authority conducting the pilots has been sure to communicate to voters in the way that will work best. That supports why we are doing this as local pilots: because returning officers in given areas know their electorates best. I have confidence that each pilot authority has communicated locally and the use of other languages will have been taken into account where required.

Photo of Paula Sherriff Paula Sherriff Shadow Minister (Mental Health and Social Care), Shadow Minister (Mental Health)

Further to the excellent points made by my hon. Friend Cat Smith, will the Minister please confirm how many prosecutions have been undertaken regarding people voting twice or inappropriately?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

People voting twice is not what this policy is about. I wish that the hon. Lady and Cat Smith on the Front Bench knew their policies better.

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

We have heard countless stories about voter fraud in 2017, so does my hon. Friend agree that, far from showing the issue to be small scale, as Opposition Members seem to be suggesting, the fact that there has been only one conviction shows just how difficult it is to enforce a law when there is no identification requirement at polling stations?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

It is right to make that broader point. We want a democracy in which everybody can have confidence. Voting twice in one election is absolutely illegal. It is, indeed, an example of an electoral crime; there are other examples as well, including bribery and impersonation. We need to make sure that everybody can have confidence in their system and, crucially, that those who would be victims of such a crime are protected from it. The idea that we should simply allow a crime to happen until it reaches a certain level is ludicrous.

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Labour, Lewisham West and Penge

Bromley, the borough in which I live and which I represent, is taking part in the voter ID pilot in May, and its own equality impact assessment has drawn particular attention to the impact on voters with protected characteristics, mainly older people and trans people. I listened to Robert Neill and I have to say that we get a very different picture when talking to Bromley residents in Penge and Crystal Palace. With only one convicted case of electoral fraud following the 2017 election, why do the Government continue to insist on imposing these disenfranchising changes on Bromley voters?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I really want to address this idea of one prosecution. Members making that point are overlooking the larger examples, such as Tower Hamlets, which I have already mentioned and which are the kind of thing that gives rise to a lack of confidence in our system. I do not think that local residents would expect to hear from Members of Parliament that their system should not be protected. I would prefer to hear, ringing out from this Chamber today, that the people of Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford, Woking and the three areas doing postal and proxy improvements can have confidence in their system. They should speak to their local authorities if they feel that they may not have the ID spoken of, because they will not be disenfranchised, arrangements will be made and the local authority will ensure that they have the chance to cast their vote.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. I note the alacrity with which Tom Pursglove springs to his feet, which is all the more remarkable in light of his achievement in running the marathon yesterday. I take this opportunity to congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who undertook that mission so successfully for their respective charities. I call the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Conservative, Corby

I have to say that it is a bit of a struggle today.

Most voters would think that these pilots are fair and reasonable, and want confidence in the result. Does the Electoral Commission think the same?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

The Electoral Commission has been calling for this change since 2014. The Government are responding to that call for change by introducing policies that ask voters to produce a proportionate and reasonable form of identification, such as they would do for other routine activities in daily life. We think that is the right thing to do and we are pleased to be able to work alongside the Electoral Commission and Crimestoppers, as I mentioned, to combat electoral fraud.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

We have a very robust electoral system in this country, and the Minister is insulting highly competent electoral registration officers by purporting to solve a problem that does not exist. The 38% turnout in the last local elections in Hammersmith ranged from 13% in deprived areas to 50% in prosperous areas. Why does she not do something to increase turnout, especially in deprived areas, rather than trying to suppress it?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

This policy is in no way about suppressing votes. It is a huge shame that any voters listening to this debate today will hear one side of the House talking their prospects down and saying that they are somehow unable to produce the kind of ID that we routinely produce in everyday life. The five co-operating local authorities have come forward to run the pilots because they can best serve their citizens by doing so and providing alternative arrangements.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Has the Minister had the same experience on the doorstep as I have, with voters who have mislaid their polling cards finding it hard to believe that they can turn up to vote without any form of identification?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

Yes, I have had that experience, and I would be surprised if many Members had not heard that from voters. The widespread assumption among voters is that ID is needed already. What we are doing is bringing Great Britain’s electoral system into line with other parts of the world, including Northern Ireland—inside the UK, of course—and Canada, which already run such a system successfully with turnout remaining up and evidence of fraud down.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland)

The Minister mentions Canada, but in the last general election my constituency had the lowest turnout in the UK, and that is combined with a low registration rate. If this policy is rolled out at a general election, how on earth will it help my constituents, many of whom are already at the margins of society? We need to engage them and bring them back into participating in our democracy. How will this help when evidence from the United States suggests that it suppresses votes?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

That is quite wrong. The evidence does not suggest that this suppresses votes. The evidence says that turnout has remained up. I quoted the evidence in the Northern Ireland example, and I have cited how it has reduced electoral fraud while not damaging turnout. Let us have the debate on the evidence.

The hon. Gentleman asks how I can help his constituents. I suggest that we need to work together to ensure that more register to vote. To be fair to him, he has given both parts of the voting process—low registration rates and turnout rates—and the key is to ensure that we have higher registration rates. That is why the Government have set out a full democratic engagement plan, to drive registration rates up across all the groups in our society who register least. I am following through on that and I am passionate about doing so. Today we are talking about the policy that ensures that, once registered, those people have the confidence in the system to go and vote to complete the process.

Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Conservative, Boston and Skegness

The many thousands of eastern European voters in my constituency are too little registered and turnout again is low. However, when we on the doorstep were encouraging them to register, one of them asked me, “What do I need to bring with me to vote?”, and when I told her that she needed literally nothing, she asked me, “Do you value your democracy so little?” Is it not an extraordinary situation that it is harder to collect a parcel than it is to vote?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

That powerful anecdote entirely speaks for itself. We are seeking to strengthen our democracy and give it the kind of value that it deserves.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

Just 45% of 18-year-olds are on the electoral register, so will the Government ensure that schools and further education colleges give details of students approaching voting age to electoral registration officers?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I think the hon. Gentleman is making an argument for what is known as automatic registration—in other words, that a person is placed on the register without their consent, necessarily. I support instead the system of individual electoral registration. It is important that people can individually register to vote and take responsibility for their own vote. Indeed, the introduction of IER has helped with another concern about our electoral system—that prior to its introduction, the head of a household could simply register everyone in a household without their consent. I do not think that is very good for some of the group that we might be debating today. We all need to work together to encourage young people to register to vote and to make sure that they are aware of how they need to go about doing that. I am looking forward to doing more of that kind of work this year—the suffrage centenary year—including through a national democracy week, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman joins me, too.

Photo of Chris Green Chris Green Conservative, Bolton West

Does my hon. Friend agree that no matter what part of British society someone identifies with, their interest in having confidence in the electoral system—our democratic system—is equal, so the Opposition should stop using this issue to create artificial divisions?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

That is right. I am disappointed that the Opposition seem to have come here today to argue that this is a divisive idea. It is them who are being divisive when they say that citizens might not be able to use a proportionate and very reasonable system that we already use in everyday life to collect a parcel and to apply for benefits or various other Government services; that includes someone showing who they are to be eligible to register to vote. All that together means that we should talk up our system, rather than talk people down.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Sport)

Is it not the case that if the Government were serious about tackling the public’s poor faith in the democratic process, they would be better served by stopping Cabinet Ministers making ludicrous electoral claims, such as saying that there would be £350 million a week extra to be spent on the NHS post-Brexit, instead of disenfranchising 7.5% of the electorate?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

This is not in any way about disenfranchisement; it is about eligible voters being able to continue to cast their votes. That is the very definition of enfranchisement.

Photo of Jeremy Quin Jeremy Quin Conservative, Horsham

There is a risk that we are running down the Canadian experience—the last time I looked at Canada, it was a modern, vibrant democracy. What have we learned from its experience? I believe that it uses a similar system.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

What we have learnt from the other systems around the world that use identification is that it maintains a successful democracy. To give the Northern Ireland example again, it has reduced electoral fraud and maintained turnout. Again, as my hon. Friend points out, we see this in countries such as Canada—proud partners in the Commonwealth and greatly respected by many Members across this House—and it is sad that in coming here today to talk down British democracy, others are also having a pop at those countries.

Photo of Liz McInnes Liz McInnes Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Does the Minister agree that the problem is not with people voting more than once but with people not voting at all? What is she doing to increase voter participation?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

As I mentioned earlier, the Government are delivering on a suite of plans to increase registration rates among the least registered in our society. I have already given the example of domestic abuse survivors, and I will give the example again of those with disabilities, in respect of whom we have made adjustments and heard evidence about how we can go further. We also have plans to assist frequent home movers, overseas voters and those in the age groups that are least likely to vote—that touches on the point made by Nick Smith, who has since left his place. We need to do a range of things to improve, protect and open up our democracy. This narrow policy today is one of the ways we are protecting our democracy. I would be delighted were the Opposition to find it in themselves to abandon their own narrow self-interest, which they have demonstrated in coming here today and by having their councillors write to local newspapers and say this is all about those most likely to vote Labour, and instead come together with us to improve our electoral system.

Photo of Henry Smith Henry Smith Conservative, Crawley

As somebody who was unsuccessful in a parliamentary election by 37 votes, I take the security of the ballot extremely seriously, as do my constituents. There has been a lot of concern in recent months about threats and undue influence in the democratic process in this country and in polls in other democracies. Does the Minister think that at this time the electorate are looking for a more secure ballot, as would be achieved through voter ID?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

That is absolutely right. Others in this place have been arguing for some time that we ought to be doing this, and I again give the example of the Electoral Commission, which has been calling for it since 2014. It is important that we all come together at a time when it feels like there is concern or a lack of trust on all sides. We need to come together as a country, trust and take pride in our elections and take simple, reasonable and proportionate measures such as this to save people from being the victims of electoral fraud and to increase confidence in the overall system.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

Since the age of 18, I have participated in 16 elections, and on each occasion I have been required to produce photographic identification without any fear of disfranchisement or discrimination—even for elections to this place, under exactly the same system used for Labour Members. The Minister is right to proceed with the pilot, but, having formerly been a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office and responsible for the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland, will she look very carefully at the free provision of photographic electoral cards, which are available to all in Northern Ireland and should follow from this pilot scheme in England?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I am really pleased to hear from a voice with evidence and experience in this debate—that has been a little missing from some contributions. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s reflection, which is based on personal experience, and note that all the authorities involved in the pilots are producing some form of alternative ID already. That is the baseline for the pilots. Nobody who is eligible to vote will be prevented from doing so, because the authorities are providing that as a backstop measure, should it be needed. That gives us plenty of food for thought for how the pilot may be taken forward, if appropriate.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

As the lessons of these welcome pilots are learned, may I encourage my hon. Friend also to consider reviewing, refreshing and reissuing the guidance provided for that activity which is permitted immediately outside a polling station and for some activities that take place within?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

My hon. Friend reminds us of some of the electoral malpractice that has happened in this country. I can give the example again of Tower Hamlets, where some of the things he refers to have been seen. [Interruption.] Opposition Members ask, “Anywhere else?” Do they think that what happened in Tower Hamlets was okay? Do they think it was fine and that we should just move on without taking measures? Do they not agree with the kind of measures proposed by Sir Eric Pickles in his review of electoral law—to answer my hon. Friend’s question—and that we should take forward ways to improve and protect our voting system?

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure and Energy)

The Conservatives are obsessed with electoral fraud and students potentially voting twice, but the Electoral Commission estimates that there were only 28 cases of fraud in 2017. A much more fundamental issue is the behaviour of the main UK parties. In 2015, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were all fined by the Electoral Commission for submitting wrong election spending returns. The commission says that fines are no longer fit for purpose. The same behaviour was repeated in 2017, and the Conservatives have been shielding the Democratic Unionist party over the dodgy 2016 donations. When will the Government act in relation to the behaviour of the main UK parties?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I think I can safely say that that question was not to do with voter ID pilots.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Is it not sensible, before rolling out any policy nationally, to test it at a local level first?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

I think that that is right. We should recognise that we are piloting these approaches, and I look forward to learning from the local authorities involved what has worked in their areas and what lessons it might hold for any further moves.

Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale

Recently, the Electoral Commission told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, on which I serve, that of postal votes put into a ballot box, more than 1,000 would be deemed abnormal. What measures are in place to prevent such behaviour? Obviously postal votes are to for posting, not for putting in the box on the day.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

As my hon. Friend knows, it is legitimate to take a postal vote to a polling station on the day, but I understand that he has recently found unusual evidence of the extent to which that may have been happening. I know that what is in his mind is how much verification can have taken place of the high numbers of such postal votes, and I encourage him to go on trying to find out exactly what seems to have happened in his area.

As I have said throughout this afternoon’s exchanges, it is extremely important for us all to have confidence in our electoral system. That means that we must be able to test ways of improving our protection in the system, which will in turn mean that fewer people become victims of electoral crime. I record my thanks not only to the five authorities that are conducting the ID trials, but to the three that are testing ways of improving the postal and proxy voting processes.

Photo of Michael Tomlinson Michael Tomlinson Conservative, Mid Dorset and North Poole

I welcome the Minister’s statement and her commitment to combating fraud. Contrary to Labour Members’ assertions, is it not the case that this will not deter people who are entitled to vote from doing so and will not reduce turnout, but that what it will do is reduce and deter electoral fraud?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Assistant Whip

That is precisely what the pilots are intended to do. They are intended to test, in a proportionate and reasonable way, practices that already take place throughout the world and have continued to support thriving and flourishing democracies.