The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year. But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.
So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.
7. Elections Bill
The Bill’s long title consumes roughly 100 words, enough to show that it aims to fulfil a variety of purposes. These include “provision about the administration and conduct of elections, including provision designed to strengthe the integrity of the electoral process”.
And it duly divides into seven parts, which in turn cover: the administration and conduct of elections; overseas elections and EU electors; the Electoral Commission, regulation of expenditure, disqualification of offenders for holding elective office, information to be included with electronic material, and general provisions (including eleven schedules).
The Cabinet Office – so Michael Gove will probably present the Bill at Second Reading. But the Minister in detailed charge of the Bill will undoubtedly be Chloe Smith, Minister for the Constitution and Devolution.
However, Julia Lopez, one of the Cabinet Office’s nine Commons Ministers, is responsible for “supporting Cabinet Office primary legislation in the Commons”, so she may get a share of the action in committee and, perhaps, at Second Reading too.
Carried over or a new Bill?
Currently under consideration.
The Bill is essentially a tidying-up measure that aims as the Government sees it to “keep our electoral system up-to-date, including tighter new laws to stamp out the potential for electoral fraud, make our politics more transparent and further protect our elections from foreign interference”.
The core of the Ministers’ case is that our electoral system needs “sensible safeguards for postal and proxy voting, which will see party campaigners banned from handling postal votes, put a stop to postal vote harvesting and make it an offence for a person to attempt to find out or reveal who an absent voter has chosen to vote for”.
There is opposition to the Government’s plan to make the Electoral Commission more accountable to Parliament (or clip the wings, if you prefer), and claims that the measures relating to foreign interference will “fail to stem the flood of secretive donations shaping our politics”. But objections to the Bill will be concentrated on the proposal in Part One for photo voter ID for elections in Great Britain.
The nub of these is that the measure is unnecessary because voter fraud is low. Those who hold this view include Ruth Davidson and, within the Conservative Parliamentary Party, David Davis. Labour adds that the main aim of the Bill is voter suppression – to depress turnout from lower income voters who don’t have photo ID such as passports.
The Bill may well draw rebel Tory backbench amendments from MPs who believe that the Electoral Commission is fundamentally flawed, and needs abolition rather than reform, as well as Opposition-led ones on the voter ID and donor-related measures. On that last point, claims of government and, more specifically, Conservative corruption will always find a sympathetic audience among the public.
On the first point, the Government’s counter-argument is that the absence of voter fraud isn’t proved by the paucity of prosecutions (see articles on this site by Steve Baker and Peter Golds); that the Electoral Commission says that voter ID trials in 2018 “worked well”, that photo ID is used in Northern Ireland with difficulty, and there will be a new scheme for voters in Great Britain who don’t have it.
Controversy rating: 6/10
We mark the Bill lower than we might because it is of the kind that will cause more controversy among the minority that is politically engaged than with the majority that is not. And add as a footnote that it would be ironic were an effect of the Bill, as John Rentoul has suggested, is that the Conservatives will lost out from the voter ID provisions rather than otherwise.