Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:23 pm on 13th May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Conservative 3:23 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, I begin by adding my voice to those who have welcomed our two new Members, my noble friend Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie and the noble Baroness, Lady Merron—a very judicious and measured speech from the first and a very moving and uplifting one from the second, both demonstrating the way in which your Lordships’ counsels are elevated and enriched by the diversity of experience that individual Members bring to the House.

The words

“electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic”,

were used by a judge in describing some industrialised postal vote fraud in Birmingham in 2005. That phrase stuck with me, because I have what may be the slightly unusual distinction of having served as an election observer in two actual, literal banana republics, in the sense of being republics dependent on the banana crop, Nicaragua and Ecuador. What we saw in Birmingham would have been completely impossible in both those places because, in common with most Latin American countries, they have a form of photo ID, known as a cédula. When you apply to register to vote, you get a little card; it is no different from registering to vote here, except that you have a form of identification. These are countries beset by illiteracy, where there are remote villages that are cut off and do not have electricity or a clear supply of drinking water, yet they do not find that requiring a measure of identification is a vote suppressor. So please let us not make the inaccurate and insulting insinuation that people would somehow be unable to vote in Great Britain as they do in Northern Ireland.

Of course, the tightening of rules on electoral fraud go well beyond personation. That has been the issue picked up by noble Lords in this House, understandably, but there are many more significant measures in the Bill that will come before us, dealing with the harvesting of postal and proxy votes and, not least, intimidation of voters and candidates. I hope that at least on those issues there will be a measure of unity on all sides, because there is no question of any real flesh-and-blood person being prevented from voting. The only people who would be prevented from voting exist only virtually, as ghosts or theories, not as real human beings.

I want to take on the argument that underlines a lot of this debate—an assumption that sounds plausible but which turns out to be specious—which is that the way to encourage participation is to make the act of voting easier. That sounds reasonable enough but, in fact, the proposition was tested under the Blair Governments. There were all sorts of experiments with e-voting, text voting and ballot boxes in supermarkets, and none of it served to increase turnout. Could it be that we in fact want a little bit of ceremoniousness, so that people take the act of voting more seriously—and in fact that if you make it too easy you cheapen participation? If people are filling in a ballot at their kitchen table while half-watching “Line of Duty”, they are not taking it as seriously as they would with that little bit of ritual of having to go to present their card at a physical polling station. After all, the act of casting a vote in coldly transactional terms is actually quite difficult to justify. What are the odds of your ballot changing anything significant? It needs to stand as a form of civic obligation.

On which note: although I strongly agreed with what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, said about devolution and localism, I must take issue with the verb that she used when she talked about “denying” the vote to 16 and 17 year-olds. It was only a couple of weeks ago in this very seat that I heard voices from every Bench speaking in favour of raising the age of consent for Botox treatment from 16 to 18. On every side of the House noble Lords said that it was just bringing it in line with all the other legislation that we have—you cannot get a tattoo until you are 18, you cannot use a sunbed until you are 18, you cannot buy a bottle of wine or a knife. Are we seriously saying that people should not be treated as legal adults in all those other respects but should, through the ballot box, be allowed to circumscribe the liberty and property of their fellow citizens? Let people grow up to the right to vote and treat the ballot with a little more seriousness and ceremoniousness, as well as a bit more security. That is how you will get people to value the franchise that they exercise.