With the continuing war in Ukraine and the latest scandal involving a Tory MP – this time one witnessed watching pornography in the Chamber – it is worrying, but not surprising, that two incredibly damaging pieces of legislation were pushed through in the last week of this Parliament almost without comment in the news. I voted against them at every opportunity but ultimately the government’s 80 seat majority saw them prevail.
The Elections Bill is an awful piece of legislation which attacks this country’s proud tradition of democracy. It undermines the independence of the Electoral Commission and is set to waste millions of pounds on a completely unnecessary Voter ID system which will make it harder for a lot of people to vote. It is difficult to view this Bill as anything other than an attempt to tip the electoral scales in favour of the Conservative Party.
Instead of seeking to increase the powers of the independent elections regulator, enabling it to further protect and defend our democracy, this government are instead intent on stripping the Electoral Commission of the ability to do its job. A country where the Electoral Commission is told what to do by the executive is not a country with free and fair elections. The regulator of our elections needs to be independent and impartial, not subject to political control. This is not the behaviour of a government which values the scrutiny and the checks and balances that are the hallmarks of a healthy democracy.
Voting is safe and secure in Britain. In 2019, a year with a high turnout general election, the UK saw just one conviction for impersonation – which the new voter ID laws are supposed to prevent – out of over 59 million votes. Currently, three and a half million citizens – 7.5% of the electorate – do not have access to any form of photo ID. The elderly, low income and Black, Asian and ethnic minority voters make up the bulk of these citizens. This law is discriminatory, and the need for it is unsupported by evidence. We have every right to be asking why this government has rammed it through against the facts and all outside advice. Once again, we are left with little choice but to conclude it is abusing its position to secure party-political advantage.
At a time when freedom in a European country is under direct and violent attack, I am appalled that the government is taking notes from regimes like Vladimir Putin’s on how to remove the right to peaceful protest. The Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill passed this week gives police in the UK the power to restrict protests and arrest protestors which are in their judgement “too noisy”. In other words, a blank cheque to pick and choose which protests are allowed and who is arrested and charged. British protestors can now be removed as quickly and easily as we saw Russian anti-war protestors disappear from their streets. It is a shameful Bill which diminishes us in the eyes of democratic countries the world over.
The Bill also effectively criminalises an entire minority and their way of life, by turning trespass from a civil into a criminal offence. This allows the arrest of people who are Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (GRT) and the confiscation of their homes if they stop in places that have not been designated for them. They can also face a three-month jail sentence. A recent study by the group Friends, Families and Travellers found that only eight of the 68 local authorities questioned had met their own identified need for Gypsy and Traveller pitches. There are simply not enough authorised sites and stopping places for the GRT people who need them. The government knows this, but chooses to criminalise those with nowhere to go. This is a callous and unjust attack on a vulnerable minority. These Bills should concern us all. They are deeply undemocratic and speak to a government which is becoming increasingly authoritarian.