Even senior MPs agree the government needs to pause and rethink the Elections Bill

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 17th December 2021

Earlier this week, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs (PACAC) select committee published the final report of its inquiry into the Elections Bill.

In a highly critical report, the influential committee heeded the calls made by regulators, academics and civil society organisations, including the ERS whose written and oral evidence were extensively cited in the report, for a comprehensive rethink of many aspects of the bill, and called on the government to pause the legislation until further research and consultation have been carried out.

The cross-party committee rebuked the bill’s failure to engage with the many long-standing recommendations to genuinely reform electoral law, arguing that it ‘risks adding further layers of complexity’ to the UK’s already voluminous and fragmented body of electoral law and urged the government to set out a timetable for wholesale reform.

PACAC expressed particular concern about the fact the bill received limited to no public consultation and that insufficient evidence was gathered on the more controversial elements of the bill, such as changes to the Electoral Commission and voter ID. It denounced the fact that several proposals, which will make significant changes to our electoral law, are not included on the face of the bill, but are to be implemented via secondary legislation following the bill’s passage and are thus likely to receive very little debate and scrutiny in parliament.

The committee was critical of several of the proposals contained within the Elections Bill which the ERS and many other experts and organisations have been campaigning against.

Voter ID

PACAC found that the introduction of mandatory photo ID at the polling station risks ‘upsetting the balance of our current electoral system, making it more difficult to vote and removing an element of the trust inherent in the current system’ and found that the research and evidence adduced by the government to support this proposal ‘has simply not been good enough.’

The committee urged the government not to proceed with its proposal, highlighting the concerns raised about the impact of such a policy on people from certain societal groups or those with protected characteristics. PACAC recommended that further research and consultation to be conducted on the impact of voter ID on these groups so as to secure greater agreement for the proposals.

Were voter ID to be rolled out, the committee recommended that analysis should be undertaken on its wider impact on voter participation, including gathering information on those who arrive at the polling station without ID and on those who are deterred from even turning out in the first place.

The Electoral Commission

As set out in a previous blog post, the Elections Bill contains proposals to amend the role of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and introduces a ‘Strategy and Policy Statement’ for the Electoral Commission, setting out the government’s priorities on electoral matters and principles under which the Commission is expected to operate. Although ostensibly aimed at enhancing parliamentary scrutiny and accountability, the proposals have been criticised as an attempt to curb the Commission’s independence.

While accepting the importance of ensuring that parliament can effectively scrutinise the work of the Electoral Commission, in its report PACAC concluded that the government failed to demonstrate that its proposed changes to the Electoral Commission are ‘both necessary and proportionate, and therefore risks undermining public confidence in the effective and independent regulation of the electoral system.’

The committee also bemoaned the lack of consultation and called on the government to remove the clauses in the Elections Bill relating to the Electoral Commission pending a formal public consultation on the proposals.

Political campaigning

As the ERS noted in its submission to PACAC, in relation to political expenditure, the committee highlighted the Elections Bill’s failure to engage with the many sensible recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) on reforming election finance and urged the government to bring forward amendments that would implement these as the bill progresses through parliament.

On digital imprints, PACAC welcomed the extension of imprint disclosures to online election material, but – as the ERS called for in its evidence – recommended that their implementation be monitored and regularly reviewed ‘to prevent any unintended consequences or loopholes.’

Extension of First Past the Post

Finally, while it did not comment on the benefits and disadvantages of different voting systems, the committee was highly critical of the manner in which changes to the voting system for mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections were included in the bill, concluding that ‘[m]aking changes such as this after the Bill has been introduced and debated at Second Reading is disrespectful to the House.’

A missed opportunity for urgent reform

The findings of the influential, cross-party Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee should serve as an additional warning to the government about the plans contained in the Elections Bill – and a chance for them to think again about these proposals.

Despite its stated ambitions, the bill does nothing to tackle the fundamental issues with our electoral law, missing a crucial opportunity for genuine reform. Far from improving our democracy, this confused mix of policies risks locking millions out and handing increased powers to ministers over our elections.

There has been little in the way of meaningful consultation on many of the most dangerous provisions in this bill, last-minute amendments also mean key bits of this legislation have yet to receive any proper scrutiny within parliament.

Ministers must take the findings of this report as an opportunity to pause and rethink on this dangerous legislation. Rather than rushing the Elections Bill through parliament, they should take heed of the many recommendations that have been made with regards to how we can genuinely improve and strengthen our electoral system, and ensure it is fit for the 21st century.

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