Voter ID Requirements: Turnout and Enfranchisement

Cabinet Office – in the House of Commons on 23rd September 2021.

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Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential effect of proposed voter ID requirements on voter turnout in general elections.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential effect of the introduction of voter ID on levels of enfranchisement.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

Mr Speaker, I add my congratulations about Chorley. I look forward to seeing your cameo appearance on “Coronation Street”, perhaps with Speaker Pelosi.

Following his appointment, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is now responsible for this policy. As I think Kirsten Oswald knows, in Northern Ireland there has been a requirement for photographic identification at polling stations since 2003, and it operates with ease and is a proven and effective way of tackling fraud. It has improved voter confidence in Northern Ireland, and everyone who is eligible to vote will continue to have the opportunity to do so.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

According to the Electoral Reform Society, around 2.1 million people risk not being able to vote in a general election due to not having recognisable photo ID. The Government’s own data shows that significantly fewer people from black and minority ethnic communities are likely to have photo ID. Similarly, it is likely to be a disproportionate barrier for other minority and marginalised groups, including disabled people and homeless people.

The Paymaster General says his intention is to reduce voter fraud, but in 2019 there was just one conviction in the UK for voter impersonation. Does he not see that needlessly dampening participation in democratic processes by already excluded groups, and at significant cost to the taxpayer, will simply shut down the voices that we should most hear?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I am happy to offer the hon. Lady some reassurance. Ninety-eight per cent. of the electorate already own an accepted form of photographic identification, including 99% of black, Asian and minority ethnic electors and 99% of young electors aged 18 to 29. The Electoral Commission’s survey on this matter offers reassurance because the majority of the public say that a requirement to show identification when voting at polling stations would make them more confident, and 66% of people want more confidence in the security of the system. She really ought to read the 2015 Tower Hamlets election court judgment, where she will see the nature of the problem at hand.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

I strongly support what the Paymaster General has said, and I welcome the team to their positions.

When I had responsibility for these matters, I visited and spoke to the electoral officials in Northern Ireland, which has had this system for 18 years and where it works perfectly well. People in Northern Ireland are perfectly capable of using it, and I have no doubt that it will be a great success when we roll it out in the rest of the United Kingdom. Frankly, these scare stories are more likely to depress voter turnout than the introduction of voter ID.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, as usual. Any eligible voter who does not have one of the required forms of ID—and there are very few of them—would be able to apply for a free local voter card from their local authority. As he says, this has been working extremely well in Northern Ireland, which in fact has had an ID requirement since 1985—it is the photographic ID requirement it has had since 2003. So Kirsten Oswald is perpetuating scare stories here.

Photo of Andrew Bridgen Andrew Bridgen Conservative, North West Leicestershire

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we detect more than a whiff of hypocrisy from Opposition parties, which oppose voter ID but would ask their own members to show ID to attend a meeting to discuss the issue itself?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I understand that the Labour party does make those requirements, not that I have attended Labour conferences of course. May I offer the further reassurance that a wide range of countries, including most European countries, require some form of ID? Canada, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Norway do. So I have to say that the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire ought to refrain from these repeated scare tactics, which may have a deleterious effect on voter turnout.

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

European countries that do require voter ID often have national ID cards, and if that is the Government’s intention, they should be a little more straightforward about it.

My question to the Minister is specifically about the human rights aspects of this. The Elections Public Bill Committee has been warned that this policy may be in breach of human rights. It quizzed Gavin Millar QC, who said that there will

“inevitably be challenges to this as incompatible with the European convention on human rights”.––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee, 16 September 2021; c. 109, Q165.]

I draw the Minister’s attention to article 1, protocol 1. What legal advice have the Government had that makes them so sure that this policy is not in contravention of our human rights laws?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

Of course we do not discuss legal advice, but what I can say is that people also have a human right not to have their votes stolen. In 2019, the Electoral Commission found nearly 600 allegations of electoral fraud. They had to be investigated by the police, and 142 of them were related to alleged voting offences. So this is a problem, and it needs to be dealt with. This was a Government manifesto commitment and we intend to follow through.

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

My question was specifically about how this legislation is compatible with human rights laws, so may I invite the Minister to publish the legal advice his Government will have received in the Library of the House of Commons, so that all Members, especially those on the Bill Committee, which is currently sitting, can be confident that this legislation is not in breach of human rights law?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her repeated question, but she well knows that successive Governments, from both sides of the House, do not publish legal advice, and there is a good reason for that. But she can be assured that this Government are very focused on protecting the human rights of all, and that includes those who have been subject to personation, where their votes have been taken by someone else. That is also a human right that we seek to protect, and we will continue to do so.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

Some 90% of the public think that polling station voting is safe from fraud and abuse, and they are right to think that. Personation, which is the only problem the voter ID provisions of the Elections Bill are designed to address, resulted in a single conviction in 2016, 2017 and 2019, and zero convictions in 2018. Given that up to 3.5 million people may not have suitable ID and that the Government’s pilots confirmed that up to 324,000 people would be denied a vote in a Great Britain election, let me ask the simple question: why are this Government prepared to embark on voter suppression on an industrial scale?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

I am surprised by the right hon. Gentleman, because it is not just a question of convictions: attempts to commit crimes are also wrongs. We have to focus on reducing the criminality in this area. It is also about voters having confidence that they are not going to be subject to personation and confidence to go and vote because they know there is no interference in the voting system. Some 66%—two thirds and more—of those questioned said that they would like to see increased security around voting. In this day and age, that is increasingly important, and the right hon. Gentleman ought to recognise that, too.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

On the matter of confidence, the House of Commons Library has rather helpfully told us that half the public think there is inadequate regulation of political party spending and that only 14% think there is transparency around it. The Paymaster General knows perfectly well that there have been concerns about the influence of dark money in the UK electoral system for many years. Why could it be that this Government are planning to suppress the right of ordinary people to vote rather than tackle the real problem of dark money buying influence in the democratic process?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

These bold assertions have no basis in evidence or reality and have a tendency to do exactly what the right hon. Gentleman claims to seek to avoid, which is to suppress votes. He wishes to focus on a lack of regulation in respect of voting confidence. We seek—our manifesto commitment on this has been, and will continue to be, followed through on—to protect the voting system, and we do that in the same way as has happened in all the countries I have mentioned: by increasing confidence in the system.