The Elections Bill’s proposals on Electoral Commission governance: risks to electoral integrity and devolution

The Elections Bill has been subject to both criticism and praise, as discussed by Emilia Cieslak on this blog, and a panel of experts at a recent Unit seminar. In this post, Unit Deputy Director Alan Renwick identifies the threats to electoral integrity and devolution posed by the clauses of the bill that propose changes to the governance of the Electoral Commission.

The Elections Bill, currently before parliament, seeks to change many aspects of electoral law. Provisions to introduce voter ID requirements at polling stations have garnered most attention. But changes to the governance of the Electoral Commission also raise serious concerns. As currently formulated, they threaten both to weaken the vital independence of the elections watchdog and to violate the principles of the devolution settlement in Scotland and Wales.

Electoral Commission governance: principles and current practice

The Electoral Commission carries out a range of functions in overseeing elections and referendums and regulating campaign spending. As I have argued previously – in common with many others, not least the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) in a report published in July – the independence of the elections watchdog is vital to electoral integrity. If the government of the day can skew election or referendum conduct to suit its own ends, fairness – and thus democracy – is undermined. The Electoral Commission should, of course, be accountable too. An appropriate balance of independence and accountability is needed.

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The Elections Bill: examining the evidence

The Elections Bill is currently being scrutinised by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which has received a large amount of evidence from a wide range of academics and organisations. Ahead of the Unit’s September webinar on the bill, Emilia Cieslak offered a summary of the key themes, including the parts of the bill that are welcomed, and the sections that have caused concern.

The Elections Bill currently before parliament aims to tackle a wide range of issues, including fighting electoral fraud, increasing parliamentary supervision of the Electoral Commission, and extending the franchise to more overseas electors and EU citizens. The bill recently received its second reading in the Commons. It is currently going through committee stage and is also being reviewed by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC). While some provisions have proved popular, many have attracted criticism.

This post reviews the written evidence submissions to PACAC’s inquiry, focusing largely on the most controversial provisions: the introduction of photographic voter ID, changes to parliamentary scrutiny of the Electoral Commission, and reform of campaign spending rules. Before addressing those controversial aspects, however, I highlight sections of the bill that are generally welcomed.

Popular provisions

The bill proposes to abolish the current 15-year limit after which overseas electors become ineligible to vote. This has so far met very little opposition, and has strong support from groups representing British citizens living abroad. Several submissions (for example, from the Electoral Commission and Association of Electoral Administrators) do, however, draw attention to practical difficulties. And one submission, from Professor Justin Fisher, argues that the principled case for the change is not straightforward.

Meanwhile, no submissions oppose extending voting and candidacy rights to EU citizens through bilateral arrangements with individual member states. Most welcome changes to provision for voters with disabilities, though some identify what they see as flaws in certain elements of those measures.

The introduction of digital imprints is hailed as an overdue, necessary step to tackling the problem of misleading campaign material online. Most respondents writing on the topic argue that the provision is a good start, but that more is needed. Dr Sam Power comments that the provision should be accompanied by a renewed focus on citizen engagement and digital literacy campaigns. The Electoral Reform Society argues for a requirement that campaigners provide invoices on their digital spending, an open database for all political advertisements, and a code of practice on use of sensitive data. Multiple respondents warned about the rapid development of technology which means the legislation will require post-legislative scrutiny and frequent updates to avoid new loopholes developing.

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Scotland’s place in the Union will not be decided in the courts: only politicians can enable or prevent independence

Whether or not Scotland can legally hold a referendum without the consent of Westminster is a question that has provoked much debate. Ciaran Martin argues that the answer to this question does not really matter: regardless of the legality of any referendum, it is unrealistic to think that Scotland will leave the Union without the consent of Westminster. This makes the key question a political one, which the courts cannot resolve.

In mid-August I spoke at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about Scotland and the future of the United Kingdom. My theme was that when the constitutional debate resumes (which it will) after the post-Holyrood election lull, there could, and in my view should, be a debate not just on what independence means, but on what remaining in the Union means. This is a fundamentally different proposition than it was in 2014, and not just because of Brexit.

In 2014, the three UK-wide unionist parties (which, let’s not forget, at the time held 53 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats between them) were all evidently comfortable with devolution. Both the UK government and the broader Better Together campaign spoke of ‘the best of both worlds’ of an autonomous Scotland within a devolved UK. As the polls tightened, the response was ‘the vow’ of more devolution.

Things are different this time. In July, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, leader of the most successful unionist party in any of the devolved territories, warned of ‘a Government that is instinctively hostile’ for the first time in the history of devolution. Sometimes such hostility is just blurted out; sometimes it becomes law, such as the constitutional land grab that is the Internal Market Act. Combined with the unworkability of fully federal models in the UK, this instability within the Union means that when Scotland is debating its constitutional future, the nature of the Union it’s being invited to stay in merits more discussion than last time.

Insofar as I thought any of my arguments would attract attention, it was this one. But instead, coverage emphasised a throwaway restatement of my long-articulated view that the Scottish government is likely (though I did not say certain) to lose any legal case brought against referendum legislation it seeks to pass in Holyrood in the absence of a Section 30 power agreed with Westminster.

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The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill: why the House of Commons should retain control over dissolution

Next week MPs debate the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) and revive the former prerogative power of dissolution. Meg Russell, Gavin Phillipson and Petra Schleiter, all of whom gave evidence to the parliamentary committees considering FTPA repeal, argue that the government’s bill is flawed. It seeks to keep the courts out of dissolution decisions, but risks drawing them in, and risks politicising the role of the monarch. Removing the House of Commons power over when a general election is held, and returning it to the Prime Minister, would be a retrograde step.

On 13 September, MPs debate the remaining stages of the government’s Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) and revive the former prerogative power of dissolution. Three parliamentary committees have considered FTPA repeal, to which all of us have submitted evidence. This post summarises key flaws in the government’s approach identified by the committees, and areas where expert evidence suggested solutions to address these flaws.

The post does not argue for retention of the FTPA. Instead it proposes a solution to the problems with the bill that would leave parliament at the heart of decision-making. It makes three key points:

  1. While aiming to exclude the courts from the question of dissolution, the government’s bill instead potentially draws them in.
  2. Placing sole reliance on the monarch as a check generates uncertainty, and risks politicising their role.
  3. The solution to both of these problems is to retain a requirement for the House of Commons to vote on the Prime Minister’s request for a general election by simple majority. Concerns that this could recreate the 2019 Brexit deadlock are groundless.

Our core argument is that maintaining the Commons’ ultimate control over dissolution, while fixing the defects of the 2011 Act, would be a better solution.

The bill seeks to exclude the courts from dissolution but risks drawing them

The bill’s central objective is to return the power to dissolve parliament to the monarch, to be granted on the Prime Minister’s request – that is, to restore the pre-FTPA status quo. Clause 3 (‘Non-justiciability of revived prerogative powers’, commonly referred to as the ‘ouster clause’) seeks to exclude the courts from considering cases relating to dissolution. The courts have never intervened in dissolution decisions (the 2019 Supreme Court case was on prorogation, which is different). But inclusion of the clause suggests that the government perceives some risk of judicial intervention if it attempts to revive the prerogative.

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