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

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 cope.

  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 issue—and both of these problems are surmountable—is 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 of election.

  Q44 Chairman: Are the draft regulations already published?

  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 requirements—in my own area, for example, possibly as many as 10 million envelopes—the scale of that clearly has to be properly thought through.

  Q46 Chairman: You do not intend to lick them all!

  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 companies—and there are not many of them—who 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 them—something 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 same operation.

  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 answer.

  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 are taking.

  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 elections—and normally we have elections three years out of four, 21 wards, 63 councillors—this 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 office hours.

  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, a ward.

  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 basis.

  Q56 Mr Clelland: What are the problems around ensuring the secure delivery of ballot papers without compromising their security?

  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 areas—and I am not aware that this has ever happened, but it is possible—post 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 view—and I will obviously comment on the process rather than the politics of the matter—we 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 like too.

  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.

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