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MPs urge Boris Johnson to halt plans for compulsory voter ID

Elections Bill attacked by cross-party MPs, who say case for photo ID has ‘simply not been good enough’ and move will make it ‘more difficult to vote’

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Martin Williams
13 December 2021, 3.54pm
Boris Johnson's government is under fire for its controversial Elections Bill
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Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire

The UK government has come under fire from MPs over plans to force voters to provide photo ID at polling stations.

Conservative MP William Wragg called for the Elections Bill to be paused, saying the case for mandating photo ID has “simply not been good enough”.

“When people can be blocked from voting because they have incorrect documentation, have misplaced it or they have none, we must make doubly sure that the costs of the measures are commensurate with the risk,” said Wragg, who chairs the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC).

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“Likewise, any government proposal which might directly or indirectly influence the independent regulator over its operations and decision-making will invite suspicion, especially when plans have been drawn up behind closed doors.”

The government argues that voter ID is necessary to prevent election fraud. But MPs say that cases of fraud are “very low” and the move is likely to reduce the turnout for future elections.

A scathing report by the committee noted that election turnout in Northern Ireland dropped by 2.3% “as a direct consequence” of the introduction of voter ID in 2003.

MPs said the government “should not proceed with this proposal” until more information had been published. The committee warned that the move will make it “more difficult to vote” and “remove an element of the trust inherent in the current system”.

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Elsewhere in the report, PACAC also called on the government to review controversial plans that would hand ministers greater control over the Electoral Commission, which is supposed to be independent.

The watchdog, which oversees UK elections, has been the subject of intense criticism by backbench Tory MPs. Many were unhappy about rulings it made surrounding the Brexit referendum campaign and have long called for it to be reformed or scrapped.

The Elections Bill would give Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay new powers over the Electoral Commission. Crucially, it would allow him to influence the commission’s strategy and policy, as well as providing guidance on specific cases.

Writing for openDemocracy earlier this year, former electoral commissioner David Howarth criticised the “appalling” plans, which he said pose “serious threats to the fairness of all future elections in Britain”. Howarth said the Elections Bill had been “calculated to facilitate the entrenchment in power of the current ruling party”.

The Labour Party has also attacked the plans, branding the move a “backwards Trumpian attempt to rig democracy in favour of the Conservative Party”.

In its report, the cross-party committee said: “The government has not demonstrated that the proposed measures impacting the Electoral Commission are both necessary and proportionate.”

It said that the plan “risks undermining public confidence in the effective and independent regulation of the electoral system”.

The Elections Bill is calculated to facilitate the entrenchment in power of the current ruling party

David Howarth, former electoral commissioner

The report also rebuked the government over planned changes to the way elections are held for mayors and police and crime commissioners.

The bill seeks to impose the ‘First Past the Post’ voting system on these elections, in place of the current ‘supplementary voting system’, which allows voters to choose their first and second choices.

It would bring the elections in line with UK general elections – but the system is seen as controversial by many, as the ‘First Past The Post’ system has previously allowed British politicians to be elected with as little as 25% of the vote.

In September, ministers were accused of “sneaking out” the plans during a Cabinet reshuffle. At the time, one MP told openDemocracy: “This is not how democracy should work.”

The MPs’ report said: “Regardless of the benefits or disadvantages of the changes made by the Bill to the electoral system for those offices, the manner in which this change was introduced after the bill had been debated by the House at Second Reading was unsatisfactory and disrespectful towards the House of Commons.”

In a statement, Wragg explained: “We feel that the Elections Bill proposals lack a sufficient evidence base, timely consultation, and transparency, all of which should be addressed before it makes any further progress. We cannot risk any reduction of trust in UK elections, which is why the majority of the committee is calling for the bill to be paused to give time for more work to be done to ensure the measures are fit for purpose.”

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