Conduct of Elections

– in Westminster Hall am 11:00 am ar 20 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Ceidwadwyr, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale 11:00, 20 Mawrth 2024

I will call Wendy Chamberlain to move the motion and then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention in 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the conduct of elections.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. We are approaching a general election at some point this year, or maybe next, and it will not be a snap general election. A lot has happened since the previous one in December 2019, and the country has experienced a number of events since then, but the intention of this debate is to note that a number of changes to our democracy will be fully tested for the first time in a general election since 2019. It is worth while assessing whether those changes have improved our democratic systems, or whether they are tools for the current Government to improve their position.

In the 2019 Conservative manifesto the Government committed to a number of changes, including the scrapping of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, updating and equalising boundaries through the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020, and maintaining first past the post. I wonder whether the former vice-chairman of the Conservative party and now Reform MP, Lee Anderson, agrees with that, given that he is now a member of a party that is committed to electoral reform and has signed up to the Make Votes Matter good systems agreement. It is always worth noting that the only other country in Europe that has the first-past-the-post system is Belarus.

In additional, the Government committed to maintaining the voting age of 18, introducing voter ID, and restricting postal vote harvesting and foreign interference in elections. It is a pity they have been slow to move on that issue when it comes to party finances. They also committed to preventing that intimidation of candidates and voters, and I am sure we can all agree with that.

The Government also committed to introducing a constitution, democracy and rights commission within the first year of the new Parliament. In December 2020, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee held oral evidence sessions on the subject of a commission but, other than independent reviews of administrative law and the Human Rights Act 1998, the reports of which have resulted in further consultations, there is no commission.

Indeed, the Constitution Unit has suggested that the Government’s failure on that manifesto commitment is because the underlying goal is to bolster their position and weaken parliamentary and judicial checks, and that a more fragmented review process may help to obscure the combined effort of any reforms and divide opponents. I hope the Minister will provide clarity on the future of the commission and whether it will come into being before the election.

As MPs, when people come to us for assistance, the first thing we do is check that they are our constituents. We do that by finding out where they live. I am sure the vast majority of MPs point out on their standard automated acknowledgment that the person who has emailed must be a constituent in order to get assistance. It is important to note that constituencies are not organised on that basis, but on the number of registered voters within them.

The Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020 set a tolerance of 5% of the electoral quota to produce what the Government insist are equal constituencies, to ensure that each vote applies equally. That has resulted in huge differences in the constituencies to be fought in the upcoming general election. Only 55 of the 533 English constituencies remain unchanged by boundaries. The geographical boundaries have shifted and the names of some of the new constituencies are a mouthful, linking areas that are not necessarily linked in other obvious, definable ways.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate. She brings many things to Westminster Hall and the Chamber that are of great interest to us all, and I thank her for giving me the chance to intervene. The changes in the 2020 Act apply to the United Kingdom parliamentary elections, police and crime commissioner elections in England and Wales, and local elections in England. Some provisions apply to Northern Ireland Assembly elections and local elections. Does the hon. Lady agree that all provisions of the Act should apply to all elections in all regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Member always brings an additional dimension to debates. From a democratic perspective, it is important that devolution is respected where it exists. It is also important to recognise that the Welsh and Scottish Governments did not provide legislative consent to the Elections Act 2022 and are looking to legislate themselves. I want to see consistency across our electoral systems in the UK. As a Scottish MP, I always enjoy speaking to voters, regardless of the election, and understanding how clever and able they are. They know exactly what to do with the different electoral systems for the different institutions.

I want to touch on the impact of overseas voters. The legislation on overseas voters means that UK nationals who live overseas are no longer affected by the rule saying that if they have lived overseas for more than 15 years, they cannot vote. One challenge with that change is that we do not know where overseas voters are likely to vote. In many cases, local authorities do not keep electoral registers that go back more than 15 years, and we are basing the estimates on where people assure us they lived previously. We have a 5% rule, which makes each vote count equally in equally sized constituencies, and the change introduces an unknown number of people to a number of constituencies. Will the Minister talk about what the Government have done to ensure that overseas voters are registered in the right place? What are the estimates for the numbers of people registered?

The Minister will be pleased to know that I am not about to talk at length about first past the post—as a Liberal Democrat, that is something I always do—but it is worth pointing out that trust in politics is at an all-time low, and that a system that is arguably unable to deliver fair votes and make everyone’s vote count is unlikely to improve that situation. In my constituency, only two votes separated the Liberal Democrats and the SNP in the 2017 general election—I should add that I was not then the Liberal Democrats’ candidate—and many more constituents voted for someone other than the winner. That is what marginal seats mean, and it is important that we recognise that.

Unlock Democracy’s recent report, “Register Every Voter”, illustrates some of the challenges that the Government’s approach has produced in terms of whether electoral registers support our democracy. The report evaluated registers on the basis of four considerations: register completeness is

“the extent to which every person who is entitled to be registered, is registered”; register accuracy

“can be usefully defined as the extent to which there are no false entries on the electoral registers”; register equity

“refers to the extent to which there is an even distribution in the completeness of the electoral register across educational, socio-demographic, ethnic, gendered or other groups”; and administrative robustness means that electoral registration processes

“must be deliverable without errors which can lead to citizens not being able to vote or the trust in the system being undermined. This requires sufficient staffing, resource and capacity.”

The report estimates that up to 8 million people are missing from the electoral register or are not correctly registered to vote. Unsurprisingly, it finds:

“Those who were under registered were more likely to be in urban areas…more mobile;
private renters;
younger; from Asian, Black, Mixed or ‘other’ ethnic backgrounds;
non-UK nationals;
from lower socio-economic groups and with lower qualifications”.

I would argue that those are exactly the people who need good politics and good support from locally elected representatives.

Even more concerning is the fact that the number of people registering to vote is falling. As MPs, that should concern us all. An increase in the UK population of 6% since 2011 has not been reflected in voter registration. I accept that registration usually increases at the time of a general election—we have not had one of those for a while—but the overall trend is worrying. Will the Minister indicate what the Government are intending to do about that? Will the Government seriously consider automatic voter registration, which is used by half of the world’s countries?

Voter identification requirements may also be playing their part. In an urgent question last September I highlighted the Electoral Commission’s report that warned that disabled people and the unemployed find it harder to show accepted voter ID, as do younger people and people from ethnic minorities. It also reported that on average a higher proportion of people were turned away in more deprived areas, compared with less deprived areas. The Local Government Information Unit reported that approximately 14,000 voters were not given a ballot paper because they could not show an accepted form of ID, and significantly more were deterred from voting because of the ID requirement.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Northern Ireland has had voter ID for a number of years—this is not a criticism; I am trying to be positive—and it has been successful. I think it is a matter of what the Government can do to help people to get their IDs. There is a proactive campaign in Northern Ireland to make that happen. I say genuinely, constructively and honestly that voter ID in Northern Ireland has worked because the Government went overboard to make it work.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Member and I rarely disagree and we can find points of consensus. One thing that Northern Ireland has done very well is that it has been much more proactive in getting people registered to vote, working in schools and elsewhere, which means that in some respects voter ID is less of an issue because people have been encouraged to vote and have the right ID at an early stage. Having one and not the other makes things much more difficult for people. If people do not have voter ID or acceptable voter ID, it can suggest that the Government are comfortable with the idea that those people are not in a position to be able to vote.

The Commons Library briefing on voter ID states that 90% of voters were likely to think that voting was “safe” after last year’s local elections in England, but that pattern was unchanged since before voter ID was introduced, so introducing voter ID has made no difference to public perception of the safety of voting. The Government response to the Electoral Commission report in November last year rejected a number of the commission’s recommendations that arose from the report. Given that the Minister was responsible for that response, will he advise what additional measures will be available for the GE, particularly for groups such as disabled people, to ensure that those who are entitled to vote can?

I have already mentioned the Elections Act 2022 in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Strangford. It included measures to address the impact of candidate and voter intimidation—I am sure we all want to see less of that, particularly when MP security and safety has been back in the public eye and discussed in recent weeks—but it is fair to say that those elements of the Act did not constitute the areas of debate when the Bill made its passage through Parliament. In addition to voter ID, the concerns expressed by other parties, including my own, were about finance and the independence of the Electoral Commission.

It is accepted that the next election will be the most expensive ever, and not just because of recent high inflation levels. We know who that will disproportionately benefit: the current party of Government, the Conservatives. The Electoral Commission said in November that it saw no reason to substantially raise the spending limits. We are seeing reporting on huge increases in literature that is being delivered—as a Liberal Democrat, I deliver a lot of leaflets—and also in terms of social media. When we look at disinformation it is really important that we get things right. The data rules that are changing are also part of the challenge. Simply put, the changes reward the biggest pockets. Social media and other means of communicating with voters are important, but I believe that being out on the doorsteps and speaking to voters is most effective, particularly from the trust perspective.

In the last couple of weeks there has been a lot of discussion about the Government’s donations, particularly from their donor Frank Hester. The Government have said that his comments were wrong and racist, but have not ruled out accepting future donations and, importantly, have not ruled out granting a peerage to Mr Hester—something that seems to happen quite a lot with Conservative donors. I hope the Minister can find reassure us on that.

Does the Minister generally agree that big money is potentially a further drain on public trust in politics, and that a cap on political donations would help with that? It would also level the playing field. Myself and parliamentarians from smaller parties such as the SNP and Plaid Cymru would benefit, and I would argue that that is not a bad thing because plurality of opinion is important. We have created a system in which two parties are in the lead, and nothing changes.

To conclude, it is quite clear that there has been a number of changes since 2019, and we will see at the general election whether the fears that I expressed this morning are going to be upheld or the Conservatives have made changes that do not have such an impact. Despite all the arguable rigging of the rules, all the polls currently suggest that the changes the Conservatives have made will not help them now, nor in October, November, December or even January. If they genuinely believe in the changes they have made to our democracy, they should call a general election now.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 11:15, 20 Mawrth 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am grateful to Wendy Chamberlain for instigating this debate. The topic set out on the Order Paper is “the conduct of elections”, which is a wide canvas. We had no reference to any specific points the hon. Lady was going to draw the House’s attention to, so I am working from manuscript notes based on my own knowledge as elections Minister.

Let me shoot stone-cold dead two foxes that the hon. Lady has tried to set running round Westminster Hall this morning. First, she said that she thought the Elections Act 2022 and subsequent guidance was—I quote directly —“a tool of the current Government to improve their own position.” It is absolutely not. I say gently to her that she cannot turn around in good faith and in all conscience and say that our electorates need to have faith and confidence in the robustness, resilience, honesty, transparency and integrity of the system, and then say, in almost the juxtaposed breath, that the Government were trying to rig the rules in their favour.

If the hon. Lady does not believe me, I ask her to look at the evidence and the facts. I suggest to the House that the results of last year’s local elections demonstrate beyond peradventure that even if they had been planned to improve the position of the Government, the plan did not work. They were not results that my party welcomed. I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s fox is not only shot but buried on that point. I take her point entirely that the public need to have faith in the system, and I politely suggest to her that it is our job as parliamentarians, along with our colleagues across the local government sector, to ensure that the public have that. Her opening remarks did not help in that important endeavour.

The second fox I want to shoot and butcher is that we are in some way undermining the independence of the Electoral Commission. The commission’s independence is sacrosanct. The chairman and the chief executive of the commission know that, and we work well and closely together. I made that point very clearly on the Floor of the House when I made my statement. We have to have faith and confidence in the robust independence of the commission, and that is a ditch I will die in to defend.

The hon. Lady raised a number of other issues. She described almost as some sort of elections equivalent of the Russian revolution our revocation of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It was not an ancient piece of UK constitutional architecture; it was always envisaged to be a temporary piece of legislation, wisely brought in by the then coalition partners—the coalition of which the hon. Lady’s party was a key and important part—to provide stability and confidence for the markets and the electorate that there was a secure and stable Government that, having inherited an absolute horror show of a financial legacy from the Labour party, would take difficult decisions to restore the nation’s finances. The Act was always envisaged to be temporary; it is no longer required. It is for no other reason that it was revoked.

The hon. Lady spoke about the boundary reforms, which were long overdue. She will remember, although it was before her time and mine, that there was a bit of horse-trading between my party and hers and we had a referendum on changing the first-past-the-post system. My side won and her side lost, but the Liberals seem to be very poor losers and, rather like the SNP, who always try to resurrect the question of an independence referendum, they keep picking away at the scab of first past the post. I am not entirely sure that the electorate are with them on that, given the results of the referendum that was held on changing the voting system.

The Boundary Commission review of parliamentary seats was long overdue. We know full well that that will now take place every eight years, so the next review will be required to report by 2031 and will be based on the registers as at December 2028. It is about time we had that as part of an iterative process, to ensure that as populations grow and shrink, and new housing development comes on stream, our parliamentary boundaries broadly reflect an equal number of constituents to ensure that it really is one Member, one vote, and all of us are equal in this House.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

I might in a moment, but the hon. Lady covered a lot of ground and I want to give respect to her by covering the very serious and sensible points that she made.

On voter ID, the underpinning of the Act and the subsequent statutory instruments that we have brought forward is that we cannot rest on our laurels. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that in broad terms, the way our elections have been conducted in this country has been robust and fair, and everyone—both those who have won and, more importantly, those who have lost—has accepted the results, but I do not think we can rest on our laurels. She will know, as I do, that we are living in a changing world, in which western democratic principles are under acute pressure, and the rise of populism and social media brings challenges that our forefathers had not foreseen. To that purpose, we reflected on, reviewed and updated the rules that govern our electoral processes, in order to ensure that they are fit for purpose and demonstrably capable of being changed and reformed.

There is a very long list of qualifying documentation for voter ID, and 99% of all voters have at least one form of acceptable ID, and many have more. There is also the voter authority certificate, which is free and lasts for three years. That meets the needs of the 1% of the population who do not have an acceptable form of ID.[Official Report, 15 April 2024; Vol. 748, c. 1WC.] (Correction) We have a list, which is quite long, but it is not carved in tablets of stone. I hope the hon. Lady will welcome my saying that this is an iterative and organic process: as technologies change and new forms of ID come on board, Government will of course respond. We reviewed the situation post the local elections of 2023 and we will have to do a quick review post the coming elections in May 2024. Tweaks could easily be made, if required, in preparation for the general election later this year. I think that is the right way to go.

Turnout for the local elections in 2023 was broadly commensurate with that in previous years. Jim Shannon, who is no longer in his place, rightly referenced the fact that within boundaries of the United Kingdom, voter identification has been an accepted part of the electoral landscape in Northern Ireland—again, with no demonstrable negative impact on turnout.

The hon. Member for North East Fife and I share an absolute keenness—as do the Government, the Electoral Commission and local government—to maximise our attention to what all the survey work has pointed to, which is driving up registration and participation of those we might colloquially describe as hard-to-reach groups. That can be students, the very elderly, people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, or those with disabilities—in particular disabilities that make it a challenge to come into new spaces, or to meet and interact with new people.

We take this matter absolutely seriously and I want to put it clearly on the record that we want to make sure that anybody and everybody who is eligible to vote in any electoral event has the right to do so, and that if they wish to exercise that right they must be free to do so. We are deploying the strength and power of, working with the commission, turbocharging the engines of local government communication, and reaching out to faith groups, disability groups and the voluntary sector. We are focused, Exocet-like, on driving up registration in those communities, as well as participation, with a greater awareness of voter ID. That is key and it is right. If the hon. Lady and I agree possibly on nothing else in this debate, I hope that she will welcome that.

On overseas votes, the hon. Lady repeated a line that is the third fox that I need to shoot in response to her remarks. A qualifying overseas voter cannot just choose willy-nilly which constituency to register in. I appreciate that sitting in the ivory tower of Marsham Street, one can sometimes seem slightly caught between theory and practice, but on Monday I visited a local authority election office, where I completed some of the applications processing—I did it all fairly and was supervised! We admitted two applications, but one was not sufficient because the applicant said they had been on the paper register but that had not been digitalised. Such applications are then put into the “pending” box and further proof of ID is required to prove where the individual, if qualifying, lived in that constituency and therefore that they have a right to vote there. I know that some feared that parties would organise themselves to motivate people to apply to vote in their most marginal seats, but one has to demonstrate without any form of a doubt that they have a link to that last constituency. That is important.

The hon. Lady asked what I thought the numbers may be. We assess that the potential quantum, in totality —including those already qualifying to be overseas voters under the old 15-year rule—to be about 3 million.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I want to make it clear for the record that that was not a third fox. I was not suggesting in any way that there would not be robust processes in place for people to register in a particular seat. I was asking about the numbers, because I think the Minister must accept that if we are making an estimate of 3 million, we cannot say exactly where those 3 million will be, and the numbers will alter the overall electoral register in each affected constituency.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

The hon. Lady makes a good and clear point. Clearly, when it came to the subsequent boundary review—at a time when, one would have to presume, those who had qualified would have already taken up and exercised that right—those who were reviewing our parliamentary boundaries would take those numbers into account. That is the one number that will never move, because one will not be able to change a historical link to a constituency.

The hon. Lady made an important point about devolution and different settlements. I assure her that while there are differentials between the nations of the United Kingdom, the four of us who are charged ministerially with dealing with elections, and the Northern Ireland Office, work closely together to ensure that parity can be delivered as and when it can, and when it is deemed to be desirable, and to try to maximise the points that the hon. Lady talked about—namely, simplicity and transparency across these islands.

The hon. Lady mentioned automatic voter registration. Again, that is something that any Government would keep under review. We have decided that individual registration is the best way. We all talk about rights, but sometimes we do not talk about responsibilities, and I actually think that that individual motivation to register—deciding to go on the electoral register, obviously without being forced to vote—begins a contract between the young qualifying adult and the state in all its manifestations.

This has been a fascinating debate, which we now draw to a conclusion. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North East Fife. I just hope that I have assured her on the two key charges that she levied against us: the commission’s independence is clear and without challenge; and we are in no way trying to gerrymander. The Conservative party is the oldest political party in the world. We have always extended and widened the franchise, and that is a historical tradition that we intend to continue.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.