Voter Identification - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords at 4:13 pm on 22 February 2023.

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The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 21 February.

“Democracy is precious. The United Kingdom’s electoral system has a hard-earned reputation for transparency and integrity, and that needs regular review and, where appropriate, enhancement to ensure that it works today just as it did in the past.

One of the most basic principles of voting is that the people who cast their votes are eligible to do so. The introduction of voter identification at polling stations from May will be another lock in ensuring that the integrity of our democracy is protected for the long term. Nor is this anything new: voter identification has been in place in Northern Ireland for nearly 20 years. As for elections in Great Britain, this Government stood on a manifesto that said we would introduce it, won on the basis of doing so, introduced legislation to fulfil that commitment, and are now delivering on that promise. We will not shirk our responsibilities to protect the integrity of the ballot box.

According to government research, about 98% of the electorate already have an accepted voter ID, whether it is a passport, a driving licence or one of nearly 20 other eligible types of identification. That includes, for some, expired identification, in order to maximise participation. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people already have what they need to fulfil this new protection at the ballot box. For those who do not, the Government have made available a voter authority certificate, which can be applied for today. It is free of charge and can be issued to everyone who wants it in readiness for May. To date, more than 21,000 applications have been made. Honourable Members will likely have seen—as have I, along with many millions of others—the extensive communications campaigns now under way, run by the Electoral Commission and, at a local level, by individual councils. Those will continue all the way up to May.

There are few tasks more important in public life than maintaining the trust of the British public in our electoral institutions and our electoral processes. A huge amount of work is under way, and that will continue until May. I am grateful to officials, to the Electoral Commission and to councils up and down the land for the work that they are doing. We are taking action to strengthen the integrity of those institutions and processes and to protect the sanctity of the vote. It is now incumbent on all Members—having had the debate and having resolved to do this last year—to send a collective clear signal that this change is important to protect the integrity of the ballot box, and that we should all get ready for this to happen in May.”

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

My Lords, according to research, 99% of election staff do not think fraud has occurred in their polling stations and 88% of the public think our polling stations are safe. Studies show that making elections more accessible, not less accessible, improves electoral integrity. Does the Minister agree that we should spend time and money on increasing voter registration and participation rather than on disfranchising people when there is very little evidence of voter fraud in this country? Considering that local authorities say they are not properly prepared for its introduction, will the Minister commit to conducting and publishing a review of the impact of voter ID after this May’s elections?

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My Lords, the Government stood on a manifesto commitment to introduce voter identification in Great Britain, and we are delivering on that promise. Voter identification is not a new concept; it has been in place in Northern Ireland for 20 years, where it is seen as increasing the security of the ballot.

According to government research, 98% of the electorate already have accepted photographic ID from a wide list available under legislation. For those who do not, the voter authority certificate can be applied for today free of charge. The rollout of these measures is progressing well, and it is now incumbent on all of us to prepare. I urge noble Lords to support their local authorities in raising awareness and ensuring the successful implementation of this important safeguard for our democracy.

It is inexcusable for anybody to cast another person’s vote in a polling station. We must be alert to any weaknesses in our processes which may undermine the strength of our democratic processes. Deception within a polling station is exactly that: deception. You cannot count it because you do not necessarily know it is happening. We need to be sure, as many others have told us we should be, in order to be more secure in those polling stations.

Photo of Lord Jackson of Peterborough Lord Jackson of Peterborough Conservative

My Lords, this is about protecting the integrity of the electoral system. It is welcomed by those of us who previously represented areas which have been bedevilled by electoral fraud—in my case, Peterborough, where we had a very famous case of personation in 2004. I would like to bring the attention of the House in more detail to the research in May 2021 from IFF Research, which found that 98% of voters have access to voter ID and that there was no difference across young and old, black and minority-ethnic people, and the general voter cohort. I ask my noble friend the Minister this: if it has been good enough for Northern Ireland since 2003, and it is good enough for Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany and Canada, then why is it not good enough for the rest of the United Kingdom?

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My noble friend is absolutely right. It is good enough for Northern Ireland—which is part of the United Kingdom, and we should be following it—as it is for many other countries across the world. That is why we are rolling it out and why it will be successful.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I have relevant interests recorded in the register. Experience tells us that there are likely to be very large numbers of last-minute applications for the voter ID certificate, and local electoral offices might struggle to get them processed in time and returned to the voter. Will those voters, through no fault of their own, be denied their democratic right to vote if that occurs?

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Many people do not see an urgency to apply if there are no upcoming polls. Only 50% of the country will be polling in May when we first use this process. Any voter can apply for one of these certificates within six working days of the poll itself. If they apply within six days of the poll, that is time enough to get their certificate printed and sent out to them for it to be used. There is a huge advertising campaign from the Electoral Commission and local authorities. I have even heard in London that some local authorities are putting leaflets through doors about this, and they are not even polling in this May election. A lot of work is going on to make sure people are aware of it and apply in time. As always, there will be people who do not want to vote who will not register, and therefore will not look for identification.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

I understand from my noble friend that the Constitution Committee will look at this issue shortly. The idea that certain communities or people will fail, or be unable, to vote if these certificates are introduced is a serious matter in a democracy. I am not saying that we should not do it; I am saying that, because it is so serious, it feels correct that the Constitution Committee should look at it in detail and examine what the benefits and costs or downsides would be. Let us then have a much more informed debate about whether this should go ahead. I hope that the Minister will agree.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

We have had this informed debate; we had very long debates on this subject, and the Bill was passed and is now an Act. So it is in legislation, and it will happen in 50% of the country in May this year. It is good that it is happening in 50%, because the electoral officers for the other 50% will help if there are any issues with getting those ID cards to people on time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, mentioned. Let us get back to the fact that 98% of people in this country already have those forms of identification. I quite agree about people with protected characteristics, and we are working with them: we have engaged with over 70 civil society organisations about this change in electoral law. The Minister responsible in DLUHC, Minister Rowley, is working and continuing to meet all sorts of organisations to make sure that we have everything in place so that those particular vulnerable people have every opportunity to vote.

Photo of Lord Maxton Lord Maxton Labour

My Lords, has the Minister read the report on a smart ID card for all by Sir Tony Blair and William Hague—the noble Lord, Lord Hague of Richmond—which was published in the Times today? This includes the ID card recognition that the Government and the Minister are demanding.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I have not read it; I have been working since 8 am, so I am sorry that I have not had time to read the Times. This is an identification card for voting; it is not a full ID card, which I think the House would want to debate with far more time than we have this afternoon.

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Conservative

My Lords, I would like to ask the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, where she gets her information from. I am with minority communities day in, day out, and we discuss voting and elections because I want more people from my community to be engaged. I am afraid that this ruse, which I hear in this Chamber over and over again, that they will not want to contribute and participate is a load of rubbish.

Photo of Baroness Meacher Baroness Meacher Crossbench

I think I need to respond to that accusation, if I may—

Noble Lords:

Order!

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Public confidence in our electoral system is critical. For many years, international observers have said that we should have better identification at our polling stations. The Electoral Commission recently showed that two in three electors say that a requirement to show identification at polling stations would make them more confident in the security of the voting system. If the public are more confident in our democratic system, they are much more likely to participate in it.