The independence of the elections watchdog is “vital”, ministers heard as MPs questioned whether the body will be subject to Government interference in future.
Cat Smith, a Labour MP acting as a representative of the Electoral Commission told the Commons that the Elections Bill would give “significantly broader” scope and power to the Government over the regulator than it has over similar bodies.
The SNP accused the Government of a “grubby power grab” over moves in the Bill to set the Electoral Commission’s overall strategy, something it cannot do for other regulators.
Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) said: “The Elections Bill doesn’t only require Scottish voters to show ID at UK general elections but also gives the Westminster Government the powers to set the Electoral Commission’s strategy and policy statement.
“Given the Scottish Parliament also pays towards the commission, isn’t this another case of a grubby Westminster power grab and an attack on our devolved settlement?”
It is vital there is no actual or perceived involvement from Government in the commission's operational functions or decision making
Cat Smith, Electoral Commission
On behalf of the Electoral Commission, Ms Smith said: “The Elections Bill does cover the whole of the UK but some provisions would apply differently to elections in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“The commission’s view is that as currently drafted, the proposals for a strategy and policy statement are not consistent with its role as the independent regulator.
“The scope and power is significantly broader than similar mechanisms in place for other regulators such as Ofcom, Ofgen and Ofwat, which do not include giving guidance about specific matters.
“The existence of an independent regulator is fundamental for maintaining confidence in our electoral system.
“It is vital there is no actual or perceived involvement from Government in the commission’s operational functions or decision making.”
The SNP’s Richard Thomson also raised concerns about plans in the Bill to introduce compulsory voter ID to access polling stations.
The Gordon MP said: “Given the very scant evidence of electoral fraud through members of the public trying to cast a vote to which they are not entitled, would the commissioner share my concern that attempting to introduce voter ID is trying to solve a problem which in reality just simply doesn’t exist?”
Ms Smith replied: “The commission has made no detailed assessment of the number of fraudulent votes that could be prevented as a result of the Government’s policy to introduce a voter ID requirement.
“While levels of reported electoral fraud in the UK are consistently low, they do vary and there is no reliable methodology for forecasting instances of electoral fraud.
“The commission has highlighted a lack of an ID requirement as a vulnerability in polling stations across Great Britain and public opinion research shows this is an issue that concerns voters.”
The Elections Bill is currently making its way through Parliament and is due to be discussed by MPs again in the near future.