Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:38 pm on 13th May 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 2:38 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, the title of the proposed electoral integrity Bill is worthy of Newspeak from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Big Brother wants to protect us from a virtually non-existent threat.

The offence of stealing someone’s vote at a polling station is extremely rare. It is possible to determine exactly how many people go to vote to find that their vote has already been claimed by somebody else. When there is such a problem, a special ballot paper, known as a tendered ballot paper and printed on different-coloured paper, is issued by the presiding officer. If the number of such ballot papers may make a difference in an election, a determination can be made as to what has happened and which votes should count. Ministers have repeatedly refused to say how many such ballot papers have been issued in recent elections. That is because the answer is virtually none.

When the Electoral Reform Society asked returning officers for such details and made freedom of information requests a few years ago, the evidence was that the offence of personation is extremely rare. The Electoral Commission reports that in all the elections held during 2019, there was only one conviction.

So why are the Government introducing a Bill requiring photo ID when there may be millions of legitimate voters who do not have it? The reason is simply that those people are disproportionately younger, poorer and from diverse ethnic backgrounds—in other words, less likely to vote Conservative. The proposals for photo ID are expensive, irrelevant and a distraction from the things that people really wanted to see. They are unworthy of a British political party that claims to believe in fair elections.

There are many Conservative parliamentarians who strongly oppose the idea of Covid passports being required to visit the pub or other places so I look forward to them joining the former Secretary of State for Brexit, David Davis, and others in opposing the principle that any form of passport should be required to vote. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, himself said in his Daily Telegraph column a few years ago:

“Ask to see my ID card and I’ll eat it”.

They will not be made of chocolate.

Yesterday the former Conservative leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, shortly to join this House, tweeted that

“there are bigger threats from agents outside our borders than from someone who forgets to take their drivers’ licence (if they have one) to a polling station.”

I feel that I cannot quite quote the unparliamentary language that she used to describe this proposal in her interview, but the word begins with the letter “b”.

If the Government wanted elections to be fairer, they would be supporting the excellent electoral integrity Bill put forward by Unlock Democracy. They would also now be enacting a measure to halt the farcical process of topping up the membership of this House by holding by-elections amongst the registered hereditary Peers.

It is with some irony that I note how the by-elections now planned for another six hereditary Peers will be conducted by the alternative vote system, just as was the recent election for our Lord Speaker. What is good enough for us should also be good enough for electing mayors and police and crime commissioners. By seeking to abolish any form of preference voting for these positions, the Government are simply setting out to make it easier for Conservatives to be elected even when most voters would prefer to have someone else.

Lastly, the Prime Minister announced yesterday that there will be a public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Two years ago, he delayed publication of the report into Russian interference in our democracy until after the general election. Is the real reason for abolishing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act so that the timing of general elections can be manipulated to avoid scrutiny of such reports during an election campaign?

Prime Ministers should not be able to play games like this. When a Prime Minister can determine the date of a general election, they are playing with loaded dice and obtain an unfair advantage for their party. In football we would never allow the winners of the Premier League to arrange the fixture programme for the following season, and we should not let a Prime Minister be able to fire the starting gun in the race for their re-election.