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.
Equal rights, the rule of law and 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 and the perception of this undermines public confidence in our democracy. 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 that there are some concerns regarding the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and I want to assure you 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.
Please be assured that I will continue to ensure that these rights are upheld in the UK.
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.”