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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)

9 MARCH 2004


  Q80 Mrs Laing: Mr Chairman, with respect, that is exactly the point that I want to follow up. If there is no verification, there is no witness's signature, so, if somebody wanted to gather together quite a few postal vote forms and put a different sort of signature on each one, they could do so and it is very unlikely that their fraud would be detected.

  Mr Crawford: That is right.

  Q81 Chairman: Could I have a clear answer. You are saying yes.

  Mr Crawford: Yes.

  Chairman: Fine.

  Q82 Mr Clelland: That probably brings us to the question of the design and the printing of the volume of material which has to go out. The way it is designed and the way it is printed will be quite crucial in terms of security, its accessibility by disabled people, and in terms of the administration of the ballot. How do you balance these pressures?

  Mr Morris: We are ensuring in the pilot areas that the envelopes will be readily identifiable. They will have purple flashes on them, by agreement with the Royal Mail, so that it is clear what they are and where they are in the stream.

  Q83 Chairman: You can guarantee that no political party uses purple flashes as their logo, can you?

  Mr Morris: I am not sure that one can guarantee anything in this process, Chairman, with potentially 17 or 18 political parties, but we will have some means of readily identifying them in that sense. A lot of time has been spent on the discussion of the ballot paper, whether it should be landscape, portrait or whatever—and I think it is fair to say that that has been broadly settled now—because clearly the ballot paper is not an issue that is special particularly to the pilot areas; that is a general discussion of national significance. There is some concern about the requirement, for example, to print all the names in lists, because of the physical size, and, quite obviously, once you start going into a seriously large paper, bigger certainly than A3 or much longer than can readily be handled, then a different kind of issue arises. A lot of our assumptions about opening, bar-coding, limiting manual handling are based on techniques like window envelopes and hoping that the bar code is visible and so on and so forth. The more folding there is to do, the more likely it is quite clearly that the envelope can come back in the wrong order, even if everything is in fact there correctly. I think, in the North East, Bill Crawford's experience previously was that more of these things were there to be worried about than actually were experienced on the day. But, clearly, in an area where there has not been as much experience of these pilot areas, we are vulnerable, as witnesses said earlier, to people not properly understanding the system that we are using, so the more identifiable it is, the more plain our English can be, the more simple the instructions are able to be made, the better. But when you are into combination—and some of our colleagues are running three layers of elections on 10 June—quite clearly there is a limit to what you can do to put that across to people because different systems are running simultaneously.

  Q84 Mr Clelland: Are you satisfied there are not going to be any particular problems with all-postal voting for disabled people, for instance?

  Mr Morris: There are always going to be some people who find it difficult to read or read certain colours and so on. We are trying our best to overcome those difficulties. I suspect that there are quite a lot more people who are not comfortable, shall we say, with forms and text and reading instructions and who are perfectly capable physically of reading the material but do not take it in. However, as I have said before, I think the experience of colleagues in other areas has been that you have to have a sense of proportion about these difficulties. But most of the public do it most of the time and if people really want to they will

  Mr Pitt: All different forms of elections bring with them different disability problems. Obviously, with traditional elections there is a mobility disability issue there, and with postal ballots a sight disability, and so on. Certainly from Wakefield's point of view we will put in place whatever arrangements we can to assist people with disability difficulties to take part in democratic processes.

  Q85 Mr Clelland: On at least two occasions last year electoral officers sent back incomplete declarations of identity to individuals but held on to the ballot papers pending the return of the completed declaration. Do you think that is acceptable?

  Mr Crawford: We did that, Chairman, in the Sunderland pilot, and it worked very well.

  Q86 Mr Clelland: So that would be a practice to be commended, would it?

  Mr Crawford: Yes, Chairman.

  Q87 Chairman: You, in effect, were opening the envelope that they were returning and looking at the declaration but not looking at the ballot paper?

  Mr Crawford: That is correct, Chairman.

  Q88 Mr Betts: Do you think that fraudulent activity, such as "farming" votes by political parties, is going to be more of an issue with postal ballots?

  Mr Morris: I see no reason why it should, Chairman. I have to say, my experience over 30 years with all the principal political parties is that they are much more concerned with getting the vote out and complying with the rules. It is not my experience that there is much that you could call a deliberate attempt to subvert the requirements. Of course the possibility exists and one has to be on guard, but very often the publicity that, perhaps, some candidates think they can achieve outweighs their sense of judgment on occasions. It is relatively small scale and I think we are on guard for it.

  Q89 Mr Betts: Do you have any problems in Sunderland with that?

  Mr Crawford: There were no problems reported.

  Q90 Mr Betts: One thing this inquiry has been quite keen about is the idea that with a traditional election they can obviously find out, by putting people on polling stations, who has voted or how they have voted. In some of the postal elections the Returning Officers issued, on a daily basis, a list of people who have voted. Would that be something you would be prepared to do? Would that be something that would cause you concern?

  Mr Crawford: That, again, was part of the Sunderland pilot, Chairman, and it worked successfully.

  Q91 Mr Betts: Did you have any complaints or letters about that?

  Mr Crawford: Not one.

  Q92 Mr Betts: Not a single complaint?

  Mr Crawford: Not one.

  Q93 Chairman: In Sunderland, how much canvassing was done? It does not strike me as a place where probably all that much canvassing was done. Perhaps that is a slur on Sunderland.

  Mr Crawford: I will not take it as such, Chairman. There was great interest by all of the candidates to want to receive information up until the weekend before the election. It was a hive of activity over the weekend to chase people up.

  Q94 Mr Betts: So you think, if you like, there is a contract between the various parties and the electors where the Returning Officer gives to the political parties a list of the people who have voted on a daily basis and in return they promise to those people who have voted no more leaflets, no more 'phone calls, no more knocking on doors, and that would be a good deal for everyone?

  Mr Crawford: I think they concentrated their efforts on the people who had not returned their vote.

  Q95 Mr Betts: Does anybody else see any problems with that?

  Ms Mason: No. I think as long as the regulations are drafted properly, and that we are covered and not left in a vulnerable position in terms of electors not having that choice any more, then I do not see a problem with that.

  Q96 Chairman: I understand that is not to be done for these pilots for the European Elections. Is that right?

  Ms Mason: I do not know.

  Mr Morris: Chairman, the last time I saw the Bill as it left the House of Lords—and I am slightly out-of-date, probably, on the last couple of days' development on that—it was going to be a requirement. I think from our point of view, it either is required or it is not. As has just been said by Ms Mason, we simply need some clear instructions. I am sure we can do it effectively in accordance with whatever rules are determined. The issue about whether it should be done, I think, is a matter of policy, and you can take a view on that, but that is not really the approach that we will have when we manage the process that we are given.

  Q97 Chairman: In fact, there will be a gap, will there not, between the electorate putting the cross on the ballot paper and putting it in the post box and you getting it back and being able to cross them off and notifying the parties. So there is a danger that some people who voted will still have people knocking on their doors trying to encourage them to vote.

  Mr Morris: Inevitably.

  Q98 Christine Russell: Can I ask you about Royal Mail? I was going to ask you about the procurement of stationery and different suppliers, but you seem to be satisfied that you can handle that. I would be interested to know how confident you are that Royal Mail will handle the volume of ballot papers that they will have to distribute and return. What has been the experience from the pilots?

  Mr Pitt: We are in discussion at the moment with the Royal Mail—in probably what is known in Parliamentary circles as a "full and frank exchange of views". I think the issue is not so much their capacity, in terms of quantity; it is the speed and the level of service—whether there are collections on the final day, and so on. Obviously, having those discussions at this early stage, I am confident that we will reach an accommodation with them. The key point—it is less so for Royal Mail than for all the suppliers—is that they simply realise the magnitude of the task and the fact that it is not, if you like, a normal contract; it is a contract of very considerable significance where any errors are magnified. We are in discussion with Royal Mail at the moment and I am confident that they can deal with the scale of it. We just need to make sure that the speed of response is there and agreed well before the election takes place.

  Q99 Christine Russell: Are any of you aware of the special Sunday deliveries? What did you do with Royal Mail Sunderland? Were they just delivered regularly as part of the post, or did you have one day when the Royal Mail delivered them as a special delivery?

  Mr Crawford: Royal Mail were given a window of three days to do that. That is what they are looking at for this time.

  Mr Pitt: The only problem with a three-day window is that people who get their papers on the first day would talk to friends and colleagues who will then worry that they have not got their papers and 'phone up the electoral offices, and that is when the difficulty arises. So the more that time period is compressed the easier it is for our electoral teams.

  Mr Morris: We have had to distinguish, I must say, between the national discussions in which I have taken part (and I have mentioned that already) and the local situation. The Northampton sorting office was destroyed by fire last autumn and the service has suffered hugely since. Quite clearly, we have got to translate the national principles into the local reality, but that is true of lots of aspects of our work.

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