Elections Bill

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Excerpts
Lords Hansard - Part 1 & Committee stage
Monday 28th March 2022

(2 years, 2 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-VI Sixth marshalled list for Committee - (24 Mar 2022)
Moved by
152: After Clause 13, insert the following new Clause—
“Voting by EU nationals
In section 1(1) (entitlement to vote in parliamentary elections) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, for paragraph (c) substitute—“(c) is a Commonwealth citizen, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland or a relevant citizen of the Union; and”.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would allow EU citizens to vote in UK parliamentary elections.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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My Lords, I regret that the noble Lord, Lord True, is unable to be with us. I gather he is down with Covid, and I send him sympathies. I hope I have not caught it from him—we shall press on. This creates some further difficulties in completing the Bill, on which I hope I may briefly remark. We need to have some discussions between Committee and Report. I hope there will be some—time is short and they need to be fixed up very quickly. As many of us have remarked, the state of the Bill is unsatisfactory. We know that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said that the Bill was unfit for purpose as presented to the Lords. We have explored many areas already in Committee, such as overseas voting, which we debated late at night in our previous sitting, when it was quite clear that the Government did not have answers to a number of our questions. How that will be implemented if the Bill is passed is, to put it mildly, extremely unclear and probably very messy.

We all regret the missed opportunity of this Bill. It is clear that there will have to be another elections Bill within the next two to three years to achieve what the Law Commission proposed, which is a simplification and rationalisation of our electoral law. This Bill is not that.

This group of amendments deals with the tangle of voting rights left by imperial history and various other things, which the Government appear not to be concerned to rationalise. We have rights for Commonwealth citizens. We have had rights for EU citizens. We have no rights for long-term residents from the United States, which is extraordinary given the Conservative Party’s long feeling that we were closer to the United States than any other country.

My Amendment 152 is a probing one to spark a discussion on how we might think about rationalising the system. EU citizens resident in this country for a very long time—there are 100,000 French citizens in the London area alone, for example—have had the right to vote in British elections. Some would say that they should no longer have the right to vote in British parliamentary elections, but the case for the right to vote in British local elections for those who are resident here, pay council tax and contribute to other British taxes seems to me strong. As far as I am aware, the Government have no particular clear ideas on any of this.

Amendment 155 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, takes us to a recommendation of a number of reports that preceded the Bill: that we should move towards a residency requirement. That seems a rational suggestion. It has a clear principle, unlike the present situation. A residency requirement, at least for voting rights in local elections, would be a very sensible way forward. I am very sorry that it is not in the Bill as drafted.

The rationale for extending rights to overseas voters does not seem to go along with a refusal to recognise that the argument for extending the rights of residents to local voting ought to be considered in the same context, but, sadly, the Bill leaves that as tangled as before. Part of the problem is that the concept of UK citizenship is also a tangle of historical legacies and anomalies.

I find it odd that the Government are happy with this. Do they not consider that a wider reform with a clearer rationale for the changes proposed is now needed? Why is it not in the Bill? The passage of this Bill in its current form will require a successor Bill as soon as possible by this Government or their successor. I beg to move.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I speak on this amendment because, when I arrived here in 1965, I had an Indian passport and I was surprised when, during the 1966 election, someone said to me, “Have you voted yet?” I said that I did not know I had voting rights in this country. He said, “Get on with it and get yourself registered.” This explained to me that, in the UK, we were subjects, not citizens. It was as subjects of the monarch that we qualified. Since the monarch also ruled over the Empire, all subjects of the Empire were equally qualified to vote in the election.

As far as I remember, the notion of citizenship only came with our membership of the European Union. We began to talk of ourselves as citizens, and we had differently coloured passports and things like that. However, the muddle that the noble Lord referred to in moving his amendment is that we are not clear as to what entitles us to vote. Is it our status as subjects of an empire? Is it our status as local taxpayers, as used to be the case before the universal franchise came in? Is it residency? If there is ever another, better version of this Bill, perhaps the first part of it should clarify the status of an individual under which he or she is qualified to be a voter. Until the muddle is clarified, we will have to proceed with a compromised mish-mash of rights.

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Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe
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The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, is, of course, quite correct and we will be looking at the question of voting rights for noble Lords in a subsequent group of amendments.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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My Lords, this has been a very useful debate, which has yet again exposed how unco-ordinated and ill thought through this Bill is. I strongly agree with what the Minister said: local elections are different from national elections. Indeed, in the late-night debate we had last week on overseas voting, it was pointed out that overseas electors are allowed to vote in our national elections but not in our local elections. If there is a good, rational argument for that, then there is an equally strong argument why long-term residents in Britain should be allowed to vote in local elections but not in national elections. If one were to think these things through, and clearly the Government have not, we would be moving in that sort of direction.

Similarly, if we had automatic voter registration, the complexities of residents and non-residents would be clearer. Incidentally, the logic that says overseas electors are not allowed to vote in local elections because they no longer have any connection with the local area goes completely against the logic that they should be allocated to constituencies, which they have lost touch with over the decades since they were in Britain. That is why I put down the amendment on the creation of overseas constituencies, but that has not been thought through either.

We all understand, as someone said to me at the weekend, that the Bill is driven by staff in No. 10 who are above all concerned with increasing the chances that the Conservatives win the next election. One of the strongest arguments for prioritising overseas voter registration over other categories is that they are thought to be more likely to vote Conservative.

Earl Howe Portrait Earl Howe (Con)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. As I understood it, it was official Liberal Democrat party policy to scrap the 15-year rule that has existed up to now on overseas voters. Can he confirm that that is the case, because that is what the Bill does.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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Yes, and to create overseas constituencies. I am looking at the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, who was deeply shocked to be told by the noble Lord, Lord True, in a meeting a few weeks ago when he recommended the creation of overseas constituencies on the French model that that was Liberal Democrat policy. I hope he has now recovered from the shock.

There are tremendous problems with the Bill and the failure to connect all these dimensions. We will come in the sixth group to one of the other reasons why the Conservatives want to push ahead with extending the rights to overseas voting without thinking through the other dimensions of it, which the Liberal Democrats have thought through—the expectation that, once overseas voters are on register, they will be able to increase the systemic advantages—

Lord Grocott Portrait Lord Grocott (Lab)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for talking about people thinking through the consequences of legislation, and of amendments. I remain puzzled by the Liberal Democrat policy that these 2.5 million additional people, who have never lived in this country, other than maybe for a very short time when they were very young, and who do not pay taxes into or own property in this country—not that that should be a qualification to vote, of course—must now be given the right to vote, should they choose to do so, in British general elections. There are lots of ramifications that the noble Lord has not thought through.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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There are lots of ramifications that we have discussed extensively. I am happy to discuss them with the noble Lord off the Floor. What I am objecting to is dashing ahead with this without the creation of special constituencies and a number of other things that would begin to match the demand for them to come in.

The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, might be disappointed to hear me say that we do not disagree on very much. I strongly agree with his emphasis on citizenship. The badge of a liberal democracy is active citizenship. One of the things that most concerns me about the drift of politics and legislation in this country is that we are heading towards a much more passive model of citizenship and a much more populist model of democracy. That is another thing to which, in broader terms, we must at some point return.

For the moment, having recognised that the Government have not worked out what they want on all this, and that they have inherited a tangle of historical rights to vote and denials of the right to vote, I am happy to withdraw my amendment. I hope this might just possibly be one of the issues we will discuss between Committee and Report.

Amendment 152 withdrawn.
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Lord Green of Deddington Portrait Lord Green of Deddington (CB)
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A lot has changed in 14 years, but the thrust of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said is absolutely right. We now have a system that has developed somewhat in defining what a UK citizen is—I accept that—but it is not too difficult, is quite well known and has been discussed recently. I do not think that undermines his recommendation or the logic of saying that the clear thing, if you want to vote in this country, is to become a citizen, and you know how to do that.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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My Lords, I have great sympathy with the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington; I am sorry he looks so surprised. We need to sort out what we mean by UK citizenship. I cannot now remember which election it was when I was canvassing in Southwark and I came to a block that had a large number of Congolese-born people and a large number of Tanzanian-born people. The latter had the right to vote; the former did not, although I deeply suspected that some of them had got themselves on the register, somehow or other, because the local people were not quite sure who was what. This is at least as much a legacy of empire and our great-grandparents’ day as the sacking and pencils in polling stations, which the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, was talking about. Both need to be modernised and it is high time we did so.

I ask the Minister whether he can tell us when Mozambique joined the Commonwealth and whether that meant that all Mozambiquans in Britain immediately gained the right to vote. I think I am right in saying that Rwanda joined the Commonwealth and that must have given them the vote, as well. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, if he were in his place, would remind us that he has campaigned for Algeria to become a member of the Commonwealth. The hypothetical question of how many voters we would be adding each time a new country became a member of the Commonwealth is interesting.

Of course, we should be sorting out the categories of our voting. We have been saying that all afternoon. The noble Lord, Lord Green, is entirely right on this and I hope that the Government take some notice, but I suspect that they will not act on this unfortunately illogical and messy Bill.

Lord Horam Portrait Lord Horam (Con)
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I declare an interest as a former electoral commissioner. First, I agree with the remarks made on the previous amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that this Bill should have included the findings of the Law Commission, which have cleared up a lot of the complexity of language involved in legislation. It sometimes goes back to the Victorian times and is really a wholesale mess, frankly. I was glad that the Law Commission came to such clear conclusions.

Of course, the noble Lord will appreciate that the Law Commission by itself cannot alter anything and does not alter the law as it stands. None the less, I agree with him that it is a missed opportunity that we have an Elections Bill of this kind but are not able to take into account the views of the Law Commission. When I was on the Electoral Commission, it would have wanted the Law Commission’s findings to be taken into account as soon as practically possible, as it certainly would now.

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Lord Stunell Portrait Lord Stunell (LD)
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My Lords, I will briefly intervene, having heard the noble Lord, Lord Mann. It is important to understand that, as far as Clause 39 goes, the amendment talks about making sure there is some way of identifying the message you have. Of course, if it says “Vote for Mann” it might be a reasonable presumption that it had been sponsored by somebody supporting the candidacy of Mr Mann, as it would be. But the evil, if I can put it that way, of much social media advertising is that it is not clear what it is doing. You have negative campaigning as well as positive campaigning. It is not necessarily done in a way that makes it obvious that what you are reading is not a news item or a fashion page—to pick up the point from the noble Lord, Lord Mann—but it nevertheless conveys an important message to a particular category of reader. So I ask the Minister to address the substance of my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones’s Amendment 180A.

“Reasonably practicable” has already been completely circumvented in Scotland, so we know it does not work there. It is inconceivable that whatever lessons were learned by campaigners in Scotland will not immediately transfer to campaigns across the United Kingdom. It is a good challenge for the Minister to explain what is wrong with “possible” and maybe, behind that, to say whether the Government have decided not to implement the clear advice of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Electoral Commission, both of which, I respectfully suggest, might be offering advice that is slightly more researched than that of the noble Lord, Lord Mann.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire Portrait Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones for the amendments he has brought forward with a great deal more expertise about this new dimension of campaigning than I have. I first learned about this new dimension of campaigning when I looked into post-Soviet Russian politics and discovered the new term “political technologies”, used by campaigners working for Putin to mould public opinion and to try to interfere in other countries, using the newly available digital media to help their efforts.

Of course, this also costs money. As we have seen in the United States, the use of digital media, data mining and negative campaigning—as has already been mentioned —is one way in which, unfortunately, American politics is being debased. We do not want that to happen in Britain.