Today
Fri 28 January 2022

A parliamentary committee has found that the Government’s proposals lack transparency and consultation, and fail to provide evidence as to why the changes are “necessary and proportionate”

In a democracy, there are few more fundamental questions than those that shape the rules of the electoral game. Who can vote, and who must be turned away? What electoral system do we use? And who enforces the rules to ensure that elections are free and fair?

The Government’s controversial Elections Bill changes the answers to all of these questions. It places new barriers in the way of voting; it increases political direction over the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission; and it changes the voting system for mayoral elections.

However, this week, the bill hit an unexpected obstacle. The cross-party House of Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee – which has a majority of Conservative MPs as members – published a report that called for the bill to be suspended. Its chair, Conservative MP William Wragg, warned that “we cannot risk any reduction of trust in UK elections”.

Anyone with an interest in democracy, or in the health of our elections, should take note.

What does the bill do that is so contentious?

First, it introduces compulsory Voter ID, requiring voters to show photographic identification before being permitted to vote.

As the report makes clear, the proposal “risks upsetting the balance of our electoral system and making it more difficult to vote” – yet ministers have presented no “substantial evidence” that the measure is required. The Committee found “no evidence of widespread personation at UK elections”, but a genuine risk of voter disfranchisement if the proposal is made law. The proposal, it concluded, “should not proceed” until ministers had “presented a more robust evidence base”.

A second key change involves the Electoral Commission, the independent body that oversees elections and regulates political finance.

In one of the most contentious sections of the bill, the new legislation proposes to increase oversight of the Commission and would allows ministers to set its strategy and policy. This proposal, the Committee concluded, risks “undermining public confidence” in the entire electoral system, with the change being put forward with “no formal or public consultation”.

In the words of William Wragg: “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.”

As several people who gave evidence to the Committee for the report pointed out, the Electoral Commission is not like other regulators: it is not there to ensure that government policies are carried out – it is there to police the process by which governments and parliamentarians are elected. The entire section on the watchdog, the report concluded, should be removed from the bill, pending further consideration.

A third change – which was only added to the bill after it had passed its Second Reading – alters the voting system for mayoral elections, replacing the existing preferential system with First Past the Post.

Ministers have claimed that voters are “confused” by the current system, though they have offered no evidence to support that charge. The Committee made no judgement on the merits of either electoral system, but criticised the lack of consultation and the failure to substantiate claims of voter incomprehension. Above all, it rebuked ministers for stuffing the proposal into the bill when it had already gone through several of its parliamentary stages – a modus operandi it said was “disrespectful to Parliament’ and deeply “unsatisfactory”.

The Elections Bill also expands the use of “secondary legislation”, allowing ministers – rather than Parliament – to set the detail of electoral law. As the Committee’s report lamented, this risks further complicating “the melange of delegated legislation” and it is clearly problematic when ministers are drawn from a single party.

Throughout the report, the same complaints recur: a lack of “transparency”; a refusal to consult; a failure to demonstrate that changes are “necessary and proportionate”; and a risk of “undermining public confidence” in the electoral system.

The Elections Bill proposes major changes to our democracy, yet the report found that “limited to no public consultation on more controversial or contested elements” has been had around it. There was so little pre-legislative scrutiny, it notes, that it urges the Government to make a statutory commitment to post-legislative scrutiny.

Why does all of this matter?

Because electoral law sets the ground-rules for our entire democratic system. It is not the property of a single party and should not be a subject of partisan warfare. We have only to look across the Atlantic to see what happens when the conduct of elections becomes a subject of political controversy. It is a major weakness of our constitutional arrangements that one participant in the electoral process – the executive – can re-write the rules of our democracy, without public consultation, proper evidence-gathering, pre-legislative scrutiny and against the united opposition of every other party.

Boris Johnson’s Government has made much of its desire to restore what is sometimes called ‘the political constitution’, in which elected politicians – not judges – hold those in power to account. Yet, that means taking seriously the checks and balances that exist within our elected institutions.

The select committee system represents ‘the political constitution’ at its best, with MPs working across party lines, scrutinising legislation, taking expert opinion and feeding that back into the legislative process. If ministers choose to disregard that work, pressing on with the Elections Bill when the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has formally requested its suspension, we will know that it is not only judicial constraints that are regarded as intolerable by this administration.

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