Ballot Secrecy Bill [HL] - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords at 12:13 pm on 15 July 2022.

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Lord Hayward:

Moved by Lord Hayward

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative

My Lords, on 18 July 1872, almost exactly 150 years ago to the day, what is now known as the Ballot Act received Royal Assent. On 15 August 1872, 150 years ago bar one month, a secret ballot was used for the first time in Pontefract in a by-election, which the Liberals won.

The Ballot Act presumed very clearly that people should have the right to vote in secret without being accompanied or intimidated in the way they vote. What we have now, unfortunately, is something called family voting. This has been a matter of discussion for a number of years and it sounds wonderfully friendly, but friendly it is not. It is a form of intimidation of people, usually females, when they are casting their vote, because somebody else is accompanying them to the polling booth. It is a very difficult situation for polling station officers and presiding officers to control, because on many occasions, as all noble Lords will recognise, the presiding officer is a female, and if they approach a male saying, “You should not be there”, they feel intimidated. I shall refer to that in a minute.

The issue of family voting has been a subject for discussion for about a decade. The Electoral Commission has looked at this and provided guidance in one form or another to polling station officers, the police and others in an effort to ensure that there is no accompanying family voting in any form whatever. But it is not a problem that is going away. This is an issue that the Electoral Commission has repeatedly addressed and attempted to resolve by giving more and more guidance. It has been around for a decade. Last autumn I wrote to the Electoral Commission and the Met and asked them what they were going to do in relation to family voting. In January I received the normal assurances: it is being tackled; there is training available; we will deal with it with presiding officers and the police. The Minister wrote to the Electoral Commission and the Metropolitan Police, and in early April received exactly the same response: it was all being dealt with. So it would be reasonable to presume that it was not a problem, but the Democracy Volunteers report, to which I will refer in a few moments, identified that it is still a very serious problem indeed.

As I have identified, this is essentially a problem of men standing alongside women and telling them how to vote, or female presiding officers not having the confidence to challenge the men. When I raised this on a television programme recently, a lady from Harrow wrote to me that she had complained because she had witnessed this family voting happening. When the presiding officer, a female, went to the male concerned and he refused to respond, the presiding officer had no other force of law on which she could act.

Democracy Volunteers, an excellent organisation, has produced its report on the most recent local elections. It did surveys right across the country, and I quote from its report:

“Our team of observers saw several challenges to the electoral process … focused around the challenge of family voting ... Our team saw family voting in 25% of all the polling stations we observed.”

That is not just polling stations in Tower Hamlets—one knows that that is where all the attention has been. In Newham, 36% of polling stations were observed to have this problem at some stage. Lewisham and Croydon had 35%. All these are worse than Tower Hamlets, which was more than 30%, but in Northern Ireland—showing that this is a national problem—family voting took place in an almost unbelievable 42% of polling stations observed.

So, what is the current state? Efforts have been made—I referred to the training that has been undertaken—but when you raise the subject, you tend to get three basic replies. One is that the law already covers this issue. This is the response I got from the officials. If it does cover the issue, why does the Electoral Commission guidance not identify that there is a specific offence in law? Secondly, it seems to be viewed as just a Tower Hamlets problem. Even if it were, that would be bad enough, but I have just cited cases across the country and it has been running for a decade. The decade for which people have been looking at it is crucial, because the other response one gets is, “We will aim for consistent and effective enforcement”. The only thing that is consistent is the ineffective enforcement, as shown by the figures from Democracy Volunteers.

I specifically asked the Electoral Commission on 20 April 2022 whether it is

“against the law, except in specific circumstances to be present, or attempt to be present, in a polling booth while another person is casting their vote”.

Shaun McNally, the new chief executive, responded with great clarity to my question on 22 April, saying that

“there is no offence in law … as you have described … it would represent a breach of polling procedure”.

We therefore have a direct conflict between what officials in the department and the Electoral Commission are saying. You cannot have effective action if the law is unclear. When there is clear law, the guidance and the actions available to the polling station staff and police will be clearer.

I have had very good conversations with the Electoral Commission in the last few weeks. I put on the record my thanks to Mr McNally and his staff for their assistance on this. They have now agreed to seek counsel’s opinion on their interpretation of the law. This is enormously helpful. Mr McNally has even offered that I should be involved in drafting the inquiry to counsel. If counsel’s opinion says that the Electoral Commission is correct, my Bill is necessary and the guidance could be changed to emphasise the breach of law. If counsel’s opinion says that the officials’ interpretation is correct, the guidance can be changed without any change to the law and be much more emphatic. We await counsel’s opinion, but in the meantime I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Chief Whip (Lords), Deputy Chairman of Committees 12:22, 15 July 2022

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, on securing his Private Member’s Bill and getting it so early in the ballot. I was not so successful but my Bill got out of the traps yesterday, so we are well away too. Many of us in this House have stood for elections, won them and lost them, and I am sure that we are all democrats. We need to ensure that all our elections are free from abuse, intimidation and fraud. It is just wrong that people can have their opinions stolen from them and that people act in an illegal manner.

This is a small Bill—only one clause—but it is really important, for the reasons the noble Lord has outlined. It is a small amendment to the Representation of the People Act 1983 to help deal with intimidation at polling stations. In many cases, we know it happens only in specific areas; it is not a problem everywhere in the country, generally speaking, but we can all pinpoint areas where there can be problems. Having said that, I hope that, when we get a new Prime Minister, they will look at the whole issue of our electoral law, which desperately needs some revamping and bringing up to date. I have been asking for this for many years; I am always told that it is coming soon, but it never arrives. I hope it will happen. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, was absolutely right about the Ballot Act 1872. Before that, intimidation, abuse and all sorts of dreadful practices were commonplace.

Lutfur Rahman was elected mayor of Tower Hamlets in 2014 but then found guilty of corrupt practices and, quite rightly, disqualified. It is a matter of great regret that he was able to return and get elected this May. Most people found guilty of corrupt practices would disappear, never to be seen again. Sadly, at the end of his ban, he has reappeared and got himself elected again, which is very worrying.

I am also conscious of some of the reports of people being told, “You must vote for Lutfur Rahman” in that Tower Hamlets election in 2014. The BBC did a report into corrupt practices and found that there were issues at up to a third of polling stations. As the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said, 85% of people affected were women, which is absolutely dreadful. It is appalling that this can be going on in our democracy today. One of the people the BBC interviewed was a guy called Azmal Hussain, who said that he had been intimidated and his vehicle damaged. That is absolutely appalling.

The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, also mentioned the Electoral Commission, of which I used to be a member. It is a great body that does lots of good work, but the noble Lord made that point about guidance—it is guidance; it is not actually written down in legislation. That is one of the problems we have here and why this Bill is so important. We cannot just leave it to the commission to issue guidance. We need actual Acts of Parliament where these things are outlawed, because at the moment it is ambiguous and unclear, and people can interpret the guidance in all sorts of different ways. That is the problem.

We need this Bill. I hope the Minister will give a positive response to it when he speaks, because I think it is important and necessary. I again congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, on his Bill, and I look forward to supporting it. As I said on an earlier Bill, I hope that we do not get any amendments to it, because we want to get it off to the House of Commons quickly with no useful amendments, no matter how good they are. The Bill itself deals with the problem, and we should let it get to the House of Commons as quickly as we can.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 12:26, 15 July 2022

My Lords, the provisions in this Bill were debated during the passage of the Elections Act earlier this year, and the principles behind it have our strong support.

As the noble Lords, Lord Hayward and Lord Kennedy, both said, it was 150 years ago that the Ballot Act 1872 first required parliamentary and local government elections in the UK to be conducted by secret ballot. Prior to that legislation, tenants feared eviction if they did not vote as their landlord would have wished; small retailers feared that they could not vote against the wishes of their bigger customers and risk losing business; and with no spending limits yet in place, candidates could bribe voters and check that they had voted as they had agreed. The principle of the secret ballot had been a key aim of the Chartists, and it is an essential democratic principle—but it can be undermined, and this Bill addresses concerns about polling stations.

However, my major concern about ballot secrecy is not with polling stations but with postal votes. The system is too open to abuse. In the Rochdale constituency in the 2010 general election, several hundred postal votes were submitted on which the “X” next to the name of the Liberal Democrat candidate Paul Rowen, the Member since 2005, was either crossed out or tippexed out, and the ballot papers then showed crosses next to the name of the Labour candidate. I do not seek to make a party-political point but just to demonstrate how postal voting can breach principles of secrecy.

Too often, a family may fill in their ballots at the same time under the watchful eye of someone acting as the head of the household—if they do fill it in themselves. It was because of concerns such as these that I led the opposition to a move by the Labour Government in 2004 to abolish polling stations and make voting in four English regions in the local and European elections that year by postal ballot only. Some Members of the House may remember that we sent that proposal back to the Commons about five times before Conservative Peers eventually backed down and let the measure go through. The eventual outcry meant that the pilots were never rolled out. I hope that the Labour Front Bench will note that Conservative Peers at that point were not at all reticent when they were in opposition about blocking measures they considered to be an abuse of democratic principles.

The need for the measures in this Bill has been questioned by government Ministers, but there is an obvious lack of clarity on the issue because, as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, said, advice from Ministers and the Electoral Commission has differed. It is not satisfactory to say that the practice of family voting is already illegal, because the practice is not uncommon and is not always prevented.

A visible police presence at polling stations is a critical part of preventing electoral fraud, but even where police are present, so-called family voting still occurs. As has been said, the Democracy Volunteers organisation witnessed this practice taking place in about a quarter of the polling stations it observed in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in May this year. It says that it is a national problem, not just one confined to Tower Hamlets.

The question I hope the Minister will address is: if the practice is already illegal and the Bill unnecessary, why is it sometimes so prevalent? The Electoral Commission guidance for polling stations makes no reference to the practice being against the law. Perhaps the QC’s opinion will confirm the illegality of the practice and the Electoral Commission guidance will be changed to reflect this. Presiding officers and the police will then be more able to prevent it. Unless and until we have that clarity, the Bill is necessary.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, for his tenacity in pursuing this issue. I close by saying that it is 29 years to the month since I was overseeing my party’s campaign in the Christchurch parliamentary by-election, which prevented his return to the other place. He may not have thanked me at the time, but the result eventually enabled him to play a distinguished role in this Chamber and for us to become good friends on opposing Benches. On this measure, we agree.

Photo of Viscount Waverley Viscount Waverley Crossbench 12:31, 15 July 2022

My Lords, I apologise to the House for speaking—briefly—in the gap, but there is more to this Private Member’s Bill than immediately meets the eye. I speak in support of the essential need for the UK always to strive for gold standards, with clarity in guidance essential in these processes.

Also, what we do in this country is noted globally. If I may borrow the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, from her intervention on the previous Bill, standards really matter. There are messages for the Commonwealth and OSCE countries that we should be encouraging to adopt this very important measure.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour 12:32, 15 July 2022

My Lords, I am also taking advantage of the gap to make a brief contribution. The Chartist demand for a secret ballot was one of the essential ingredients of today’s modern democracy and it is, as has been mentioned, 150 years since the Secret Ballot Act was passed, which is a bedrock of our system. I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, in his introduction to the Bill and, although I am cautious about changing the law in this area, I appreciate the point he makes about the need for clarity. Therefore, I give the Bill a cautious Second Reading welcome, but some issues need to be considered further in Committee, and I shall mention just one or two.

The phrase in subsection (1)(b), “intention of influencing” will need further probing. I, like many noble Lords, have been in polling stations over many years. At what stage might it be considered in the mind of a presiding officer that someone is positioning themselves too close with the intention of influencing someone’s casting of a ballot? We do not want our polling stations full of police. They routinely go round to check that everything is all right, but we want to make sure that polling stations are not changed in a way that would render the business of voting less straightforward.

I also welcome subsection (3) about the Bill not applying to people under the age of 18, for a very simple reason. I may not be the only person in this Chamber who has taken their children to vote when they were younger. It was 30 years ago this year that I took my daughter to vote. I think it must have influenced her, because no less than 15 years’ later, she was selected as the youngest parliamentary candidate of either party—I was amazed. It instils in every young person a respect for the ballot process, and that is an important safeguard. No one taking their children in to enable them to see them voting is doing anything wrong.

I will leave my remarks there. As I said, there are one or two things that are worth exploring in Committee, but on balance I am here to vote in favour of the Second Reading.

Photo of Baroness Uddin Baroness Uddin Non-affiliated 12:35, 15 July 2022

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for enabling me to say something in the gap. I welcome the clarity sought by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, in seeking to make sure that the law applies fully and that people understand their obligations in the process of casting their ballot.

I will make two points. Every time the issue of secret ballots or women being influenced to vote or being under duress comes up, Tower Hamlets is the very first borough that is mentioned. I always take deep offence at that, primarily on the basis that not all women are under duress to vote—not even 25%, in my experience. I have been knocking on doors on behalf of the Labour Party as a member of that party for more than four decades. I remember, even at the age of 18, trying to knock on doors where there were women to try to influence them on behalf of the Labour Party to say that if they were not going to come out to vote and they did not understand, I was sure that their husband, their fathers or their families would inform them of how to vote. The practice has occurred over a number of decades, as has been said by all noble Lords. However, I deeply object to the assumption that this is about some women—Bangladeshi or Muslim—who maybe do not have sufficient understanding of the electoral system. For me, these women, who are voting in vast numbers, are maybe in the second or third generation, and I do not believe that that is the case.

This time, I went around a number of voting stations in particular. It is a fact that Lutfur Rahman has returned with a democratic mandate, and we ought to remember that. Not all things reported in the media to groups that are looking for issues with an agenda may be truthful. We have to be very careful. I agree wholly with the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, that we have to be incredibly careful about suggesting that there is an intention to influence and what the rationales are.

My final point is that, as the mother of a son with disabilities, I have often gone into the booth with my son, and I have always been stopped by polling officers. I have never seen them being intimidated either by me or my husband when my husband has accompanied him. We ought to be very careful when the assumption is that a group of women is particularly prone to be influenced by a certain group of men because they have no voice. I state on record that the women of Tower Hamlets have an absolute right to vote in whoever they want and that not all of them are under duress. We ought to be very careful when we legislate on the assumption that some groups of women have no voice. The very fact we suggest this means that we assume that there is no voice and that they have no ability to make their own mind up on whom they wish to have as their representative.

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) 12:39, 15 July 2022

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, for introducing his Bill on this issue. We have had quite a lively discussion around it. Obviously, it creates new offences for individuals who accompany a voter to a polling booth or who position themselves nearby with the intention of influencing that voter. It was good that the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, picked up on this issue of how standards matter. Of course, they matter in so many areas, and in fact none is more important than in voting and ensuring that our voting systems in this country are absolutely of the highest quality.

Family voting was previously raised during the passage of the Elections Act, and the noble Lord made very serious points during that debate. It is good that he has picked them up again in this Bill. We have heard examples today from the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, himself, and from my noble friend Lord Kennedy, of abuse and corrupt practices in the current system. There has also been discussion about the importance of clarity from the Government on what exactly the current law is and the current guidance is. I have seen the information from the Electoral Commission and, as the noble Lord Hayward, said, it is a bit confusing and contradictory at times. It needs to be absolutely crystal clear, and that is where the importance of this Bill comes in; it creates absolute clarity as to what is acceptable and what is not.

Labour will not oppose the Bill; we will support it because we want to support steps to eliminate voter fraud. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, for the points that she made; it is very important to bring that perspective to the debate.

I would like to draw attention to consideration for those with accessibility issues and people who may need assistance to vote—the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, talked about her disabled son. We know that the Electoral Commission has been looking at how to improve the situation for disabled people, people who find it difficult to vote and people with sight problems—again, we discussed this during the then Elections Bill—so that they have full independence when they are voting. That is something we need to think about when we are looking at this Bill as well.

To conclude, we support the Bill. We need to make sure that we have good, strong laws and an understanding of exactly what is acceptable when people go to vote in a polling station. We give this Bill our support.

Photo of The Earl of Courtown The Earl of Courtown Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) 12:42, 15 July 2022

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend for his passion and expertise in electoral matters, and for continuing to draw attention to this important topic. I hope to continue engaging with him and the Electoral Commission further on this area. The proposals in this Bill and the debate we have had so far today have been tremendously interesting, and I am grateful for the contributions of all noble Lords.

The Government are committed to safeguarding our democracy against those who would seek to harm it. The Elections Act 2022, as mentioned by noble Lords, which received Royal Assent recently, is a testament to that, and we are hard at work implementing the various measures contained within it.

I have noted the serious allegations made in the Democracy Volunteers report into the 2022 local elections, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Hayward. It will come as no surprise that I fully share my noble friend’s concerns on the issue of coercive behaviour—including that which is known as family voting—taking place in our elections. The Government take these matters extremely seriously and we welcome debate and discussion on proposals for changes that seek to prevent such offences taking place. Let me be clear: it is completely unacceptable for anyone’s vote to be influenced or pressured inside a polling station. Protecting the secrecy of the ballot is of the utmost importance to the health of our democracy.

I am pleased to note that a number of the measures in the Elections Act will strengthen our democratic processes in this very area. We will be expanding secrecy laws to provide the same protections to postal voters as they would have when completing their ballot in a polling station, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. In addition, the Government have updated the existing offence of undue influence. The offence, as provided in the Representation of the People Act 1983, protects electors and proxies from malicious interference when casting their vote. The Government have clarified “undue influence” to make the offence easier for the police, prosecutors and the courts to interpret and enforce. The revised offence also has a broader scope in relation to intimidation and covers any act intended to intimidate a person to vote in a particular way or refrain from voting, or to otherwise impede the free exercise of their right to vote. This will include acts of intimidation around a polling station.

More broadly, I am pleased to note the introduction of a number of other measures to strengthen electoral security, perhaps most noticeably the new requirement for photographic identification at the polling station, which will go a great way to securing our elections against fraud.

I turn to the Bill before us. The measures proposed are interesting and merit consideration. The Government are still assessing these proposals, including their impacts, ramifications and suitability in the light of the new provisions of the Elections Act and the secondary legislation that flows from it, and with regard to the strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission’s remit. We will confirm our position in due course as the Bill progresses to Committee—and of course I have noted the general support for this Bill from all corners of the House. Part of the consideration should be whether we need a new offence or whether the existing provisions in the Representation of the People Act should be enforced more rigorously, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Hayward and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. We look forward to continuing discussions with my noble friend to that end.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative 12:46, 15 July 2022

My Lords, this has been a brief debate but the broad sense of support for this Bill has been striking. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said, it is a small Bill in terms of the number of clauses involved but covers such an important issue. I welcome the comments that have been made on all sides of the House; I wish that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, had not reminded me of at least one summer past, but I thank him for the comments that ensued thereafter. I will not go through in detail what each person said. As far as I am concerned, the message was absolutely clear from all sides, as the Minister indicated, that there is a need for clarity, consistency and an effective approach in the polling station.

I note the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. During my contribution, I specifically made the point that, although the concentration had been on Tower Hamlets, the highest level of offence in relation to family voting, as observed by Democracy Volunteers—if one takes it as an offence—was in Northern Ireland, and was also higher in other boroughs in London. It is a national problem that I am trying to address.

I see the noble Baroness wishes to intervene. I am not sure whether I am allowed to take interventions at this stage—I am seeking guidance—but I will keep my comments brief in the circumstances.

Photo of Baroness Uddin Baroness Uddin Non-affiliated

I just want to say thank you. I did not want to mention that because of the time, but I am relieved to hear that it is a national issue.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative

That is the important matter. This has been regarded as a one-borough problem and there have been problems in Tower Hamlets during elections—I am not going to be drawn down that path at this stage—but I am trying to deal here with one specific, nationwide problem.

This appears to have the support of all sides of the House. I note the comments from the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, on clarity, and I particularly welcome my noble friend the Minister’s response that he wants to continue to engage and review the position as this Bill progresses. I commend the Bill to the House.

Bill read a second time and committed to the Committee of the Whole House.