The Government should stop the passage of the Elections Bill until more through consultations have taken place, MPs on the cross-party Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee have said.
The Bill would introduce a legal requirement for photographic ID to be shown by voters in order to cast their vote at UK-wide elections, all local elections in England, and Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales.
The legislation would also change the accountability arrangements for the Electoral Commission, creating a new power for the Government to designate a Strategy and Policy Statement, which the regulator must have regard to in carrying out its functions.
This statement would be subject to a consultation process and must be approved by Parliament. The Commission’s compliance with this statement would then be assessed by the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, whose remit would be expanded under the Bill. The Government maintains that these proposed measures are a necessary response to a loss of confidence in the Electoral Commission.
Overall, the Government has suggested that the reforms in the Bill will “make UK elections more secure, modern, inclusive and transparent”.
However, in a report on the Bill, the Committee said:
- The Bill does not address the widely recognised need for consolidating a voluminous and fragmented body of electoral law. “As the Government acknowledges, parliamentary time for large-scale legislative change is scarce, which makes it all the more regrettable that the Government has not shown the requisite ambition to undertake this necessary reform. The decision to focus on a number of standalone measures in this Bill risks adding further layers of complexity.”
- The Bill, in particular the more controversial elements thereof, received insufficient public consultation prior to introduction. It should have gone through a pre-legislative scrutiny process, with a draft Bill being scrutinised by a Joint Committee.
- Several changes to electoral law proposed by the Government are also not set out on the face of the Bill, but will be implemented via a raft of secondary legislation. “This melange of secondary legislation is likely to only add to the complexity of electoral law and the Committee is concerned about the Government’s reliance on delegated powers in this Bill.”
- The recorded levels of alleged personation, the offence that the photographic ID requirement is intended to prevent, “are very low and the number of instances that result in a caution or conviction is even smaller”. The Government however believes that instances of personation are underreported, and the perceived risk of personation undermines public confidence in elections.
- The introduction of the voter ID requirement would remove an element of the trust inherent in the current system between state and individual, and making it more difficult to vote. “We are concerned that the evidence to support the voter ID requirement simply is not good enough. It is likely that it will reduce turnout for future elections given the comparable evidence base following the introduction of such measures in Northern Ireland.”
- The Government should not proceed with the proposal for a legal requirement for photographic ID until it has set out the criteria it used in its assessment of the proportionality of introducing the voter ID requirements on voter turnout and participation and undertaken further consultation and research on the impact of the voter ID requirement on groups with protected characteristics.
- The Committee supports the proposal for a widened requirement for people with disabilities to be supported in casting their vote.
- Widespread concerns had been expressed in evidence before the Committee that the measures in relation to the Electoral Commission, taken together, would threaten the actual and or perceived independence of the watchdog and undermine public confidence in the effective and independent regulation of the electoral system. “Overall, the Committee considers that the Government has not provided sufficient evidence to justify why the proposed measures are both necessary and proportionate.” Clauses 13 to 15 of the Bill should be removed, pending a formal public consultation on the proposed measures and to take into account any recommendations put forward by the Committee in its final report on the work of the Electoral Commission.
- At a minimum, the Committee recommends enhancing safeguards on the face of the Bill that make clear that the Electoral Commission can depart from the guidance set out in the statement if it has a statutory duty to fulfil or if it reasonably believes it is justified in specific circumstances, to preserve the Electoral Commission’s operational independence and prevent abuse by future governments.
- The proposed consultation and approval processes of the statement must also be “transparent and meaningful”.
- The Committee is concerned about the late addition of the change to the voting system for Police and Crime Commissioner (PCCs), Combined Authority and Local Authority Mayoral and London Mayoral elections. “Regardless of the benefits or disadvantages of the changes made by the Bill to the electoral system for those offices, the manner in which this change was introduced after the Bill had been debated by the House at Second Reading was unsatisfactory and disrespectful towards the House of Commons.”
Chair of the Committee, William Wragg MP, said: “While seeking to secure UK elections from potential voter fraud is a noble cause, we remain unconvinced that the scale of the problem justifies the solutions as they have been put forward.
“When people can be blocked from voting because they have incorrect documentation, have misplaced it or they have none, we must make doubly sure that the costs of the measures are commensurate with the risk.”
Wragg added: “Likewise, any Government proposal which might directly or indirectly influence the independent regulator over its operations and decision-making will invite suspicion, especially when plans have been drawn up behind closed doors. The Electoral Commission must be impartial both in practice and in the public perception if it is to credibly maintain the integrity of our electoral system.
“We feel that the Elections Bill proposals lack a sufficient evidence base, timely consultation, and transparency, all of which should be addressed before it makes any further progress. We cannot risk any reduction of trust in UK elections, which is why the majority of the Committee is calling for the Bill to be paused to give time for more work to be done to ensure the measures are fit for purpose.”