“Schedule (Power to make regulations about registration, absent voting and other matters) contains provision, including provision amending Schedule 2 to RPA 1983, in connection with applications relating to registration, applications to vote by post or proxy, and applications for particular kinds of document.”—(Kemi Badenoch.)
This new clause, to be inserted after clause 1, introduces NS1.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government new clause 12—Purposes referred to in section 39.
New clause 1—Voting from age 16 in parliamentary elections—
“In section 1(1)(d) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (definition of voting age for parliamentary elections), for ‘18’ substitute ‘16’.”
This new clause would lower the voting age to 16 in UK parliamentary elections.
New clause 2—Permissible donors—
“(1) Section 54 (permissible donors) of PPERA is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (2)(a), after ‘register’ insert ‘at the time at which the donation is made, but not an individual so registered as an overseas elector;”.
This new clause would prevent overseas electors donating to political parties in the UK.
New clause 3—Citizens’ assembly on electoral systems—
“(1) The Secretary of State must establish a citizens’ assembly representative of the population aged 16 and over to consider electoral systems in the United Kingdom.
(2) The Secretary of State must, for each category of election reformed by section 10 (Simple majority system to be used in elections for certain offices), provide to the assembly a report assessing the effects of the reforms on the matters in subsection (3).
(3) The matters are—
(a) voter engagement and understanding,
(b) electoral integrity,
(c) fairness and proportionality.
(4) A report under subsection (2) must be provided to the assembly no later than three months after the first election in each category of election after this section comes into force.
(5) The assembly must—
(a) consider the reports under subsection (2),
(b) consider other evidence relating to the matters in subsection (3).
(6) The assembly may make recommendations for legislative or policy change, including for parliamentary elections.”
New clause 4—Automatic Voter Registration—
“(1) It is a duty of—
(a) the Secretary of State; and
(b) registration officers to take all reasonable steps to ensure that persons eligible to register to vote in elections in the United Kingdom are so registered.
(2) The Secretary of State must by regulations require public bodies to provide information to registration officers in accordance with the duty under subsection (1).
(3) Regulations under subsection (2) must apply to public bodies including but not limited to—
(b) the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency;
(c) the National Health Service;
(d) NHS Scotland;
(e) all types of state funded schools;
(f) local authorities;
(g) the Department for Work and Pensions;
(h) HM Passport Office;
(i) police forces;
(j) the TV Licensing Authority.
(4) Registration officers must—
(a) use the information provided under regulations under subsection (2) to register otherwise unregistered persons on the appropriate electoral register or registers, or
(b) if the information provided does not contain all information necessary to register a person who may be eligible, contact that person for the purpose of obtaining the required information to establish whether they are eligible to register and, if so, register them on the appropriate electoral register or registers.
(5) If a registration officer has registered a person under subsection (4), the officer must notify that person within 30 days and give that person an opportunity to correct any mistaken information.
(6) The Secretary of State may issue guidance to registration officers on fulfilling their duties under this section.
(7) Where a person is registered under subsection (4), that person shall be omitted from the edited register unless that person notifies the registration officer to the contrary.
(8) Nothing in this section affects entitlement to register to vote anonymously.”
New clause 5—Voting by convicted persons sentenced to terms of 12 months or less—
“In section 3(1A) (exceptions to the disenfranchisement of prisoners) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, after ‘Scotland’ insert ‘or a parliamentary election’.”
This new clause would allow prisoners serving a sentence of 12 months or less to vote in UK parliamentary elections.
New clause 6—Voting by qualifying foreign nationals—
“In section 1(1) (entitlement to vote in parliamentary elections) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, for paragraph (c) substitute—
‘(c) is a Commonwealth citizen, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland or a qualifying foreign national; and’”.
This new clause would allow foreign nationals who either do not need leave to remain in the UK or have been granted such leave to vote in UK parliamentary elections.
New clause 7—Voting by EU nationals—
“In section 1(1) (entitlement to vote in parliamentary elections) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, for paragraph (c) substitute—
‘(c) is a Commonwealth citizen, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland or a relevant citizen of the Union; and’”.
This new clause would allow EU citizens to vote in UK parliamentary elections.
New clause 8—Fines for electoral offences—
“(1) The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums (Civil Sanctions) Order 2010 is amended as follows.
(2) In Schedule 1, paragraph 5, leave out ‘£20,000’ and insert ‘£500,000, or 5% of the total spend by the organisation or individual being penalised in the election to which the offence relates, whichever is greater’.”
This new clause would allow the Electoral Commission to impose increased fines for electoral offences.
New clause 9—Permissible donors to be based in the United Kingdom and associated offences—
“(1) Section 54 of PPERA (permissible donors) is amended in accordance with subsections (2) to (5).
(2) At the end of subsection (2)(a), insert ‘ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom, and domiciled in the United Kingdom for purposes of individual taxation.’
(3) After subsection (2)(b)(ii) insert—
‘(iii) employing a majority of its staff at locations within the United Kingdom, and
(iv) employing at least five staff within the United Kingdom’.
(4) At the end of subsection (2)(f), insert ‘has a majority of partners who are on a UK electoral register, are ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom and are domiciled in the United Kingdom for purposes of individual taxation, employs a majority of its staff at locations within the United Kingdom, and employs at least five staff within the United Kingdom.’
(5) At the end of subsection (2)(h), insert ‘has a majority of those persons with significant control who are on a UK electoral register, are ordinarily resident in the United Kingdom and are domiciled in the United Kingdom for purposes of individual taxation, and also either employs no staff at all, or employs a majority of its staff at locations within the United Kingdom.’
(6) Section 61 of PPERA (offences concerned with evasion of restrictions on donations) is amended in accordance with subsection (7).
(7) After subsection (2) insert—
‘(3) A person commits an offence if they are a director of a company, hold a position of significant control in an unincorporated association, or are a partner in a limited liability partnership, and that company, association or partnership—
(a) is not a permissible donor and offers a donation to a political party (whether the donation is accepted or not), or
(b) commits, or otherwise causes to be committed, an act which were the body be a person, would be an offence under subsection (1) or (2).’”
This new clause makes requirements for individual and company donors to be based in the United Kingdom and makes persons running companies liable for donation restriction evasion offences committed by those companies.
New clause 10—Removal of requirement for election agent’s address to be published—
“(1) The Representation of the People Act 1983 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 67 (appointment of election agent), after subsection (6) insert—
‘(6A) Though if the candidate or the person acting on behalf of the candidate under this section provides a statement signed by the candidate that the candidate requires the address of the election agent not to be made public and instead states the relevant area within which that address is situated, the public notice under subsection (6) should state that relevant area rather than the address.
(6B) In this section, “relevant area” means—
(a) for a parliamentary election, the constituency,
(b) for an Authority election, the Assembly constituency,
(c) for any other local election, local government area, or
(d) if the address is outside the United Kingdom, the country within which it is situated.’”
This new clause would remove the requirement for public notice of the addresses of election agents (including candidates acting as their own agent) to be given at parliamentary and local elections. The area in which the address is situated could instead be given, as for candidates.
New clause 13—Proportional representation for elections to the House of Commons—
“(1) The simple majority system must not be used for any Parliamentary general election after the end of the period of six months beginning on the day on which this Act is passed.
(2) The Secretary of State must take all reasonable steps to establish a new proportional representation system of election for Members of the House of Commons that would be expected to result in seats being held by each party roughly reflecting the proportion of votes cast for candidates of that party at the preceding general election.
(3) A system is suitable for the purposes of subsection (2) if it would over the past five Parliamentary general elections have had a mean average Gallagher proportionality index of less than 10.
(4) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision (which may include provision amending any enactment) contingent on the prohibition in subsection (1).”
This new clause would abolish first past the post for UK general elections and require the Government to take all reasonable steps to introduce proportional representation.
New clause 14—Enfranchisement of certain foreign nationals at parliamentary elections—
“(1) Section 1(1) (entitlement to vote in parliamentary elections) of the Representation of the People Act 1983 is amended as follows.
(2) In paragraph (c), after ‘Ireland’ insert—
‘or a foreign national who has—
(i) the right of abode in the United Kingdom;
(ii) settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme;
(iii) indefinite leave to enter the United Kingdom; or
(iv) indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom.’”
New clause 15—Prohibition of double registration—
“In section 4 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (Entitlement to be registered as parliamentary or local government elector), after subsection (1) insert—
‘(1A) A person is only entitled to be registered at one address within the United Kingdom at any one time.’”
This new clause seeks to provide an additional check and balance against double voting in UK Parliamentary elections.
New clause 16—Restrictions on foreign and foreign-influenced donations—
“(1) PPERA is amended as follows.
(2) In section 54(1) (circumstances in which party may not accept donation), after paragraph (aa) insert—
‘(ab) the party has not been given a declaration as required by section 54C; or’.
(3) In section 54(2) (permissible donors), in paragraph (b)(ii), for ‘carries on business in the United Kingdom’ substitute—
‘satisfies the condition set out in subsection (2ZAA)’.
(4) After section 54(2ZA) insert—
‘(2ZAA) The condition referred to in subsection (2)(b)(ii) is that the company or limited liability partnership’s profits generated and taxable within the United Kingdom over the previous 12 months are greater than the value of the donation given.’
(5) After section 54B (declaration as to whether residence etc condition satisfied), insert—
‘54C Declaration as to whether profit condition is satisfied
(1) A company or limited liability partnership making to a registered party a donation in relation to which the condition set out in section 54(2ZAA) applies must give to the party a written declaration stating whether or not the company or limited liability partnership satisfies that condition.
(2) A declaration under this section must also state the company or limited liability partnership’s full name, address and registration number.
(3) A person who knowingly or recklessly makes a false declaration under this section commits an offence.
(4) The Commission may issue a notice to a person to provide accounts for the purpose of verifying whether a declaration made under this section is accurate.
(5) A person who fails to comply with a notice under subsection (4) commits an offence.
(6) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision requiring a declaration under this section to be retained for a specified period.
(7) The requirement in subsection (1) does not apply where, by reason of section 71B(1)(b), the entity by whom the donation would be made is a permissible donor in relation to the donation at the time of its receipt by the party.
(8) For the purposes of the following provisions, references in this section to receipt by a registered party should be read instead as follows—
(a) for a relevant donation controlled under Schedule 7, receipt by the regulated donee;
(b) for a relevant donation controlled under Schedule 11, receipt by the recognised third party;
(c) for a relevant donation controlled under Schedule 15, receipt by the permitted participant;
(d) for a relevant donation controlled under Schedule 2A of the Representation of the People Act 1983, receipt by the candidate or the candidate’s election agent.’
(6) After section 55 (payments etc. which are (or are not) to be treated as donations by permissible donors), insert—
‘55A Donations and national security risk
(1) The Commission may give a notice (“a call-in notice”) if the Commission reasonably suspects that a qualifying donation has given rise to or may give rise to a risk to national security in relation to electoral integrity.
(2) If the Commission decides to give a call-in notice, the notice must be given to—
(a) the person who made the donation,
(b) the party that received the donation,
(c) the Secretary of State, and
(d) such other persons as the Commission considers appropriate.
(3) When assessing whether a donation has given or may give rise to a risk to national security in relation to electoral integrity, Commission must consider the characteristics of the person who made the donation, including—
(a) their sector or sectors of commercial activity or holdings,
(b) their technological capabilities,
(c) any links to entities which may seek to undermine or threaten the interests of the United Kingdom, including the integrity of its elections,
(d) their ultimate controller, or if they can be readily exploited, (e) whether the acquirer they, or their ultimate controller, has committed, or is linked to, criminal or illicit activities that are related to national security, or activities that have given rise to or may give rise to a risk to national security.
(4) In this section, a “qualifying donation” is a donation of an amount exceeding £25,000.
(5) The Commission may, in relation to the Commission’s functions under this section, issue a notice to a person to—
(a) provide information, or
(b) attend, or
(c) give evidence as if such a notice was a notice under section 19 or 20 of the National Security and Investment Act 2021.
(6) A person who fails to comply with a notice under subsection (5) commits an offence.
(7) In this section, “assessment period” in relation to a call-in notice under this section has the same meaning as in section 23 of National Security and Investment Act 2021 in relation to a call-in notice under that Act.
(8) The Commission must, before the end of the assessment period in relation to a call-in notice—
(a) make a final order, or
(b) give a final notification to each person to whom the call-in notice was given.
(9) The Commission may, during the assessment period, make a final order if the Commission—
(a) is satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that the qualifying donation to which the call-in notice applies has given rise to or may give rise to a risk to national security in relation to electoral integrity, and
(b) reasonably considers that the provisions of the order are necessary and proportionate for the purpose of preventing, remedying or mitigating the risk.
(10) During the assessment period, the Commission may make an interim order in relation to a qualifying donation if the Commission reasonably considers that the provisions of the order are necessary and proportionate for the purpose of safeguarding electoral integrity during that period.
(11) An order under subsection (9) or (10) may—
(a) require a donation to be held unspent for a period as may be prescribed in the order,
(b) require a donation to be refused,
(c) require a donation to be returned, or
(d) prohibit the acceptance of any donation by any registered party from the person who made the donation to which the call-in notice applies, or from a prescribed person or category of person connected to that person, for a period as may be prescribed in the order.
(12) The Commission must keep each order under review and may vary or revoke it.’
(7) In section 156 (orders and regulations)—
(a) in subsection (3), before paragraph (a) insert—
‘(za) any order under section 55A;’;
(b) after subsection (4D) insert—
‘(4E) Subsection (2) does not apply to regulations under section 54C and regulations may not be made under that section unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.’
(8) In Schedule 20 (penalties), at the appropriate places insert the following entries—
|(a) ‘Section 54C (making a false declaration as to whether profit condition is satisfied or failing to provide accounts)||On summary conviction in England and Wales or Scotland: statutory maximum or 12 months|
|On summary conviction in Northern Ireland: statutory maximum or 6 months|
|On indictment: fine or 1 year’.|
|(b) ‘Section 55A(6) (failure to comply with a national security call-in notice)||On summary conviction in England and Wales or Scotland: statutory maximum or 12 months|
|On summary conviction in Northern Ireland: statutory maximum or 6 months|
|On indictment: fine or 1 year’.”|
This new clause is intended to provide safeguards against the risks of foreign influence in UK elections flagged by the Intelligence and Security Select Committee in its report on Russia, ordered to be printed on
New clause 17—Publication of candidates’ home address information—
“(1) The Representation of the People Act 1983 is amended as follows.
(2) In Schedule 1, paragraph 6(5)(b), after ‘constituency’ insert ‘, or town or village,’.”
This new clause would allow candidates who do not wish their full home address to be published the option (as an alternative to giving the constituency of their home address) of providing the town or village within which that address is situated. That information would then be published on the returning officer’s statement of persons nominated by virtue of Rule 14(3A).
New clause 18—Unincorporated associations and permissible donors—
“(1) An unincorporated association required to notify the Electoral Commission of political contributions by paragraph 1 of Schedule 19A to PPERA must make permissibility checks on donations to the unincorporated association in accordance with subsection (2).
(2) An unincorporated association must take all reasonable steps to establish whether the donor of a relevant donation is a permissible donor under section 54 of PPERA.
(3) In this section, a ‘relevant donation’ is any donation which is either intended for political purposes or might reasonably be assumed to be for political purposes.
(4) An unincorporated association must not accept a relevant donation from a person who is not a permissible donor.”
This new clause requires unincorporated associations to establish whether a person making a donation for political purposes is a permissible donor and, if not, reject that donation.
Amendment 1, page 1, line 4, leave out clause 1.
This amendment would remove the Voter ID provisions.
Amendment 126, in clause 3, page 2, line 25, leave out “dishonestly”.
This amendment probes the necessity of adding a further test of dishonesty to the defence in subsection (4) of the inserted provision 112A.
Amendment 2, in clause 8, page 11, leave out lines 20 to 31 and insert—
“(a) in paragraph (3A)(b), for ‘a device’ substitute ‘equipment’;
(b) after paragraph (3A)(b) insert—
‘(c) such equipment as it is reasonable to provide for the purposes of enabling, or making it easier for, relevant persons to vote in the manner directed by rule 37.’;
(c) after paragraph (3A) insert—
‘(3B) In paragraph (3A)(c), “relevant persons” means persons who find it difficult or impossible to vote in the manner directed by rule 37 because of a disability.’”
This amendment would retain the requirement for returning officers to make specific provision at polling stations to enable voters who are blind or partially-sighted to vote without any need for assistance from the presiding officer or any companion and change the nature of that provision from “a device” to “equipment”.
Amendment 9, page 20, line 19, leave out clause 13.
Amendment 4, in clause 13, page 22, line 19, at end insert—
“(4A) The Secretary of State may not designate the statement under section 4A unless the Scottish Parliament has, before the end of the 40-day period, passed a motion of the form ‘That the Parliament approves the draft Electoral Commission strategy and policy statement so far as it relates to the Commission’s devolved Scottish functions’.”
This amendment would require the Scottish Parliament to approve an Electoral Commission strategy and policy statement so far as it relates to the Commission’s devolved Scottish functions before the strategy could have effect.
Amendment 127, page 22, line 19, at end insert—
“(4A) The Secretary of State may not designate the statement under section 4A unless Senedd Cymru has, before the end of the 40-day period, passed a motion of the form ‘That Senedd Cymru approves the draft Electoral Commission strategy and policy statement so far as it relates to the Commission’s devolved Welsh functions’.”
This amendment would require Senedd Cymru to approve an Electoral Commission strategy and policy statement so far as it relates to the Commission’s devolved Welsh functions before the strategy could have effect.
Amendment 10, page 25, line 20, leave out clause 14.
Government amendments 13 to 17.
Amendment 11, page 33, line 2, leave out clause 23.
Amendment 12, page 34, line 19, leave out clause 24,
Amendment 3, page 37, line 5, leave out clause 26.
This amendment would remove the provisions relating to joint campaigning by registered parties and third parties.
Government amendments 18 to 52.
Government new schedule 1—Power to make regulations about registration, absent voting and other matters.
Amendment 5, page 65, line 2, leave out schedule 1.
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1.
Government amendments 53 to 124.
The Government are committed to increasing participation in our democracy and empowering all those eligible to vote to do so in a secure, efficient and effective way. An important part of that is ensuring that electoral services—be they registering to vote, applying for an absent vote or applying for a voter card—are as convenient and accessible as possible. To that end, we have tabled new clause 11 and new schedule 1 to provide powers to introduce an online absent vote application service and an online voter card application service. These amendments also provide similar powers for such applications in Northern Ireland.
As it stands, it is not possible for electors to apply for an absent vote online. Electors who wish to apply for an absent vote must do so via a paper form that they must submit to their local electoral registration officer via post. New clause 11 and new schedule 1 will enable the identity of applicants using those services to be verified, as well as identity verification for paper absent vote applications, as is already the case for registration applications. That includes powers to enable real-time identity verification—that is, identity verification while an applicant is in the process of completing their application—for voter card applications, absent vote applications and registration applications.
That issue was raised in Committee by Cat Smith. The Government agreed in principle with her points and committed to considering an online service for electors to make applications for an absent vote once further work was done to understand how best to implement such a service. That commitment is being honoured here with the tabling of amendments to provide powers to introduce an online absent vote application service.
I thank the Minister for being receptive to the points that were raised in Committee about putting many more of the ways in which we engage with democracy online. I wonder if she has had time to reflect on whether the Government may have gained advantage from pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill, because it strikes me that not only did the instruction order after Second Reading bring forward parts of the Bill that were not given scrutiny by the full House, but there have also been a huge amount of Government amendments at this late stage. What reflections does she have on the ways in which she might consult the House on constitutional matters before bringing forward Bills in future?
I have nothing further to add to what we discussed in Committee. I understand the hon. Lady’s point—we want our legislation to be as rigorous and robust as possible. I hope that the open relationship that she and I had when she was shadowing me is one that I will be able to continue with her successors. That is how we will get very good legislation on the statute books.
As I was saying, that commitment is being honoured here with the tabling of amendments to provide powers to introduce an online absent vote application service. That will include a process by which the identity of absent vote applicants can be verified. The identity verification process will be made to apply to paper applications as well as to applications made online.
I thank my hon. Friend for going through the implications of new clause 11, which I very much welcome. Does it at all affect the Government’s position on the length of election campaigns, which she will be aware has been a point of debate within this Bill and the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill? Will the measure help to shorten election campaigns in the long term?
I think it is very possible that this measure will assist people in speeding up the process by which they can register, which will of course have a positive impact in terms of the length of time people have to get ready for elections. I know that my right hon. Friend has other concerns about the length of time required to conduct elections, and those matters are separate from what we are discussing today, but I am very happy to continue discussions on that with her.
New clause 11 and new schedule 1 also include powers to enable identity verification of partially completed voter card applications, making the process more efficient and minimising unnecessary delays in processing applications. I am pleased to say that these new clauses will support our aim to ensure that voter identification works for all eligible voters.
I know that the detail of voter identification remains of great interest to hon. Members. The Government have always committed to being open about our plans. I wish to use this opportunity to highlight to the House the policy statement on voter identification published on gov.uk on
Today, we are introducing a group of clarificatory amendments on voter identification that support those plans. Amendments 53 to 56 and amendments 62 to 65 will ensure that any elector who does not possess one of the wide range of photographic identification documents accepted under our proposals would be able to apply for a voter card or anonymous elector’s document when registering to vote, thus simplifying and making the system more accessible.
For electors who are registered to vote at multiple addresses, such as students, amendments 57 and 66 clarify that it will not be mandatory to make an application to each electoral registration officer with whom they are registered—only one would be needed. It is also important that voter cards and anonymous elector’s documents are designed appropriately, and amendments 61 and 70 provide some additional flexibility around how to ensure that.
With respect specifically to anonymous electors and the anonymous elector’s documents, amendments 71, 80, 83, 85 and 88 will ensure that an anonymous elector’s identity can still be verified effectively at the polling station without risk of their anonymity being compromised, and that they can be provided with an anonymous elector’s document in a convenient way.
Amendments 81 and 86 will support electoral registration officers in producing temporary versions of voter cards and anonymous elector’s documents in Great Britain, and will ensure that documents issued for use on a single day will not be valid once expired.
Following feedback in Committee, it was clear that the current draft of the Bill had created some confusion as to which concessionary travel passes would be accepted at polling stations. Amendments 82, 84 and 87 will help ensure clarity—
I appreciate the amendments that clarify what travel documents are permitted. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, on which I sit, has passed a report, and when I questioned the hon. Lady’s predecessor, it was clear that the list of documents could have been expanded to all photo ID concessionary cards, including the young person’s travel card, which requires a photo in all documentation. However, the Government chose to ignore young person passes and only include the older person passes in the main. May I ask why the Minister has done that? Her predecessor did say that she would think again about it. Why have they not done so on this issue?
I did look into this issue, and the reason why we have not accepted it is that the process for getting travel concessionary passes for older voters is more rigorous and robust than that for young people. The new robust checks that we would have at the threshold for voter ID are met by the older voters’ concessionary passes but not by the young voters’ passes. That is why this is the case.
Rather than outlining a list, why does the Minister not take the approach of outlining the thresholds that her Department think are required for an ID to be valid? The travel companies might then wish to meet that threshold. In that way, everyone will know what the Minister is talking about, rather than her just producing a random list and then dismissing the other passes.
That is a good question. It is something that we discussed in Committee and we decided that the best way to do that would be through secondary legislation. We did debate what the thresholds were, but this is something that can be resolved when further detail comes out in secondary legislation. I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman’s comments at that stage.
As I was saying, amendments 82, 84 and 87 will help ensure clarity to both electors and polling station staff as to which forms of identification will be accepted. In line with other registration decisions, amendment 74 introduces an appeal process against the refusal of an application for a voter card or absent vote.
Finally, on this group of Government amendments, amendments 49 to 50, 76 to 79, 89, 90, 92, 93, 96, 105 and 108 seek to provide the chief electoral officer of Northern Ireland with the ability to provide confidential lists of dates of birth to polling stations at all elections in Northern Ireland, which will facilitate the implementation of existing provisions.
Before the Minister moves on, I just wonder whether she, since taking up her post, has had a chance to meet the Association of Electoral Administrators, which has raised the concern that it is already quite difficult to recruit volunteers to staff polling stations. Its concern is that being asked to check these forms of ID will be a disincentive for volunteers to come forward because of the potential conflict between a voter whose ID is not valid and the volunteer who is staffing the polling station. Has she discussed that with the Association of Electoral Administrators, and if so, how did that conversation go?
Yes, I have had a meeting with AEA representatives and we talked about a range of issues. I cannot remember the discussions verbatim and to the letter, but these are matters that we are taking into consideration throughout.
A Government’s role should be to try to encourage more and more people into the democratic process. The introduction of photo ID cards, in my view, will do exactly the opposite. Can the Minister explain to the House how the introduction of photo ID cards will increase participation, particularly for the elderly and those in vulnerable communities?
We have tested this measure in extensive pilots. Most people have photographic ID, and those who do not will be provided with voter ID free of charge. It is important that we protect the franchise. This regulation has not been updated since 1872. We have debated it extensively—perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not present when we discussed it—and we are confident that it will not have an impact on voting.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and shows that we have carried out thorough investigations into the impact. I am pleased that pilots such as the one in Swindon have been able to prove the Government’s case.
Turning to the Government amendments on franchise measures, there are two technical amendments to schedule 7 for the EU citizen voting and candidacy provisions. Amendment 116 seeks to apply provisions in the Bill to amend the voting and candidacy rights of European citizens to the relevant elections in the City of London, which are governed by a unique legislative frame- work. It was therefore necessary to conduct additional investigations and engagement in order to finalise the provisions for inclusion in the Bill. The effect of the amendment is to bring City of London ward elections into line with those of the rest of England.
The Government themselves say time and again that EU citizens make such a contribution to the UK. Does the Minister agree that it seems a cynical move that EU citizens with settled status will now be disenfranchised?
We had multiple discussions on EU citizenship when we debated Brexit legislation. These are technical amendments to City of London voting rights, and some relate to the business franchise as well, so the hon. Lady’s remarks are not relevant to this piece of legislation.
Amendment 117 is a minor technical amendment that corrects an oversight in the drafting and makes no changes to the effect or scope of the Bill. It reinserts a cross-reference to the definition of “qualifying Commonwealth citizen” in section 79 of the Local Government Act 1972. This will prevent any ambiguity and will ensure a common understanding of the term in this instance.
The technical amendments to the digital imprints provisions will ensure that the new regime clearly delivers the policy intent. On new clause 12 and related consequential amendments, it was always the policy intention for the enforcement of digital imprints to broadly mirror the enforcement of the print regime. Since introduction, we have identified that, although certain types of material were already included in the provisions for unpaid material, it was not sufficiently clear that they were captured in the provisions for paid-for materials and, as drafted, would not fall to be enforced by the Electoral Commission.
The amendments will ensure that the enforcement responsibilities of the police and the Electoral Commission can be correctly assigned and are consistent across all material. That will enable the commission, in practice, to enforce material about registered parties and referendums, as well as material about categories of candidates, future candidates and holders of elected office. That is broadly in line with the existing split of responsibilities between the enforcement authorities in the print regime. There may be a degree of overlap between material about categories of candidates, future candidates and holders of elected office, and material that is about more than one particular candidate, future candidate or holder of elected office. In these instances, it is for the authorities to establish, based on the particular facts, where the enforcement responsibility lies.
These amendments will make the provisions easier for campaigners to understand and for the authorities to enforce, while delivering a regime that provides transparency for voters across a wide range of campaigning material. The amendments will also clarify that no electronic campaigning material, be it paid or unpaid, needs to make express mention of the candidate, party, future candidate, elected office holder or outcome of the referendum it relates to in order to be in scope of the regime. By clarifying that, the amendments will remove any uncertainty.
The remaining Government amendments to the digital imprints clauses are, again, small technical clarifications. Amendment 20 amends the definitions of candidates, future candidates and elected office holders so as to include those of municipal elections in the City of London, ensuring that a consistent approach is applied to the transparency of unpaid electronic and printed campaign material.
Amendment 25 simply clarifies that the imprint rules will apply only to unpaid material wholly or mainly related to referendums when published during the referendum period. That ensures that the regime takes a proportionate approach, providing transparency around material when it is most likely to be shared and therefore influence the outcome of a referendum.
Finally, I will turn to the last set of amendments relating to the measures in the Bill on the Electoral Commission. Amendments 13 to 15 seek to future-proof the appointment mechanism of Ministers to the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. As currently drafted, clause 15 enables a Minister of the Crown with responsibilities for the constitution appointed by the Prime Minister to deputise for the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, following the Transfer of Functions (Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) Order 2021. Several transfer of functions orders have been needed over recent years to ensure appropriate Government membership of the Speaker’s committee. It is an unnecessarily burdensome process that could be avoided by future-proofing these provisions against future machinery of government changes or changes in ministerial responsibilities.
Does this slew of technical amendments relating to machinery of government changes reflect the increasingly kleptocratic and nepotistic nature of this Government? Subject portfolios are handed to Ministers largely on the basis of who they are, rather than on the good functioning of government. Can the Minister give us an example of any other Government anywhere in the world under which elections and the constitution are managed by the same Department as housing policy?
I think the hon. Gentleman may be confused as to the reasons why we are making this change. We have had several transfer of functions orders to ensure that we minimise disruption due to the wording around the membership of the Speaker’s committee.
We propose to amend clause 15 so that the Minister of the Crown appointed to exercise concurrent membership of the Speaker’s committee with the Secretary of State does not have to have specific responsibilities in relation to the constitution, or any other portfolio, in order to be appointable. These amendments will not amend the overall Government membership of the committee because, as is currently the case, the Secretary of State and the Minister would not be able to attend committee meetings jointly and deputisation would not be available to the other Government member of the Speaker’s committee.
Additionally, amendments have been tabled to update the Bill to reflect the recent machinery of government change. On
It is a pleasure to speak for the Opposition in these proceedings. I am taking on this role partway through matters, but fortunately I stand on the shoulders of outstanding colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend Cat Smith, who did a tremendous job and will no doubt continue to do so. Having read the Official Report of the Committee stage, I suspect that the Minister is rather relieved to face off with me rather than my hon. Friend—although she is in her place, so perhaps it is a two-for-one proposition.
Although the personnel may have changed, the fundamentals have not. This is a bad Bill. It is full of solutions in search of problems. Rather than opening up our democracy to greater participation, it will do the opposite, all the while further weakening our democracy to dodgy finance. It is conventional to call it Trumpian, but it is not even that. It is the sort of partial nonsense that can be seen in US statehouses: partisan leaders who just cannot help themselves, gerrymandering and seeking to tilt election outcomes by putting their thumb on the scale. Do not take my word for it, Minister; the Government should have heeded the calls from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in its excellent report, when it said that the Bill ought to be paused.
The Government say that they are pursuing five goals for our democracy through the Bill—making it secure, fair, modern, inclusive and transparent—and they have failed to deliver that, so we have tabled new clauses and amendments to improve it. Amendments 1 and 5 would remove from the Bill the voter identification provisions, which are said to protect our democracy by requiring people to have photographic identification in order to vote, so as to prevent personation. In 2019, 59 million votes were cast and there was a single conviction for voter personation. Someone is more likely to have been struck by lightning three times than to have voted after a phony voter.
I confess that I had hoped the hon. Gentleman would ask me that. I have been a Labour party branch secretary, branch chair, constituency secretary, constituency chair, councillor, Member of Parliament and shadow Minister, and I have never once been asked for voter ID at a meeting. That has only ever happened in cases where certain Labour parties were in special measures and it was seen as a proportionate protection. It is proportion that we are talking about.
The hon. Gentleman said in a previous contribution that there is enthusiasm in Swindon for the measure to tackle that one solitary aspect of personation. In fact, if we were to replicate the findings of the pilots he relies on across the country, 184,000 people who wanted to vote would be turned away and would not return. That makes it 184,000 to one; this is racking up faster than Downing Street parties. The Cabinet Office itself says that that approach will exclude 2% of the electorate without the right form of ID, but according to the Electoral Commission the actual figure of those without the right ID will be between 1 million and 3.5 million.
In addition, the people excluded will not be evenly spread and that goes to the heart of the Government’s problems with inclusivity in the Bill. Some 77% of people in the UK hold a full driving licence, whereas the figure for black people is 53% and the one for Asian people is 61%. Similarly, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the poorest are six times more likely than the best-off to miss out under these proposals—the measure is not inclusive.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the Bill also includes provisions for totally free and suitable photographic ID for anyone who needs it, so the poor are protected?
The hon. Gentleman reads my mind, because I was about to turn to that issue. I was going to say that the Government will now instead rely on a voter card. First, putting hurdles in the way will take people out and reduce turnout. That alone is a bad thing, but, again, the effect will not be evenly distributed; it will be harder for those in rural communities, who have further to travel, to make good. Indeed, what about those who live with a disability and all the extra burdens in their lives—why on earth would we give them another one, not least when we are not really solving a problem?
The Association of Electoral Administrators has raised serious concerns about the huge burden on overstretched local authorities, which will be supposed to deal with photo ID cards alongside the burden of registering significant numbers of new or overseas electors—I will reference them shortly—ordinary registrations and renewed postal voters. We know that that that burden peaks at the same time, approximately six weeks before an election, because, funnily enough, people work in those cycles.
Governments ought to bring people together, and the Government have succeeded with these provisions, as they have united civil society. They have united academia and cross-party Select Committees against them. Why will the Government not listen? If they want that secure, fair, modern, inclusive and transparent Bill, they should accept the amendments. Should they not do so, we will know what they really want from the Bill.
My hon. Friend is making excellent progress. One point made by Government Members is that people could apply for ID. Even where non-photographic ID was used in the trials and given to everyone, about 1% of people were turned away just because they had forgotten to take it from their house to the polling station. Now in a number of our seats 1% is a margin of error that would have changed the course of an election, and in tight years it could change the course of who is in government. Does he think it is right that the measures could change the course of who governs this country?
I want the course of elections to be changed by people—by those eligible to vote. Although some of the seats in this place come down to very fine margins, across virtually every council area there are hyper-marginal seats, and indeed hyper-marginal councils, that will swing on this measure. As I have said, the Bill seeks to tackle something that has yet to be proved to be a problem.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech thus far. He has talked about the need for photographic ID. The Equality and Human Rights Commission made it clear that the groups that would be affected included people from different ethnic minority backgrounds, older people and, more important, disabled people. The Bill is doing more to disenfranchise disabled people by depriving them of accessibility.
My hon. Friend knows that of which she speaks. In this place she is a leading campaigner on such issues, and that is exactly what the campaign groups and the representative groups are saying. The only people who do not seem to understand that point are the Government.
Let me now turn to inclusivity. Our amendment 2 seeks to retain the current requirement for returning officers to make specific provision at polling stations to enable voters who live with blindness or partial-sightedness to vote without any need for assistance from the presiding officer or any companion, and to change the nature of that provision from “a device” to “equipment”. As it stands, the Bill could have the dangerous consequence of removing the fundamental principle that electoral staff must enable voters to vote
“without any need for assistance”.
Although we recognise and support the broader duty in the Bill to enable all people living with disabilities to vote, it is wrong not to carry over the previous requirement to enable people to vote
“without any need for assistance”.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that measure will create a postcode lottery for people who are partially sighted or blind, because it will depend on which returning officer will decide what equipment will be provided?
That is an excellent point. The question of who provides the requisite equipment and who does not will differ greatly between authorities. I cannot believe that that is the Government’s intention, and I hope that in her closing speech the Minister will clarify how the problem is to be resolved.
Let me now deal with new clause 1. If the Government were truly serious about improving democratic engagement and modernising democracy, they would extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds who live in this country. Much has already been said on the subject, but I want to add a significant element to the debate. The greatest risk to our democracy, and to democracies globally, is apathy. If people stop valuing it, they will care less when they see it eroded. The best way to build a culture of participation is to start early. We already expect to remain connected to 16 and 17-year-olds through education, employment or training. We should be using that time to teach and develop an interest in citizenship—in our rights and responsibilities. The right to vote is an anchor in that regard. Let us use the time that we have with those young people to talk about voting—about their local councils, and about national Government.
One issue that I discuss regularly with my constituents, especially young voters, is their wish to participate in our democracy, and when I visit schools, colleges and sixth forms up and down the country, that issue arises time and again. Does my hon. Friend feel that this is a missed opportunity for the Government to include those young people in our democratic process?
I share my hon. Friend’s view. What I hear during my visits is very much in line what she is hearing. We know that 16 and 17-year-olds, when given the chance, take it very seriously. In Scotland and Wales, they have higher rates of turnout than 18 to 24-year-olds, with 75% voting and 97% saying that they would vote in future elections. They have also accessed more information from a wider variety of sources than any other age group. They have taken it seriously, and we ought to take them seriously.
I am interested to know the hon. Gentleman’s perspective, from a Labour point of view, on Labour Live in 2018. When people signed up for a ticket it said: “All under-18s need to be accompanied by an adult or guardian at Labour Live. That means all youth and child tickets must be bought alongside an adult full price ticket and ID will be checked at the festival gate.” I would be grateful—[Interruption.]
Order. What is all this shouting? The hon. Gentleman will make his point and the Opposition spokesman will undoubtedly be able to answer it without shouting from the background.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hoped that we were going to talk about his new clause, but instead, as he knows as well as I do, he is creating a false equivalence between a licensed event and going to vote in a polling station, where, as yet, I have not been offered a pint at the ballot box. Maybe that will be in the next elections Bill.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I will always take an intervention from him, so should he wish he will find me in listening mode.
With regard to voter participation among 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland, another reason we have such a healthy turnout is that all the elections in which they participate are conducted on a proportional basis. There are amendments tonight that would extend that to elections to this House. Will the hon. Gentleman be supporting them?
I have significant issues with new clause 13, as drafted, which simply asks to introduce a proportional system. For something as seismic as that, there ought to be greater detail about what is being proposed. I am also a strong believer—this speaks to new clause 5 in the name of Brendan O’Hara—in the desirability of a citizens convention on our democracy that would look at voting systems but also look a lot more widely. This is a good moment and a good mechanism to reboot our democracy.
On new clause 14, in my name, and new clause 10, having left the European Union, we need new, easy-to-understand arrangements that are fair. People who live in this country ought to have a say in how it is run and the services that affect their lives. It is odd that the Bill does not do more for them, and indeed does more for those who do not live here than those who do. The provisions we seek to implement would address that, and I hope they are looked on favourably.
Turning to new clauses 2 and 9, the Bill creates another odd paradox. It opens the floodgates for a potentially large influx of foreign-based money into our democracy, but at the same time makes it harder for civil society organisations, charities and trade unions to have their say, despite the massive contribution to British life that they make. What is fair or transparent about that?
Labour Members are on record as thinking that 15 years is a reasonable and proportionate amount of time for someone to retain a vote after leaving the UK and for the arrangements to ensure that they can to remain practical. We fear that the Government have created a system vulnerable to overseas interference. It allows a person to call up any and every local authority to say that they were resident in the area 30 or 40 years ago, provide flimsy proof—it will not be photo identification, that is for sure—and then be able to donate massive sums of money. I would hope to hear from the Minister that that is not the intention, but nevertheless there is a chance to make good on it. New clause 2 would simply prevent anyone registered as such an overseas elector from donating to political parties in the UK, while new clause 9 would require individual and company donors to be based in the UK while making those in charge of companies liable for any offences caused. We also have new clause 16 tabled by my right hon. Friend Liam Byrne. So if the Minister really does not want to see that weakness in our democracy, she has a real menu to choose from and she will find us very supportive, because these are proportionate safeguards.
Research from The Times shows that the Conservative party was able, through existing methods, to accept about £1 million from UK citizens living in tax havens ahead of the 2017 general election. The Bill takes away the barriers that kept it at £1 million. The strength of feeling on the issue is shown by the variety of other new clauses—2, 8, 16 and 18—that cover that subject. As the Government seek to ensure that those in tax havens have a stronger voice, they are seeking at the same time to undermine the ability of civil society organisations, charities and trade unions to engage in our democracy. Amendment 3 would remove those provisions.
As currently drafted, the provisions mean that, where a political party is campaigning jointly with one of those organisations, or where those organisations are campaigning together, the total cost of the campaign has to be declared by all participating parties. Making co-campaigners count the same money multiple times simply makes no sense. Why would the same £20,000 spent by one entity also count for the other—unless, of course, we wanted them to do less campaigning?
Do not take this just from me; the Electoral Commission believes that the provisions could make it harder for some campaigners to understand and be confident in following the new law, and could deter or restrict campaigning efforts, leading to less information reaching the electorate and from a narrower range of sources. When I say it like that, it suddenly does not seem at all surprising that the Government are seeking this, because that is what they want and that is what the Bill states.
Wealthy donors who have not lived in the UK for decades will find it easier to contribute. Charities working every day in this country will find it harder. That is because the Government want to silence those who are critical of their record on poverty, child hunger, low pay, climate and the dozens of other issues on which they have failed for 11 years. Our amendment will reverse that and I encourage colleagues to support it. Similarly, we will support amendments 11 and 12, which delete parts of this provision.
I will finish with just a couple of points on the Government’s amendments. Politicians changing their minds is a good thing—we do not see enough of it. We would all be in stronger positions if we recognised that sometimes we get things wrong or that our views change over time. However, the sheer volume of changes and changed directions in the Bill is a sign of how half-baked it started. It is a sign, as the PACAC report stated, that there ought to have been proper pre-legislative scrutiny. There should have been a proper attempt to build consensus across Parliament and civil society.
Instead, we are left in this absurd situation in which, between Second Reading and Report—and indeed, between Committee sittings—the Government shoved in the use of first past the post for mayoral elections. That is bad government and bad leadership, and it is symptomatic of a bad Bill. I hope that the Minister will at least make good on the commitments sought in that report for proper post-legislative scrutiny, because much will have to be put together after this.
I am conscious that time is short and that lots of colleagues wish to contribute, so I shall conclude. This is a bad Bill. The solutions in it are looking for problems to solve. It will make it harder for citizens to vote; it will make it harder for civil society to contribute. The only winners here are those with the deepest pockets. Once again, we see that this is a Government with the wrong priorities, whose every action, at every stage, lays bare dishonesty. We should pass those new clauses and amendments.
This debate is about important changes to one of the pillars of our democracy: the way we run free and fair elections. May I commend my hon. Friend the Minister for her diligent work listening to the debate and deliberations, and for making the changes that she has put before us?
I will speak in particular to Government new clause 11 and new schedule 1. In September, in the earlier stages of the Bill, the then Minister, my hon. Friend Chloe Smith, stressed the importance of an elections system that works for voters. Making that system work for voters is where I will focus my remarks.
New clause 11 is linked to absent voting and a power to make regulations, and it paves the way for new schedule 1. New schedule 1 includes verification evidence needed to register, but also, importantly, the opportunity to introduce online absent-voting application services. I think that is a really important step forward because those provisions potentially give us an opportunity to absolutely make the system better for voters, particularly those who are absent, who in the past have had to take many days, or even weeks, to make an application to vote. This system of online applications could well improve things significantly.
Because it will enable people to be part of the system, to register online and to have confidence in what is going on in our election process.
I want to probe the Minister on the length of election campaigns, which have, I believe—this is to the hon. Gentleman’s point—not served us well in helping to engage people in the election process. Many hon. Members who took part in debates on the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill made the point about the continual lengthening of our election campaigns being not a benign act, but an act that has potential consequences—consequences we are not that aware of. Emerging research suggests that longer election campaigns are potentially disengaging for electors. They mean that the interest of electors wanes over time—perhaps all of us who have knocked on doors have seen that over the last two decades, when election campaigns have increased significantly in length.
Will new schedule 1 and new clause 11, tabled by the Government, provide some sense of opportunity that at least the length of election campaigns will not increase? The former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North, spoke about her understanding of the importance of potentially shortening election campaigns as well. Hon. Members will remember that in law at the moment election campaigns are currently 25 working days, and amendments that I and my hon. Friends tabled the last time these matters were discussed in this place considered shortening campaigns to 25 days.
Will the Minister update the House on the undertaking to consider research into the length of election campaigns, in conjunction with new clause 11 and new schedule 1? That could provide an opportunity for us to understand better how election campaigns affect voter participation, and how the length of campaigns may be shortened in a realistic and sensible way as a result of her new provisions. Will she help the House to understand how she will take that forward to ensure that our democratic process is as strong as it can be? The lack of consideration about the length of campaigns should be something that is of the past, and the issue should be central to the thoughts of the Government in the future.
Before addressing the new clauses, I wish to put on record my sincere thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North and the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who, day after day in Committee, went through the Bill forensically and exposed the fundamental threat to our democracy that is contained in almost every line of it. From restricting the franchise through the introduction of voter ID cards, to giving the Government power to set the strategy and policy of the Electoral Commission, abolishing a progressive, proportional voting system, and constraining how whole sections of civil society are allowed to campaign, this Bill has it all.
This Bill, which—let’s be honest—would not be out of place in the hands of Viktor Orbán or Jair Bolsonaro, should not be seen in isolation and has to be viewed in the wider context, as it includes plans to criminalise peaceful protest and to allow the Home Secretary to strip someone of British citizenship with the stroke of a pen. It places onerous legal constraints on journalists and whistleblowers. Ministers will be allowed to ignore legal rulings made under judicial review and there are plans to abolish the Human Rights Act. It was Peter Geoghegan, writing in openDemocracy just before Christmas, who said:
“This is what democracy dying…looks like. And we need to act now before it’s too late.”
That is why we opposed the Bill on Second Reading, why we sought to amend it radically in Committee, and why, unless Government Members wake up to what they are about to do and fundamentally amend the Bill today, we will oppose it this evening as well.
We in the SNP fully support new clause 1, which would simply bring the age at which people can vote in Westminster elections into line with what already happens in Scotland and in Wales. The SNP has advocated this for a long time—indeed, the legendary Winnie Ewing, when she made her maiden speech from these Benches 55 years ago during a debate on lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, said:
“There are moral and intellectual reasons why it is good sense to make people responsible at the age of 18 if not sooner… I am absolutely on the side of youth.”—[Official Report,
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the future of this country would look entirely different, particularly when it comes to the climate emergency, if we lowered the voting age?
The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point, which I will address specifically as I continue my speech.
What is different now from 1967 is that, with two nations of the United Kingdom already having this provision in place, new clause 1 does not ask the UK Government to take a step into the unknown. We can see how well it is working in Scotland and Wales, where the change has been both seamless and uncontroversial. Any concerns that we might have had about 16 and 17-year-olds not being interested in politics or being unable to understand the issues have been shown to be without any foundation.
I once met Winnie Ewing when I was at school and she came to talk to a politics class I was attending. However, on the new clause, I rise to ask what is the rationale for choosing the age of 16, when people are not considered to be responsible enough to decide whether to buy cigarettes, rather than some other age—say, 15 or 14?
I think the hon. Gentleman is confusing private rights and public rights. There are public health issues around the consumption of alcohol and the purchase of cigarettes. These are exactly the same debates as we had in 1967, when there were fears about taking a step into the unknown. What is different now, as I said, is that it is not a step into the unknown. It has been proven to work. Why should young people in England and Northern Ireland have different rights from those in Wales and Scotland?
When we had our referendum in 2014, 90% of 16 and 17-year-olds registered to vote and 75% of them turned out to vote on the day. As the hon. Member for Nottingham North said, studies showed that young people had investigated the issues and had multiple sources of information, and many were far better acquainted with the issues than were their parents or grandparents. To go back to the point made by Wera Hobhouse, if we look at the age of the people leading the fight against climate change and the demonstrators at COP26, we see that overwhelmingly they were young people making their voices heard above everybody else’s. That tells us all we need to know.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. It was a pleasure to serve on the Bill Committee with him. He and his colleague Patrick Grady did as much as to scrutinise every line of the Bill as I and my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson did.
The hon. Gentleman talks about extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. Much of the case made for the Bill has been about making our democracy more secure. One of the ways we can make our democracy more secure is by encouraging more people to participate in it. The more people are voting, the harder it is to swing an election unfairly. That is what we heard in the evidence given to the Bill Committee. Does he agree, therefore, that extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, who will go on to develop a far stronger commitment to voting, will actually strengthen our democracy against foreign interference in British politics?
The hon. Lady is absolutely spot-on. As she says, we heard from many witnesses who said that the wider the franchise and the more the people who vote, the less there can be untoward interference.
Why are the UK Government so opposed to giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote? Unfortunately, the Minister for Levelling Up Communities is no longer in her place. In Committee, I hoped to find out why she thought it was okay for Scotland and Wales, but not for England and Northern Ireland. Her reply to me was:
“There is no need for me to rehash the arguments. I ask him to ask his parliamentary researcher to research Hansard.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee,
That was a Minister’s response on this very issue in Committee, and I am sorry she is no longer in her place to correct it.
It does not have to be this way. One way the Government could gauge public opinion without the rancour and animosity that we sometimes see here would be to embrace the idea of citizens’ assemblies, as we propose in new clause 3. I think it is fair to say, and I defy anyone to say otherwise, that we do not have a monopoly on wisdom in this place. There are people outside this Chamber who have good ideas and whose approach to complex decision making we could find useful and helpful.
Bringing together a group of citizens who are representative of the country and allowing them to explore ideas on electoral reform would add value to our deliberations in this place. Again, it would not be a step into the unknown because citizens’ assemblies have been shown to work in Scotland. Many democracies around the world use them, most notably Ireland where, during the complicated and sensitive nationwide discussion on reforming the abortion law, they were shown to be enormously successful. Of course citizens’ assemblies cannot change the law, as that is left to this place and other Parliaments, but they can put interesting challenges and ideas before us and give us a genuine sense of what people want and what are their priorities.
We have heard so often that maximising participation is vital for a healthy democracy, and new clause 4 would ensure that all eligible voters automatically appear on the electoral register. Automatic voter registration is not complicated or costly, and it is not particularly administratively challenging. For example, young people could automatically go on to the electoral register when they receive their national insurance number. That is commonplace around the world, and there are a variety of models for the Government to look to for guidance. It would get more people on to the register and it would lead to a higher turnout, greater participation and hopefully, as we have heard, a sense of civic responsibility, particularly among young people and groups that have felt marginalised or on the periphery of society.
Of course there are few groups more marginalised and on the periphery than those in prison. New clause 5 would bring UK election law into line with that of Scotland, where a person sentenced to a term of 12 months or less does not lose their right to participate in elections. In May’s Holyrood election, for the first time prisoners serving such sentences were eligible to vote. The Electoral Commission has shown that a very small number exercised that right but, nevertheless, we believe that cutting people off from society while serving prison sentences of less than 12 months is utterly counterproductive and totally unhelpful to their rehabilitation. New clause 5 would also bring the UK into line with the European Court of Human Rights, which has declared that a blanket ban on prisoners’ voting is a breach of protocol 1, article 3 of the European convention on human rights.
New clauses 6 and 7 would extend the franchise to all non-UK nationals with leave to remain and all EU nationals domiciled in the UK, which is particularly important. In May 2021, when the SNP won an unprecedented fourth term, it was on the largest and widest franchise ever in a Scottish parliamentary election. That was no accident because, having already added 16 and 17-year-olds and EU nationals, in 2020 the Scottish Parliament further extended the franchise to include all foreign nationals with leave to remain, including refugees. It was done because Scotland wants to be an open, welcoming country that recognises the enormous contribution that EU nationals and others have made to our country by choosing to call it home. We wanted to say it loudly and clearly that they are valued, that they are welcome and that we view them as an important part of our future.
Are these new clauses not a challenge to Members from other parties, particularly Scottish Conservative MPs? If they believe in the strength of the Union and in sharing experience across these islands, these new clauses would bring the Westminster franchise into line with the Scottish franchise. If these new clauses were pressed to a Division, I would hope the Scottish Conservatives, wherever they might be, would support them.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am sure that Conservative Members for Welsh constituencies must be having a similar dilemma. If this is good enough for Scotland and Wales, why is it not good enough for the rest of the United Kingdom?
We want to say to EU nationals and those with the right to remain that, as an integral part of Scotland’s future, they should have a stake in and a responsibility for how we are governed. That is why Scotland has a thriving, healthy, robust democracy. It is telling that, while Scotland and Wales do everything they can to extend this franchise, those on the Government Benches do the exact opposite.
I will turn now to the last of our new clauses, new clause 8. In Committee, Conservative Members regaled us with tales of widespread personation, voter intimidation, postal fraud and the harvesting of votes—indeed, all manner of fraud, theft and deception—yet when they were asked to give the Electoral Commission the power to tackle those abuses and impose a meaningful fine on those found guilty, they refused to do so. Imposing a paltry £20,000 fine has been shown to be no deterrent whatsoever. It is viewed by the worst offenders almost as a cost of doing business. We believe that our proposal for a maximum fine of £500,000 or 5% of an organisation’s or individual’s total spend will give the commission far greater power to act as a genuine deterrent to lawbreakers.
As I said at the beginning, these are incredibly dangerous days for our democracy, and this Elections Bill is just the start of a process that, if passed, will take democracy into a very dark place from which it will be difficult for it to return. This is not happening by accident. The architects of this plan understand exactly where it will lead. Just last month, Elizabeth David-Barrett, the professor of governance and integrity at the University of Sussex, used the phrase “state capture” to describe what is happening. She described state capture as
“a type of systematic corruption where narrow interest groups take control of the institutions and processes that make public policy, buying influence not just to disregard the rules but also to rewrite the rules.”
That is where we are currently. It is extremely dangerous, but it can be successful only if there is a compliant legislature and a widespread public attitude that it could never happen here. But it is happening here, and it is happening here right now.
The parliamentary arithmetic means that only Conservative Members can stop this plan in its tracks, and tonight they have a decision to make. As the soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister heads for the exit door, are they really going to acquiesce meekly and allow his final act to be the fatal undermining of our democracy? Are they really content to have history record them as having been party to one of the biggest betrayals of our democracy, and to have done it at the behest of a man whose days are numbered and who will almost certainly go down in history as the worst and most self-serving Prime Minister this country has ever had? That is complete madness. I ask Conservative Members, please, to think long and hard before backing this dreadful Bill; the Prime Minister is on the way out the door, but they should not let him take their reputations with him as he goes.
It will be obvious that a great many people wish to speak and that we do not have very long. We have to finish this stage of the Bill at 9 o’clock, so I shall immediately impose a time limit of five minutes.
I cannot promise to be as succinct as I was in my last speech before you, Madam Deputy Speaker, which clocked in at a loquacious 10 words, but I will do my best.
I rise to support the Bill having been on the Committee; I am confident that we have before us a sensible and necessary package of measures to ensure the continued robustness of our electoral system. Before speaking to the general merits of the Bill, I would like to speak to some of the new clauses and amendments selected for discussion. With a Bill of this size and complexity, Members will have a range of views on these issues, but I am quite disappointed to see that some of the things we voted down in Committee have found their way back for a second go.
I will start with some of the measures proposed by the Scottish National party. As a member of the Electoral Reform Society, I have to say that I have a small amount of sympathy with new clause 3, but I do not think its proposals belong in this Bill. However, I will cheerfully have a conversation with Brendan O’Hara if he wants to bring them forward another time.
Although I understand the motivations behind new clause 4, I cannot be the only one to have baulked at the long list of organisations required to provide our personal data to the state. On the whole, registering to vote should be positive affirmation of someone’s intention. Simply adding everyone to the list will not increase participation and make people exercise their franchise. It will just be more names on a list.
New clause 5, I am afraid to say, is completely beyond the pale. When we deprive somebody of their liberty as a result of their criminal acts, we deprive them of their most fundamental freedoms, including the right to exercise their franchise.
New clauses 6 and 7 and, by extension, new clause 14, are opportunistic and completely unprecedented. No EU state allows British citizens to vote in its parliamentary elections. That we should extend the franchise to EU members when, even as a member of the European Union, we could not, is completely and utterly inconceivable. The UK already has one of the widest franchises in the world, allowing Commonwealth and Irish citizens to participate in our general elections. If someone is that committed to participating in our democracy but they cannot because of their nationality, they are more than welcome to apply for citizenship.
As I mentioned earlier in respect of new clause 3, I have some sympathy with the provisions of new clause 13 in the name of Mr Carmichael, but something of that magnitude should be done not as an amendment to a Bill but as a separate debate.
I am concerned by new clause 15, because I disagree not with the general intention but with its prescriptive nature. There are any number of legitimate reasons why somebody might want to be registered in more than one area, but I accept the principle that we must do more to tackle multiple voting.
I particularly like new clause 17. I represent a borough named after its principal town—I see Tony Lloyd in his place. I represent two towns in that borough that have no particular affinity for the main town and have a strong sense of their own identity; in fact, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency there will be areas such as Littleborough and Wardle that would like to be identified as such rather than as Rochdale. I have some sympathy with the idea of allowing people to describe more accurately on the ballot paper where they live. If we are not going forward with the new clause tonight, I would be pleased to see it come back at a later date.
As someone who was responsible for bringing in the original provision that people could just say the constituency where they live, the only word of caution I suggest is that we do not want to get into a competing war between candidates about who was more or less precise about where they live. It is really a security matter.
I completely understand my right hon. Friend’s point. There could be a ridiculous situation of “I live at No. 1 Acacia Drive” and, “I live at No. 3 Acacia Drive”. As I understand it, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will not press the new clause to a vote, but I would still welcome a discussion on how we could make that work.
In the interests of time, I will move on to new clauses 2, 8, 16 and 18. I was going to make a brief comment on them, but given recent revelations in the press, I might say that they are the height of hypocrisy, especially new clause 16. The Bill will make it legal for overseas voters to participate in polls. It is perfectly reasonable for them to be able to contribute to a party or candidate of their choosing. The Opposition like to kid themselves that all overseas voters are fat cats and tax exiles sunning themselves on the costas, but many are ordinary people who have worked hard, saved and decided to enjoy their retirement overseas. Allowing them to donate would not particularly favour one party over another. I am quite sure Labour Members would do quite well out of the villas of Tuscany.
It is entirely possible that hon. Members had Barry Gardiner in mind when they drafted the new clauses, but perhaps it would be easier just to send him on a training course. The deliberate conflation of foreign interests with ordinary British citizens wanting to contribute to an election in which they are legally entitled to participate is wearing in the extreme. Notwithstanding that, I welcome the comments of the Home Secretary at the Dispatch Box earlier; I have no doubt she will work constructively with all parties to tackle the thorny issue of interference in our democratic system.
The Bill is necessary and timely. Whether or not we acknowledge it, our elections have been open to abuse in the past. If they are entirely honest, activists and politicians across the spectrum will have seen some questionable events.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise the evidence base from Northern Ireland? The introduction of voter ID in 2002 has proven instrumental in an increase in voter turnout, reassuring people that a proper process was being followed and that the likelihood of fraud was minimised. Voter ID is quite simple: it is to confirm that people are who they say they are. It worked in Northern Ireland, and it can work here.
I absolutely agree. In my own borough, a senior Labour councillor who was a member of council cabinet at the time accepted a caution for voting twice—he was able to do so. We hear this repeated refrain from Labour Members that this is a rare instance and that it hardly ever happens, but I shall pose the same questions that I posed in Committee: what is an acceptable level of fraud? How many votes is it okay for somebody to steal? Surely one instance of fraud is too many.
There is something quite telling and quite worrying about just how strenuously some Members oppose the Bill. We are not asking people to go to any great lengths or take on huge expense. ID will be freely available to people with one of the many qualifying documents. I looked in my wallet before I took my place in the Chamber. I have at least two permissible forms that I habitually carry with me, as do the vast majority of people. It is already the case that most people take their polling card to the polling booth, because they think they have to give it to the teller to prove who they are.
We should be keen to show the world how secure our democracy is and, as part of that, how all our citizens are able to participate, which is why I also strongly support removing the prohibition on overseas voters who have lived outside the UK for more than 15 years. The rights and responsibilities of British citizenship should not be arbitrarily time limited based on a person’s address. By passing the Bill, we are bringing our elections in line with those in countries such as France and Canada, which we would want to be compared with as modern, mature democracies.
I am proud of the work that we have done as a Government to ensure the legitimacy and integrity of our elections process, and I look forward to voting for the Bill later this evening.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to take part in this important debate. Let me say briefly at the outset that the fact that the House has less than two and a half hours in which to debate such a Bill on Report is nothing short of an outrage. When the Government brought forward their motion of instruction, they should have recognised at that stage that they had turned this into a constitutional Bill, and the Committee stage, never mind the Report stage, should have been on the Floor of the House. This is an unacceptable and contemptible way for the Government to be treating Parliament.
I rise to speak to new clause 13, which stands in my name, and the names of my hon. and right hon. Friends, and a number of others, including Members of the Labour party, the Green party and the Alliance party. I would very much like to test the opinion of the House in relation to this new clause.
We have seen just this weekend, with the Government’s announcements in relation to the BBC, the dangers and just what is possible when we have an electoral system that puts total power into the hands of a party on a minority vote at a general election. These are the arguments that we often rehearse in relation to proportional representation. I will not rehearse them tonight because time is short, but I want to talk a little bit about what proportional representation would mean for Parliament and for this House and how it could lead to a restoration of the standing of the House in public life.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I think you know how I feel about being a Member here. It has been the privilege of my life to be a Member of Parliament and to have the opportunity to do things for my community and for the individuals who live there. To have a role at the heart of the nation’s politics is the greatest privilege that any of us can hope for.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am sympathetic to electoral reform. He makes the point about being privileged to represent his constituency, as indeed I am and all of us in this House are. I wonder whether he can reassure me on one concern. I would like to support his new clause this evening, but it breaks the constituency link, or at least an element of local representation, as part of a more proportional system. Can he reassure me that if I were to vote for his new clause this evening, some level of local representation would be maintained?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. I can assure him that, if anything, the link would be strengthened. I live in a local authority ward that is elected by single transferable vote. I elect four councillors. Each of them has a link to the constituents and, between them, they are able to represent the views of just about everybody in their community, not just those who have voted for them and those who agree with them. In that way, using the single transferable vote, the link between the elected and the elector is, in fact, strengthened.
I was just saying that it has been the privilege of my life to be a Member of Parliament, but, believe me, I am by no means blind to the multiple faults of this House. It would not take an awful lot to make it so much better. We have heard an awful lot of talk in the last week or two about cultures, and about the culture at the heart of this Government in No. 10 Downing Street, but let us also accept that the culture of Parliament has to change.
Time and again over the years, the culture of deference and entitlement has led us into difficulty, as in 2009 with the scandal over MPs’ expenses. I thought that perhaps we would have learned our lesson after that, but last year, with the Owen Paterson affair and all the stories about MPs with second, third and fourth jobs—and the amount of time they gave to them and the amount of money they earned—it became perfectly apparent that the sense of entitlement continues. Unless we can change that sense of entitlement—the culture in this House—we will not change the standing in which we are held by the public.
Why do we find ourselves in this situation? Why do we keep coming back to this place, time and again, where we become our own worst enemies? I can answer that question in two words: safe seats. The existence of areas where parties can depend on the return of a Member of Parliament with a majority of tens of thousands without making any real effort creates that sense of entitlement.
Someone offering themselves for re-election should never be a formality, but for many people elected to this House it is exactly that. Follow the money and look at the expenses returns: in marginal seats the expenses are right up to the limit, and in the so-called safe seats the party makes the smallest possible expenditure. We talk about having a national election, but in truth we campaign only in an ever-reducing base of marginal constituencies.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. For a long time people have complained that our country and our political culture are divided and polarised. Does he agree that a proportional system would go a long way towards bringing people together and stopping divisive politics?
I believe it could do. I think we have to be careful not to oversell it, because the electoral system is only part of the story. The principles of those who are elected and their willingness to adhere to those principles when they are here also matter. In referendums in 2014 in Scotland and in 2016 in relation to the departure from the European Union, however, everybody suddenly realised that their vote mattered and that it did make a difference to take part. As a consequence, turnout went through the roof.
The standing of this House in the eyes of our fellow citizens has never been lower. It is now urgent that we address that. We will not address it just through changes to standards, privileges and Committees in this place; we have to change the way in which we are sent here by the electors. We must have a system that gets rid of safe seats so that everybody’s vote, no matter where they live, is of equal value. That is why, Madam Deputy Speaker, I very much hope that you might allow me the chance to test the opinion of the House on new clause 13. It matters to us all and it is now urgent.
I welcome some of what the Government have announced today, particularly the safeguards around postal voting. I could not agree more with Jim Shannon, who already indicated that the Labour party was in office when voter ID checks were introduced in Northern Ireland, and there we have not seen the impact that the Opposition are suggesting.
I start by opposing new clause 1. For me, the question is about who is actually doing the voting and who is making the decision. I just sat on a private Member’s Bill Committee on increasing the age at which people can get married from 16 to 18 in England. Who is making that decision? The argument was made, and basically accepted by the Opposition, that 16 and 17-year-olds are not making it themselves. That is quite an important point. Also, why are we not talking about 13, 14 or 15-year-olds? I cannot understand why 16 is being particularly aimed for, especially when other things—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members wish to intervene, they can stand up.
We have already made big changes over the past few years to raise thresholds to 18, including for cigarettes, as my hon. Friend Jerome Mayhew mentioned, and for active service overseas in the armed forces. I think that with 18 we have hit a new level that we agree on, so I do not understand why we would want to open that up again.
If the 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds who voted in the Scottish independence referendum did not make their own choice, who voted for them? If the research that says that they looked for and discovered the facts and made their own choice is not true, who does the hon. Member think voted for them?
The hon. Member raises a very important point. A far higher proportion voted in that group than in the 18-to-24 age group. I ask again: will he not reflect on who was actually influencing those people voting?
Wait a second—the hon. Member can intervene again if he wishes. I know that he and the Scottish National party do not want to raise the age of marriage to 18; the Scottish Executive have not made it clear so far, but I think they should. Article 1 in part 1 of the UN convention on the rights of the child says that a child is a child until 18 years of age, so I do not understand why the SNP is still backing child marriage.
Does the hon. Member not recognise that the same treaty says that under-18s should have a say in the future of their life and have democratic participation in the countries they live in?
With respect to the Liberal Democrats’ new clause 13, the single transferable vote system is not a proportional vote system, as Mr Carmichael knows; it is a preferential vote system, so he is arguing in this Chamber for something different from his new clause. That is a particularly important point, because it relates to safe seats.
Let me give an example. Just under 31% of people voted Conservative in 1997, and 43% voted Conservative in 2019. If we look at how those seats have changed between the 1992 Parliament and this Parliament, we can see that there are far fewer safe seats than under either a proportional system or a preferential system. There have been no studies to show that real preferential systems would make seats less safe. In fact, they could even reinforce them and make them even safer. Much more thought is needed before we engage in anything that the right hon. Member is proposing.
I know that my hon. Friend Dr Evans will speak in support of his new clause 17. I support the new clause, which I think is a very sensible move. I hope that it can be looked at, either now or at a later stage. My hon. Friend Chris Clarkson spoke better than I can about new clause 5, as did my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller about new clause 11 and new schedule 11.
I want to speak briefly to new clause 15, which stands in my name. It is a probing amendment, but I really want those on the Government Front Bench to think about ensuring that people can be registered only in one area. It is unacceptable that if someone is wealthy enough to own multiple properties, they can be registered in different places and can potentially vote in multiple local elections. I think that they should have to choose where to vote in local elections and where their primary residence is. That would also have huge benefits for the tax system, because we would know where someone’s primary residence was and they could not flip-flop around.
I do not think that owning or renting more property should mean having multiple votes. It is just not defensible that people should be able to vote in more than one place in the same year, at the same time, in the same elections. Why should some people be able to vote more than others? It just does not sit right with me that I could potentially vote hundreds of times if I had hundreds of properties across the country.
New clause 15 is a probing amendment, because we need to look at the issue of double voting. It is not acceptable that people should be able to do it, so I really think we need to look at ways of properly clamping down on it. I am glad to have had the support of so many Conservative colleagues in tabling the new clause. I will not press it today, but I hope that in her comments the Minister will reflect on my suggestions.
Over 180 years ago, starting in Blaenau Gwent, thousands of Chartists marched on Newport. From across south Wales, they demanded reforms to elections so that common people could have their voices heard in Parliament. Since then, elections in our country have got more transparent, fair and open, but I am worried about voter suppression, and at stake is the very integrity of our elections.
We all know what is going on in America. Despite the highest election turnout in 120 years, the big lie has been amplified that Trump actually won in 2020. Since then, ordinary Americans are facing higher hurdles to vote in too many states. Raising the bar to lower voter turnout is what the Republican right is up to, and similar tactics here trouble me.
I am particularly concerned about the introduction of voter ID, so I am supporting amendment 1 tonight. Asking for voter ID seems reasonable: someone shows who they are to get a ballot paper. However, it is an old cynical trick: insert an administrative hurdle, dress it up as improving security, watch voter turnout go down—job done, the fix is in. Of course, voter fraud should be stopped, but impersonation is hardly an issue in the UK, and our independent Electoral Commission says the same.
The hon. Member makes the point that if we put an administrative hurdle, by which he means photographic ID, in the way of the voters the turnout would go down, but that specifically is not the evidence we have seen from Northern Ireland, where the Labour Government put in the requirement for photo ID, and it has been widely accepted and is a general part of voting there.
On that point, the evidential base that Jerome Mayhew referred to is very clear. There has been success in Northern Ireland and voting turnout has increased, but the statistics also show that 98% of voters already have sufficient ID in place for voting, and we are almost there. All we need is for the other 2% to be done, and Northern Ireland will achieve that goal of having everybody with an ID. If we can do it in Northern Ireland, honestly, we could do it here as well.
I will answer those remarks in my contribution.
I sat on the Bill Committee, and I heard a High Court judge tell us that voter ID was not the solution. He said, and this is a judge who has done many electoral law cases, that asking for
“ID at polling stations, frankly, is neither here nor there.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee,
The data shows that there were just three convictions for personations since 2016. The proposals really are a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
I am going to carry on.
We heard about terrible cases of fraud in Tower Hamlets, Peterborough and Birmingham, and of course they must be addressed. The key is for the Electoral Commission and the police to receive the resources needed to enforce our laws, because they do not have them at the moment. Again, the Government’s main witness felt there should be a hit squad at the Electoral Commission. That would make far better use of the millions that voter ID will cost.
We know that about 2 million people do not have the right ID, many of whom are from our most marginalised groups—older people, disabled people, minorities. The nub is that making it harder to gain their ballot paper means that fewer people vote. Reducing turnout undermines confidence in our elections and sows the seeds of doubt in our democracy. I am proud that British democracy was championed from Blaenau Gwent, but the Bill sets backwards the Chartist cause from nearly two centuries ago. I urge all Members who value our democracy to support amendment 1.
I am delighted to speak in this debate. The first thing I should say is in response to the Scottish National party Front Bencher, Brendan O'Hara: the betrayal would be not passing the Bill. I refer everyone who is concerned about it to my speech in the first Adjournment debate of this Parliament, where I set out in 15 minutes—I will not be able to shoehorn it into this speech—what has been happening in Wycombe. The idea that personation is not a problem certainly does not accord with my experience in Wycombe. [Interruption.] I am grateful that I have been asked how many have been prosecuted, as that is precisely the problem: it is not being prosecuted.
In that speech, which I hope Members will read, I set out time and again the problems we face, with offences not being prosecuted, sometimes even when we present the evidence meticulously. I will not refer to a court case in detail, but I am pleased that a prosecution is in progress before the courts and I say only that I hope it reaches a speedy conclusion. Once it is concluded, I may have more to say about it—it relates to postal votes. Some Members are kidding themselves, and if their elections are in the kind of condition that they say they are, I very much wish that Wycombe reflected their experience. However, I have to say that elections in Wycombe in some quarters need cleaning up, so I welcome the Bill.
I particularly want to speak to new clauses 15 and 1, amendment 1 and new schedule 1. New clause 15 was tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Holden, who is not in his place. I am grateful that it is a probing amendment, because it might be a problem if people could not register twice in two different council elections, but I am grateful he has put that point on the record, because there is more the Government could do on the integrity of the electoral roll. As I said in my Adjournment debate, at the last election I saw a WhatsApp message from someone I could name saying, “Right, I have voted in Birmingham. I am now coming to vote against Baker in Wycombe.” You could not make it up: an open admission of a fraud—[Interruption.] Indeed, we put these things forward.
I support the basis of new clause 15. In practice, the electoral roll does not always correctly list voters who are entitled to vote at a particular address, as the entry can often be out of date or we might find that an elector has registered fraudulently. If people are incorrectly listed on the register, that increases the potential for criminality, especially through absent voting. Not all EU nationals are correctly identified with a “G” marker, and we do know that foreign nationals sometimes vote in UK general elections, although they may not know that they are not entitled to do so.
On new clause 1 and 18-year-olds, I am clear that many of the 16 and 17-year-olds I meet in my constituency are thoroughly politically engaged and ready to vote, but we have to take a decision about when somebody is an adult. We heard some of the examples given in the debate. I would far rather we converged consistently on the age of 18, rather than talking about 16 and 17-year-olds.
I said in an intervention earlier, which Alex Norris kindly acknowledged, that it is far more dangerous to vote Labour than to have a pint, and I would certainly stand by that, although I would be grateful for the opportunity to buy him a pint to discuss it. Amendment 1, from the Opposition Front Bench team, deals with removing the voter ID provisions, and I have touched on that already. We have already heard from Members that people will be able to get their ID, but some of the accounts of personation in Wycombe that I have heard are so egregious and yet somehow the officers on duty in polling stations have not felt able to report it and stop it. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to do much more to equip officers in polling stations to do their duty to uphold the law and make sure that personation is prosecuted. I would certainly be grateful if every instance of it was brought before the courts.
Finally, on new schedule 1, which is about making regulations on registration, absent voting and other matters, of course I support the Government, but I say as briefly as I can that they could have gone further. In the limited time available I simply say two things. The first is that voters need explicit information about their rights in election law, so that when they vote postally at home they know what constitutes an offence that infringes their rights. The other issue is that when a person wishes to challenge an entry on the electoral roll, although it is important that an accused person knows who is accusing them, let us make sure that that name emerges late in the process of a charge, so that we do not deter people from making inquiries.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Baker. My hon. Friend Alex Norris did a fabulous job of setting out our opposition to the Bill. I also thank my hon. Friend Cat Smith for all her work and for her discussions on electoral reform—that is a private joke between us.
Election law is complex. That is why there is a big book on it called “Schofield’s Election Law”, as anyone who has worked in local government will know. The Bill adds to that complexity. The Electoral Reform society said that it has been rushed through Parliament without any formal consultation or any pre-legislative scrutiny, and two Committees of the House have said that the Government have not provided enough evidence for the changes.
I will touch on three points, the first of which is voter ID. Since when in a democratic society do we need a certificate to say we are eligible to vote? Does the Minister in this Chamber, where women had to watch from behind a grille and then had to fight to get a vote, believe that we should return to something similar? That is happening despite the continuing hurt of the Windrush generation having to prove they live here after their parents contributed to this country. That is happening despite the evidence that during the Government’s trial people were turned away from voting in numbers larger than some hon. Members’ majorities.
The second point is interfering with the Electoral Commission, an independent body. The provisions of part 3 of the Bill are not consistent with the Electoral Commission operating as an independent regulator. Why should Ministers issue operational guidance over how the commission fulfils its functions? What is the mischief the Government are trying to stop? The Electoral Commission is responsible for and acts on everyone’s behalf, not just that of the main political parties. It is the guardian and custodian of free and fair elections. A report from the cross-party Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee made it clear that the Government did not provide evidence to justify why the measures that interfere with the Electorate Commission are necessary and proportionate. I hope that the Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru do not approve the strategy that this Government are trying to put through without considering it carefully. Our fellow citizens must have confidence in the system. Why should an independent regulator need guidance on what it should have regard to when carrying out enforcement work?
The third issue is the regulation of expenditure. It is right that the electorate can see who is spending money, but the Bill does not allow transparency. It penalises smaller organisations for joint campaigning. It penalises the Labour party, Her Majesty’s official Opposition, for having affiliated organisations. Will the Minister confirm whether third parties such as Operation Black Vote, which is non-party political and just asks people to vote, will be caught up in the Bill? Easing the regulations for overseas voters, saying to them, “You can vote and you can donate,” while someone living here must have voter ID, is bizarre and illogical. Someone can bid at a fundraiser to win a tennis match with a Minister but not get caught by this legislation, and yet a joint campaign on people’s rights at work becomes illegal.
Finally, the Bill adds to the complexity rather than making things more transparent. There is no confidence in any legislation passed by this Government because they have lost the authority to tell us what to do when they do not do it themselves. If the Government care about the democratic process, the Bill should be paused. Anyone who cares about democracy should vote against it.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak and to inform Alex Norris about my amendment; he will have been waiting with bated breath because he did not get to address it in his speech. My amendment about the publication of a candidate’s home address is short and sweet. Simply, after constituency, I suggest we insert “or town or village”.
When all of us stood as candidates, we faced the choice of what to put on the ballot paper. Do we simply put the constituency but then have the problem, if we live just outside it, of being perceived as residing in an area that we do not represent? Or do we disclose our full address on the ballot paper for all to see and to remain on some websites for evermore? We know that that puts off candidates. We know that it makes everyone think twice. Unfortunately, we have seen in recent times what this can do, with the sad and most harrowing death of one of our colleagues, Sir David Amess. Safety is really important, so I tabled the amendment with a simple idea. Rather than having someone’s full address or the constituency in which they live, there might be a halfway house that allows candidates to show that they have identity in the area while at the same time preserving their safety.
I am hugely grateful for the cross-party support I have gained in the short period of time since I tabled the amendment. More than 40 signatories, many of whom are in this Chamber, have agreed to support it. Many have already spoken to say that they feel it is the right thing to do. It is a probing amendment, because I concede that there could be some legal wrangling about the definition of a village or a town, but fundamentally it seems that in no other job would someone put their address out there for all to see, especially with the high level of tension we see in our politics and our society these days. Why should it be incumbent on candidates to do so, especially if it disenfranchises people wanting to take the opportunity to stand for their community?
A boundary review is coming. Let’s face it: the public do not know very well what a constituency boundary means. I can demonstrate that perfectly in my constituency. Just on the bottom corner is Atherstone. While not in my constituency, everyone locally knows exactly where it is. Although it is thought of as part of where I represent in Bosworth, Leicestershire, were I to live there, my address would come up as North Warwickshire. That creates confusion when it comes to the people we are trying to represent. I simply urge the Government to consider the amendment, to bring something forward and to find a set of words that could easily allow us all to have that choice of representing in safety.
I rise to speak to new clause 16, in my name and that of Members from four of the parties represented here in Westminster. We tabled the new clause because the Bill has many flaws, but among the worst is the lack of any attempt to clean up the laundromat of British politics, which is now awash with dark money from dubious sources. We cannot in good conscience now pretend we are unaware. The Government can no longer plead ignorance or innocence: they are either careless or culpable and we in this House cannot tolerate the situation for a moment longer. That is why the amendments we are moving are so important.
Our Pandora amendments are simple. They would insist that party donations must come from profits made here in the UK, and they would establish a new regime that would allow the Electoral Commission to call in donations for an assessment on national security grounds. As it happens, the Government have just introduced precisely that regime for investments in critical national infrastructure. What infrastructure in this country could be more important than the essence of our democracy itself? We have heard warnings from Chatham House, the Intelligence and Security Committee and from Lord Evans this weekend that our system of party funding is now wide open.
We have heard and debated in this House the example of Mr Banks, Leave.EU and the mysterious source of his gigantic loans from Rock Services—or was it Rock Holdings? Thanks to evidence given to Carole Cadwalladr and the heroic reporting of The Guardian, we know that there are all kinds of interesting and no doubt innocent connections, such as the fact that Mr Banks’s wife, Katya Banks, was given entry into the country on a passport serially numbered to a passport given to someone who MI5 reported as a Russian spy. That is no doubt completely innocent, but the fact is that, when the National Crime Agency dropped its investigation into the source of the money, it left the source of the money shrouded in mystery. The Electoral Commission was so alarmed that it issued a warning that it could open the floodgates to donations from offshore.
Let me underline why the national security assessment is important to those on the Opposition Benches, but should be of importance to the Conservative party, too. Let us take another honourable donor, Mr Mohamed Amersi, a man who together with his partner has given nearly £800,000 to good causes and who, it would seem, might qualify for a walk-on part in John le Carré’s “The Night Manager”, but not as Jonathan Pine.
Information I have seen from well-placed sources in the Kremlin shows that Mr Amersi is an associate and business partner of people with all sorts of friends, including some with close connections to the SVR and FSB. They include Yuri Lopatinsky, Ernst Stauffer, and Aleksandr Barunin, with whom Mr Amersi worked on several telecom deals, including the takeover of Megafon, the firm later accused by the Georgians of
“illegal business operations and participation in the military and economic annexation of Georgia”.
Mr Amersi made a fortune helping to sell PeterStar to a Luxembourg-based company, which—surprise, surprise—turned out to controlled by Leonid Rieman, who was none other than President Putin’s former telecoms Minister. Coincidence? You be the judge, Mr Deputy Speaker.
My right hon. Friend has made some excellent points. The chair of the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation, Mick Whelan, has said that trade union money is the cleanest money in British politics, and, listening to my right hon. Friend’s speech, I think I can agree with him. Given that the Bill will make that more difficult, do we not begin to see a pattern forming?
My hon. Friend is right and he will horrified to hear that there is more.
Perhaps the most concerning of Mr Amersi’s connections is Leonard Bogdan, a man with very interesting friends in the FSB and the SVR. Mr Bogdan was a minor partner in Tempbank, which held Soviet Union Communist party assets and then specialised in covert foreign transfers. The bank was associated with several Syrian citizens supplying arms to Syria and Iran and was sanctioned by the US Treasury in 2014. But Tempbank also helped to facilitate another sanctioned firm, Hudsotrade, which dealt with Russian arms and ammunition suppliers. Sources inside the Russian Government say that Mr Amersi was involved in these deals, providing finance from Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates, along with private clients from Syria and Iran, to help exports into the middle east. Mr Amersi, it is said, dealt directly with Hudsotrade and two of the shareholders, who were later sanctioned.
Despite those connections, however, correspondence that I have seen shows that Mr Amersi was asked to chair COMENA—Conservative Friends of Middle East and North Africa—a new political interface between the Conservative party and the middle east established
“on the authorisation of CCHQ”.
Mr Amersi says that he had a half-hour chat with officials from the Conservative party before writing his cheques, but on the basis of the evidence to which I have drawn attention today, I think we would all benefit from the Electoral Commission’s being empowered to call in donations for a national security audit. We have allowed this regime for donations and investments in critical national infrastructure; we now need to bring in that regime to clean up the laundromat of British political funding.
Time does not allow me to highlight further coincidences—
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The point is that I can raise questions here that warrant further investigation—questions about, for example, Lubov Chernukhin, the model of generosity who has given the Conservatives £2.1 million, £1.9 million of it after her husband Vladimir—the same Vladimir who was appointed by Mr Putin’s deputy chairman of Vnesheconombank—received money from Suleiman Kerimov. This was a man who was later sanctioned by the United States Treasury, and not only for being a Russian Government official: he was arrested in France for smuggling in hundreds of millions of euros in suitcases.
Then there is Mr Temerko, another honourable man, who has donated £1.2 million to the Conservative party. I am told that the Prime Minister’s whiff-whaff bats are on the wall of his reception room. The only slight issue is that Mr Temerko is the man who used to operate at the very top of the Russian arms industry, with connections high up in the Kremlin—but, of course, Mr Temerko is an honourable man. He works with another honourable man, Mr Fedotov, who is a key shareholder in Aquind Ltd, which, The Guardian reports, has donated £700,000 to the Conservative party, along with another firm. This is, unfortunately, the same Mr Fedotov who, according to the Pandora papers, has revealed that his fortune was made through an offshore financial structure in the mid-2000s, at about the time when it was alleged to have been siphoning funds from the Russian state pipeline company Transneft. But, of course, Mr Fedotov is an honourable man.
Like my hon. Friend Chris Clarkson, I served on the Bill Committee. It was my first time on a Bill Committee on a major piece of legislation. I do not know how often there is a change in Minister, PPS and Whip during a Bill Committee, but I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister, and my hon. Friends the Members for Devizes (Danny Kruger) and for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), on getting up to speed on the Bill so quickly and taking us through the Committee.
Bill Committees can sometimes be sleepy affairs, but that one, like this debate, certainly was not. We had vigorous debates on various parts of the Bill, including the measure on voter ID, which I fully support, as it closes a vulnerability in our electoral system. We discussed a number of points surrounding voter ID, including many examples from abroad—countries such as Ireland and the Netherlands. We are now, through this Bill, introducing a form of legislation that will make us more European, in many ways, than we were. It is interesting that the Opposition parties that would have had us remain members of the European Union are so resistant to a system that is more in line with our continental friends than what we have at the moment. It will be a more secure system. I accept that there is a lot of work for Government to do in order to popularise and inform voters of these measures, and also to roll out the electoral ID card that will be introduced, but if the measures are introduced properly, there is no reason why anybody should be left out.
It is said that these are solutions in search of problems, but problems have been identified in places such as Tower Hamlets, Slough, Wycombe and Birmingham, among others, and this Bill will finally address them.
In an earlier speech, reference was made to an electoral judge suggesting that personation was neither here nor there, but does my hon. Friend recall the evidence to the Bill Committee where that electoral judge, in a judgment during the Labour Administration of 2005, said, “If you don’t look for fraud you won’t find it”, and described the Government as “having its head in the sand” on this issue?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the key problems is not only not looking for it—it is a matter of training. There is a big problem that needs to be addressed in terms of making sure that the police are aware of electoral law issues and getting them out there to go and investigate. He is completely right that a lot of this goes undetected.
I am pleased to see that the clauses on undue influence remain. I spoke on Second Reading about having to run the gauntlet of people trying to use intimidating behaviour on election day by thrusting leaflets into people’s faces. The central thrust of many of these measures is to protect the security of the ballot. I appreciate that I may be slightly testing the limits of what I am allowed to say on Report, but I have seen today an email from Scotland Yard to somebody I know who has reported an alleged breach of the secret ballot, but advice from the Electoral Commission and the local authority concerned is that the onus is on the individual who cast their vote to claim that secrecy has been breached. I would suggest that that is contrary to section 66 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which says that every returning officer, presiding officer, clerk, candidate, election agent and polling agent
“shall maintain and aid in maintaining the secrecy of” the vote. So if this legislation is to be reformed further in the other place, it should not be by removing the parts that we have introduced, but by giving some consideration as to whether the need to maintain a secret ballot is restated in primary legislation.
We have heard the argument for votes at 16, which I will not support. We have raised the age of marriage to 18, we have raised the age at which people have to be in education or training from 16 to 18, and the age at which you can smoke was raised by the Labour Government to 18. We have raised the age at which people can buy a lottery ticket from 16 to 18, I am sure with the Opposition’s support, as well as the age at which people can buy alcohol. Voting is an adult activity; it is something that adults do—if we want to encourage younger people to vote, I see no reason why we cannot introduce votes at 12. I think all the arguments advanced by Opposition Front Benchers could also apply to 12-year-olds.
I support the measures in this Bill. I look forward to its going on to Third Reading and the other place, and to seeing those measures come on to the statute book as soon as possible.
I rise to speak to my new clause 18, and I declare an interest as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on electoral campaigning transparency.
The Bill has almost nothing to say about the acute issue of secretive campaign finance filtering into British politics. The use of unincorporated associations reveals loopholes that are being used to funnel dirty and dark money into the UK electoral system. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life has warned, these groups can offer a route for foreign money to influence UK elections.
The purpose of the new clause is explicit in not placing an extra burden on the many thousands of small UAs such as sports clubs, which for various reasons want to maintain structures that have no legal existence separate from their members. Equally, I am not arguing that UAs should be banned altogether from donating to political parties; rather, the issue is about addressing the loophole that allows UAs registered with the Electoral Commission to make political donations without conducting adequate permissibility checks on their original donors.
Unincorporated associations are associations of two or more people that do not fall into any of the other categories for permissible donors; the two or more people do not necessarily need to be resident in the UK, only on the electoral roll. The Electoral Commission identified two key vulnerabilities in its submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The first was that although UAs are included in the list of permissible donors, as long as they are UK-based and carry on business or other activities in the UK, those who give money to them are not required to be permissible donors. A UA could, in fact, legitimately receive money from overseas sources and donate it to political parties. If a donation is over the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 threshold of £25,000 in a calendar year, the UA will have to disclose whatever details it knows of the name and address of the person who made the gift, but it would not be prevented from receiving and then donating that gift. Secondly, no transparency is required from UAs when they provide donations to candidates rather than to parties.
The UK Government insist that the current checks are comprehensive and offer sufficient transparency, but the entire public register of donations to UAs amounts to just half a dozen gifts. All were made to the same Conservative association, the Trevelyan Campaign Fund, with the most recent gift recorded in November 2014. That means that it is more than seven years since a donation to an unincorporated association was registered.
To provide greater confidence in the original sources of donations, the permissibility requirements for UAs need to be strengthened. As investigative journalists such as Peter Geoghegan have helped uncover, UAs can be set up with the sole purpose of siphoning money to political campaigns. Perhaps the most infamous example is the Democratic Unionist party’s £435,000 donation to Vote Leave, which was channelled via a UA, the Constitutional Research Council. It was consequently fined just £6,000—a penalty totalling little more than 1% of its donations, which could well simply be seen as the cost of doing business. We still do not know who provided that money originally.
It is clear that such punishment offers little deterrent. The Association of Conservative Clubs, which connects affiliated private clubs around the country, explicitly advises members to set up as UAs rather than limited companies. Those clubs have given well over £1 million to the Conservatives. New clause 18 would quite simply require unincorporated associations that meet the threshold for registration with the Electoral Commission to conduct checks to establish whether a person donating for political purposes is a permissible donor and, if not, to reject that donation as the Committee on Standards in Public Life has recommended. I will have to leave it there.
It is a pleasure to speak on this Bill as it continues to progress through this place. I welcome the actions that the Government are taking to make our elections fairer. Changes to the electoral process have been due for some time, and I was proud to stand on a manifesto in 2019 that promised finally to do something about the situation.
The issue of postal vote misuse is particularly important for my constituents when it comes to elections. With that in mind, I put particular focus on new clause 11 and new schedule 1, which have been put forward by the Government. The new clause gives attention to postal votes regarding how applications are made and the verifications needed to make them. As I have previously said in this place, postal voting is an undeniable problem in Keighley and Ilkley. My constituents have expressed their anger and confusion at how it is so easy for people to get away with distorting our electoral process. In fact, my constituency is deemed to be at high risk of such fraud, with one in five reports of electoral fraud coming from the West Yorkshire area. This includes cases of bribery, false statements and exerting undue influence on voters. In Keighley it is well known that postal votes are manipulated during general and local elections and other votes.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, across the country, people are concerned about postal voting? I am sure hon. Members have heard this whenever they campaign in elections. I stood in council elections in Tower Hamlets back in the mid-2000s, I stood in Preston in 2015 and I have stood in North West Durham. Wherever I have gone, I have seen concern about postal voting. I was delighted to take my constituency from a Labour Front Bencher who stood at the last election, but there is widespread concern, so these amendments are incredibly important.
The manipulation of postal votes during elections comes in several forms. The head of a household might guarantee multiple postal votes for a candidate, with other family members not even having a say in using their basic right to vote. There is also false registration, individuals being put under undue pressure to give away their postal vote and individuals being registered to vote in multiple households where it is clear they do not reside.
New clause 11 will help, but I would be grateful for further assurances from the Government that it will help to address all these problems. I feel the Government could go further by shortening the amount of time someone can vote by post before having to renew their registration and prove their identity, perhaps to one electoral cycle. New clause 11 contains flexibility, and I therefore urge the Government to explore this issue further. Likewise, further information is needed on how plans to stop political campaigners handling postal votes in public will prevent mishandling from happening behind closed doors.
New clause 15, tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Holden, is a probing amendment that I wholeheartedly support. A person should be entitled to register at only one address in the United Kingdom at any one time. I also welcome new clause 17, tabled by my hon. Friend Dr Evans. Although I appreciate it is also a probing amendment, candidates should be able to ensure their security while comforting the electorate by identifying where they reside, which is vital.
I welcome this Bill, which is definitely a step in the right direction, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister for further assurance that it will be robust enough to tackle postal vote fraud and the other issues I have outlined.
Although I do not wish to repeat in detail the excellent points made by so many colleagues, I want to put on record my unequivocal opposition to the Bill in its current form.
On the issues that this Bill does not cover, last week I tabled new clause 10 that would amend the Representation of the People Act 1983 by removing the current requirement for public notice of the address of election agents, including where candidates are acting as their own election agent. Instead, it would allow for the general area in which the address is situated to be published, and would apply to parliamentary and local elections across the UK. Why is that important? Where a candidate is a lone election agent, the law could very well lead to their home address entering the public sphere.
Politics, by its very nature, can be divisive—look at the anger that this Bill alone has triggered. When we stand for election, we know that that comes with associated risks. Sadly, it becomes essential for us to be hyper-vigilant about our personal safety. Those who are privileged enough to win a seat are afforded some support in that respect, but those who do not win do not get the same support, despite the increased profile that even standing for elections will bring in the local community in many cases.
For me, there is an even more vital consideration. Many of us do not live alone, so we are not taking a solely personal risk. If a successful candidate acted as a lone election agent and were suddenly thrust into a very bright national spotlight, their home address would be out there for anyone to find. Our families do not sign up for the personal safety risk that our jobs bring them—we do. Our husbands and wives, children and, in some cases, parents and siblings, could be at risk, too. That is not acceptable.
I hope that the Minister and the Government see the value in new clause 10 and will consider including it in the Bill. I thank Alex Norris for tabling amendment 2 to strengthen the accessibility requirements for blind and partially sighted voters.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Ballot Act 1872, which gave citizens the right to vote independently and in secret. It is absolutely essential that any new legislation does not limit that right, even unintentionally.
I am afraid that I completely disagree. I sat on the Bill Committee, which the Government rushed through with two days left. As none of the Back Benchers participated, the entire Committee collapsed. I entirely agree with Mr Carmichael: the way the Bill has been rammed through this House is a complete and utter disgrace.
We will have to agree to disagree on that because there was very lively debate in Committee.
I have made a number of interventions, so I will keep my comments short and on only two points. First, on new clause 1 and voter ID, others have spoken movingly—both in evidence to the Bill Committee and this evening—about the impact of voter fraud and the need to take reasonable steps to minimise it. The first step is voter ID, and I fully support what the Government suggest on photographic ID, but for that to be effective, the second step is to have prosecution where evidence is established that a crime has been committed. Much of the evidence that the Committee heard was frustration that the police or the Electoral Commission did not take allegations of fraud sufficiently seriously and bring them before a tribunal.
That brings me to clause 13, which deals with the Electoral Commission’s assumed power to become a prosecution body in its own right. I am very glad that the Government have taken this opportunity to re-establish the status quo, which should be that the police and the CPS are the relevant prosecuting authorities, in part because of the obvious conflict of interest. The Electoral Commission is the body that provides advice and guidance on electoral law. If it then takes off its regulatory hat and puts on its prosecuting hat, it is marking its own homework, which is a clear conflict of interest.
A wider point about the prosecution of crimes in this country, and one that was picked up by the Law Commission recently, is about a move away from what are described as “private prosecutions”, including by the Post Office—we need only mention the Horizon scandal to see why it is clearly wrong for the Post Office to be its own prosecuting authority—and, in my submission, the Care Quality Commission, which I know the Law Commission is looking at. We should move the power of prosecution and responsibility of prosecution away from those private prosecuting bodies and to the CPS and the police.
There is one message that I would like the Minister to take away and think seriously about. It is all fine and well for us to make the laws in this place, but if they are not taken seriously and investigated seriously by the police, leading to prosecutions where the evidence passes the evidential test, we are on a hiding to nothing.
In much of the evidence that came out in the evidence sessions in Committee, and in the experiences of hon. Members on both sides of the House, there was a huge degree of frustration that allegations of electoral fraud were not taken seriously by the police, who seemed embarrassed and unwilling to get into what was seemingly a political area. Instead, the police should realise that the full implementation of our electoral rules is incredibly important and that the defence of our democracy requires them to take those rules seriously.
The only other point that I have time to mention relates to new clause 17, tabled by my hon. Friend Dr Evans, and to which I was proud to put my name. It is only a probing amendment, but it is very sensible and I support the intention behind it. The personal security of electoral candidates, no matter their political colour, is all too relevant in the modern era.
We always talk about electoral participation, but we also want to encourage participation among candidates. We should take steps to remove any barrier to people saying, “Yeah, I’m going to get involved. I’m going to be a candidate.” The proposal would still demonstrate locality but would protect candidates from the Hobson’s choice of being outside the constituency, albeit by 100 yards, or having to display their full postal address. I would be grateful if the Government took away that point and thought about it. This is a strong Bill that deals with thorny and important issues head-on and I fully support it.
I begin by disagreeing with Jerome Mayhew. I do not feel that the Bill has had sufficient time to be properly scrutinised by the House. This is the first time that we have had the opportunity to discuss the legislation since the publication of the PACAC report. There are members of that Committee who have yet to speak and the time is now 8.45 pm. I flag to the Minister that if that is her approach to constitutional Bills, she will not bring the whole House with her, which is a dangerous precedent to set.
On amendment 1, which would remove the voter ID clause in the Bill, many Opposition Members have clearly set out the case. Ultimately, it comes down to what is proportionate. Obviously, cases of voter fraud should be pursued by the police and the Electoral Commission, and our police forces should have the resources to be able to pursue those people to get justice, but is the requirement to show photo ID proportionate to the scale of the crimes that are happening?
In 2019 there were only 34 allegations of impersonation, which is probably the widest way that we can look at it, which works out as 0.000058% of all the votes cast. As was pointed out by the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Alex Norris, who made such a good first appearance at the Dispatch Box on this topic, someone is more likely to be struck by lightning three times.
I flag that while Neil Coughlan is waiting to have his case heard by the Supreme Court, there is a question mark over the way in which the pilot trials were conducted. I urge the Minister to take a closer look at that case and assess whether this is the right time. The PACAC report was clear that the measures are being rushed through and that, with cases still before the courts, it is not a sound way to legislate.
If the Government want to fulfil their manifesto commitment to ensure votes for overseas electors, they can do so by decoupling the permission to donate, because that seems to be where the tension is in the House. If the Minister is seeking to bring about compromise on this important Bill, she could do that by accepting new clause 2.
On the Electoral Commission, it is right that it is accountable to us in this House. Throughout the proceedings on the Bill, Ministers have stood up and said that Ministers can make strategic statements for other bodies, but this is a body that regulates political parties, and the party of Government gets to decide the strategic direction for the Electoral Commission, which would then be challengeable in the courts.
There is nowhere else globally—I have tried to find an example—where that happens. Our democracy most closely mirrors New Zealand, Australia and Canada, whose electoral commissions are independent. It is important that the voters have confidence in an independent Electoral Commission. This Bill will throw that into doubt, and by throwing that into doubt we are throwing the confidence in our democracy into doubt.
I wish that I had longer to speak, because there is an awful lot that I would like to say about a pattern of behaviour that has been emerging over the last decade from this Conservative Government, including the introduction of individual electoral registration. We lose 2 million voters and that is the snapshot they use to propose a boundary change to reduce the number of MPs to 600. Then a general election throws up some different results and suddenly we are back up to 650 MPs. We look at the Owen Paterson affair, which involved changing the rules to protect their mates. Democracy in this country is a precious thing. It is under threat globally.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this Bill is not really about updating electoral law? It is about driving a bulldozer through the electoral processes of this country, demolishing our democracy, disenfranchising 6 million trade unionists, disenfranchising charities and vulnerable people, and moving them away from voting in this country, rather than towards democratic process.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. This should have been a Bill to solidify and make our electoral laws more simple and straightforward, but it actually adds an extra layer of complexity.
Criminalising political protest through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, removing the 15-year rule, which opens our democracy to foreign money, and gagging unions and charities from campaigning in elections while making it easier for foreign money to flood our political systems demonstrate a pattern of behaviour from this Government that is undermining democracy in this country.
I believe that the Minister is a good person, and that the previous Minister is a good person. When the previous Minister gave evidence to PACAC, she made it clear that she would not give political direction to the Electoral Commission, but she was not the Minister forever, and the Minister who sits here today will not be the Minister forever. The Conservatives will not be in government forever. We need to ensure that when we in this House legislate, we prepare for the worst-case scenario. If a fascist or far-right party got control, and we had set up structures that allowed it to ride roughshod over our democracy, could we honestly say that we had done a good job? I do not think so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Cat Smith on the work she has done, and also my hon. Friend Alex Norris on his eloquent presentation. I serve on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and we have urged the House to pause the Bill and not go forward. I too am offended by the limited amount of time that we have been given this evening. The reason we said that is that with constitutional changes such as these, we need to build confidence. The way to do that in the parliamentary process is to have a draft Bill, a Joint Committee and adequate debate before bringing the legislation back here. We took evidence from a whole range of people, and we found no one who supported the Bill being developed at this pace. Helen Mountfield QC said that we risked the allegation that this was being done for political advantage. I regret that.
I want to deal briefly with the voter ID issue. Personation was the issue that was presented to us, but we found limited evidence of that. Also, the pilots were limited. We had one big pilot, though, and it was in Northern Ireland, where 2.3% of the electorate dropped out. If we extrapolate that to our electorate here, that would mean over 1 million people dropping out. Who would that be, most of all? It would be elderly and disabled people, those in residential homes, and members of the BAME and LGBTQ communities.
The reality is that this Bill is being pushed through. Unfortunately, I believe that it is part of a process of voter suppression and that the Conservatives are learning lessons from America. What I fear most of all is the interference in the Electoral Commission, because that presages the Government coming back with more that will undermine our democracy. I believe that would be a stain on this House.
With the leave of the House, I would like to address some of the points that were raised during the debate. I am afraid that I will not be able to speak to all the amendments. I have to say that I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the Opposition remain unable to see the necessity of this simple and proportionate protection for the integrity of our ballot. The fact is that voter ID is supported by the Electoral Commission. It is backed by international election observers who have repeatedly called for the introduction, saying that its absence is a security risk. It is long-established in liberal democracies across the world and is already in place in Northern Ireland.
The Opposition have suggested that specific groups, such as young people or ethnic minorities, would automatically be unwilling or unable to access the freely available voter card. These suggestions are based solely on assumptions about implementation—assumptions that are incorrect and harmful. I will be unambiguous in setting this out. Anyone who is eligible to vote will continue to have the opportunity to do so. The voter identification policy proposals have been informed by a significant amount of research. I reject the points made by John McDonnell. That is not the research that has been carried out by the Cabinet Office, which is quite robust. A significant amount of work has been done with civil society organisations and other key stakeholders.
I thank my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller for her point about the length of election campaigns. She will know that I have looked into this issue, but I am afraid that I have not been able to find the perfect solution for her within the Bill. I acknowledge many of the points that she has made about lengthy campaigns, but I draw her attention to the argument made by the Association of Electoral Administrators in its written evidence to the Joint Committee about the risk of disenfranchising potential electors were the period to be shortened.
I shall also respond to some of the questions from Valerie Vaz on joint campaigning. The measures are simply intended to strengthen the principle of spending limits already in law. They protect the level playing field by ensuring that groups cannot unfairly expand their spending limits when they are conducting a joint campaign. It is logical to extend this principle to political parties and third-party campaigners who work together. All registered political parties and third-party campaigners will be able to continue to campaign as they do now, but they will have to account for any spending that is part of a joint campaign in which they are involved. She also asked specifically about groups such as Operation Black Vote, which is simply campaigning to encourage people to vote. It will not be caught by those new rules as it would not qualify as regulated election campaign expenditure.
There were several issues raised by hon. Members on candidates’ home addresses. I have noted the concerns that my hon. Friend Dr Evans raised about the current provisions. However, any further amendments in this space, although they may seem straightforward at first sight, would entail challenges for consistency in the rules that need to apply equally across differing areas of the country and that require careful and comprehensive consideration. The drafting of the proposed amendment, if accepted, would work well for candidates in rural areas, but it may lead to a less consistent approach for those in cities or remote locations. However, I am grateful that he says this is a probing amendment. I will ask my officials to explore these important issues and remain open to further conversations about how we can improve the current system.
I turn now to new clause 15, tabled by my hon. Friend Mr Holden, which deals with dual registration. I thank him very much for the points that he raised. He is right that voting twice in an election to the same body is a violation of the principle of one person, one vote. It is an offence that already carries a considerable penalty. I share the desire to take action to reduce the risk of this happening, but I do not think that the new clause would achieve that aim. It would be costly and impractical to implement at this time. I am sympathetic to the broad intention of the new clause, which is in line with the Government’s commitment to strengthening security and reducing the opportunity for fraud. This is also similar to new clause 10, tabled by Margaret Ferrier. I understand the points that she raised. We do not think that the amendment is appropriate, for similar reasons, but I am open to further conversations.
I recognise many good points raised by my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend Mr Baker, saying that we could have gone further. I am sure that this is not the end of looking at electoral integrity. We will continue to see how the franchise can be strengthened. I urge Members not to support the Opposition amendments. I hope the Government amendments will be supported.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 11 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.