Gavin Millar QC gave evidence.

Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 16th September 2021.

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Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath 2:00 pm, 16th September 2021

Q159 We are now sitting in public and the proceedings are being broadcast. I remind Members about the public health guidance and that electronic devices should be switched to silent.

We will now hear oral evidence from Gavin Millar QC of Matrix Chambers. Thank you very much for joining us. Before we begin, I remind Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick to the timings in the programme order that the Committee has agreed. For this session, we have until 2.45 pm. Would the witness please introduce himself for the record?

Gavin Millar:

I am Gavin Millar. I am a QC at Matrix Chambers. I specialise in election law and have done for 35 years.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Thank you. Minister, would you like to open the questioning?

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

It looks like an empty chair.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Shall I bring in other members of the Committee? Patrick Grady, would you like to ask a question? [Interruption.] Oh, hang on.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

I apologise to our witness. I am afraid I had some lift troubles, trying to get down to the first floor. I thank you for your time before the Committee. Will you outline anything that you feel could have been included in the legislation, or that could be amended, to strengthen the integrity of the ballot?Q

Gavin Millar:

I am sorry—I am having trouble hearing.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

I will try repeating my question. Is there anything that you feel is missing from the legislation that would strengthen elections, or anything that is amendable that needs to be tightened up?

Gavin Millar:

As the Committee probably knows, there is a widely held view that what we have at the moment is a complicated mass of disparate election law provisions in statutes that have been enacted over many years, often containing historical provisions that have just stayed in them down the decades. The mass of that legislative material is difficult and confusing for election administrators—lawyers, judges, candidates and agents.

Accordingly, there is a widely held view that the way to tackle election law now would be to sweep that current body of law aside and modernise it, applying appropriate consolidating provisions in the existing law, into a single, simpler set of statutory rules. The Law Commission said this a few years ago, I have said it and others have said it often. It is disappointing that, in approaching the legislation, the Government have chosen to introduce another rather ad hoc set of disparate provisions that are unrelated, rather than the whole amazing, simplifying rewrite that is required. I suppose that is the first point, in terms of where we are. There is a case—[Inaudible]—to tackle the urgent problems in the electoral system, but with the exception of part 6 of the Bill, which deals with information to be included with electronic material, nothing that it tackles could conceivably be regarded as an urgent problem of the sort that ought to take priority.

The Bill ignores the other most urgent problem in our system, which is the lack of an effective regulatory and enforcement regime to ensure that foreign money and dark money do not enter our political system through donations to political parties. I would say that that is now an election law issue, because in reality there is non-stop campaigning by political parties between the short and long election campaigns, which can be funded by large and inadequately regulated donations. There is the risk not only of money coming into the system that should not be there, but of the level playing field that we have always striven to achieve in our election law during the narrower periods of elections being lost in the intervening periods. It is disappointing that nothing in the legislation addresses those problems.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

Q Thank you. I have one follow-up question. The legislation impacts on third-party campaigners, and you have already said that the regulations for elections run across many different pieces of legislation. We do not have that single set of rules for participation. Do you think that the changes to third-party campaigners strike the right balance between engaging third-party campaigners in the democratic process and transparency in terms of the source of political money?

Gavin Millar:

There is no doubt that once you have got into the process of regulating non-party expenditure in elections, some very difficult questions arise. Traditionally, those difficult questions have arisen in our system in relation to non-candidate expenditure in constituencies or local government wards—whatever it is—during the election campaign. Local campaigners, non-governmental organisations and so on and so forth can spend some money to campaign, but it is heavily capped. Of course, we are now into the territory where national campaigning is capped and regulated, and the current laws in relation to that are incredibly complicated, very difficult to follow and understand, and very difficult to apply, even for the courts.

I suppose the broad considerations are that we should, in a democracy, encourage and facilitate non-party campaigning of either form, but including national campaigns, to the extent that we can, if it does not unbalance the level playing field across the piece, because that contributes to the democratic process. There are a great many NGOs, charities and third-party campaigners that are not directly party political or campaigning on a range of issues, but may be campaigning on just one issue. It enhances our democracy to enable them to participate, which is going to cost money—they will have to spend money on that—provided that it does not cross the line of unbalancing a level playing field. It is a difficult balance to strike.

One of the features of the legislation that is very difficult is clause 25. It tackles third-party campaigning where it crosses a particular line, which is what is known in the legislation as a joint campaigning arrangement, where the third party or third parties can be shown, as a matter of fact, to have a plan or an arrangement to campaign together. That is an incredibly difficult concept. There have been a couple of cases where the courts have struggled with this, and I do not find the drafting in the Bill very easy, particularly clause 25.

It will be very difficult for campaigners, who might be caught by a suggestion that that is what they are doing, to know whether they are on the right or the wrong side of the line. If they are deemed to be on the wrong side of the line, and a court or a commission says that there is planned co-ordinated expenditure involving more than one non-party campaigner and a political party, that will dramatically reduce the amount that they will be able to spend. They will have to go through the whole process of declaring all the participants in that arrangement, and their available spend will be reduced accordingly. It may be that there are cases where it is justified in having that end result, but you should not have unclear law that leaves people in doubt as to what they can and cannot do and what is and is not a joint campaigning arrangement.

At the moment, that is very unclear in our law and has not been properly resolved by the courts. I would not suggest rushing into the provisions of clause 25. If that part of the Bill is going to go through Parliament, there should be very careful scrutiny of exactly what it is intended to catch and what it is not intended to catch, and of what the consequences are for third-party campaigners who engage in that sort joint campaigning with a political party. I am just not sure that that is there at the moment. That is the problem. Therefore it will tend to risk encouraging that active participation that I said was so important in a democracy.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

Q Under clause 25, the Minister would also have the power to add or remove categories of campaigners from being permitted to campaign in elections. Do you have some concern about that?

Gavin Millar:

Yes, I am concerned that this part of a strand in our law that is developing, which gives powers to Government and to the Executive to fill in gaps in legislation and take legally binding decisions outwith the legislation. It is very undesirable. It means that nobody knows in advance what the law is going to achieve and how it will work. It reduces parliamentary scrutiny.

Everything that is going to be there that will affect non-party campaigning should be in the primary legislation. It should be simple, clear and easy to understand, and it should be justified in terms of what it is trying to achieve in preventing the skewing of the level playing field. It should be absolutely clear what the consequences are for third-party campaigners, many of whom I advise at election time and in between elections. They are very confused by this. They find it very difficult to know what they can and cannot do, what crosses a particular line and what does not cross it, and what their maxima are for spending. You do not need to be a lawyer to realise that that is undesirable in a democracy, with an activity of such importance.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I have no further questions but I am very grateful to Mr Millar for giving his time.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

May I ask a question of clarification on the evidence that we have just heard? First, thank you very much for coming to give evidence, Mr Millar. It is a great pleasure to have someone of your expertise and experience assisting the Committee.Q

You expressed a concern a moment ago that the Minister, under clause 25, would have the ability to add to the list of categories. There is a rationale for that, which I hope we can agree on: as the sector develops, there will potentially be a need for the legislation to respond to growth in the sector, and it would be beneficial were the legislation able to satisfy that need. In those circumstances, is it not reasonable for the legislation to allow for an affirmative procedure in both Houses to give Parliament’s consent to the decision of the Minister? I am really challenging the rather bold assertion that it is the Minister who decides. It is not, is it? It is Parliament that will decide, and not just by the negative procedure; it is by the affirmative procedure in both Houses. Is that correct?

Gavin Millar:

I concede that point. There is a form of parliamentary procedure that will enable scrutiny of how the power is being exercised. Members of the Committee and parliamentarians will know better than I do as a lawyer how effective that is likely to be. The main thing is to avoid unconstrained powers. The premise of your question was that there would be a legitimate concern that needed to be addressed through subordinate legislation and the Minister’s decision. That is fine, but the question is what sort of things we are talking about, and in what circumstances such a power will be exercised. I get very anxious about provisions—perhaps I am too old, or too old-fashioned, because they are a rather more contemporary thing—that are in very broad terms. When the primary legislation is enacted, it is difficult to anticipate for what purposes they will be used and what would be regarded as a justifiable change in the law, but I take the point that if it is the affirmative procedure there is parliamentary scrutiny.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

I am very grateful. That is the only thing I wanted to clarify.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

On the provision for the Minister to set a statement for the Electoral Commission, the Government argue, I think, that it is not uncommon for the Government to set a policy framework approved by Parliament for independent regulators. However, I wonder whether you agree that the Electoral Commission is strictly comparable to Ofgem, Ofsted or some other independent regulators, given that it regulates the candidates and the people who are elected to make these laws in the first place. Do you have any reflections on that?Q

Could you also say a little more on the value or otherwise of a more comprehensive effort to consolidate electoral law? We have a lot of Representation of the People Acts. This is not a representation of the people Bill; it has been called the Elections Bill. I do not know whether there is any legislative or theological difference between the titling of these different Bills and Acts, or the things that they have done over the years. Where do you see the merit in perhaps a stronger effort to consolidate the different pieces of legislation that govern the electoral framework?

Gavin Millar:

In relation to the Electoral Commission, we need to start at the beginning, as it were. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, known in the trade as PPERA, created the Electoral Commission for the first time—it was the first time we had had one in this country—but [Inaudible] an Electoral Commission that does not actually have a role in administering, overseeing and running elections in real time, and that does not have powers to investigate conduct and outcomes, and still less overturn those outcomes. It is important to understand that other countries have equivalent entities with much stronger roles in each of those areas. We are starting from a pretty low base in terms of what the Electoral Commission has been created to do.

As far as I can see, there is no case here for any of the three main changes proposed in the legislation in relation to the Electoral Commission. First, there is the strategy and policy statement, which, as I understand it, is going to tell the regulator what it should and should not be doing. Secondly, the Electoral Commission’s willingness to do what it is told, and its success or otherwise in doing what it is told, will be overseen—one might cynically say “marked”—by the Speaker’s Committee. Thirdly, clause 15 takes away from the Electoral Commission the power to prosecute. I can see no case or justification for any of those measures.

An Electoral Commission should be independent of Government; it should be free from Government influence as a matter of principle, because of its role in a democracy. It should be rather akin to the police or the Crown Prosecution Service in that respect. Its decision making, and indeed its powers to investigate and act, should be framed and guided solely by the public interest and the merits of the evidence before it. Does this need to be investigated? To what extent does it need to be investigated? What has gone wrong? What needs to be done? It should be answerable to Parliament as a whole rather than to a single Committee or a small group of politicians. That seems to me a key and obvious point of principle.

My own view is that the Electoral Commission should have more powers and resources—hopefully under the codified and modernised statutory regime that I have suggested—rather than less, which is what seems to be the aim at the moment, particularly in relation to the removal of the power to prosecute. Why? Well, because it is the only player in the game. It is the only possible resource for dealing with breaches of election law, in its limited area, other than through criminal prosecution and civil litigation.

As far as the former is concerned, the police and prosecutors frankly do not have the resources or expertise to tackle offending under the RPA or PPERA, and I am absolutely certain that much goes uninvestigated and unprosecuted at the moment. That is extremely undesirable in our system. Civil litigation—by candidates, judicial review, election petitions and so on—is costly, cumbersome, time-consuming and very difficult to undertake. All those factors indicate that we need an empowered and funded Electoral Commission to tackle problems as they come up. They are experts and specialists; that is why they are there and should be there.

On the second point you asked about—I will try not to become boring, because I could wax lyrical about this for hours—as you probably know, essentially we have two strands to our election law. We have the Representation of the People Act 1983, which is the primary statute regulating three things: the exercise of the franchise, the conduct of elections and challenges to elections after the event. There are various problems with it, but the main one is that it is the most recent of a long succession of Acts with the same name in the 20th century, and indeed there were earlier equivalents going back into the 19th century. They have often been a political compromise in Parliament, simply enacted by way of consolidation with only minor amendments. What we have ended up with is really an awful lot of 19th-century provisions that have hardly changed in their wording.

On top of that, in that strand of the law—the actual regulation of the administration of elections—there have been many, many more pieces of primary and secondary legislation relating to those three areas of our law since 1983. They either come in statutory instruments or they go into amendments to the RPA, so you get these long lists of amended sections with ZA numbers after the primary number, and it becomes wholly unwieldy and unmanageable.

The Law Commission’s report, where it recommended this, alluded to a problem that surfaced in the 2010 general election. I am sure you all remember that there were queues at polling stations and people were unable to get in and vote when they closed at 10 pm. That is an unresolved issue in our election law. The Law Commission make the point that when Parliament had to correct that to make sure people queuing at that point could get in, 10 different pieces of legislation had to be amended to achieve that one single result. That is how bad it is.

In addition, the second strand is the PPERA strand, which came into play in 2000 with completely new and different areas of election law. In particular, as we know, it included the regulation of national campaign expenditure by political parties and third-party campaigners, as well as permissible donations. Again, accretions and additions to that legislation over the years have made it incredibly complicated.

So what is election law? Well, it is ill-defined, but essentially it is everything surrounding those two huge pieces of legislation and the case law they have thrown up. One of the advantages of consolidation would be to be clear about what needs to be regulated in elections. As I have said, it seems to me that the whole issue of campaigning between long and short campaign periods is now election law. That is just the reality of it in the modern world, just as we have accepted that what goes on on the internet is election law, which we never did before. Modernising and consolidating would give us a much broader definition of election law.

As you point out, in this Bill we have bits relating to each. We have bits relating to PPERA and bits relating to the RPA regime, and it is now simply called the Elections Bill, which is a sort of combination of two strands of our law, and it is a bit of a rag-bag really. I am not saying that some of the things are not desirable—clearly they are—but they are not urgent and they should not be given priority over this much more fundamental issue that needs to be resolved, which is a consolidated and complete electoral code.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Thank you, Mr Millar. It is a pleasure to see you this afternoon, and thank you for your evidence. Can I just ask about the relationship between this Bill and the European convention on human rights, particular the right to vote, obviously? Concerns have been expressed, for example by the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community, among others, that the Bill will reduce the ability to vote and will therefore contravene article 3 of the first protocol, which states that conditions imposed by the state must not curtail the rights in question in any way. Do you think that the voter ID scheme set out in the Bill is compatible with the European convention on human rights? Does it risk not being compatible? You have said that the law is unclear in some ways—is it unclear? If someone went to a polling station on election day without voter ID and was unable to get it, because the council was swamped by other such requests, and so they could not vote, could they then return to the European convention on human rights and say that their right to vote had been curtailed? Is that possible under the Bill? If there should be changes, what changes would you makeQ ?

Gavin Millar:

This strand of convention law—by which I mean, whether a piece of domestic legislation is incompatible with the provisions of the convention—does not work on an individual case-by-case basis. It works on the basis that if you have to look at compatibility in a court case, it is at the impact of the domestic rule of law—here, the voter ID provision—across the piece and the whole of the electoral system in the contracting party.

Is the impact of that legislative provision one that can be justified as being compatible with the convention? The convention—Strasbourg—has its own internal set of rules for saying what is and is not compatible. Very few rights are absolute, which is why you can have laws that prevent certain people—criminals and so on—from voting for a period, but to be compatible with the convention they have to be justifiable, in the sense of achieving a legitimate aim, one that is legitimate in that country for that political system and that voting system. It has to be a proportionate means of achieving that aim.

The question here—I accept that it would be assessed by the impact on individual groups of people, such as the Roma, whom you mentioned, but it would be much broader than that—is, if you try to justify what the Government are proposing to do across the electoral system as a whole, can it be justified as meeting a legitimate aim? Is there a problem that is so bad that it needs addressing in this system in this way? Is this a crude or a proportionate way of addressing it? The problem I have with clause 1 is that I cannot see the problem and, even if there is a problem, I cannot see that this is a targeted and proportionate way of addressing it, because it would just sweep out of the franchise somebody who did not happen to have a card or voter ID but was properly on the electoral register and entitled to vote when they turned up.

Why do I say that there is not a problem? You are all politicians, you have been elected and you know how this works, but you may not have looked at this from the point of view of an election lawyer, a criminal lawyer or someone looking at election fraud, which for my sins I have spent a lot of time doing for the past 20 years. The sort of fraud we are talking about here is called “personation” under the RPA. It is an electoral offence—it is impersonation, but misses off the “im” in the statutory historical categorisation. Personation is A turning up at the polling station pretending to be B, who is validly on the register.

It is not a problem of any great consequence in our system, and I speak from experience. Personation cases are almost non-existent. There are reasons why it is not a problem. First of all, it is extremely risky for anyone to try that. You are liable to be caught because somebody spots you and knows you are not that person. It is also ineffective because there is the alternative possibility that that person turns up and votes later, or indeed has already voted and is marked off the register when you try to impersonate them. If you are going to do it, you have to be absolutely certain that the person is dead or is not going to come and vote, and that you will not be found out that way. It is also hugely inefficient compared with other forms of fraud that have been perpetrated, particularly since postal voting on demand. You have to get a range of people, or yourself, to go around different polling stations at different times in the day, and all you get out of each criminal offence you commit is one vote. It is just not efficient or effective as a fraud, so it does not happen.

As I understand it, this came from the 2014 Tower Hamlets mayoral election. There were a whole range of election offences pleaded in that case and looked at by the court. One of them involved some personation at polling stations, but it was not the core problem. If that were the reason we had got to this point, this would be an example of a hard case making very bad law, and I would counsel against that. The fraud that exists in our system, or has existed since 2000, that everybody has read about and knows about, is a very different type of election fraud. One possibility is what is called roll-stuffing in Australia, where you put additional voters on the register who are not entitled to vote in a concerted fraud before the election, and then vote in their name. You normally apply for a postal vote for those non-existent voters at a particular address, and you pick up the postal vote papers and you vote.

There are various other postal vote frauds that were recounted in the cases that have been cited. That form of fraud has been made much more difficult by Parliament and by the administrators because of the cases over the past 20 years, and there are less cases even of that form of fraud, but it is not a form of fraud that would be addressed by this piece of legislation, so what is the problem? What is it achieving? Why is this a proportionate way of addressing it? I have no answers to any of those questions, and of course in a situation where, by common estimates, we have something like 17% of eligible voters not on the register, one wonders why our efforts are not being concentrated on voter registration measures—getting more people on to the register and facilitating them in voting—rather than making it more difficult for them to do it by imposing this requirement, which we have never had.

I appreciate that advocates of the Bill will say, “It is not a lot to do, to get a piece of photo ID or have a piece of photo ID and bring it along to the polling station,” but we need only look at the Windrush scandal to see how many poor people and ordinary people in our society have difficulties with that sort of thing, not to mention disabled people and other discriminated-against groups who do not want to engage with obtaining this sort of identification, for fear that it will open them up to other scrutiny and investigation of an unjustifiable kind. It is wrong on every count, really.

To answer the question, yes, there will inevitably be challenges to this as incompatible with the European convention on human rights if it is introduced, and it seems to me that there is a strong case for doing that. The impact would be considerable, by all accounts—although somewhat unquantifiable—but I just have not seen the evidence that you would be required to produce at a judicial review or at a case in Strasbourg to justify this as an appropriate state interference with the right to vote.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

That is very concerning. Thank you.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

If there are no further questions from Members, I thank our witness for his evidence.