I should say at the outset that I am afraid my voice might give out, but I hope that everybody will bear with me.
Electoral fraud is an unacceptable crime that strikes at a core principle of our democracy—that is, that everybody’s vote matters. There is undeniable potential for electoral fraud in our current system, and the perception of this undermines public confidence in our democracy. We need only to walk up to the polling station and say our name and address, which is an identity check from the 19th century, based on the assumption that everyone in the community knows each other and can dispute somebody’s identity. Dare I say it, if we really wanted to go back to 19th-century politics, neither I nor Cat Smith would even be in this House. The voter ID pilots, which are supported by the independent Electoral Commission, are a reasonable way to ensure that voter ID works for everybody ahead of a national roll-out.
Showing ID is something that people of all backgrounds already do every day—when we take out a library book, claim benefits or pick up a parcel from the post office. Proving who we are before we make a decision of huge importance at the ballot box should be no different. I can reassure the House that both last year’s pilots and the decades of experience in Northern Ireland show that voter ID does not have an adverse effect on election turnout or participation. Furthermore, the Government have consulted a range of civil society groups to ensure that voter ID will work for everybody. Crucially, local authorities will provide alternative methods of ID free of charge to electors who do not have a specified form of ID, ensuring that everybody who is registered has the opportunity to vote.
At next month’s local elections, voters in 10 diverse areas across the country will be asked to show ID before they place their vote. Let us remember that those votes will have a real effect on communities, so these elections are important. People should be confident in our democracy. If they are, they are more likely to participate in it. My message to the voters in the pilot areas is that these pilots are about protecting their vote. We want them to go out and use that vote, and to take part in these elections. I ask hon. Members here today to ask their constituents to do so. Voter ID is part of how this Government are strengthening the integrity of our electoral system to give the public confidence that our elections are secure and fit for the 21st century.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.
Next month, voters in 10 local authorities across England will be using the voter ID pilots in local elections. These schemes have been the focus of significant controversy. At last year’s local elections, where there were five pilot areas, the Minister appeared to celebrate the fact that at least 350 citizens were excluded from voting for not having valid ID. This included people who had voted legitimately for their entire lives.
The Government claim that voter ID is designed to tackle electoral fraud in polling stations. However, during an evidence session with the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, the Minister could not even say whether the pilots had had any impact on voter fraud. Given that the Minister was unable to draw any conclusions from the last set of pilots, what does she expect to gain and how will she measure success this year?
Civil society groups and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have warned that voter ID will have a disproportionate impact on voters from ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people and disabled people. Has the Minister failed to notice the Windrush scandal, which demonstrated that it can be more difficult for some communities to provide official documentation than for others? We all know that voter ID will have significant ramifications for our democracy, because 3.5 million citizens—7.5% of the electorate—do not have access to photo ID. If voter identification requirements are restricted to passports or driving licences, as they are in some areas, that number rises to 11 million people, which is 24% of the electorate.
Following last year’s pilots, it was revealed that rolling out voter ID nationwide would increase the cost of each general election by as much as £20 million. Is this an effective use of taxpayers’ money when local authorities are already on their knees? If the Minister thinks that these pilots schemes are value for money, why has she refused to tell the House how much they will cost?
Electoral fraud is a serious crime, which is why we would support any effective measures to combat it. However, this Government are not focusing on the real issues. There is no evidence of widespread voter personation in the UK. The latest figures by the Electoral Commission show that, of the 266 cases of electoral fraud investigated by police last year, 140 related to campaign offences and just eight related to personation fraud at the polling station, which is what the Minister claims this trial is designed to tackle. Does she think her Government have the right priorities when, despite most electoral offences being committed by political candidates, it is actually the innocent voters who are being excluded from our politics because of this ill thought-out policy?
With local elections fast approaching and the Government planning a roll-out at the next general election, it is only right that Members of this House have the opportunity to scrutinise and comment on the Government’s plans. We are therefore requesting that the Government allow time for a parliamentary debate to discuss these pilot schemes ahead of local elections next month.
I am sorry to have to start in this tone, but almost everything the hon. Lady said has just been wrong. She suggested that we were unable to draw conclusions from last year’s pilots. That is simply not the case. Both the Cabinet Office’s evaluation and that of the independent Electoral Commission—which she may wish to dispute but it is, none the less, that of the independent Electoral Commission—concluded that the pilots did what they set out to do. The pilots were a success, in that the overwhelming majority of people were able to cast their vote with no impediment. What is more—here is the really important point—the evidence showed that no particular demographic group was affected by the requirement to bring ID.
The hon. Lady is shaking her head, but she knows that it is true. Perhaps this is part of the pattern we have seen from the Labour party of saying one thing and doing another. She still cannot explain why many constituency Labour parties require voter ID for their own selection meetings. She cannot explain why these were acceptable powers when they were passed by the last Labour Government; and she cannot explain why the last Labour Government did this in Northern Ireland, and why the Minister at that time said that this measure would
“tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters”—[Official Report,
Vol. 371, c. 740.]
The Opposition cannot explain any of these things, and that is just not good enough.
Let me turn to the detail of what the hon. Lady has tried to put forward. Among her scaremongering and, frankly, conspiracy theorising, she made reference to the costs of these measures. I would like to make it clear to the House that, through correspondence with the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I have been clear about how those costs will be able to be accounted for. She asks whether we can allow time for a full debate on this in Parliament. I would beg advice from the Chair, perhaps, but I suggest that this is that debate. Moreover, the powers that the previous Labour Government put in place allow for this process to be done in this way, without any such debate, so if she has that problem she ought to have taken it up with her colleagues of that time.
The hon. Lady asks what we are expecting to see this year. We are expecting to see that voters will be able to cast their ballots in a way that is protected. She does down voters by suggesting that this is in some way an attack on them and—I think this was her phrase—some kind of privileging of the political class. That is simply not the case. We are engaged in the breadth of the work that we need to do to keep our elections safe and secure, and to update them for the 21st century. If she thinks that we should not be doing that, she is welcome to live back in the 19th century, but I do not think we should be doing so. We should be making sure that voters can cast their votes in a way that is protected and means that they can have confidence that they are not being usurped in their role.
The hon. Lady asks whether we should be focusing on crime that involves small numbers. Well, really—I ask her whether she would have said that decades ago about, for example, rape. Would she have said that about a crime that was under-reported? Would she have said that about a crime that involves small numbers simply for that reason? Of course she would not. Nobody would do so, because it would of course be disgraceful. It would be disgraceful to make that argument about small numbers, and that is the argument that Labour Members are making. Crimes with small numbers should not be ignored—people should none the less be protected against them, and that is what we are doing.
When I was first elected, I used to come and go from this Palace unchallenged. Now I am required to show ID even within its precincts—but is that a big deal?
I think my right hon. Friend makes the point, quite rightly, that we expect to show who we are in every walk of everyday life. It is quite fair enough that we do so at our workplace, and quite fair enough that we do so when we pick up a parcel from the post office, when we apply for benefits, or when we do many types of things that involve interacting with public services or just going about our everyday life. It is therefore right that we do that in our elections as well.
There is one instance of voter fraud in this country for every 1.6 million votes cast. It is a problem that is so minor as really not to exist at all, and yet it continues to be the focus of the Government’s policy in this area. One can only conclude that it is a policy driven by suspicion based on prejudice rather than hard facts and evidence. We know that forcing people to produce ID in order to vote will put people off. So is it not time that the Government stopped concentrating on putting hurdles in front of people who do vote and tackled the real problem, which is the 14.5 million people who are registered to vote but do not do so? When are the Government going to prioritise measures to improve participation through public education, extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, and piloting new ways to allow people to vote, including electronically?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman, also, is not talking on the basis of the evidence. He should be able to do so from the evaluation that we published last year, which clearly said that there was no such negative impact on people turning out and participating in voting. That is crucially important. I am very pleased to have been able to bolster that work from last year with work this year to speak to groups across civil society who may have concerns that people they represent would be less able than others to deal with this requirement. I am absolutely confident that the equalities aspects of this work have been thoroughly considered, both by us in central Government and by the local authorities that are piloting it. I am afraid that he is not speaking from the evidence when he says that we know this is not going to work. Had he read the academic literature, looked into the Northern Ireland example and looked at the evaluation, he would know that that is not the case.
We need to make sure that this work is part of encouraging people to go to vote. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on that, of course; we should be doing it hand in hand with encouraging people to vote. That is why I am proud that we have only recently refreshed our democratic engagement plan, which is full of the ways that we will be continuing to do that work, as we have always done. We are working closely with the Electoral Commission, and all the local authorities that are relevant at these elections, to encourage people to vote. I would hope that hon. Members would join me in doing so in a way that prioritises the security of those votes alongside participation in them.
I am glad that the range of councils taking part in voter ID pilots this time is broad—more than 10—in about three or four different ways.
May I suggest that in agreeing that we should do more to get voter registration up to much higher levels, we should have a debate when the Electoral Commission has done a study on the result of these voter ID pilots, and then we can really hear what the proper policy of the Labour party and the SNP is to be?
Those are words of wisdom. I would be happy to confirm to the House what I have said in other contexts, which is that it is the intention of this Government to move from having done pilots to being able to have a nationwide policy at the next general election. We think that is important, so that is our intention for 2022. We are looking forward to the information that comes from these pilots, on top of last year’s work, to be able to inform that, and to make sure that the scheme works for voters and any concerns can be addressed.
Does the Minister think that perhaps more people might be put off voting not because they might have to show ID but because they have realised that sometimes their vote is totally ignored by people in this House?
This system has worked perfectly well in Northern Ireland, and I have seen it for myself. I really do think that we are talking about common sense. If I have to go to the post office and show something to be able to pick up my parcel, I cannot see, particularly with the extra things that the Minister has put in to ensure that people can be identified, how anyone could think that this is anything other than common sense.
I thoroughly welcome those comments. The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. This is simply a matter of common sense. It is a quite reasonable and proportionate thing to ask people to do that is in line with what we do elsewhere in the UK and throughout everyday life.
Madam Deputy Speaker,
“How will we check people’s ID? We will be using a two-level check to verify the person attending is who we have on our membership list. Named Photo ID: This is for branch officers to see photographic ID which has a name that matches the name on the list and is of the person who has presented to the meeting…Proof of Address”.
That is from the Tottenham constituency Labour party website with regard to its own meetings. If Labour Members think that two forms of proof are needed to vote in their own elections, why do they think that is not appropriate for national elections?
I quite agree, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has laid it out so clearly. It is not good enough to say one thing and do another, and then come to this House and lecture others on it.
The Minister will not be surprised that I do not share her enthusiasm for this new system. Will she look to what the Welsh Government are doing to expand the franchise and the inclusivity of voting, including consulting on e-voting? Will she consider that in future? If we are to make voting more accessible and expand the ways that people are able to vote, we need to learn from good practice. The Welsh Government are looking at e-voting pilots in local government elections in 2022, and the UK Government could learn from that for future general elections.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s characteristically thoughtful way of addressing this matter and welcome his engagement with the substance of it. He raised a number of things. First, I am a supporter of the franchise having been devolved to Wales, and I look forward to seeing what my counterparts in Wales will be doing with that shortly. I work closely with them and, indeed, with colleagues in Scotland to make sure that we are, together, operating a system that works for voters.
Secondly, behind the hon. Gentleman’s example of e-voting is a point about the powers under which we are doing these pilots, which is those that were passed by the previous Labour Government, as I mentioned. Indeed, in the past those powers had also been used by that Government to test e-voting. That is an interesting reflection on the history of how we have been able to come to this point of using powers to look at ways to make the voting system relevant to voters and protect their votes. I am here today principally to talk about how we are protecting their votes. I do not think this is going to turn into a general debate on e-voting, although I should confirm that the Government’s manifesto was not in favour of that.
At the last general election, the Labour candidate in Morecambe and Lunesdale lived in Blackpool and registered herself from her parents’ front room in Morecambe. Her husband had actually been the Labour party manager for Cat Smith in the previous election. Is it not time that we had voter ID in Lancaster?
I would be delighted to see interest from Lancaster City Council in participating in the pilots. I would like to put on record again how grateful I am to all the local councils that are taking part in them. Some very hard work is being done by administrators to test this important move in our voting system. The example my hon. Friend gives reminds us that there are concerns up and down the country about how well protected our electoral system is, and it is right that we address those.
I pursued the issue of electoral registration for 18 years in this place. The hundreds of questions that I put down showed that there is no issue with voter fraud. These are tactics that are used by the right wing in America for voter suppression. May I offer an alternative use for the £20 million that has been allocated for this policy? It should be transferred into getting the missing millions who are not even on the register on to the register.
If this is about voter suppression, the Labour party clearly does not want any members, because it uses it for its own party membership. This is not about voter suppression, nor is it about disenfranchisement. I object strongly to the use of those words to describe what is being done. This is a reasonable step to protect voters’ choices. It is simple common sense, as Kate Hoey said, that people should be able to show who they are at the polling station.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his campaigning over time on these issues, because he is right to keep consistent scrutiny on how we can help as many people as possible to be registered in this country. I hope he knows that I share his determination to make our registers as complete and accurate as they can be, and to have as many people taking part in our elections as possible. Recent figures suggest that we have record levels of electoral registration in this country. They fluctuate slightly throughout electoral cycles, as he will know because he looks at these things closely. The point is that we do have a thriving democracy in this country—let’s keep it that way.
One of the many things about Stirling constituency that I am really proud of is the level of democratic engagement. Turnouts in my constituency are always well above any kind of average that can be picked out of all the statistics that are available on elections. When will the Minister be able to update the House on the specifics of how her Department is trying to drive up engagement in the democratic process across all parts of our society?
I look forward very much to being able to do that. I will do it in conjunction with my hon. Friend Kevin Foster in the coming months, because as Members may know, I shall be taking maternity leave shortly.
In the first instance, I direct my hon. Friend Stephen Kerr to our democratic engagement plan, which sets out the principles of how we intend to engage people and how we will work with partners across the electoral community to do so. Of course, we have to work with colleagues in the devolved Administrations and local councils up and down the country. We are doing that and have set out a range of plans. We will update the House regularly when we have the opportunity to do so. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we will come back with an evaluation of these pilots in due course, as we did last year. We expect the independent Electoral Commission to do the same thing again in the summer period, after the elections.
Let’s get this right: the privileged class of MPs can register once in London and once in their constituency and vote twice at local elections, but should this House foolishly allow a second referendum, my constituents who do not have a car and do not have a passport could turn up to vote, having voted in the first referendum, and be sent away to walk back a mile because they do not have a driving licence or a passport, having been told, “You can’t vote.” And the Government call that democracy. Why is it that I have constituents who have to come to me to get passports? They have no ID of any kind and have been refused a passport, and the only way they can get one is if I intervene. That is the price that will be paid for this absurdity.
No, it is not. As I have set out, every council that participates in the pilots will make ID arrangements that are free of charge. That is as the House would expect it to be. Frankly, if the situation were as the hon. Gentleman describes it, I would agree with him, but it is not. He is simply not giving an accurate picture of the pilots. Crucially, the 10 pilots, which are being done in slightly different ways across the country, are operating a broader list of ID than only driving licences or passports, and as I have emphasised, there will be a free-of-charge alternative. What I would say to his constituents and to anybody else who is listening is that they need not have that concern. This policy has been well planned, with them at its heart.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—it all comes to those who wait. I was here in 2003, not in the Chamber but up in the Press Gallery, and I listened to the Labour Minister explain why there needed to be voter ID in Northern Ireland. There was a debate in the Chamber at that time. I do not think that that Government could be called right-wing—it was led by Tony Blair, so it could not possibly have been right-wing. At the end of the day, has that been a huge success in Northern Ireland? I can say as a former Minister of State for Northern Ireland, yes it has. Why is it different in Northern Ireland? Why can we not protect votes from being stolen in England, Scotland and Wales?
That is absolutely right. My right hon. Friend helpfully reminds us of the history of how we got to this place, and I am grateful to him for placing it on the record. He makes the crucial point that this is about protecting voters. Why should it be acceptable for a voter potentially to be subject to having their vote stolen? That would be a dreadful crime—it is hardly some kind of victimless crime. It is a crime that, unfortunately, does happen in this country, albeit not in large numbers. That means that we have to act. These are the actions of a responsible Government to make sure that voters have their voice protected.
Following on from the comment of Sir Mike Penning, I endorse the remarks that the Minister has made in relation to Northern Ireland. It is absolutely abominable that someone should steal another person’s vote. Vote stealing is a serious crime. In the general election of 2001, it was identified that voter fraud in Northern Ireland was a significant issue. It was the Labour Government who—thank goodness—the very next year, in 2002, introduced photographic ID for all elections in Northern Ireland.
Many people in Northern Ireland did not have a passport and many still do not, although because of Brexit people are applying for Irish passports in large numbers. For those who do not have a passport or a driving licence, the Electoral Office supplies electoral identity cards free of charge. They are a great idea. Will the Minister confirm that electoral identity cards will be made available free of charge and will be valid for 10 years? They can be used for other purposes, so there is an incentive for voters to acquire them. Given that they are free of charge and are valid for 10 years, people do not have to go for a passport. If people want to meet their constituency MP, of course they can go for a passport, but electoral identity cards are a useful alternative as ID for all sorts of things, such as Flybe and various other airlines. I am not advertising for Flybe—it might not accept them. However, valid ID cards for electoral purposes are enormously useful.
I am really pleased that the hon. Lady has contributed the voice of experience, has contributed. She is correct about the experience in Northern Ireland. She is also correct that such cards have other uses. I give an example from last year’s pilots: in one pilot a group of homeless electors—I hope right hon. and hon. Members are aware that it can be difficult for homeless people to vote, which in itself is a separate disgrace that the Government are working to improve—were able to take advantage of the council-issued alternative and go to claim other benefits and take other steps in their lives that they felt were really helpful. She is right that that can happen.
On how we will take the pilots forward into a broader scheme, we are open to looking at what the next steps may be. They may not be identical to the Northern Ireland card, but as I have already emphasised all councils taking part in the pilots will provide a free-of-charge alternative ID that provides some form of verification that voters are who they say they are. That will certainly be a feature, and I will look at all the experiences around the UK as a guide towards the next steps of the programme.
Is the Minister aware that the percentage of convictions for ID fraud in votes cast last year—I will read this so that I do not forget a zero—was 0.000002%? While it is clear that we need to treat electoral fraud seriously, will she explain why the same degree of enthusiasm is not shown, for instance, for inquiring into the wide-scale cheating that took place during the EU referendum campaign?
The right hon. Gentleman is ever predictable; I thought that might be where his argument would end. I have already touched on the fallacious argument that we should not go after crimes of small numbers. It is a terrible argument.
The right hon. Gentleman emphasised how many zeroes came after a decimal point, so I think he was making a point about small numbers. The important thing is this: we need to be able to reassure voters that their votes matter, that their votes are protected and that they can have confidence in the votes they cast.
The right hon. Gentleman went on to make an important point about other elections. People want to have confidence in the result of any election. I say in passing, because this is not about the European referendum, that the Electoral Commission has investigated the allegations to which he refers, and that is part of the system in which voters can have confidence. We have those rules, we have an independent regulator, and we have those investigations. That is what voters should expect of the electoral system, and that independent regulator has also long argued for this reform because it will improve the security of our elections.
Democracy works best when it is easy to participate. The Government are engaged in voter suppression here, so why can we not have more pilots to help people on to the electoral register?
I have already said that the Government are absolutely committed to wanting to have as many people as possible registered to vote. I have focused on that relentlessly through the two occasions on which I have held this ministerial post with responsibility for electoral regulation. We need to be able to work with a range of people to do that, and we need to use a range of tools. Yes, we are using pilots to look at ways to secure people’s votes, but that goes alongside a very large other body of work to ensure that our democracy thrives and is fit for the 21st century. I would welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support in that.
My constituency had the lowest turnout of any UK constituency at the last general election, so for me this is a question of priorities. The Government should be spending much more time and effort on driving up participation in elections, particularly in constituencies like mine that have a higher than average level of deprivation, rather than spending so much money, resource, time and effort on a relatively trifling issue. We need to focus on the main issue of what the Government will do about driving up voter participation, instead of fannying around with this issue.
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s words might have spoken for themselves. I simply do not agree, nor do I think his constituents or mine would agree, that electoral fraud is trifling, or that we should not be, to use his words, “fannying around” trying to put a crime right. I am sorry; I think he let himself down with his choice of language. The point underneath it is equally poor. We ought to be able to focus on tackling crime. Voters would expect us to do that. Electoral fraud is a crime, and we are focusing on tackling it. That is to the good of our democracy.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was touching on an argument about costs and the choice of expenditure in an electoral system. We would be foolish to try to put a price on democracy. We would be foolish to try to isolate the cost of one measure to protect our overall system compared to any other. I say to him, as I have said to other hon. Members, that all these things together give us a thriving democracy. I have happily committed through the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to ensuring that the costs are available for scrutiny as soon as possible, which is reassuring to all of our constituents.
The hon. Lady probably wonders why she is left to the end. I will explain very simply: she came into the Chamber after—quite a long time after—the Minister had started speaking. Strictly, I could say that the hon. Lady should not have an opportunity to put her question, but I do not believe we need to be utterly strict. I am sure she has an important question to ask, so of course she has an opportunity to ask it.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Participating in voting should be a right for everybody, and I want to ensure that disabled people do not face any barriers to voting, be that in the upcoming local elections or the potential European elections. I understand that tactile voting devices must be ordered by the deadline, which is today. Will the Minister confirm whether that deadline could be extended to ensure that all disabled people can participate in voting?
That is a really good question. To be able to honour the spirit of it properly in answering it, I will confirm to the hon. Lady in writing the precise situation about the ordering deadlines for those devices, should that apply to any potential upcoming elections. I think the House will be well aware of the situation regarding the European parliamentary elections, and I do not think the question is generally about those, but I will be happy to take up that question in more detail.
More broadly, the hon. Lady is right: disabled voters should be as welcome in our system as anyone else. That is a crucial, fundamental tenet of our democracy. I was pleased to meet her to talk through some of these issues, just as I have been keen to meet charities and civil society groups working on behalf of people with disabilities as part of our work to make elections more accessible. The tactile voting devices are but one part of that landscape, but these are vital issues that I want to get right, and I reassure the House that they have been well considered in these pilots.