Examination of Witnesses (Questions 41-59)|
9 MARCH 2004
Q41 Chairman: Welcome to our Committee.
May I ask you to introduce yourselves.
Mr Morris: Good morning, sir.
I am Roger Morris. I am Chief Executive of Northampton Borough
Council and in this connection I am also Regional Returning Officer
for the East Midlands European Parliamentary Election Region.
Mr Crawford: Bill Crawford, Sunderland
City Council Elections Officer, which is in the North East Region.
Ms Mason: Christine Mason, Electoral
Services Manager at Wakefield Metropolitan District Council, Yorkshire
and Humber Region.
Mr Pitt: John Pitt, Corporate
Director, Wakefield, and the election team is within my directorate.
Chairman: Is there anything you want
to say by way of introduction or are you happy to go straight
to questions? Straight to questions. Could I emphasise, if you
agree, we do not need to hear from you, but, if you disagree,
please get in very quickly.
Q42 Mr Betts: It has been said that the
all-postal elections do cause more work and more difficulties
for the administration of the elections. Is that your experience
and your view of the situation? If so, how do you intend to cope
in June this year?
Mr Crawford: In the North East
region, where we have a high percentage of local authorities already
piloted, we have learned from that. We can adjust the staffing
levels and workloads accordingly.
Ms Mason: At Wakefield we have
not been part of an all-postal pilot, so this is new for us. We
anticipate that, yes, there will be more work this time, but,
given the loss of time that we have already had, we just need
to get on with the job. We are ready to go but we need to get
on with it.
Mr Pitt: The issue of workload,
in terms of it being the first pilot for Wakefield, is publicity,
communication and information to the public. It is not just workload
in terms of organising the election; it is workload in terms of
familiarity with the public who will be dealing with this election
in this way for the first time.
Q43 Mr Betts: Three is more work, there
is more preparation, but none of you see any problems. If your
regions have an all- postal ballot in June, you will be able to
Mr Pitt: From Wakefield's point
of view, I would see two problems. Firstly, with all due respect,
getting the regulations out as soon as possible, so we can make
the necessary preparation. The second issueand both of
these problems are surmountableis dealing with the other
organisations who are going to be involved in the process, such
as the post office and printers, making sure they fully understand
the implications and the magnitude of involvement in this sort
Q44 Chairman: Are the draft regulations
Mr Morris: No, Chairman, not for
the pilot areas. They do not exist in draft, although some of
us, in particular Bill Crawford and myself, have been taking part
in oral discussions. At the moment we simply have a policy paper
which clearly will need to change as the Houses settle the form
of the Pilots Bill.
Q45 Chairman: Would you like then to
give us a sort of date. Do you really need them today? Or what
is the deadline in practice?
Mr Morris: Ideally, Chairman,
we would have wished to have that information, frankly, several
months ago, several weeks ago. The fact is we are where we are.
In my own case we are just in the process of advertising for suppliers.
Unlike Mr Crawford's region, we have relatively little experience
in the East Midlands but we do have 40 local authorities. It is
a question, as the colleague from Wakefield said, John Pitt, of
really timing, I think, and scale. We are looking to do this across
3,250,000 people, which is rather different from one local authority
and a few thousand people. Although the system is the same, multiplying
it by that scale is the issue involved. It has procurement implications,
training implications and now, with only something like, I think,
94 days to go, obviously we are into the last possible stages
for everything to be done. There is, therefore, no opportunity
for things to go wrong. Those of us who are used to running elections
understand the tensions that produces but, clearly, where you
have very large scale logistical requirementsin my own
area, for example, possibly as many as 10 million envelopesthe
scale of that clearly has to be properly thought through.
Q46 Chairman: You do not intend to lick
Mr Morris: Not personally, Chairman.
Q47 Mr Brady: When is the deadline, the
minimum lead time you need to put this into effect?
Mr Morris: The deadline really,
Chairman, is based often around what other people have to be able
to do for you, as well as what the formal statutory timetable
requires. The statutory timetable in the pilot areas is expected,
I think, to start on 30 April, in the technical sense that we
have to put the notice of election up that day. But, clearly,
if you are in the hands of sophisticated printing, bar-coding,
procurement requirements, then you have to have regard to the
kind of companiesand there are not many of themwho
are equipped to operate at that scale. I think that is an issue
which relates to the number of pilots. If there are two pilots,
we have about 5,500,000 electors maximum between themsomething
of that order, 5 million plus. If you go to four pilots, it is,
I think, over 14 million. The scale of that procurement is massive.
In my own authority we experienced some increase last time but
we only had 5% of our electors vote by post. We still did all
that in the old-fashioned manual way, with clerical help, which
has been described to you this morning. We simply cannot scale
from 5,000 in my own local authority to potentially 80,000. You
have to approach it differently. Therefore we are in the hands
of suppliers with different approaches to what is, at root, the
Q48 Mr Sanders: You have answered and
said that there are going to be some particular problems with
the June elections, but, how satisfied are you with the briefing
and training available prior to June, especially for those, as
in your case, to whom this is all new?
Mr Crawford: The Electoral Commission
have a contract with SOLACE and AEA (who we are members of) and
they will deliver adequate training for us.
Q49 Mr Sanders: That is a diplomatic
Mr Pitt: Could I make a point
on this, Chairman? It is purely a personal point of view, which
is that the worst possible option from Wakefield's point of view
at the moment would be to change our minds. Since the decision
was made in principle that we would be going ahead for an all-postal
vote, that is the preparation that we have done, and I think it
would cause us real difficulty now if we were to move back to
a position where we were going to go for a traditional vote. In
terms of both the last two questions, that is the approach we
Q50 Mr Sanders: Assuming it goes ahead,
is there not a danger of causing confusion for the electorate
by having different electoral systems for different elections?
Mr Pitt: I think that is undoubtedly
the case. I was previously at Doncaster and responsible for the
pilot that took place there in 2000 with the Conisbrough by-election
and that went extremely well, turnout doubled, but there was undoubtedly
a degree of confusion with the electorate when at the next election
you revert to a traditional voting system. I think that is inevitable.
Q51 Mr Clelland: If I may follow that
up, in these elections people will have different voting systems.
Some people will be voting on a first past-the-post basis and
the European elections will be voting on a PR system.
Mr Pitt: There will be. There
is almost double confusion, if you like: not only do we have the
local electionsand normally we have elections three years
out of four, 21 wards, 63 councillorsthis year, of course,
it is all 63 councillors up for election. Not only is it a question
of being elected, it is also the fact that the position in terms
of the ballot determines their length of tenure, whether it is
two, three or four years. It is undoubtedly going to be a complex
election for the public to grasp.
Q52 Chairman: On this question of timing,
you have all the suppliers who might be interested, has the number
of people who are prepared to bid for these contracts to do the
stationery and printing been reduced because of the time factor?
Mr Morris: Yes, Chairman. I put
a notice in the European Journal about a week ago. A major
company, whose name everyone round the table would recognise with
whom we had had some preparatory discussions, have pulled out
solely on the basis of the time and the risk to them involved
in planning it at this late stage. I think I will still get bids.
I have optimism that we will still be able to do the job effectively
with contractors, but it is an anxiety that that factor is putting
off people whom you would wish to see compete.
Q53 Mr Clelland: Are there any particular
difficulties in providing delivery points for people to post their
ballots rather than subscribing to the postal system?particularly
in terms of security, as some of these points will be open after
Ms Mason: I think it is just a
case of selecting the right delivery points. We are never going
to please everybody but we will endeavour to put them in the right
places and make them as central as possible within, hopefully,
Q54 Mr Clelland: Have there been any
problems in the experience of Sunderland, where you have gone
through this system before?
Mr Crawford: The basic paper to
which we have been privy talks about "supported delivery
points". In the past, some of the pilots have used simply
drop-off points, and that will not be allowed this time round.
Supported delivery points will be there to receive, to give assistance,
and to have an area where people can mark their votes, and the
votes at the end of each day will be removed.
Q55 Mr Clelland: So it will be like a
polling station basically?
Mr Crawford: Yes, but on a smaller
Q56 Mr Clelland: What are the problems
around ensuring the secure delivery of ballot papers without compromising
Mr Morris: Chairman, we have had
some discussions, including particularly, again, Mr Crawford and
myself, with the Royal Mail representatives. At national level
they are taking the issue very seriously and arrangements are
in hand to put in place the capacity locally to do that job. I
have no reason to think there will be any difficulty from the
security side with the Royal Mail. After all, they handle a lot
of secure material in the ordinary course of every day. I think
I would echo the concerns that the two previous witnesses put
to you about vulnerable points in the life of the ballot paper,
so to speak, once it has left the hands of the returning officer
or the original starting point, because, clearly, it is possible
to see how things can go wrong. But I think we need to have a
sense of proportion about this. Most of us are saying that we
do not have a lot of evidence of concern or problems on the ground.
There is some. We can all probably quote one or two cases. Certainly
in my own authority there is potential but we have not experienced
any really secure evidence on which I would say that the system
is vulnerable, but I would echo the points about houses of multiple
occupation. In my experience, most of the people who want to do
something with an individual vote are not really into "farming"
or trying to change the result of the election; they have some
personal interest perhaps based on getting themselves on the register
for credit reasons or other things of that sort. Their aim is
less to do with the voting outcome than their personal interests.
Q57 Mr Clelland: Is there a danger that
in some areasand I am not aware that this has ever happened,
but it is possiblepost boxes become full and overflowing
and therefore compromise the possible security of the system?
Mr Morris: These things are theoretically
possible, Chairman. I am not aware that we have any particular
issues with them in practice. Bear in mind that all the elections
officers are pretty experienced at dealing with these things.
They know roughly the turnover to expect, they plan accordingly.
I am sure we all err on the side of caution and, whilst I would
not say we could never be caught out, I think we are alive to
the difficulties of ballot boxes which are full or particular
difficulties on the day.
Q58 Mrs Laing: I have a quick question
about timing. Is the pilot experiment at risk because you have
to have long enough to put things into place? Mr Pitt said that
the worse thing that could happen is a change in plan now, but,
given that the current plans are not properly set in concrete
because they have not been authorised by Parliament, should this
whole matter not have been started much earlier than it was?
Mr Pitt: Speaking from Wakefield's
point of viewand I will obviously comment on the process
rather than the politics of the matterwe are working on
the assumption, since a decision in principle was made, that we
are going to be running a postal ballot. That is what we are preparing
for and we are continuing to prepare for. As I say, the real difficulty
for us now we have started down the route of printers and so on,
would be to revert to a traditional ballot. Obviously the earlier
we have regulations and the earlier the decisions are made, the
better, but from our point of view we are preparing for an all-postal
ballot across Yorkshire. We certainly in Wakefield will make that
a success, but the sooner we get the regulations, the detail around
registers and so on, the better it is going to be for us.
Mr Crawford: We can also organise
parliamentary elections in three and a half to six weeks, so it
can be done. At some cost to our health, but it can be done!
Q59 Mrs Laing: We know what that feels
Ms Mason: If I might just say,
we are a bit far down the road now. With preparations for a traditional
election, we have lost so much time. We would have had a lot of
things in place now which we do not have.