My Lords, while preparing this response to the gracious Speech, I found myself thinking about how different my speech today would have been if my party’s calls for the devolution of policing to Wales had been heeded and granted. I also thought about how, if we had full powers over elections devolved to us, there would be no threat to the ease with which we have cast our votes for generations in Wales.
However, with the confirmation of the UK Government’s intention to progress the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill beyond Committee in the Commons and the introduction of the electoral integrity Bill, we see this Government moving further and further away from the progressive politics and country that we on these Benches aspire to.
The intention to introduce new powers for the police to control protests is, above all, unnecessary and draconian. Police already have powers to limit protests to ensure safety. Protesters have the right to protest and express themselves under the Human Rights Act—a right that I and many others in this House have used to protest peacefully for causes that we believe in. The right to peaceful assembly has always been a crucial part of our democratic society, and these new laws undermine that right.
Like many others, I watched the presidential elections in America and was appalled by the reports of voter suppression, but the reality is that the UK is already emulating our transatlantic cousins. In the run-up to the 2019 general election, it was estimated that 17% of the UK population were not registered to vote. Individual voter registration has made the process far less easy than it was, and it has been the Tory party’s first step towards the UK version of voter suppression.
The electoral integrity Bill—was there ever such a misnomer?—continues that process with its emphasis on the introduction of voter ID cards, such as a passport or driving licence, for future elections. However, there is little evidence of voter fraud in the UK, with only one person convicted of personation and one person cautioned in 2019, as referred to by my noble friends Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard. Whatever gloss the Government try to put on this decision, it is a blatant and cynical attempt at making it harder for people to exercise their right to vote, and it is aimed at those they perceive as not being their voters. Welcome to voter suppression, UK style.
As ever, this gracious Speech is significant for what it does not contain. For those of us who live in Wales, the disappointment, although expected, is in the fact that it says nothing about our devolution settlements. Indeed, by their actions, this Government are bypassing and undermining the position of our devolved Governments, and there can be no better example of this than the way the shared prosperity fund is being allocated. My local town council—I refer the House to my membership of the council noted in my register of interests—was given details of the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund when our local MP visited. The shared prosperity fund has yet to begin, but it is to be billed, I believe, as a Brexit bonus, using money that would have gone to Europe and replacing the European Social Fund. I note that there is no reference to replacing all the money that would have come from the EU. Delivery of all these will be to and through councils, bypassing the Senedd and leaving it without the finances to plan and implement policies and projects on a nationwide basis, other than those funded through the basic Barnett formula. I have a number of questions on the issue, which I will submit as Written Questions, and I hope for a full response.
A week ago today, the people of Wales returned a new Senedd, with 44 of the 60 seats taken by parties which support either federalism or independence, seeing off the negative influence of UKIP, the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party and Reform. These parties now have no seats in our Senedd, thankfully, although I suspect that their voters turned to the Welsh Conservatives, who increased their numbers. Some Conservative candidates ran on an “Abolish the Welsh Assembly” ticket and I ask the Minister to confirm that this is not Welsh Conservative policy or, indeed, UK Conservative policy. What is clear is that there is an increased appreciation of the role of our devolved Administration and no mandate in Wales for anything other than increased autonomy for the nation.