Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)|
9 MARCH 2004
Q60 Mr Cummings: Could you tell the Committee
what the costs are of all-postal pilots compared with the cost
of conventional elections?
Mr Crawford: Sunderland piloted
last May. It had a normal cost of a traditional election at about
£150,000 and an all-postal was £200,000.
Mr Pitt: If it is all right for
me to mention the costs in another authority, last year Doncaster's
traditional ballot cost approximately £140,000 and the postal
ballot cost approximately £156,000, which was an 11 % increase.
I would say, though, certainly from Wakefield's point of view,
that there is no doubt that the cost of running a postal ballot
for the first time leads to incurring considerable additional
cost due to the need for publicity, communications and an understanding
by the public of the changes.
Q61 Mr Cummings: What is the cost per
Mr Pitt: Not that much different.
Mr Crawford: It certainly comes
down with a higher turnout.
Mr Morris: In 1999 our cost per
voter in Northampton North and South parliamentary constituencies
was 73 pence per voter. Let's say that is 80 pence or 85 pence
in today's money or something of that sort, I think that is the
benchmark. I will be interested to see what quotations I get in,
but we are working on the broad-brush basis that it is going to
be about £1 a vote, but, of course, if the turnout had been
twice as great in 1999, the cost per voter would probably have
been more or less half, because we had spent all the up-front
money, and the number of people who turn out directly divides
into that statistic, so there is a degree of artificiality about
that. You need to compare like turnout with like turnout in order
to assess value as well as the actual bills that you have spent.
Q62 Mr Cummings: The Committee understand
that the higher the turnout for an all-postal election, the greater
the cost compared with a conventional election where the costs
perhaps remain relatively static. How can councils budget adequately
for all postal elections when outturn costs are unknown?
Mr Crawford: I think the only
factor that is likely to change significantly would be the return
Q63 Chairman: Surely there would be the
return postage and the verification, would there not?
Mr Crawford: I am sorry, I do
not understand, Chairman.
Q64 Chairman: I am sorry, no, in fact
you are not going to have to verify in advance, are you? The signature
is still being argued about as far as the legislation is concerned.
But, assuming that no deal is done which allowed pilots in the
four regions and the old verification system to continue, if you
had the old verification system, that could be quite expensive,
could it not?
Mr Crawford: The verification
costs are marginal, as are the count costs, because you have a
lot of things that you have to organise whether you have a 50%
return or a 10% return.
Q65 Mr Brady: We heard Sam Younger, the
Chairman of the Electoral Commission, earlier say that he thought
it was absolutely key to have personal registration of voters
if there is going to be guaranteed integrity of postal ballots
into the future. If we had that individual registration, have
you any estimate of what the increased costs might be? (Pause)
I will take that as a no.
Mr Morris: I think one would have
to say that it would be quite considerable. Clearly, our only
recent experience of going after every adult for most of us is
applying the community charge, and that is probably not a good
comparator for other reasons. But, quite clearly, in my area,
roughly 83,000 households become just over 150,000 electors, and,
however you do that, whether in paper form, electronically, whatever,
quite clearly the cost per handling of each return is likely to
be roughly arithmetical. You are not going to get much economy
of scale on that, I would not have thought. So, quite clearly
there would be, I think, a marked increase. Plus, of course, one
has to remember that a key aspect of these elections is handling
inquiries from the public. The more participants you have, the
more uncertainty; the more duplication of systems: the more questions
you have. That also is part of the customer resource that you
need to put in place to handle the reality of the total election
Q66 Mr Cummings: Obviously, greater security
for all-postal voting requires greater expenditure. I think we
are all agreed on that. Do you believe councils will take all
necessary steps to safeguard the interests of electors? Should
such costs be borne by council tax payers?
Mr Morris: If I may pick up on
at least part of that. The first thing, of course, is to recognise
that returning officers, with their alternative labels for particular
elections, are essentially independently employed in this respect,
so that, although councils are in some cases underwriting the
costs (obviously not of national or European elections), there
is a degree to which they are already compelled by statute to
assist the returning officer to do the job properly, to do the
job effectively. Nevertheless, if it is going to be the law that
there are significantly higher requirements, more expensive requirements,
then clearly that would be a factor on which I am sure there would
be representations for the Government to take into account, in
the way in which they approach financing. Quite clearly that money
does have to come from somewhere. But, as I have put in the written
evidence that I have submitted, I think it may be unhelpful just
to concentrate on the old ways of ensuring security. Modern technology,
with fingerprint scanning, with the kind of requirements that
you have when you open bank accounts and so on and so forth, I
think that technology may make it possible to approach this whole
question in a different way. If it could be approached in a different
way, then a different set of cost parameters would arise. It is
important, clearly, to get the right balance between the risk
of a vote being abused or a registration being missed and the
cost of achieving that security. You must not deter the voter;
at the same time you must be able to do whatever the action is
many, many thousands of times effectively and reasonably cheaply.
Q67 Chris Mole: How many spot checks
are now carried out to check the accuracy of the electoral register
to avoid fraud and mis-delivery? Is there any evidence that that
might need to change in response to the move to all-postal voting?
Mr Crawford: I think it is important,
as Sam Younger said earlier, not just to rely on the electoral
register, canvas and rolling register. Sunderland is in the middle
of a cleansing exercise, and I think that should form part of
good practice before any election takes place.
Q68 Chairman: Could you just explain
the cleansing exercise? I think I understand it, but let's get
it quite clear. You mean taking names off the register, do you
Mr Crawford: It is where we write
to every household againit is in effect a mini canvassto
ask if their name is listed or still there, and for those that
are not to make representation to complete the form to be registered.
Mr Pitt: On a general issue around
the security of elections, I think everybody involved in elections
takes the issue of security extremely seriously, but, from a personal
point of view, having been involved in elections now in three
local authorities, I have found very, very few examples, if any
serious examples, of misuse of the electoral system. I am aware
that there are some and it does not mean we are blasé about
it, but the issues surrounding security are perhaps less than
a lot of people would think, and certainly, in terms of security,
of course, traditional voting is not the most secure form of elections.
Q69 Chris Mole: Do electoral returning
officers need greater powers to ensure that names submitted for
registration are genuine and not submitted fraudulently to increase
the number of postal votes available?
Mr Crawford: Electoral registration
officers have some fairly wide-ranging powers now and we still
cannot get forms off people.
Q70 Chris Mole: What happens to unopened
postal votes returned as "gone away"? What are the practicalities
of re-issuing ballot papers to electors who claim they did not
Mr Crawford: Our all-postal system
last year was relatively easy. With new technologies, computerisation,
it is simple.
Q71 Chairman: If the dog gets the letter
when it comes through the letterbox, you could issue a new one.
Mr Crawford: Definitely.
Q72 Mr Sanders: One of the problems for
a register of electors is that people have to opt into it. It
is a bit like a census and some of the arguments we have been
having about the accuracy of the census. Are you aware that GPs
registers tend to be higher than electoral registers for the same
area? That is saying something about society. Do you have a view
as to whether there is an alternative of perhaps looking at where
there is other information and cross-referencing it with that
rather than relying upon the existing system?
Ms Mason: We do cross-reference
currently as far as our powers allow us to with the likes of council
tax, so we do have an extensive follow-up in terms of comparing
our register with the council tax register.
Q73 Mr Sanders: Not with GP registers.
You are not allowed to obviously.
Ms Mason: No.
Q74 Mrs Laing: I have often thought about
this when completing a postal voting form, but is there any spot
check? You have been talking about spot checks of the electoral
register, is there any spot check on method of verification or
the declaration of identity, or otherwise examining the validity
of any particular postal vote?
Mr Crawford: Newcastle City Council
at their pilot last year checked over 10,000 signatures, against
the data they held, on returned declarations.
Q75 Chairman: And they rejected quite
a lot, did they not?
Mr Crawford: As unsigned, 6,000.
Q76 Mr Sanders: Out of 10,000.
Mr Crawford: They had a return
of just under 100,000.
Q77 Chairman: And they rejected 6,000,
so it was a very high percentage.
Mr Crawford: They rejected 6,000
as being unsigned.
Q78 Chairman: Out of how many?
Mr Crawford: Just under 100,000.
Q79 Mrs Laing: As being unsigned.
Mr Crawford: Yes, by the elector.
Mr Sanders: That is not the same question.
Mrs Laing: That is not quite the same,
because the elector then has not filled in this form correctly.
Chairman: We have two situations. We
have the situation which is proposed, where in fact the elector
is not going to have to get someone to witness their signature.
So that the pilot that was carried out in Newcastle is not going
to be replicated in this summer's elections. In this summer's
elections, if the Commons has its way as opposed to the Lords,
there will be no verification, you will not have to sign.
Mr Sanders: But that is not the question.