Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 420 - 439)



  420. If you give councils greater control over their own finances we might improve the turnout at local elections?
  (Mr Raynsford) I am not sure that is necessarily a corollary, it depends entirely on how the councillors act in pursuance of those freedoms and flexibilities. We are intending to give them those freedoms and flexibilities.

  421. What special consideration is being made for planning and emergency budgets for 2002 and 2003?
  (Mr Raynsford) We will be announcing the Fire Authority budget this afternoon in the statement. We have taken account, obviously, of representations relating to the requirements of the fire service and special arrangements have been put in place by my colleagues in the Home Office in relation to policing requirements as well.

  422. Who should the public turn to in the case of civil emergencies?
  (Mr Raynsford) The Home Secretary is responsible for chairing the Civil Contingency Committee which overseas this matter.

  423. Do you Chair the London Civil Contingency?
  (Mr Raynsford) I chair the sub committee which deals with London resilience and it reports to the main CCC, which the Home Secretary chairs.

  424. Do we have a similar committee for other cities in the regions?
  (Mr Raynsford) Not for other cities in the regions specifically, but there is a United Kingdom Resilience Committee which covers the country as a whole, which Christopher Leslie chairs.

Christine Russell

  425. Can I move you on to elections now, various different mechanisms have been tested to try to improve voter turnout, like voting in the supermarkets and increasing the eligibility for postal votes. Can I ask you what you consider have been the most effective and whether there is any evidence that, in fact, more people have voted as a result of these new initiatives?
  (Mr Raynsford) The evidence is pretty conclusive that where there is more extensive use of postal voting this has had a positive impact. The indications of pilots are that while the public welcomed alternative options, such as location of polling stations and the ability to vote on days other than the polling date itself, the impact on overall turnout was probably marginal, whereas with postal votes, certainly where all postal ballots have been conducted, there has been a significant increase in the level of turnout.

  426. Staying with postal votes, can I ask you what is being done to ensure that postal voting is not going to be subjected to fraud? In particular I am obviously thinking about the case of the Radio 4 Today journalist who went to Torbay and managed, fairly easily, to acquire, I think, the vote of seven electors who, in fact, were recently deceased. Why was that journalist not prosecuted?
  (Mr Raynsford) That I have to say I do not know. Prosecution is not a matter of my responsibility. What I can say is there are obvious questions about potential for fraud in all types of elections and it is important that we maximise the safeguards against that. Many people find the requirement to return their postal vote in a sealed envelope inside another sealed envelope where there is a reference to their own name as an over-complex system and it does deter some people from postal voting. That is a necessary safeguard against the kind of abuse that you have described. There is always a tension between achieving a system which is easy for people to operate and achieving a secure one. That will be very much part of a pilot that we are hoping to run next May, in which we have invited bids from local government for schemes involving electronic voting and telephone voting, as well as postal voting and other schemes which have also been tried in the past.

  427. Could we not look at other simple measures to get round the postal vote fraud, a fairly simple method would be asking the local registrar of births and deaths to inform the local authority's electoral registrations officer of deaths in the locality?
  (Mr Raynsford) This would ultimately be a matter for the local electoral registration officer working on guidance issued by the Electoral Commission. Certainly I would expect the Electoral Commission to give a lot of attention to the safeguards that will be built into the various new types of voting which will be trialed this May, and subsequently, if we carry forward, trials on electronic voting and other innovative types of voting. It is essential to get the right balance between ease of voting and safeguards. The Electoral Commission has come into existence in order to oversee this. We have established a good relationship with them but they do have an independent existence and you would expect them to look at these issues and make recommendations.

  428. Do they have a big enough budget?
  (Mr Raynsford) I discussed this with Sam Younger, who indicated that he was happy to work within the budget he had got and he was able to meet his responsibilities. Obviously this is a developing situation where we will need to come back and look at this again. We have no reason to believe he has not got an adequate budget to fulfill the responsibilities of the Electoral Commission.

Mrs Dunwoody

  429. Where is the line drawn between your department, the Electoral Commission and the local authorities for the responsibility of increasing voter turnout?
  (Mr Raynsford) There is an element of responsibility on all sides.

  430. Shall we start again? Where does the line lie between those three groups for the responsibility of increasing voter turnout?
  (Mr Raynsford) The local authority is responsible for the handling of local elections and parliamentary elections and other elections in their area and their electoral registration officers will seek to do their best to encourage participation and promote high turnout. The Electoral Commission has been established to review arrangements and to offer advice. It has produced, in my view, a very useful report on the General Election of this year which did suggest various innovations which might help to increase turnout. That is their role and I think they are performing that role very well and I am sure they will want to go on doing so. Our Department has now taken over responsibility for electoral law from the Home Office. We want to talk to the Electoral Commission about its proposals, some of those we will want to give effect to, we will therefore need to bring them to this House, we well discuss them with local government and we will discuss them with the political parties before coming forward with recommendations.

  431. Can we have some quick answers to some of these, when are you going to set out your strategy for e-democracy?
  (Mr Raynsford) We hope to publish the national strategy in the early part of next year. It has been a very successful programme to date, there has been very extensive local government response, where they are implementing electronic government plans, we are very pleased with the progress.

  432. Are citizenship classes really going to make any difference? What is there place in the national curriculum for such a system of education?
  (Mr Raynsford) I have to say this is an issue on which there is on going discussion and I would not want to give a definitive answer at this stage. I think it is important.

  433. I do not think any of us would accuse you of giving definitive answers, Minister.
  (Mr Raynsford) I try not to on things that I cannot. I think it is important to try and encourage people—

  434. Are you going to make voting compulsory?
  (Mr Raynsford) We have no plans to do that.

  435. How many referenda have been held in the last 12 months?
  (Mr Raynsford) On elected mayors, it is right to say about 15 have been held so far.

  436. Who approves the wording?
  (Mr Raynsford) The wording is set out in the framework which is provided by the government to local authorities.

  437. What does that mean?
  (Mr Raynsford) Legislation which governs this indicates the format for the referendum.

  438. Who approves the wording, Minister? I am a bit daft, I need it spelt out. Not within the framework, not all of the guidelines, who looks at the question on the paper and approves the wording?
  (Mr Raynsford) I will give you a written answer on that

  439. A written answer!
  (Mr Raynsford) At the moment I am not absolutely certain on that one.

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