Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:08 pm on 13th May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Constitutional and Political Reform) 2:08 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, according to Mr Johnson, the public “don’t give a monkey’s” whether he and his party have cheated and broken electoral law, so did the election results last week bear him out? They did up to a point; 36% voted for his candidates and 64% did not. Taking turnout into account, he could claim about 15% of the eligible electorate.

Trust is an essential ingredient in our democracy. Trust in our system of governance and in those who currently exercise it is dangerously low. We do not have to go far to discover why: the public do not recognise, in the Government, respect for the seven Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. It is very timely that the Committee on Standards in Public Life is now examining the extent to which these principles are being adhered to. It will have to add the Government’s legislative proposals to its analysis.

The absurdly misnamed electoral integrity Bill should be high on this list. Evidence of the alleged problem of fraudulent voting in polling stations is virtually non-existent; there was just one conviction out of the 47.5 million people who were registered to vote in the 2019 general election, and I discovered that that case had nothing to do with fraud. The offender was told that he was not on the register, so he picked up a ballot box to try to prevent others voting.

No. 10 is so weak in its supporting arguments that it claims that photo IDs are necessary for taking out library books and collecting a parcel, which simply is not true. It is a poor advert for a Bill when Ministers have to employ obvious lies and exaggeration to justify it. Its real purpose is to exclude those eligible electors who are less likely to vote Conservative, up to 3 million people who at the moment have no photo ID, comprising of older people, some ethnic groups and new vote attainers in particular. That is straight out of the Trump-Republican voter suppression gambit. To increase trust, we should be insisting on more thorough registration of those who are entitled to vote, not driving them away.

The other related proposal seems designed to increase the number of overseas-resident millionaires who can donate to the Conservative Party. This should be read alongside the proposals from Mr Gove and his colleagues in the Cabinet Office to hugely increase the limits on national party campaign spending. Taken with the attempt to overturn the court judgments on the responsibility of candidates and their agents for spending in constituency campaigns, this is a deliberate plan to reduce the integrity of elections. Millions more could be spent in target seats, with inadequate transparency. The Government should instead be addressing the known weakness of the transparency of lobbying Act. As Mr Cameron himself said, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Meanwhile, the Home Secretary is apparently attempting to undo Parliament’s relatively recent insistence that metro mayors and police and crime commissioners should receive effective majority support to qualify themselves for wide-ranging individual powers. Fiddling the electoral system there, just because Tories benefit from the distortions of the first past the post system, is hardly conducive to trust and integrity. Taking a rigorous look at the proven illegality of leave campaigners in the 2016 referendum, and publishing in full all the evidence of foreign interference, then and since, including that from the Russians, would be genuinely addressing the lack of electoral integrity.

The Government are seeking to concentrate more power in the hands of the Prime Minister, with the right to dissolve or prorogue Parliament at a time to suit his own and his party’s interests. I have recently re-read the 1976 Dimbleby lecture of the former Lord Chancellor Viscount Hailsham, a true Tory if ever there were one. He reminded us, as has the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, today, that the Government are accountable to Parliament, not the other way round. Lord Hailsham cited the dissolution power as an example—one of many—of what he warned was an insidious slide from parliamentary democracy into “elective dictatorship”. He also, incidentally, showed how even then, 45 years ago, the electoral system had failed to keep up with the changes in British society, and recommended a fresh look at the case for more representative democracy.

Last Thursday, the majority of those who voted in English local council elections were cheated of any impact on the result. Now that their Scottish fellow citizens are already benefiting from better representation, with the Welsh soon to follow, surely it is intolerable that the English should be so disadvantaged on such a crucial democratic level, in our so-called United Kingdom. That really is an issue of electoral integrity and one that must urgently be addressed if trust is to be restored.