Thank you for contacting me about the Elections Act and the Electoral Commission.
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 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. 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.
Expanding approved voter identification: 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 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 did not support proposals during the passage of the Elections Act 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 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.
Photographic identification for partially sighted people: The list of approved photographic identification is not limited to passports or driving licences. Various concessionary travel passes, Proof of Age Standards Scheme cards and parking permits issued as part of the Blue Badge scheme will be accepted. Voters will also be able to request a free, local Voter Card from their local authority should they not possess a required from of photographic identification.
Criminal Prosecution: 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 has clarified this status quo in legislation through the Elections Act. 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.
Post-legislative scrutiny: I completely agree about the importance of reviewing any Act of Parliament. You may be interested to know that the Government introduced a requirement into the Elections Act which places a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and publish a report on the operation of the legislation. This requirement is now enshrined in law.
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.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
Craig Whittaker MP