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

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 voter?

  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 postage.

  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 management.

  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 not?

  Mr Crawford: It is where we write to every household again—it is in effect a mini canvass—to 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 receive them?

  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.

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