Amendment 145

Elections Bill - Committee (5th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 10:30 pm on 23rd March 2022.

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock:

Moved by Baroness Hayman of Ullock

145: Clause 12, page 14, line 34, at end insert—“(c) on that date a red notice has not been issued in respect of the individual by Interpol.”Member’s explanatory statementThis probing amendment would prevent those who have been issued a red notice by Interpol from being overseas electors.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I have tabled my Amendments 146 and 147 mainly to probe what kind of checks and balances are taking place for who can register for a vote as an overseas elector. This is because our main concern about the overseas elector section of the Bill is that it could undermine the integrity of our electoral process if not done well. I have mentioned in previous debates concerns raised by local government and others about the pressures on our councils and election teams, which are already overworked and underresourced. These changes to who can register as an overseas elector will in some areas greatly add to the pressures and workload, so they will need support in making sure that everyone who applies is a proper person to be on the register.

I also draw attention to the fact that we are very worried that the proposed changes could create a loophole in donation law that would allow donors unlimited access to our democracy—in other words, foreign money to be able to bankroll election campaigns from potential offshore tax havens. I will not go into any detail now, because we are going to debate this in some detail on Monday.

Whether we agree with removing the 15-year limit or not, it does not seem right to me that expats will be granted more flexibility in registering a right to vote than some people living in this country. My noble friend Lord Collins will talk about this in the next debate.

I want to briefly talk to my Amendment 148. The issue of sanctions is pertinent at the moment, given Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has led to new legislation and designations of Russian individuals and businesses. This has shone a light on the complexities of sanctions legislation and the importance of the entire statute book complying with such declarations. The purpose of this amendment is to highlight that election law must too be implemented in accordance with any sanctions legislation. There is clear evidence that Putin’s regime has sought to undermine democracies around the world, and it is entirely possible that, in the future, it may seek to do the same in relation to the UK. For this reason, public bodies in the UK that organise and facilitate elections must work closely with the bodies responsible for maintaining our compliance with sanctions. Ultimately, this means ensuring that sanctioned individuals play no role in elections. But given the complexities of holding elections, this is easier said than done. That is why we have tabled this amendment—in the hope that the Minister is able to explain how the Government can help to ensure that elections are held with consideration of sanctions legislation, to prevent foreign interference from hostile actors. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I wish to speak to the two amendments in my name, Amendments 147A and 147B. They are meant to be helpful, in the same way that the amendments I put down on postal voting numbers and handing them back at city halls or town halls were meant to be helpful—helpful in the sense that they come from briefings from and discussions with those who administer the elections. What those people are saying is that they welcome the move from annual to three-yearly registrations for overseas voters, but that the new three-year period might not help with the administrative burden because general elections can be five years apart. Therefore, people registering late and not every three years, as the tendency is, will mean that the problem from the impact assessment that the Government are trying to solve—about late registrations posing

“challenges for persons who choose to vote by postal ballot and live further away from the UK” in getting their vote back—may not be solved by what the Government are doing.

I seek clarification from the Government. What advice has come back from the discussions they have had with electoral registration officers? Do they feel it would solve the problem to move to the three-year gap or that, in their view, a five-year period for re-registration would help to deal with the problem that the Government identify in their own impact assessment?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 10:45 pm, 23rd March 2022

My Lords, overseas voting extension is an important part of this Bill, one of the many bits that is substantially changing the pattern of voting. It could add a couple of million extra voters and deserves better than the treatment it is getting at present. Some of us may wish to discuss whether we will oppose Clause 12 standing part on Report just to make sure we have a proper discussion. I have been struck, in everything I have read and discussed with Ministers and officials, by the fact that this has not been thought through and has been poorly prepared. If I were unduly suspicious, I would say that Ministers are more interested in getting donations from people who will then come on to the register than they are in really getting proper overseas representation.

We know where this comes from: the campaign that Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, when he was head of the Conservative Party’s international office, took to encourage overseas voters, particularly retired British expatriates in Spain and France, to register. Academic research that I found, which the Minister, when I spoke to him, appeared to be unaware of, showed that the distribution of votes—I do not know whether the Minister is listening to me; he may not be interested—in constituencies had been lopsided from the start. It was always concentrated in London and the south-east. Now, it continues to be very lopsided. The Minister said that he was unaware of the distribution of votes by constituency. I found it out quite easily, through the Office for National Statistics. I am sorry it was not available to him. It ranges from over 2,000 in several north London constituencies, to 25 or so in various Welsh constituencies. If we double that, the maldistribution of overseas voters in different constituencies will entirely undo the redrawing of the boundaries to make them more accurate, which is just going through.

The academic research in the mid-1990s suggested that two-thirds of overseas voters in 1992 had voted Conservative, but only in small numbers. After the introduction of individual electoral registration allowed Conservatives abroad to mount a registration drive on individual registration from abroad, numbers rose from 33,000 in 2010 to 106,000 in 2015. The Conservative Party International Office encouraged targeted donations from abroad to marginal seats in the 2015 general election, showing that donations were a very important part of this. After the referendum, the numbers registered surged to over 300,000, which perhaps suggests that the Conservative assumption that they are all going to vote Conservative may have been a little shakier than they had intended.

There are many weaknesses with the proposals as they currently stand. First, in a Bill that tightens identity checks for domestic voters, the identity checks for overseas voters are extremely weak. Furthermore, the Government do not know who the overseas citizens are, how many of them there are or where they live. I put down a series of Written Questions six months ago, and the answers I got to most of these was “We do not have the figures”. I asked the Foreign Office what information it had, and it said that it plays no role in the registration of overseas voters and it does not expect to play any role in assisting them to vote. If the Minister had looked at comparisons of the way in which other Governments handle overseas voting, he would have noted that embassies and high commissions play a very active role in this. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, reminded me that the largest polling station in Australia is at the other end of the Strand in London. The British Government apparently do not want to get involved in that, and it would be very complicated.

The problem we were discussing about digitisation and how to get the balance out and then get them back in a short campaign, remains and is already a grievance with overseas voters.

The absence of preparation, therefore, is absolutely clear. The problem of how you identify fraud is very considerable if the Government have such little information on where citizens are and who they might be. The identification checks are very weak, and the powers given to the Secretary of State to take whatever measures he thinks appropriate to provide information campaigns suggest that a particular Secretary of State might decide that Portugal, Spain, Italy or France are where he wants to concentrate their efforts, rather than on those who retired to Jamaica or southern Nigeria or Pakistan.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Or Belgium: exactly. There are many weaknesses in this. We put down another amendment, which comes in the next group, suggesting that the appropriate answer is overseas constituencies. The idea that people should vote in constituencies in which they have not lived for 50 years is absolutely absurd. My conversation with my local ERO suggested that trying to check on whether they actually have lived there or not might prove an impossible task.

This is a very shaky part of the Bill. My conversation with the Minister and officials suggests that they have not thought this through; it seems the Minister is not interested in thinking it through any further. I suspect, therefore, that it is the donations that they are really interested in, and this leaves me very discontented with this part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I want to ask some technical questions, without necessarily knowing what the correct answer is myself. I hope that the Minister, if he is not able to answer today, would be prepared to write to provide a further explanation.

I start by referring to some of the text of Clause 12. On page 14, line 13, under the new section “Extension of parliamentary franchise”, there are various conditions that a person has to satisfy. They have to be,

“not subject to any legal incapacity to vote (age apart)” et cetera. I take it—perhaps the Minister can consult the Box to get an answer to this—that that is to make sure that nobody overseas registers who is under age. I assume that is the meaning of that. If I am wrong about that, then there might be a whole set of questions arising, but that seems to be the common-sense explanation for those two words in brackets.

I want to move on to the next page of the same clause. New Section 1B is headed,

“British citizens overseas: entitlement to be registered”.

The proposed new section sets out that, essentially, there are two ways in which one can qualify to be registered. The first is as a former elector in a United Kingdom constituency. There will be discussions about that, I am sure, but the second is what I want to focus on at the moment. The second condition is that you were a former resident in a UK constituency. We already know that there is quite a large number of people who are not registered, because we discussed earlier on that the Electoral Commission’s estimate is that in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, there are somewhere between 8.6 million and 9.8 million people who are currently resident but not on the electoral roll. There is, therefore, quite a large pool of people who, presumably in approximately equal proportion, will be overseas now. There is no special preference for people who have registered being the people who have migrated.

So my question is: does this legislation grant voting rights to someone who left the UK with their parents as a baby and moved to Switzerland, say, to claim their vote alongside their parents, once they reach the age of 18 overseas? If it does, I note that there does not seem to be any requirement for that baby to have been born in the United Kingdom; they need to establish only that they were resident here. As far as I can tell, there is no specified minimum period for that residence.

I will take a case that is not entirely hypothetical. Parents who came to the United Kingdom, having been working in Ghana, with a baby who was born in England, move to Switzerland six months later. It seems that nothing is set out in the legislation to prevent that baby from claiming their vote on reaching 18 while still living overseas. I want to check that I have not misunderstood what the legislation is saying there and that, by virtue of that brief period of residence, they would be eligible to vote and—I suppose I could add—to make a donation. If that is true, I know of two British nationals now in their 50s who will be very happy to take up the offer.

But I want to know whether that really is the extension to the franchise that the Government want or whether I have actually missed something and, in some other part of the RPA—or Schedule 9 or goodness knows where else—there is something that would prevent that absurd outcome.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I will first answer the noble Lord, Lord Stunell: it is late and I do not have all the answers, but we will get a letter to him as soon as we can to answer his questions.

Amendment 146 seeks to place a time limit on overseas electors’ connections with the UK. Imposing a new time limit, albeit a longer one, does not deliver on our manifesto commitment to introduce votes for life. The Government’s view is that any time limit is arbitrary in an increasingly global and connected world. Length of time outside the UK is not a certain indicator of how a person feels about their British identity or a measure of the interest that they take in this country’s future. The Bill sets a sensible boundary for the overseas franchise. Previous registration or residence denotes a strong degree of connection to the UK.

Amendments 145, 147 and 148 seek to prevent people who have committed offences or been sanctioned under the described Acts, or those who are subject to an Interpol red notice, from registering as overseas electors. Domestic electors are not required to declare whether they have ever committed offences under the Acts described, and the Government will not impose these requirements on overseas electors. Overseas electors would be subject to the same restrictions as domestic electors in respect of offences relating to personation and postal vote fraud that result in a temporary bar from voting upon a person being convicted or named as personally guilty of that offence.

In a situation where a domestic elector would not be permanently barred from voting, we would wish to treat an overseas elector equally—

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

The Minister has just said that exactly the same restrictions would apply to overseas voters as to voters in the UK. If an overseas voter had been sent to prison in Switzerland, say, for 18 months, would they be able to vote from prison there, or would we have a mechanism for making sure that they were not competent to vote in that situation?

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I think that is a hypothetical question, but I shall certainly get a legal opinion on it.

On Amendment 148, as the noble Baroness said, all those issues on sanctions should be dealt with on Monday, within the group on donations, if she does not mind. I think that is the sensible place to have that debate. Therefore, I urge her not to press the amendments.

Moving on, Amendments 147A and 147B seek to increase the period for which an overseas elector would be registered to vote without having to renew their overseas declaration from three to five years. The Government cannot accept this amendment as it would create a cycle that is unworkable in practice for overseas electors and electoral administrators. This is because the three-year declaration renewal cycle provided for in the Bill ties in with the need to reapply for a new postal vote every three years, provided for elsewhere in the Bill.

For obvious reasons, most overseas electors vote by post. Combining the two saves the elector time and the administrator—therefore, ultimately, the taxpayer—money. It also means that more overseas electors will remain properly registered to vote, with an absent vote arrangement already in place before an election is called. This will reduce the need for last-minute applications, close to elections, which threaten to overwhelm administrators and leave the elector without a vote. This amendment would break the cycle and therefore lose the benefits that I have just described.

I assure the noble Lord that the approach taken by the Government to extend the registration period for overseas electors to three years from 12 months currently was developed closely with electoral administrators. It was felt by them that a three-year registration period reflects the fact that overseas electors can vote only in UK parliamentary elections, which typically happen every four years or so.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat 11:00 pm, 23rd March 2022

The five-year period in my amendment comes from a briefing from Solace. Could I suggest that further discussion takes place to see whether something has happened since the original discussion?

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I shall certainly ask the team to go back and check. I do not know whether it was Solace or another group that has been working with the policy team on this. We will check that out for the noble Lord and see why there is a difference.

Furthermore, the Bill carefully balances the need to ensure that registers are kept accurate and that overseas electors’ contact details are up to date, which is particularly important to ensure that they receive a postal ballot. I hope the noble Lord will consider these points and not press his amendments

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response. I will just make a couple of points. One is that there is quite a bit of concern about this part of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, talked about concerns about proper checks, which is what we are very concerned about—making sure that those checks are done so that the people who are asking to come on to the register who have not been in this country for a long time are proper people to come on to the register, and the checks and balances have taken place properly and correctly. Also, if that is going to happen, what about the support for local authorities and election teams? It could be a lot of work in some areas. At some point, it would be good to return to this issue.

I completely take the Minister’s point about looking at sanctions in more detail in the debate on Monday. That is a particularly important thing that we need to spend some time on, even if the broader debate is not one that the Government want to spend time on. We need to look at that. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 145 withdrawn.

Amendments 146 to 148 not moved.

Clause 12 agreed.