Moved by Baroness Pinnock
Leave out from “that” to the end and insert “this House declines to approve the draft Voter Identification Regulations 2022 as they will prevent legitimate electors from voting in elections and disproportionately affect disadvantaged groups”.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction to this statutory instrument but point out to her that this fatal amendment in my name is not an attempt to subvert the decisions made during the passage of the Elections Bill, where the principle of photo ID for electors was approved. Furthermore, I have been advised that, in 1994, the principle of moving fatal amendments in this House was debated and agreed, and the principle was accepted on such legislation.
The amendment in my name is to demonstrate to the Government that their implementation plan is fatally flawed, for reasons on which I will elaborate. I have a direct interest, in that I am still a councillor and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I have practical knowledge of the election process, having been involved in elections for the last 30 years.
This is a very major change to the way we vote. Its implementation must reflect that complexity, and currently it is being unduly rushed, which will put in jeopardy the integrity of the ballot. The first major flaw in the regulations is that the start date is the May elections next year, as the Minister has reminded us. The Electoral Commission states that six months are needed for the introduction of changes in voting practice. That is the accepted convention as well for local authorities. There will not be anything like six months before the first week in May. Time is needed to make sure that every voter knows about the change. That should mean direct communication to every elector. That is not the Government’s intention. The Electoral Commission is responsible for the communications and has an inadequate budget, and time, to make sure all voters know about this change.
Then there are the practical demands of election administrators. More polling clerks are needed to check ID. The Government are providing funding for an additional polling clerk in every polling station. This is not just to help to reduce queuing but for the security of staff, who may refuse to provide an elector with a ballot paper if they do not comply. There may well be angry and disillusioned voters as a result.
The information I have received from across the country is that regular polling clerks appear unwilling to continue, due to the additional pressures put on them. Experienced polling clerks are a huge asset. We need them, especially when there is such a major change.
There are further basic problems associated with these regulations. Some cultures and faiths require women to be very discreet and wear a face or head covering. Further, some will not enter a polling station unless a female clerk is present and will definitely not remove their face covering unless they are in a private place. Special privacy booths have to be bought, along with mirrors, to ensure that such voters feel able to vote in person.
Funding, or lack of it, is also an issue. There is some direct funding, as the Minister has pointed out, but for some essentials it is subject to a bidding process. Cash-strapped councils cannot be expected to fund government requirements.
The key issue, of course, is the list of acceptable photo ID. It is extremely restrictive. Voters who do not have a passport or driving licence will have difficulty. About 2 million voters are thought not to have access to any of the prescribed ID. The right to vote in a democracy is our birthright. The focus should be on encouraging voting, not deterring it as these measures do. Why does the list of acceptable photo ID in the regulations not include ID that young people can use, such as a railcard or an Oyster pass, both of which have photographic identification?
Electors from minority communities find it more difficult to have ID that is on the list. The Government’s own analysis shows that 13% of people who are poorer, who are often on council housing estates, will not have any of the ID on the list. Older people in care may also not have access to that sort of ID. It makes me wonder whether the list is devised to restrict rather than enable voting.
Voters, of course, can apply for a certificate from their election office. They need a national insurance number and a photo to do so, and not everyone has an NI number. One council estimates that it will have 14,000 such applications to process, and most of those will come towards the end of the period before May. It cannot guarantee to process them in time, so some of those voters would not be able to vote.
The Minister argues that compulsory photo ID will make elections more secure. Yet overseas voters do not have any checks to verify their authenticity. Further, why then is obtaining a postal vote so easy? All that is required is a date of birth and a signature. There is no check as to whether the two identifiers are from the same person. Yet postal vote fraud cases have been well documented. I know where I would look for security in the ballot.
The integrity of the ballot is important and that is precisely the reason for my opposing the regulations set out in this SI. It is about whether the inalienable right to vote can be refused because of the failure to produce an acceptable form of photo ID, especially when many voters will go the polls in May and not know about the changes, or will simply have forgotten about them.
In conclusion, this is an ill-thought set of regulations. There is insufficient time for a fair implementation, it is expensive, it will undoubtedly result in some voters being refused a ballot at polling stations, it may affect the result of an election, and it is unnecessary and divisive.
Those who run elections are opposed to the timetable. The Local Government Association leader, a Conservative councillor, supported by all political parties, has stated very strong opposition. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee also raised fundamental concerns in its report to the House. All these expert voices are being brushed aside by the Minister.
The introduction of photo ID was not in the Conservative manifesto. It is the birthright of every individual in a democracy to vote. If many thousands are deterred, or refused that right, our democracy is failing. I call on the Minister to withdraw these regulations and resubmit them for a future set of elections. I beg to move.
My Lords, I inform the House that if this amendment is agreed to, I will be unable to call the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, by reason of pre-emption.
My Lords, from the moment that the Government’s plan for voter ID was first introduced, these Benches have made it clear that we see it as unnecessary. We believe that voting in Britain is both safe and secure, yet this policy is being introduced at a cost of many millions of pounds and, more importantly, could prevent millions of people exercising their right to vote.
On this basis, we opposed the proposal in the Elections Bill and, just yesterday, Labour Members of Parliament voted against these regulations in the other place. So I will not focus my contribution today on the principle of voter ID, and I will not rehash arguments already made—but I will reiterate our opposition to the policy as a whole.
I want the House to consider what happens next, if the concerns of the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators are realised. There is now a strong possibility that the lack of awareness and preparation will mean that many of the 2 million voters without the right ID will lose their right to vote. The impact of that on our democracy could be extremely dangerous.
It is on this basis that I have tabled a Motion to establish a new Select Committee to consider the impact of the regulations on the May elections. The committee would be tasked with conducting a post-implementation assessment of the policy, based on an impartial examination of evidence. An evidence-based approach to policy-making is all that we are asking for, so I welcome the fact that the Minister has now agreed to commission an independent report to consider the implementation of the policy and I extend my thanks to the Minister and her office for their approach to the negotiations we have had.
This builds on further concessions the Minister made during the passage of what became the Elections Act, which bound the Government to review the relevant sections. I am pleased that the Minister will now go further and ensure that the report is drafted independently. I welcome the further fact that the Minister has approached the Constitution Committee and that colleagues have approached the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, with a view that they will consider the evidence.
However, notwithstanding these significant concessions made by the Minister, I want to reiterate the strength of feeling on these Benches, and I hope that the Minister can provide clarification on a number of further points. If she is able to offer these assurances in her response to this debate, I will consider not pressing our Motion.
On voter cards and other ID, it is now less than six months until this policy is introduced in May, when people across most of England will have the opportunity to vote. Yet there has still been no public awareness campaign launched, and there is no reason to believe that all those who do not own the necessary ID will be aware that they cannot vote without it. Just yesterday, the Financial Times reported that the Cabinet Office has found that 42% of people with no photo ID are unlikely to apply for one. Given that we are in a cost of living crisis, this is hardly surprising; after all, a passport costs £85 and a driving licence is £43. Will the Minister remain open to expanding the list of ID if the independent report provides evidence to support this?
The proposal for a free voter card was of course intended to help address this, but the application process has not materialised, and even at the best of times, many people struggle to access local authorities because of their limited opening hours. As a result, it is likely that many people who may not have the time or capacity to travel to a local authority and deal with the lengthy application process may just not bother, and therefore lose their vote. Can I therefore ask the Minister to commit to work with local authorities to ensure that the voter card is open to applications as soon as reasonably possible, and that it operates as swiftly and smoothly as possible? Can I also ask the Minister to assure me that the Government will take steps, together with local authorities, to monitor applications and any relevant issues, and also ensure that voters are aware that the document is free?
In addition, the Association of Electoral Administrators —the body that represents local authority electoral registration officers responsible for delivering elections—is now raising serious concerns about the huge administrative burden that will be placed on already overstretched local authorities. With the new responsibilities placed on the staff of polling stations, there is also a possibility of long queues and overburdened staff. Will the Minister commit to engaging with representatives of those working at polling stations to ensure they are fully prepared for the rollout? Specifically, will the Government monitor any instances of polling stations closing prematurely when there are still electors in the queue?
The Minister will recall that, when the Government piloted mandatory voter ID in a handful of local authorities during the 2018 local elections in England, more than 1,000 voters were turned away for not having the correct form of ID; of these, around 350 voters did not return to vote. Then in 2019, about 2,000 people were initially refused a ballot paper, of which roughly 750 did not return with ID and therefore did not partake in the election.
I do understand the points that the Minister has made regarding Northern Ireland, but I am sure she will also accept that the scale across England creates much more of a challenge. Without any real public awareness, guidance, and time for preparation, I am not confident that this challenge will be met before May. Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that the Minister has agreed to an independent report into the impact that this may have on the upcoming local elections. I hope the Minister can now provide the additional clarification necessary to avoid a Division on this Motion.
I also want to make it clear that our concerns remain over the implementation of this policy, and we will return to this during, and after, the rollout of the May elections. I look forward to seeing the independent report, and I truly hope that it will not be possible to find evidence of widespread disenfranchisement in May, but if these concerns are indeed realised, then the Minister should expect that we will be calling for the policy to then be withdrawn.
My Lords, it was very interesting to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, pray in aid the Motion passed by this House in 1994 on the application of fatal Motions in this House. Of course, this House has a power to use fatal Motions, but, as with so many powers of this House, it is not used by convention. I cannot think, off the top of my head, of an occasion when it should be used. I am convinced that the noble Baroness did not really make the case for it, because all the arguments she used—which were perfectly valid arguments—should have been used, and probably were used, during the passage of the Bill earlier this year. That was the time when your Lordships’ House should have stopped that part of the legislation coming into force, rather than dealing with it now. As I understand it, it was a manifesto commitment. Even if it were not, we have been discussing it in both Houses of Parliament for the last seven or eight years, going back to when my noble friend Lord Pickles was Secretary of State; he launched a review and an investigation in 2015 into how local government held elections.
Furthermore, the regulations, while they are only coming into force now, have been discussed for many months, and good local authorities will no doubt have taken steps to organise themselves. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, spoke very reasonably in her speech, and, if it does not embarrass her for me to say this, I agreed with much of it. However, I also felt that my noble friend the Minister had dealt with a lot of the arguments earlier, and perhaps she can go a little further now.
The point I want to raise with the noble Baroness is on the suggestion in her regret amendment to the Motion that there should be a Select Committee of this House to examine these regulations post legislation. I wanted to confirm my understanding with both the noble Baroness and my noble friend the Minister that there is nothing to stop the House from conducting such an inquiry, but, rather than putting it in a regret amendment to the Motion before the House today, it would be entirely right to make a case to the Liaison Committee, which I have no doubt would be supported by the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition and the noble Lord the leader of the Liberal Democrats.
My Lords, during the passage of the Bill, I raised the likely impact of the photo identification requirement on people living in poverty. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the word “photo” was not in the manifesto.
While I welcome the Government’s focus on those with protected characteristics, the Bill is not sufficient to assess adequately the impact on all marginalised groups, given the Government’s refusal to enact the socioeconomic duty in the Equality Act. I will not repeat the arguments I made previously, but my fears, far from being allayed, are all the greater given how little time there is between the laying of the regulations and the May local elections, the inadequacy of which has been underlined by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, the Electoral Commission, the Local Government Association and others.
I will raise just two main issues, the first of which concerns consultation. The Explanatory Memorandum states:
“Significant consultation has been carried out with … stakeholders”, including “civil society organisations”. Both in Committee and on Report, I asked specifically about consultation with organisations working with people in poverty and with those who can bring the expertise of their experience of poverty to bear on the matter.
The private office of the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, wrote to me subsequently, which I appreciate. The list of civil society organisations it gave me included some which had poverty within their remit but no anti-poverty organisations as such and no groups with direct experience of poverty. The email said that Ministers had asked officials to consider opportunities for such engagement. I therefore ask whether such engagement has taken place or is due to take place, with reference to the introduction of the voter authority certificate. I mentioned Poverty2Solutions in the debate, but I would also suggest the APLE—that is, the Addressing Poverty with Lived Experience—Collective, which recently met the APPG on Poverty, which I co-chair and, at its request, focused on digital exclusion.
This brings me to the second issue I want to raise. The impact assessment explains that it is anticipated that most electors will apply for the VAC online. In doing so, it totally ignores the extent of digital exclusion in various forms among people living in poverty and the damaging impact that digital-by-default approaches often have on them. Of course, I accept that it will be possible to apply in person or by post, but as the impact assessment acknowledges,
“there may be a cost associated with completing an application” and there will be a “time cost” for those completing the application online or in person. There may also be a “travel cost” for those applying in person. It does not attempt to quantify those costs, but in any case, not all of them can be quantified. There may also be psychological costs in engaging with officialdom whom voters who need a VAC may not trust to treat them with dignity and respect. For those who are time-poor as well as financially poor, applying for a VAC, even if they are aware of the need to do so, may be just too much. This is especially so over the coming months, as people in poverty struggle on inadequate incomes in the face of the cost of living crisis, which is hitting them particularly hard.
I ask the Minister to put herself in the shoes of, let us say, a lone mother in low-paid, part-time work, claiming universal credit, whose energy is already depleted by the struggle to get by as food and fuel bills rocket and she attempts to combine paid work with the care of her children. Research by social psychologists indicates that poverty taxes the mind, reducing the bandwidth available for decision-making and action. It may simply be unrealistic to expect that people with too little money and no photo identification will claim a VAC, however good the publicity campaign. It is therefore all the more important that officials engage with people who have experience of poverty in drawing up plans for implementing the regulations and their evaluation.
On the evaluation, the impact assessment talks about the collection of public opinion data. Will that include the most marginalised groups—those in poverty and others—who, if the data collection is online, may be excluded? The Minister mentioned the staff in polling offices, but what about those who do not even go to the polling office because they realise too late that there is no point in doing so because they do not have the requisite identification? That could be a real issue, because those who are hard-pressed are, I suspect, among those most likely to miss the deadline for applications, which I understand has been brought forward from one to six working days before polling day. The Electoral Commission points out that the effect of this crucial accessibility provision will be reduced, whereas allowing applications to be made up to the day before polling day would help to maximise access and minimise the risk that voters will be turned away from polling stations. Could the Minister explain this decision to go from one day to six days and ensure that its impact is properly monitored?
According to openDemocracy, Ministers told the Electoral Commission that introducing photo ID in next year’s local elections has the advantage of providing a learning exercise. Certainly, it is to be hoped that the Government will be open to learning from the exercise. In that context, I welcome what the Minister said about independent review of the exercise in May, as far as it goes, and I hope that she can answer my noble friend’s questions adequately. However, the implication seems to be that, because only some authorities have elections next year—including my own authority of Nottingham—it is okay if some electors, particularly the most marginalised in those authorities, lose the right to vote because of the rushed implementation of voter photo ID. It is not okay, and I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will think again.
My Lords, the noble Lord opposite—he is not a Minister, I think he used to be something in the Government—has got a real cheek to talk to this House about honouring conventions when his Government colleagues have trampled over dozens of them. They put in a masquerade of a Budget, which then tanked the economy. They have introduced a new Prime Minister every few weeks—another incompetent Prime Minister, I might point out—and have generally behaved like savages at a feast with taxpayers’ money. He should really not stand up and defend the sort of thing he just has when his Government colleagues do not do it anyway. This House, to some extent, is self-regulating and can make its own decisions.
My Lords, it might be worth saying that I was only commenting on the passage of the Motion that the House had carried in 1994 and I certainly do not oppose that position. I then explained the conventions by which we exist when we look at fatal Motions—none of the stuff mentioned by the noble Baroness.
My Lords, I will be brief. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, who was in her place a moment ago, and others, this year I sat on a Select Committee of post-legislative scrutiny for the Children and Families Act 2014. One of our findings was that it was quite inadequate to be doing that review eight years after the legislation was implemented. While I support the SIs today—and I have some sympathy with the initial comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman—I urge the Minister and the Government to stick to the timetable of the review that was outlined in her opening statement.
My Lords, I welcome the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for this debate, which will give me the opportunity to remind him and the House of some of his experiences when he was the Leader of the Opposition in this House. I shall do so shortly, but first, I will quote his report considering the position of statutory instruments, as published in 2015. The executive summary began:
“Since 1968, a convention has existed that the House of Lords should not reject statutory instruments (or should do so only rarely).”
I suggest that this is one of those rare occasions. I will address issues of principle concerning fatal Motions, costs and practicalities. The question being asked is whether the House of Lords can be justified in approving the fatal Motion put down today by my noble friend Lady Pinnock. I accept that such a Motion should be approved only on rare occasions, but I make two points.
First, there have been several times since I joined the House in 1999 when it has carried fatal Motions. I was very involved with two of them, and I think the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was Leader of the Opposition at the time. In any event, both the fatal Motions which were carried were at the instigation of the then Conservative Opposition Front Bench while Labour was in power. It was the time when Tony Blair’s Government were criticised for introducing unfair election rules, aimed at favouring the official Labour candidate in the first London mayoral elections. This was by denying the candidates any form of election address.
As a result of the passing by this House of the fatal Motions, which I and the Conservative Benches supported, I was then involved in cross-party negotiations including senior government officials. They resulted in us agreeing new rules that were fairer, cost effective and formed the basis of all future mayoral elections. This House now, and all Members of it, should note that the Conservatives did not have a problem with fatal Motions on such issues when they faced a Labour Government allegedly manipulating election rules in their favour.
Secondly, I turn to consideration of what was in the last Conservative manifesto. Again, the noble Lord seems not to be aware of the lengthy debates we had in the early proceedings on the Bill, in which his noble friend Lord True accepted that this was not in the manifesto. That document did not prescribe “photo ID”, as distinct from “some form of voter identification”. This very important point was highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, on the “Today” programme this morning.
So, even if you subscribe to the principles of the Salisbury convention, which was a gentlemen’s agreement —perhaps I should emphasise that—made to deal with the immediate circumstances following the 1945 general election, you cannot feel bound to support this statutory instrument on that basis. It is being rushed through in a costly manner, and in ways that will cause much confusion and effectively deny many people the right to vote. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee looked at the powers it gives to the Government and said in its March report that they should not be determined in this way:
“We consider that, in the absence of a convincing explanation, the powers are inappropriate in leaving it to regulations to determine the circumstances in which electoral identity documents are to be issued.”
There are very big issues facing the country, with the cost of living crisis being the most important for many people. The Government say, for example, that they cannot afford to pay more to the nurses who they urged us to clap for at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, they propose a costly and bureaucratic system with significant additional costs to the taxpayer for training and communications, new styles of poll cards and the supposedly free new forms of voter identification for the 1.9 million people currently without it.
The Government’s own impact assessment for introducing compulsory photo ID shows that they estimate they will spend £180 million or more on this over the next decade. I wonder how many of the people who think that photo ID is a good idea would spend £180 million on it. If there is a significant problem with impersonation—and this has never been shown—we can save a lot of money by using other forms of ID, at no cost to the taxpayer.
We may not all consider ourselves experts on the detail of election law. It is local authorities that have to conduct the elections, so we should consider properly the view of the chair of the Local Government Association, which represents all local authorities across England and Wales. A Conservative councillor, he said on behalf of local authorities last week:
“While we accept that voter ID has now been legislated for, electoral administrators and returning officers should be given the appropriate time, resource, clarity and detailed guidance to implement any changes to the electoral process without risking access to the vote … We are concerned that there is insufficient time to do this ahead of the May 2023 elections and for this reason are calling for the introduction of voter ID requirements to be delayed.”
I hope that full statement is of assistance to the Minister.
The Association of Electoral Administrators represents the returning officers, whom many noble Lords will have thanked for their efforts in previous elections. It says:
“It is good to see the LGA speaking out about the challenges facing Returning Officers and electoral administrators. Their concerns around voter ID reflect ours and those of the wider electoral community … The timescales to introduce voter ID in May 2023 are incredibly tight. The proposed timetable brings huge risks and jeopardises our members’ ability to ensure every elector can cast their vote without issue … We would support a government decision to delay voter ID … until after May’s elections”.
If noble Lords have ever thanked a returning officer, as many here will have done, they can do so again by supporting my noble friend Lady Pinnock’s amendment on the basis of principle, costs and practicalities.
I conclude where I began: on the issue of principle. If Conservative Peers in opposition can vote down secondary legislation that changes election law in favour of the governing party, so can Labour Peers when they are in opposition. If the Conservative leader of the Local Government Association calls for the introduction of this scheme to be postponed, so can Conservative Peers. If this House, with the experience, expertise and judgment of its Members, can ensure that we get a better, more workable and more cost-effective solution to any perceived problem, we will all have done our democracy a big favour. Nothing in the regret amendment will help to do that; only my noble friend Lady Pinnock’s amendment can achieve it.
My Lords, I spoke in Committee on the Elections Bill on this issue because I was offended then, and am still offended today, by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, saying that black and ethnic minority communities will be marginalised and will not want to be part of this process. I have spoken to lots of people from my community and not one has said that they would be offended by having a voter ID card. To be quite frank, I agree with the Opposition Benches that a review to see how it works would be great, but I take offence at the point continuously being raised in this House that minority communities will somehow feel disenfranchised. We do not. Please take that away. We are citizens of this country and we will use our right, just like every other citizen.
My Lords, my local politics are in Bradford, where elections are often quite boisterous affairs, and in some cases threatening. I do not entirely accept the classification that the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, has made of what happens in elections; we have a very large community of Kashmiri origin, now in its third or fourth generation, in Bradford. Some are now extremely prosperous and others are still marginalised. We also have a very poor and marginalised white community in Bradford in a similar position, so it is a question of not just ethnic minorities but the poorest and most marginal council tenants in our society.
I also come from a very mixed community: the city of Leicester. We have very boisterous elections there too, but that does not stop people wanting to have something that will make it easier for them not to have those boisterous discussions.
I wanted briefly to make one other point. I am holding the National Security Bill, which we will discuss in Committee next week. Clause 14 and Schedule 1 are on foreign interference in British elections, and the Bill lists a number of offences that need to be considered in terms of foreign interference, including personation, proxy voting, postal voting fraud, sources of donations and others. Yet, in the Elections Act, we have extended overseas voting rights for British citizens from 15 years to a lifetime, without any serious checks on or verification of identity either for those who will give donations once they are on the register or for those who will use postal and proxy voting, which they of course have to do. I hope that, in Committee on the National Security Bill, the Minister will engage fully on the changes to the Elections Act that this will make necessary, because the gap between this emphasis on much greater verification and checks for voters who vote in person and the almost total absence of verification or checks for overseas voters is astonishing, is too wide and needs to be addressed.
My Lords, the purpose of this regulation is to prevent election fraud, and the Minister quite rightly referred to the success in a similar situation in Northern Ireland. Before 2002, there was considerable fraud in elections there, and the election Act was therefore introduced. It was a challenge at the time, but, after a lot of discussion, there was agreement between all the parties to introduce the election fraud Act, which has proved very successful.
In Northern Ireland, the law requires electors to produce one of seven photographic identifications, including, for example, passports, driving licences and senior transport passes. But, in the argument today, some people say that this will exclude many people—but, in Northern Ireland, we have the electoral identity card, which is produced free of charge by the Electoral Office. This form of identification is acceptable to a very high proportion of the electorate in Northern Ireland. It excludes no one, and it is free. Before the election, vans go out to housing estates and different parts of society in Northern Ireland, producing this so that people can get it for free. It does not exclude people, so I do not accept the argument that people, perhaps from lower sections of the community, are excluded. This has been extremely successful in Northern Ireland, and the Minister referred to this success. So we should think very carefully, and we should introduce these regulations.
My Lords, I doubt this was the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Browne, but he made a powerful case for the amendment to the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. He set out just how extensive the efforts are in Northern Ireland to make sure that people are aware of what is happening, and how large the education campaign is. We will not have the time to see that, and that is the whole basis of the fatal amendment, for which I offer the Green group’s support. This is a call not to go away for ever but to delay.
I ask your Lordships’ House to think back to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who is an expert both on the procedures of this House and on elections. He made the point that positions on fatal amendments tend to shift with party politics, depending on who is sitting on which side. So I will address my remarks particularly to those who do not have a party politics: the Cross-Benchers. It is greatly to their credit that their Benches are so full today; it is great to see this level of interest and concern.
I therefore refer back—we keep getting away from this—to the fact that the Electoral Commission expressed concern about the timeframe. It said that the introduction of voter ID needs to be “accessible, secure and workable” and that those important considerations
“may not be fully met” when this new principle is operated. If we think about very cautious bureaucratic language, the official regulator saying that it is concerned that the rules it has set may not be met should be of very grave concern.
Many have referred to this. The chair of the Local Government Association, who is a Tory councillor—I should declare my position as a vice-president of the Local Government Association—has said that there is insufficient time and is calling for a delay. Again, that is clearly not someone taking a party-political position, but speaking as the chair of the Local Government Association in a non-party way to say that this is not deliverable.
I want to put two, direct, specific questions to the Minister about implementation and what the Government are planning to do. I think the Minister referred to the fact that the alternative identity card to be delivered by councils in such a tight timeframe is to be free. We all know these days that, as soon as there is some government thing that people are confused and uncertain about, there will be many fake websites on the internet. They will be paying for adverts and telling people to pay £10 or £20; criminals will take advantage of this confusion and uncertainty. Are the Government planning to watch this very closely and stamp down on it as soon as possible? I am afraid we can guarantee it will happen.
The other question is also about the publicity scheme. Most noble Lords, with very good cause, have spoken about the at least 2 million people who do not own the relevant ID needed to vote. Of course, many people will have the ID but will not necessarily have it with them on voting day. Think about the obvious example of students. At some of the universities I know, the relevant student term will start in February. People will very likely leave their passport at home because student accommodation is not necessarily the greatest place to keep a passport. In May, they will need to vote, but their passport would be at the other end of the country. Will the publicity campaign start very soon to catch those students and give them the opportunity to know that this is happening? This could also be the case with driving licences. Some people may have a driving licence but not own a car. They are not necessarily going to carry it with them regularly. We should count not just those who do not own ID but also the people who do not necessarily have it on them.
I will make one final point, particularly addressed to the noble Lords on the Cross Benches. Many Members of your Lordships’ House, particularly Cross-Benchers, go to other countries to observe elections and assist the spread of democracy around the world. Here we are trying to defend democracy at home and make sure that our elections are conducted properly. I was in Brussels last week and happened to be speaking on a panel which had a speaker from Belarus and a speaker from Hungary. The chair, who was not from any of our three countries, said “These are three countries in Europe which have problems with—or falling apart—democracy.” That is how this country is being regarded overseas. Voter ID is one more step in that process.
My Lords, I speak in favour of the Government’s position, drawing from experience of 35 years of elections in Northern Ireland. Some were prior to the 2002 legislation, and some were after that; in some I was a candidate. On each occasion I was someone involved in electoral politics. I also draw from experience as former president and vice-president of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association. I have seen this operate within a local government context.
I can understand, for those who are moving into a new situation, that there are genuine concerns and those need to be addressed. There is a point around trying to ensure that publicity is maximised in the run-up to this. Therefore, I have some sympathy for that point. It is also the case that, no matter how well thought through any scheme is—I take reassurance from what the Government have said—there will be a review of the situation after the elections. It is important that whatever lessons that arise from that are learned.
I will make a number of points, relatively quickly, from my experience in Northern Ireland. First, fears have been raised from the Northern Ireland experience, but they are fears that do not materialise in practical terms. For example, there has been an argument that there is widespread marginalisation of the electorate—that many people are turned away or unable to cope with the system, from whatever socioeconomic or ethnic background—but that has not been the practice in Northern Ireland over a 20-year period, which would seem a relatively lengthy period in which to test this out.
Secondly, I appreciate the point about the timeframe for introduction, but grasping this concept is not rocket science; this is simply about ensuring that we have fair elections where people come with photographic electoral ID. To our pride, we have had great success in education in Northern Ireland; we tend to lead the nation when it comes to examination results. However, I will say in the spirit of generosity that I have enough faith in the sagacity of my fellow citizens from England that I believe, even within this timeframe, that this is something that may be able to be grasped across the water as well.
Thirdly, a point has been made on the distinction drawn between identification and photographic identification. Prior to 2002, there was for a period of time a mixed economy as regards the identification needed in Northern Ireland. Some identification considered acceptable was photographic and some was non-photographic. I warn the House that it was the worst of all worlds. The non-photographic ID was a vehicle and opportunity for massive electoral fraud and abuse; that is why the changes were made in 2002. I urge the House that, if we are going in this direction, we go not for half measures but for something fully in the way of an electoral ID system.
Finally, I can understand the anxieties of, for example, electoral officers or those working in polling stations; but, again, the experience from across different communities in Northern Ireland has been that, while people will sometimes dispute whether someone has brought the right form of electoral ID, there has not been any experience of violence or disputes in counting centres or, indeed, polling stations. I think it would be fair comment to say that politics in Northern Ireland is occasionally quite boisterous—perhaps the word of the day as regards this debate. Indeed, if at times we could row it back to being boisterous, I think we would find that acceptable. However, the experience in Northern Ireland has not been that this has led to a level of conflict.
As a result, I urge the House to take what I think is a forward-looking step by supporting the proposal put forward today by the Government. If you were to quiz anybody involved in electoral politics in Northern Ireland, from any party, whether they are an elected Member, a canvasser, a voter, or working directly within the electoral system as a polling agent, I challenge you to find a single person in any of those categories who would say that we should go back to the old system and remove photographic electoral identification. This is the way forward. Let us grasp that today and support the Government’s position.
My Lords, I can say the same about what is happening in Europe. In France and, as far as I know, in most European countries, you need a photo ID to vote. You have to be over 18, and I think the only instance when you do not need a photo ID is if you vote in a municipality of fewer than 1,000 people. I do not think there is a complication, and I have not seen, in France or in other European countries, people in uproar because they have to show a photo ID to prove who they are.
Does the noble Baroness accept that there is a fundamental difference if, as in most of western Europe, you are issued with a national ID card and that is a legal requirement? Then everybody has it and can vote, but in the UK we do not have national ID cards, and therefore at the moment there are 2 million people without the requisite form of ID who have to apply. An extra barrier is created, unnecessarily and at great cost.
As far as I know, in England there is a photograph on a driving licence. In France, your driving licence with a photograph is acceptable for voting. There must be a way forward. In my opinion we are complicating this rather simple issue.
My Lords, I will pick up on a number of points in relation to comments made during this debate, particularly by our two Northern Ireland colleagues. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and I have sat on virtually every committee, if not every committee, related to voting and voting legislation since I have been a Member of this House. At no point in any debate has any contribution we have received from any person from Northern Ireland said, “Do not go for photo ID”. There has been no such representation, nor any to say that we should revert to a position without photo ID, as was indicated previously. If there were problems in Northern Ireland, clearly we would have had representation from students, some civil community groups or whatever, saying, “Revert to the position we were at before”. But in the seven years I have served in this House—and I believe I have served on every single review of electoral law—we have never had such a submission from Northern Ireland.
I move on to the observation by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in relation to students. Oh, I feel so sorry for them. After all is said and done, we will have elections in May and there is the Easter holiday between now and then. In my former life I was chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association. Noble Lords may wonder what on earth that has to do with this debate. My members operated late-night licensed locations. All people who attended were required to produce proof of ID. Ask any pub company how many managers are holding passports, driving licences and other forms of photo ID every Monday morning because clientele in pubs and bars have left them there. The reality is that students carry their ID with them on a regular basis, because they are used to producing them in very regular circumstances.
Both the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said that the introduction was being rushed. In recent years we have moved from a rigid electoral roll system whereby the new election rolls were registered sometime between August and October to a system in which people can now register on a very rapid basis. I think the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, will agree that I have been a regular supporter of reducing the workloads of returning officers. As an event at elections, we now get a surge in registration by people who think they are not registered. Actually, two-thirds of them are registered and that workload could be removed with read-only access. That surge is because people are suddenly conscious of the upcoming election.
If you ask the relevant organisations—the AEA, the Electoral Commission—when they are going to launch their advertising campaigns in relation to the May elections, no sane marketer would say, “We are going to launch the advertising campaign in November or December”, because people’s minds are on Christmas and other similar arrangements. You launch an advertising campaign to make people aware that they need some form of ID—whatever it may happen to be—in January or February, which is what is actually going to happen. You do not spend millions in November or December. Therefore, it is not rushed to say that you are going to launch that campaign in a few weeks’ time.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, quoted from the Electoral Commission’s comments. I would take a quote from the second paragraph rather than the first. Referring to the statutory instrument, it says:
“This detail has enabled us to start developing the guidance that electoral administrators will need.”
Start? We have had the example in Northern Ireland for 20 years, and there is barely a difference between the two in England and in Northern Ireland. Start? Even the difference of interpretation of the Tory party manifesto—whether it is an ID or a photo ID—indicates that it has been a policy of this Government for the last three years. Start? We passed the Elections Act some seven months ago, so in fact there is no reason why the vast majority of the paperwork—in preparation for distribution to everybody—to be used in the marketing campaigns that will be launched in January or February next year should not already be prepared.
This statutory instrument gives effect to something that was debated at length months ago. Many of the contributions that I have listened to this afternoon have repeated some of the arguments that were made then. In conclusion, I am going to cause embarrassment to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, by saying that I found many of her comments as constructive as some of my colleagues did. As far as I am concerned, for the reasons I have identified, on this occasion I am going to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. There is no reason for a fatal amendment at this stage; it is not justified—as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde identified—and we should be supporting the statutory instrument and vote for it this evening.
My Lords, I entirely agree with what my noble friend just said. Almost every word that has been uttered during this interesting debate underlines the feeling that I have had for a long time that it would be a really sensible thing for us to go back and re-examine the case for an identity card. It would have many other uses. We are bedevilled by immigration problems. An identity card would be one document that everyone could carry, and I commend it most warmly to the House.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, may well have done his side a disservice, in view of the fact that those of us who are opposed to voter ID warned that it was a slippery slope to the bringing in of national ID cards. I personally will oppose that. I actually did oppose, throughout the whole of Committee and Report stages, the introduction of voter ID. That side lost, and the policy is as such.
The one thing that I want to pick up on is that, after I argued and spoke many times on that issue, I was castigated by a lot of people outside of the House who told me that speaking on behalf of ordinary voters who might well be excluded from the franchise by having to show voter ID was patronising and that it treated those people as hapless and hopeless. Some of the comments about poor marginalised communities not being able to get access to photo IDs and the way that we have discussed the members of the BAME communities being unable to access or being unfairly discriminated against by photo IDs is in danger of being patronising.
But the most important thing at this stage, it seems to me, is that I do not think the Government have done enough—and this is what I would like—to reassure us that there will be huge publicity so that this is known about. That seems reasonable. I liked the anecdotes from Northern Ireland of vans going round. We know that this Government are not shy when it comes to nudging, nannying and telling everybody what to do on other issues, so I would not mind them doing it on this one to mitigate any possibility that anyone anywhere in the country would not know that they need ID. Helping them get it would be a great help.
My Lords, I spent probably the last 30 years organising election monitoring missions around the world. At the Brexit vote, which some noble Lords may remember, I had a group of young Europeans from right across new and old Europe come to look at how we did that vote. When I asked them afterwards what they thought could be improved, unanimously they said that they could not believe that people could go and vote without some form of identification as to who they were.
I do not think that is the problem we are trying to solve. I think we should have to produce identification; the problem to solve is how we make sure that everybody has it. The Northern Ireland example has been extremely instructive in that regard, and I hope that the Front Bench and the Government will be listening to some of the things said about the need for advertising and the need for ensuring that there is no excuse for people not having an ID card.
If I may finish, I remember many years ago saying to some students I was talking to who had come from Greece—I was a student myself—that I was not sure that I was going to bother to vote. They had grown up with the memory of the colonels, with a military dictatorship running their country, and gave me hell for saying that I was thinking of not going to vote. Now, if we can get that sort of mentality, the thing of “Oh dear, I can’t find my ID card,”—provided you had got one—would be a pretty lame excuse.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions and say that I do not intend to rerun the arguments for voter identification. That argument has been won and it is now in legislation. But I will take a little time to further detail some of the points raised by noble Lords on the actual implementation, which is the important thing this evening.
I thank the noble Lords, Lord Browne of Belmont and Lord Weir of Ballyholme, for saying what it is like on the ground. These two noble Lords have lived with this over the last 20 years. They have seen it introduced. They have seen how it works for local authority and general elections and I thank them for that. I think the rest of us who are not living in Northern Ireland can never have that knowledge of how it works and how we can make it work in this country.
There was quite a lot of talk from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and others on support for local authorities to deliver this. Of course, we are aware of the pressures faced by local authorities—and the concerns that the Local Government Association brought up, I think, only yesterday—and their ability to deliver these changes. But we have been working very closely with them and, as I think my noble friend Lord Hayward said, this is not the beginning of it; this has been going on for a good seven months with the legislation there and they knew that this was coming along the line. We have been working with the sector. We have been planning the implementation of this policy and not only that we have been giving additional funds to local authorities so that they can carry out the new duties. The Government remain confident in their ability to successfully deliver these changes.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Fox, and many others, said that the Electoral Commission’s budget would be inadequate for communications. The Electoral Commission’s budget for the January communications campaign is over £5 million, which will be supplemented by £4.75 million in funding for local communications—for local authorities to communicate in their own areas.
If this legislation goes through, the Electoral Commission will start its campaign in the middle of January. It will be national and across all types of national media, but local authorities will also have the money to do local campaigns. Along with national government, they do local campaigns very well to get voters to register for voting. This will be added to those campaigns, and I have every confidence that with the money they have, local government and the Electoral Commission will be able to deliver that.
My noble friend Lord Strathclyde is absolutely right. As I said, these arguments have all been had, but, as it came up again, I will repeat the point about the manifesto commitment. Voter identification was in the manifesto, and photo identification became a government discussion because it was found in our pilots to be the only approach that increased voter trust and confidence, which are key aims for this policy. We talked about it a lot during the discussions on the Bill, and I reiterate it now in case noble Lords think that we got it wrong again. We know what we said, and we know why we put in photo ID.
If it was clear what was in the Conservative manifesto and that voter identification meant photo identification, why did the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, who conducted a review of election law on behalf of the Conservative Government, conclude that photo ID was unnecessary and that voter ID in different forms, such as council tax bills or utility bills, would be acceptable? He said there was no need for the photo ID.
I do not think my noble friend is in his place, but when I next see him, I will ask him.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, mentioned people in poverty finding it more difficult. I remember that discussion and I know that my noble friend Lord True wrote to her. I am afraid I do not know what the outcome was so, again, with apologies, I will write to her about that because I know that it was an important issue for her then.
Digital exclusion is a different thing. Noble Lords would be surprised how many people—even those we consider to be in poverty—have phones. You can go to many libraries in this country and get access online. We also know that it can be done over the phone and by going to your local council. Wherever you can get registered to vote, you can also get your identity. If people are managing to get registered to vote, they can get identity as well. However, I will come back to the noble Baroness on who we are consulting as we go forward.
If registration is so important—I agree that it is—why did the Government not start this process when they started the campaigns for registration in September, rather than starting it in January?
If the noble Lord remembers, we had the death of Her Majesty, and that put things back slightly, but we are doing it now, and people register continually, so that issue is not terribly important.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, also brought up the deadline for applying for the certificate. She is right that it has gone to six days before the poll; I remember that we talked about it being the day before. We have been working with stakeholders in the electoral sector. We are mindful of the impact on administrators during a busy period and, on balance, have decided that six days strikes an appropriate balance between accessibility and certainty for not only the elector but the electoral officers.
One noble Lord said that a national insurance number was required, but actually individuals do not need a national insurance number to vote. They will be able to apply using other documents or attestations where they can provide an explanation for why they do not have a national insurance number. Some people have lost it or cannot find it, so there are other ways of doing that to make sure that they can get those documents.
There was quite a lot of talk about putting it back to the next election. After May 2023, there is a possibility that the next election will be a general election. In May 2023, only about two-thirds of authorities will hold polls. That means there will be more opportunity for authorities to learn from and support each other if necessary. If we have a local authority that is not holding an election next to a local authority that is, if it needs extra help in this first period, that is a possibility. The system is not at full stretch, as it always is during a general election. This is not about testing or devaluing local politics. It is a sensible way to run any new process in a system, rather than running it when we are at full capacity.
My noble friend Lady Verma got involved in the Bill; I thank her very much for her support. Again, she is somebody who talks to people on the ground, as we all do, and who has an understanding of how people in all communities feel about the importance of a fair voting system that they can trust.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, raised overseas voters. I will take that back to the department, but if he does not mind, I do not intend to talk about that today. My noble friend Lord Cormack raised identity cards, but I will not get into that debate today either.
Publicity is absolutely critical. I do not think I have talked about this, but once the legislation goes through, we will start this in mid-January, so there will be four to five months of clear publicity. That is important.
I thank my noble friend Lord Hayward. He and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, are the ones in the House who talk and know the most about elections and associated matters. He is absolutely right about students. They will be home for Easter and, by then, they will have seen the campaign over two to three months. They will get their driving licence or passport, or will go to get the identity documents required. As he said, the launch in January is the launch of the big national campaign, but this has been going on for a long time.
I will look at Hansard, but I think I have answered most of the issues that were raised. I return to the fatal amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. I have already made it clear that we disagree with its substance. We are confident of electoral administrators’ ability to deliver this important policy for the May 2023 elections. We have been working hard alongside them to refine and develop these processes and are at present conducting extensive testing of the digital systems that will support them.
I also cannot agree with the assertions made that the policy will prevent electors from voting. The overwhelming majority of electors already hold an appropriate form of ID, and the small proportion who do not will be able to apply for a voter authority certificate from their local authority free of charge. That will ensure that everyone eligible to vote will continue to have the opportunity to do so. I therefore again urge noble Lords across the House not to support this amendment.
I turn now to the regret amendment to the Motion, which the Opposition have indicated that they will not press. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for bringing her concerns to me last week, and I am pleased that we have been able to agree on an excellent solution to them. We will ensure that the review of the policy, which will take place following the May 2023 local elections, involves an independent research agency and analysis of any impacts on voter turnout. We have requested that the review be scrutinised subsequently by parliamentary Select Committees—to whose chairmen I have already written. That will ensure a highly effective review and enable us to refine and improve the delivery of those vital new processes.
The noble Baroness raised some additional questions to which I will also respond. On expanding the list of accepted identification documents, the legislation was intentionally drafted to allow for that to be done via secondary legislation. We intend to monitor the list and will consider amending it in future if appropriate.
I have already said a bit about working closely with local authorities. To ensure that the voter card application process is launched as soon as possible and that we support local authorities as they implement those processes, I can confirm that we fully intend to work closely with them. We are currently carrying out considerable engagement with local authorities and other stakeholders to support implementation. The engagement will not stop; it will continue as we go live with the policy.
On ensuring that we make voters aware of the free voter authority certificate, the Electoral Commission, as I said, will lead the national communications campaign early in the new year—we think in mid-January, providing that we can pass the legislation. In addition to highlighting the need to show identification, the campaign will also inform the electorate of the free identification documents that will be available to them. Furthermore, as I said, we have also given £4.75 million to local government across Great Britain to support local communications campaigns.
On the noble Baroness’s concern about polling station staff, we will of course work closely with local authorities to support them in ensuring that their polling stations are appropriately staffed. If there is a queue outside a polling station when it should close, legislation already provides that the polling station should remain open until those electors are able to vote. I know that there were issues with that, but that is the legislation, and we need to ensure that it continues to be implemented.
More broadly, the policy has a critical role to play in maintaining public confidence in our electoral system and reassuring people that their vote is theirs and theirs alone. It is also a natural and considered way of modernising our voting structures, and one that protects us all against the threat of impersonation. I hope that noble Lords will therefore join me in supporting the regulations.
My Lords, I thank everyone for the very constructive debate we have had. I start by reminding noble Lords of my opening remarks: the fatal amendment to the Motion in my name is not about subverting or undermining photo ID; that decision, rightly or wrongly, has been made. The argument I am putting to the House today is about the implementation of those regulations.
There are 240 pages of regulations in this statutory instrument. They must have plenty of time to be introduced and understood so that, when it comes to elections, they can be done fairly. This is not just about communications to electors. It is about the training of the staff: how do you determine whether the likeness of a photo is acceptable? Those are decisions that polling staff will have to make, and they need to be trained properly so that there is consistency across the country. There is a lot more to it than communications.
I remind the House that those who do the practical delivery of elections are very anxious and concerned, and some of them are opposed to the implementation of these regulations for the May elections. The Electoral Commission has grave concerns: it wants six months and will get under four. The Association of Electoral Administrators—the returning officers and elections officers—is very anxious that it will not have time to properly prepare for delivery in May. From local councils, as we have heard, the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association gave a very strongly worded statement, unusually so, expressing grave concerns about the delivery of this measure fairly and equitably across the piece.
Other options were open to the Government for the introduction of photo ID. They could have chosen to introduce it in a by-election to test it out and see whether it works, or asked local authorities to be pilots, instead of trying to introduce it across a whole set of elections.
The example and argument that we have had from Northern Ireland is instructive. However, we perhaps ought to remind ourselves that the years following the initial introduction showed a fall in the number of voters. This was because they lacked the appropriate identification documents. It took a number of years before that number rose back to the same level. That underlines the argument that I am making.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, spoke about having a close election review. That is already in the regulations. My concern is about the election itself. Yes, I am totally in favour of reviews and learning from experience, but I and many Members across the House are concerned that no elector should be turned away and denied the ability to vote—that is their birth- right —because of the implementation of these regulations in a rushed manner. That is the point.
Unfortunately, I have not heard anything from the Minister today to assure me that every voter will be able to vote in a fair way in the May elections. I will therefore test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 63, Noes 210.