Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence


Memorandum by the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) (POS 38)

  The National Association of Local Councils (NALC), submits the following statement for consideration by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee in its inquiry into Postal Voting (as it affects the European Parliament and Local Authority Elections in 2004).

  NALC's contribution is in two parts, the first part looks at the guiding principals we believe should be part of a sustained "renewed democracy" campaign, part of which the promotion and extension of Postal Voting might figure. The second part looks at our attitude to Postal Voting in general, the pilots and the proposals for June 2004. NALC is unapologetic at stating that this the work already done by and the potential of, the First Tier of Local Government (Town, Parish and Community Councils of England and Wales), in promoting renewed democracy is extensive but requires support.

PART 1

  The aim and objectives of an renewed democracy policy will only be achieved if the participatory tools are available to everyone, effective as a means for democratic participation and trusted by all participants. Therefore, NALC proposes that a renewed democracy policy be underpinned by five principles

    —  Inclusion—a voice for all expressed through appropriate mediums.

    —  Openness—open provision of information on voting options.

    —  Security and privacy—a safe place to participate.

    —  Responsiveness—listening and responding to problems.

    —  Deliberation—constantly widening access.

  These principles should be encompassed in an democracy charter that informs people of their rights and responsibilities.

Inclusion—a voice for all

  It is important for democracy that everyone should have access to the ballot box. NALC acknowledges that, for a form of voting to be truly democratic, issues other than access need to be considered. For example, new/extended forms of voting should allow for the participation of people who do not use English as a first language or who are illiterate. Any study should look at a very broad range of inclusion factors, including gender issues as well as disability, language, social and educational barriers to democratic involvement.

  When postal voting was made universally available in the General Election 2001, this new method was considerably successful in terms of take-up. This may show that people appreciate more convenient ways to vote and are willing to try something new.

  NALC acknowledges that the democratic process will work best if it is conducted as openly as possible. An underpinning principle of democracy is openness.

Security and privacy

  Security and privacy are especially important in voting. The regulations governing the electoral register and the conduct of polls effectively impose security standards on the electoral system.

  In participation, NALC recognises that the democratic process works best when conducted as openly as possible. However, it is vital to respect people's requests for privacy when they contribute to the process.

Responsiveness

  It is our view people like to vote. The electorate, as all studies show, is more inclined to go out and vote when they are given the opportunity to do it quickly and conveniently. Whilst welcoming the recent commitment to e-voting/weekend voting and other minor reforms, we do feel that Government (and the Principal Local Authorities) have yet to articulate a coherent policy on renewed democracy, and this failure contributes to the decline in turn-out. Principal Local Authorities should be given the duty of finding out what barriers to voter participation exist locally in there jurisdiction (specially looking at forms of voting and not falling back on the cop-out of "politicians behaviour") and then responding positively to removing any such barriers.

Deliberation

  For effective deliberation in an election environment, there should be enough space and time to examine complex issues, to develop ideas and to enable constructive discussions between citizens. This will also demand the encouragement of an environment where people can contribute without fearing that they will be shouted down, have their ideas ridiculed or find their views lost among others competing for the same space. Variations in personal style should be accepted, so that citizens can voice their own case and contribute in their own way. It is important that contributions get noticed and are developed..

  The National Association is willing to promote the idea that First-Tier Councils are the natural starting point for policies on democratic renewal and the best place for pilots that encompass effective guidelines for deliberation.

PART 2

Postal Votes

  NALC supports the use of Postal Voting, its extension from a request orientated voting tool to a right and general expectation. We do not however support any proposals that mean the end of polling stations. We see no incompatibility between Postal Voting been universal and Polling Stations been open on Polling Day. In the context of the June 2004 pilot areas and the subsequent difference of opinion between the Government and the House of Lords, we offer the following view: If Electoral Returning Officers in Yorkshire/North West are not ready for such a experiment, we, as representing the First-Tier, would like to know why, as we were under the impression that re-engaging the electorate with the democratic process was one of their core responsibilities.

  NALC welcomes the 2001 decision by the Government to relax the criteria for obtaining a postal vote and the subsequent pilots in all postal voting elections. Our policy is based on our belief that voting should be as easy as possible (without becoming facile or vulnerable to fraud). NALC also believes in the following, slightly cliqued, but still valid, position of no price too big to pay for democracy. We think that sentiment applies across all forms of governance and can be applied to this issue.

  Last year, the Electoral Commission proposed to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that the administration costs of all elections be paid for out of a central pot, administered by the Electoral Commission. We fully support this and await ODPM's response (we suspect that the Treasury may not be keen!). Presently, it is a lottery whether a First-Tier Council is re-charged for elections and clearly where costs are rising this lottery will become worse. We also note that if the Electoral Commission's proposals on the Cycle of Elections are to be implemented, then the case for the central pot is unarguable against.

Proxy Votes

  On the matter of proxy votes (in the context of Postal Voting), we believe that they are so open to corruption that we would like the Committee to consider whether there is still a case for the existence of proxy votes for anybody other than overseas voters and those voters who will be out of the country for polling day.

  We note that all of the major parties encourage their campaigners to try to sign up as many voters as possible to proxy votes. We believe that such campaigns are currently completely legitimate, but that there is a very small distance between legitimate campaigning and an over enthusiastic campaigner falsifying proxy vote applications. We therefore feel that it would be beneficial to take the whole realm of proxy voting out of the party campaigning field.

Timing

  A recent change to the postal vote rules changed the deadline for the last day on which a voter could apply for a postal vote from 10 days before poll to six days before poll. In view of the advances in technology and the frustration caused to voters who used to miss out, we welcomed this change in the law.

Administration

  We note with encouragement that the increased number of postal votes at the last general election (in some areas hugely increased) was, by and large, administered efficiently and effectively by local Electoral Returning Officers. We would encourage the Committee to consider asking that the Electoral Commission annually issue a best practice guide on this matter.

Errors and Omissions

  Inevitably, with a far larger number of postal votes, there were a number of mistakes that occurred. We believe that the number of mistakes was larger than that which occurred at previous elections and that this is a cause for some concern.

  We have no evidence that they were deliberate acts of fraud or sabotage. We recognise that there will always be a risk of human error, but where errors occur there needs to be a full investigation with a view to determining whether the procedures are sufficiently robust and whether the safeguards are adequate.

  We believe that some elections staff and some of those involved in postal service sorting offices and deliveries may need to re-assess their ability to cope with the extra burdens placed on them by elections. It may well be the case that none of these errors would have changed the result of the election in a particular seat, but we view it as a key priority for the Committee to ensure that elections staff, Royal Mail/Consignia staff and councils which decide the amount of money to be allocated to democratic services are all brought on board for a discussion aimed at avoiding complacency in the future.

Fraud

  The issue of the potential for fraud in postal voting was one which does command a disproportionate amount of air time.

  Our view is that there has always been a potential for some fraud in postal votes and that the relaxation of the rules to create postal votes on demand has not increased this potential.

  We believe that postal vote fraud can be split into two categories—opportunistic fraud and organised fraud. Whilst we believe that both are serious and should be punished where proved, we believe that organised fraud, which has the power to change election results and shakes public confidence in elections, needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency.

  It is our view that there are currently sufficient powers for EROs to tackle most cases of fraud. These powers include the ability to investigate applications to join the electoral register, to amend the register in the light of reports of deaths, and to investigate applications for postal and proxy votes.

  We believe that far too few EROs are using their existing powers due to lack of staff, time, money or willingness. Our view is that at least random checks should be carried out by all EROs on postal vote and register applications and that guidance should be issued by the Electoral Commission on this matter. We believe that if EROs continue to show an inability or unwillingness to use their powers to combat fraud, then the Committee should consider asking Parliament to introduce extra powers or instructions to combat fraud.

Registration and Rolling Registers

  NALC supports the move away from annual registration and towards rolling registers which can be updated on a monthly basis. However, we believe that the current, almost random, final date for registering in order to be on the register for the next month is confusing and in need of revision. We feel that there should be a fixed date in the month by which a voter needs to register in order to be included on the register the next month.

  We believe that the biggest concern about rolling registers are that old addresses may not be deleted properly and that regular, if not annual, canvasses are required to ensure that people are not missed off the register through ignorance of the new system. We would therefore welcome strengthened guidelines to ensure best practice among EROs.

  NALC wholly supports the use of contact addresses to allow people without permanent homes to register. We believe that this is a very progressive move and support further efforts to publicise the new system. We would welcome efforts by the Committee to persuade the Electoral Commission to identify and target other groups who may currently find registration difficult.

CONCLUSION

  Other than our concern (expressed earlier) that costs should not trickle down to the First-Tier, we support the case for an extension of all Postal Ballots, but as a tool of choice. We do not support the hysteria around fraud and certainly find the "cost" arguments to be fundamentally flawed. We look forward to the quick implementation of the Electoral Commission's proposals on a central pot for election administration costs. NALC supports any and all effective tools to the renewal of democratic participation and civic re-engagement.

  One further point. The Cabinet Office recently consulted on consultations, it recommends a minimum of eight weeks and a normality of 12 weeks between the issuing of a document and the final response date. It would, in our view, be useful if Select/Departmental Committees could move towards a similar time scale.


 
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