New clause 8—Review of absent vote arrangements—
“(1) The Minister for the Cabinet Office or the Secretary of State shall—
(a) review absent voting arrangements to consider whether they allow sufficient time for overseas electors to participate adequately in parliamentary elections, taking into account the likely effects of the provisions of this Act;
(b) consult the Electoral Commission, local authorities and the Association of Electoral Administrators as part of the review; and
(c) lay before Parliament a report on the review and any steps to be taken as a result.”
New clause 9—Report on postal voting arrangements for overseas electors—
“(1) The Minister for the Cabinet Office or the Secretary of State shall publish a report on postal voting arrangements for overseas electors.
(2) The report shall set out—
(a) any barriers to the participation of overseas electors in parliamentary elections, including in—
(i) the availability of pre-paid postal services for returning ballot papers,
(ii) the financial resources of returning officers, and
(iii) capacity in the specialist print and production markets to meet absent vote and ballot paper requirements;
(b) whether any such barriers are likely to become more significant or widespread as a result of the extension of the franchise in the provisions of this Act, including in particular countries and regions;
(c) any steps to be taken to make it easier for overseas electors to participate in parliamentary elections.
(3) The report shall, in particular, consider the effectiveness and cost of the International Business Response Licence for postal votes and any associated implications of the provisions of this Act
What a great pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh. I may be incorrect, but I think this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship in my three and a half years in this place, in which I still consider myself richly privileged to serve.
My amendments and new clauses would require a detailed review of absent voting arrangements. I have some problems with the Bill in principle, including an objection to the idea of people continuing to have a vote when they have lived overseas for many years and have no direct connection with this country. However, these amendments reflect concerns not about the principle of the Bill, but about how its proposals will be administered.
My staff and I have sought the advice of local electoral administrators and the Association of Electoral Administrators to understand the administrative burdens and pressures that the Bill would place on them. Local administrators are charged with upholding our democracy by maintaining the integrity of electoral registrations; they need to ensure that everybody who should be allowed to register can do so, but that those who seek to exploit the register for nefarious reasons are exposed, caught out and dealt with. As with previous amendments, I have sought a response at least from the Minister and from the Member in charge, my good friend the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire.
The amendments would request consideration for the administrative burdens that might fall on local electoral registration officers, often at a time when the pressure on them is at a maximum—we know from past practice in election years that most people seek to register as voters only when an election is called. Given the current state of confusion surrounding absent voting arrangements for overseas voters, the Government need to carry out proper investigations into the reasons for that patchy record. Sufficient time is required for any absent voter arrangements to be put in place, so that overseas electors can cast their vote at the election or referendum in time for it to be counted.
The hon. Member for Kingswood, who is a former Minister, made a very helpful contribution last week, explaining that the timing issue is central to the way the timetable is worked out. It is worked back from polling day, and there are other considerations such as the close of nominations and laying out a suitable period for postal votes. As we already have that timetable in place, reviewing how it might be affected by a large increase in absent voting and postal voting might be a useful exercise to undertake before the Bill becomes law so that electoral registration officers are fully prepared for the arduous task that they may well face.
I am requesting a review to consider whether the current voting arrangements grant sufficient time for overseas electors to participate adequately in parliamentary elections. Furthermore, I share the concerns of the Association of Electoral Administrators that there needs to be greater emphasis on encouraging overseas electors to establish clear absent voting arrangements and to do so in good time. Failure to prepare absent voting arrangements serves to further burden our already overworked and dedicated electoral staff.
Currently the deadline to apply as an overseas elector and for absent voting arrangements is polling day minus 12 —I think this is getting to the point that the hon. Member for Kingswood alluded to last week. Absent voting arrangements refer to any form of voting not carried out at the polling station, with proxy voting and postal voting being the two principal mechanisms. In order to vote, overseas electors have three options; they can vote by post, by proxy or in person if they happen to be in the UK on election day. It is vital that those three options function efficiently in the run-up to elections. A review of the current system of absent voting for overseas voters is necessary before the Government consider enfranchising millions of new overseas voters. Indeed, a number of significant faults have been exposed in recent elections that need to be reviewed and resolved before we are ready to take the next step of expanding the franchise as significantly as is proposed.
At both the EU referendum in 2016 and the UK parliamentary elections in 2015, the processing of absent voting applications for overseas voters was a real challenge for EROs. The AEA has outlined a number of areas of concern relating to absent voting arrangements. It fears that difficulties experienced between 2015 and 2017 will only be exacerbated with the removal of the 15-year rule. One significant issue relates to the failure of many overseas voters to provide absent voting information. In what has become a commonplace occurrence, a significant number of overseas electors did not request absent voting facilities when originally applying to register. That resulted in administrators spending significant time contacting, or attempting to contact, those individuals to seek their instructions, and in numerous situations whereby overseas electors were registered but were unable to participate without returning to their polling station.
I will dwell on that point for a moment. The Association of Electoral Administrators talks about its members making a proactive attempt to contact overseas voters to encourage them to make suitable arrangements. That electoral registration officers will do that speaks not only to their dedication, but to the additional workload that will need to be supported, particularly if we increase the franchise as greatly as is proposed.
I presume that British embassies have some sort of form or instructions for overseas voters. An overseas voter who wants to find out what is going on could go to the embassy if perhaps they did not have a computer or were not on the internet, for example.
I have to say that I do not know the answer to that question. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is probably better versed in international affairs than I am. That is precisely the kind of question that could be asked as part of such a review. The Cabinet Office Minister who will be responsible for implementing the Bill could well speak to their counterparts in the Foreign Office to find out what support and information is and, perhaps more importantly, should be available via British embassies and our network of high commissions and, in larger countries, consulates. That is a very interesting suggestion, which deserves deeper consideration. That is the intention behind the amendment.
Following the Bill’s passage, EROs will inevitably be overburdened by the intense administrative cost of registering the influx of new overseas voters. Given that extra workload, it seems only fair to grant EROs more time to process absent vote forms. At the very least, a review of the procedure is required.
At previous elections, there were issues with electors having limited understanding or unrealistic expectations of the process. Many applied for postal votes when they were unlikely to receive and return them in time. The significant spike in applications for postal votes in the lead-up to a general election inevitably places EROs under stress, as they are overburdened with applications in the short period before the election. That is despite the fact, which I have already referred to, that some go out of their way to try to resolve proactively the problems that electors face, in addition to dealing with complaints or queries from domestically resident voters on the register.
Many overseas voters who applied for postal voting expected to be sent a postal vote immediately. That is simply unrealistic and puts too much strain on EROs in the lead-up to a general election. In addition, some overseas voters appointed a proxy who themselves lived a distance from the local authority area in which the overseas elector was registered. Again, that led to many votes remaining uncast, simply because the proxy could not attend the relevant polling station.
Electoral administrators faced unnecessary and unreasonable criticism as a result of those issues. The process of applying for an absentee vote is convoluted and difficult. The AEA has raised that issue on many occasions, especially in view of the Government’s proposal to remove the 15-year registration period for overseas electors. Will the Minister consider whether her Department has responded to the AEA’s concerns? What consideration has it given to those issues?
Have the Government considered reviewing the proxy voting process for newly eligible overseas voters if the Bill passes? It may be difficult for voters who have lived abroad for decades even to find a proxy. They may lack any personal connection to their old constituency. Will regulations be put in place to require the proxy to live in the constituency? I do not believe that is the case at the moment, but I am interested to know whether this is necessary.
The AEA’s position on that matter is unequivocal. It stated:
“In view of this time limit being removed, consideration needs to be given to the deadline being brought forward for overseas electors to register so that it allows sufficient time to process and check previous revisions of registers, followed by documentary evidence or attestations being provided, if necessary. In addition, sufficient time is required to arrange for any absent vote arrangements to be put in place so that the overseas elector can cast their vote at the election or referendum in time for it to be counted.”
In moving other amendments, other hon. Members and I have suggested that people should have a greater responsibility, or be required to provide greater proof, to demonstrate a connection to a particular constituency. That may have seemed onerous, particularly when we were considering previous clauses. However, there is an argument that doing that earlier and making those applications much more robust would mean that less work would need to be done closer to the deadline for people who have already been through the process and registered.
My fear is that, with the removal of the 15-year rule, the fears expressed by the Association of Electoral Administrators will only increase. In its 2016 report, the AEA made the following recommendation:
“The UK Government should consider ways in which overseas electors are encouraged, or indeed required, to make suitable absent vote arrangements at the time they register to vote.”
I also draw the Committee’s attention to the issues experienced by overseas voters in recent elections through online platforms. In the lead-up to the general election, vital information about deadlines for absent voting arrangements was inconsistent across the official websites; key information was lacking. To clarify, two websites—gov.uk and the Electoral Commission’s www. yourvotematters.co.uk—are used to disseminate information about voting registration and to facilitate the registration of overseas voters. In the run-up to the general election, several issues were raised in relation to the messaging on both those websites.
Updating of the messaging on the Government’s website was inconsistent. Although some pages were changed, not all pages were automatically updated in line with deadlines. For example, across numerous Government pages, it was not announced that the deadline to register for absent voting arrangements had passed and it was too late to register. That meant that numerous overseas voters thought that they had registered but in fact had missed the deadline, causing them understandable frustration. And who might people take that frustration out on? It would very possibly be the electoral registration officers, who are simply following the rules, but who then have to deal with queries from abroad, from people who cannot understand why they have missed the deadline when they have not been told about it. That means further work for the already overburdened electoral registration officers.
Let me give a specific example. The gov.uk website directed users to a postal vote application form after the deadline for applications for the general election had passed. There was no message to alert applicants that the deadline had passed. Similar issues were experienced in relation to proxy applications and the need to apply for an emergency proxy after the proxy deadline. Other forms, such as that to enable a proxy to apply to vote by post, were simply not available.
In many cases, updates were made only when errors were brought to the Cabinet Office’s attention by the AEA, but of course electoral administrators are at their busiest in the period that we are discussing. They should not have to worry about alerting the maintainers of the website, or Ministers and officials in that Department, when they are at their point of peak work. I was surprised to discover that the Cabinet Office does not own all such pages and is limited in what it can do to make important changes at short notice. Can the Minister tell the Committee who owns the websites and what can be done to ensure that greater power is given to officials in the Cabinet Office to make vital updates when necessary?
In addition, the Electoral Commission’s page originally stated that 16-year-olds could act as proxies in Scotland, which is not the case for United Kingdom parliamentary general elections. The commission did correct that error immediately it was advised of it, but errors of that sort just add to the cumbersome process of applying to be an overseas voter, and the frustrations at that cumbersome process are taken out on—well, I was going to suggest that the frustrations are taken out on the electoral registration officers, but as I am talking, I have a vision of the frustrations being taken out on a computer, with a keyboard being bashed in horror as someone is unable to register to vote.
The election timetable and rules need to be made universally accessible, across all Government websites, before the provisions of this Bill come into force. We cannot leave it late yet again and overburden local registration officers, or leave them in a situation in which there is a lack of clarity or consistency across different areas as to how the rules might apply. There will be millions more users. These websites need to function with the most up-to-date information. It is rather shocking that better plans were not in place to ensure the automatic updating of all relevant webpages.
The Association of Electoral Administrators makes a sensible and common-sense point on this matter. As a result of the confusion and mixed messaging on this occasion, it queried why information relating to absent voting is duplicated on the two websites. It considers that it would be better for gov.uk to deal solely with applications to register to vote and to redirect those wishing to apply for an absent vote to the Electoral Commission’s website. Has the Minister considered that suggestion?
Given the diversity of issues experienced by overseas voters when attempting to apply for an absent vote, it is necessary for the Government to reconsider these arrangements. They must thoroughly understand and consider the implications of the Bill on absentee voting before it gets on to the statute book and the gates are opened for the many thousands of voters—or potentially more—who will take advantage of its provisions.
Since I was first elected last June, my hon. Friend Christian Matheson has been very supportive and has guided me well, which I have always appreciated. We have seen more of that today.
Virtually the final thing we talked about last week was my amendment that would have changed the registration deadline for overseas voters to polling day minus 19 days. This amendment follows a similar principle but is perhaps a bit more temperately put, shall I say, and a better way of achieving what I sought to achieve. My amendment also had a minor technical problem, so I was happy to withdraw it. I actually think that this amendment is much better.
All Members who have contributed have at some point mentioned the high regard in which we hold our electoral administrators. It is really important that the general public know—we in this room already know—that they are not people who live in a cupboard and come out at election time. They do normal jobs that touch our lives every day, whether they are a chief executive of a council or work in leisure services or social care. They then put on a different hat—I characterised it as like becoming an international football team at election time—when they come out to do these jobs. We all respect and revere their work. As part of that, we have to listen to them when they talk to us. As I mentioned last week, my anxiety is that we have not really paid heed to much of what they have said.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. Does he share my concern that we too often pay lip service to the public servants who work with us, saying how much we respect and value them, but do not practise that when it comes to the crunch?
That is my anxiety. One of my core political values is doing unto others as you would have done to yourself. If I were in their shoes, I am sure that I would be grateful for the warm wishes, but what I would most want from parliamentarians is that they listen to me. I say that as a preface to the AEA’s saying that:
“In view of this time limit being removed”— the time limit being the 15-year rule—
“consideration needs to be given to the deadline being brought forward for overseas electors to register so that it allows sufficient time to process and check previous revisions of registers”— we have talked about that—
“followed by documentary evidence or attestations being provided, if necessary. In addition, sufficient time is required to arrange for any absent vote arrangements to be put in place so that the overseas elector can cast their vote at the election or referendum in time for it to be counted.”
That is moderately put, but the message is clear. We ought to look at this idea. I am willing to concede, as a headstrong and a relatively new Member, that I perhaps pushed on too quickly in saying that we should definitely move the time limit—the evidence is perhaps not yet clear enough. However, through this review, the evidence would become clear, and it would soon become obvious whether there is a problem that needs to be solved. I hope we would listen because there is fundamental merit in understanding that.
As always after a day here, I reflected on what Opposition Members—sorry, Government Members; I have fast-forwarded a year or so—
Now I am being a smartypants, so I will stop.
I always reflect on what Government Members say to ensure that I understand things the way that I thought I did, or that the point I was trying to get over was the right one. In particular, I reflected on two things from last week. First, I reflected on what the hon. Member for Kingswood said about electoral Jenga and whether there was an unintended consequence of pulling that lever and extending that polling day minus 12 to polling day minus 19. I am still not persuaded that that would have a knock-on impact. The only thing I found was that there is a chance, which the hon. Gentleman raised, that individuals would not know the candidates at that point. That would be important at the time of casting a ballot—
It is a very important consideration when choosing whether to cast a ballot, but I do not think it is a material consideration when choosing whether to register to vote. We certainly would not tolerate that at home. There are significant penalties attached to not registering, so we would not be persuaded if a person had a knock on the door and their answer for why they had not registered was, “I don’t fancy the candidates very much.” The Minister has made the important assertion multiple times that she sees no difference between an overseas and a domestic elector, so I am not persuaded of that point.
Secondly, I reflected on the point made by the hon. Member for Beckenham that an extra seven working days, with a weekend in there too, was maybe too long. Again, the review would get to the bottom of that. Electoral administrators will know for how many days after an election they are still getting votes by post—I bet they hate that, but it must happen, and I bet there are some hilarious stories about votes coming in six months after too. In general, they will get votes coming in the day after polling day, and I am sure they look at them in great frustration. How many days is that true for? It probably has a half-life and diminishes by whatever the inverse of exponential is.
I thank the hon. Lady, who clearly gave more consideration to her mathematics studies than I did. I do have a maths A-level, and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester will be amazed to learn that I got an A grade. I am very proud of it.
A relatively quick conversation with electoral administrators will determine whether we need a couple of days or three days and whether an extra week would be superfluous. That lends more weight to the case for a review.
When I moved previous amendments, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and other hon. Members said that what I was suggesting might have halted the Bill’s progress, which was undesirable, but this proposal would not halt the Bill’s progress. It would set in train an entirely separate process and would strengthen the Bill because we would have a true understanding of how we might need to improve our system. I reiterate the point that we should listen to our electoral administrators, who are really good and who know about this issue. They have said that consideration needs to be given to it, so we should back them and do it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. It is the first time that it has been my pleasure to do so and I am looking forward to it. In this case, as in several others, Opposition Members make interesting points, but their underlying purpose is simply to delay the enfranchisement of the many overseas citizens who, in my view, should be entitled to vote in our elections.
The Government have made many improvements in this area, and I am sure they will make many more. They will take into account all the comments that have been made in the debate. On that basis, the amendments are unjustifiable, and I hope the hon. Member for City of Chester feels able to withdraw them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, as it is for the whole Committee. I thank the hon. Member for City of Chester for tabling these proposals. I also thank the hon. Member for Nottingham North for, as ever, his very considered approach.
The hon. Member for Nottingham North made the argument that we should think again about the timetable. I listened very carefully to what he said and I am certainly sympathetic to the arguments about how we best support administrators—I hope the Committee has heard that from me through a series of debates on amendments. However, I also understand, for example, the distinction that he just drew between candidates affecting one’s registration desire as opposed to affecting how one might go and vote.
Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman concluded with the argument that none of that should halt progress and the raw point before us is that these amendments do halt progress. That is why I join my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire, whose Bill this is, in arguing that they are not the right amendments. They would mean that the provisions in the Bill could not come into force until the Government had prepared and laid before Parliament a report on the absent voting arrangements and a report on postal voting arrangements for overseas electors. Like my hon. Friend, I see a risk of delaying enfranchisement for the sake of a report.
Let me deal in detail with a few points, which I hope will benefit the Committee. It is obviously the case that British citizens overseas can vote by post or appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. As has been noted, that does not exclude the possibility or the option of their coming to the polling station in person if they wish to and if they are in the country on the day.
The Government took action in the last Parliament to make it easier for overseas electors to vote by post by lengthening the timetable and removing the restriction on issuing postal votes ahead of the postal vote application deadline. That means that postal votes can be sent out up to eight working days earlier than before and as soon as possible after the close of candidate nominations, which is 19 working days before the day of poll, subject to the need to print the ballot papers at that stage. As hon. Members may know, administrators prioritise the printing and dispatch of postal votes to overseas electors in accordance with Electoral Commission guidance.
In the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 general election, the Royal Mail’s international reply mail system was used to support the effective return of completed postal votes from abroad. That system enables receipt of letters in other cases, and in this case votes from customers in over 200 countries worldwide. In the case of votes, the costs are paid for by the relevant returning officer and reimbursed to them from the Consolidated Fund. I take the opportunity to remind the Committee that all new burdens under the Bill will be paid for by central Government.
The Royal Mail provides a service on its website that identifies any issues with the service from a particular country, such as a storm affecting transport, or a postal or other strike. Its success rate is there in the numbers. For 2016, Royal Mail has records to show that more than 98,000 items were returned from abroad using this system and the figure for 2017 was more than 80,000. The system is working and I do not see the need for a report to improve what Royal Mail does. Nevertheless, we keep electoral arrangements under consideration and will be happy to make improvements where it is right to do so.
I am happy to confirm that I have a meeting tomorrow with the Association of Electoral Administrators—I have such meetings regularly and as a matter of course—when we will discuss the Bill and any other issues. We do not need a report to work sensibly in that way—the Government and stakeholders such as the AEA already do it and will continue doing it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North referred to this. The report is necessary because it is one matter meeting the AEA and listening to what it has to say, but it is another matter to respond to, take into account and act upon that advice. Would a formally published report not demonstrate that the advice had been properly taken into account?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that argument. He and the hon. Member for Nottingham North earlier asked what “lip service” consisted of. Lip service consists of delaying work for the sake of it until a report is produced when the work could carry on in the meantime. That is how I do my role and I think it is the right approach.
In any case, I confirm that the Government and the Electoral Commission have committed to improving their messaging on gov.uk—for instance, highlighting more clearly how absent voter arrangements need to be made. As I may have mentioned in a previous debate, the commission has said on record that it will help citizens to understand how to register in response to the Bill. That is what the Electoral Commission does, and that is what the Government do. I also make clear to the Committee that it is simply the case that legal responsibility for registration is split between organisations. A segment sits with Government, a segment sits with the Electoral Commission—for example, public awareness—and fundamentally, the basic legal responsibility sits with electoral administration officers.
I put my hands up. It is true that the Government do not own all the relevant web pages because of that split. There are good reasons for that split—going into that topic might take more hours than we want to give it today—but the fundamental need is for us to work together. We should do so in the service of the citizen, ensuring that they have good information. That is what I do, and will work with others to do, as a matter of course.
As I have argued, we do not need a report to bring that about, and I certainly do not think we need a pause. We need to get on and ensure that the arrangements work as a matter of course. On that basis, I hope the hon. Member for City of Chester feels able to reconsider his arguments and withdraw his amendments.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions during this section of the Committee’s considerations, and in particular I thank the Minister for her detailed response. I reassure both the Minister and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, for whom I and other hon. Members have both respect and affection, that it is not our intention to delay the implementation of the Bill. I must say rather cheekily that if the hon. Gentleman wants advice on how to delay the implementation of a Bill, he should perhaps seek the Minister’s advice on not moving money resolutions for other private Members’ Bills. That is an argument for another Committee on another day in another Committee Room.
I say to my friend the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, that Opposition Members—both in my party and in others—support the aims of the Bill and are keen to see it go through. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter is very keen to see it go through, and has been for many years.
Again, I respect my friend the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire immensely and there is no intention to delay the Bill. However, it is the role of the Committee to test the legislation, taking into account detailed evidence from parties such as the Association of Electoral Administrators. I am pleased that the Minister slightly tripped over that name because I have been doing that in rehearsals all week. I speak in jest, of course.
It is the role of the Committee to test the legislation and probe the Government, or the Member in charge, to ensure that all angles have been considered. To an extent, it is also the role of the Committee to represent those who have an interest in this legislation and ensure that their voices are heard. There is concern among the Association of Electoral Administrators that these matters have not been taken into account, and as I have said previously, several of our amendments have sought to represent those concerns. Those amendments are not about a philosophical objection to the Bill, but about implementation. The Minister talked about getting on with it and addressing those concerns, but concerns were raised a couple of years ago, and the AEA says that it has not seen much progress. With that in mind, and with your permission, Ms McDonagh, I would like to press the amendment to a vote.