Clause 1 - Voter identification

Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 22nd September 2021.

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Question (this day) again proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

To say that this has been a lively debate would be seriously understating the passion and arguments made by Members on both sides of the Committee. Speaking as a former Treasury Minister, it is a refreshing change from annual Finance Bill Committees, where I am used to saying lots of things to silence and often bemusement from Back Benchers. That has been a real change and I have very much enjoyed listening to the arguments.

I want to thank all Members who participated in the debate for making so many interesting points. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme, for Peterborough, for Heywood and Middleton, and for Gedling, as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell for making brilliant points in their speeches, with which I wholeheartedly agree. They all said things far better than I could, given how new I am to the brief. I also enjoyed the interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington, the hon. Member for Glasgow North, my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. I did not agree with the Opposition Members’ points, but they were well argued. I still think that they are wrong but I admire the passion of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. This is clearly a brief she knows very much about and it is nice to see that level of engagement with the topic. However, a few points were made in the debate that I wish to reply to; I will not speak for very long.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North talked about weaknesses in the research. I know the moment has moved on, but I want to emphasise that the Cabinet Office’s research is the most comprehensive to date and is nationally representative. It shows that 99% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds surveyed owned an accepted form of identification. It seemed from his speech that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute felt this was a Bill about introducing a new voter ID card. Yes, that is part of it, but it is mainly about photographic identification. I felt that there was often conflation between people not having photographic identification and needing a voter ID card as opposed to everybody else needing one. That is not the case. I remind the hon. Gentleman that only those without existing documents need a voter card.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood talked about this being a new case for identity cards. I remind her that the coalition Government scrapped the last Labour Government’s plan for ID cards in 2010 and we have no plans for identity cards. The 2018 and 2019 voter identification pilots were delivered with a voluntary, locally issued notification. There is no compulsion here and that same model of an optional free voter card is what we are going to introduce.

Finally, I just wanted to reject completely the accusation from the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood of voter suppression. This is a political topic; we are talking about elections and MPs get very lively. We enjoy having these discussions, but it is important not to alarm people when a simple procedural Bill is being put through. People are disenfranchised if their vote has been used by someone who should not be doing so. It does not seem to be something that is of concern to Opposition Members, but we take that very seriously. As I said in my opening speech, just because someone’s house has not been burgled does not mean they should not lock the door. We can take precautions for things, even if their likelihood, depending on geography, is more or less. We should also have something uniform in bringing in this sort of Bill. We cannot just do something for Tower Hamlets and then wait until something happens in another borough.

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

Would it be appropriate at this point to ask some specific questions? I hope the Minister can respond about the application process for the voter ID cards. Obviously, it would be administered by local councils, but will there be a core standard of expectations of, for instance, the hours councils will be expected to offer the service? Will people have to apply in person,

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I think that those are things that we can work out as we progress. We all know that those sorts of details would not end up in a Bill such as this one. We also need to be able to give flexibility. What we can say is that we want to encourage as many people as possible to take up these cards, and we will do whatever we can to ensure that that is the case.

Let me go back to the point that I was making about voter suppression. We hear again and again, particularly from Labour, that any change to boundaries or elections is all about keeping voters away and gerrymandering. I completely and utterly reject that. I was not a Member in 2014, but I remember that Labour claimed that the roll-out of individual voter registration in the country was going to suppress voters. Labour Members said that it was terrible, that we should not do it and that we should instead allow the head of household to register everyone. As we said earlier, that was about bringing things into line with Northern Ireland, and it is worth mentioning that the electoral register in the 2019 general election was at its highest-ever level. The last thing that Labour said was going to be suppressing voters did not do that, and I am absolutely confident, given all the evidence we have seen and heard, that this will not do so either.

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

On voter registration, what plans does the Minister, who is responsible for this policy area, have to ensure that the missing 3 million electors find a way to register and appear on the electoral roll?

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister for Equalities, Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (jointly with Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but she is deviating from the point I am making about voter suppressions. The point I was making is that the last thing we did, which Labour claimed was going to suppress voters, turned out not to do so. We have never heard any acknowledgment from the Opposition that it was actually a good thing to do and strengthened our democracy. On the point about registration, the hon. Lady will know that I have just come to this brief. We can deal with the Government’s plans, and what I will be doing over the next few years, outside the debate on clause stand part.

The claims about voter suppression are bogus. They have been shown to be false by the Northern Ireland experience and the 2018-19 pilot. There is no reason why we should not go through with this, which is why I urge all Members to let the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Division number 1 Elections Bill — Clause 1 - Voter identification

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 6 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 6.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.