Elections Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Cabinet Office
Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- Hansard - -

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.

--- Later in debate ---
I conclude by saying once again that I wish a cross-party view of this had been sought and agreed on the basis of evidence. The Bill does bear the stamp of partisanship, and cross-party agreement on issues such as these is much better than a one-sided approach.
Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, there is a problem with permanent postal votes, and it is a problem for which I am partly responsible. It is the issue of matching the signatures on the applications to vote by post with the certificate that goes with the ballot papers when they are sent off. That arose from an amendment for which I was responsible quite some years ago, when my concern was to reduce the prevalence of postal vote fraud. I thought it was important to have matching signatures on the application to vote by post and the certificate on the ballot paper. But I have some reservations about what will happen if we end permanent postal votes. It may mean you get a fresh signature on the application that can be compared with the certificate that goes with the ballot paper, and the problem at the minute for which I am partly responsible is that, very often, the signature is deemed not to match the signature on the application to vote by post. Sometimes this is because, as people get older, their handwriting changes, and large numbers of postal votes are rejected. There is a problem and a case for people re-registering.

My fear is that if we stop the system of automatic postal votes, trying to get people to renew their postal vote applications will favour the richest parties with the biggest databases, which are more able to contact people by post and ask them to re-register. Mitigating against that will be the new system for applying to vote by post online, and I very much welcome that. But I wonder if the Minister might be able to tell us how you can maintain a system of verifying signatures on an application to vote by post and a certificate that accompanies the ballot paper—and do so online.

I also wonder, for the millions of people who choose to vote by post, when their three-year limit comes to an end, how they will be told that they have to apply again to vote by post. It seems that one letter in the post would not be enough. We need an extensive government communication campaign to tell people that if they wish to apply to vote by post, they need to do so and to reapply by the end of their three-year limit.

Baroness Hayman of Ullock Portrait Baroness Hayman of Ullock (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will be very brief, because we need to make progress. I just say that, clearly, we are aware that there have been issues with postal vote fraud, and it is important the Government do everything they can to tackle this. However, I understand the concerns so clearly laid out by my noble friend Lady Quin, who makes some good points about potential unintended consequences of these changes. I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s response and his reassurance on these matters.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No. As the House knows, nothing distresses me more in life than disappointing my erstwhile colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, but I am afraid that I must. This is a simple disagreement. The Government’s view is that the first past the post system is simple, clear and effective. Reference has been made to our manifesto. It said:

“We will continue to support the first past the post system of voting … both locally and nationally.”

Clause 12 supports the first past the post system for local elections—for elections of police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, and for the Mayor of London, combined authority and local authority mayors. It moves these to the simple majority voting system. In 1998, the referendum question in London was simply:

“Are you in favour of the Government’s proposals for a Greater London Authority, made up of an elected mayor and a separately elected assembly?”

There was no great ringing endorsement of proportional representation.

We had a thorough and invigorating debate in Committee on this matter. I did not agree with all of it and I suspect some of your Lordships did not agree with me. We want to move on. We have a difference of opinion. It is clear that using the first past the post voting system for these elections will displease some Members of your Lordships’ House but we are committed to supporting it. I regret to remind people that, in 2011, the public expressed a clear preference when two-thirds voted in favour of retaining first past the post. I am afraid that I will again disappoint the Green group, but that was a fact. There was support for PR in only 10 of 440 voting areas or, to put it the other way, 430 of 440 voting areas supported first past the post. As such, I do not believe there is any merit in holding—

Lord Rennard Portrait Lord Rennard (LD)
- Hansard - -

It is so often said that PR was defeated in 2011. The simple fact is that PR was not on the ballot paper. We must not repeat that falsehood about our electoral systems. That was, of course, a vote about Members of Parliament and not about mayoral systems. In relation to the London mayoral system in particular, there was a consultation which showed that most people were against first past the post. The results of that consultation were made known before the referendum vote.

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have not read as many volumes on proportional voting systems as the noble Lord. I simply repeat that 430 out of 440 voting areas supported first past the post in 2011.

It is clear from points brought forward in our debate that alternative voting methods can be confusing and not easily understood. In September 2021, the Government responded to the Electoral Commission’s report on the London mayoral elections. The figures are that 114,201 first ballots were rejected and, of second preferences, 265,353 were invalidated. We have heard that this was all because the form was difficult, badly designed and so on and so forth. This is not a system which it is easy for the electorate to understand. We have heard that only 4.3% of votes were rejected—that is one in 23.

First past the post reduces complexity for voters and for electoral administrators. It makes it easier for the public to express a clear preference, providing strong local accountability. It is also cheaper. For example, the complex system in London requires e-counting—a devastatingly boring count that, last time, cost £9 million.

In our contention, these voting systems are a recipe for confusion and for legislative and administrative complexity. We intend to pursue our manifesto commitment to support first past the post both locally and nationally. I acknowledge that there is disagreement on the matter. I do not believe we need to debate it further now. I respectfully urge that the amendments be withdrawn and that this clause to bring simplicity and clarity to these elections should stand part of the Bill.