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Overseas Electors Bill: Money

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:32 pm on 16th October 2018.

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Photo of Jo Platt Jo Platt Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 4:32 pm, 16th October 2018

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Following the 2017 general election, the AEA called in a new report for

“urgent and positive Government action”,

outlining 33 recommendations to improve the electoral framework in the UK. In a recent letter to the Cabinet Office, the AEA’s chief executive, Peter Stanyon, expressed his serious misgivings about a number of issues, including funding and added bureaucracy. He even warned that unless urgent action was taken there would be unnecessary and untenable risks at the next national polls. But what was the Government’s response to such a stark warning, made in that 2017 report? Peter Stanyon received no reply at all. It is extremely concerning that the Minister has shown no urgency in addressing these issues, particularly when we know that due to the shambolic state of her fragile Government, a general election could occur at any time. Perhaps the Minister will therefore be open with the House by publishing her response to the letter and outlining what steps she is taking to address those serious concerns.

The amendment in my name, and in the name of the Leader of the Opposition and others, would also guarantee that we received a report on the total cost incurred under the Bill. That reasoned approach is designed to protect those the Bill will affect the most. I therefore encourage Members on both sides of the House to support the amendment.

It is also important to remember that these administrative challenges have arisen at a time of unprecedented cuts to local government funding. A survey response from 250 local and electoral authorities that administered the EU referendum found that only a quarter of electoral officials said they had enough funding to support their work on electoral registration. In the context of austerity, local authorities have been forced to review their electoral services and oversee significant reductions in core service funding and staffing levels. Our amendment would protect local authorities from being held in limbo by the Government.

According to the AEA there is a growing retention crisis, as those with vital skills and experience understandably leave the profession. To see the consequences of the Government’s policies, we need only look to the borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme, where two council officials were suspended after almost 1,500 people were unable to vote in last year’s general election. Investigations found that it was a result of

“inadequate performance by under-resourced elections office staff”.

My hon. Friend Paul Farrelly described the issues on polling day as a “shambles.” Significant issues also occurred in Plymouth, where 6,500 electors were unable to cast their vote in the 2017 general election.

That does not only affect voters. We have seen that such pressures are also having a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of electoral administrators. Following last year’s general election, the AEA wrote that

“we have collectively been concerned for the health and well-being of all of our members”.

As a result, the AEA contracted the Hospital and Medical Care Association to provide members with free access to a confidential counselling service. Let us think about that for a minute. We have reached a point where free counselling is being offered to election teams in the aftermath of a national poll. How has it come to that?

The Government’s decision to abolish the 15-year rule without addressing those serious concerns is therefore irresponsible in the extreme, as outlined by the Electoral Commission:

“Increasing the number of British citizens overseas who are eligible to be registered to vote will add strain to already stretched resources of electoral administrators, in terms of volume and complexity of registration applications, requiring verification of identities and eligibility of applicants who have not lived in the UK for some time.”

Do the Government have an indication of how many of the estimated 5 million Britons living abroad would apply to be overseas electors in the run-up to a UK parliamentary election if the 15-year rule were removed? Do they have any idea of the strain that would put on already stretched public services?

According to the Cabinet Office:

“Most of the costs of the new policy would be incurred by the local authorities in the first instance”.

Local authorities are already left at breaking point by this Government’s austerity regime and have not received any further detail of their commitment on overseas voters, leaving local electoral registration officers in the dark about how they will cope with this extensive administrative task. It is extremely reckless to leave local authorities in this funding limbo.

In addition to all that, the Government are planning to roll out mandatory voter identification in polling stations across Britain, an extremely expensive policy that could cost up to £20.4 million per general election. Given their record, do they seriously believe they have the resourcing or the ability to deliver on both pledges?

The electoral community has also warned that the proposals leave the registration system wide open to abuse, an issue that appears to be of little concern to the Government. Under the new system, for example, overseas electors will need to prove their eligibility. Documentary evidence may be required to establish their connection with their registration address. However, supplying a single piece of evidence at a single point in time does not prove residency, particularly with regard to the definitions provided in section 5 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. For example, an overseas elector may invest in a property before leaving the UK but may not have lived there, yet they will have a solicitor’s letter confirming the house purchase and are likely also to have a local authority council tax bill—those are two pieces of evidence outlined in the Government’s proposals. In response to the Cabinet Office policy statement regarding overseas voters, the AEA also warned of the possibility of increased applications via this route in marginal constituencies. Not only is the likelihood of error extremely high, but we are now leaving our democracy wide open to potential fraudulent activity.

I wish to end my speech with a moment of unity. I am sure the Minister and Members throughout the House will agree that our country is famous for many things. For example, this House is rightly known as the “mother of all Parliaments”. Indeed, our whole Westminster model of parliamentary democracy is regarded by many as a beacon of democracy and has been adopted by countless nations around the world. At its heart are the rules-based procedures and courtesies that we abide by. One key example is that the Government of the day table a money resolution for any private Member’s Bill that has received a Second Reading. Until recently that was nothing other than a formality, yet this Government have completely dismantled that tradition and procedure.