Clause 2 - Restriction of period for which person can apply for postal vote

Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 19th October 2021.

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

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

With this it will be convenient to consider that schedule 2 be the Second schedule to 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) 10:00 am, 19th October 2021

Clause 2 is essential to strengthen and improve the current security of the postal ballot. The clause, and associated schedule 2, will require postal voters in Great Britain to make a fresh postal vote application after a maximum of three years of being registered as a postal voter if they want to continue to vote by post at future elections. That is one of a number of measures in the Bill that implement recommendations in the 2016 Pickles report into electoral fraud, and it is needed to address documented weaknesses in the current absent voting arrangements.

The Electoral Commission’s winter tracker for 2021 found that one in five people considers postal voting to be unsafe, and the witnesses who gave evidence to this Committee also highlighted that absent voting can be particularly subject to fraud and abuse. Currently, an elector may have a postal vote on an indefinite basis as long as they provide a signature sample every five years. Requiring an elector to reapply for a postal vote at least every three years will enable the electoral registration officer regularly to assess their application and confirm that they are still an eligible elector. The measure will also ensure that electors’ details are kept up to date and reduce the waste and cost of postal votes being sent to out-of-date addresses, where they may also be vulnerable to fraudulent abuse.

By requiring each postal voter’s signature to be refreshed more frequently, we will also reduce the likelihood of a postal vote being rejected because of the elector’s handwriting changing over time. Further, asking that electors confirm their preferred arrangements at least once during the life of a Parliament provides an opportunity for someone who may have been initially convinced or coerced into having a postal vote to break out of that situation and protect their vote from being stolen.

Existing long-term postal voters will benefit from the transitional provisions in the Bill that allow them to maintain their preferred voting arrangement, and they will have advance notice of the change so that they can prepare ahead of the deadline. Electoral registration officers will be required to send a reminder to existing postal voters in advance of the date that they will cease to have a postal vote and to provide information on how to reapply.

Schedule 2 also provides for postal vote registrations for the maximum period to cease on 31 January in the year in question, which will give electors time to apply for a fresh postal vote ahead of scheduled elections in May that year if they wish to vote by post. For overseas electors, we are aligning the maximum period for which they may hold a postal vote with their registration cycle, and have extended that period so that it may also not exceed three years.

Those safeguards will not only protect against the abuse of postal voting but also, I hope, raise the level of confidence in absent voting so that no one has to feel concerned that their vote could be stolen or abused.

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

We will vote to remove the requirement for the reapplication for postal voting every three years and return to the status quo of postal votes lasting an indefinite period, because we believe that the requirement is disproportionate, costly and confusing. We strongly oppose moves to force those using a postal vote to reapply.

Clause 2 is another Government provision that has left me scratching my head and very concerned. These pointless changes will make the process of voting more complex and bureaucratic, forcing lifetime postal voters to reapply every three years. The Minister may think that mandating re-registration every three years is making our electoral system more secure from postal vote fraud, but that is mistaken and based on flawed assumptions about where postal vote fraud is happening. It is at variance from what we heard in evidence.

In evidence, we heard about the highly concerning case of postal vote fraud in the 2004 local elections in Birmingham. However, the main concerns raised by the commissioner included the deadline for postal voting packs being close to the election—six working days before—and the lack of checks on whether applications were made by the named voter, which made it difficult to detect fraud. Clause 2 does not address that.

Following that case, the Electoral Commission made a number of recommendations, including using personal identifiers for postal votes, moving the deadline for applications from six to 11 working days before polling day and making falsely applying for a postal vote an offence. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 was passed by the Labour Government in response to criticisms and has addressed a number of those concerns already, including a system of personal identifiers for postal ballots. What is the evidence that clause 2 will address the postal fraud that has been identified in the cases about which we have heard? The measure is not based on good evidence.

The second thing we are deeply concerned about is that the changes will reduce flexibility for voters and risk imposing yet another barrier to voting, which damages our democracy. Ministers should direct their energy towards changes that make voting easier, not putting up barriers. The change will suppress voting and erase the positive improvement in postal voting seen during the pandemic. It is unnecessarily bureaucratic.

We have seen a gradual rise in the use of postal voting over recent years, as an easy and flexible alternative for those who prefer not to visit the polls in person, even more so during the pandemic. In 2001, 1.8 million postal votes were issued; in 2012, 6.3 million; and at the last general election in 2019, 7.3 million postal votes were issued. As has been mentioned, in his review, Lord Pickles concluded that

“the availability of postal voting encourages many legitimate electors to use their vote effectively”.

But forcing people to keep reregistering so frequently—too frequently—could risk disenfranchising people who are not aware until it is too late that the rules are changing and that they need to reapply for their postal vote, when they have only had to do it once before. Changing the rules is confusing.

We oppose moves to change the law to limit who can hand in postal votes at polling stations. That change could create barriers for some voters who genuinely need assistance. My other concern is the sheer cost; as we mentioned, the Cabinet Office’s own impact assessment published with the Bill estimates the cost of the new requirement for postal voters to register every three years rather than five at between £6 million and £15 million. This will cost millions of pounds, and do we even need it? That estimate is in addition to existing costs and is based just on the cost of sending out the additional letters, let alone the extra administration and advertising costs. Can the Minister explain how she will pay for those additional costs?

There is also a capacity issue for local councils. It will inevitably prove hugely burdensome on local authority election teams, who are already overburdened and under-resourced. The Association of Electoral Administrators agrees with that assessment. It believes that reapplying for a postal vote every three years rather than five will bring an “additional burden to Electoral Registration Officers, creating more regular peaks of demand.”

There is the confusion between different election systems in the devolved nations Currently, neither Scotland nor Wales has diverged from existing legislation on postal voting. Postal votes on demand are available indefinitely, as they currently are in England, and signature refreshes are also required every five years. If the current measures in the Bill are approved, a complex, messy system of divergent requirements for different sets of elections will be created. I cannot imagine having to explain that multiple times on the doorstep, and for councils to have to explain that: one local election will be like this, but a general election will be like that. It will be very confusing.

Confusion stops people voting and gets in the way of our democracy. For instance, someone who has chosen to vote by post permanently in Scotland and Wales will be required to reapply every three years for their postal votes for the UK parliamentary elections, and will also separately be required to refresh their signature for postal votes in devolved elections every five years. It will create a huge administrative and bureaucratic nightmare that will be highly confusing for voters, who do not look in as much detail as we do at postal votes and when to sign for them and apply for them. I have yet to hear the Minister’s solution to that, and I hope to hear it now.

The clauses are pointless and arbitrary; they will not achieve what the Government is setting out to achieve. As usual in the Bill, they are disproportionate. There is very little evidence that they are necessary. They will hit the already disenfranchised the hardest. They will cost the taxpayer millions of pounds, pile the pressure on our already overstretched electoral staff and conflict with the frontline service delivery of our local councils. I urge colleagues not to let the clauses stand.

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

I will echo many of the hon. Lady’s points. The renewal of a postal vote comes up on an annual basis when the check of who is registered at the household comes through the post. It indicates whether electors are postal voters. If they wanted to change at that point, the opportunity would be there. But the Bill is putting on a separate new requirement. When a voter moves house, a fresh check is done—I know that from recent personal experience. When a voter moves house, they are asked to reapply for a postal vote at their new address.

The move to expand postal voting over the years has undoubtedly helped to increase turnout and participation. The Labour spokesperson explained that, where there have been difficulties, measures have been taken to stop them. That is not an argument to make it more difficult in general for people to apply for and exercise the right to vote by post.

The point about the risk of procedural complication is particularly acute. There is an interesting question about why the renewal has been set for every three years rather than every two, four or five years. Maybe the Minister can explain the evidence base for that when summing up, because that would help to align it with the parliamentary cycle of elections, although there is no cycle of elections at the moment—they are just happening on an almost annual basis. The effect of that is the real risk of someone who thinks they are registered for a postal vote actually being caught out because their postal vote expires while they are away for whatever reason has already inspired them to apply for a postal vote. They may then find that yet another snap election has been called and they are left effectively disenfranchised.

I echo the point about divergence across the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute and I have no problem with divergence. We have a solution to people in Scotland getting confused about voting in Westminster elections, which is to stop that from happening and for Scotland to be an independent country. If Members on the other side of the House and indeed our good friends on the Labour Front Bench do not want that to happen, perhaps they need to think about the divergence and different franchises that are being established across the United Kingdom, and about the different voting systems and the increase in differences. Quite how that makes a case for a strong and stable Union—well, it is not a case for me to make. We fully support the Labour party in opposing this clause and I look forward to hearing how the Minister responds to the points.

Photo of Paul Bristow Paul Bristow Conservative, Peterborough

In response to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Putney, I would argue that this change is perfectly reasonable. If someone is trying to renew something as precious as their postal vote, it is perfectly reasonable to be asked to do that every three years. As it happens, I personally think it should be done every year. Households have to renew who is on the electoral register every year. It is not that much of a leap to apply yearly for something as precious as a postal vote. This is a perfectly reasonable request.

I would like to draw Members’ attention to the evidence we heard from the chief executive of Peterborough City Council. It was argued earlier that some of the restrictions about who could hand in postal votes to a polling station were unreasonable. I would ask, what is reasonable about people walking up to polling stations, indeed to the town hall the night before, with plastic bags full of postal votes?

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

I thought I might help out the hon. Gentleman, because I think he might be straying into the next schedule to the Bill. The hon. Gentleman said that he thought that he would like to see postal votes renewed every year. Why did he not table an amendment to the Bill on that?

Photo of Paul Bristow Paul Bristow Conservative, Peterborough

Because we have to start somewhere. As a start, considering the evidence and arguments we have had, renewing every three years is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask someone to do. We should look at what happens after three years and maybe in the future we can see where we are. It is perfectly reasonable to ask someone to apply for something as precious as a postal vote every three years. We have talked about how important the privilege of voting is. If it is important, it is perfectly reasonable to fill out a form every three years. Evidence from my constituency suggests that we have wards in Peterborough that are twice as high as the national average for registered postal votes. I am not saying that that is done for any particularly nefarious reason, but clearly considerable postal vote harvesting and postal vote recruitment have been seen in Peterborough.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

Does my hon. Friend recall the reasons Lord Pickles gave in his 2016 report in favour of this measure? He said, first, that it

“would provide an opportunity for up-to-date checking of the application against other data at the local authority,” secondly, that

“it would help to reduce scope for redundant postal votes to continue to go to an address which the elector has left”,

and, thirdly,

“it also provides anyone with a postal vote who feels they are subject to coercion or undue influence with an opportunity to cease having a remote vote.”

Does he agree that the third of those reasons is the most important?

Photo of Paul Bristow Paul Bristow Conservative, Peterborough 10:15 am, 19th October 2021

I absolutely do. The evidence comes from Peterborough, Tower Hamlets and many other parts of the country. It is not isolated to a handful of local authorities; it is much more widespread than Opposition Members would believe. A lot of the evidence we heard in Committee about fraud—Opposition Members have made this argument time and time again—was that the issue was postal votes. Here is an opportunity to try to do something about it, and I urge hon. Members to support this element 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)

I will respond briefly to Opposition Members’ points, which can be summarised as, “This new measure is burdensome.” I thought it would be helpful to let the hon. Member for Putney know that any additional costs on local authorities or electoral returning officers relating to these measures would be covered under the new burdens doctrine. She also mentioned administrative burdens on devolved Administrations, and the answer to that is that they could easily align what they are doing with what we are doing if they felt it was overly burdensome on them.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2 agreed to.