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The Lords have issued a rebuke to the Government over its plans to impose a new strategy for the previously-independent elections watchdog.
Peers accused Ministers of politicising the UK’s independent elections watchdog, after Conservative MPs pushed through a Government-written strategy for the Electoral Commission for the first time in its history last Wednesday.
Last night, Lords passed a “motion to regret” the decision, a non-binding snub from the second chamber that comes amid fears that the election regulator had been commandeered by the politicians it oversees.
For example, the new Government-written strategy for the Commission mentions “fraud” eleven times, but “donations” (e.g. to political parties) just twice. It also contains no mentions of AI or misinformation, issues which are likely to pose a serious threat to this year’s elections’ integrity.
The Electoral Commission had itself briefed peers and MPs that the changes would be detrimental to the watchdog’s independence and public trust in elections.
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An EC briefing ahead of the vote made clear that “the introduction of a mechanism such as a strategy and policy statement – by which a government can guide an electoral commission’s work – is inconsistent with the independent role of an electoral commission”.
The elections body has the power to issue fines over election spending and donations failings by the Governing party that now sets its remit. The briefing stated that the new Government-written strategy statement “will enable actual or perceived guidance of the Commission’s decision-making by future UK Governments.”
“The Commission’s research suggests that public confidence has already been damaged. It shows a significant decline in public perceptions of the Commission’s independence since the introduction of proposals for a Statement.”
And in an apparent plea to a potential Labour Government, the group added: “The repeal of the power for [the] Government to designate a Statement would improve confidence and trust in our electoral system. It would uphold the principle that an electoral commission remains independent from governments.”
Labour’s Cat Smith MP told the Commons last week the changes were “straight out of a Republican party playbook, politicising the Electoral Commission.”
Both the Commons Levelling Up Committee and Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission have previously pointed out that a Government policy statement for the EC was unnecessary.
The Levelling Up Committee said “no evidence has been provided justifying it”, while both Committees also expressed concerns about the impact the Statement would have on the Commission’s independence and effectiveness, the EC noted in its briefing.
Damningly, the Levelling Up Committee found that the Government’s new EC strategy assumes that “Government priorities must automatically also be Commission priorities” and “for the most part reads as though the Commission were an arm of Government”.
Ministers had defended themselves by noting that the Government sets the strategy for a number of regulators, from Ofwat to Ofgem and Ofsted.
But Lib Dem peer Chris Rennard, who has been leading much of the charge against the charges, told the chamber last night the EC was fundamentally different.
“The Electoral Commission is not like other regulators such as those for the utility industries. Its role includes advising on the framing of election laws; and it helps to police them. It is not appropriate, therefore, for the party in power to set the Commission’s policy and strategy.
“Putting the governing party in charge of this is like letting GB News set the strategy and policy for Ofcom, Southern Water to set it for Ofwat, or Eton to set it for Ofsted,” he said.
Lord Rennard told Byline Times: “The Electoral Commission was set up with all party agreement in 2000 to act as an independent watchdog regulating issues such as party finance and advising on issues such as potential changes to election laws.
“We have had five Governments since then which accepted this principle, this is the first one which has sought to control the strategy and policy of an otherwise independent body.”
The Lib Dem peer had attempted to launch a ‘fatal motion’ against the changes in the Lords, but Labour did not get behind the plan, likely over fears that it would encourage Conservatives to vote down Labour legislation in the Lords under a Labour Government.
Lord Rennard added that making the Commission subject to a strategy “drawn up by Michael Gove” raises the question of what the Government fears from an independent regulator.
“Recent Government changes to election law such as raising party spending limits by 80% which will only help the Conservative Party; introducing very restricted forms of photo ID at polling to suppress the vote of those least likely to vote Conservative; and deliberately failing to take measures to register more of the eight million people legally entitled to vote but not on the electoral rolls – [they] all show a contempt for democracy and the principle of fair play in elections,” Lord Rennard said.
But Levelling Up minister in the Lords Baroness Penn told the chamber: “The Government absolutely agree[s] about the importance of the independence of the Electoral Commission, but we also think it important for all bodies to be accountable.
“The measures in the statement are a way for the Electoral Commission to be held to account by Parliament, and we think that is a reasonable measure to take.”
She noted, perhaps to the detriment of her argument about maintaining independence, that “the statement sets out the Government’s priorities in areas that touch on matters such as voter ID, where the Government continue[s] to be of the view that it is essential that we stamp out the potential for voter fraud.”
Democracy groups and the EC itself have been sharply critical of voter ID and its implementation, given the strictly-limited types of photo ID permitted and the fact that over 14,000 voters were denied a vote in England’s 2023 local elections alone – elections that took place on a far smaller scale than a General Election.
Labour’s Lord Khan of Burnley motion to regret the change stated: “This House regrets that the draft Strategy and Policy Statement has been laid, despite significant concerns raised by the Speaker’s Committee, the Electoral Commission, and the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee, during the statutory consultation process, and the finding by the Speaker’s Committee that the statement as drafted is “not fit for purpose and inconsistent with the Commission’s role as an independent regulator””.
It passed by 175 votes to 159, with no Conservative peers rebelling.
“Do we have corruption? Yes, we do. This is an example of that,” Labour’s Dawn Butler MP said in a previous debate on the issue.
UPDATE: An Electoral Commission spokesperson told Byline Times after the Lords vote: “It remains the Electoral Commission’s view that a strategy and policy statement – by which the Government seeks to guide our work – is inconsistent with our independent role. The Commission’s Board has expressed its concern and key committees of Parliament have highlighted both the importance of maintaining the Commission’s independence and the risks posed by such a statement.
“Now that the statement has been passed by the UK Parliament, we will meet our legal duty to have regard to it. We will continue to act independently and impartially to help maintain public confidence in elections and political finance regulation.”
In the Commons’ vote on the new EC strategy last week, Labour’s shadow democracy minister, Florence Eshalomi MP, accused the government of railroading the changes through Parliament.
Former constitution minister, Tory Chloe Smith noted that 2024 is a significant year for elections – emphasising the role of AI and the necessity for the Electoral Commission to address potential misinformation and election integrity.
However, the Government’s strategy includes zero mentions of artificial intelligence, deepfakes or misinformation – issues which could have a significant impact on this year’s votes.
In closing, Minister Hoare reaffirmed the Commission’s independence as “absolutely sacrosanct”. But in words that may come back to bite him, he added the Government strategy was “iterative and organic – and of course, it can be refreshed to deal with issues as they arise…I use the word ‘as’ not ‘if’”.
It was a recognition that the Conservatives – and future Governments – will be at liberty to change the Electoral Commission’s strategy however and whenever they wish.
In the Commons last week, the new EC strategy passed on party lines by 273 votes to the opposition’s 190. There were no Conservative rebels.
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