Lord Desai debates involving the Cabinet Office during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 6th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Report stage & Report stage: Part 1
Mon 21st Mar 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage: Part 1
Wed 23rd Feb 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading
Tue 25th Jan 2022

Standards of Behaviour and Honesty in Political Life

Lord Desai Excerpts
Thursday 23rd June 2022

(1 year, 10 months ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, it is a great honour and pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross. I learned a lot from his father when he was here, so I am grateful for the sober and informative statement that he has made—I shall come back to this later. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Morse, not just for choosing a brilliant subject but for perhaps the shortest speech that I have heard the mover of a Motion make. Like Morse code, he was very succinct and short.

I have sat here and felt like a complete foreigner after a very long period of time. I was born in India, and then I went to America before arriving here. The idea that politicians are honest is completely alien to me. There is some sort of miasma here that, once upon a time, politicians were good and honest. When my friend the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, talks about the “decent chap” theory, he is being slightly ironic, because remember that they were all chaps; they all wore bowler hats and suits, and they were all gentlemen. There was a time when, even if gentlemen told lies to each other, the Times never had to publish it. The press was very obedient and guarded secrets.

The idea that Prime Ministers or politicians do not tell lies is a very great surprise to me because, in the 56 years I have lived here, I have frequently seen politicians not tell the truth. Sir Edward Heath lied on television about the stocks of coal in this country, and drove the country into a three-day week. It was a totally false number, and was shown to be so by Tony Benn—who some people may remember. Within 24 hours, Tony Benn was able to show that the coal stocks numbers quoted by Edward Heath were totally wrong. Anthony Eden lied about Suez, and they all hid the stroke that Churchill had when Prime Minister so that he could continue as Prime Minister. Harold Wilson went on television and said that the pound in your pocket was safe, after having devalued it by several percentage points. Tony Blair lied about the 45-minute gap in which Saddam’s missiles could launch and land—they would have landed in Cyprus, but he implied that it would be an attack on the British homeland.

We have been here before. Having a drink in No. 10 Downing Street is not as great a crime as people seem to think, and we have no need to take the moral high ground. Politics has not been honest. If you do not believe that, talk to anybody who was part of the empire and they will tell you what British politicians did abroad. I will not go into that—it would take me eight days, not just eight minutes.

We must understand that the idea that we had a moral code that everybody obeyed was an in-class conspiracy of a certain class. Everybody knew each other; they were all chaps, as there were no women in those days; and they all agreed with each other. Now, as the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, implied, we no longer have that world. We now have open media, which has become more democratic; the world may or may not be democratic, but the media has become much more democratic. Given the way that news travels, anything that any politician does is no longer a secret.

It is very interesting that Maundy Gregory was mentioned, but he is not the only one. We have had the selling of honours in the House of Lords for I do not know how long. As we sit here, we know that political parties sell honours and that that is how they are financed. Sometimes you have to take the money away when people turn out to be oligarchs but, until they are found to be oligarchs, they are alright—they are good chaps.

What we need to be clear about is not whether or not Boris Johnson took a drink—he did. As the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said, who expected him to tell the truth? At least he is not a hypocrite. What I like about the Prime Minister is that he is not a hypocrite; he lies and lies openly, smiles and thinks he will get away with it. He has got away with it for a long time.

What I would focus much more on is not that he broke his own law but the other things that this Government have done. For example, they reneged on the triple lock and left pensioners suffering last year; they took away universal credit, which made a lot of people suffer; and in the middle of the most serious stagflation, they are still talking about tax cuts—and, let us face it, mean tax cuts for the rich and not for the poor. That they are about to break the Northern Ireland protocol and get out of the European Court of Human Rights are serious things to criticise—not having a drink after work in No. 10 Downing Street.

Let us get our perspective clear: let us criticise the Government for the things they do that actually harm the majority of people. A lot of those things are going on. Yes, there is a breach of standards, but getting out of the European Court of Human Rights—a court that we established to begin with—and to claim that it is to do with Europe and not us, is a serious thing. It is not like discussing whether various people had drinks in the afternoon in No. 10 Downing Street.

Democracy has changed—it is much more open and the world is much more democratic. After all, until 1928 we did not have universal franchise. Democracy is still young in this country; it did not start with the Magna Carta. Let us get it into perspective and criticise real policy damage and not trivial political misbehaviour.

Houses of Parliament: Co-location

Lord Desai Excerpts
Thursday 16th June 2022

(1 year, 10 months ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, it is bad enough to be the last speaker from the Back-Benches, but it is much worse to follow the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who normally lays down the law on most things and we have to follow what he says. I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who has given a very clear and convincing case for why both Houses of Parliament should be in the same place.

Since most things have been said, I will make my remarks in three sections. First, we in Parliament have made a mess of the problem of moving and restoring Parliament. I have never been fond of crowded parliamentary Chambers. I do not know why we, as one of the oldest Parliaments in the business, tolerate crowded Parliaments with no room to move around. When you go to the Scottish Parliament or the European Parliament, you see how parliamentarians should be treated, whereas we treat our parliamentarians as deserving to be in overcrowded rooms.

Rather than restoring Westminster, we should basically move out and have another parliamentary building. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, wants this place alone to be Parliament, but I have seen better parliamentary buildings. At least in those I could have the same comfortable seat every day and a desk, et cetera —but we do not believe in that.

Restoration has not been a great success. I remember speaking in a debate in 2018, during which the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, recalled that he had raised this question in the Commons in 2007, so we were already 11 years behind. Of course, in 2018 we were told that moving out by 2025 was urgent because of all sorts of dangers—but it cannot be urgent if you are going to move out in 2025. We did not take seriously the problems involved in repairing the Palace of Westminster, and we are still not. Obviously, the House of Commons does not want to move out, so we are caught in a dilemma.

This has made the issue of where to put Parliament a public football. I remember York being mentioned, as of course Stoke-on-Trent now is. This leads to the question of separating the Parliaments. Michael Gove, who has been much mentioned, is obviously a very clever man. He proposed Stoke-on-Trent, perhaps not knowing that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, lives there; if you go to his town, he will probably get the by-elections Bill passed.

However, the problem is clearly that, of all of the Parliaments in my 31 years here, this one and this Government like the House of Lords the least. There is a serious air of antagonism, with the House of Lords being a troublesome obstacle to a Government who have one of the highest ruling-party majorities. They have strong feelings about how to reshape our constitution and how to change this country into global Britain or whatever. Also, we have had three Conservative Prime Ministers in just the last six years. So things are troublesome over there, and I think that they want one obstacle—the House of Lords—to be removed.

As many Members have said, we discuss legislation in greater detail than the Commons do, and we reject or amend many of their clauses, giving them hard work to do to reject our changes. Therefore, they would rather we were somewhere else, to make their lives simpler. Of course, I quite agree that that is not feasible, but from early on we should have tried to find another location or build one anew. We have had a lot of time. I wrote to someone on the committee just before the pandemic to say that we should start building a new construction for both Parliaments right away, so that we would be able to move in—but that did not happen.

So here we are, strongly disliked by the other place, and we have to firmly say, “We shall not be moved”. I remember the old civil rights song that I used to sing, “We Shall Not Be Moved”. But I point out one thing to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who said that the Houses of Parliament should

“continue to be co-located in the same city”.

Yes, of course they should be in the same city—but he has not said what country. There is a secret plan, which the right reverend Prelate saw through, and it is Kigali. As a devoted Daily Mail reader, I know Kigali is a wonderful place, and the hotels are absolutely marvellous, so if we were transported there, we would be envied by everybody. Of course, Rwanda is a very nice place, and part of the Commonwealth. The prospect is that we should all go to Kigali. Would not that be fun?

Elections Bill

Lord Desai Excerpts
We do not even know how far Russian interference in our election goes. Why not try sorting that out before we sort out this non-existent problem of voter fraud? We have to stop the Government’s interference with democracy, today and on subsequent days.
Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I will speak to my Amendments 2, 3 and 4. Throughout the debates on the Bill I have been of an opposite view from most of my friends about the fear of identity cards. I do not have any fear of identity cards at all, nor do I believe that BAME people are so backward and so bad that they would be frightened by an identity card. I just do not see the logic. As I have said before in your Lordships’ House, India has ID cards; the 900 million voters there all use them and electronic voting machines. It is perfectly straightforward stuff and nobody is intimidated or discouraged from voting. If people are not voting, it might be that the quality of politics has declined and people do not see any point in voting—but that is a point that I will come to another time.

The main problem is that responsibility for getting an ID card should not be put on the voter. The Electoral Commission has to enable people to have an ID card. It has the resources. It is very simple. We live in a digitised world, so why are we still using pencil and paper?

For example, I recently moved from where I had lived for 17 years to somewhere in Lambeth. I immediately got a letter from the electoral registration office, saying, “This flat used to be vacant, now suddenly somebody’s occupying it. Will you please tell us who you are?” I sent back a form with my name and saying who else lived in the house. I posted it off and so I will be voting at my local polling station.

The electoral registration office has my particulars and my address. It would be very easy for it to send me an ID card. I do not see what the fuss is about. It has much more resources than I have as a voter, so it would be very easy for it to send me an ID card. It is a no-brainer, as far as I am concerned. My children’s and grandchildren’s generations laugh at this electoral system, in which people have to go to some booth, take a little pencil and put a cross.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
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I do not understand what the noble Lord is saying. The last Labour Government started the procedure for introducing photo identity cards for everyone; the Conservatives scuppered the whole scheme. We should have had ID cards for everyone. The Government could then have introduced this, but they cannot when it is only privileged people with passports and driving licences who have photo IDs. The noble Lord should understand that.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I used to be on those Benches with the noble Lord, so I am not a stranger to that story. It was not only the Government who stopped it but the Liberal Democrats, whose great leader Nick Clegg cared so passionately for privacy that he has gone to work for Facebook. That was his price for agreeing to ID cards; the Labour Party could not pay it.

I do not care who was responsible—they were responsible, you were responsible—I now want to move on. The Bill is an opportunity for us to thoroughly rethink our electoral system, bring it into the 20th century if not the 21st and get on with it. We conduct our elections in the most antediluvian way possible.

Baroness Chakrabarti Portrait Baroness Chakrabarti (Lab)
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The noble Lord made such an important point about the need to move on, this being Report after a very extensive consideration of the Bill in Committee. There are crucial amendments to get through and vote on. I throw that into the ether of your Lordships’ House.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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I thank the noble Baroness but, as she knows, I have been here listening to all the debates. This is the first time I have introduced amendments, so I have to explain them. If I do not, nobody will understand what I am saying. Because I am putting an argument contrary to that generally put forward in the context of this clause, let me continue.

My amendments say that the Electoral Commission should provide everybody with an ID card that has to contain some very simple facts, which we all have. Amendment 4 says

“address … date of birth, and … NHS number”.

BAME, white or black and whatever religion, we all have an NHS number. When I call up for anything, the hospital asks for my date of birth and knows immediately who I am. NHS number and date of birth should be sufficient to identify anybody. If you have the address, you will be able to see which is the nearest polling booth.

I recently had my fourth jab. To make an appointment for it, I had a text message from the NHS. It took me five minutes to book myself a jab, with the location and time all in a simple text message. It is not difficult. People will be able to find out where and when they can vote as long as they have this ID card.

Since my time is being rationed, I urge people to vote for this because it will simplify the voting procedure and remove the problem that somehow this special class of untouchables who are called BAME people will be frightened by this. Nobody needs to be frightened by this; everybody would receive an ID card.

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
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My Lords, this House can spend a great deal of time discussing the meaning of a single word. Words such as “may” or “must” have great significance in law, and today we are debating the difference between compulsory “photo identification” and just “voter identification”. We are debating the word “photo”.

It is important for many people because voter identification was in the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto, while “photo identification” was not, and manifesto commitments may be treated differently by Members of the House. In Committee the Government’s position appeared to be that the word “photo” was irrelevant or that whoever wrote their manifesto was careless and used sloppy wording, but the Government know the difference between “photo ID” and “voter ID”.

How do we know that for certain? Because the Government specifically legislated for different forms of ID requirement when they introduced pilot schemes in 15 local authority areas in 2018 and 2019. In the 2019 pilots, the Government legislated for different rules in 10 different authorities. In two areas people had to show a specified form of photo ID. In five areas they could choose to show either a specified form of photo ID or two pieces of specified non-photo ID. In three areas people could show either their poll card, which does not have a photo, or a specified form of photo ID. So the Government understand the difference between different forms of voter ID, including those which require a photo and those which do not. Their manifesto did not mention “photo”.

As the highly regarded expert from the Electoral Integrity Project, Professor Toby James, pointed out on Twitter the other day, the fact that the manifesto did not specify photo ID means that we should “allow non-photographic” ID as in many other countries, or allow those without the requisite ID at the time to be vouched for by someone accompanying them who does have it, as in Canada.

Many of the references made by Ministers to photo ID in other countries have been very misleading. That is because everybody already has a compulsory national ID card in almost all the rest of Europe, so there is no extra barrier to voting by requiring one to be presented at a polling station there.

It is ironic that, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has just pointed out, one of the main reasons we do not have national ID cards in the UK is because Conservative Members of this House opposed attempts by the Blair Government to introduce them on the grounds that they were not specifically mentioned in the Labour manifesto. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. National ID cards were not in the Labour manifesto, so this House blocked their introduction. Compulsory photo ID at polling stations was not in the Conservative manifesto, so the Government’s attempt to abuse their majority in the other place to change election rules should be prevented here.

In Committee the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, highlighted what the former chair of the Conservative Party, the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, said in the report which the Government commissioned from him—that

“The Government should consider the options for electors to have to produce personal identification before voting at polling stations. There is no need to be over elaborate … measures should enhance public confidence and be proportional. A driving licence, passport or utility bills”.—[Official Report, 21/3/22; col. 695.]


Utility bills do not have photos.

There is, however, one form of voter ID eminently suitable for the purpose—the official poll card. Making poll cards an acceptable form of ID is proposed in both Amendments 6 and 7, and these amendments are both compatible with Amendment 8, which includes many other forms of possible ID. A polling card is issued to every voter by electoral registration officers. Anyone impersonating a voter would not just have to expose themselves to risk at the polling station, but they would have to steal the poll card as well prior to going to vote. If a polling card was stolen, a replacement could be issued, and a note made to question anyone turning up at a polling station with the original poll card.

In the pilots in 2018, poll cards were allowed in both Swindon and Watford. In Swindon, 95% of voters used their poll card, 4% their driving licence and 3% their passport. In Watford, 87% used their poll card, 8% their driving licence and 3% their debit card. Altogether across the two local authority areas, 69 replacement poll cards had to be issued. In Swindon a vouching or attestation scheme was also used, and 107 voters used this option.

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Moved by
2: Schedule 1, page 69, leave out line 8 and insert “The Electoral Commission must provide an electoral identity document to”
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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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I want to move Amendment 2 because I feel that I have a simpler solution to what the Government propose. I beg to move.

The Deputy Speaker decided on a show of voices that Amendment 2 was disagreed.

Elections Bill

Lord Desai Excerpts
Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage
Monday 21st March 2022

(2 years, 1 month 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-V Fifth marshalled list for Committee - (21 Mar 2022)
Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I have been somewhat orthogonal to this whole debate for a long time. I feel that whether Clause 1 stands part or not is neither here nor there—but there is an important point here. If voting is my right, it is the Government’s duty to deliver the instruments that will make it easy for me to vote. I should not have to go out there and register; the Government ought to be at my door, knowing that I have attained the appropriate age of 18, or whatever it is nowadays, to register me and give me my identity card. I do not know what the fuss is about. Why do we put the burden on the voter all the time? We really ought to make it easy for the voter to vote.

As I have said before, at Second Reading, we should not even have to go to the voting booth to vote; people should be able to vote on their smartphones, as long as it is a valid, encrypted method.

I am not at all worried that the great unwashed and coloured people like me will not be able to handle literacy. That is not the point. The point is that the Government are not doing enough on their own to make good and allay the fears they have that lots of people are going to cheat.

It is very simple. As I have said before in your Lordships’ House, in India they have 900 million-plus voters, and everyone has an identity card. I do not know what the fuss is about. It is not expensive and it is very convenient. After all, when people go out, they have their debit card, and they can give their phone to identify themselves, and so on.

My grandchildren laugh about our system of voting, because it is a very old-fashioned system. I do not think that is anything to be proud of: it is a voting system that puts all the burden on the voter and none on the Government. Whether or not Clause 1 stands part is another matter, but if the Government want identity cards to be introduced, they should introduce them and provide them, and they should make it easy for people to vote.

Lord Hayward Portrait Lord Hayward (Con)
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My Lords, I hope that I have displayed to the Committee an independence of spirit on certain parts of this Bill, including in my comments on this clause stand part debate previously, but I am absolutely 100% behind the Government in introducing photo ID. It is for the reasons that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, touched on, and actually for the reason that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, accidentally touched on last week—and I am pleased that he is here. He raised the question twice in relation to the last general election, about the uncertainty of our democratic institutions.

If one looks at the surveys undertaken by the Electoral Commission, there is serious doubt about the validity of the ballots that take place, persistently. The trials that were undertaken, and then followed up by research thereafter, showed that there was a marked—

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Lord Scriven Portrait Lord Scriven (LD)
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My Lords, I shall speak first to my Amendment 66A and, in so doing, I draw the Committee’s attention to my entry in the register, particularly my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I see this as what I call a “two Ps” amendment: a probing amendment about the practicalities of what the Government are suggesting. I thank Solace, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, for the wide and helpful briefing that it sent about this. It is important that we consider this briefing, because many of those chief executives are the returning officers in constituencies up and down the country.

The briefing talks about the impracticality of suggesting that the voter ID card can be applied for and supplied if people apply by 5 pm on the day before the poll takes place, which, as it points out, is inconsistent with every other form of voter application—whether it be for a postal or a proxy vote—unless it is a medical emergency. We talked about the practicalities of Northern Ireland and it is also inconsistent with Northern Ireland, where this is not allowed to happen until 5 pm on the day before the poll.

It is impractical because it places extra burdens on those administering an election at their busiest time: the week before the election. Anybody who has seen what happens in an electoral office a week before an election will understand that the administrators are already under great pressure to ensure the security and integrity of the election. To suggest that people can turn up until 5 pm on the day before the poll to seek one of these voter ID cards is impractical. The Government’s impact assessment suggests that 50% of people will apply by post and 50% will apply in person. It states that the closer you get to an election, the more people will apply in person. So people could be trying to sort out postal votes and ensuring that the ballot boxes and everything else are in place with queues of people seeking this ID.

In this respect, the Government’s impact assessment is detailed. It suggests that the cards will take approximately five to 10 minutes to produce, assuming that everybody has the things that they need to produce one. It suggests that there be one machine per constituency, which I think works out at just over two on average per local authority.

It is inconceivable that this requirement is practical. So I ask the Minister: why was the stipulation of 5 pm on the day before the poll selected; why is it not consistent with Northern Ireland; and, specifically, what discussion took place with Solace and other returning officers, who would have pointed out that this was impractical? If the Government did consult those who administer elections, what advice came back on the practicalities of delivering this?

I will now speak to some of the other amendments, particularly weighing in with my support for those to which my noble friend Lord Rennard has put his name. I will talk specifically about Amendments 64, 68, 78 and 80.

On Amendment 64, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has mentioned on a number of occasions, it is absolutely vital that when people register to vote, they should be able at the same time, as an automatic right laid down in the Bill, to apply for the voter ID card. I see no practical reason why that should not happen. There is no practical reason why returning officers, Solace or anybody else who administers elections would say that is not consistent. So what would stop the Government allowing that to happen as an automatic right and including it in the Bill?

Amendment 68 is important because it comes back to the powers of the Secretary of State, which we have talked about a lot. The Secretary of State could, by decree, by the stroke of their pen, decide what documentation is or is not available. I shall come in a second to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, which is really important. I see no reason for that provision.

Amendment 78 is also important. The noble Lord, Lord True, has on many occasions referenced Canada having voter ID. It is absolutely not true to say that to vote in Canada, you have to have voter ID. If you turn up without voter ID, there is a system called vouching. Somebody can vouch for you, if they have some ID, to say that you are the person who you say you are and they vouch for your identification.

I see no practical reason why that should not happen if this clause stands part of the Bill. It is sensible, it is not unknown across the world, it is practical and it happens. In Canada, it does not happen significantly, but it happens. As many people have said, if somebody turns up without their voter ID at 9.55 pm with their spouse, friend or loved one, I see no reason why that person could not vouch for them.

The Minister mentioned people turning up to a polling station and being asked to return, as he was. For some people, that is impractical. If you work 12-hour shifts and are going just before you start work, you cannot turn back. For people with childcare responsibilities, it may be impractical or impossible to do that. That is why, if you turn up without your ID but with somebody else who has some ID, vouching on the Canadian system should be allowed. I see no reason why it should not. It does not undermine the integrity of the ballot. Somebody who has the appropriate ID could vouch for somebody who has not whom they know. There is then a way of checking, if there is personation by the second person, who the person has vouched for—but there is no evidence in Canada that that actually happens.

I come to the most powerful and important intervention in the debate on this group, which was from the noble Lord, Lord Willetts. He made it very clear as a member of the Conservative Party who sits on the Conservative Benches exactly what was in both the 2017 and the 2019 Conservative manifestos: that voter ID would be required. Neither manifesto used the word “photographic”. That is key in terms of the Salisbury convention and the Conservatives being able to carry out their manifesto commitment. In terms of providing extra ID, the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, showed a practicality and pragmatism that I would expect his Front Bench to replicate. If not, the cat is out of the bag. The noble Lord, Lord Willetts, is trying to make it as easy as possible, if this provision comes in, for people to exercise their democratic right to vote.

If the Government, from the Front Bench, refuse to accept that mandatory photographic ID is not required to vote, then they will be saying that they will be making it as difficult as possible for people to exercise their vote. This is the litmus test. We must all listen to the answer to this particular set of amendments.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, not just for his amendment but for making it very clear that the Conservatives would be carrying out their manifesto commitment without introducing photo ID.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I shall make a very short point about Amendment 80. The noble Lord should look carefully at whether many of these indicators are male-oriented. Women do not have their names on documents such as mortgage statements and utility bills. It would make more sense to have one particular card, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, suggested. It would be personal, in the name of the man or woman.

I want to add that I have my Freedom Pass in London. It is a very good thing. I could show it around.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, again I thank all those who have spoken in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, outside what he imagined to be the walls of Jericho, sounded a very loud trumpet call to lead his Front Bench into a battle over the Salisbury convention. I will not pursue this. It is for everybody in the House to decide to what extent the opinion of the other place and the Government’s manifesto should be respected or not. I made a statement about that at the beginning of our proceedings.

I was asked about the card and the words “is or has”. I shall come to this shortly because it is important. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, that any voter who does not have one of the forms of identification listed in the Bill will be able to apply for a voter card. There is a wide range. I know that my noble friend Lord Willetts wants to extend it. The card is supplementary. All the other types of identification are listed. Expired identification will also be permitted. Not every elector will be required to have the voter card. People will be able to apply for it at the same time as they register to vote, so the process will be as easy and accessible as possible. If they are already registered and need a voter card, they will be able to apply online, on paper or in person. It is our ambition that they will be able to do so until 5 pm on the day before polling day. That was challenged by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven. I will come back to it. The Government would regard that as unnecessarily restrictive.

I am not a parliamentary draftsman, but I am advised that the wording,

“is or has applied to be”

is there because, on the wording of Amendment 64, it could be construed that someone who is applying should be able to get it. You obviously have to be on the register to get the voter card. Either you are on it, or you have applied to register. You send your letter or your online application in. With both applications, the process will be that the registration officer will check the correctness of the application to register. When someone is on the register, they will be able to have the voter card. It is sequential, but the application can be done at the same time. This is the purport of why these words are there.

Electoral System (Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Committee Report)

Lord Desai Excerpts
Friday 11th March 2022

(2 years, 1 month ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. I want to say something that I have said before, at Second Reading of the Elections Bill. I think that noble Lord, Lord True, has heard it all before, but I am sure he will be patient and listen to me again.

I find the entire election system strangely out of date. It fails to take lessons from the world out there, which has done a much better job of giving people the right to vote. As far as I am concerned, the right to vote is my right to vote in the United Kingdom. It may happen that I have to vote in a certain constituency, but we must make a separation; the right to vote is a universal right, regardless of where you live and whether you move from one area to another—I recently moved from Camberwell to Lambeth, which is nearer to Westminster. I do not have a right to vote in general elections, but I do not want to lose my right to vote in local elections.

Why should it be so difficult for people to exercise their vote? Reference is made in the report to a five-day gap between online registration and the electoral registration officers, or whoever it is, recognising that you are registered. I can order a birthday cake online for a friend in New York in about five minutes and it will be delivered. We are so backward in using technology in terms of politics. As soon as it comes to politics, we have to be 17th-century, we have to have crowded, uncomfortable parliamentary Chambers, and, until recently when got PeerHub to vote on, we had antediluvian voting systems—and we are very proud of that. In India, where the size of the electorate was 900 million at the last election in 2019, every voter has an ID card. Most people have an ID card. It is not rocket science; it is very simple. It is an attitudinal problem, because we are not proactive towards the voter. We still have the idea that giving somebody the franchise is giving them a privilege and not a right.

Again and again, I am very surprised when people say, “Oh, you know, ID cards are going to be very difficult because of the poor BAME. They can’t understand what an ID card is, because it is so peculiar and so white. You have to be white to understand ID cards”. It is deeply insulting to say this. Everyone always turns to talking about BAME people. I feel sympathetic to them because I am BAME, but I do not understand this argument. People have smart cards and smartphones, and children can go online much better than grown-ups. Yet, somehow, we still think that we must have elections where we need to go to a booth, take a pencil and a paper vote, mark it, and put it in a box. Why do we not have electronic voting machines, as is the case in India? They are so easy to use to count votes.

The whole problem of fraud has been completely exaggerated and we should forget about it. Fraud is not the problem; the problem is our patronising attitude towards voters. We are still not a fully democratic system in which we actually consider voters our masters. We think that they are supplicants to the political system. Read the debate on the Great Reform Act 1832. More or less, it was the elite giving something to the poor. Both the Elections Bill and this very good report are here, and we ought to take this chance to totally revolutionise our election system and bring it, at least, into the 20th century, if not the 21st. We must use electronic equipment and online tools to make our elections simple and joyful exercises to carry through.

Peerages: Recommendations

Lord Desai Excerpts
Thursday 3rd March 2022

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I welcome the invitation to wash our dirty ermine in public that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, has presented to us. We had a Bill a while ago on the status of the Appointments Commission and why it should be made statutory and so on—I think it was a Private Member’s Bill. I said at that time that one difficulty is that we have no legitimacy; our legitimacy comes from the fact that the Crown nominates us, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.

The Appointments Commission is neither here nor there. It is not statutory; it is there as a respectable front, but it does not matter. What matters is what the Prime Minister recommends to the Crown. That is the only basis of our legitimacy. We are almost like a colony. We have more like dominion status—a little bit further—but we are not self-governing. We may be in our internal affairs, but our appointments are entirely determined outside the House of Lords. That has to be absolutely clear.

Even if we followed the proposition that the noble Lord has assiduously found from reading the history books, it would not be acceptable, nor would it have any constitutional position. His example was of the commission making various recommendations which were completely ignored by the Prime Minister—whoever the Prime Minister, it has been ignored.

In a sense, our problem lies not within us but outside us. The problem of reforming this House is very simple. If the House was reformed, the House of Commons would lose its primacy. The day the House of Lords becomes legitimate would be the death of the primacy of the House of Commons, so the House of Commons has an immense interest in not having us reformed. It is very important for the House of Commons that we be thought of as figures of fun, as the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, said.

Whenever the Daily Mail writes about us, it always uses a picture from when Her Majesty comes to open Parliament, because then we are in our ermine. It says, “These are people prancing around in ermines, they do not do any work, they are called Lords, they get lots of money—millions of pounds—and isn’t it ridiculous?”. I am trying to write a book to tell people what we actually do in our daily work, so they realise that we do not just come on one day of the year.

Our difficulties are deeply structural. They are in the constitution of the United Kingdom, and there is no way that the constitution can be amended. It is in the nature of the constitution that the House of Commons derives its power from the fact that, of all the second Chambers in the world, we are the weakest. We are very good at advising, we have a lot of expertise—go and listen to the health and social care debate, where there is fantastic expertise—but we have no legitimacy.

There is not much we can do about that, so I recommend that we adjust our expectations. I would like our names to be changed from Lords to something else, but that will not happen. On a historical note, what has happened is much more than what happened under George V, who was very much praised. The substantial reform of this House has been under the rule of our present monarch. Life Peers were added, women were able to come and we have a sort of Appointments Commission. We are slightly more in touch with the public, and we have had the House of Lords reform undertaken by the Labour Party in Tony Blair’s first Administration.

Nothing more is possible—nor can I speak any more, so I will sit down.

Elections Bill

Lord Desai Excerpts
Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I have a very different view of what the Government are proposing and the whole election business. I find the election process in this country severely out of date. It is like a penny farthing machine, if not something worse. Had the Labour Government been allowed to have identity cards as they proposed— Nick Clegg talked about privacy and some said it was too expensive—none of these problems would arise.

People say that that is against our tradition. In India, which had 900 million people on the electoral register last time round in 2019, everybody has an identity card. All 1,300 million people carry an identity card. I have seen them. Everybody can produce their identity at any time—ignorant people, illiterate people, tribals, women, blacks and whites. Again and again, people here make this drama about it being the poorest who are illiterate or unintelligent and cannot get a photo ID. Why are we so patronising about our own citizens?

My children and grandchildren laugh at the fact that we have to go to a booth and sign something there. They have a smartphone; they should be allowed to vote directly online on a phone. We used the smartphone during the pandemic for a number of things and relied on it. It was very useful. Which world do we live in so that, for elections, we have to go through a very old- fashioned system with people counting votes all night? In India, with 900 million people voting, once the ballot boxes are gathered it takes one and a half hours to declare the national result, because we have electronic machines to count the votes. You do not need people sitting there all night putting little pieces of paper by their side and throwing things away, and us then having to rely on the BBC exit poll to know what will happen over the next 36 hours.

Why do we tolerate this peculiar system? I know that we have a great love for treating politics as a medieval system; that is our pride. That is why our parliamentary Chambers have to be overcrowded; we cannot really have seats to ourselves or equipment on each chair so we can vote sitting on our seat. No, that is not in our tradition; it is not in our tradition to have people sitting comfortably in parliamentary seats. No, we are an old democracy, we are the best democracy; therefore, we must be made physically uncomfortable to be able to be in Parliament. Look at the House of Commons. It is so crowded. If every Member of the House of Lords turned up, half of us would not be able to sit. Why do we tolerate that, and why, each time anybody suggests a change, does everybody say, “Oh my God, we cannot have this change, because somebody somewhere will be deprived”?

The Government should have proposed an identity card scheme and implemented it quickly before the next election. We all get an electoral registration note every month or two that says, “Please certify that you are at this residence”. I do not know why it has to be done that many times but, okay, I do it. Of course I have lost my vote by coming here, but I still dutifully fill out the form and send it back because that is my duty, but it should not be necessary.

If we had an identity card, it would have all the information required in one little thing. It should be on your smartphone. My smartphone knows more about me than I myself know. It tells me where I have been. We really ought to think about this whole process and much less patronisingly about those who are deprived. We should ask: what is the best, most efficient and fastest way to get people to vote, and the most comfortable way? They should not have to go to a polling booth; it is completely unnecessary, because we can create an identity—a number with a picture—which can be accurately determined to give that person a vote. We are discussing an antiquated thing and passionately want to keep it antiquated. I do not think I can make any difference to that logic, but perhaps in another 25 years somebody will do it.

Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill

Lord Desai Excerpts
Lord Mackay of Clashfern Portrait Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Con)
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My Lords, we are very much indebted to the noble Lord for his background in this matter. It is important to remember that there are Dissolution principles to be settled before this situation arises. From time to time they have been revised, but I do not think they have been revised for some time now, and obviously it is appropriate that they should be before a further action is required.

It seems there is an academic argument about whether, once the prerogative powers are stopped as they were by the original Act, they can be revived—and this academic discussion occupies quite a lot of pages. So far as I am concerned, if Parliament says, “You go back to where you were before we did this”, that seems perfectly possible and should be followed. I therefore agree with my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth that it is desirable to put that in the Bill. I do not think it is at all likely that anything of the sort that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, has mentioned is likely to arise, because the Dissolution principles make that very plain. It is in the form of a request because of its importance, but it will be taken in accordance with principles that are well settled. I very much support this proposal and the basis on which it rests.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, if I may intervene in this debate, I think it is still important that what used to be the custom and convention be clarified on paper. This is for a very simple reason. While I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that it is inconceivable that a monarch could refuse the request of a Prime Minister, there is always a possibility. For example, in India, which has a constitution based very much on British lines, the president is elected by the Parliament, and very often he or she is a partisan person and would be unable to refuse the Prime Minister under any circumstances. We have to reserve the power of the monarch. If what the Prime Minister is saying does not smell good when he or she is asking for a dissolution, the monarch should have the power to say no.

Lord Lexden Portrait Lord Lexden (Con)
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My Lords, I agree with all those who have said that my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth has done us a very considerable service. He reminded us of the formidable words of Alan Lascelles, private secretary to George VI in 1950. We should, at all times, keep those Lascelles words in mind:

“It is surely indisputable (and common sense) that a Prime Minister may ask—not demand—that his Sovereign will grant him a dissolution of Parliament; and that the Sovereign, if he”—


or, we should add, she—

“so chooses, may refuse to grant this request.”

It is the existence of this power that has ensured, and will continue to ensure, that no Prime Minister has asked improperly for a dissolution in our history.

Beyond Brexit: Institutional Framework (EUC Report)

Lord Desai Excerpts
Monday 6th December 2021

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I am deservedly the last Back-Bench speaker in this debate. I am not on any of the committees, but I have engaged with Europe for practically all the 31 years I have been in your Lordships’ House.

This is a car crash that is causing enormous damage. The noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, said that this is bad, masculine behaviour. It is much worse than that: it is like the man who is trying to get a divorce and who does not care about the children who will have to be taken care of. He has just walked out and, having promised himself that he will be free, he really does think he is free. But he is not: he has to stay and talk about detailed arrangements—what they are going to do with the children, the property and so on.

In a sense, I do not think the Minister can do much about any of the things the committee raised, because the political attitude in which Brexit was conducted—especially by the winning section of the Conservative Party—and all the things that went before it were so hostile to Europe and so committed to getting out without any thought of what would take its place. There were Ministers saying, “We will conduct free trade agreements with 100 countries in no time whatsoever, because that is the new logic”. It was as if they had not held a responsible job in their lives.

All that said, the real question these reports raise is: what can be done to save the situation, especially for people who, without having had any political role in the matter, are suffering extremely? That is partly because negotiations to sort out these problems were not conducted properly and partly because there is still a hostile atmosphere, especially around Northern Ireland, which is very damaging.

The creative industries have been mentioned. The poor musicians and people who do plays, who need to go and reach audiences on the continent, are flummoxed by the fact that simple travel arrangements have become very difficult. An incredible number of new regulations have arisen. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, said that regulations are the new tariffs. They are the non-tariff barrier to exceed all other non-tariff barriers.

I say this to the Minister: whatever happened in the past, let the past be gone. Yes, we got Brexit done, but Brexit has not been done yet. Doing Brexit was a matter not just of getting something passed through the House of Commons—I say the House of Commons because it was the more reluctant Chamber—but of looking after the people affected by this major decision to just go out without having thought about it, ignoring all the complaints and difficulties that have been mentioned. People are seen as remoaners or effete—it is nonsense. Get realistic and look after the people suffering from the consequences of the decision. The decision has been made and cannot be reversed—we know all that—but can we please have some sense in which people know what they face in the new situation? They may be heavy vehicle drivers, artists or people in financial or legal services. Is there a single place they can go to find out the situation? Can we have some map, for the next six to nine months or for the future as it develops, of how the situation will be resolved to some kind of post-Brexit normality? It is badly needed by people.

These reports are very helpful and competent. I used to be on one of the European committees in the Boswell era, not the Kinnoull era. We looked at the financial services problem. We knew how much the competitiveness of the City would depend on how clearly we defined the relationship between us and the EU. It is no good saying, “The City is so powerful, it doesn’t need any other people”. That is not the situation any more.

I am making a plea on behalf of all the people suffering from this great dash to so-called freedom. Yes, we won, but can we please now have some nurses to heal and patch up the wounds that people are suffering from? There is a great wreckage. We need to clear the wreckage and clear the road for the future.

It is not a matter of our pride against Europe. Yes, agreed, we won against Europe outright, but can we now please have some sense and helpfulness from the Government, not this constant warlike atmosphere about what we will not do at any cost to make life easier for our citizens as far as trade with Europe is concerned? Europe will take care of itself; we have to take care of our citizens, trade and economy, which are suffering. If noble Lords do not believe me, they could read the report from the Office for Budget Responsibility which talks about “scarring” due to Brexit. It is costing us 4% to 5% of GDP. This is a serious matter, and the Government ought to let go of their pride and get some business done.

House of Lords (Hereditary Peers) (Abolition of By-Elections) Bill [HL]

Lord Desai Excerpts
Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, we are prisoners not only of the past 110 years but of what reform was promised during proceedings on the 1999 House of Lords Bill. I have a little information which will add to the confusion about which path to select and be bound by. The original proposal was that there would be one by-election and the runner-up would then be chosen for the next vacancy, so you have one election and then rank the candidates. You do not have further by-elections but select from the rankings of the also-rans. That was rejected and the sequential by-election procedure was chosen. So, there is nothing for us to substitute for that procedure, saying that next time, we will have one by-election and everybody can compete, and the replacement will be chosen from the queue of also-rans.

I have nothing against hereditary peers, even those elected through a by-election. But the absurdity is the very small electorates for Peers of parties other than the Conservative Party who have to be replaced.

I agree with my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, a parliamentarian whom I respect very much, in his attempts to remove this obstacle in our constitution. We should do whatever we can to remove the by-elections of hereditary Peers. Whatever parliamentary trick we can invent to defeat the Government’s reluctance to support this Bill should be welcomed. I wish the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, good luck on this occasion.