Elections Bill: Bishop of Coventry questions necessity of photo ID

On 23rd February 2022, the House of Lords debated the Elections Bill in its second reading. The Bishop of Coventry spoke in the debate, highlighting potential risks of the introduction of photo ID for voters:

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, I too join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Moore, for his subtle and penetrating speech. I do so as someone who originates from Sussex, albeit the western part.

I shall address just one aspect of this Bill—the introduction of photographic ID. Other noble Lords have already raised specific issues presented by this clause. I echo their concerns, and I question whether photo ID is consistent with the UK’s democratic heritage. The fundamental duty of government as we know it is to ensure that all citizens have access to the resources they need to play a full part in the democratic process. Any action that risks reducing democratic engagement, especially one which excludes a significant sector of society, needs the most careful consideration, and it should be based on very sound evidence.

I am concerned that the Bill’s intention to increase trust in the reliability of the voting procedures risks reducing it. Currently, 90% of those asked by the Electoral Commission’s public opinion tracker see voting and polling stations as safe from fraud and abuse. This is precisely because we expect the Government to allow us to take part in the democratic process—if we choose to—without putting measures in place that might impede it. The high level of trust in our electoral system seems to raise comparison with the use of voter ID in Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Moore, said, this derives from a historic mistrust among all communities about elections being free and fair. There is no such mistrust in this case. As the noble Baroness, Lady Davidson, has said, this is trying to solve a problem that does not exist—and that makes it politics as performance. Politics is, in many ways, a performance, but the performance should come second. Any performance which could disenfranchise voters risks withholding recognition from individuals and cultural communities.

As your Lordships have heard, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation indicates that 1.7 million low-income voters could be disadvantaged. This would constitute moral injury and would be an injustice. A significant proportion of low-income voters are likely to come from UK global majority backgrounds or from white working-class communities. Both are among the least likely to own photographic ID or to have ID which would be recognised, because of the current costs of obtaining them. It has also been found that those with learning difficulties are likely to find it an obstacle too high to climb, as the Cabinet Office’s research showed.

Many in these already disadvantaged communities, the very people whom the Government’s laudable levelling-up agenda seeks to raise up, are less likely to have the time, access to equipment, or desire, to fill out additional forms or to register for the voter ID cards than more advantaged people. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation also found that 41% of those with unsuitable ID were unsure whether they would apply for free voter ID cards. Legislation that may make democratic participation for the most vulnerable and marginalised in society harder fails to meet the Government’s responsibility to enhance the practice of democracy and maximise involvement in the common project on which society is built.

Within the Bill, there is a commitment to a consultation with the electoral community on how the voter ID law would be introduced. Does this mean that the Government recognise the possibly harmful effects of making this a requirement? Will they seek to mitigate them through secondary legislation? If that is the case, why is the consultation coming after the law has been passed and not before? At the moment, the proposal for voter ID fails to provide the assurance that every voice in our community will be heard. If the Government proceed as planned, which I recognise is the manifesto pledge, I would support amendments that introduce mitigating factors to the Bill and reduce the risk of unintended exclusion.


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