Elections Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Lords Hansard - Part 2 & Committee stage
Thursday 17th March 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Elections Act 2022 View all Elections Act 2022 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 96-IV Fourth marshalled list for Committee - (17 Mar 2022)
In this regard, the Local Government Association has said that registration costs relating to all-year-round registrations, postal and proxy votes are entirely the responsibility of registering authorities. Therefore, they cannot be recouped from the relevant authority, as with election costs. This is apparently the case for all election types, including unplanned snap general elections. Has there been any assessment of the likely costs of this? How will the Government fund local authorities to ensure compliance with the new rules?
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I am not going to take anything but a tiny bit of your Lordships’ time. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has given us a very comprehensive and clear introduction to this group. I have been worried for a long time about local authority funding and the squeeze on it for the past 10 years or so and I have just one question for the Minister: has he consulted with a selected group of local authorities about whether they regard this as a good use of their resources and their money? If not, will he set in motion a consultation with local authorities about whether they really feel they can take on this added cost and use of their resources?

Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Baroness made some interesting points about the issues that will face local government in implementing these proposals. She referred to the cost estimates, which are of course included in the impact statement, and seemed to say that these were extraordinarily large numbers. There are 45 million electors. At £180 million, the top end of the range, that is only about £3 per elector: we have to get this into perspective. We are talking about proposals that will improve the integrity of our electoral system. This is a very modest cost; can we just get it into perspective?

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More generally, engagement with civil society groups has been a recurrent theme in government pronouncements on voter ID. This is of course welcome, but can the Minister tell us what engagement there has been with organisations speaking on behalf of people in poverty, or in which people in poverty are themselves involved, so that they can bring the expertise born of experience to these policy discussions?
Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I rise in support of Amendments 56 to 60 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, to which I have added my name. As I said at Second Reading, one of my biggest concerns about the whole Bill—though it is not the only one—is that the ID requirements could, when an election is closely fought, lead to an entirely different outcome of the election from that which would have been achieved without this ID process. In some cases it could result in a change in the MP elected in particular constituencies where, again, the result is close. Although there are obviously problems about individuals and groups, my biggest concern is that this could tip over or interferes with and distort the result of an election. That is a very serious matter.

The requirement in paragraph 8 of Schedule 1 that the electoral identity document

“must … contain a photograph of the person”

risks excluding various groups. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, went through those groups in some detail, and I certainly do not want to repeat her remarks. A differential turnout in these groups and constituencies will therefore determine to what extend the ID system affects the outcome of elections. I have no doubt that the ID system will affect election results and outcomes, and therefore, in my view, the ID provision should not be included in this Bill at all. However, I do understand that the Government had the election ID proposal in their manifesto. Nevertheless, I think I am completely convinced, certainly by the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, who did not get to speak on it, that the manifesto did not refer to photographic evidence. I hope the Minister will, therefore, while hanging on to his ID scheme no doubt, agree that these amendments are very important to keep the impact on elections to a minimum. We need the information required by these amendments. It will be difficult to estimate the impact on various groups, and I would be grateful if the Minister in his response would explain how that data will be obtained—assuming of course that he accepts the vital importance of impact assessments, and I am sure he does—before the ID system is introduced.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, referred to various countries that have electoral ID documents, but it would be very helpful if the Minister would make clear which countries have electoral ID systems that do not have general national ID documentation. I think it was indicated that it would not make any difference; of course, it would make an enormous difference if everybody was automatically required to carry their ID in their pocket or bag. Of course, they would roll up at the polling station with their ID—so I have to say I do not accept that it does not matter. It does; and it would be very helpful if the Minister could give some kind of evidence about efficacy and about the impact on elections in those countries that have electoral ID but not national ID.

A very different concern relates to the delegated powers in relation to the registration officer’s power to issue the relevant electoral identity document. For noble Lords not involved in the earlier debate, perhaps I should again declare my interest as a member of the Delegated Powers Committee. The registration officer is under a duty to determine the application “in accordance with regulations”. That is a very wide power, which leaves it open to Ministers to determine the conditions that must be met before an applicant is entitled to receive an electoral identity document. We are not going to know that; that will be a ministerial decision under delegated powers. It also allows for the possibility of the registration officer being given discretion in deciding whether or not to issue an electoral identity document to a person. Again, on what grounds? What is actually going to go on here?

The Delegated Powers Committee is wanting an explanation from the Minister about why these provisions are not on the face of the Bill, and it is quite difficult to think why they are not. If the Minister cannot give an adequate explanation, the committee’s view is that the delegation in this case is inappropriate. I bring that to the Committee because I think it is relevant, and it is important for people involved in these discussions. I do not know whether the Minister is in a position to respond to this, but, if he is not, maybe he can respond in writing, not just to the Delegated Powers Committee but to Members of this Committee. I hope the Minister will be able to respond, though, to this concern.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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My Lords, to vote is a fundamental right. It is not a new-age right invented the other day; it is a fundamental civil and political right. It is also, for many of us, an ethical duty. If the Government took that view, they would not judge the balance of risk in the way that they currently are. That is where this group relates to the debate foreshadowed in the previous group on financial cost. In that debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, said that it is worth it to have integrity in the system, but the noble Lord, Lord Woolley, asked whether just one conviction really justified the risk. Now we are closer to the crux of the debate.

Different groups of people have fought for the right to vote over many centuries, all over the world. It is one of the first-order civil rights in a democracy, and an ethical duty. If the Government agreed with me, they would judge the balance of risk rather differently from the way they are currently doing with this one conviction as evidence of a problem. Although it is always hard to prove a negative, any evidence produced for it—whether in pilots or from well-established civil society research organisations—is batted away and the Minister in the other place says, “Let’s lock the house before the burglary happens”.

If I am right that it is a first-order civil right, like the right to liberty, you have to judge the balance of risk and put the presumption in a slightly different place. With the right of presumption of innocence and the right to liberty, we put the presumption in a particular direction. We say that it is more important—many Conservatives not in their places would agree with me—that one innocent person does not lose their right to liberty than that even a few more who are guilty go free. If that is how we judge the presumption of innocence in relation to liberty, and if we take participation in free and fair elections as a first-order right of that kind, why do the Government judge the balance of risk in the way they do? Why are they not doing everything possible not just to ensure that those with the right to vote can do so but to encourage the behavioural change we want so that people get the habit of voting and discharge what I think is an ethical duty?

Some other countries say that voting should be compulsory—that it is not just an ethical duty but a legal one. That is a step too far for my libertarian instincts; speaking of which, I fought for many years with many who are not in their places on the Benches opposite, and the current Prime Minister, against the principle of compulsory identification cards for people in this country. Conservatives were some of the most eloquent participants in that debate and the Conservative Party fought elections on manifestos against it, on the basis that this is the kind of free country in which free-born English men and women should not have to carry compulsory ID.

It did not make me many friends among those who are now my noble friends, but that was the argument and principle that united the Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in 2010—repealing compulsory identity legislation was their flagship policy—and I welcomed it. It seems a little odd now to say that there will not be universal compulsory identity cards for everyone but we will take your vote off you if you cannot afford ID such as a passport or a driving licence. Ministers are shaking their heads on the basis that they will make it possible for all sorts of other kinds of free and cheap ID to be available. We have to take that on trust.

That does not deal with the principled concern—why we require it at all, given that we blew all those trumpets about free-born Englishmen not requiring compulsory ID in the first place—or solve my practical concern about discouraging people who are already discouraged from getting into the habit of voting. The noble Lord, Lord Woolley, made that point so eloquently in the previous debate.

With all the comings and goings and the vivid nature of the debate, I never heard from either of the noble Baronesses, Lady Noakes or Lady Verma, in what way they think fraud is of a significant enough degree in this country at the moment to justify their points about people being shut out of the process by it.

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Baroness Scott of Bybrook Portrait Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con)
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I can confirm that we have not done that impact analysis. The important impact will be after.

Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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The issue of impacting the outcome of elections is seriously important. Will the Minister go away and think about whether the Government should do an impact assessment not only on overall turnout but on differential turnout among different groups—for example, the disabled, the poor and the elderly—to assess the likely impact on election outcomes. All these things are important, but it seems to me crucial that, in a democracy, Governments should not introduce policies that are going to skew election results. I ask the Minister to take that away and write to us all about what the intention would be.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
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I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I am grateful for the wide support for the amendments and for what we are trying to achieve with them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, just made an incredibly important point. All through the debates that we have had, there has been a lot of discussion about the importance of democracy, the importance of participation and the importance of widening democracy and encouraging people to vote. It concerns me that the Government are introducing a policy that could have an impact on people’s ability to vote without having done an assessment of what the impact on voter turnout is likely to be. Whether or not we want to look at the Irish case or at what has happened in the United States or in other places, we know that there is likely to be some form of impact. Would it not therefore be good practice and a good way to do legislation to make sure that all those impact assessments are done in advance? That just seems to be logical.

It is late. I shall not speak any more. All I say is that I am sure that these issues will be discussed more when we next sit in Committee, where the clause stand part debate is the first debate. These issues will also definitely come back on Report and will need further debate and discussion. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.