UK Citizens Resident Overseas: Verification - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:18 pm on 29 March 2023.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:18, 29 March 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the identity and integrity of (1) electoral registration, (2) voting, and (3) political donations, by citizens resident overseas are verified as carefully as those from citizens resident in 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 Lords, the Elections Act 2022 delivered on the Government’s commitment to protect the integrity of our elections. In the future, as now, a British citizen living overseas who wishes to register as an overseas elector will need to have their identity and their connection to a relevant UK address established before they can be added to the register. The Act also introduced sensible safeguards for postal and proxy voting, and extended the secrecy of the ballot to postal voting. Political parties can accept donations only from registered electors, whether resident in the UK or overseas.

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

My Lords, the Minister will confirm that we are talking about an additional 1 million to 2 million voters from the extension of the timescale for overseas voters. That is 2,000 to 3,000 voters on average per constituency. This is significant. The Elections Act did indeed toughen up verification for domestic voters but it made no such arrangement for overseas voters. The local electoral registration officers I have spoken to say they will find verification extremely difficult for people who have not lived here for 20 years or more. Furthermore, the FCDO has said that it will play no role through embassies and consulates in verifying overseas voters’ identities. How can we be sure that those who register, vote and above all give donations from Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore or the British Virgin Islands are who they say they are, that the money comes from them and that they are not acting on behalf of a hostile third party?

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

My Lords, it is inaccurate to suggest that there will not be appropriate checks in place for the registration of overseas electors. In future, as now, a British citizen living overseas who wishes to register as an overseas elector will need to have their identity and their connection to a relevant UK address established before they can be added to the register. Currently, overseas applicants provide their date of birth and their national insurance number to be matched against DWP data. Failing this, if an overseas applicant’s identity cannot be verified by a DWP check, a new step will be introduced before the attestation stage, whereby an applicant must supply documentary evidence for an ERO to verify their identity. I cannot see the problem. As I have said in answer to previous questions, nobody can give money to any political party unless they are registered to elect in either this country or overseas.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Chair, International Agreements Committee

It is fitting to note that Harry Shindler, who campaigned for many years to extend overseas voting, which I happen to disapprove of, died recently. The Minister described checks on whether those people are allowed to be registered. She has not answered the crucial question: how do the Government propose to check that money from people who have not lived here for maybe 40 years is actually their own money and was earned legitimately?

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

My Lords, people who give money to political parties will need to be themselves elected.

Noble Lords:

Oh!

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

I beg noble Lords’ pardon—I should have said that they will need to be registered electors. Only those who have a genuine reason for doing that can do so. UK electors registered in this country or overseas, and UK companies, trade unions and other UK-based entities are the only people who can give donations. There can never be a way of checking where the money comes from. How would you do that?

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative

My Lords, the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, relates effectively to the security of the ballot in one form or another. All parties in this Chamber and in the other Chamber have in recent months given their active and willing, I hope, support to the Ballot Secrecy Bill that was finally passed in the Commons last Friday. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all parties for their active support for that legislation, which secures, in another way, the secrecy of the ballot. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister has any further information in relation to the progress of that Bill.

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

I thank my noble friend. As he said, the Bill was passed, and I am very pleased it was passed. I thank him for everything he has done in making sure that it got to the Commons. The next stage is Royal Assent. I am sorry that I do not have a date yet for that, but I think it is a good Private Member’s Bill and I look forward to it being given Royal Assent.

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, with increasing global tensions and the threat of foreign interference in elections, it is now more important than ever that the Government protect our democracy. Can the Minister confirm how many overseas electors have joined the register and how many applications have been declined since the Elections Act received Royal Assent?

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

I cannot give the noble Baroness an answer on how many have joined in that time or who has been declined, but we are looking at about 1.1 million people. That is what we think, but it is difficult to tell how many people could register overseas; how many will register is a different matter.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, political parties and organisations monitoring the situation, such as the Electoral Commission, can find it hard to check the original source of donations made, as we saw from those made in the EU referendum campaign donated via the Isle of Man. But some checks can be made, through credit reference agencies et cetera. How will the parties and the Electoral Commission be able to make such checks on residents overseas who are now registering to vote?

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

The rules are the same for all electors making donations, whether they live in the UK or overseas. Political parties and other regulated campaigners will continue to have to take all reasonable steps to verify that individuals making donations are registered electors. Parties can use the electoral register to do this and the removal of the 15-year limit, which is one of the things we did in the Bill, will make no change whatever to this requirement.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, does my noble friend not think that where a political party discovers that money has been given to it fraudulently and by a criminal, it should be returned? Should the Liberal party not remember the case of Mr Michael Brown, who was convicted, and whose money the Liberals have still not returned?

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

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that. It is absolutely clear that if a political party finds that money has come from a source that it should not come from then, yes, it has to give it back or give it to the Electoral Commission.

Photo of Lord Watts Lord Watts Labour

My Lords, are the Government acting on the advice of Russia and China in opening up a system that can be corrupted and would allow dodgy money to enter British politics?

Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Conservative

Will my noble friend the Minister have an opportunity during the recess to glance back at former Liberal Democrat policy statements, in particular the one from July 2019? Its policy document, Modernising the Relationship between Britain and its Citizens Living Abroad, advocated extending the vote to those living abroad and makes no mention whatever of the concerns just raised, because they are not real concerns.

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. I will go back and check even further, when I have time to do so, but I am not sure whether this is Liberal policy at all.

Photo of Lord Sahota Lord Sahota Labour

My Lords, what about the non-doms—people who live in the UK but do not pay any taxes here? Do the Government carry out any verification of them, so that they do not interfere in our electoral system?

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

My Lords, if they are registered as citizens of this country, they can then vote, but if they are not, they cannot.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I join the noble Baroness opposite in paying tribute to Harry Shindler OBE, who campaigned for years to achieve votes for life for all British citizens. It was marvellous that those who had worked with him, such as me and the noble Lord the Leader of the House, were able to celebrate at lunch with him towards the end of last year. Sadly, as the noble Baroness mentioned, he died a month ago, aged 101.