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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-40)

9 MARCH 2004


  Q20 Mr Clelland: Presumably you have studied those countries that do have compulsory voting.

  Mr Younger: It has been on our agenda but it has not been one of the top priorities up to now because there have been other priorities. We are looking to undertake some research on the experience of compulsory voting in other countries. Quite apart from a general view, which is a general prejudice I have which I expressed a moment ago, I think the one experience that is probably closest to ours or the nation which is closest to ours is Australia, which has had compulsory voting for many years. I do remember talking to my counterpart in Australia who said, "It works in Australia largely because it has been there for 100 years and was brought in at a time when you had the kind of deferential society that was prepared to accept it." He said, "Frankly, if we did not have it and tried to introduce it now in the context of modern Australia, it would actually be more or less impossible to make stick." That stuck in my mind as an important factor to take into account. That is not, I think, that we should not be looking at it seriously, it has just not been a sufficient priority for us to have looked at it very hard up to now.

  Q21 Mr Betts: The argument about all-postal voting is that on the one hand it seems to increase turnout and on the other hand there are concerns about security. Given that turnout seems to be there and proven, are you convinced that we can address the security issues and make people feel reassured that there will not be any less secure elections as a result of all-postal voting?

  Mr Younger: Yes, I think we can. There is a number of things that I think are already happening and a number of elements of this, in terms of, for example, offences and the ability to make arrests away from a poling station—obvious ways of changing the law that apply to an all-postal situation as opposed to a conventional situation. There are two key underpinning measures that are not there yet, have not been there in the pilots, which we believe are vital if the roll out of all-postal voting on the wider scale is to be robust. The absolutely critical one there is a move from household to individual registration, with personal identifiers, including the individual voter's signature, against which a return postal vote can be checked. That is why I say it is a messy business moving forward into different methods of voting. It takes a fair bit of time not just to get the primary legislation on the statute book that would bring individual registration but also to implement it, because one would want to implement it in a way that did not instantly mean large numbers of people off the electoral roll. We have some lessons we can learn on a move from household to individual registration because it is exactly what happened in Northern Ireland after the passage of the Electoral Fraud Act in 2002, so there is some experience to go on in that. But I must say that our belief is that is critical. Along with that, if we are to take seriously the checking of the incoming postal vote—the checking against the signature, the follow-up of possible occasions where the signature does not appear to the electoral registration officer to match—we must make sure—and whether this requires legislation or not I think is a question for the future—that electoral services, which have been traditionally in many parts of the country underfunded, are underpinned in a way that actually enables them to carry out the job.

  Q22 Mr Betts: If we are moving towards individual registration, then the efforts of most local authorities now are inadequate in terms of getting a full register produced. If we are going to individual registration, then getting the third and fourth members of the household to register as well as the head is going to require an awful lot more effort.

  Mr Younger: I would absolutely agree.

  Mr Dumper: That is absolute fact. It is becoming increasingly difficult to produce an accurate register of electors under the current system because people are so reluctant now to complete the electoral form on an annual basis; although I think rolling registration has assisted in that because we can link that reminder to register when council tax bills, for example, are being changed because of a change in address. I would like to add one or two things to what Sam has said. I wholly support what Sam mentioned about the issues of security with regard to individual registration enabling us to put in place better checks. A significant concern from my perspective, being a practitioner, would be the delivery of postal votes to houses in multiple occupation. Once a postal vote effectively goes through a letterbox, you do not know what is going to happen to it. Parental pressure may exist. You do not know whether it is actually going to go to the person who is named as the recipient on the postal vote envelope. If you take my own local authority, for example, where we have two or three wards that have a high student population, 20,000 spread over two or three wards, many of these in houses in multiple occupation, at times 16 postal vote envelopes going through one letterbox, it is very difficult to know whether the recipient is actually going to get that.

  Q23 Chris Mole: Would the introduction of a national identity card resolve some of the issues?

  Mr Dumper: If legislation enabled the registration office "or returning office" to make validity checks of postal votes and the identification number on a national ID card was one of those yes, I also see that as an opportunity to dispense with the current arrangements for the declaration of identity, where a third party is actually needed to witness the declaration. That I think is one of those areas we have problems with. It is difficult to give you a percentage but the highest number of votes that are rejected at any election is because the declaration of identity has not been completed properly, and that is wrong when the ballot paper has been completed accurately. The person has clearly made their choice but the failure, first, to understand the process in the completion of the declaration of identity and, secondly, the need to get a third party involved does in fact invalidate a number of votes.

  Mr Younger: We very much support the notion of dispensing with the witness signature on the declaration of identity, partly because people often fill it in wrongly; secondly, because, I think Malcolm would accept, very few electoral registration officers actually check that signature when it comes in, so it is not really an effective fraud check anyway; and, thirdly, we believe it is positively more dangerous to security to invite a third party into an individual's casting of the vote. But, in the end, the ability of that declaration of identity with the individual voter's signature to be a really effective security check does require individual registration.

  Q24 Mr Brady: Last night I raised with the Minister the question of security of the ballot in houses of multiple occupation and he gave assurance in the House that felt adequate steps had been taken to ensure that HMOs would be properly dealt with. It seems from the comments that have been made already that you would share that confidence.

  Mr Younger: I would certainly share the confidence that the individual regional returning officers and returning officers and their staff are looking hard at how they best cope with this problem. I think Malcolm would probably say there is a resource problem here in how you do it. Because actually there is certainly a way of operating effectively with homes of multiple occupation if you actually do, as it were, physical delivery on behalf of the electoral officer yourself; the question is issues of scale in that. Indeed, I think it is fair to say, just to note, that, on the recommendation we made to say that all-postal voting should become the norm, we put a caveat to say that it was open to a returning officer not to do so, given good reasons, and I think one reason might be if you were in a ward, for example, in an area of a local authority that had a very, very high quotient of, say, student population in multiple residences. That might be one reason. I would not want to belittle the importance of the problem, but I think there are ways around it, but part of the way round it rests on the proper funding of electoral operations and I think it is fair to say that we have, as it were, underfunded our democratic processes in the past and I hope we do not do so in the future.

  Q25 Mr Brady: You believe that electoral officers, returning officers, are looking at the problem and recognise there is a problem but, as of now, we do not have adequate resources or adequate measures in place to ensure that fraud does not take place in houses of multiple occupation.

  Mr Younger: As a long-term proposition, yes, but, to be fair . . . I am not trying to duck the issue, it is just that I think there are people coming to your hearing a bit later this morning who are better placed to answer that question than I because they are closer to the individual areas. I am aware that it is an issue of which all the returning officers I speak to in EROs are seized and they are looking to what they can do. One of the difficulties is that there is a resource constraint in what they are in a position to do about it.

  Q26 Mr Betts: Would you say that the all-postal ballots in some ways have forced concentration on some issues which have actually been around with postal voting in ordinary elections for some time? The security issue, where it has been alleged that people will gather up all the postal votes in one house, getting 50 or 60 sent to one address; the issue of the witness attestation which has been a problem for a long time in validating votes; and also the very poor return of the registration forms, particularly from areas with households in multiple occupancy. Are they three big issues which have been around but which actually all-postal voting is now forcing you to address?

  Mr Younger: I think that is a fair point. As we look at changing systems we look at all these things and have to look at them in a way they have not been looked at before. I think registration is a particular one. To add one point: I think we are well aware that if we move to individual registration, or assuming we do, particularly, but even with our existing system of registration, we actually need to do some cleverer operations, it seems to me, in making sure we have the right people on the register. Relying on an annual canvass and rolling registration, I think we would all accept is not enough. There needs to be a greater concentration on it, because the starting point of all this is the fullest and cleanest possible electoral register and I think there is more that could be done in that area.

  Q27 Mr Betts: Does that mean we have to go very slowly on this or can we actually start to learn lessons and push all-postal voting out across the country at a reasonable rate?

  Mr Younger: I think we can roll it out at a reasonable speed. Individual registration, to me, is the key. I think it is fair to say we have been pressing government since we made the recommendation just about a year ago to say that we would see that as the priority now: to get that underpinning registration, to get individual registration on the road, because that is the critical part of giving comfort in the roll-out of all-postal voting.

  Chairman: You are giving us some excellent answers which are very useful. We have five more questions, so could I just stress that we try to make it a little sharper or we are going to overrun in this session.

  Q28 Mr Cummings: Many submissions to the inquiry argue that all-postal voting takes choice away in relation to the method of participation in voting. How important is choice?

  Mr Younger: In principle, the more choice you can provide, the better. But there are practical issues involved in it. Our view has been that all-postal voting has real benefits, if it is correctly underpinned, and that is the direction in which we ought to go. Of course, that means that it would be impractical in resource terms—and, frankly, not justifiable—at the same time to have a polling station everywhere a polling station has traditionally been; however, recognising that there is a question for a number of people who either prefer to physically go and cast their vote somewhere, or, alternatively, require some help in doing so, and that is why we have made the proposal—and it is a proposal that has been taken up in the pilots—for staffed delivery points in local authority areas that allow people not only physically to put their vote in a box there if that is what they feel more comfortable doing but also to be assisted in doing so. That is an element of it. It is not replicating polling stations in what is essentially an all-postal election but it is ensuring that there is a reasonable degree of choice for people who are not comfortable about sending in a postal vote. One has to see all of this always, it seems to me, against the background—which is the thing I always thing it is important to keep in mind—of the benefits, in terms of encouraging more people to fill in their vote, of going in an all-postal direction.

  Mr Dumper: It has to be that postal voting is more convenient, in so much as it gives the elector more time to cast their vote. The returning officers would traditionally have most postal votes out five to seven days before the day of election. Whatever political campaign might be going on right up to a day or two before the election, then the elector does have the opportunity to take on board whatever campaign is going on, maybe to influence their vote. In a polling station, of course, they would go in and cast their vote, already having made their mind up, certainly, but the postal vote system does allow them more time to make their choice.

  Q29 Mr Cummings: It does appear that the experience of all-postal voting has been quite positive. Has any more detailed and quality work been done to assess how well individuals understood or coped with the system?

  Mr Younger: Yes, indeed. In the pilot areas there has been a good deal of work done, both in terms of the Commission's own research and research done by local authorities in the context of the pilots, which has brought out the answer that people have felt broadly informed. There have been variations in the publicity of local authorities surrounding all-postal voting, and it has been absolutely clear that, where there has been better publicity, there has been better understanding, but I think it is fair to say that broadly the public reaction has been positive. The critical figure to me among those we had from MORI was in a survey in 2003 of all the all-postal areas. Whether they voted or not, the people in those areas, when asked whether they regarded the ease of use as being in a range from good to neither-good-nor-bad to bad, 85% said good and only 7% said poor. In terms of convenience, 89% said good and only 4% said poor. That seems to me a fairly strong figure. Interestingly, in the same survey—which is where we do need to make sure that we move to address the issues of security—the figures were not so strong in terms of safety from abuse: 48% said it was good in terms of safety from abuse and 23% said poor. Clearly there is more work to do there, but in terms of ease of use and convenience there has been very much a positive response from voters, although it has also been clear that the simplicity of use is related to the simplicity of the declarations one is required to make. When voters have been asked in those areas which have piloted no declaration of identity at all, that is the easiest to use for voters. The ones that have required a counter-signature get less high marks on that. Our view is that actually requiring no signature at all, although being easy to use for the voter, is a step too far in terms of taking a leg away from the security stool, but that the witness signature does not add sufficiently to the security in order to be something that is worth doing against the potential voter confusion.

  Q30 Mr Cummings: How do you respond to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe in advising extreme caution in postal votes?

  Mr Younger: My own view is that extreme caution is a very good watchword. I would say that there has been extreme caution. We have done a number of pilots. It is not yet rolled out. There is a large number of measures that are either being implemented through the pilots or under serious consideration and I hope moving forward, such as individual registration.

  Q31 Mr Cummings: So "the heightened risk of family voting" does not worry you.

  Mr Younger: Risk of any abuse worries me, but this is why I say that it does have to be seen against the context of what we need to do in order to make voting convenient for lifestyles of today and of the future. I think, weighed against that, with the measures that are either in place now or that are suggested to be in place, the dangers cannot be eliminated entirely—because I do not think attempts to defraud the system will ever be eliminated entirely: they were there in the conventional system—but can be coped with.

  Q32 Mr Betts: It has been suggested that all-postal voting on a regional basis for the June elections cannot now be considered as a pilot. Are you convinced that can be done now adequately and safely, bearing in mind all the things we have discussed today, whether it be in two regions or four regions?

  Mr Younger: Our view is that there is a benefit in scaling up and it is particularly a benefit in terms of testing the capacity of external agencies (printers, for example, and the Royal Mail) to cope with something on a wider regional basis. In a response to government we have not been in agreement with the Government that we should go as high as four: 37-38% of the English electorate seems to us to be too big a number, the risks being there—particularly, in those areas which have a high proportion of complexity in terms of local elections at the same time, many of them all-out elections on new electoral boundaries—so we have concerns there. We also have concerns about rolling out too far. People have referred already to the fact that once people get into all-postal they are reluctant to move back again and I think moving too far down that road before we have the underpinning legislation in place is something that I am concerned about.

  Q33 Mr Betts: I am sorry, I do not understand that. If it is going to be no problem doing it in the North East, why is there a problem doing it in Yorkshire and the Humber? Once you roll it out, they may not want to go back, but they may not want to go back in the North East. Having another region or another two regions, why does that not work in principle?

  Mr Younger: They certainly do not want to go back in the North East. I think it is fair to say that, as it were, the nature of the risk is not different in one region from another. The scale of the risk is, I think, greater because of the complexity.

  Q34 Mr Betts: It is the same risk over a larger area, that is all, is it not?

  Mr Younger: Yes, but the quantum of risk increases and particularly the quantum of risk—and this is one of the things that worried us. One of the things we took into account in making our recommendations—and I accept there have been discussions between government and regional returning officers since then in which we have not been involved, but one of the factors that government asked us to take into account—and indeed the Government itself was very clear needed to be taken into account when London was excluded from the potential for a pilot because of the complexity of the electoral process going on in London—was to look at the numbers of authorities in a region and the complexity of the elections they face. If you take, say, the North West, it has a much higher proportion of local authorities undertaking local elections than either of the two regions we have suggested. It is more than three-quarters, as opposed to 15% in the East Midlands.

  Q35 Mr Betts: I understand the electoral officers in Yorkshire and Humber have now said they actually are content they can manage all-postal vote elections. Is that true?

  Mr Dumper: I would not really want to comment on that. I have not consulted colleagues.

  Q36 Mr Brady: On that basis of complexity, would it be the case that the North West is actually the least suitable of the Government's favoured four regions?

  Mr Younger: In terms of that complexity, yes. Nearly 77% of authorities in the North West have other elections, including many all-outs in the mets. In Yorkshire and Humberside it is nearly 62%, compared to only 15% in the East Midlands and just over a quarter in the North East. That was one of the factors in the consideration we gave.

  Q37 Chris Mole: We have said quite a few things about security and secrecy in voting within households. People look at issues like dominant family members, enthusiastic canvassers potentially bribing or using threats of violence. When was the last occasion when anybody actually heard of any of those things happening in reality, returning to the question of the hypothetical as opposed to the real risk?

  Mr Younger: I think you are right to say that the empirical evidence is not there that this is a problem of any scale. Equally, when we look at all-postal voting or, indeed, any other method, I think we have to recognise that there are, as it were, the objective issues that are empirically based that need to be addressed. There is also a public confidence issue—which is not necessarily exactly the same thing—that needs to be addressed. We need to make sure there are measures in place, in a sense, to over-ensure. The other point I would make in terms of things like family influence and so on is that, of course, all-postal voting is not different in that from having opened the door by postal voting on demand, because with postal voting on demand anybody, if they really want to make sure their family will vote in a way they want them to, can make sure their family applies for a postal vote. Having decided on it, it seems to me it is inconceivable we would go back from postal voting on demand. That principle, as it were, that Rubicon, has already been crossed, and it seems to me the roll-out of all-postal voting does not make too much difference to it, albeit we need to make sure we get all the right secrecy and security warnings in place and make sure the right offences are available and make sure—and it is not something that has always happened—that there is a real focus in the police on following up allegations of fraud. Malcolm would know more of this than me, but I think historically the police have preferred to leave politics alone as far as is possible.

  Q38 Chris Mole: Would you agree that it is right to start from the principle of assuming that everyone is an individual responsible adult? We can vote by post/electronically in ballots for union general secretaries, for the demutualization of building societies. People are getting used to these sorts of methods and expect to be treated as an adult in this.

  Mr Younger: I would agree with that.

  Mr Dumper: You are right, there is no hard evidence of parental influence, but of course parental influence could also take place prior to the individual voting at a polling station.

  Q39 Chairman: We could have these pilots this summer and then we could move on to the general election where we would actually go back to everybody having to go to the polling station—or not everybody, because a whole lot of people could apply for the right to vote by post. Would it be very difficult administratively if, say, 50% of the electorate were choosing to vote by post and the other 50% were choosing to turn up to the polling station?

  Mr Dumper: The administration of postal votes is resource hungry. I employ the same amount of staff to conduct an election no matter what the method is. If I give you an example of Southampton's postal vote figure rising from 2,000 in the 1997 general election to 26,000 in our last local election. We are not a pilot region. That is postal voting on demand, and the additional advertising and awareness that postal voting is available. With the same amount of staff, it is extremely difficult to conduct. The postal vote process, particularly the issue and the opening process prior to election day, is very, very resource hungry, and, in my view, is substantially dearer than traditional voting methods.

  Q40 Chairman: Is that because you need permanent staff to do that? Whereas manning polling stations is a nice little earner, is it not, for whoever?

  Mr Dumper: Well, some might not say that, at £4 an hour for a polling clerk, but, yes, you do need dedicated staff for postal voting who understand the process. Clearly, polling staff need to, but they are likely to be casual labour you can get in for one day only. For a postal vote process, you may need six to a dozen staff for a week to two-week period.

  Chairman: On that note, may I thank you both very much for giving evidence to the Committee.

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