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Queen’s Speech - Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:10 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Constitutional and Political Reform) 6:10 pm, 21st October 2019

My Lords, I wish to concentrate of the Government’s promise to,

“protect the integrity of democracy and the electoral system”.

It has been suggested that their intention is to address only an alleged, tiny and peripheral problem of impersonation at polling stations. I shall come back to that later. Far more important and urgent are a number of reforms which are necessary, and which have been the recommendation of the official bodies that advise Parliament, to make our electoral law fit for purpose.

First, following the Supreme Court judgment last year, election candidates and their agents need the clarity of the recent codes of practice from the Electoral Commission to be approved. Without them, the dividing line between national campaign and constituency campaign expenditure will remain a dangerous legal minefield for all those involved in elections.

Secondly, and similarly, it would be unthinkable to trigger a general election in the next few months without implementing the unanimous recommendation of the Information Commissioner’s Office, the Electoral Commission and the DCMS Select Committee that there must be effective transparency for all online political messages. This should apply especially within the short campaign period for an election and for a referendum, but the law must move on from the analogue age to embrace digital campaigning. Facebook and the other platforms have recognised the need for this, but surely it should not be left to those commercial organisations to protect the integrity of our electoral process.

Thirdly, legislation for a possible people’s vote referendum has already been drafted by the cross-party and non-party group that I convened last year. We were able to demonstrate that the objections of the Brexiteers that it would take too long to implement were unfounded. It could be done in weeks. Indeed, a legal source said today that it could be done in six weeks, as was the case in 1975. The timetable we presented to the Cabinet Office envisaged a one-clause paving Bill to enable the Electoral Commission to begin its consultations immediately, while the fuller Bill would remove the defects of the 2015 Act. The choice would be much simpler than in 2016. The Government’s proposal would have to be clearly stated in a White Paper as an alternative to the equally clear proposition of remaining exactly as we are now. Where there is a political will there must surely be a parliamentary way. If diehard MPs or Members of your Lordships’ House attempted to filibuster, they would surely be exposed as wishing to sabotage the “will of the people”—to use the expression that they themselves like to use.

Fourthly, in its recent report the Electoral Commission highlights the extent to which the register is neither complete or accurate; it should surely be a priority task for government to improve the integrity of the electoral system to make it as easy as possible for all eligible citizens—at home or abroad—to register and then to vote. We should be improving the number of people voting, rather than discouraging them from doing so as active citizens.

The commission chairman highlights that only 71% of young people aged 18 to 34 in Great Britain are correctly registered and that, overall, 17% of eligible voters here are not correctly registered at their current address. These are major defects and they require immediate attention. These issues must be taken alongside the entirely justifiable challenges put before your Lordships this afternoon by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, and echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, and my noble friend Lord Beith. Our constitutional settlement is very vulnerable.

By contrast, the incidence of fraud at the polling station is minuscule. The additional cost to local authorities of providing the new ID for the millions who have no passports or driving licences should itself be challenged as dubious value for money. More relevant, surely, would be to sort out the problem identified by the RNIB with the “tactile voting device” provided for blind and partially sighted electors. The court judgment that these arrangements are a,

“parody of the electoral process”,

should lead to urgent government action.

I appreciate that the Minister replying to this debate will not be able to answer all these points, but I expect a detailed response from the Cabinet Office Minister in due course—when one is recruited. Apparently, no Cabinet Office Minister is answerable to your Lordships’ House at the moment.

Meanwhile, I make a plea for a much needed change in the level of public discourse. It has fallen to very unsatisfactory depths. Ministers’ talk of “saboteurs”, “the surrender Act” and “the people versus Parliament” may suit the short-term machinations of Mr Cummings, but it is doing long-term damage to our body politic. In the Times on 2 October, Jenni Russell summed it up:

“Talk of betrayal will rebound on the Tories: Distrust is not a genie that can be put back in the bottle once those in power have exploited it”.

My noble friend Lord Paddick referred to the need for trust in our political system, and the noble Lord, Lord Cooper, pointed out recently that his focus groups were horrified by the extent to which people misunderstood what the Government were putting before them. Oversimplified slogans do not help to reinforce trust. Given that the only sure way to avoid years of Brexit bickering—whether with the Johnson deal or even no deal—is to stop Brexit now, the slogan “Get Brexit done” is a recipe for yet more disillusion, alienation and a genuine feeling of betrayal.