Consideration of Lords amendments
[Relevant documents: Fifth Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny: Elections Bill, Session 2021-22, HC 233; Seventh Special Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny: Elections Bill: Government Response to the Committee’s Fifth Report, Session 2021-22, HC 911. Fifth Report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, The Elections Bill, HC 597, and the Government’s response, HC1133; Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 22.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendments (a) to (i) to the words restored to the Bill.
Lords amendment 23, and Government motion to disagree.
Government amendments (a) to (k) in lieu of Lords amendments 22 and 23.
Lords amendment 86, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 1 to 21, 24 to 85 and 87 to 126.
The Bill has returned to the Commons after wide-ranging and often intense debate in the other place. I am grateful to my colleagues there, Lord True, Baroness Scott and Earl Howe, for their efforts in ensuring that the Bill was able to benefit from that scrutiny. The Bill delivers on key manifesto commitments to protect our democracy as well as a range of recommendations from consultations, parliamentarians, Select Committees, international observers and electoral stakeholders.
I will come to the more positive highlights of the Bill’s passage shortly, but I must, with regret, begin with the areas where the Government cannot agree with the changes made. We disagree with Lords amendment 86, tabled by Lord Willetts, Lord Woolley, Baroness Lister of Burtersett and the Lord Bishop of Coventry, which suggests a long list of new documents that could be used as a form of identification at polling stations, including non-photographic documents such as a bank statement, a council tax letter, a P45 or P60 form. The Government have been clear that the most straightforward and secure way of confirming someone’s identity is photographic identification. The Electoral Commission found this to be the best approach to pursue in the pilots undertaken by the Government in 2018 and 2019.
The answer is no, we do not share that concern. We have conducted extensive pilots and we recognise that many people are concerned about the Bill, which is why we carried out extensive engagement explaining why there need not be any concerns about additional barriers on voter ID.
We also have the experience of Northern Ireland, where photographic identification has been required since 2003, following its introduction by the last Labour Government after the non-photographic model that had been in place since 1985 was deemed insufficient to stamp out fraud. A free voter card will be available for voters without suitable photographic identification and we are working closely with the Electoral Commission, which will deliver a clear and comprehensive communication campaign on the new requirements. While the list of acceptable identifications in the Bill is wide-ranging, I wish to reassure this House that, should further forms of photo identification become available and be sufficiently secure, the powers in the Bill are such that additional identification can be added or removed as necessary without the need for further primary legislation. For these reasons, the Government cannot support this amendment.
I ask the House to disagree with Lords amendments 22 and 23, which seek to remove clauses 14 and 15 from the Bill. The purpose of clause 14 is to make provision for the introduction of a strategy and policy statement setting out guidance to which the Electoral Commission must have regard in the discharge of its functions. Some parliamentarians have claimed that this duty to have regard to the strategy and policy statement will weaken the commission’s operational independence, which is not correct. This duty will not allow the Government to direct the commission’s decision making, nor will it undermine the commission’s other statutory duties or displace the commission’s need to carry out those other duties. Clause 15 simply expands the role of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and empowers it to examine the commission’s performance of its duty to have regard to the strategy and policy statement.
In the other place, technical amendments to these clauses were made in Committee before the clauses were removed on Report. If this House disagrees with Lords amendment 22, the series of amendments we have proposed to the words so restored to the Bill will reinstate those technical amendments to clause 14. Amendments (c) and (f) to (h) reflect the parliamentary consequences of recent machinery of government changes. The other technical changes to the words so restored to the Bill, amendments (a) and (b), will ensure that the strategy and policy statement must not relate to the devolved functions of the Electoral Commission. Consequently, amendments (d), (e) and (i) provide that Scottish and Welsh Ministers are no longer statutory consultees on the strategy and policy statement. For the reasons I have set out, I ask the House to disagree with Lords amendments 22 and 23 and to agree to amendments (a) to (i) and to the words so restored to the Bill.
Given the strength of feeling, although the Government strongly reject the characterisation that clause 14 will weaken the commission’s operational independence, we have heard the concerns and tabled amendments (a) to (k) in lieu of Lords amendments 22 and 23. Amendment (a) will require the Secretary of State, when preparing a statement, to have regard to the duty placed on the commission by section 145(1) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to monitor and ensure compliance with the rules set out in that Act. Further, the amendment will prohibit the statement from including reference to specific investigatory or enforcement activity. That provides further reassurance on the commission’s operational independence.
On the parliamentary approval procedure in relation to the statement, the Government’s view is that the affirmative resolution procedure will provide both Houses of Parliament with appropriate opportunities to debate and scrutinise the statement in full before determining whether to approve or reject it. However, we have listened to the concerns raised and, to provide further reassurance, the Government tabled amendments (c) to (h), (j) and (k) in lieu of Lords amendments 22 and 23. These amendments provide for enhanced parliamentary scrutiny of a statement that has been subject to statutory consultation under new section 4C of the 2000 Act by providing both Houses with a supplementary opportunity to consider the draft statement and make representations before it is laid for approval. The amendments also make consequential changes to clause 14.
Amendments (b) and (i) in lieu of Lords amendments 22 and 23 will require the Secretary of State to publish a response to the statutory consultation on the statement, and to respond to requests from the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission for the statement to be revised.
Taken together, these provisions, in addition to those already built into clause 14 relating to parliamentary approval and consultation, should provide significant reassurance to Members of both Houses on the concerns about the strategy and policy statement. In particular, the amendments put beyond doubt the question of whether the statement could be used to unduly influence individual enforcement activity or to give guidance without the Secretary of State considering the commission’s monitoring and compliance duties.
On clause 25, the Government have listened to the concerns raised by parliamentarians and by representatives of civil society organisations in recent meetings. Lords amendment 44 means that any order to remove or vary the description of a category of third-party campaigner can be made only where it gives effect to a recommendation of the Electoral Commission, which will provide a necessary safeguard against any future Government who potentially seek to misuse the clause.
The Government have also carefully considered the concerns relating to clause 27. These measures were not designed to disproportionately affect any particular group. Given the strength of feeling on this issue, the Government tabled Lords amendment 50 to remove the clause from the Bill. I ask the House to support this amendment.
It is standard practice for the Government to conduct post-legislative scrutiny of Acts following Royal Assent, but we took on board the desire to ensure in the legislation that that scrutiny took place. Lords amendment 80 supports the joint aim on both sides of the House that the operation of these measures is assessed following the implementation of the Bill, while ensuring sufficient time has passed and processes are embedded enough for the scrutiny to be meaningful and effective. For these reasons, I commend the amendment to the House.
Lords amendments 1 to 5 make changes to clause 7, narrowing its scope so that the provisions do not unintentionally prevent legitimate campaigning by candidates outside the time that a person completes their postal ballot or legitimate opinion polling activity. Lords amendments 112 to 116 make the same changes in relation to Northern Ireland.
Lords amendments 9 to 12, 45, 64 to 79, 81 to 85, 87, 105 to 110 and 118 to 124 are technical and clarifying amendments. As the House will be aware, the Bill represents an extensive and ambitious portfolio of work in a complex and detailed body of law. The amendments ensure the measures are fit for purpose and operate as intended.
Following extensive engagement with the devolved Administrations in the preparation and drafting of the policy, the Scottish and Welsh Governments unfortunately declined to consent to applying certain measures to devolved polls. It was therefore necessary for the Government to table Lords amendments 6 to 8, 13, 14, 24 to 28, 30 to 33, 37, 38, 40 to 43, 46 to 48, 51 to 63, 88 to 102, 117, 125 and 126 to ensure the measures apply to reserved matters only. I therefore ask the House to agree to these necessary amendments.
Lords amendments 15 to 19 strengthen the provisions in clause 9 that seek to expand the provision for voters with disabilities from a narrow and restrictive provision specific to blind and partially sighted voters to one that supports the needs of a wider range of voters with disabilities, increasing the overall accessibility of our elections. For too long, we have had a requirement in law to provide a single device, which has hindered innovation in this area. We are grateful for the work of Lord Holmes, who worked with both the Government and external organisations to strengthen these measures in the Bill by specifically highlighting the importance of supporting electors’ ability to vote independently and secretly, all while maintaining our policy aim of moving away from a limited prescriptive approach to more flexibility and innovation. These amendments will also enable the support for disabled voters to be monitored effectively through Electoral Commission reporting, and will require in law that there is guidance to promote consistency, for which returning officers must have regard. That guidance will be developed in consultation with organisations representing people with disabilities. For those reasons, I commend the amendments to the House.
The Government also support Lords amendments 20, 21, 103, 104 and 111 tabled by Lord Hayward. These amendments make sensible changes to the rules for candidates standing in elections, which were first raised in this House by my hon. Friend Dr Evans. Lords amendment 21 will allow candidates the additional option of citing their local authority area on the ballot paper for UK parliamentary elections, as they already can for local elections. That will make it easier for candidates to demonstrate locality while preserving protection for their personal safety. I particularly thank my hon. Friend for raising this topic and I hope he is pleased with that outcome.
Lords amendments 20, 103, 104 and 111 widen the scope of the current provisions concerning the use of commonly used names to allow candidates to include on their nomination paper any name they commonly use as a forename or surname, such as their middle name. This is already facilitated in practice by returning officers, but it is not provided for in existing electoral law, so it is right that the Bill is amended for consistency. I commend these amendments to the House.
Lords amendments 34, 35 and 36, tabled by Baroness Noakes, are technical amendments that bring this clause into line with more standard accounting practices, so I commend them to the House. Finally, Lords amendments 49, 29 and 39 were brought forward in the other House by Lord Hodgson. I am pleased to confirm that the Government are supporting them. They will introduce a duty on the Electoral Commission to produce a statutory code of conduct, providing much-needed certainty for third-party campaigners on how to comply with the rules related to third-party campaigning.
It is a pleasure to speak for the Opposition in these proceedings. We have said from the outset that this is a bad Bill. Rather than opening up our democracy, it closes it down and puts up barriers to participation, apart from for foreign donors, who will now have an unfettered ability to flood our democracy with donations from the comfort of an offshore tax haven.
We will get to some of the criticisms shortly, but I want to recognise, as the Minister did, some of the progress that has clearly been made in the other place. I pay tribute to my colleagues and teammates Baroness Hayman and Lord Khan for their work in this area. First, I come to Lords amendments 15 to 19, on assistance with voting for persons with disabilities. We raised this issue in Committee and during consideration of the remaining stages. I did not then and do not now believe it was the Government’s intention to make voting harder for disabled people, particularly those who are blind or partially sighted. But those who have been concerned about this matter have campaigned well and made their case strongly, and I am glad that it is has been recognised in the Bill. Like plenty of right hon. and hon. Members, I will be keeping an interest in this area, to make sure that returning officers continue to make voting accessible for everybody, regardless of disability, at every polling station.
Lords amendment 50 would remove clause 27, deleting the provision on joint campaigning that meant that spending by one entity in a joint campaign had to be counted by all entities. That never made sense to us and we are glad to see it dispensed with entirely. In his letter to his colleagues in the other place, Lord True paid tribute to the campaigning efforts of the TUC and of the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation. He was right to do so, as their campaign was a brilliant one and I, for one, am glad it succeeded. Of course we will be supporting that this afternoon. Also, I am pleased to see that addition made via Lords Amendment 80 to wire in post-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. I would have such a provision in every Bill, as it is a good way of doing business. Beyond that, we do not have an issue with the tightening of provisions relating to secrecy, undue influence, candidate names, expenditure or electronic material. However, I will finish this section of my speech with a minor whinge, which I hope the Minister will address in her summing up. Lords Amendment 21, a Government amendment, deals with home addresses on ballot papers. Currently, as the Minister said, we or those who challenge us in elections to this place have a choice of having our home address or the constituency where we live on the ballot paper. For security reasons, that is a very good idea. Not only is it important for safety, but it allows voters to have a sense of where we are from. This provision adds a third option: we could specify which local authority we live in. That does not develop the original intent, because I do not think there is a case for safety there; I think this is there more for candidate vanity, and I am not sure what problem it is solving. So I am keen to learn from the Minister what needs to be addressed with that provision. It is not egregious enough for us to divide on, but I am keen to understand a bit more about why it is necessary.
I move on to the points of greater difference—the outstanding issues facing us. This Bill is littered with various things we have voted against throughout the process, in relation to voting, to political finance and to electoral systems, but today we are really down to just two issues: voter ID, as set out in part 1 of the Bill; and the independence of the Electoral Commission, as set out in part 3. The other place has done important work to help save the Government from themselves in this area, and it is sad that the Minister is not minded to accept that salvation, particularly on Lords amendments 22, 23 and 86. We have opposed and continue to oppose the introduction of voter ID. It is a solution in search of a problem; there is scant evidence of voter personation. In 2019, there were two major sets of elections—council elections in the May and a general election in the December—and in that year there was precisely one conviction for personation.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about the disproportionate effect that evidence suggests photographic voter ID might have on ethnic minority voting rates?
I do have concern about who will miss out as a result of this. We know from the Government’s own figures that there are 2 million people without the right sort of photo ID. I see some shaking of heads from Conservative Members who are still listening to the debate, but it is not us making this point—the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that the poorest are six times more likely than the best off to miss out under the Government’s proposals. The key thing is: when all of us who can vote next Thursday stand in line to vote—and we hope the lines will be long—we are more likely to be hit by lightning three times than to be queuing behind someone who is committing an act of voter personation. Once again, this is a solution in search of a problem.
We have seen this in the pilots as well. As the Minister mentioned, the Government have done pilots in this area and if what happened in those were replicated across the country, 184,000 people who wanted to vote would be unable to do so. Again, that is a demonstration of why Lords amendment 86 is so important and why this is such a bad idea. This amendment does not delete the voter ID provision, as would be my preference and as we have sought to do in Committee and on Report. Instead, it just makes things a little easier by expanding the list of accepted ID at polling stations. That is a worthy compromise, and I am surprised that the Government have not sought to take it.
The Minister has talked about the provision of a voter card from the local authority, but she has not yet said who is going to fund that. May we have a concrete assurance that that will come from central Government funding and it will not be put on the rate payers? Will she also assure us that thoughtful consideration has been given to the pressures on our electoral administrators, since the demand for these voter cards will peak at the same time as demand for postal votes, voter registration and proxy votes? Our electoral administrators, who do such a great job, are already overburdened, so I would love to know what assessment had been done of the capacity to deliver those things. The Lords amendment would ameliorate many of those challenges.
We always seek to be helpful to the Government, and Conservative Members will know that their manifesto pledge on voter ID was that they intended to introduce simply voter ID, not photographic ID—the word “photographic” was not mentioned. So the solution proposed in the amendment is very much in line with what they have committed to. We know that the alternative, which is forcing through photographic ID, is about a form of ID that more than 2 million voters lack, according to the Government’s own figures. This was an opportunity to do better and the Government should have taken it. We certainly will be pressing that point.
Lords amendments 22 and 23 remove clauses that undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission. It is worth saying, although it is staggering that this needs to be said, that it is not for this Government or any Government, be they Labour or Conservative, to dictate the priorities of an independent watchdog, especially one that regulates our own elections. One would think that that would be axiomatic, but we have seen this creeping culture of the Government trying to put their thumb on the scale, whether in the scandal with one of our former colleagues at the end of last year or in the debacle last week relating to the privileges motion. This very much sits within the same family, and although the public do not necessarily take interest in the granular details of particular bits of legislation such as this one, they are starting to pick up on this constant pattern of injustice and unfair play. This really is another example of it.
Let us do a useful thought experiment: if something like this happened in a nearby democracy, or perhaps a country where we were concerned about the future of its democracy, and it said that it wanted its Executive to be able to direct its electoral commission, would we not say that that did not feel right? I do not think that it feels right in this case. Although he is not in his place, I pay tribute to Mr Wragg and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which he chairs, and to the Electoral Commission, which has made persuasive arguments for the protection of the commission’s independence. The Minister said that the Secretary of State would not have broad-ranging powers or interest in directing the work of the commission. In the annex to his response to the hon. Member for Hazel Grove, the Secretary of State said:
“The Strategy and Policy Statement (clause 15) will provide an opportunity for the Government, with the approval of the UK Parliament, to outline a clear articulation of principles and priorities for the Commission to have regard to when going about their work—particularly in areas where…the Commission are exercising the significant amount of discretion they are afforded in terms of activity, priorities, and approach.”
I do not think that quite chimes with what the Minister says: it is clear that the Government do fully intend to use these powers significantly and we should be very concerned about that.
I want briefly to reference the Government amendment in lieu. It is better, and it is welcome to hear that the Secretary of State’s statements will need to pass both Houses; that greater degree of scrutiny for Parliament is good. Similarly, the point around individual investigations is a welcome clarification, but it does not change the basic question: why are we doing this at all? There has been no clarity from the Minister previously or in her opening remarks today about what the problem is for which a solution is sought. We strongly believe that the regulation of elections must be independent, impartial and free from political control, and the Government’s proposals, whatever might be said, challenge and compromise this principle, so I think it is very surprising that we are having this conversation.
I will finish there. The problems boil down to two points: voter ID and the Electoral Commission. We will continue to push those points and defend the very good amendments made in the other place.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, as I have at every stage of this Bill, and I am sure the Minister will agree that it is nice to be on the home stretch after so long, especially as she very bravely took over halfway through. I know today could potentially be quite a long one and we are all keen to get to Prorogation so that those of us with candidates can get out on the doorsteps campaigning in the local elections, so I will not take too long.
I spoke previously about my psephological exuberance, and I am afraid that today I will expose my psephological exasperation at some of the amendments that have come back from the Lords. I am, as we would expect from the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Leader of the House of Lords, a keen advocate of the upper Chamber and the excellent work it can do in refining legislation, as has been the case here. As such, I do not intend to speak to the amendments the Government are accepting; I think they speak for themselves, but I do welcome the refinements they present. Instead I shall touch briefly on Lords amendments 22 and 23 in the name of Lord Judge and then on amendment 86 in the name of Lord Willetts.
On amendments 22 and 23, clauses 14 and 15 will allow the Government, with the approval of Parliament, to clearly articulate the principles and priorities for the commission to be guided by when discharging its duties, especially where primary legislation is not explicit and where the commission enjoys a great degree of latitude in priorities and approach. Fundamentally, we should have confidence that there is a clear framework underpinning the role and duties of the commission in its work. At present, just three of the sitting commissioners have any electoral history of their own and, however august their CVs may be— and I absolutely accept that they are—they are not experts in elections or electoral law, nor do they have any lived, practical experience that informs their decision making.
Setting appropriate thematic guidance is wholly appropriate and clauses 14 and 15 give the power to the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission to approve that guidance. Despite some of the alarmist talk about this part of the Bill from those on the Opposition Benches, this does not take away from the independence of the commission, and I think if anyone were to be truly honest they would agree that the commission has not steered entirely clear of controversy or perceived bias in its past. We know at least of one recent case where its decision was overturned, in relation to the referendum; in fact, a former head of the commission was actively campaigning in that referendum. I want a robust commission, not one that plays fast and loose with the rules and gives itself carte blanche to do as it pleases. That said, I will be supporting Government amendments (a) to (k), which refine the Government’s approach.
Amendment 86 seems, I am afraid, to be another attempt to override the voter ID provisions of the Bill. The specified list of IDs, including the freely available Government ID to be introduced, provides a wide-ranging yet robust range of options to validate the right to vote. We have heard some disgraceful attempts to paint voter ID as a form of voter suppression against certain minority groups. I was told by a member of the Labour party in the Bill Committee that I, as an LGBT Member, would not be able to vote because of this new provision; it was absolutely disgusting. This is dog-whistle politics at its worst and Opposition Members should be ashamed.
In fact, just yesterday the Supreme Court ruled on this matter and I will read from the judgment:
“I consider that if persons have confidence in the electoral system by the elimination or reduction in voter fraud then they might be encouraged to vote by virtue of their increased confidence in the electoral process.”
In other words, the Supreme Court thinks this makes it more likely that people will vote.
According to work conducted by the Electoral Commission, two thirds of voters support voter ID, just 4% of people surveyed did not have any of the qualifying ID in the Bill, and just 17% of those people said they would not take up the freely available ID. [Interruption.] Alex Norris is chuntering from a sedentary position; if people choose to absent themselves, that is their choice.
Opposing or undermining this measure is at very best to turn a blind eye to the problem. I asked in Committee and on Third Reading and will ask again: what is an acceptable level of fraud? How many votes is it okay to steal before we feel we have to act in legislation? [Interruption.] Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; I am sorry, but I have heard this argument several times and it is spurious. We should want to be the envy of the world by having the most robust electoral system, and that can be achieved by doing what Northern Ireland voters have been doing for a very long time, and what most voters who turn up to the polling station with their polling card think they already have to do: prove who they are and that they are eligible to vote where they are trying to.
Does the hon. Gentleman therefore accept that turning up with a polling card proves that we are who we say we are, and if that is the case why does he reject the long list from the Lords? If he accepts that a polling card says who we are, why not the list from the Lords?
No, the hon. Gentleman was not listening to what I said. I said people turn up with a polling card; I did not say that that is an appropriate form of ID. People already assume they have—[Interruption.] No, I did not; I encourage the hon. Gentleman to read Hansard because he clearly was not listening. [Interruption.] No, he was not. An appropriate form of ID is something that will definitively prove who we are.
I can give a perfect example of this. I share an office with my hon. Friend Paul Holmes. His surname is the same as my stepfather’s. I could go and vote on behalf of my stepfather by taking something that demonstrates that I am him, because I can just take it off his desk. That is how unrobust this approach is.
My hon. Friend is correct: we do share an office and I enjoy doing so. He has made a completely acceptable point. Opposition Members keep saying that there is no proof of electoral fraud. Does my hon. Friend agree that I can pick up an electoral card from anyone’s doorstep and claim when I turn up at a polling station that I have their name and address with no proof? [Interruption.]; yes, I can. [Interruption.]; yes, I can. I can do that with no proof that that is not me, which exactly shows why we need to introduce voter ID in this Bill.
My hon. Friend is entirely correct, and if the Opposition are saying that there is no proof of this, I can tell them now in relation to Rochdale Borough Council’s election this coming month that a member of the Labour council accepted a caution for electoral fraud—he voted twice. So do not spin the line that this does not happen.
Is that not therefore evidence that the current system works? The kind of behaviour the hon. Gentleman’s party colleague, Paul Holmes, has just described is already against the law and will be identified by the polling clerks if someone turns up and tries to vote twice.
As I have said, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We do not know how many times this is going on. I ask the hon. Gentleman: how many votes is it okay to steal in Scotland? Is there a different metric—is there a Barnett consequential for electoral fraud? It is ludicrous that this is being opposed, and we have to ask what the motive is from the Opposition Benches; I am pretty sure most sensible people can infer why they oppose it.
I shall seek to give a calm and reasoned response to Chris Clarkson, and I rise to speak in favour of Lords amendments 22 and 23, which, as we have heard, seek to preserve the integrity and independence of the Electoral Commission, as well as Lords amendment 86, which says that, if we have to go down the road of providing ID at polling stations, what is deemed as an acceptable form of ID should be greatly extended to allow as many people as possible to participate in our democracy.
Having sat through hour after hour of the Bill Committee searching for evidence that any form of ID was actually necessary, nothing—particularly, I have to say, after the hon. Gentleman’s contribution—will shake me from the belief that there is no need for this. From day one this has been, as Alex Norris said, a solution in desperate search of a problem. From the very first day of our evidence sessions, many months ago, I was convinced—I remain convinced—that the desire to produce photographic ID at polling stations is nothing less than a cynical ploy to disenfranchise a sizeable section of the electorate, and to give the Conservative party an advantage on polling day.
I thank the Lords for their valiant efforts to rescue something from this utterly appalling Bill. I know that they did a great deal of work on it and have tried to remove or soften some of its more unpleasant and fundamentally undemocratic aspects, but as I said in Committee, on Second Reading and on Report, the Elections Bill is rotten to its core. The Lords could have gone through the Bill for a month of Sundays and it would still be rotten to its core.
I believe that, in a democracy, the best place for the Bill would be in a chamber of democratic horrors in a political museum, where it would be brought out—along with the Nationality and Borders Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—to be shown to aspiring politicians with a warning that said, “Look what we nearly did to our democracy.”
When we sent the Bill to the Lords, it was an affront to democracy, and however it was amended, there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that it would return and be anything but an affront to democracy. However, in the spirit that something—anything—is better than nothing, the SNP will support the amendments made in the Lords.
One of the most egregious ideas contained in the Bill was always the plan to politicise the hitherto independent Electoral Commission by placing it under the direction of the Government and having Ministers set its policy direction and strategy. The independence of the Electoral Commission is fundamental to maintaining public confidence and trust in our electoral system. In a healthy democracy, the idea of the independent referee having its strategic direction dictated by the sitting Government beggars belief. Giving this or any future Government the power to direct the work of the commission is fraught with danger, and if the public, campaign groups, political parties and individuals start to believe that the decisions of the commission are politically motivated, or that they are tainted by party political bias, the commission’s trusted position of impartial arbiter will disintegrate in short order.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech with many good points. Does he share my surprise that those on the Government Benches are not prepared to take into account the fact that the Lords tabled a cross-party amendment to deal with the concern that he and I share about undermining the Electoral Commission? That concern is obviously shared in the other place. Perhaps the Government could take that into account before dismissing that amendment.
I share the hon. Lady’s concerns. Those great concerns are felt not just on these Benches, but in the other place, as well as beyond Parliament. Among non-government organisations, individuals, trade unions and political parties, there is a genuine fear that our democracy is being undermined.
On our first day of taking evidence in Committee, Professor David Howarth, who served on the commission between 2008 and 2018, said of the idea:
“This would have been unthinkable in my time… I do not think anyone would have ever imagined this was a good idea. It is an open goal for the opponents of western democracy. If you are President Xi, you might think this is the kind of thing you want—all the institutions of the state lined up behind the governing party—but not in this country. It is completely unthinkable.”––[Official Report, Elections Public Bill Committee,
He is absolutely right. It should be unthinkable, and even at this late stage, I urge Government Members to stand up for democracy, defend the independence of the Electoral Commission and join us in supporting Lords Amendments 22 and 23.
I turn to Lords amendment 86, which would greatly expand the number of forms of identification that would be acceptable for receiving a ballot paper. I have made the SNP position on the principle of voter ID quite clear. That position was confirmed in the Bill Committee’s earliest evidence session, when witness after witness made it clear that personation was not a problem. Even the Government’s star witness was forced to admit that postal vote fraud was a far, far greater problem that had to be tackled, but conveniently, it is not tackled in this Bill. Yet here we are creating solutions for a problem that no one really believes exists, and the Government are rejecting reasonable proposals from the Lords. I regret that the Lords have conceded on the principle of ID cards, but simply extending the acceptable forms of ID would have been a far greater and more reasonable compromise.
I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He keeps saying that there is no evidence of voter fraud when it comes to voter identification, so I will very calmly ask him again. If I go to a polling station with somebody else’s voting card and vote on their behalf—that is personation—and that person turns up afterwards to vote for themselves, it is very unlikely to be proven that that is what has happened. The lack of ability to prosecute on that basis is exactly why we need voter identification.
First, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that he is breaking the law, and he will, if caught, be punished. Secondly, there is no evidence whatever that that is a widespread practice, but there is great evidence that there are problems with postal voting fraud. The Bill does absolutely nothing to address them. It looks in the wrong place because it is more convenient to those on the Government Benches to look for a problem rather than address a problem, as they, and even their star witnesses, have identified.
I cannot fathom why the Government would object to people to bringing along a birth certificate, a marriage certificate, a credit card, a bank statement that is less than three months old, a national insurance card, a council tax demand letter or a mortgage statement. I just cannot understand.
I will just finish this point. Would the Government really have us believe that there would be an explosion of forged birth certificates being secretly traded outside polling stations; that a thriving black market in dodgy council tax demand letters would emerge, fuelled by desperate party activists; or that eBay would be awash with folk flogging their national insurance card to the highest bidder in a key marginal. It is utter nonsense! They know it is nonsense, and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about birth certificates, like many other married women in this country, my professional name is different from my married name, but it has always been accepted by the Passport Office, the bank and every other legal authority I know that my marriage certificate, which has both names on it, is proof that I am the same person. I cannot understand why the Government will not accept it as identification when voting.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. Sadly, as with so much of the Bill, there is no common sense—indeed, no principle is involved. It is grubby attempt after grubby attempt to game the system in order to secure short-term electoral benefit for the Conservative party. If the price to be paid is a lessoning of participation in elections, I am afraid that is the choice made by Conservative Members.
From the outset we have opposed the Bill as being fundamentally undemocratic. Rather than being improved by its progress through this House, it has become even more undemocratic. I am delighted that the Scottish Parliament has refused to give it legislative consent. I thank the Lords for their attempts to improve the Bill and, in recognition of their efforts, we will support their amendments, but as the old adage says, there are some things in life that you just cannot polish, and this Bill is most certainly one of them.
How do you follow that?
In the week in which the Government intend to prorogue the House, they have voted to carry over three Bills, and this is the fifth Bill they seek to force through following repeated Government defeats in the Lords. The Government really are losing their grip, and I regret that, in response, they are seeking to grab democracy by the throat.
I wish to confine my comments to Lords amendments 22, 23 and 86, which I support. First, let me highlight the extraordinary developments regarding the clauses that affect the work of the Electoral Commission. I express my support for Lords amendments 22 and 23, which removed what were clauses 15 and 16. As others have said, those clauses gave the Government the power to establish a Government strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission, and to place a duty on it to have regard to guidance issued by the Government relating to any of its functions.
The Bill’s erosion of the commission’s independence gave rise to the letter signed by its chair and all but one of its board members on
“It is our firm and shared view that the introduction of a Strategy and Policy Statement—enabling the Government to guide the work of the Commission—is inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy. This independence is fundamental to maintaining confidence and legitimacy in our electoral system.”
The letter went on:
“The Commission’s accountability is direct to the UK’s parliaments and should remain so, rather than being subject to government influence.”
For that reason, I urge the Government to think again about the measures.
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee also wrote to the Minister only last week to strongly urge the Government to accept the amendments tabled in the House of Lords by Lord Judge that removed clauses 15 and 16, as the Committee recommended in its report. Furthermore, in lieu of any Government support for the amendments, the Committee urged the Government to consider amending the Bill
“to provide that the Electoral Commission is able to depart from the guidance set out in the Statement if it has a statutory duty to do so or if it reasonably believes it is justified in specific circumstances”.
Regrettably, the Government have not done so, which is why I support Lords amendments 22 and 23.
Let me turn to Lords amendment 86, on voter ID, in respect of which I wish to draw some parallels with the Welsh experience. Initially, the Welsh Government withheld legislative consent for the Bill because it affects Welsh elections, because there was an issue with consulting the Welsh Government and because it negatively affected devolved powers. However, the Government have since conceded on some of those concerns and it is welcome that their voter ID proposals will not now apply to Senedd or Welsh council elections.
Although the Senedd has now granted legislative consent, there are still concerns about the Bill in all sorts of respects, but specifically with regard to voter ID. The Welsh Government say that the UK Government plans for voter ID risk making voting harder. Although I welcome the fact that the provisions do not apply to Wales, the inconsistencies between UK parliamentary elections and Welsh elections will cause all sorts of confusion for electors in Wales.
I support Lords amendment 86, which was tabled by Lord Willets and adds an additional list of documents that would be accepted as a form of identification for electors, for the reasons already given. The relevant part of the Bill is discriminatory and will disenfranchise millions of people. We already have extremely low turnouts for elections—the evidence is there—which is why in Wales we are doing the opposite and looking into different methods to encourage people to turn out to vote.
I will conclude with a quote from our Counsel General, Mick Antoniw, because the Welsh Government remain opposed to the Bill, which they believe—Opposition Members share these views—
“is more about voter suppression and enabling foreign funding than enhancing electoral democracy and integrity.”
It is a pleasure to follow Beth Winter, who is essentially right in everything she says.
The scrutiny of this Bill so far has been an absolute travesty of the democracy it is supposed to regulate—the lack of engagement on the Government Benches is testimony to that. The Government changed the scope of the Bill after Second Reading, and crashed it through a Bill Committee, despite the fact that constitutional Bills should be considered in Committee of the whole House. Now the Lords, for their own mysterious reasons, have sent it back, largely with Government corrections and a few meagre concessions. We applaud the Lords on taking a stand on voter ID and the role of the Electoral Commission, but their lordships should have forced the Government into using the Parliament Acts to get the Bill through, given the damage it will do to what remains of Westminster democracy.
The amendments on the right of voters with special needs, particularly those who are blind or partially sighted, to vote independently and in secret are welcome, although they do not go as far as the Royal National Institute of Blind People has called for them to do. Indeed, they do not go as far as the original legislation that this Bill is changing, so once again this is a Bill seeking to solve problems that did not previously exist; it is creating its own problems. There must now be clear guidance on how those provisions are implemented, and careful monitoring and reporting to ensure that those with specific requirements can vote in confidence, in every sense of that word.
It appears from the Minister’s comments that the Government think we should be grateful for the various concessions that respect the devolution settlement and the right of the devolved institutions to manage and regulate their own elections. She said that she had difficulty engaging with Scottish Government Ministers and officials. Well, perhaps if this Government had started the process before the Bill was published, and perhaps if there had been proper prelegislative scrutiny, a lot of that would not have been necessary. The reality, of course, is that the Scottish Parliament has refused to give legislative consent for the Bill as a whole.
What mostly seems to be happening, through these amendments, is the result of a late realisation that all the different electoral cycles in the UK mean that we would never be out of “regulated periods” across the UK, which would make the Tories’ predilection for dark money and AstroTurf campaigning a little trickier. I am not sure that the changes have been made in the best interests of the devolved institutions.
Where the Lords have chosen to take a stand, the Government and this House should be paying close attention. The integrity of the Electoral Commission ought to be protected, and the easiest way to do that is to support the Lords in their amendment removing the two clauses that would allow Government direction and interference. We demonstrated throughout consideration in Committee and on Report the danger of the Government’s plans to allow for ministerial direction of the commission, which is pretty much unprecedented in western democracies. The Government’s amendments in lieu, such as they are, do not go nearly far enough and are themselves a concession that they were trying to overreach with the powers they put into the Bill, so we should agree with the Lords and just take those clauses out entirely.
The House should also support the Lords on their amendment 86. It is disappointing that they did not remove the clauses on photo ID altogether. Again, throughout the Bill’s progress in this House, we have heard how the requirement to present photo ID will depress turnout and make it more difficult for those who are already in marginalised groups to have their voices heard at the ballot box. We heard that repeatedly in evidence and, as we have heard from other Members, that has been heard by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.
We hear Members say, “Well, what level of voter fraud is acceptable?” There is no evidence that voter fraud at the moment is as rife as they are pretending.
The point is that voter fraud, to the extent that it exists—personation, as the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson said—is in single figures. There is no evidence whatsoever that personation is actively affecting the result of any election taking place anywhere across the country.
Of course it is not acceptable, which is why it should be punished to the full extent of the law, which it is. We have heard several times in this debate that if someone votes twice, they have broken the law and they go to jail. That does happen, as we have heard—
I think we are getting slightly philosophical here. The reality is that when voter fraud/personation is detected, it is punished to the full extent of the law. We heard in evidence that it is an incredibly inefficient way to swing the outcome of an election. As my hon. Friend Brendan O'Hara said, people who want to swing the outcome of an election can do so in far more effective ways that are not tackled by the Bill, starting with the kind of postal vote fraud we have heard described. All that this little ping-pong exchange has done is serve to demonstrate that this is, as others have said, a solution in search of a problem.
The fact that this is ideologically motivated, for the Government’s own reasons, is demonstrated by their unwillingness even to accept the relevant Lords amendment, such as it is. One of the counter-arguments we heard from Government Members was about other circumstances in which ID needs to be presented—for example, when collecting a parcel at the post office. Lords amendment 86 extends acceptable forms of ID for voting to include the kind of ID that would be acceptable in collecting a parcel at a post office counter, so, on the basis of that argument, I am not entirely sure why that is not acceptable to the Government.
The Order Paper notes under the listing of this business that the Scottish Parliament has refused legislative consent for the Bill. Once again the Government are ignoring the Sewel convention and showing their disregard for the devolution settlement. Constituents in Glasgow North have written to me in large numbers opposing this Bill. All of this, alongside the Government’s refusal to accept Lords amendments 22, 23 and 86, simply demonstrates the growing divergence between politics in this place and the direction of travel in Scotland.
I thought that we also learned in Committee that the voter ID proposals would actually make us a more European country, in that they introduce things that we see in European voting systems. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with this divergence, and would have thought he would welcome it if he wants Scotland to be at the heart of Europe.
I am delighted by the hon. Gentleman’s conversion to the cause of European democracy and alignment. The simple answer is that Scotland has one of the widest, most open and transparent franchises that has ever existed in western democracies. It includes 16 and 17-year-olds, asylum seekers—people who have made their home here—and people who are serving certain types of prison sentence, because we want to rehabilitate everyone and bring them back into the democratic fold. That is the franchise that will deliver independence for Scotland. Unlike the UK-wide franchise—[Interruption.] Conservative Members seem to find this highly amusing. They can laugh all they want once Scotland has voted for independence in the next couple of years, because that is the reality; it is not far away now, and it will be achieved on that wide and open franchise, whereas the UK-wide electoral system will be weakened and undermined by this Bill and by the Government’s refusal to accept the Lords amendments before us.
I apologise to the Minister for being a few minutes late and therefore missing her introduction; I received a green card asking me to visit a constituent who was lobbying me.
The constituent was lobbying on the abolition of imprisonment for public protection, and I am visiting one of her sons in prison, so I felt the need to see her.
I want to make three very simple points. When we get to this stage in the parliamentary Session, people start to become a bit light-headed, so let us try to concentrate on three issues. I am a member of PACAC, whose Chair, Mr Wragg, is here. Every time he makes a parliamentary intervention, he increases my respect for him. Electoral officers were looking for a Bill that was much more comprehensive and wrapped up a whole range of issues; they were looking to bring together existing practices in one piece of legislation, and to look at new challenges that they faced. Those challenges are not reflected in the Bill.
On the amendments, one of the main concerns about the operation of the Electoral Commission that the Government seem to identify is that it needs more direction by way of a Government ministerial statement. That was not part of any of the evidence that we heard from electoral administrators. This goes to the heart of the independence of the electoral administration of this country. That is why people are fearful. I have ranted on this before, and do not want to go into the arguments again about our being on a slippery slope to something that could be quite dangerous. However, if there is to be a statement from the Secretary of State, which I think is completely wrong, there needs to be at least some acknowledgement by the Government that there should be more of a role for Parliament in drafting it.
I want to ask the Minister a question, and I will give way if she can respond. Did I hear correctly that the statement will be dealt with by the affirmative procedure, but not the super-affirmative procedure? Can she clarify that by way of intervention?
Yes, I am happy to confirm it is the affirmative procedure.
We introduced the super-affirmative procedure about a decade ago, I think, and it enables the House to amend the statement. What happens under the super-affirmative procedure is that the Minister publishes the statement, there is consultation, the Parliament comments on that, and then the Minister brings back the statement in the light of those comments. Actually, it works. If we look at past practice, what has happened is that even when there has been considerable dispute, the Government and the Secretary of State have usually been able to amend the statement and we have reached consensus. I urge the Government to follow that procedure, rather than the “take it or leave it” of the affirmative procedure.
We raised this issue in the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee with the Secretary of State. With the Government majority as it is, “take it or leave it” means that the Secretary of State is dictating terms to the Electoral Commission and therefore undermining the independence of the commission, as my hon. Friend Beth Winter said in quoting the letter from the commissioners themselves.
In another debate on another matter some years ago, people on the Government Benches—I thought it was interesting and constructive—said, “When you legislate for this, you have to legislate for your worst scenario.” Someone stood up and said, “Just think if John McDonnell was in power.” I therefore just say this: what we legislate for today might well be done in good faith by Government Members, but we have to guarantee in legislation for the future at least some form of level of practice that we can all support. I disagree with the whole concept of the statement, which undermines the commission’s independence. If we are to have one, at least give us the opportunity to have a proper debate and amend the statement before it is formally agreed.
My second point is about ID. On PACAC, we could not find evidence of large-scale electoral fraud. To address the point that Tom Randall was making time and time again very eloquently, and at times with some amusement, the issue around it is that if we cannot find the evidence, it might still be happening. We therefore have to make a judgment when legislating as to whether the remedy we are introducing will cause more harm than the problem we are addressing. That is a subjective judgment.
A number of us have come to the view that, no matter how many times we have trawled for evidence of large-scale electoral fraud, we could not find the evidence that there were not sufficient powers to deal with the issue. The only time there was a real problem was Tower Hamlets. There was a special investigation, and special measures were taken, and I hope and believe the problem has been properly addressed. My worry is that the remedy we are introducing will suppress votes, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and will do greater harm than the harm we see at the moment, which is relatively minuscule, but there we are—that is a judgment.
I enjoy serving with the right hon. Gentleman on PACAC. As a footnote to what he is saying, one of the concerns I have, which is shared by many—I know we divided on this in the Committee, and I found myself in a minority of one—is that allegations of offences are not properly investigated by the police. He might consider that to be a separate issue. As another footnote, he mentioned Tower Hamlets. Next week, we find ourselves in the horrible situation that Lutfur Rahman, who was the man who perpetrated all that electoral fraud, is on the ballot paper in Tower Hamlets. It is a fact that these problems have only been investigated to an extent, it seems.
That is a valid point. Rather than change legislation, which could introduce a remedy that does more harm than good, it is a matter of looking at how the existing system is working to ensure proper resources for investigation. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the individual—I will not name them—is about whether the sanctions were severe enough to prevent such a return. That is the way forward on all that.
The other aspect is about the list of alternative provisions that the Lords have come up with. If the Government had looked at them and said, “Okay, we’ll accept some and not others,” that would have been a better approach, because it would have demonstrated an open mind to work towards something that I think could operate effectively, even though I oppose the whole concept of the use of ID as a result of this legislation. The Government did not even do that, however. To reject the list wholesale demonstrates that they have dug themselves into a hole. I think that we will have to come back to a new piece of electoral legislation in due course that does exactly what the returning officers wanted and consolidates our electoral registration and also remedies some of the unfortunately difficult parts of this legislation.
Those difficult parts could be quite dangerous. I caution about the issue around suppression. I stood for election in my constituency in ’92 when poll tax had been introduced and 5,000 people dropped off the register there—by the sound of it, most of them were Labour voters because I lost by 54 votes. That demonstrates that, if necessary, people will drop out of the system, which worries me. It is not so much that the votes go missing but that those people become distant from the democratic process. They do not engage and, if they do not engage once or twice, it is very difficult for them to re-engage. That is why what seems like relatively minor procedural legislation could have a dramatic effect, particularly in certain constituencies, and could be quite dangerous in the hands of future Governments. I urge the Government to think again on that.
I am following the right hon. Gentleman’s argument with great interest. A constituent of mine wrote from a church to say that a number of her colleagues in the church are too old so they do not have passports or driving licences. I looked on the Government website and it would seem that local government can issue photo ID cards. Does he not think that to achieve the democracy that he and I want, it is incumbent on local government—although I hate to throw things at it—to ensure that such people get voter ID cards and to publicise that they are available?
Two things on that: first, the hon. Gentleman is right to make us wary of putting even more responsibility on local government given its financial situation; and secondly, those cards have to be applied for, which is another process to go through that becomes costly. The hon. Member for Gedling intervened; it looks as though only 70% of people will actually do that, so we are still looking at a number of people dropping out of the system altogether.
That is why, with other colleagues, we are looking at what else people will have that they could use and why I thought that the list in Lords amendment 86 was constructive. There might be elements of that about which the Government think, “Well, that’s a bit iffy,” but I would rather that they had come back and said, “Well, let’s rule these ones out but accept the others.” They did not, which for me undermines their argument that they are trying to construct a legislation that will work effectively to ensure maximum democratic participation.
I am trying to be ultra-reasonable here, because people can lose their temper about this sort of legislation. My view is that whatever ping-pong takes place now, the two elements that we are talking about could be easily remedied. I want them to be dropped altogether, but if the Government will not drop them, then on the statement we should use a super-affirmative resolution process, and on the voter ID stuff they should at least look at some of the mechanisms and the list that the House of Lords has put forward, because several of the items are perfectly valid for their use. I will leave it at that.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate. I wish to speak to Lords amendments 106 to 109, as they pertain to local elections in Northern Ireland and elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I totally agree with what the Minister said earlier, in particular about photographic ID. We have had that in Northern Ireland for a number of years, and it has proven to be successful. I understand exactly the principles of why it is important. All a polling card confirms is the name and address on it; it does not confirm anything else. That is why I believe photo ID is critical.
In Northern Ireland, someone can use a passport, a driving licence, a SmartPass or a war disablement pass, because they all contain someone’s name and address and also their photograph. The Minister is absolutely right that those are methods of doing this. We also have another method—it goes back to what Michael Fabricant mentioned in his intervention on John McDonnell—and that is electoral identification. Because we have an election coming up in Northern Ireland, people are coming in almost every day of the week to be registered so that they can use that electoral ID, with a photograph, which is recognised and issued by the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland. It is done not by local government but centrally, by the Electoral Commission. Those are examples of why voter ID is important—because it works.
I, too, am anxious that we do not see people not voting because of the problem identified by the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. Is it the hon. Gentleman’s experience that in Northern Ireland, people do not vote because of the need for voter ID, or is that not an issue in practice?
There has been no discernible drop-off in voter turnout as a result of the requirement for photographic ID in Northern Ireland. I looked up the turnout figures in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, and they are sitting at around 60% with no voter ID; in my constituency in Northern Ireland, where voter ID is required, turnout is higher. Voter ID has not had a discernible impact. I have been entirely frustrated during the passage of the Bill with the reticence from Labour. Does my hon. Friend agree that that has no factual basis and has not been borne out in reality whatsoever?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I totally agree with him.
I looked through some of the things referred to in Lords amendment 86 as a “specified document”. Nearly half of them do not have any photographic ID. I could lift the cheque book of Chris Clarkson, take it down to the polling station and pretend to be him, when that is absolutely not true, because that is one of the documents listed. This does not work with documents without photographic ID, so I come back to the point I made at the beginning—and I thank the Minister very much for setting the scene.
Sometimes I wonder about change. When the seatbelt legislation came in, we probably fought against that because it was an attack on our liberty, but we all wear a seatbelt now because it is the norm. When helmets were made compulsory for motorbike riders, some of us thought that was an attack on our liberty, but now people wear a helmet on a motorbike all the time. If photo ID comes in, it will be the same—it will be accepted—because the Government have a process that makes it simple and achievable. When electoral ID was first introduced in Northern Ireland, there was a £2 charge. There is no charge any more. The system works because the Government want it to work; they want people to go and vote. That is what this process has to be about—encouraging people to go and vote and use their franchise whenever they can.
I want to comment on some of the things that have been flagged up over time. It is important to feed into the process; while we have photographic ID, there are things that sometimes crop up in the process, and it is always good to exchange those things. I know that the Minister is always keen to see what we are doing across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but in particular in Northern Ireland.
On voter ID, we have had photographic ID in Northern Ireland for some time. We encourage people to be paperless at work and to bank online, so I look at the requirements and wonder how people can provide a bank statement that is not a print-off. The problems are real.
When we consider the amendments on voter ID, we must take the timeline into account. As the shadow Minister, Alex Norris, said—I was going to intervene on him—when an election is called, people are spurred on to change their address, to notify or register at their address or indeed to register to vote. All the pressure at that time is on the electoral office, which needs to be able to respond to that surge in a positive fashion. Will the Minister reassure us through the Bill that staff will be made available to deal with that surge? We can look at the passport issue that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Kevin Foster, spoke about in the urgent question, where extra staff were employed and a million passports were processed in one month. It can be done, but we need to ensure that we have a process for that.
I have voters who sent information and were contacted by the electoral office 10 days later to say that the information was incorrect, but the deadline had passed. How can that sometimes be the voter’s fault? Again, I feed that into the process to try to conduct on thoughts on how we can improve the system. I and my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson will also pursue those things back home. There must be a deadline, but there must also be a time for information provision before the deadline so that, if people have more information to feed into the process or have inadvertently not included something that they were supposed to, there is still time to work through that and ensure that they can vote.
Why do we do that? The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington is right that we want to encourage people to vote; we do not want to hear them saying that they cannot be bothered or that they do not care. We want them to be part of the process, and the legislation needs to have common sense as its bedrock. There is sometimes overcomplication, so we need legislation to streamline the voting system and not make it hard for normal people with a pen and paper and not with scanners or printers and all the things that those in offices take for granted. That is often the case for many of my constituents. They have a desire to vote but no polling card because of an admin delay that is out of their control. That is just one example of where it can go wrong.
We ask people to use their vote, yet for some that is almost impossible. Back home, we have Northern Ireland Assembly elections, and—my hon. Friend will confirm this—a large number of elderly and ill voters have had their postal vote denied because they did not have a digital registration number on their application. We introduce some of this digital stuff, but there is a generation who do not understand how the system works, how to register or what digital actually means—I say that respectfully and I am one of them.
Many people cannot follow it, and I suspect that I am one of them.
The denial letter is sent with the DRN on it. Again, the elderly and ill people ask, “What does that DRN mean?” I say positively and constructively to the Minister that I believe she will replicate what we have done in Northern Ireland and probably do it better, having learnt from some of the mistakes made back home. How do I explain to an 87-year-old woman—I will not mention her name—that the electoral office needs information that she did not know that she had and that, because she has been denied her vote at this time, I will have to borrow a wheelchair to take her down to vote? We will do that on the day, and she has not left her home in two years. I say that because the digital process was lost on that lady, and it is lost on many others.
The digital registration number is essential according to the legislation, yet it means nothing in practice. She had used her national insurance number for the last 65 years of her life, yet all of a sudden that is not what the electoral office wants. She understands that, but she does not understand what the DRN is. Again, that is about looking at how we can make the system better.
I believe we are overcomplicating the system, and it is the ordinary person who is the loser. Those sitting in a room fraudulently filling out postal vote forms know all about DRN—they understand it, but this lady does not. She will make herself ill getting to the polling station because she will not miss her vote. Never mind that she has had a postal vote for that address for many elections, there is no room in the legislation for common sense.
My fear is that the Lords amendments do not go far enough and complicate matters, which is why I look to the Minister and the Government for suggestions on how to take the issue forward. I welcome Lords amendments 15 to 19, which include explicit reference to voting in secret and “independently”, and would place new statutory duties on the Electoral Commission to draw up new guidance to support an independent and secret vote at the polling station from 2023, consult relevant organisations in the production of that guidance, and hold returning officers to account for following that guidance. However, as the Royal National Institute of Blind People says, the key question will, of course, be whether blind and partially sighted voters have better experiences at polling stations in 2023 and beyond. On that, it is clearly too soon to say.
I know the Minister is keen. I know the comments she has made in the past on ensuring those who are visually impaired have the right to have the same opportunity to vote and a system they understand. I know the Minister wants to make sure that happens, but perhaps she could confirm that that will be the case.
I will conclude with this comment. There is an overarching theme that this legislation may not be hitting. That is to encourage people to vote and not set up hurdle after hurdle for those who are minded to vote. If people want to cast their vote and use their franchise, and if we want to ensure they have that opportunity in whatever way they can—it is right that they should—then I believe this House must ensure that people have that vote. I look forward very much to what the Minister will say. I cast my mind back to our experiences in Northern Ireland and what we have done. Do not feel threatened in any way by photo ID. It works for us; it can work for you.
I have listened to the debate with interest. As shown by the amendments tabled today in relation to the Electoral Commission, the Government have been receptive to the representations made by parliamentarians across both Houses and have sought to provide reassurance where possible.
Before I conclude, I thought I might pick up on a number of points raised by Members. The Opposition Front Bencher, Alex Norris, asked about the purpose of candidates’ addresses. It is right that candidates who live just outside the constituency they are standing for, but who do not wish to disclose their home addresses, are not at a disadvantage because their local connection may not be recognised. Using local authorities is a balanced approach to that, while also protecting their safety. On Report, this was a cross-party amendment, so I know that Opposition Members agree. The option is already available to candidates at local and mayoral elections across local authorities, and we think it is appropriate to extend that option to candidates at parliamentary elections.
The hon. Gentleman asked about funding. New burdens funding will be provided to cover additional costs as a result of the changes, so local authorities will not be required to find it from their existing budgets.
Christine Jardine is no longer in her place, but she made an intervention on the hon. Gentleman about the suppression of ethnic minority voters. She is quite wrong. Her assertion that black voters are less likely to have ID is based on a stereotype that arose in the US and was true during the Jim Crow era. We do not have Jim Crow in this country. We never did. It is an offensive stereotype. It is not just offensive but wrong to say that ethnic minorities do not have photo ID. All other things being equal, ethnic minority voters in this country are actually more likely to have photographic ID. Speaking for first-generation immigrants like myself—[Interruption.] I am not addressing the hon. Gentleman; I said the hon. Member for Edinburgh West. We should agree across the House that ethnic minorities should not be used as political footballs to make those sorts of silly points when there is no evidence. I am glad that he agrees with me. It is a shame that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West is not in her place.
John McDonnell raised the point about the strategy and policy statement, and he might be pleased with my clarification—I assumed that he was asking about everything in our new provisions on the strategy and policy statement. It will be subject to the approval of the UK Parliament and allow it a greater role in scrutinising the Electoral Commission. In applicable circumstances, the statement will be subject to statutory consultation to allow the views of key stakeholders to be considered before the draft statement is submitted for UK parliamentary approval. I think he will be pleased to hear that we tabled amendments (c), (h), (j) and (k) in lieu, which provide for enhanced parliamentary scrutiny—it is super-affirmative, as he mentioned—of a statement that has been subject to a statutory consultation by providing both Houses, with a supplementary opportunity to consider the draft statement and make representations before it is laid for approval.
However, not all changes to a statement will warrant a full statutory consultation, which is why, in some circumstances—if it is just a minor change—the Secretary of State will be able to disapply the statutory consultation requirement. The Government’s view is that it would be overly burdensome to apply enhanced parliamentary scrutiny to changes that did not warrant a statutory consultation.
The Scottish National party Members, the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), continued the theatrical representations that they have made during all stages of the Bill, repeatedly creating straw men that they could knock down and using so much circular reasoning that my head was spinning. We have covered those points many times, so I will not repeat them again, but I enjoy listening to them in these debates. I thank my hon. Friend Chris Clarkson, who was excellent in making a lot of rebuttals to the points that they and other members of the Bill Committee made.
I thank the hon. Members for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who very eloquently and strongly explained that voter turnout in Northern Ireland was not impacted by the introduction of photographic ID. That is yet another straw man. It is not true, and they said it far better than I ever could. The hon. Member for Strangford sought reassurances about a number of measures. I do not have the correct information to do so now, but I will ensure that my officials provide him with a comprehensive response.
I hope, in returning the Bill to their lordships, that hon. Members can send a clear message on the vital importance of ensuring that our elections remain secure, fair, transparent and up to date. The Bill delivers on the Government’s manifesto commitment to ensure the integrity of our elections and it will protect the right of all citizens to participate in our elections while feeling confident that the vote is theirs and theirs alone. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 22.