Q We will now hear oral evidence from Virginia McVea from the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland, Ailsa Irvine from the Electoral Commission and Peter Stanyon of the Association of Electoral Administrators. All the witnesses are on Zoom. Welcome. We have until 3.15 pm for this session. Would the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record?
Q If I could begin with you, Ms McVea. Part of the Bill concerns electors showing voter identification at polling stations. That has been a requirement in Northern Ireland for some time. We know that has changed over time: initially not requiring photo ID, then much later having a requirement to show photo ID. Do you have anything that could inform the Committee’s thinking on the way in which that might be implemented in England, Scotland and Wales, and with regard to the speed, if we were to move straight to requiring quite strict photo ID? Obviously, in Northern Ireland you had a much slower transition. Could you outline any of the initial problems electors had in Northern Ireland with access to ID, and what barriers voters who did not have ID came up against?
That was obviously prior to my period in office. There are not many records in relation to that. What I can say is that there is no particular difficulty encountered in providing that photographic ID. We have around 370,000 cards and they have been available since 2003. One issue that will be encountered is the administration. Initially records show that the outsourced cost per card was over £14, and that continued. It is now provided in-house, at just over £2 a card, including postage. Part of it will be around comms and how people are able to access them.
For us, there is obviously a time taken per card. Outside election periods, we have had to extend that to a six-week turnaround. I have no record of what the turnaround period was initially in the provision of the cards, but the take-up was much higher. Probably in around 2016, we were looking at more than 20,000 cards being produced in the year. We have found that continuing to tail off.
There has not been any related difficulty in attendance at polling stations of being able to produce ID. Certainly, the data shows a change in the requirement on cards.
We do not know whether people have kept all of their cards—we know lots of cards get lost. We occasionally have visits from various nightclubs when they empty their sports bags on to the table and return the cards that have gone missing. Those need duplicates. A lot of time can be wasted in reproducing cards, but I am afraid that there are very few records that show what the initial difficulties were in engaging and in providing the ID.
Q If I may ask Peter Stanyon to answer a question from the point of view of the electoral administrators, obviously the issuing of free voter identification cards will fall to local authorities and electoral administrators. Can you outline to the Committee some of the pressures that the people you represent in electoral offices up and down the country face on a day-to-day basis? What kind of pressures already exist? How is the requirement to produce ID cards likely to affect electoral administrators?
The expectation is that the vast majority of those cards will need to be issued ahead of the next national electoral event—a general election, for example— when the pressures in the electoral offices are at their greatest. Late registration statistics show that the spikes in registration come towards the end. At that stage, the same people delivering the election—certainly across England and Wales—will be the ones who also have to manage the process of issuing free voter ID cards to individuals. In Scotland, it is slightly different because that tends to be done by the valuation joint boards. There is a difference in the way that is delivered north of the border.
The real pressures are that we do not know the statistics—the numbers of people coming through—and, because of the spikes in registration, we will not know that until literally the last minute. One of the concerns being expressed across the electoral community is as much about what the basic system is: what will it look like? Will it require attendance in person? Virginia mentioned posting out ID—will that be permissible in the remainder of the UK? We do not know that detail at this stage.
It will require a whole-council approach—there is no doubt about that. It will not just be the returning officer or registration officer who is involved; it will be councils, with the pressures they are already under when delivering their day-to-day services. It really comes down to trying to make sure that we do not disenfranchise—it is probably not quite the right word—individuals by simply not being able to get to them the relevant ID they require to present at the polling stations on polling day.
The other factor to take into account is how late in the day it will be permissible for an individual to apply for free voter ID from a local authority. The pilots go right up to the eve of the polls, and we have concerns about the ability to cope with what are expected to be higher numbers when interest in the election is higher because it is a UK parliamentary general election.
Just to say that the statistics that we have in 2019 show that the applications for ID cards will at least double. In Northern Ireland, where we have had nearly 20 years of ID card provision and so have decreased the number of people who might need access to a card, we are looking at around 1,500 or 1,600 applications per month during an election period. That is the information that I can provide in relation to how you might scale it up, bearing in mind that that is nearly at the end of a 20-year process of the provision of cards.
It is important to ensure that any scheme that is introduced is workable. The voter ID card will play a critical part in making sure that any scheme that is introduced is accessible for those who do not have one of the prescribed forms of ID. It absolutely needs to work, but it also needs to be considered in the realm of the whole administration of elections, including the other changes that the Bill brings forward, to ensure that there is capacity within local authorities to deliver effectively. There must be sufficient time for all this to be planned on an administrative level, with the software suppliers that local authorities depend on, and appropriate resourcing must be in place to support that.
Q I have one final question for Ailsa Irvine. The Electoral Commission reports to and is funded by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd, as well as the UK Parliament. How do you think the changes in the legislation whereby the UK Parliament can set the strategic direction will impact the way in which the commission engages with the devolved nations?
In general terms, we have concerns about the commission relating to the strategy and policy statement and the impact that that may have on the commission’s independence, going as it does beyond scrutiny and accountability, and potentially into providing guidance about how we carry out our functions on a day-to-day basis.
Specifically on our accountability to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Parliament, which is as important as our accountability to the UK Parliament, looking as we do in those three different directions, it is really important that there is consultation with those Parliaments. At the moment, the legislation focuses on consultation with Welsh Ministers and Scottish Ministers, but we are actually accountable to those legislatures through the Llywydd’s Committee and the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, so it is important to be able to ensure that they are also consulted and involved in the process in an equivalent way to the Speaker’s Committee.
When those consultations take place, whether with the Speaker’s Committee or with the devolved legislatures, it is really important that we are able to see what feedback is provided on any consultation on the statement, so that—assuming that the provisions go through—when it is presented to Parliament, given that it is presented as an all-or-nothing decision, there can be absolute clarity on what those who have been consulted have fed back and on their views on the operability of the statement.
Q Good afternoon to our three witnesses. Thank you very much for joining us. In our various ways, we know each other well from much work done over the years, so it is good to have you with us.
I will start with a couple of questions to Virginia about the concepts of turnout, fraud patterns and confidence, each of which is important in what we are looking at, particularly for voter identification. I am sure we would all agree that turnout is not a linear trend—it can be influenced by wider political factors—but can you confirm that in the first general election after photographic identification was introduced, the 2005 election, turnout in Northern Ireland was higher than in each of England, Scotland and Wales?
Q Thank you. I apologise; I meant in no way to put you on the spot. We have a note from the House of Commons Library that contains those figures, so I just wanted to give you an opportunity to expand on them.
I will turn instead to the evidence of fraud, which is perhaps the meat of the issue in some of what we are doing on voter identification. Has photo identification been effective in stopping personation, and does it function effectively as a deterrent? In other words, does it prevent the crime from being able to take place in the first instance?
Views across Northern Ireland will not be uniform in relation to the provision of photographic identification. What I can tell you, from looking at the tendered ballots for June 2017, for example, is that 24 were issued across all of the constituencies in Northern Ireland. In 2019, there were 18. Broadly, it would be fair to say that there is a public perception that photographic ID is helpful. We all know that there is a fear of fraud. The data that I hold, and the evidence that is available to me, does not bear out any kind of systemic fraud in Northern Ireland.
We are in a position where we provide those details in relation to the tendered ballots. When our polling station reports are returned—the poll staff are able to document all kinds of things that have occurred during the day—that is not something that occurs in our reports, nor is it something we hear from our polling station inspectors, who travel around. That said, some parties will raise concerns with me, and we are always trying to provide—through data analytics on the number of people who are used as proxies, or on absent votes generally—as much evidence as we can, to be as transparent as possible, because the evidence that we have does not bear it out.
Q Yes, indeed. I quite understand that. Without wishing to be facetious, for the benefit of the Committee, do you agree with me that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence?
Absolutely, but our purpose is to try to inquire as far as we possibly can, so we are now able to lift that out through increased analytics opportunities. Tendered ballots are an opportunity. Feedback from polling stations, and across the board with polling station inspectors, is very helpful. Issues are raised with me; political representatives will contact me throughout polling day, for example. That is not something that is raised in every constituency in large numbers. There will tend to be higher levels of concern in certain areas among certain representatives. Either in situations where people have wanted to move on or where we have thought it necessary in relation to certain polling stations to pass information to the police, there have been no prosecutions.
Q Thank you so much for sharing your insights. Ailsa, the Electoral Commission’s analysis across various years—I am looking at some from December 2015—concluded that voters’ confidence that elections are well run is consistently higher in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain. Can you say a word about what you know about that from your records? Could you also please explain to the Committee why it is that for many years the Electoral Commission has advocated the introduction of voter identification in Great Britain?
We do see high levels of public confidence, not only in Northern Ireland but across the whole the UK. We saw that borne out in the elections that took place in May in Great Britain—there were high levels of public confidence in and satisfaction with the processes of voting and registering to vote. It is important to bear in mind that we are starting from a high base of public confidence. Having said that, we know that concerns about electoral fraud are in the mind of the public. From our public opinion survey work, we have found that two thirds of electors said that they would be more confident in the process if they were required to show a form of photo ID at the polling station. So that is relevant and a consideration for some voters.
Essentially, we recognise that, in the polling station process, no safeguards are in place to check anybody’s identity before they are issued with a ballot paper. That stands out quite strongly from other parts of the process. If you are applying to register to vote, your identity is verified beforehand, and if you are casting a postal vote, your identity is verified through that process. It does mean that there is a vulnerability in the polling station process with no check on the identity of voters—as has been found.
Q Thank you very much.
Peter, thank you very much for joining us. On a different topic, may I pick your brains on supporting voters with disabilities at the polling station? We have a measure in the Bill that will widen the existing law, which includes a highly specific requirement for support for voters who are blind or partially sighted, into support for any disability. What are your thoughts on that, and how would you expect your members to respond to it?
We welcome less prescription. One of the biggest challenges presented in polling stations at the moment is the prescription brought in by the tactile voting device. It works in itself, and there is nothing wrong with it, but it is the one thing available to work with under the legislative framework. The widening of the ability to use alternative methods has to be welcomed, as long as there are base standards that the returning officer is expected to follow. That is not to remove the TVD from polling stations, but to add in additional potential mechanisms that will be of assistance to individual voters.
You may have seen the evidence I gave to PACAC last week. We are making the point that this is the sort of area in which people in the third sector with experience will be able to advise returning officers of the best solutions to allow individuals to vote independently in the polling station, whether they have visual impairment or are there as a regular voter. The key point of the whole process is to give them that ability, and if that means that they are able to use something that is suitable to them—that the returning officer is aware of and that does not break secrecy or introduce risk to the process—we would fully support that. It is about having that ability to provide the flexibility for local circumstances. That said, there does need to be a minimum base standard that any voter walking into a polling station will be able to expect, if they require that level of assistance.
Q Thank you, Peter; that is so helpful. Might the standard that you refer to reasonably be something that would be provided in guidance and training?
I think so. It is the sort of thing that may come into such things as performance standards, which the commission oversees. It will come down to what sorts of things returning officers should be considering, and ensuring that staff in the polling stations are au fait with the options available to them. That will come with a number of strands to it, rather than being the very tight prescription that we have at the moment, which can fail as a result of its not being used correctly.
Most of the comments from Northern Ireland will have to be heavily caveated. All present will be aware that the context in which this change was brought about in Northern Ireland was very different from that in which the discussions are taking place here. That must always be borne in mind. There are some practical difficulties, which colleagues have mentioned, in terms of being ready for this. There is the initial cost. Funding was provided, as I understand it, for the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland, but the costs were considerable at a point in the early stages where, for example, the cost of card production was well over £100,000 back in 2004.
There is the cost factor, and there is also the time factor. We may have been able to reduce the cost down now to just over £2 per card, including the postage, but the time factor becomes relevant, and the fact that the photographic ID can be used for other things. People will approach us not for voting purposes, and outside election periods. For example, in January 2019 we had 517 and then 537 applications. The fact that ID cards serve other purposes for members of the public has to be borne in mind in relation to the administrative impact and the time that is taken in terms of staffing—ensuring that your process is watertight, essentially—so that there cannot be further issues in relation to fears among the public about the process itself.
There have been huge efforts in Northern Ireland to ensure that the administration works, but cost and time are big factors. We do not, unfortunately, have records. I have picked the brains of those who have gone before in relation to the difficulties experienced. The passage of time can dim some memories, but it is my understanding that it was not an easy process without its challenges and challengers. However, it is now largely accepted. It has to be borne in mind that we are talking about an almost 20-year process. We do not get conflict in polling stations or challenges in relation to the provision of ID. We do not have a lot of problems in polling stations with people bringing the wrong ID. It happens occasionally, but it is generally not a problem. The bigger teething issues will be, as Peter says, to ensure that the authorities are prepared for it, and have proper processes, sufficient funding and some expectation of the demand that is projected.
No, we do not. As you might imagine, in terms of queues it would probably take too long. We have had those kinds of discussions. Where you will get it anecdotally is in polling station logs and review processes, post election, with polling staff and polling station inspectors. It is not a common occurrence or a particular difficulty, but you also have to bear in mind that the parties are also very familiar with this process, so there is a lot of messaging that goes out beyond my standard messages on radio and local television. Just prior to polling day, the parties themselves do all they can to make sure people do not forget. As I say, it is a long process—over 20 years.
Yes, that was our finding. We found that the majority of people took their ID with them when they went to vote, and of those who did not, or did not have it with them initially, most returned to vote.
That said, there is a significant public awareness task when the scheme is rolled out. That cannot be overstated. Even in the pilot areas, significant activity was undertaken by the individual local authorities and the parties locally to raise awareness and make sure voters understood what to do. That is something that would need to be replicated on a national level to make sure that it is supported when ID is introduced in Great Britain as a whole.
Indeed, at the commission we are already thinking about what our role would be in supporting that public awareness to make sure there is the broad awareness among everybody who needs to bring ID with them. There are specific types of awareness beneath that. We are working very closely with partners from across the third sector to make sure those who are less likely to have the required forms of ID know what they need to do to be able to go and cast their vote.
Q Thank you. We have heard from a number of witnesses today that the offence of personation is not a significant problem. Could I ask you to speculate a little? Do you believe it is underreported because the victim of the crime—the person whose vote has been stolen—is unlikely to be aware of it if they are not attending the polling station themselves? Could you comment on the view expressed by Lord Pickles in his report, where he says that it is harder to take out a library book from many local authorities than to be handed a ballot paper at the polling station?
It is difficult to speculate. We always want to be led by the evidence, which is why we collect data from police forces across the UK, which are responsible for recording and investigating allegations of personation. We see from that that there are relatively low levels of reported electoral fraud. Virginia mentioned earlier the point about tendered ballot papers. If we were seeing lots of people turning up to vote whose name had already been marked off, we would see that coming through in high levels of tendered ballot papers being issued in polling stations, which we have not seen.
It is a challenge. I am not saying it is easy, with personation as an identity crime, for that to be followed through, but any speculation about the level of that would be difficult, and that is not something that I would want to get into. As I said earlier, there is a vulnerability in the process, which we have recognised and highlighted over a number of years, if there is not any requirement to provide any form of ID.
Q May I ask you one further question on that? Obviously, following an election, a marked register is available to political parties, so they are able to identify voters who regularly attend the polling station and vote, and which elections they voted in. If it were available to a fraudster who intended to carry out the offence of personation, and they were able to use the identity at the polling station of a voter who does not regularly cast their ballot, would the offence of personation in that instance be available as evidence?
It would be difficult to see. Obviously, access to the marked register is controlled. It is only available for inspection in certain circumstances, and the use of it is only available in certain circumstances, so it is not widely available. It would be very difficult to know in any of these instances. It would be very much dependent of the individual facts of each case.
Q Ms Irvine, if I may carry on questioning you, you are obviously aware that the Electoral Commission has recommended the use of photographic ID, and you are in very good company. We heard earlier this morning from Lord Pickles who, as you will know, produced a report three or four years ago in which he listed a number of organisations that have come out in favour of photographic ID for our election system. That list includes the Association of Electoral Administrators, SOLACE and the National Police Chiefs Council domestically, but also international recommendations from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. There is a groundswell of advice coming the Government’s way to introduce photographic ID to protect our electoral system from vulnerability to fraud. Can you expound for us the impact that vulnerability has on our democracy and the way people experience it?
We have highlighted that vulnerability for a number of years. As I said earlier, we see high levels of public confidence in our electoral process as a whole. That said, there are a proportion of voters for whom this is a concern and who would be more confident if a requirement was introduced. There is some evidence to suggest that some people would become more confident if that was introduced.
However, the one thing we said in our evaluation of the pilot schemes was that, in introducing any scheme, as well as ensuring it has an impact on increasing security, we ensure that its introduction does not have an impact on the accessibility of the voting process and that it is workable in practice. While there is a vulnerability and it makes logical sense for it to be looked at, it must be looked at in a way that not only protects security, but continues to ensure the ability of everybody to cast their vote.
Q That is a very good point, and it brings me neatly on to Virginia McVea, if I am allowed one further question. You have a lot of experience of the practical application of photo ID in Northern Ireland; I heard your evidence a moment ago that, now it is bedded in, the run rate is about 1,500 card applications a month—is that right?
Q That is a very good indicator for us to extrapolate from the population of Northern Ireland being 1.86 million. We will all be busy with our calculators later.
The other advice you gave was that for the overwhelming of people there is not a problem—this is not an issue in Northern Ireland voting now, albeit after 20 years. Does that suggest that effective steps have been taken in the Northern Irish political process to raise awareness sufficiently to remove the concerns that some politicians expressed last week in the general debate, that many voters would be disenfranchised because they would turn up at a polling booth and they would not have the right ID? Is that a false fear once the system is bedded down?
We would have to time-travel back to the early 2000s to get a proper feel for the electorate’s response, but if there is sufficient communication and if there is availability of the ID card, much of which will be down to the capacity of the administrators, it is something that people are now accepting of. We have challenges to the office in relation to access to absent votes and discussions around that, but we do not have discussions about photographic ID with any of the parties. Ensuring that those smart passes can be used in polling stations is helpful, so yes, there is a general acceptance.
When you are doing your sums, being mathematically challenged myself on occasion, be careful: we work to the eligible electorate, which may possibly be around 1.45 million, rather than the 1.8 million, which would make the sums even harder dealing with the small figures from Northern Ireland.
Thank you, Ms Rees. I will only ask the one question, to Peter Stanyon. We have heard evidence today from Gillian Beasley, the chief executive of Peterborough City Council, who does a fantastic job of making sure that our elections in Peterborough are done freely and fairly. She outlined some of the things that she has undertaken in Peterborough, such as CCTV, and the professionalism of her team and her staff. We have also seen how well some of the pilots have gone with voter ID. I have every confidence in the AEA and election administrators across the country to get this right. Do you have that confidence, tooQ ?
I would echo the words that Gillian said this morning. At the end of the day, Peterborough has some challenges, and they face up to them superbly well. Whatever is expected of administrators, they will once again step up to that mark, but we should not underestimate the challenges that are being levelled not just by voter ID, but by the other elements of the Bill that make it harder and harder—more challenging—for elections to be delivered. I do not think you will find one electoral administrator who does not want to enfranchise people, who does not want them to cast their ballots or who does not want to provide that free and fair election. That is what it is all about; it is just becoming harder and harder to do so. There are resource and training implications, but the really good practice that local authorities such as Peterborough are able to demonstrate is really helpful and is shared across the whole electoral community.
This question is to Ailsa Irvine of the Electoral Commission. Imprints and identification of publisher are important safeguards in our system. I have been a party agent previously, and we are well aware of the importance of fair comment and our libel laws. However, are digital imprints sufficient to improve transparency and prevent interference or misinformation, particularly from overseasQ ?
Requiring digital campaign materials to include an imprint is something that we have been calling for for a number of years—it has been widely called for for a number of years—and it should go a long way towards providing voters with some information and clarity about who is paying to target them with campaign information. Given the massive boom in the number of people campaigning online, it is something that we know has concerned voters, and voters are telling us that currently they do not feel that they have confidence about where that information is coming from.
This requirement will go some way towards that, although the detailed provisions that are in the Bill at the moment will have some workability challenges around them—for example, by not requiring any unpaid campaign material from those that are unregistered to include an imprint. Although the Bill will bring more people into the category that will require them to register as a campaigner, there is still potential for unregistered campaigners to spend significant amounts of money on creating material and then disseminate it organically, and that would not be required to have an imprint. There is still a bit of a risk and a challenge around the provisions as drafted.
The inclusion of an address in the imprint is an absolutely critical factor, and that will help to demonstrate where a campaigner is based, and whether they are in the UK or otherwise. Again, if there is any activity taking place from outside the UK, although it would be transparent in these instances from the commission’s perspective, and we would have a role in regulating this in relation to non-party campaigners, our remit stops at the UK’s borders. We would not be able to go beyond that.
We have just got experience from the recent elections in Scotland where digital imprints were introduced for the first time. What we saw was that we have a community of campaigners who generally want to comply with the law. We did see good levels of compliance there, with people putting an imprint in place. When we became aware of any instances where that was not the case, we took steps to call up the campaigners to try to bring them in line with compliance. We saw that this was something that can make a real difference to voters.
Q Can I ask Peter Stanyon about the practicalities of issuing a voter ID card on the day? I think we all know of local elections where it is literally a handful of votes—I was involved in one ward where there were five votes between three candidates—so we know that it is really important that every single person who is eligible to vote can vote on the day. I think Virginia said that there is a six-week waiting list for ID cards in Northern Ireland. Can that be compressed to the day? What, practically, will happen when people turn up and they have just not got around to it? As you have all talked about, we saw that spike just before the elections, as with the pilot when ID cards were only issued up to the eve of the poll, rather than on the day. Will it be practical to get ID cards out to everyone on the day, so that everyone who can vote is able to do so?
It is almost an impossible question, because you will not know the level of expectation until the day. If it was one person coming into the office to be issued with a card, then yes, that could be done. However, if it was 1,500 people on the day, then that is a different ball game. The reality is that if there were provisions to allow that on the day, we would need to know that very early in advance. We would need to get the structures in place and accept that there would be a cost. Resourcing would have to run almost independently of the election, because the election takes over the day itself.
Going back to my earlier comment, we all want to make sure that everybody is able to cast their ballot when entitled to do so, and to make that as easy as possible. However, even within the current electoral timetable, there are deadlines throughout the day: 5 o’clock for lost or undelivered postal votes; 9 o’clock on the day for changes to the registers. It is not right up to the last minute—there are already accepted deadlines.
Whether it is possible would depend on what is expected, which mechanisms are in place and the expectations on the individuals. Do they need to come to the office? Is it done on a regional basis? Whatever the resources, if that were the system, we would have to make sure that it was financed, resourced and actually deliverable, so that we do not have No. 15 through the door being turned down simply because they could not process that card at that time.
The six-week turnaround period is what we use administratively outside of an election period. We do not have any complaints in relation to ID cards not being turned around within election periods, but that is only the case because of the significantly increased resources which ensure the cards are turned around very rapidly.
During an election period, we could have around 70 additional staff. We have a core staff of 30. So you can see why, when there is no electoral purpose, we need that six-week turnaround. Most cards do not take that long, but we give ourselves that space. In an emergency, such as the death of a loved one, when someone needs to travel and has no other photographic ID, we will turn the card around in 24 hours. The standard is to allow ourselves six weeks, and it is the significant scaling-up of staff during electoral periods that allows us to turn around the ID cards so quickly.
Q This issue came up in an earlier question by one of our Labour colleagues, but I would like to ask Virginia to say a little more about the practical process of applying for the electoral ID card in Northern Ireland, and in particular what identification is needed to be issued with the voter ID card.
Many of the applications are done in person. We do ID clinics, where we take an image of the individual, and then they fill out an application form so that we can verify their data across the data sets in Northern Ireland. We work using date of birth, national insurance number and so on.
You do not need a photo ID, no. We have so many situations—this will happen to any administrator—where people use this ID for other purposes, such as accessing banking facilities and travel, because they simply do not have another form of photographic ID. Administrators have to be ready for that as well.