It is important to boost engagement in our democratic processes. The introduction of online registration has also it easier to register to vote and at the General Election 2019, 3.5 million people did so. Two thirds of these voters were aged between 18 and 34 and the electoral register increased to a record 47.5 million electors.
There are currently no plans to introduce automatic voter registration. I consider registering to vote and voting to be a civic duty but I do not believe that they should be compulsory. Automatic registration could lead to unsolicited poll cards being sent to households with a high turnover, such as those in student accommodation, creating a greater risk of identity fraud, postal vote and proxy vote fraud.
The introduction of online registration has made the registration process considerably easier and faster for those who wish to register. The electoral registers at the previous two General Elections in 2017 and in 2019 were the largest in history and satisfaction with the website is consistently above 90%.
My colleagues in Government recognise the importance of raising awareness among vulnerable and harder to reach groups. The Government’s 2019 progress report on democratic engagement highlights real progress in areas such as anonymous registration, which has been made easier to give greater protection to survivors of domestic violence.
Electoral Registration Officers have a statutory responsibility for compiling and maintaining accurate registers in their local area but it is ultimately the responsibility of the Electoral Commission to promote awareness of elections, including voter registration. In this capacity, the Commission conducts public awareness campaigns on registration, especially ahead of elections. Measures to raise awareness include sharing public awareness materials through government social media accounts, such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as wider networks.
Data Protection Bill
Now that the UK has left the EU, there is opportunity to simplify the clunky parts of our data protection laws and create a world class data rights framework that will allow us to realise the benefits of data use while maintaining high data protection standards.
Data is fundamental to fuelling economic growth in all areas of society from unlocking medical breakthroughs to helping people travel, manage their finances and shop online. It is vital to the development and use of innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence.
The Government consulted on an ambitious package of reforms to create a new regime that is pro growth and trusted for UK citizens and businesses. The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill was first introduced in 2022 but paused so Ministers could engage in a co-design process with business leaders and data experts – ensuring that the new regime built on the UK’s high standards for data protection and privacy, and seeks to ensure data adequacy while moving away from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of European Union’s GDPR.
The Bill has since been improved (and reintroduced as the Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill) to introduce a simple, clear and business friendly framework that will not be difficult or costly to implement – taking the best elements of GDPR and providing businesses with more flexibility about how they comply with the new data laws. Furthermore, it will ensure the UK's new regime maintains data adequacy with the EU, and wider international confidence in the UK’s comprehensive data protection standards. By reducing the amount of paperwork and supporting international trade without additional costs if they're already compliant, the changes will give organisations greater confidence about when they can process personal data without consent.
I appreciate you raising your concerns about certain aspects of the Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill. While I note you would like Schedule 1 to be amended, the Bill gives more confidence to organisations to rely on the legitimate interests lawful basis and to further process data. As well as specifying circumstances in which existing legitimate interests lawful basis for processing can apply, Schedule 1 sets out ‘recognised legitimate interests’ where no balancing test is required, for example in situations such as crime prevention and safeguarding, where nervousness about sharing data can cause real harm.
I recognise that many of you are also concerned about the use of statutory instruments and powers provided to the Secretary of State. Regarding the powers given to the Secretary of State to amend the recognised legitimate interest activities in Annex 1, before laying regulations, the Secretary of State would need to consider the effects of any changes on the interests and fundamental rights and freedoms of data subjects, particularly children. The regulations would be subject to the affirmative procedure. Also subject to affirmative procedure is the Secretary of State's power to adjust the fixed monetary penalty amount by laying a statutory instrument in Parliament.
Clause 104 of the Bill seeks to amend Section 20 of the 2012 Act to abolish the office of the Biometrics Commissioner and transfer its casework functions to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner. I understand that this will reduce duplication and simplify oversight of the police use of biometrics. The Information Commissioner will continue to provide independent oversight of the use of biometrics by all bodies, including the police.
Finally, concerning CCTV, Clause 105 (1) seeks to abolish the office of Surveillance Camera Commissioner. Clause 105 (2) would repeal Part 2 Chapter 1 of the 2012 Act to remove the requirement for a Surveillance Camera Code. The Information Commissioner would continue to provide independent oversight and regulation of this area, without duplication by the Surveillance Camera Code and Commissioner.
Thank you for contacting me about the Procedure Committee report on correcting the record. I am grateful to the Committee for their work.
On 24 October, the House of Commons agreed with the Committee’s recommendations to further improve the transparency of corrections, including the proposed expansion of the formal ministerial corrections process to all MPs. It is an important principle that all Members of the House – be they Ministers of the Crown, Members of the official Opposition, or backbench Members – adhere to high standards of accountability and openness.
Ministers are obligated to ensure that the information they provide to Parliament is accurate, as set out in the Ministerial Code and the House of Commons’ 1997 resolution on ministerial accountability. While the current system for ministerial corrections is well established, the lack of a formal mechanism for Members of the official Opposition and backbench MPs means that there is no clear way of identifying a correction given and linking it to the original statement. The Government therefore welcomes the proposed expansion of the formal corrections process.
The Government agrees with the Procedure Committee in its assessment that the existing procedural mechanisms for challenging the accuracy of contributions in the House are sufficient. On a lack of willingness to correct the record, the Government believes that further work and attention is required.
Openness, transparency and honesty in politics are what our constituents expect, and it is incumbent on us all to make sure that we find mechanisms, where appropriate, to make that as easy as possible.
Student ID as Voter Identification
I strongly believe it is important to boost engagement in our elections and to ensure that all students who would like to vote can do so. I believe that asking voters to bring photographic identification to their polling station is an important way of ensuring the public has confidence that our elections are secure and fit for the 21st century.
A wide range of photographic identity documents are permitted for the purpose of voting at polling stations, and the Government published a policy paper setting out the reasons for the forms of identification accepted in polling stations. This explains that, given the wide array of educational organisations that provide photographic identification, student identification is not accepted as it could be susceptible to fraud. It is important to note, however, that student cards which are PASS accredited (National Proof of Age Standards Scheme) will be recognised as acceptable proof of identity, such as the National Union of Students ‘TOTUM’ student card. All accredited PASS cards bear a hologram bearing the Proof of Age Standards Scheme.
It is worth noting that Northern Ireland has required paper identification at polling stations since 1985 and photo identification since 2003, when introduced by the last Labour Government, and it has proven to be effective at stopping fraud, and preventing the crime of stealing someone’s vote. The Electoral Commission’s interim report for the May 2023 local elections shows that the overwhelming majority of voters, 99.75%, cast their vote successfully and the polls adapted well to the rollout of voter identification.
I would like to assure you that the Government will keep the list of accepted identification under review, and will be informed by evaluations of the May 2023 local elections. It is, however, necessary to balance accessibility with the need to ensure that the forms of identification are suitably secure and correctly verify the individual elector. The list of accepted identification must also be manageable for polling clerks, so they are able to recognise the different forms of identification.
The Elections Act includes provisions to allow the list of acceptable identification to be updated through secondary legislation, in recognition that available forms of identification will change over time. Moreover, the Voter Authority Certificate was created so that anyone without identification has the option to apply for a free new one from their local authority.
Integrity of Elected Officials
I believe that elected officials should be held to high standards. The Prime Minister pledged "integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level" of government and it is right we have extensive scrutiny placed upon Members of Parliament and Ministers’ conduct.
The Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests, for example, exists to observe and enforce the seven principles of public life, and to conduct investigations into any potential ministerial misconduct. If a Minister is found to have breached the Ministerial Code, they can be sanctioned. The sanction can include removal from their position for serious breaches of the code, a measure that the current Prime Minister has taken since becoming PM.
Furthermore, MPs are subject to the Code of Conduct which includes a general duty to act in the interests of the nation as a whole, as well as a special duty to their constituents. The code is regularly amended to strengthen standards and was last updated in March 2023. This code is overseen by the House of Commons Committee on Standards and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. If an MP is found to have breached the code, they may be subject to a range of disciplinary sanctions.
I understand the report’s focus on independent investigations into the conduct of MPs. However, I would emphasise that under the current system, the Commissioner for Standards is an independent office holder appointed for a five year non renewable term.
More broadly, the most effective method to hold MPs to account is our current electoral system. I firmly believe that existing standards of conduct, and the mechanisms for enforcing them, are of an extremely high standard and reflect the values and expectations of this Government.
Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act 2010 provides protection against discrimination, harassment and victimisation across a number of grounds. I can assure you that the Government is committed to upholding the country's long-standing record of protecting the rights of individuals against unlawful discrimination.
I understand that the Government will keep any potential change to provisions in the Act under review. Transgender people, including those who are going through the process to change their legal sex, deserve our respect, support and understanding, the Equality Act provides this protection through the use of protected characteristics.
Following a review of security risks, the Government has instructed departments to cease the deployment of surveillance equipment on sensitive sites, where it is produced by companies that are subject to the National Intelligence Law of the People’s Republic of China. Further details of this can be found in the Written Ministerial Statement laid last year by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on 24 November 2022. I have been assured that implementation of this instruction is already underway.
It is for this reason that I believe that this Bill sufficiently addresses your concerns and I, therefore, will not be supporting amendment New Clause 1.
Minister for Older People
I wholly understand the sentiment behind your wish to see a Minister for Older people. With an ageing population and a cost of living crisis, supporting the oldest in our society could never be more important.
Although I do not think creating a dedicated political post for this role would be the most appropriate approach, I hope I can assure you that the Government is committed to supporting the elderly.
The Government introduced the Triple Lock for the state pension and committed to keep it in the 2019 manifesto. It has also acted to support people with their energy bills and made sure that vulnerable pensioners get the most support. Ongoing financial support for help with the cost of living is also provided to people over State Pension age through State Pensions, Pension Credit and Housing Benefit.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care are responsible for a wide range of issues affecting older people and are committed to supporting older people.
I disagree with the campaign that Government is nearing a constitutional crisis. Indeed, I can assure constituents that the Government will always govern in the national interest. Where collaboration or partnership occurs between the Government and a non governmental international organisation, such as the World Economic Forum, this is fully declared in line with transparency requirements.
Furthermore, whilst King Charles III plays an important part in the life of the nation, he does not carry a political or executive role.
Bishops in the House of Lords
Anglican bishops sitting in the House of Lords, known as the Lords Spiritual, play an important role in representing Christian opinions on contemporary issues and reflects the privileged place that the Established Church has in our constitution and national life. While they make no claims to direct representation, they seek to be a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians.
Although there are 42 dioceses in the present day Church of England, the number of places for Lords Spiritual is limited to 26 by statute. This includes the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, as well as the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester, with the remaining 21 places on the Bishops’ Bench occupied by the longest serving bishops of English dioceses. As you may be aware, bishops retire from the House of Lords when they leave office as a bishop.
When the House of Lords is sitting, there is always at least one Lord Spiritual present to read prayers at the start of the day and to participate in business of the House. It is important to note that official proceedings cannot begin until prayers have been read. Attendance in the House to read prayers is determined by a rota, with Bishops also able to attend on an ad hoc basis when matters of interest or concern are scheduled.
A secure electoral system is a vital component of a healthy democracy, and the public must have confidence that our elections are secure and fit for the 21st century. Asking voters to bring photographic identification to their polling station is an important way of achieving this and the Elections Act puts such a requirement into law. This is part of a wider package of measures in the Elections Act to strengthen electoral integrity, including by tackling postal and proxy voting fraud, tackling intimidation, increasing transparency of digital campaigning, and preventing foreign interference in elections.
Identification to vote has been backed by the Electoral Commission and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which state that its absence is a security risk. Without a requirement for identification at the polling station, it is harder to take out a library book or collect a parcel at a post office than it is to vote in someone else’s name.
In Northern Ireland voters have been required to produce personal identification before voting in polling stations since 1985, with photographic identification being required since 2003 when introduced by the last Labour Government. Ministers at the time noted that “the Government [has] no intention of taking away people’s democratic right to vote. If we believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because of this measure, we would not be introducing it at this time.”
The Electoral Commission has also commented that “since the introduction of photo ID in Northern Ireland there have been no reported cases of personation. Voters’ confidence that elections are well-run in Northern Ireland is consistently higher than in Great Britain, and there are virtually no allegations of electoral fraud at polling stations.” The Electoral Commission's 2021 Public Opinion tracker recorded that not a single Northern Ireland respondent reported: ‘I don’t have any identification / I would not be able to vote’.
Anyone without a form of identification will be able to apply for a new free Voter Authority Certificate, meaning that no voter will be disenfranchised. You can apply for a free Voter Authority Certificate online using the following link: https://www.gov.uk/apply-for-photo-id-voter-authority-certificate
Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill
I believe that transgender people deserve respect, support and understanding. I am aware that the announcement made by the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alistair Jack on the 17 January 2023 which will prevent the Bill from proceeding to Royal Assent, is about the legislation's consequences for the operation of UK wide equalities protections and other reserved matters.
It is the assessment of the UK Government that the Bill will have significantly adverse effects, including the impact on the operation of the Equality Act 2010. In particular, the Government has said it shares the concerns of many experts and civil society groups regarding the potential impact of the Bill on the safety of women and children.
I can assure you that this decision has not been taken lightly, and the UK Government fully respects the Scottish Parliament's competency to make decisions within devolved areas, but it cannot ignore the significant consequences of this Bill for reserved areas.
Access to healthcare (over 18s)
I understand that the consultation highlighted the fact that gender recognition reform is not the top area of priority for transgender people. Rather, one of the most important concerns brought to light was healthcare, with many transgender people reporting concerns with the length of waiting lists at NHS gender clinics. I agree that waiting times can be far too long and I am deeply concerned about the distress this can cause.
Four new gender clinics were opened in 2021, which should see waiting lists reduce. This should provide transgender people with greater patient choice, shorter waiting times, better geographical coverage and, crucially, easier access. It will also make it easier to fulfil the medical requirements of obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate.
Single Sex Spaces
I am committed to protecting women’s rights and freedoms. That is why I am pleased that the Government recognises the importance of the protection of single sex spaces, as provided for in the Equality Act.
The Equality Act 2010 not only protects transgender people from discrimination, but also makes it clear that providers have the right to restrict use of spaces on the basis of sex, and exclude transgender people, with or without a Gender Recognition Certificate, if this is justified. This position is unchanged since 2010 and I continue to believe it strikes the right balance.
I know that many people also have concerns about the impact of this legislation on children. I have raised this with colleagues in the Government Equalities Office who have assured me of their commitment to ensuring under 18s are protected from making decisions that are irreversible in the future. I believe strongly that adults should have the freedom to live their life but I do think it is very important we protect young people, who are still developing their decision making processes and capabilities, from taking action which they potentially cannot reverse.
Public Order Bill and Bill of Rights
I understand that there are concerns about the measures being introduced through the Public Order Bill to reduce the impact of protests on people's day to day lives. The Government is not eroding people's rights, but making sure that highly disruptive protests do not cause misery to the public. At the moment hardworking people across the UK are seeing their lives brought to a standstill by some activist groups.
I understand that the Government has also recently tabled an amendment to the Bill in the House of Lords providing greater clarity on the definition of 'serious disruption'. As such, measures contained in the Bill will only be used to deal with specific incidences and protests that prevent people from being able to go about their daily lives.
Further, the reforms included in the Bill of Rights Bill will strengthen home grown rights. The Bill will boost freedom of the press and freedom of expression by introducing a stronger test for courts to consider before they can order journalists to disclose their sources. It will also recognise that trial by jury is a fundamental component of fair trials in the UK. I am glad that it will also introduce a permission stage in court requiring people to show they have suffered a significant disadvantage before their claim can go ahead, thereby preventing trivial legal claims wasting taxpayers’ money.
Where human rights have been used to frustrate the deportation of criminals, the Bill will prevent such misuse, ensuring those who pose a serious threat can be deported by allowing future laws to restrict the circumstances in which their right to family life would trump public safety and the need to remove them. It will mean that under future immigration laws, to evade removal, a foreign criminal would have to prove that a child or dependent would come to overwhelming, unavoidable harm if they were deported.
I believe that the Bill of Rights Bill will help to strengthen the UK's traditional freedoms, and I will continue to follow its progress closely.
Bill of Rights Bill
The UK has a long and proud history of freedom. However, increasingly, human rights laws are being interpreted in more manipulable and innovative ways that often go beyond the original intentions of the architects of the European Convention on Human Rights. Therefore, I welcome the Government's recent consultation on reforming the Human Rights Act and the introduction of the Bill of Rights Bill to ensure our human rights system meets the needs of the society it serves.
The reforms included in the Bill of Rights Bill will strengthen home-grown rights. The Bill will boost freedom of the press and freedom of expression by introducing a stronger test for courts to consider before they can order journalists to disclose their sources. It will also recognise that trial by jury is a fundamental component of fair trials in the UK. I am glad that it will also introduce a permission stage in court requiring people to show they have suffered a significant disadvantage before their claim can go ahead, thereby preventing trivial legal claims wasting taxpayers’ money.
Where human rights have been used to frustrate the deportation of criminals, the Bill will prevent such misuse, ensuring those who pose a serious threat can be deported by allowing future laws to restrict the circumstances in which their right to family life would trump public safety and the need to remove them. It will mean that under future immigration laws, to evade removal a foreign criminal would have to prove that a child or dependent would come to overwhelming, unavoidable harm if they were deported.
The Bill will reinforce in law the principle that responsibilities to society are as important as personal rights. To achieve this, courts will consider a claimant’s relevant conduct, such as a prisoner’s violent or criminal behaviour, when awarding damages.
The Bill will make clear that the UK Supreme Court is the ultimate judicial decision-maker on human rights issues and that the case law of the European Court of Human Rights does not always need to be followed by UK courts. This will be achieved while retaining the UK’s fundamental commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights.
I therefore support the Bill of Rights Bill in strengthening UK traditional freedoms and I will follow its progress closely as it passes through Parliament.
The National Security Bill
It is clear the threat from hostile states is a growing, diversifying and evolving one, manifesting itself in several different forms. I am unsettled that our espionage laws date back to 1911 and I know my ministerial colleagues are concerned that they do not account for how threats to our national security have changed over time.
The UK’s espionage legislation is contained within the Official Secrets Act 1911, 1920 and 1939. While the Government has already taken steps to strengthen our ability to deter, withstand and respond to hostile state activity, including through Schedule 3 to the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 which grants an examining officer at UK ports and the border area several powers when a person appears to be involved in espionage on behalf of a foreign government, I do think there is more that can be done to ensure our laws are fit for the 21st century.
It is welcome that the Government has introduced legislation, through the new National Security Bill, which aims to deter, detect and disrupt state actors who seek to harm the UK. The Bill seeks to reform existing espionage legislation to provide effective protection to tackle modern threats and bring in new offences to tackle state-backed sabotage, interference, the theft of trade secrets and assisting a foreign intelligence service. Crucially, it will also, for the first time, make it an offence to be an undeclared foreign spy working in the UK.
Furthermore, a Foreign Influence Registration Scheme will be introduced, requiring individuals to register certain arrangements with foreign governments to deter and disrupt state threats activity in the UK. This sits alongside new civil measures which could be used as a tool of last resort where prosecution of a hostile actor is not possible.
I would like to be very clear that the freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy, and I am committed to protecting the rights and values we all hold dear. There have been a number of reports that the legislation will treat journalists like spies. This is incorrect and I can assure you that the media will continue to be free to hold ministers to account. I simply would not support legislation that limits or erodes press freedom.
The threat of hostile activity from states targeting the UK’s democracy, economy and values is ever evolving and we need to stay one step ahead. I am confident that the new National Security Bill will keep pace with the changing threat and will keep our country safe by making the UK an even harder target for those states who seek to conduct hostile acts.
Bill of Rights
I am proud that the UK has a long and diverse history of freedom. This includes the Magna Carta in 1215, the 1689 Claim and Bill of Rights, and the Slave Trade Act of 1807, through to the 1918 Representation of the People Act.
The recent Queen’s Speech announced that the Government will bring forward a new Bill of Rights in this Parliament to replace the Human Rights Act. This follows a consultation on the subject which closed on 19 April. The Bill of Rights will strengthen our traditions of liberty and free speech, restore public confidence in the justice system and ensure Parliament has the last word on the law of the land.
I note that there are some concerns about what the proposals mean for the UK’s policies on freedom of religion or belief. The reforms seek to curtail abuses of the system and restore public confidence.
It is my firm belief that people of every faith and none should be able to enjoy the same freedoms and equal treatment so that they can practice their religion and live by their principles. My ministerial colleagues and I are committed to ensuring that religious freedom is safe in modern Britain.
The Elections Act will improve the accountability of the Electoral Commission by making provision for a Strategy and Policy Statement to be introduced. I fully support this measure as I believe that making the Electoral Commission more accountable will strengthen the integrity of the electoral process and help prevent fraud.
The statement will set out guidance and principles which the Commission would have to consider when carrying out its functions. It is commonplace for the Government to set a broad policy framework, as approved by Parliament, by which independent regulators should work. This is already the case for Ofcom and Ofgem, for example. The statement will undergo consultation and will need to be approved by Parliament. It will also be reviewed regularly.
I do not agree with the view that these reforms will compromise the independence of the Electoral Commission. While the Commission will be required to have regard to the Strategy and Policy Statement, this does not give the Government new powers to direct the Electoral Commission’s decision making. The Commission will continue to be governed by the Commissioners and will remain operationally independent of government. The introduction of the statement will not in any way affect the ability of the Commission to undertake investigative, operational or enforcement activity as it sees fit, but it will ensure greater accountability to Parliament on how the Electoral Commission discharges its wider functions. The Government has introduced measures to prohibit the statement from including reference to specific investigatory or enforcement activity to provide further reassurance on the Commission’s operational independence.
Sir, now Lord, Eric Pickles’ independent review into electoral fraud raised a number of concerns and made recommendations on the role of the Electoral Commission and the current system of its oversight. It is encouraging to see the Government addressing these concerns and taking forward a greater emphasis on the need to tackle and prevent electoral fraud, especially in light of the corruption that took place in Tower Hamlets in 2014.
I welcome that the Elections Act makes provision for a wide range of photographic identification to be used for voting at the polling station. These documents have been carefully chosen with security and accessibility in mind.
Identification that does not show a photograph of the elector cannot provide an appropriate level of proof to prevent impersonation at the polling station. It is also worth noting that not all forms of photographic identification comply with the same rigorous security checks. I am concerned that using these forms of identification could undermine the very protection and security that the introduction of identification at the polling station will put in place. It is for this reason that I did not support proposals during the passage of the Elections Act to expand the list of accepted identification documents.
I know that 98% per cent of electors already own one of the documents specified in the Elections Act. Expired forms of identification will also be accepted so long as the photograph is of a good enough likeness. Moreover, anyone without identification will be able to apply for a free Voter Card from their local authority. The Elections Act also includes provision to update the list of acceptable identification in the future, in recognition that available forms of identification will change over time.
I appreciate the arguments against the use of the COVID-pass, but evidence suggests that certification can be a valuable tool in helping to manage the spread of Covid-19.
The COVID-Status Certification Review concluded that there would be a public health benefit to COVID-status certification and that it could provide a means of ensuring venues remain open over the autumn and winter.
With this in mind, the Government's Winter Plan sets out the 'Plan B' to be enacted if the data shows the NHS is likely to come under unsustainable pressure. I agree with the Government that, in such a scenario, mandating vaccine-only certification would be preferable to closing venues entirely or reimposing social distancing. Though final decisions on the policy have not been made, this would apply to certain settings, such as nightclubs, indoor events with 500 or more attendees who are likely to mix to a significant degree and crowded outdoor settings with 4000 or more attendees. The Government recently consulted on its certification proposals and is currently analysing the feedback.
I understand that the Government hopes that it would not be necessary to mandate COVID-status certification more widely in a 'Plan B' scenario, though as the Autumn and Winter Plan explained this cannot be ruled out. The proposal on the settings where certification would apply is based chiefly on public health evidence, including from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and the Events Research Programme. I want to reassure you that, if introduced, a number of events would be exempt from mandatory certification requirements. These include communal worship, wedding ceremonies and equivalents, funerals, and events in private dwellings.
A secure electoral system is a vital component of a healthy democracy. The Elections Bill will update elections law and deliver on manifesto commitments to protect our democracy and ensure that it remains secure, transparent and fair. It includes provisions on, overseas electors, the voting rights of EU citizens, the accessibility of polls, identification to vote at polling stations and digital imprints as well as provisions aimed at tackling postal vote fraud, undue influence and intimidation at elections.
The Elections Bill, more broadly, responds to recommendations in Lord Pickles’ report into election fraud published in 2016 and builds upon long-term objectives set out in the Government’s wider Defending Democracy Programme. The changes it will introduce alongside the Online Safety Bill and the Counter-State Threats Bill will protect our democracy from new and evolving threats and underpin the systems which support it.
I fully support First Past the Post (FPTP). FPTP is a tried and tested system that ensures stability and clear governance. It prevents disproportionate influence by minority parties with minimal public support who typically end up holding the balance of power in proportional representation systems.
The British people were clear on this matter in a referendum on voting systems in 2011. FPTP is well established and understood by voters. It provides a clear and robust way of electing Members of Parliament and there is an unambiguous link between constituents and their representatives in Westminster.
For the most part, FPTP produces governments with working majorities in Parliament. This leads to efficient and effective decision making. FPTP also allows for the formation of a strong opposition party that can provide a check on the power of the government of the day. I believe that alternative systems are less transparent, more complicated and less likely to lead to effective government.
The Conservative Party manifesto 2019 promised to continue supporting the First Past the Post (FPTP) system of voting. I believe that FPTP provides for a clear and transparent electoral process, allowing voters to remove politicians who fail to deliver. The Government has set out plans to change the voting systems for all Combined Authority Mayors, the Mayor of London and the Police and Crime Commissioners. This is being taken forward through the Elections Bill and will be scrutinised by Parliament in the usual way. Transferable voting systems were rejected by the British people in the past including in a referendum in 2011. I fully support these changes.
Equal rights, the rule of law, freedom of speech define us as a society, and I am determined to promote these values actively.
Election fraud is a crime that strikes at a core principle of our democracy – that everyone’s vote matters. In our current system, there is an undeniable potential for election fraud. Asking voters to bring ID to the polling station is an important way to safeguard against this.
Voter ID is not new. It has also proved to be effective at tackling fraud and has not curtailed election turnout. I am pleased that, under the Government’s proposals, anyone without an ID will be able to apply for a new free one, meaning that no voter will be disenfranchised.
The judicial review is another key part of our democracy, protecting citizens from an overbearing state. The review investigated whether the correct balance is being struck between the rights of citizens to challenge executive decisions and the need for effective government. I look forward to following developments in this area closely.
I appreciate there are some concerns regarding the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and I want to assure constituents that freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are rights I wholeheartedly support. The measures in the Bill are not about stopping or clamping down on the right to protest but about ensuring the police are able to better manage highly disruptive protests and maintain the balance between the rights of a protestor and the rights of individuals to go about their daily business.
I will continue to ensure that these rights are upheld in the UK.
The Electoral Commission has sought in recent years to bring criminal offences before the courts. This is not a role that has ever been agreed by the Government or by Parliament.
I am concerned that the additional powers the Electoral Commission has taken on risk creating conflicts of interest and wasting taxpayers' money. This is because the Electoral Commission is responsible for providing the advice and guidance on electoral law on which the prosecutions it seeks to bring may depend.
It is the role of the police and the prosecution services to enforce electoral regulations and the Government intends to clarify this status quo in legislation through the Electoral Integrity Bill before Parliament. I can assure you that this is not about interfering with the investigative, operational or enforcement decisions of the Electoral Commission. The reforms would not affect the ability of the Electoral Commission to undertake enforcement action as it deems necessary but it would ensure greater accountability to Parliament.
Sir, now Lord, Eric Pickles’ independent review into electoral fraud raised a number of concerns and made recommendations on the role of the Electoral Commission and the current system of oversight in 2016. These measures also seek to address those points in the context of wider work to protect our democracy and maintain public confidence in the electoral system.
My ministerial colleagues will, of course, consider proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life and from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee which are separately conducting inquiries into electoral regulation and the Electoral Commission.
A secure electoral system is a vital component of a healthy democracy, and the public must have confidence that our elections are secure and fit for the 21st century. Asking voters to bring ID to their polling station is an important way of achieving this and the Electoral Integrity Bill will put such a requirement into law.
Voter ID is not new. Northern Ireland have required paper ID at polling stations since 1985, and photo ID since 2003, introduced by the last Labour Government. It has proved to be effective at tackling fraud and has not curtailed election turnout.
Identification to vote has been backed by the Electoral Commission and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which state that its absence is a security risk. At present, it is harder to take out a library book or collect a parcel at a post office than it is to vote in someone else’s name.
In pilot schemes in 2019 and 2018, the large majority of people cast their vote without a problem and the success of the pilots proves that this is a reasonable and proportionate measure to take, and there was no notable adverse effect on turnout.
The Electoral Commission also stated that ‘the experience of taking part in the pilot scheme appears to have had a positive impact on people’s perception of the security of the polling station process, and on their confidence in it...Polling station staff were satisfied with how polling day went and were confident that they could manage the process of people showing voter identification at future elections.’
Under the Government’s proposals, anyone without an ID will be able to apply for a new free one, meaning that no voter will be disenfranchised.
Track and Trace
NHS Test and Trace is essential in our fight against Covid-19 and regular testing is a vital tool to stop transmission as we cautiously ease restrictions. I am extremely proud of the fact that, after building a testing system from scratch, we have carried out over 110 million coronavirus tests and have increased PCR test capacity to 800,000 per day. This is more than any other comparable European country, with the UK having the largest testing capacity in Europe.
Protecting communities and saving lives is the Government's priority and every pound spent on Test and Trace is contributing towards efforts to keep people safe. I firmly support the £22 billion budgeted during 2020-21 to support this programme, with a further £15 billion budgeted for 2021-22, funding which provides vital support for this crucial service. 80% of NHS Test and Trace’s budget is spent on buying and carrying out coronavirus tests, with the remainder spent on contact tracing and other areas of the programme. It is also worth highlighting that while the NHS App is playing a key role, it is only one part of the wider NHS Test and Trace system.
The Government is now providing regular rapid testing for NHS and care home staff, thousands of businesses where employees cannot work from home, teachers and secondary school children and their parents. Regular rapid testing identifies new cases of the virus we would not otherwise find, preventing the spread of the disease and saving lives.
NHS Test and Trace is successfully reaching over 90% of the contacts of positive cases, with 98% being contacted within 24 hours, and the contact tracing service has already reached more than 9.1m cases and contacts, making a real impact in breaking chains of transmission.
Testing and NHS Test and Trace services are being provided through the NHS, and while it is true that providers like Serco and Sitel are working with the public sector to deliver these services, I am confident that these providers will be held to the highest standards to ensure that the best service possible is delivered. It is a testament to the ingenuity of British businesses that they have been able to adapt existing resources in a time of great need for the country, and I am extremely grateful to all organisations that have offered their services at this time.
I believe it is vital that data is shared with local authorities as quickly as possible, particularly as we move forward with the easing of restrictions in the Government's Roadmap and as we work to prevent the spread of new variants. The Department for Health and Social Care has outlined that granular data is being made available to specialist teams through local dashboards, and that this service has been expanded to provide more data for local areas.
I understand that all 314 local authorities have joined forces with NHS Test and Trace to provide an enhanced contact tracing service, enabling NHS Test and Trace to go further in supporting people who have tested positive for Covid-19 and tracing their recent contacts. Together, they are successfully reaching 88.9% of people who have tested positive for Covid-19 and 88.8% of their close contacts A series of pilot schemes, known as "Local-0", are ongoing and I know that the DHSC is monitoring these closely. The initiative supports local authorities to contact positive cases faster by bringing them in right from the start of the tracing journey, at the same time the case is entered into the national NHS Test and Trace system. I look forward to learning more about the outcome of these pilots. Alongside this work, however, I do see a continuing value in the national Test and Trace system which has a built-in resilience that councils may be unable to replicate if cases were to increase.
Coronavirus Act: Renewal
The Coronavirus Act is a vital piece of legislation in our national response to the Coronavirus pandemic, and one which I fully support. The purpose of the legislation is to protect us all and ensure that, throughout the pandemic, sufficient staff are available and deployed where they are most needed, as well as supporting members of the public, containing and slowing the virus, and managing the deceased with respect and dignity. The Act would have expired at the end of March 2021 and so needed to be renewed to ensure that Local Authorities, the Police and the NHS continue to have the powers needed to respond to the pandemic and to implement restrictions if needed. The powers are also necessary as we move forward with the cautious easing of restrictions set out in the Prime Minister's Roadmap.
All the measures in the Coronavirus Act are temporary and proportionate to the threat we face. It is important that they will only be used when strictly necessary and will only be in place for as long as is deemed necessary to respond to the pandemic effectively. I welcome, therefore, that the Government has carried out an extensive review of the provisions within the Act and, because of the excellent progress in our fight against this virus, the Government is now able to expire and suspend a raft of measures within the Act.
The measures outlined in the Government's Roadmap provide a path out of this pandemic, offering us a route to normal life. I am encouraged that we are currently meeting each of the Government's four tests for easing restrictions and remain on track to deliver on vaccine commitments, meaning we have now moved forward to the next stage of the Roadmap (on 29 March). The Government has also committed the remaining stages of Roadmap into law.
As we move forward with the Roadmap, it is vital that the tools needed to continue to fight this virus and support families, our public services, and the economy through it, as provided in the Coronavirus Act, are maintained.
UK Spending on Overseas Aid
This country has been, and always will be, open and outward-looking, leading in solving the world's toughest problems and striving to be a force for good in the world. Whether it is stepping up to support desperate Syrians and Yemenis in conflict zones, leading the way in eradicating Ebola and malaria, or supporting millions of children to gain a decent education, I am proud that UK aid is keeping the UK safe while helping the world’s poorest. Nevertheless, we must be honest about where we are. The UK is currently facing the worst economic contraction in 300 years because of the pandemic, and a budget deficit caused by the 2008 financial crisis.
At this time of unprecedented crisis, tough choices must be made, which is why the Chancellor announced a temporary reduction in the UK’s aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of the UK's Gross National Income (GNI). This is not an action that I, or my Ministerial colleagues, want to have to do, but I believe it is unfortunately necessary. I have been assured that the UK will return to 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows.
The “Protect Everyone Campaign”
I understand that lockdowns and other restrictions have caused enormous stress and disruption to people’s lives, and we must be mindful of the other side effects that lockdowns cause when considering policy options.
The Coronavirus Act is a vital piece of legislation in our national response to the Coronavirus pandemic. The purpose of the legislation is to protect us all and ensure that, throughout the pandemic, sufficient staff are available and deployed where they are most needed, as well as supporting members of the public, containing and slowing the spread of the virus, and managing the deceased with respect and dignity.
While temporary emergency powers have been granted to Ministers to handle the pandemic, I welcome that we, as elected Members of Parliament, have had many opportunities to vote on and debate changes to regulations where possible. I, like my colleagues, take my responsibility to represent my constituents at these debates incredibly seriously.
It is vital to balance the need to restrict the spread of the virus without infringing on civil liberties, while allowing the restoration of economic and social life going forward. I understand concerns regarding the restrictions, however this is an extraordinary time and I have concluded that the current action to stop the spread of the virus is necessary, albeit uncomfortable, for us all.
Thanks to the hard work and enormous sacrifices of the British people, as well as the incredible success of our vaccination programme, I am delighted that the Government is now in a position to cautiously start easing lockdown restrictions and has begun to do so with the return of face-to-face learning. I welcome the Government's roadmap to guide us cautiously, but irreversibly, towards reclaiming our freedoms and way of life.
Democratic Scrutiny and PPE Procurement
Being able to procure PPE at speed has been critical to the Government’s response to Covid-19 and, at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak, it was made clear to all public authorities that they may need to procure new services with extreme urgency. For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a change to the public procurement regulations; there are well-established procedures in the Public Contracts Regulations for handling extremely urgent procurements and they have been used by a variety of public authorities including the UK Government, and devolved administrations. Other countries followed similar urgent procurement processes.
Unfortunately, as you may be aware, the Secretary of State for Health has acknowledged that, despite intentions, not all the detail of every PPE contract awarded was published within set time frames as required by law. While this is disappointing, I do appreciate the pressures that the Department for Health and Social Care was under last year. I am pleased to say that work is well underway to tackle the backlog in publication, with the Department for Health moving towards complete compliance again. I was also encouraged that the Good Law Project’s contention that Government deliberately deprioritised compliance with transparency obligations was not accepted by the Court. I am pleased to say that work is well underway to tackle the backlog in publication, with the Department for Health moving towards complete compliance again.
Vote for national lockdown
I recognise and appreciate that many people, felt that we needed to go into another lockdown much earlier, but these decisions are not taken lightly.
I also recognise that many people feel that going into lockdown is entirely wrong. I agree that there are significant consequences and problems that arise from going into a lockdown. Health, mental health, economic health and education – all are affected by a lockdown but at the same time all would be significantly affected by not addressing the exceptional rise in cases nationally since the end of December, where it is estimated that 1 in 50 people in England are Covid positive.
It is very disappointing that 2021 has had to start with another national lockdown, but the situation with the new variant, and significant pressure on much of the NHS, unfortunately in my mind makes this a necessary step. We have seen the highest number of daily deaths within the past week, and the pandemic, with the introduction of the new variant, is unfortunately at its very worst.
The vaccination programme will rollout alongside this lockdown, which I hope will give us all hope that this will be the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.
Reform of the Electoral Commission
“The good functioning of our democracy depends on fair and transparent political campaigns. The Electoral Commission exists to run and regulate elections fairly but there is increasing concern that it is no longer operating effectively. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, which advises the Prime Minister on ethical standards of conduct, believes that it is now time to review the work of the Electoral Commission. It will be focusing particularly on the Electoral Commission’s role in regulating donations and campaign expenditure by political parties.
Recent cases pursued by the Electoral Commission have highlighted concerns over its lack of accountability, strategy and leadership. Proposals such as a new regulatory policy statement could set out the Electoral Commission’s remit so that it is more clearly understood. The Electoral Commission should also take more guidance from the party-nominated Election Commissioners who can provide specific expertise.
Should the Electoral Commission fail to reform, the Government has indicated that the only option would be to abolish it. Its functions would be transferred to other governmental bodies and the police. This would ensure that elections are regulated impartially and that democracy is delivered in accordance with the law.”