Electoral Commission Strategy and Policy Statement - Motion to Approve

– in the House of Lords am 6:06 pm ar 6 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Baroness Penn:

Moved by Baroness Penn

That the draft Strategy and Policy Statement laid before the House on 14 December 2023 be approved.

Relevant document: 8th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument)

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My Lords, the Government are committed to strengthening the integrity of elections so that our democracy remains secure, modern, transparent and fair. The statement we are debating today sets out the Government’s priorities when it comes to these important areas and the Electoral Commission’s role in enabling the Government to meet them.

It is the Government of the day who hold the responsibility for setting out the policy and legislation on how elections are run, who can participate with regard to registration, franchise and candidacy, and how elections and campaigning are regulated. These fundamental elements of the policy framework are separate but directly relevant to the role of the Electoral Commission, which, as an independent statutory body, oversees elections and regulates political finance. In other words, the Electoral Commission’s statutory remit exists to regulate the framework set out by the Government of the day’s electoral policies and legislation as approved by Parliament. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for the Government to set out their policy priorities for the commission to have regard to in the delivery of its functions.

In their 2019 manifesto, the Government committed to protecting the integrity of our democracy. The Elections Act 2022 delivered this commitment by tackling voter fraud, improving the accessibility of elections and increasing participation in elections. All of these are government policy priorities which the commission, due to the nature of its role and statutory functions, plays an essential role in supporting. This is why the statement requires the commission to have regard to matters such as tackling voter fraud, supporting returning officers in ensuring the secrecy of the ballot inside polling stations, and supporting participation by informing the public about the franchise and electoral registration when carrying out its relevant regulatory functions.

The statement provides guidance on the commission’s role in supporting the Government’s ambitions to combat foreign interference through compliance with the political finance framework, and to improve transparency in UK elections through the new digital imprint regime. The statement also strengthens the accountability of the Electoral Commission to Parliament, via scrutiny of the Speaker’s Committee, which was given the remit under the Elections Act 2022 to allow it to examine the performance of the Electoral Commission in relation to its duty to have regard to the statement. Once the Statement is designated, the Speaker’s Committee will have the opportunity to consider the commission’s actions across a range of areas relevant to the statement, and will be able to report to Parliament its view of the commission’s performance of its duty to have regard to the statement. Such a report would provide an opportunity for greater parliamentary awareness and interest in the Electoral Commission’s performance.

I acknowledge that the provision for the statement was closely debated during the passage of the Elections Bill, now Act, two years ago. The Government listened carefully then to points raised by noble Lords and made several changes to address them. We added a safeguard in the legislation to ensure that a future Government could not attempt to use the statement to inappropriately interfere with the commission’s responsibilities in relation to the rules set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, as well as prohibiting any references to any specific enforcement or investigatory activities against any particular person. We also added a requirement for the statement to go through an enhanced parliamentary procedure.

Throughout this enhanced scrutiny process, we have listened carefully to representations. In response to the statutory consultation, the Government substantively revised the draft statement to provide clarifications and reassurances relating to the operational independence of the Electoral Commission. A full list of those changes would be too long to detail, but I will outline their main effects. First, the Government amended the draft statement to provide additional reassurances. That in no way amounts to the Government directing the commission. Secondly, the revised draft clarified that the statement articulated the Government’s priorities and not the commission’s. Thirdly, the revised draft clarified that the commissioners and the commission’s executive leadership remain responsible for determining how the commission exercises its functions.

The Government then laid the revised draft of the statement before Parliament for 60 days to allow for further comment by parliamentarians. During this period the Government received two further representations, from the Speaker’s Committee and the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee. Both representations reiterated principled objections to the statement that had been articulated during the statutory consultation, particularly around concerns that the statement undermines the commission’s operational independence. These sentiments are referenced in the amendment to the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley.

After careful consideration, the Government decided that the revised draft statement of June 2023 should remain unamended, save for minor stylistic changes. It is that version that has now been laid before Parliament for approval. As I have just set out, this is because the Government had already made significant revisions to the statement after the statutory consultation, to provide clarifications and reassurances relating to the operational independence of the Electoral Commission. The Government are emphatic that the statement must always be compatible with the foundational principle of the commission’s operational independence. The commission will be required only to have regard to the statement in the exercise of its functions. This legal duty does not replace or undermine the commission’s other statutory duties or give the Government powers to direct the commission’s decision-making.

The statement will help to ensure that the Electoral Commission operates as an effective, operationally independent regulator, discharging its responsibilities efficiently and commanding the trust and confidence of both Parliament and the public. I beg to move.