Debates between Lord Willetts and Baroness Lister of Burtersett during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 27th Apr 2022
Elections Bill
Lords Chamber

Consideration of Commons amendments & Consideration of Commons amendments
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

Elections Bill

Debate between Lord Willetts and Baroness Lister of Burtersett
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I want briefly to refer to Motions B and B1. In this House, we moved and passed an amendment that would have significantly added to the list of possible identifications that could be used by voters. I continue to believe that that would have reduced the risk of genuinely eligible voters finding themselves unable to vote. Nevertheless, that amendment has been substantially rejected in the other place and, as we have just heard from my noble friend Lord Cormack, we are drawing to the end of this Session.

I take some comfort from the words we have just heard from the Minister; I thank him for his engagement with this issue. He assured the House that it will be perfectly possible through secondary legislation to add to the list of identifications that can be accepted. He also assured the House that the Government will monitor the potential for new forms of ID to be used and improvements to the security of IDs, which appeared in our original amendment but have now been rejected. I hope that the evaluation he has promised will show that it is possible to add to the list of further IDs that can be used; that would be desirable. I very much hope that the Minister and the Government will be as flexible as he has said. In the light of his assurances and the clear rejection from the other place, I do not think that it is now our role to pursue this issue further.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I support Motion A1, but I want to speak briefly to motion B1, which I also support. My primary concern throughout our debates has been the impact on the ability of people experiencing poverty to exercise their right to vote. I am not going to repeat the arguments, but I hope I can get a couple of assurances on the record from the Minister.

First, I thank him, as I understand he has asked officials to include organisations led by people in poverty— such as Poverty2Solutions and, I would add, the APLE Collective—in their ongoing consultations about the implementation of the Bill, so as to get their expertise on the experience of poverty. I would welcome it if the Minister could place that commitment on the record.

Elections Bill

Debate between Lord Willetts and Baroness Lister of Burtersett
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I will briefly speak to Amendment 8 in my name and the names of other noble Lords. The proposal in Amendment 8 would extend the list of accepted documents beyond the narrow group of photo ID that the Government are proposing, but I regard my amendment as consistent with the commitment in the Conservative Party manifesto. I approach this from the perspective of red tape. Is the extra regulation being proposed proportionate to the problem that needs to be tackled? As we have heard from all sides of this House, there is no evidence that personation is a significant problem in the British electoral system.

That is very different from Northern Ireland, where ID and then photo ID were introduced. There, there was in the words of the then chief electoral officer a “planned and well organised” programme of personation. In the absence of any such evidence of personation as a significant problem in the UK, the costs imposed by this measure seem to go way beyond the scale of the problems—costs estimated at £180 million over 10 years. If a broader range of documents is accepted, that removes the need for a new, separate group of voter ID cards and, hence, lowers the costs involved.

I acknowledge the way in which the Minister has engaged with these issues and has recently written to us on these proposals. He may say, “Well, there’s not a problem now, but we still need to do this to boost confidence in the security of the British electoral system”, despite the evidence that our problems are actually in postal voting and proxy voting and not in personation. We know that confidence in the British electoral system currently runs at over 90%. It is not clear that confidence could be much higher than that. Indeed, the attempt to legislate may have the opposite effect to the one that Ministers are seeking and may create anxiety and uncertainty where none existed before. In Northern Ireland, where there is a track record of voter ID, confidence in the system is no higher than in Britain—indeed, on some measures, it is lower.

Besides this, I have one wider concern: what might happen at the next election if a significant number of voters—hundreds of voters per constituency—confronted with a new requirement with which they are unfamiliar in order to vote, photo ID, are turned away from polling stations and do not return? Let us imagine that the outcome of the next election is a modest majority—I hope a majority for the party of which I am a member—where, throughout the day, the media story has been of voters being turned away from polling stations. That seems a significant political and constitutional risk that needs to be taken into account if this measure is introduced. Here we do have a precedent from Northern Ireland: the first use of voter ID in polling stations there was estimated to have reduced voter turnout and turned away the equivalent of approximately 1 million voters across Great Britain, so this is a real risk.

In light of that, while I respect the similar thinking behind Amendments 5 and 6, for example, my intention is to divide the House on Amendment 8, because I regard it as protecting our system from a major political and constitutional risk while remaining consistent with the manifesto on which the Conservative Party fought the last election.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 8, to which I have added my name. I am very pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Willetts.

The one real argument put by Ministers to support the restriction of identification to photo ID was that it is the most secure form of ID. However, we never got an explanation of how it was decided that, in the necessary balancing of the two, security trumped accessibility to the point that only the most secure forms of ID were permissible, despite the lack of evidence of fraud, as we have heard. In reaching that position, it was not clear why the Government rejected what we might call the “Pickles principle”—that perfection must not get in the way of a practical solution. Amendment 8 and some of the other amendments offer such a practical solution, but the Government’s response hitherto has been disappointing.

Ministers have also frequently cited the finding of the Electoral Commission tracker that 66% of the public say that the requirement to show identification at polling stations would increase their confidence in security. But I note that the word “photo” is never mentioned, so I can only assume that the question did not specify photo ID. Also, we do not know how members of the public would weigh up that balance between security and accessibility. It would appear from the latest election tracker—a point made by the noble Lord—that a much larger majority, eight in 10, are confident that elections are well run, and that nearly nine in 10 think that voting at polling stations is safe. But there is a real danger, as has been said, that perceptions will be tainted by the Government’s narrative of voting fraud, which risks reducing trust in the system, as has been pointed out by a number of bodies. According to the Electoral Reform Society, recent US studies have found that talking up voter fraud reduces confidence in electoral integrity and has indeed corroded trust in the system.

As I made clear in Committee, I am particularly concerned about the impact on people in poverty or on a low income, who are not necessarily caught in the Government’s focus on groups with protected characteristics. Of course, I am concerned about them too; I particularly noted the position of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities in Committee. The Government have chosen not to enact the socioeconomic duty in the Equality Act, which might have encouraged them to focus on people in poverty. As it is, the more I have read, the more convinced I am that they have in effect been ignored in consultations with stakeholders and in the pilots.

According to 2019 data from the British Election Study, provided to me by the Library, there was a clear income gradient in turnout in the 2019 election, with half—or slightly more than half—of those in households with an income of £15,599 or less not having voted. If the JRF is correct that, as it stands, Clause 1 and Schedule 1 risk disenfranchising as many as 1.7 million low-income members of the electorate, these worrying figures can only get worse.

Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, promised that she would get me

“a list of the consultees that we worked with because that is important.”

This was in response to my questions as to

“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”.—[Official Report, 17/3/22; cols. 562, 567.]

I repeated the question when we returned to the issue on day three of Committee, but there was still no sign of that list. Instead, in his letter to Peers, the Minister assured us that there has been a comprehensive programme of engagement with civil society organisations, with a heavy emphasis once again on those with protected characteristics. However, once again, the implication of the letter is that the impact of poverty has been ignored, and that there has been no engagement with organisations working with people in poverty or with those who can bring the expertise of experience of poverty to bear on the matter. Yet, their perspectives could be particularly valuable when considering appropriate voter ID and the process of applying for a voter card. I ask yet again whether there has been such consultation and, if not, will the Government now prioritise it?

As it happens, I was at an event this morning organised by Poverty2Solutions, an award-winning coalition of grassroots organisations led by people with direct experience of poverty and socioeconomic disadvantage and supported by the JRF. The key message was the need to put lived experience at the heart of policy-making, complementing other forms of expertise. I asked whether Poverty2Solutions would be willing to engage with the Government on the development of voter ID policy, and the response was an enthusiastic yes. The door is open.

Elections Bill

Debate between Lord Willetts and Baroness Lister of Burtersett
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - -

I take that point; this is not the perfect list. Indeed, there is a rather different agenda behind it. I shared at Second Reading my concern about lower rates of participation in voting and the difficulty of voter registration, especially for younger voters. It is odd that a Government driving forward a digital reform agenda in so many other areas are not doing so in this one. I believe in modernisation; I think digitisation is coming. It is very odd that we are not taking the Bill as an opportunity to introduce it in the electoral register. I also do not believe in lots of red tape and disproportionate burdens from it. By adding to the list, I am trying to reduce the amount of red tape as a barrier to people legitimately voting in elections.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett Portrait Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I will speak briefly to support the amendments to which I added my name: Amendment 80 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts—he made a very strong case for the amendment, possibly modified to take account of what my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti said—and Amendment 78 in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayman. Again, my motivation in supporting these amendments stems mainly from my concern that the photo ID requirements will disproportionately exclude marginalised groups, including people in poverty and members of the GRT communities, who are also less likely to apply for a voter ID card, to some extent for the same reasons they do not have photo ID in the first place. The additions suggested by the noble Lord are much more likely to be held by these groups. For me, that is the key test: are these forms of identification that members of marginalised groups are more likely to have?

The noble Lord quoted the Pickles report. I will repeat the quote, because he rather rushed over it and it is worth emphasising:

“perfection must not get in the way of a practical solution.”

My fear is that perfection is getting in the way of not just a practical solution but, as I have said, inclusive democracy and citizenship. I am yet to hear a convincing justification for why this should be accepted as a proportionate response to the supposed problem of personation. Again, the noble Lord spoke eloquently about that.

I am also unclear why the Government are so opposed to a vouching system, as proposed in Amendment 78—they made it very clear in the Commons that they are opposed to it—not least given the fact, as my noble friend Lord Collins pointed out, that the Electoral Commission has supported the idea. Once again, it smacks of a worrying lack of trust in the electorate.

Finally, once again, I welcome the commitment to continued consultation with civil society groups to maximise accessibility for those most likely to need to apply for a voter card and/or who will find it most difficult to apply. Once again, will that include groups working with people in poverty and GRT communities? Will it include those who bring the expertise of experience to the table? That expertise will be of particular value in this context: who will know better what will work, or not, about applying for a voter card than the people who will make those applications? I am grateful to the Minister for promising last week to send me a list of those being consulted, but I would welcome an answer to this specific question about whose expertise will be taken into account in rolling out these provisions, because it is quite important.