Overseas Electors Bill

– in the House of Commons at 1:19 pm on 22 March 2019.

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Proceedings resumed.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 1:25, 22 March 2019

I believe, Mr Speaker—and I stand to be corrected by your good self, or by anyone else for that matter—that I was just getting on to new clause 6 when I was stopped in my tracks. New clause 6 relates to a review of absent vote arrangements. I pay tribute again to the hon. Member for City of Chester whose ideas I have once again stolen, because he introduced this new clause in Committee as well. In doing so, he raised

“the concerns of the Association of Electoral Administrators that there needs to be greater emphasis on encouraging overseas electors to establish clear absent voting arrangements and to do so in good time.”

Failure to do so in good time, he said, would impose another burden on electoral staff. The association had apparently said:

“In view of this time limit being removed, consideration needs to be given to the deadline being brought forward for overseas electors to register so that it allows sufficient time to process and check previous revisions of registers, followed by documentary evidence…being provided, if necessary. In addition, sufficient time is required to arrange for any absent vote arrangements to be put in place so that the overseas elector can cast their vote at the election or referendum in time for it to be counted.”––[Official Report, Overseas Electors Public Bill Committee, 31 October 2018; c. 81-2.]

It seems obvious to me that that is absolutely necessary. I shall deal with the subject of timings in the context of another new clause, but I shall try to speed things along now, and I hope that what I have quoted is self-explanatory and stands for itself.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North

We considered this point at length in Committee. It was suggested that we would be in danger of asking overseas electors to register before knowing whose names would be on the ballot paper. I did not think that that was a valid reason not to create an efficient and effective system, because I did not think that having to wait to find out who the candidates were would preclude people from wanting to take part. What is the hon. Gentleman’s perspective?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I agree with the hon. Gentleman: I do not see how it is relevant.

New clause 7 requires the Minister for the Cabinet Office to publish a report on postal voting arrangements for overseas electors. We talked earlier about the scale of the number of people who would be affected if the Bill were to take its full course. I think that all the issues raised in new clause 7 will have to be considered, and that the Government should keep an eye on whether or not everything is in place to deal with the consequences. This new clause is also fairly self-explanatory.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

New clause 7(3) says:

“The report shall, in particular, consider the effectiveness and cost of the International Business Response Licence for postal votes and any associated implications”.

What particular concern did my hon. Friend have about the international business response licence? I could not understand what the concern was here.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 1:30, 22 March 2019

My hon. Friend is right to ask me to elaborate. If he were to look up how the IBRL operates he would see that its “At a Glance” guide says customers can

“Receive direct mail responses from overseas customers” and

“Only pay for the responses you receive”, which is all fine, but the third part says:

“Responses arrive in 7-10 working days”,

I hope my hon. Friend will consider that that might cause a difficulty. That is from the IBRL’s “At a Glance” guide to its service, and it seems to me that that might not be wholly suitable for an election, especially when we are dealing with huge volumes and all the rest of it. That is why I put that provision into the new clause: because I am not sure it fits the bill. The Government should have a duty to consider that very carefully and see whether there is a better system that should be used.

I am sure we all have examples of possible problems. In my part of the world in the Bradford district we have had some terrible things happen with postal voting and postal vote fraud over the years, and we must always be very careful. When we are having a huge extension of voting and of postal voting we must be cautious, and this provision is merely an attempt to show some caution in moving forward and make sure we are not causing problems that might not have been expected at the time.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

For the benefit of the Minister who will have to implement new clause 7 can my hon. Friend make clear what his expectation is on timing? It seems from the tenor of his remarks that he is expecting this review to take place before commencement; is that the case?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I would like that to happen: before having an extension it would be useful to have a review of where we are now, because that might highlight some of the areas of concern. So, yes, I would like to see that done sooner rather than later.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

My hon. Friend is making some important points. On the point he has just raised, does he agree that we would need to be satisfied that, in the event of an allegation of electoral impropriety, there will be the resources and willingness on behalf of overseas authorities to properly investigate that, because it could mean the difference between a correct result in an election or an incorrect result?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I agree. The more people the franchise is extended to, the more chance of a result being affected by it, so my hon. Friend is right. That is why it is absolutely necessary that we get these things right. We must not just do them, find problems later and not really have a plan for how to deal with them. I would sooner we got it in place to start with and knew how we were going to try to prevent problems and deal with them once they arose.

I hope new clause 9 is self-explanatory. It would require the Cabinet Office or Secretary of State to

“within 12 months of the provisions of the Act coming into force,”— it has a date on it for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough—

“lay before Parliament a report evaluating the effects of the Act and the extent to which it has met its objectives.”

I have to say that we pass legislation on a regular basis in this place, in a slightly willy-nilly fashion in my opinion, and we seem to do it often on a sentiment—a worthy sentiment usually—but I would like to see more legislation come with some conditions attached, one of which would be a review of it afterwards to see whether it is meeting the objectives set out. That should be standard in all pieces of legislation. We just pass a piece of legislation and then that is it so far as most people are concerned. We then move on to the next thing and often nobody ever revisits to see whether it is working. In fact, when anyone is asked to justify anything, they often use the fact that they have passed a piece of legislation as their justification for having done something, regardless of whether or not it was effective. I would like to see this new clause added to many more pieces of legislation.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

May I gently suggest that my hon. Friend is uncharacteristically proposing unnecessary bureaucracy? The reality is that if something were perceived to have gone wrong, he has shown himself to be well able to draw it to the attention of the House. Does he not agree that if such a matter needed to be ventilated in public, there is no doubt that that could be done fully and robustly?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

My hon. Friend thinks that flattery is going to get him everywhere, but on this occasion I am not entirely sure that it will. It is very kind of him to say what he did, and—if I may reply in kind—no one is better than him at asking incisive questions and getting to the nub of things, particularly given his background. The problem is that we pass so much legislation in this place covering such a wide area that, no matter how good or bad any of us might be, we just cannot keep on top of it all. It is impossible to do that, and we sometimes need a prompt to remind us of the pieces of legislation that have gone through. I do not think it would do anyone any harm if a report came out that made them think, “Oh yes, I remember this piece of legislation. I’m interested in this one.” Even the best of us forget from time to time what legislation has been passed through this House.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

I tend towards agreeing with my hon. Friend Philip Davies rather than with my hon. Friend Alex Chalk about this and about the importance of evaluation. For the benefit of the Minister who would have to compile the report, I think my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is quite right to ask for a breakdown by parliamentary constituency, but would he also advise the Minister providing the report to provide a breakdown by host country of overseas electors, so that we could see whether our efforts to improve take-up were doing better in some countries than others? They might be going well in Spain but not so well in France, for example. Would my hon. Friend also welcome that information?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am certainly not going to disagree with him about that. However, I fear that he might have done untold damage to his career in this place by saying that he tended to agree with me rather than with my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham. I am sure that the Whip on duty is busy writing that down even as we speak, in order to thwart his attempts at getting promoted. He might need to say at some point that he did not really mean it. We can pretend that he never said it and move on, if that would be of benefit. I certainly would not encourage him to say it on a regular basis—that would be fatal—but I am grateful to him for his support.

I am sure the whole House will be relieved that I am not going to read out the whole of new clause 10, because it covers more than three pages and that could take some time. I will take it as read that people can see it for themselves. It is quite detailed, and it may or may not find favour with colleagues, but I am anxious to move on—

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I am anxious to move on, but my hon. Friend clearly is not, so I will give way to him again.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am genuinely confused about some parts of new clause 10. The deadline for registration for a general election in the UK is midnight 12 working days before polling day, and the deadline for applying for a postal vote is 5 pm 11 working days prior to an election. In the new clause, however, we have deadlines of both 18 and 13 days and at a time of 5 pm, which is before the end of most people’s working day these days. Will my hon. Friend explain why there is a discrepancy between the deadlines for UK-registered voters and those who will be voting overseas? Does he agree, on reflection, that 5 pm is not necessarily the right deadline?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Well, in terms of the time of the deadline before an election for overseas voter registration to take place, if my hon. Friend will allow—he probably thinks I am trying to dodge his incisive question, but I want to come back to amendment 40, which touches on this subject, in due course—perhaps I can move on to that later.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

It sounds as though my hon. Friend will return to my question later, but one specific point about the new clause is that it refers to Scottish regulations. Do we have legislative consent for that? Do we need to? What is the position?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

My hon. Friend has gone way beyond my expertise, which people will probably think is not a difficult task in itself. I am afraid that it would take greater minds than mine to answer the question whether those permissions are needed, have been acquired, would be required and have been given. I do not know. This shows the benefit of having proper scrutiny of legislation in this House and I commend my hon. Friend for doing that, but I am not sure that I am the right person to answer those technical questions.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

On the importance of being able to scrutinise proposed legislation, does my hon. Friend accept that he is essentially being chided by my hon. Friend Neil O’Brien for not having provided an explanatory statement for the new clause?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I think that my hon. Friend is the one doing the chiding. I suspect he is probably right to do so. I was unable to find the time to do that, and he is right to pick me up on it. If I had, colleagues might have had more of their questions answered. I listen to him a great deal, and particularly on these issues pertaining to Fridays, how things should be done and the importance of their being done, he tends to be right.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

I say this advisedly, but can the hon. Gentleman confirm that he wrote the amendments he has tabled? With almost every intervention, he has been unable to answer a single question that has been put to him.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The hon. Gentleman has not had a very good record on interventions in this debate so far. Most of them have been wholly inaccurate. I think that it is fair to say that I have tried to answer every question that I have been asked.

Occasionally, there was a technical question. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough asked not about the amendment but about whether particular permissions from the Scottish Executive would be needed; I do not know the answer to that question. The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton is obviously some kind of know-all, so given that he seems to know everything about everything, perhaps he could answer the question. No doubt, as a fine parliamentarian, he has studied every last word of the amendments, although his previous interventions would not suggest that. Given his expertise on the subject as a know-all, does he want to intervene again and answer the question asked by my hon. Friend? I will leave him to do it.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

One thing I do know about is the amendment tabled in my name and those of many others who support votes at 16. I can answer in a great deal of detail on that, because of course it is my amendment. I would expect the hon. Gentleman to be able to answer questions about his own amendments, if they were indeed his own amendments. Did he write the amendments that have been tabled, or not?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is in need of some medical attention, but I fear for his wellbeing. Perhaps he was not listening, or perhaps it was not even here—he is in a different place now, so perhaps he absented himself from the Chamber and then beetled back in. I think that I have made it abundantly clear at the start of every amendment that they have often previously been tabled by the hon. Member for City of Chester. I have made that clear. Was the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton not listening? I have said at the start of each amendment that most of them were tabled by the hon. Member for City of Chester and I thought that they made very good points that were worthy of further consideration in the House.

I am not entirely sure which bit of this provision, originally tabled in Committee by the hon. Member for City of Chester, is difficult for the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton to grasp, as the point seems straightforward. Is it difficult for him to understand? Does he not understand those words? The provision on the Royal Mail that I mentioned was one I tabled and we had discussed it; my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough asked a detailed question about why I had included subsection (3), and I gave a detailed answer about that point. Perhaps the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton got out of bed on the wrong side this morning, as he seems to be in a particularly grumpy mood, not only about the amendments I have tabled, but about the ones tabled by the hon. Member for City of Chester, who, apparently is his best friend, even though he seems to think that all the amendments he has tabled are a load of old nonsense. I will leave the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton to explain to the hon. Member for City of Chester why he thinks his amendments are ridiculous.

I think that the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton is getting grumpy because he is anxious to get on to his amendment. That is what this is really all about. He is in a grouch because he wants to stand up and lecture the world about his amendment, which he enjoys doing, and that is fair enough. But if he and his colleagues stopped interrupting me during my speech, we might make a bit more progress. By standing up and intervening every two minutes, his grumpiness at not getting on to his amendment is being reinforced because he is intervening all the time. Afterwards, because I am a generous kind of chap, I will have a chat with him and explain to him how best to get on to his amendments on a Friday if he wants to do so. The secret of success is not standing up and trying to intervene with a pointless intervention every two minutes. That is a good lesson for him to learn.

Photo of Gareth Snell Gareth Snell Labour/Co-operative, Stoke-on-Trent Central 1:45, 22 March 2019

On pointless interventions, may I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that my hon. Friend Jim McMahon has one of the cheeriest, sunniest dispositions to be found on the Opposition Benches and never would the word “grumpy” apply to him? On the substantive matter, new clause 10 refers repeatedly to applications to vote

“by post or proxy by overseas electors in parliamentary elections.”

The hon. Gentleman will know that the practicalities of the system of overseas electing means that almost all those people will be voting by post and that having an opportunity to vote by proxy if they wish to appoint someone in this country is important. His proposal contains no content about emergency proxy votes to cover circumstances where the individual overseas might be entitled to make a late emergency proxy vote. To my knowledge, that can be done up until polling day itself if they are incapacitated. Has the hon. Gentleman given any thought to where that might fit into his amendments and to where future legislation may fix that problem?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. He spoke earlier about the importance of polling stations and things like that, and I have points to make about them later. Wherever possible, the rules should be the same as they are for people here, so I think he makes a good point and perhaps we should all consider it if we ever manage to get back to it. I have every sympathy for the point he raises.

Photo of Anna Turley Anna Turley Labour/Co-operative, Redcar

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is making thorough and thought-through points. He said he wanted to see a balance between the opportunities to vote given to those overseas and to those back here at home. Will he then explain why his Government are making it much harder for people to vote here by seeking a greater degree of identification from people going into a polling station, given that there is potentially more opportunity for fraud in the postal voting system overseas, as he is explaining?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I do not want to get sidetracked from the Bill, but the point I make to the hon. Lady is that many of the new clauses I have proposed and will go on to propose are about making the system robust, so that we have an honest result and we do not have any problem with the result being disputed in any way. Given the problems we have faced, certainly in my Bradford district, at polling stations and in postal votes, I support the Government in believing that we need identification at polling stations. In many cases, presiding officers in polling stations have faced a nightmare in terms of being able to identify people properly. That has been an issue for some time. I believe the same happened in Northern Ireland and they dealt with it there, but unfortunately some of those problems persist in the rest of the UK. It is right that the Government do something to make sure that the results of elections are robust. I am getting sidetracked, Mr Speaker, because this is not really relevant. The point I am trying to make is that I do not see a conflict.

For the benefit of the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton, new clause 11 is on a subject raised in Committee by the hon. Member for Nottingham North. I hope that is clear enough for the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton to understand. The new clause is about the offence of registering to vote as an overseas elector in more than one constituency. When he suggested this change in a new clause in Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham North said that it was his

“last stab at allaying the concerns that electoral administrators have expressed following the publication of the ‘votes for life’ document and the Bill.”

He was talking about their concerns relating to double registration. He went on:

“The principle is that when electoral registration officers use address data to verify someone’s eligibility to register, they will establish whether someone has lived in that place. However, they will not try to establish whether that is the last place where the person lived, or whether they have lived in multiple places and are having the same conversation with multiple electoral registration officers around the country, and possibly voting in two or more places.”

He rightly pointed out that there was therefore a

“live danger that might merit an individual sanction”.––[Official Report, Overseas Electors Public Bill Committee, 14 November 2018; c. 115.]

That is what new clause 11 provides. It says that somebody commits an offence by registering to vote in two separate parliamentary constituencies as an overseas elector. That is absolutely right. It comes back to the point I made before about making sure that the results are robust and without question and all the rest of it. Currently, there is something lacking in our system in respect of people voting in more than one constituency at parliamentary elections, and there have been complaints about that. I genuinely do not know how widespread the issue is, and I am not sure that there is any great evidence one way or the other, but, anecdotally, people are concerned that the system is not as robust as it should be. The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to highlight this potential issue, and we should do what we can to stop it.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I have given up on the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton; he is certainly not taking my advice on how to get on to his amendment, so I will save him from himself and give way to his hon. Friend.

Photo of Gareth Snell Gareth Snell Labour/Co-operative, Stoke-on-Trent Central

My hon. Friend Jim McMahon is one of the finest parliamentarians that the hon. Gentleman will get to debate with. He should consider giving way to my hon. Friend—after my intervention, of course.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that is it not currently a crime in the UK to be registered in more than one parliamentary constituency at any given time—it is often the case for students, people who live in two different constituencies, and even Members of Parliament —but they cannot vote in more than one constituency at one time. Is the hon. Gentleman concerned that he might criminalise individuals who could register twice in the UK but not twice in the UK as overseas electors, thereby creating a two-tier registration threshold?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. Personally, I see a difference, which is that people can quite legitimately register in different places in the UK because they can vote in all those places in a local election. If they are a council tax payer in Yorkshire and a council tax payer in Dorset, they are perfectly free to vote in both, quite properly and legally—there is nothing wrong with that—but they are not allowed to vote twice in a parliamentary election. They can register, but they can only vote once.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I will in a second.

It seems to me that there is a difference for overseas voters, because they do not need to vote in the local election because they live somewhere else, so it is really about the parliamentary election. They do not need to be registered in two different places to vote in a parliamentary election, given that they can vote only once anyway. It is a question of where they last lived, so there is a difference.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North

This gets to the nub of one of the challenges in the Bill. In the case of someone living in this country, the question being asked is, “Where do you live?” Some people can legitimately claim to live in two places. Many people in this Chamber live somewhere else during the week. Of overseas electors, however, we are asking, “Where did you live last?” Those are two very different questions, and the result here might be to enable in our voting system exactly the same treatment in both cases, which should give us cause to reflect if not cause us some anxiety.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I absolutely agree. I genuinely think that the points the hon. Gentleman made in Committee were very reasonable and worthy of consideration again today. We should think very carefully about the point he makes.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the churn on the electoral register in some city centres and densely populated areas? In one part of Reading, a quarter of the population on the register changes every year. In my view, this indicates the need for far greater resources for the work he is advocating.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not know the precise problem in Reading, but I am sure it exists in other places too. He is right to raise that. As I made clear earlier, if the House imposes duties on electoral registration officers, it is only right that we provide them with the resources to perform those duties—it would be completely unacceptable not to—so I take his point and would tend to agree with it.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

Further to the point from Gareth Snell, does my hon. Friend agree that there is a potential problem here for those who have been registered perfectly legitimately in two different places so that they can vote in two different local elections? If such a person became an overseas elector, it would be easy for them to forget to deregister themselves for parliamentary elections in one of the two places they were registered. It seems this is not an insuperable problem, because we could create a mechanism automatically to deregister them, but does he agree that that does seem to be an essential step to avoid accidentally criminalising people?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Yes, I take that point, which is a good one. These points are all worthy of further consideration. I do not disagree at all. Equally, however, democracy is precious, and when people start calling results into question, because of people voting twice or whatever, it does massive damage to our democracy. A democracy works only when the losing side accepts it has lost. If it does not, perhaps because the result was rigged or people voted twice—we see this in dictatorships around the world where people do not accept results because of various irregularities—we are on a very slippery slope. We need to do whatever we can to eliminate discrepancies that call results into question. My hon. Friend is right, though, and I certainly am not for unnecessarily criminalising decent people just because they make a mistake; I just thought the issue so serious as to be worthy of further consideration.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

At risk of doing further damage to my career, I strongly agree with my hon. Friend about the menace of people voting in multiple places and the need for strong sentences for those who do. His new clause 11 suggests that people who vote in two constituencies should be eligible for up to a level 5 fine. For other types of electoral offence—for example, false registration of information, false registration in relation to postal voting, personation and so on—a person can receive a level 5 fine and a six-month sentence, and for things such as postal voting fraud they can get a two-year sentence and an unlimited fine.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we might want to rationalise the existing system for these different offences—there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it—and that we should review the maximum level 5 fine if it does not prove sufficient to deter people from committing what is a serious anti-democratic crime?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Yes, I agree. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. These are serious offences, and the criminal justice system should see them as such, so I very much share his sentiments.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I will press on. I did not realise at the start of this morning how difficult it would prove to get through my modest amendments in the first group. I am determined to do so, even if I have to upset the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

My sincere apologies to my hon. Friend Philip Davies, but when he hears this I hope he will understand, because it affects him, too.

Apparently, on the “Today” programme this morning, the BBC presenter, Jim Naughtie, made the following statement:

“The ERG, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s group, in France would be in the National Front because that’s what they believe, and in Germany they would be in the AfD. It’s only because of our system that the carapace of this party keeps them in”.

That is an outrageous comment and a slur on at least 80 Members of this House. We feel passionately about Brexit, as do Members from all corners of this House, but that does not mean that we belong in the National Front, a despicable organisation that all of us would condemn. I would like to take this opportunity in Parliament, as an elected Member of Parliament, which Mr Naughtie is not—he is just a very, very highly paid bigot—to say that his comments are outrageous. If the BBC does not get him to make a full and complete apology by the end of today, he should resign as a British Broadcasting Corporation presenter. If the corporation does not take action against him, that will prove what many in this House have suspected for a long time—that it is irredeemably biased and Europhiliac.

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, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I will not seek to arbitrate on the matter of what people regard as the position of the BBC on Brexit, because although he has made the suggestion that he has about the corporation’s alleged Europhile tendencies, I know that there are many people who feel that much of the BBC’s coverage in recent times has leaned in a very different direction. As Speaker, I do not think that I want to pronounce on that matter. Moreover, as the Clerk at the Table, who swivelled round to counsel me, observed, points of order of this kind, referring to people outwith the House, ceased to be commonplace some time ago. It was a true observation and helpful in one respect, but in another—I know that the Clerk will not take offence when I say this—at least marginally irrelevant for the simple reason that common- place and the right hon. Gentleman are not only not nodding acquaintances, but complete strangers to boot. There is nothing commonplace about the right hon. Gentleman.

I do not seek to treat the right hon. Gentleman’s point with levity; I recognise that he feels extremely strongly about it. For my part, I stand by what I said earlier: as far as parliamentary debate is concerned, the precept of “Erskine May” is that moderation and good humour conduce a better debate, rather than ad hominem personal attacks. People should play the ball rather than the man or the woman.

Moreover, though it is not for me to stand up for the European Research Group—it does not need me to do so and I am not doing so—I do want to say that, as far as the right hon. Gentleman is concerned, I have known him for 35 years and there is no way on earth that I could imagine him in the National Front. That is not the right hon. Gentleman, and it is not Sir Christopher Chope, and it is not Philip Davies, and it is not Tom Pursglove. That is simply not a fair characterisation. I cannot be expected to go through all the members of the European Research Group, but Mr Rees-Mogg is a friend of mine. He has very strong views to which some people very strongly object and which other people very strongly support, but to suggest that there is some sort of National Front allegiance is quite wrong and, in my opinion, uncalled for. Let us try to lower the decibel level and treat other people’s views on either side of an argument with respect, debating the issues rather than resorting to slogans. I hope that that is fair.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I certainly do not object at all to my right hon. Friend Mr Francois interrupting me with his point of order, with which I agreed wholeheartedly. Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your response. I seem destined not to get through my amendments, for different reasons.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

My hon. Friend has been identifying the complexity of these matters in relation to both overseas electors and domestic electors. Does he agree that it might be a good idea if the Government were to commission the Law Commission to draft some legislation on the subject that could then be brought forward as a draft Bill and properly discussed? The attempts in this Session—including in my Voter Registration Bill—to get consensus across the House have failed, as indeed this Bill has failed to get consensus. Is it not time to get some expertise from the Law Commission?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion, which has a great deal of merit. I am not entirely sure that a private Member’s Bill was the best route for this legislation, and we probably do need a bit more expertise, as he suggests. I certainly would not disagree with that.

I am not entirely sure whether I had got to new clause 12 or new clause 13, but, in the interests of trying to get through my amendments, I am going to move on to new clause 13 and hope that that was where I had got to.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

Before my hon. Friend moves on, new clause 12 calls for a report on electoral offences, including on whether the number has changed as a result of this legislation. Will he tell us how we might be able to pull apart the effects of the extension of the franchise in this Bill and the many other factors that could affect both the number of offences and the number of overseas electors? Page 9 of the Commons Library briefing on the Bill shows us that many factors, including electronic voting, referendum campaigns and general elections, cause the numbers to move far more than changes to the franchise.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Yes, I understand my hon. Friend’s point, and it is a good one. New clause 12 is more probing than one that I intended to push to a Division. The point that I was trying to make when tabling it was that it seems that the chances are that more offences will be committed if we extend the franchise so widely. It is therefore right that the Government look into this point in some detail. A report therefore seemed to be a sensible suggestion. However, I understand his point and do not necessarily disagree with it.

New clauses 13 and 14 are basically sunset clauses. I am a big fan of legislation with sunset clauses, because it means that a Bill that turns out to be hopeless is put out of its misery without any further need to do anything. If it is particularly good legislation, presumably there will be no problem with somebody wanting to resurrect it or bring it back. Sunset clauses are a good way to ensure that we end up with good legislation and that we get rid of bad legislation. New clauses 13 and 14 offer different suggestions for how long the legislation should last—one of five years and one of three.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough

I want to put the case against my hon. Friend’s argument in favour of sunset clauses. Last Friday, we were debating the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill of my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers, which would put an end to the sunset clause put on the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009. That sunset clause had no particularly clear rationale. I understand the case for such clauses when we do not know whether we will solve a problem by legislating, but when we are making a principled and permanent change, they seem unnecessary and could eat up the time of the House. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

No. I would rather eat up the time of the House looking back on whether something is necessary and should be brought back rather than use up its time inventing new laws, which are often unnecessary and make things worse. To be perfectly honest, I think it would be a better use of Parliament’s time if we looked back over these things. However, I take my hon. Friend’s point about the different purposes of sunset clauses; I understand that.

You will be pleased to know, Mr Speaker, that I have gone through the new clauses. However, I still have to cover a number of amendments, although I hope to do that more quickly. My amendment 40 is a reheated version of one from the hon. Member for Nottingham North: to put a deadline of 19 days before an election for an overseas vote registration to take place. In proposing it, the hon. Gentleman said—I agree with his rationale—that it was to allow electoral administrators more time to process applications. He felt that the current timescale for registration deadlines did not work, and his amendment was designed to improve it. He reported concern among those who administer our elections about the issue—particularly about the timetable more widely for postal ballot papers to go out to overseas voters. That is not easy.

The hon. Gentleman went on to make a very good point: if we do not push this amendment through, we would be raising expectations among people who were enthusiastic about their chance to vote, but they would end up being disappointed because, owing to the volume of applications, in the end they would never get the chance. The hon. Gentleman’s argument was very good.

I dread mentioning the EU referendum again, given everything that is going on at the moment, but I understand that in that referendum, and in the 2015 general election, the processing and checking of overseas applications was a big challenge in many places due to the high volume of applications in a very tight timeframe during the lead-up to the vote. If that was the case then, what problems will arise if we extend it massively? There is an issue here. The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that the deadline should be extended was a sensible way to make sure that, if we do extend it, everyone will get the chance to vote.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Labour, Slough

The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely detailed examination of the Bill. In its impact assessment of the Overseas Electors Bill, the Cabinet Office stated that funding was

“planned to be provided by central government to support the additional costs incurred by EROs”.

Given the stretched state of local budgets and austerity, will that financial support cover the £8.8 million expected cost of implementation and the 10 years of running policy from 2020-21?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, for which I thank him. Again, that is why we need detailed scrutiny of these matters in the House.

I do want to press on, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I must give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I have been referring to him so much.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is an avid follower of American elections; personally, I love following the House of Representatives. Occasionally, I confess, I might find common cause with the hon. Gentleman for the purposes of wagering—I probably should not have confessed that.

The extraordinary thing about American elections, certainly those in California, is that as long as a postal ballot went into the box on the day of the election, it counts. So elections are not declared for multiple weeks as the votes slowly build up until eventually they run into a trickle and disappear. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that there would have to be a much earlier deadline to give room for the votes to come in, and other silly things like that?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 2:15, 22 March 2019

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. When there is a tight contest, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a result could be delayed until everything has been checked. That is why the suggestion he made in Committee was a good one and one that I wanted to bring back. He is definitely on to something, and I agree with him.

I will gloss over amendments 49 and 50, because they are pretty minor points in the scheme of things.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I am going to crack on. I do not think anyone could say that I have not been generous in giving way.

Amendments 68 to 70 are linked to other new clauses that we have already discussed. I want to mention amendments 75 and 76. Amendment 76 would delay the coming into force of the extent, commencement and short title provisions by 12 months. I want to raise that because, whatever the merits or otherwise of a general election outside the fixed-term rules, it seems to me that if a general election were to be held sooner rather than later, this Bill coming into force immediately could cause some problems. Amendments 75 and 76 would delay the implementation of the Act for two years, which would give more time to prepare for the next general election, or even the one after, if we have one before the five-year term is up.

We could end up with people who are eligible to vote not being able to because the systems are not in place to cope with the rush. It would be blatantly unfair on qualifying overseas voters if some of their votes counted and some did not, and if some were able to register and some were not. I think that that can happen already, to be honest, but the problem would be made much worse if we extended the franchise and brought the provisions in very quickly. We would almost certainly create a problem.

All in all, I am sorry that we have had such a truncated operation and that my speech has gone on far longer than I anticipated. Obviously I was agitating some Members, and I wanted to accommodate their requests, because in all seriousness, that is how legislation should be debated in this place. We end up with better legislation when we listen to everybody’s point of view. We have heard in interventions today people making some very good points that we should bear in mind and that expose some of the flaws in the amendments I have tabled. That is why it is important that we go through this scrutiny of important pieces of legislation.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire for bringing his Bill this far. I hope that the provisions of the Bill will be introduced at some point, but with the necessary improvements. I urge the Government to listen again to the arguments made in Committee by the hon. Member for City of Chester and the hon. Member for Nottingham North in particular, because if their suggestions had been taken on board, this would have been a much better piece of legislation.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) (Devolution)

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for allowing this point of order; I appreciate your generosity. Clearly time has run away with us, and we have had three urgent questions. That means we have not moved on to the second group, which would have included a debate on votes at 16. I recognise completely that that is legitimate in terms of how Parliament works, but I would like to place on record the names of members of Oldham Youth Council who submitted their personal responses about what votes at 16 would mean to them. Roshni Parmar-Hill, Charlotte Clasby, Samah Khalil, Liam Harris and Tia Henderson all sent in representations. I want to thank them and place on the record our appreciation for those submissions.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I rise to address the House for the first time in today’s sitting. May I start by paying tribute to my good friend Glyn Davies? He has sat patiently through this and many other sittings, and I know how very keen he is to see this Bill progress on to the statute book. If it does not do so, that will not be because of any lack of effort on his part. I pay tribute to him for the decent diligence that he has put into the Bill. The tribute I pay him is heartfelt and genuine, and I wish him well.

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

May I thank the hon. Gentleman as well for the hours he has put into this Bill in Committee, and will he allow me to join him in paying tribute to my hon. Friend Glyn Davies and all those who have campaigned for this change with passion and dignity?

May I take a moment to confirm that the Government remain committed to scrapping the time cap? This remains a manifesto commitment for the Government to fulfil, and we will return to update the House in due course on our steps to do so.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification. We have concerns about certain areas in the Bill. When the legislation is brought back, in whatever form it comes back, we will continue to debate those concerns and scrutinise the Bill, recognising that the Government remain committed to bringing in this change.

Listening this morning—and this afternoon—to Philip Davies, I was reminded that we should always take care about everything we say in Committee, because somebody somewhere will actually read the speeches that we make. I am rather gladdened and encouraged that a hon. Member of such diligence and such attention to detail as the hon. Gentleman has read much of what I said in Committee—and, indeed, taken it on, because, as he said to my hon. Friend Jim McMahon, a lot of the new clauses he has tabled were ones that were first floated by me and my hon. Friends in Committee.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I would always give way to my good friend the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire.

Photo of Glyn Davies Glyn Davies Conservative, Montgomeryshire

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman—my friend—for taking an intervention, and I think he knows what I want to do. First, I congratulate him, and I do thank him for the way in which he helped us in Committee. I did not always agree with him when we had a dispute, but he was always incredibly polite and well argued, and all the points he made were very well made.

I would like to take this chance to put on the record the huge number of people who have helped me in this process. I will name only one specifically, because I would take up too much time if I named them all. I do think that Harry Shindler deserves a mention in the House. He is 98 years old, and he came over here from Italy to discuss this Bill with me in person on two occasions during this process. The one thing he wants to do is to vote in a British election: it is the one thing left in his life that he wants. I have one disappointment in that it looks at the moment as though this Bill might not reach a conclusion today, but the real disappointment I have is that Harry Shindler will be disappointed, and I think that is a great shame.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I have not met Mr Shindler, but it is my understanding that he fought in the second world war. May I put it bluntly? We live in freedom today because of people like Mr Shindler and many hundreds of thousands like him who risked their lives, and we will never tire of making that case.

The hon. Member for Shipley made an extensive and detailed opening speech on his new clauses. As I say, many of them were very similar to, if not the same as, ones that I and my hon. Friends moved in Committee. He gave very detailed descriptions, so I do not want to go over them again in the time left available to us.

New clause 1 would mean that UK citizens who are considering moving abroad or in the process of doing so will be given a prompt by the electoral registration officer, if that officer receives information that leads them to believe that a registered elector is moving, to remind them to re-register. The hon. Member for Shipley is right: this is about stopping a huge rush of people registering in a short period before an election, so as to even out the burden on the electoral registration officer. It would reduce the workload of EROs, who would otherwise have to send out reminders to encourage new voters to register.

Photo of Gareth Snell Gareth Snell Labour/Co-operative, Stoke-on-Trent Central

When the hon. Member for Shipley spoke to new clause 1, I mentioned the difference between people who have moved and those who are going to move. May I tease out a suggestion from my hon. Friend on how that issue could be overcome? An electoral registration officer will not know whether somebody has moved unless they have been told, yet under the new clause they would be compelled somehow to provide people with information on how to register as an overseas elector.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

My hon. Friend is right, and given that the new clause seeks to reduce the burden on electoral registration officers, we would not want as an unintended consequence to increase that burden on officers, who would have to find voters who formerly lived in their constituency but who now live abroad. I imagine that the ERO would prompt people who are about to move abroad to register.

The new clause seeks to strengthen our democratic culture by encouraging voter registration. As my right hon. Friend Mark Tami and my hon. Friend Anna Turley said earlier, the Government are currently narrowing that group by making it harder for people to register and vote in certain pilot areas where ID requirements have been introduced. I call on the Government to think again about whether they are genuinely concerned with widening voter participation and registration, or whether they are considering such matters only for overseas voters.

Under new clause 1, EROs must ensure that the voting register is as accurate and complete as possible. Each year they conduct an annual canvass of households, issuing and chasing inquiry forms. Household inquiry forms are sent to every household to confirm the details of those living at the property. Although those forms do not directly generate new registrations, they are critical to producing information about the country. Under the new clause, any information generated from those forms that suggests that a British person is moving or has moved abroad, should lead to a notification from the ERO to prompt that person to put themselves on the overseas voters register.

Voter awareness is crucial to this legislation. Neil O’Brien spoke about the role that British diplomatic posts could play in registering UK citizens abroad, and letting them know about the importance of voting. Once overseas voters are made aware of their eligibility, they are more likely to vote. The earlier that someone registers within the current 15-year time limit, the easier it is to keep them registered after that time limit, and we will therefore remove the possibility of a rush to register immediately before an election, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Shipley.

Photo of Gareth Snell Gareth Snell Labour/Co-operative, Stoke-on-Trent Central

My hon. Friend is gracious with his time. Does he share my concern that the missed opportunity with new clause 1 is that there is no provision to help those already overseas who may suddenly gain the right to vote? Nothing in the new clause seeks to provide local authorities with the ability or resources to do that, yet there could be thousands of people for whom that situation is their everyday existence.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

My hon. Friend’s analysis is almost certainly correct. I am a little concerned because the proposal was originally mine, so I cannot exactly blame the hon. Member for Shipley, but that is what scrutiny in this place is for. I will take my hon. Friend’s guidance and I am grateful for his insight into the deficiencies of new clause 1.

Moving, if I may, to new clause 3—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2).

Bill to be further considered on Friday 29 March.