Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) (Lab) [V]
Today’s debate is on an issue and a piece of legislation that pose a direct threat to our democracy. Citizens casting their votes in polling stations in England, Scotland and Wales currently do not need to present any form of identification. It is in that context, where elections in the UK are being undertaken safely and securely, that the Government have presented the Elections Bill—a Bill that will cost more than £40 million over the next decade to address a problem that does not exist.
The Government state that the Elections Bill will ensure that elections are “secure, modern and fair”, implying the baseless assumption that they are currently not secure, modern and fair. Election administrators in local government work tirelessly to deliver safe and reliable elections. This year, local councils delivered one of the biggest sets of elections ever held, an incredible feat after a decade of austerity. Luton Borough Council, in my constituency, has had £157 million cut from its funding since 2010. Now the Government want to heap additional, unnecessary work on under-resourced election administrators. According to academic research, 99% of election staff do not think fraud has occurred in their polling stations, and 88% of the public think our polling stations are safe.
From 2010 to 2018, there were a total of five police cautions issued for personation at polling stations in the UK and four convictions. In 2019, a year that included a high-turnout general election, there was one conviction out of more than 59 million votes cast. Although those rare cases are serious, and allegations must be investigated, they had little or no impact on the outcome of the election. The Electoral Reform Society has stated: “Adding a major barrier to democratic engagement off the back of so few proven cases would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
Can the Minister explain whether she believes that voting is safe and secure in Britain? The Government like to point to Northern Ireland, where they enforce voter ID, but the situations could not be more different. At the 1983 general election, 949 people arrived at polling stations in Northern Ireland to be told that a vote had already been cast in their name. Faced with high levels of documented, in-person electoral fraud, Northern Ireland introduced mandatory ID in 1985, and a free electoral ID card in 2002.
The introduction of voter ID in Northern Ireland did impact turnout, which was acknowledged in the Minister’s Department’s letter to Unlock Democracy in May this year. Around 25,000 voters are estimated not to have voted, as they did not have the required identification. Almost 3,500 people were initially refused a vote for not presenting identification. In a different context, and faced with military-style organised in-person fraud, an ID scheme was a proportionate response to protect the integrity of elections in Northern Ireland. That level of voter fraud has not been identified elsewhere in the UK.
The Government also rely on the misleading argument that if people need ID to pick up a parcel, why should they not need it to vote? Unlike picking up a parcel, voting is a legal right, not a privilege. Estimates suggest that around 3.5 million UK citizens—7.5% of the electorate—do not have photo ID. Furthermore, 11 million citizens do not have a passport or driving licence. Research estimates that about 1.3 million people in the UK do not have a bank account. This legislation would disproportionately impact sections of society. As Liberty has said:
“If you’re young, if you’re a person of colour, if you’re disabled, trans or you don’t have a fixed address, you’re much less likely to have valid photo ID and could therefore be shut off from voting.”
In Luton, we are proud of our super-diverse town. The 2011 census data showed that 45% of our population are not white—the very people that this discriminatory policy is more likely to impact—and not everyone can afford photo ID. A Department for Transport survey found that 76% of the white population hold a driving licence compared with 52% of the black population. After the past year, the number of universal credit claimants in Luton South increased by 146% between February 2020 and March 2021, so photo ID will only have become more unaffordable.
Will the Minister explain why the Government are putting their energy into creating barriers to voting for already marginalised or deprived communities? I anticipate that the Minister will stress the free elector ID, but many on low incomes will not have the necessary free time or the means to access it. The ID process will require voters to take time off work or caring responsibilities to request it; those who can most easily take time off are those people who are most likely already to have ID. Also, in accessing the card and verifying the elector at the polling station there will be additional barriers, such as for those who wear face coverings or niqabs, or those who are part of the trans community, who, for example, may have changed their name.
Organisations such as Sense, Mencap, Age UK, Crisis and The Traveller Movement have all raised their concerns with me about how voter ID impacts people with complex disabilities, people with learning difficulties, the elderly, those who are homeless and Gypsy and Traveller people. The Bill has no provisions that directly address these concerns, so why is the Minister introducing a policy that will make voting more difficult for these groups?
Ministers repeatedly refer to evidence from the Electoral Commission, stating that the Government’s voter ID pilots at the 2018 and 2019 English local elections show there is no impact on any particular demographic group. However, there is a clear disconnect between the Cabinet Office’s statement and the Electoral Commission’s evidence. In both of its most recent reports, the Electoral Commission has said that it had no way of measuring the effect of photo ID on minority ethnic communities’ votes. Its report in 2019 states that polling station staff were not asked to collect demographic data about the people who did not come back. The commission recognises that that means it has no direct evidence of whether people from particular backgrounds were more likely than others to find it hard to show ID. Also, the Local Government Information Unit has highlighted that 37% of those who were refused a ballot paper did not return to vote, and in two areas just under half of those turned away did not come back with ID.
If the Government’s argument does not stand up to scrutiny, why are they intent on introducing voter ID? If no such voting issue exists, and if all the evidence points to voter ID causing voter suppression, what is the point of proposing these additional barriers to voting? I believe there lies the issue. This legislation cannot be unpicked in good faith, as the Government’s claims do not reflect reality. Instead, we have to take this policy for what it is: a discriminatory policy that will disenfranchise millions of voters. Much of the functioning of the legislation will be enacted through secondary legislation. Either the Government do not know how it will be implemented or this is simply an extension of whipping up a culture war, targeting black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, people with a disability, the trans community and the working class.
I am sure we all agree that encouraging high turnout is vital to sustain a healthy, thriving democracy. Imposing barriers on voting to tackle baseless allegations, which will lead to voter suppression, is disgraceful. The estimated cost of photo ID would be better spent on increasing confidence in our democracy through improving political literacy and encouraging engagement in the political process. Since 2010, this Government have cut youth services funding by 73%. Reversing those cuts would also help to improve democratic participation.
I have a question for the Minister. How does she expect me to explain the introduction of voter ID to my constituents, who are more likely to suffer voter suppression because of it, and to my council, which will have to undertake unnecessary additional work after a decade of cuts? I look forward to receiving specific responses to each of the questions I have asked and to each of the points I have raised, but I will conclude by saying that our elections are well run, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This dangerous legislation must be scrapped.
Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
In this country and most true democracies, the right to exercise the franchise is one of the most important symbols of the state as servant not master. Once every four or five years, voters go to the polls and give their verdict on the policies, commitments and ideals that they think will best suit their ambitions and hopes for where they live. It is a marvellous privilege, and we should not forget that there are still many places where people are denied that right.
Worst are those that go through the motions with an attempt to legitimise often ruthless, cruel and oppressive regimes through a veneer of respectability, in a charade of an election where every ballot box will be stuffed and every vote for the regime or junta in charge counted at least twice. That is why it is so important that our own democratic process is utterly unimpeachable. When we seek to bring the virtues of liberal open democracy to the rest of the world and promote our values, we cannot turn a blind eye to fraud and corruption at home. I do not need to look too far from my own constituency for examples of where that has already happened.
In Rochdale, a sitting Labour councillor who was serving as a member of the executive was caught voting twice in a local election. He accepted a caution from the police after claiming ignorance of the rules. This was a senior councillor who was still sitting on Rochdale Borough Council.
The rules should be clear and properly enforced. The idea of taking ID to the polling station is not a radical one. In fact, it is quite common around the world. Unless we are seriously saying in this debate that countries such as Germany, France and Canada are failed states or oppressive regimes, it could just be that we are the international outlier. I can speak only from my own experience, but on more than one occasion when I have been canvassing I have been asked by somebody whether they need to take their polling card with them to the polls, and on more than one occasion when I have been outside telling, I have been handed a polling card because people legitimately assume that they have to prove who they are when they go to vote. When told that they do not need to, many of them say, “You should probably do something about that.”
The idea is not even new to the UK. Voters in Northern Ireland have been providing proof of their identity since the 1980s, with no difficulty in the smooth running of elections. As long as there is access to a free recognisable form of photo identification that identifies that a person is eligible to vote and, more importantly, eligible to vote where they are attempting to, there should be no adverse effect on participation. It is even reasonable to assume that increased confidence in the integrity of our elections could encourage some of those who abstain to re-engage with the democratic process.
Voter suppression is a vile and unconscionable act, and accusations of it being levelled without a good faith basis are scurrilous and unbecoming. Voter fraud is sinister, and we have evidence of it already. A simple change requiring additional checks at the polls will go a long way to bolstering our political process, and we should, in short, welcome it.
Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
It might come as no surprise, but I disagree with most of the comments made by the previous contributor. Voter fraud is an issue that the Tories have obsessed about for a long time without ever having proof that it is an issue that needs additional legislation and voter ID to resolve. Giving one example of one conviction does not actually underline the need to bring in such widespread legislation, which will indeed lead to voter suppression. Even the pilot trials that were undertaken proved that many people did not have ID with them, and even when they might have accessed ID, many did not return to vote and a lot of folk were effectively disfranchised. The Electoral Commission has admitted that it does not have enough evidence to draw strong conclusions from the results of the pilot, so again that undermines the argument for the legislation.
The Tories talk about democracy, but the Bill could disfranchise between 2 million and 4 million people from disadvantaged backgrounds or from ethnic minorities—in other words, non-Tory voters. We have already had the boundary reviews that give the Tories an advantage. We now have a Bill to put the power of calling elections solely into the hands of the Prime Minister, and now this. Those are all ploys to cling on to the levers of power. Then they are looking to extend the franchise to give Brits abroad the vote for life. Why? Because they believe there is an ex-pat cohort that will vote Tory.
In the talk about extending the franchise for life abroad, quite often we hear the example of a war veteran deprived of the vote. What they never say is that that war veteran is often stuck in a frozen overseas pension, so it would be far better to do something about that.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, we extended democracy and the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds at the independence referendum—a move that was cynically opposed at the time by Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems. We have now brought that in for all elections in Scotland, and we have also extended the right to vote to refugees and foreign nationals with leave to remain. By contrast, down here, in a further bid to upset democracy and fair elections, the Tories want to curb the powers of the Electoral Commission. Their argument is that the Electoral Commission does not have sufficient powers at the moment.
The Scottish National party is the only major party not to have been fined for breaching election rules. Indeed, the Electoral Commission believes the fines that it can impose at the moment are now just seen by all three UK-wide parties as business-as-usual election expenses, so that is way bigger an issue than the 33 or 34 accusations of possible voting misrepresentation out of 34 million votes cast. Of course, clerical error quite often accounts for possible voter impersonation, so voter ID might not solve that in itself.
There is actually a far bigger issue for democracy than possible vote fraud: the attitude of the Tory Government, and how they reward chums and donors. We have a Secretary of State for Housing—he is still in place—who made an illegal planning decision that was going to save a Tory donor millions of pounds. We have the covid contracts fast-tracked to Tory donors, and the misuse of funds for the contract to Public First to undertake political polling in Scotland. It is shocking that the Good Law Project and openDemocracy—not to mention the SNP—are relying on the courts to hold the Tory Government to account.
Looking at elections, we have seen the dirty tricks and the personal data breaches by Vote Leave, which has also been subsequently quoted by the Tories, and so many people from Vote Leave migrated into advising the Tory Government. Instead of trying to disenfranchise voters, it would be better for all if the Tories created level playing fields for elections and were seen to be part of an open and transparent governance structure—not the unfortunate “them and us” set-up that we have at the moment.
Mark Fletcher (Bolsover) (Con)
I understand that the hon. Member for Luton South feels that she needs to defend her constituents and put her case forward, but I am not sure it is as coherent as she wants it to be. We all know that the example we cite at this point is that the Labour party requires identification to attend its meetings. Please explain to me why Labour party meetings are more important than the elections that decide our Government.
Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
I would not normally intervene, but I want to clarify for the hon. Member that there is absolutely no requirement to show ID to enter a Labour party meeting. Indeed, I have been a member of the Labour party since 2004 and have never been asked to show ID to attend meetings. As hon. Members might expect, I am a very active member of the Labour party. I just wanted to correct the hon. Member on that point.
The hon. Member for Luton South referred to police convictions and the Electoral Commission. There was a sort of dampening down—“This is not really a problem, because the law is not really that concerned.” There is an argument on police resources and how much time is dedicated to this issue, but the point is that the Electoral Commission in this country is not fit for purpose, in my humble opinion. It has not directed enough resources to this issue.
Finally, on the idea that people do not have identification and that they would be unable to show it, my understanding is that 98% of people in this country have suitable identification. This is a de minimis requirement for people to be able to participate in a democracy. Our laws are made by the people who are elected. They come to this House to be the voice of the people. We should make sure that the process is fair, transparent and meets the highest standards we can possibly have. Do we really think that this small matter of having voter identification, which will help to improve the process, will somehow disenfranchise millions of people? It is a ludicrous suggestion.
Tom Randall (Gedling) (Con)
They hon. Member for Luton South says that this is a problem that does not exist. How does she know? To answer that question, perhaps it would be helpful to have a potted history on how to commit electoral fraud. There is a marked register that sets out who has voted and who has not. In the case of council elections, it is very easy to tell, with a little bit of research, who the 50%, 60% and in some areas up to 70% of people are who do not habitually vote in council elections. Once someone is armed with that name and an address, they can go to the local polling station and give that name and address. Unlike at Labour party meetings, there is no ID—they just need to give that name and address to the clerk at the polling station and they will be handed that voter’s ballot paper.
If someone lives in a town or small village, the clerk might recognise that the name and face do not match up, but if they live in a crowded urban area—take Tower Hamlets, as a random example—where people do not know each other and do not know their neighbours, the ballot paper will be handed over with no questions asked. If someone were to do this perhaps later on in the evening, at 8 or 9 o’clock, when most people who were going to vote had voted, they would be able to do that successfully, and they might, in an urban area, be able to go around a few polling districts, if they have really done their homework, and vote several times for several people, before the close of poll at 10 o’clock.
Throughout the whole of this process, this is perhaps the most unique fraud of all. It is a fraud in which the victim does not know that they are a victim of fraud. If someone has decided not to vote in an election, they will not go out to check the marked register—if they even know what the marked register is, which most people do not. They will not go out to check that they have not voted in an election in which they have decided not to vote.
If a victim of electoral fraud does not know that they are a victim of electoral fraud, how does the hon. Member for Luton South know? I have not had an answer to that so far. However, this debate has a little while more to run, so I look forward to being enlightened on that point.
Kenny MacAskill (East Lothian) (Alba)
I think I can speak with some experience. Others are equally experienced, but I first contested an election in winter 1974. I have contested elections since 1982 at every level—local authority, Scottish Parliament, United Kingdom Parliament and, indeed, the European Parliament. I have contested rural seats and, in particular, urban and deprived seats, so I think I have some experience.
Have I seen electoral fraud? Yes, but in almost 50 years’ experience, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of instances in which it has occurred. There are, of course, many apocryphal tales. I have heard them mentioned, sometimes by my own side, sometimes by others: keys to empty flats being used, to take polling cards; or staff in care homes taking the residents’. None of them actually bore any scrutiny. Does electoral fraud happen? Yes, we know that it happens. I have seen the sad situation in Northern Ireland, but that is not the situation either in Scotland or, certainly, south of the border. That is why the Government’s position in fact creates a worse situation for democracy.
As parliamentarians, we should be encouraging people to participate in the franchise. Although the elections that just took place in Holyrood did not go the way I would have wished, I very much welcome the fact that, despite the fears that many of us had, turnout increased. That can only be a good thing for democracy. We would be delighted to obtain these days the turnout when I first participated back in 1974. We have to ensure that we encourage participation, not discourage it.
I have been fortunate in my political life to have met Professor Henry Milner. I think he is probably still alive; he will be a very old man. I remember him speaking to me and lecturing me. He gave me a copy of his book “Civic Literacy”, which is a fascinating study that I would recommend to any Member. He compares and contrasts the high turnouts in places such as Finland and Scandinavia and the lower turnouts in places such as Australia and, indeed, Belgium—countries where voting is mandatory and it can be a criminal offence not to vote. He explains that high turnout is not about being able to vote at Tesco, and it is not about being given a free pen or whatever else. What matters is understanding, knowledge and awareness; people have to appreciate what they are voting for. It is not a simple, straightforward matter.
I accept that low turnout will not necessarily be blamed on impediments. As Professor Milner mentions and as we all know, people stood in the blazing sun in South Africa to vote for the end of apartheid, despite the difficulties in getting to vote. In the United States, it took ages for people to be able to vote and they went through difficulties and great delay, but they did so. That said, we have to remember that, as well as Professor Milner’s lessons about raising political awareness, education and civic literacy—by which he means measures such as public service broadcasting and access to a broader, open media—there is a lesson about making it as easy as possible to vote. Voter ID goes against that, and that is why it is counterproductive.
The measures are not as flagrant as what we see in the United States, which is something utterly shameful. The voter suppression that was practised by those who supported President Trump’s attempts to rig the ballot and remain in office came about after reconstruction at the end of the civil war, when those who could not retain ownership of people through slavery sought to retain it by rigging the ballot box. Sadly, voter suppression continues in the United States.
Voter ID is about voter suppression. For that reason, those who represent minorities have continued to express their concerns. Members may shake their heads, but I am simply taking advice from the likes of the Electoral Reform Society, which I support and view as neutral. Those concerns also come from organisations such as Mencap, Crisis and those who represent the most vulnerable.
People sometimes criticise the referendum in Scotland, but it was truly startling: more people voted in the independence referendum than have voted in any election to the Scottish Parliament since. On that basis, voter ID is a counterproductive measure that discourages voting and is fundamentally wrong.
Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
The electoral integrity Bill, which is now called the Elections Bill, is a bit of a con. Putting the word “integrity” in the title—it is now in the long title—of the Bill cannot disguise that. It seeks to solve a problem that in reality does not exist. With only one person convicted of voter fraud and one person cautioned, it is very hard not to draw the conclusion that something else is going on here. If the Government disagree with that they need to let us see the evidence as to why they are so convinced that this legislation is necessary.
The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) told us that he was aware—to his knowledge—that alleged election fraud had taken place, but by his own admission, that attempt was thwarted. That was before we had this legislation in place, so clearly the legislation was not necessary to prevent that.
What we do have evidence for, from countries around the world where voter ID operates, is that it creates a barrier to voting, and a barrier between citizens and their right to exercise their democratic choice.
The hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) said that we do not know whether election fraud is taking place. All we can rely on are the facts, and the facts do not bear out the claim that there is a need for this Bill. Here is the rub: all the evidence shows that the more socially disadvantaged a voter is, the more likely it is that that voter will be further disadvantaged by the introduction of voter ID. Is it a mere accident that the demographics most likely to be disadvantaged by the Bill are less likely to vote Tory? It must be an accident, because the Bill was called the electoral integrity Bill, and the long title still refers to “integrity”, so I am sure that any advantage or perceived advantage to the Tory party will be accidental.
The American experience tells us that voter ID resulted in reduced turnout among black, Hispanic and working-class voters, but of course this Government will know that. Research in the UK shows that the voters least likely to possess the necessary ID include the most disadvantaged groups in our community, but again, the Government will know that. The Government well know that 3.5 million voters across the UK do not have access to photographic identification and 11 million do not have a driving licence or a passport.
The example of Northern Ireland shows that an estimated 25,000 voters did not vote, because they did not have the required form of identification, but this information is not routinely published and no proper work has been done to analyse the further effects in Northern Ireland. The Government are willing to spend the estimated £10 million in implementing this exclusive, unnecessary scheme at a time when spending is under real pressure, so it is almost impossible not to be suspicious of this measure.
In contrast, what do we see in Scotland? We see the franchise extended to 16 and 17-year-olds for the Scottish Parliament and local authority elections, and we see votes for foreign nationals who have leave to remain. Perhaps it is worth considering that, as a direct result of that, the voter turnout in May’s Scottish Parliament election was the highest for any election since devolution was established in 1999. There might be a lesson in that for proponents of this legislation. Surely any healthy democracy would seek to encourage voter participation instead of doing what we know suppresses turnout, for reasons that simply are not backed up by any convincing and sustained evidence. The so-called electoral integrity Bill, as was, is very much about elections, but let us be clear: it has nothing to do with integrity, which many argue is not really a priority for this Government anyway. Sadly, that is a problem for this Government, because the voters are watching and they understand what is going on here. The views expressed by those of us today who oppose the Bill speak for the electorate, who know.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP)
It is striking that the general arguments against this measure are so consistent: it is a solution in need of a problem, its implementation will have a disproportionate effect on certain communities and it undermines our democracy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) said, it is part of a pattern of measures—something we must not lose sight of. The hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) made an important point; he said that we cannot really quantify it, but a problem really exists. In evidence-based policy making, one would normally identify a problem and then craft a proportionate solution. This way, we have a so-called solution that we know will cause a problem, but we have absolutely no idea of the quantum of the problem it is there to fix, if it even exists at all. I say gently to the Government that one should develop policy on the basis of evidence rather than anecdote. It is no surprise, given the evidence that we have, that this measure has quite rightly been described as voter suppression.
Let me turn to the genesis of the current voter ID plans. When Lord Pickles reported on electoral fraud in 2016, he highlighted what he called the trust nature of polling station voting, and he was absolutely right to do so because trust is at its heart; it is the great strength of the voting process. Regardless of whether one agrees with the first-past-the-post electoral system, once voters have properly registered to vote, they do not need ID or even a polling card. In this democracy, if someone is entitled to vote, they can turn up and can cast their ballot—or not—for whoever they please. Suppressing the right to do that by making it more difficult will reduce trust in the result, not increase it, because the public will assume, quite rightly, that in some way this Tory Government have suppressed the vote to fiddle the result in their favour.
We did hear stuff about Tower Hamlets, and I do not doubt for a second that a lot of shenanigans went on, but the criminals should be arrested under the existing law. Let me remind hon. Members of Dame Shirley Porter, Westminster council and the homes for votes scandal, which the district auditor described as “gerrymandering”. At the end of the day, after many court cases and trials and a huge amount of money, the verdict was upheld by the House of Lords and she was asked to repay £42 million. If the public are concerned that somebody is at it, we have evidence of Tory gerrymandering designed precisely to win a handful of marginal wards in one local authority.
I do not think we should be going down the road of voter suppression, lest we end up with the head of the Post Office taking away post boxes for communities that do not vote Tory, as we saw in the United States when post boxes were removed from Democrat-voting areas during the last presidential elections. To proceed with this voter suppression plan, before the Supreme Court has made a determination on whether the pilot schemes were even legal, further suggests that something is far from right.
When the Government responded to the various reports by the Lords Select Committee or the Joint Committee on Human Rights on this matter and various related matters, they said a number of things, such as that the potential for electoral fraud exists and “the perception of this undermines public confidence in our democracy.”—[Official Report, 12 May 2021; Vol. 695, c. 2WS.]
However, there was precisely no evidence that anyone has ever not voted because of the small potential for electoral fraud. They said that although the incidence of voter fraud may be low, its impact can be significant and takes away a voter’s right to vote as they want. That is true in the few cases of personation that we have seen, but the impact of voter fraud is not just low to the point of being almost insignificant; it is almost non-existent. This is, as almost everyone has said, a solution looking for a problem.
The Library has helpfully told us that the worst year for personation was 2016, with 44 allegations and a single, sole, solitary conviction. That is one conviction for personation in 2016, which was the year of the EU referendum—a ballot in which more than 30 million people cast a vote.
The Government have also said that showing ID for everyday activities such as picking up a parcel is something that people from all backgrounds do already, and that voting should be no different. In my view, that is a facile and puerile argument. Collecting a parcel is not a human right, but being able to vote freely in a democracy is.
Finally, the Government have said that voter ID does not have a negative effect on election turnout or participation. That is simply not true. We know from the pilots that the proportion of voters not returning after initially being refused a ballot ran at between 0.1% and 0.7%, which implies between 46,000 and 325,000 people in a UK election in the whole of Great Britain. This plan alone would likely deny somewhere in the order of a quarter of a million people the right to vote, so it will have an impact on participation. And the Electoral Commission has suggested that 3.5 million people would not have a suitable ID, which means that the impact could be substantially larger.
So, however the Government slice and dice it, whether the scale of the suppression is only a quarter of a million voters or 3.5 million voters, and whatever we heard in Tower Hamlets or whatever we know about for Westminster City Council, this would be voter suppression on an industrial scale, and I urge the Minister to think again.
Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
I will focus my arguments on three key areas. The first is the fact that voter fraud is vanishingly rare in England, Scotland and Wales, and that voters actually have high confidence in our British democracy. The second is that requiring photo ID for voting is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money; it is estimated to cost £120 million over 10 years. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this policy is discriminatory: it will lock millions of people out of democracy. I think that once we start to break down the Government’s arguments for requiring photo ID, the mask starts to slip and there is a pattern of behaviour by which this is an act of voter suppression to try and rig future elections.
My first argument is that voter fraud is incredibly rare. I am the sort of person who looks at the statistics on electoral fraud when they are published, and it is an uncomfortable truth for all of us who are political activists that the main perpetrators of electoral fraud in this country are actually political activists. Indeed, it is something that I have seen in my own constituency, when one of the political parties that campaigns in Lancaster fraudulently filled in ballot nomination papers and made up people’s names and addresses. Sadly, that type of fraud is quite common.
What is very rare is personation at polling stations. Many colleagues have already set out the statistics on that. For instance, 2019 was a year with a high-turnout general election, but the UK saw just one conviction for personation out of 59 million votes cast in that year alone. To put that into some kind of context, a person is more likely to be struck by lightning three times than to be impersonated at a polling station. So, personation is incredibly rare, and I am really pleased that the British people actually have confidence in our democracy, with recent surveys showing that confidence in our elections is at its highest for 10 years—since record-keeping on this issue started.
So we have an electorate who are confident in our democracy, and very low instances of voter fraud. We should be proud of our democracy, and certainly not talking it down in the way that the Government are doing.
My second argument is about the colossal waste of taxpayers’ money. The Government are choosing to spend £120 million of taxpayers’ money to introduce the voter ID scheme, presumably to catch one case of voter personation. I would argue that the money would be better spent on 9,000 more police officers on our streets over the next decade, in order to deal with the rising knife crime that blights so many of our communities, or perhaps on solving the epidemic of violence against women and girls—it feels like the Government have chosen to ignore that at the expense of pursuing this policy.
Voter personation is absolutely a crime, but it is about priorities and scale. We are spending £120 million on something that is so tiny, whereas huge problems in our society are going unaddressed. I would argue that such a level of investment could be better spent on fighting the types of crime that I have just spoken about, or perhaps we could even give a pay rise to our NHS workers, who are exhausted after an absolutely torrid 18 months of fighting covid on the frontline. Perhaps we could instead consider funding our children’s catch-up education to an adequate level and supporting young people’s mental health. But no—£120 million of taxpayers’ money is deemed more valuable on this project, which is looking for a solution.
My final argument is that this policy locks people out of democracy. It is a regressive policy. It makes it more difficult to vote, and it puts barriers up. We have talked a lot about the people who do not have access to ID and marginalised groups, but it is actually also a barrier for those that do have ID. It means people looking around for their passport or driving licence before heading to the polling station. This policy can do nothing but suppress voter turnout, and when voter turnout is decreased, it is easier to manipulate elections and become more vulnerable to actions of potentially rogue states.
To return to Tower Hamlets, Qthe hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) hosted an event at St Paul’s church in Bow on Sunday 27 October 2019. On the poster for that event, which I have in front of me, it says very prominently, “Bring photo ID.” I am just curious as to why all the arguments that the hon. Lady is making do not apply to Labour Party events.
Attending a Labour party event is not a human right, but voting in a democratic election in a democratic country is. That is the first obvious point to make, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to talk about Tower Hamlets, because fraud was an issue in the election of Lutfur Rahman as mayor. I absolutely recognise that, and it is a serious issue, but if we are going to argue that personation at polling stations was the primary issue of fraud there, I would argue that we are actually missing the bigger picture, because there was postal vote fraud, there was illegal provision of false information, there was illegal employment of paid canvassers, and there was bribery and undue spiritual influence. It is important to look at such things as a whole, because the Elections Bill will involve taking a very small slice of the problem and, I would argue, using it for party political advantage because of voter suppression.
It is wrong for the Government to pursue the Elections Bill, which would require voter ID, when we are still waiting for the High Court judgment on the legality of the pilot schemes. The pilot schemes saw over 1,000 voters turned away from polling stations in just a few council areas. If we scale that up to a UK general election, we are talking about potentially changing the outcome of the election by locking people out of democracy.
This proposal is a colossal waste of money. It is a solution seeking a problem and it is a discriminatory policy that will lock some of the most vulnerable people, who need political representation the most, out of our democracy. I am proud of our British democracy. The British people have confidence in it, and it is about time that the Government started talking it up.
The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith) [V]
The Government and I are committed to upholding the integrity of our democracy, giving the public confidence that our elections remain secure well into the future. Voter fraud is a crime that we cannot allow room for. We propose to stamp out any potential for it to take place in our reserved elections.
The hon. Member for Luton South asks why I would do this. It is because I want more people to vote, because I want people to have their own vote and because, apparently unlike some hon. Members speaking today, I want to stop criminals having two, three, four or more, or scores of votes.
Personation—assuming the identity of another person with the intention to deceive—is, by definition, a crime of deception. It only comes to light later. It is very difficult to prove and to prosecute, but it is a crime and by no means a victimless crime. It is often the most vulnerable who find themselves targeted. The Electoral Commission stated in its review of electoral fraud in 2013: “The majority of people in communities affected by electoral fraud are victims rather than offenders.” The people who are likely to be the victims of electoral fraud can be described as vulnerable.
I recognise the hon. Lady’s concerns about the diversity in her constituency. I am going to address many of those points today. I will start with a further point from the Electoral Commission’s own research which warns that residents are at greater risk of being victims of electoral fraud in diverse areas.
Voter identification is important. It is a reasonable approach to strengthening our electoral system. It virtually eliminates the risk of personation occurring in the first place. Since its introduction in Northern Ireland, there have been no reported cases of personation. The EC has also previously noted that the confidence of voters that elections are well run in Northern Ireland is consistently higher than in Great Britain, and there are virtually no allegations of electoral fraud at polling stations.
Even the perception that our electoral system is vulnerable to fraud is of course damaging to public confidence. Data from our pilot evaluations show that the requirement to show identification increased public confidence in voting, and we all want that.
In 2016, Lord Pickles conducted an independent review of electoral fraud in the UK, which provided the evidence of vulnerabilities in our elections that must be addressed. In the case of Tower Hamlets, where an entire election was declared void by such fraud, he made a number of recommendations, including the introduction of voter identification at polling stations. Hon. Members speaking today have added to that evidence base. It happens in our country, it is wrong and we have the power to act.
The introduction of voter identification is also supported by the independent Electoral Commission. It is backed by international election observers, such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s office for democratic institutions and human rights, which has repeatedly called for the introduction of ID in polling stations in Great Britain, saying that its absence is a security risk.
Many other democracies around the world, such as Canada, France and Germany, and the Scandinavian countries require some form of identification to vote, and they use it with ease. Showing identification to prove who you are is something that people of all walks of life already do every day.
As we have discussed, many constituency Labour parties require two types of ID to vote in Labour party selection meetings—but then, the picking up of a parcel has been called a privilege. Perhaps Labour Members think that membership of their party is for the privileged as well.
The suggestion that millions of voters will not be able to vote is simply not supported by the evidence. Cabinet Office research from earlier this year shows that 98% of electors already own the photographic documents that we propose, either in date or expired. The survey was the first of its kind looking at the full range of photographic ID planned. I note in passing that the figures used by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) are out of date and are not relevant to the identification that is proposed.
It is important to be aware that the list of approved photographic forms of identification will not be limited to passports and driving licences, but will include a broad range of documents already in use, including, for example, various concessionary travel passes, proof-of-age standard scheme cards and photocard parking permits issued as part of the blue badge scheme. Out-of-date ID will also be accepted as long as the elector can still be recognised from the photograph, and any eligible voter who does not have any of those forms of identification may apply for their free, locally issued voter card from their local authority. That is critical. Everybody who is eligible to vote must and will have the chance to do so. We will continue to work with the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders, including charities and civil society organisations, to ensure that voter identification works for all. I encourage hon. Members to look at our comprehensive equalities impact assessment, which was published alongside the Bill.
As a Labour Minister said in 2003 when introducing photo ID in Northern Ireland: “If we believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because of this measure, we would not be introducing it at this time.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 April 2003; Vol. 646, c. 1248.]
Indeed, look at all the work that I led to ensure that elections could take place this year, despite the pandemic, with voters able to vote by a new proxy scheme, up to polling day itself if necessary. That is not a Government suppressing voters. I strongly suggest that sensible politicians drop that foolish language.
It is vital that such an important policy be implemented properly. That includes secondary legislation, which is a sensible approach. The roll-out of voter identification was successfully trialled in two years of pilots in a variety of local authorities, and we are building on that knowledge with research, modelling and planning, as we work with the electoral sector and wider organisation on the national implementation plans. Crucially, we will ensure that there is sufficient time and resources to support the hardworking elections teams to put it in place. Critically, there will be comprehensive targeted communications and guidance by the EC to raise awareness among voters.
Of course, introducing voter ID is only one of the measures that this Government are bringing forward to strengthen our electoral system. After all, personation is just one of the interlocking types of fraud that we have seen at polls, as argued by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and as demonstrated in Tower Hamlets. That is why, with our new Elections Bill, we are also tightening the rules for absent voting, giving greater protection to all people with a postal or proxy vote arrangement. We are legislating to clarify and improve the outdated legislation on the offence of undue influence of an elector.
Modernisation is critical inside the polling station as well. The test of identification already exists, but voters are asked only for their name and address. I regret that some seem to oppose voter identification in principle, because that principle has been part of our elections for decades. It is right to do it, but we need to do it well, not badly. Victorian law needs to be updated, and that is what we are doing.
We have discussed a number of important issues, and we will have much more debate as the Elections Bill progresses through Parliament. I look forward to that, because this policy is truly important to protect that most precious of things—our democracy.
We are the stewards of a fantastic democratic heritage, but it is not perfect and we must keep striving to ensure that it stays secure, fair and transparent in the face of the challenges that the modern world brings. Strengthening the integrity of our electoral system will give the public greater confidence that our elections will remain secure well into the future. The measures in our Bill are a reasonable and proportionate approach to give the public confidence in a core principle of our democracy—that their vote is theirs, and theirs alone.
Ultimately, the proposals will lock the most marginalised people out of democracy, including those with disabilities, the elderly and those from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. The Minister said that we must do everything to protect our democracy and I agree, but tackling potential fraud by actually disenfranchising voters is wrong.