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Controversial UK voting reforms get last-minute approval

A range of controversial measures including voter ID laws, protest restrictions and refugee offshoring passed through Parliament this week. But the nature of their passage – delayed and at the last minute – signals the strength of opposition to some of the legislation.

LONDON (CN) — The British government is set to take control of the country's independent elections regulator and introduce voter identification requirements as part of new and contentious laws that scraped through Parliament this week.

Parliamentary sessions in the United Kingdom’s House of Lords saw a range of long-delayed and highly controversial measures passed into law at the last minute, with the parliamentary year drawing to a close Thursday ahead of local elections. Had the measures not been approved this week, they would have fallen, requiring the bills to be reintroduced into the lower chamber, the House of Commons.

The Elections Bill is among the most contested of the measures hurriedly passed in a series of bad-tempered sittings of the upper house. Perhaps the most bitterly opposed move has been the government's push to put the Electoral Commission – an independent body responsible for overseeing British elections and maintaining electoral integrity – under ministerial control. The government will now have the power to set the organization's priorities and long-term strategy.

The ruling Conservative Party has been repeatedly fined by the Electoral Commission for breaching electoral law, including for overspending on campaigns and failing to declare donations. Under the new law, the regulator will also no longer have the power to prosecute those found to have broken electoral law.

The government justified the move by arguing that it was making the regulator more accountable. However, the commission itself has repeatedly expressed concern at the move, arguing that it is important for public trust that elections are administered independently of the government’s priorities.

In a strongly worded statement earlier this year, the commission said the plans are “inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a healthy democracy. Independence is fundamental to maintaining confidence and legitimacy in our electoral system.” It added that there is “no precedent in the accountability arrangements of electoral commissions in other comparable democracies.”

Critics have slammed the move as a power grab and evidence of democratic backsliding. Alex Norris of the opposition Labour Party accused the Conservatives of “trying to rig the rules of the game to help themselves, with potentially dangerous consequences.”

The Elections Bill also introduces voter ID requirements to the U.K. for the first time. The government argued that measure is designed to prevent voter fraud and ensure the integrity of elections processes. However, the prevalence of voter fraud in the U.K. is extremely low, with only six cases reported after the last general election.

The Electoral Reform Society argues the new laws will disenfranchise voters, saying “with around 2.1 million people lacking the necessary identification for this scheme, according to the government’s own research, voter ID is clearly not a proportionate response to this notional crime.”

Opposition parties have accused the government of using voter suppression tactics. In Parliament last year, Labour’s Cat Smith argued that “these plans will make it harder for working-class, older and Black, Asian and minority ethnic Britons to vote.” The plans have also drawn criticism from the government's own side. Former Brexit Secretary David Davis last year argued that the reforms represented “an illogical and illiberal solution to a non-existent problem.”

The new law also makes it easier for overseas residents to make political donations, and ends the use of alternative electoral systems to first-past-the-post in English elections, where the candidate who gets the most votes wins.

The bill had twice been rejected by the Lords and sent back to the Commons, in a process colloquially known as "parliamentary ping pong." The House of Lords – an appointed rather than elected body – has largely equal legislative powers but is usually expected to concede to the Commons, particularity on proposals that have been included in an election-winning manifesto. However, through its ability to delay legislation, the Lords often has its recommendations and amendments adopted, making it something of an advisory body.

However, in this case, the government refused to concede an inch on the legislation.

The bill finally passed after lords from the opposition Labour Party who had previously opposed the measure failed to show up to vote, while a fierce Conservative whipping operation increased turnout on the government benches. It seemed that neither side was enthused by the prospect of the standoff continuing into a new parliamentary session.

Other measures that scraped through in the final hours of the parliamentary year attracted similar controversy. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill finally completed its passage after more than a year of delay, and multiple rejections in the Lords. The bill will give police sweeping new powers to determine the legality of noisy or disruptive protests, and increase sentences for protest-related offences.

It was introduced to Parliament as a response to various civil disobedience campaigns launched by environmental protesters in recent years, including widespread disruption in central London. But the proposals sparked protests that spilled over into rioting, and have been described by human rights groups as “oppressive and wrong.”

The bill also threatens to criminalize members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities by introducing prison sentences for setting up unauthorized encampments and permitting the confiscation of mobile homes.

The Nationality and Borders Bill – which raised eyebrows across the country a fortnight ago with the announcement that the U.K. intends to send refugees to Rwanda – also made the cut. As well as legalizing the practice of "offshoring" refugees, the bill permits tougher criminal penalties to be applied to refugees entering the U.K. illegally.

On both bills, the government similarly refused to compromise and rejected all proposals that came its way from the Lords.

The length of time it has taken for many of these measures to pass is an indication of the strength of opposition from civil society and human rights groups, who accuse the government of being on an increasingly authoritarian bent. Many of the proposals have also ruffled the feathers of liberally minded parliamentarians on the Conservative benches, leading to further delays

Nevertheless, most of the proposals did feature in the Conservative Party’s 2019 election-winning manifesto, and the government argues that it is acting on the priorities of those who elected it. The perception that Tory voters are clamoring for hardline law-and-order policies will be tested at next week’s local elections.

Will the gridlock in Parliament now substantially cleared, the government is free to focus on other legislative priorities. Legislation for the coming parliamentary year will be laid out at the State Opening of Parliament on May 10.

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