The Elections Bill 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 would 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.
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.
Turning to identification at polling stations, I welcome that the Elections Bill 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 personation 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 introducing the use of identification at the polling station will put in place. It is for this reason that I do not support proposals to expand the list of accepted identification documents.
Let me assure you that 98 per cent of electors already own one of the documents specified in the Elections Bill. 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 Bill also includes provision to update the list of acceptable identification in the future, in recognition that available forms of identification will change over time.
As you may be aware, the Electoral Commission has sought in recent years to develop the capability 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 determine whether there has been a breach of criminal law, and whether such a breach should be prosecuted in a court of law. The Government intends to clarify this status quo in legislation through the Elections 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.