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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 105-119)

9 MARCH 2004


  Q105 Chairman: Can I welcome you to the last session of the Committee and ask you to identify yourselves to the Committee?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: Jeremy Beecham, Chairman of the Local Government Association.

  Mr Green: Michael Green, Policy Officer of the National Association of Local Councils.

  Mr Ricketts: Tim Ricketts, Head of Legal Services at the National Association of Local Councils.

  Q106 Chairman: Do any of you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: Very briefly, Chairman, as far as the Local Government Association is concerned, we support the proposal for the pilot on postal votes. We agree with the Electoral Commission that in terms of concerns around fraud, and so on, there is no evidence to suggest that that is likely to be a greater problem under the proposed system, and we would be anxious to see the proposal go forward.

  Mr Green: Just a couple of points. Firstly to say that if I use the term "first tier" that means town and parish councils in England and town and community councils in Wales. It is an all-embracing term. In terms of your inquiry, there are two levels to the National Association's contribution: a theoretical level around democratic renewal and a practical level around June 2004. They may, sometimes, come together and they may be slightly confusing, but we will explain when we know that we have got a slightly confused position.

  Q107 Mr Betts: Is there not a difference between the voluntary pilots where individual councils come along and say "Yes, we would like to have a postal ballot" and the proposal for June 2004? For the first time we may have some councils who are slightly reluctant to be involved but are having to do so because that is the legislation.

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: It is possible, eventually, that this system, if it continues to be seen to be successful, will be rolled out across the country. It does seem necessary to ensure that there is a wider coverage than has hitherto been obtained by a relatively small number of providers. In the North East, on which you have recently received evidence, of course, many authorities have already conducted pilots, and it does seem to us quite reasonable that the proposals should go forward.

  Q108 Mr Betts: Are there concerns about the proposals for June? We have heard this morning that at one level everything is a bit late to try and organise procurement and at another level people are saying "For Heaven's sake don't change your mind again about Yorkshire and Humber and the North West because we are part-way down the road", Wakefield were saying, "to organising an all-postal ballot" (?).

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: I think everybody would prefer clarity sooner on this. Colleagues that I have spoken to in the North West and in Yorkshire and Humberside would like to get on and have postal polls. It is also the case, of course, that in some places, like Gateshead, for example, they have had postal ballots for about three years, and in Newcastle (where I come from) we had an all-postal ballot last year. If they were to be changed back to ordinary voting, I think, this would be confusing. There are authorities in Yorkshire, Humberside and the North West which have also piloted, so a change back could complicate matters for them.

  Mr Green: In terms of our membership, this is not the year in which the vast majority of first-tier councils will hold elections but some will hold elections and in those areas, particularly the North West and the Yorkshire and Humber region, the confusion around what the potential cost will be is a cause of some problem in the sense that there is no consistency across principal authorities in recharging the cost of elections to first-tier councils. There is some confusion on which we think clarification is required. Occasionally we have new first-tier councils coming along, for example, Kippax in the City of Leeds area. It is going to make a difference to the success of that first election, whichever particular one of the two options that are on the go for Leeds at the moment—whether it is the House of Lords option or the House of Commons option (?). It is important for Kippax to know which form of election is taking place on June 10.

  Q109 Mr Betts: Who charges and how much?

  Mr Green: We have another problem, which my colleague can explain further. There is no consistency on charging for first-tier elections to principal authorities, and there never has been.

  Q110 Chairman: Why should there be consistency? Presumably in different places it costs different amounts of money.

  Mr Green: It is consistency as to whether they charge or not. To take this particular case, people who are used to being recharged by their principal authority and feel they are having an election at a time of an all-postal ballot, they may support the postal ballot as a principal tool but might be worried about what the recharge cost will be, and a certain certainty is required on that aspect as well.

  Mr Ricketts: Just to add to Michael's point. The way in which first-tier councils—parish and town councils—finance themselves is by the precept, which, unlike other tiers of local authorities is a direct tax for almost all of their expenditure upon the electorate. That is why the approach on whether or not to recharge for elections across the country being different can cause some councils, particularly those that are near each other but in different districts, some problems. Some are passing the cost directly, therefore, on to their electorate, others do not have to do so. So there is some confusion over whether or not recharges do take place and it would be helpful to our tier for that to be clarified.

  Q111 Mr Brady: Earlier we heard the Chairman of the Electoral Commission expressing a concern that there may not be sufficient resources and sufficient measures in place for dealing in particular with potential fraud in houses of multiple occupation, do you share that concern about resources and the ability of your members to respond?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: Electoral registration officers as a group tend to be cautious, and I think that is right. In practice the experience suggests that it is possible to conduct an election effectively without encountering significant problems as to fraud. Measures can be taken to warn people of the consequences of illegal behaviour, we made that very clear in pilot authorities, and we also have the ability to check. In Newcastle where we had a roll-out for the first time last year we checked 4,000 signed declarations against the electoral registration canvassed returns and we also contacted another 2,500 electors to see if they had concerns and we looked particularly at houses of multiple occupation and halls of residence and there was no evidence of any problem. Of course it is fair to point out that there are already a fair number of people registered for postal votes, about a quarter of the electorate in my own area are signed up for postal votes, and insofar as the problem existed before it was very small.

  Q112 Mr Betts: Have any of your organisations got any concerns about breaches of an individual's human rights or other legal challenges that might be made because of compulsory postal voting?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: I do not think anybody has taken that point so far, certainly not in my experience either from an all-postal ballot across the city or a by-election subsequently, nobody has raised those concerns. It seems to me rather a theoretical point, the important point is the right to vote, and it seems to me encouraging people to vote is a counterpart of that right.

  Mr Ricketts: If I may just make one point on that, the proposals to go through Parliament are going to have to comply with human rights legislation in any event. There is a direct article in the Human Rights Act that relates to elections, essentially it just needs to ensure there is free expression with any election which takes place, particularly in June with the new proposals. As long as we can ensure that people are able to vote quite freely and without restriction, be it by postal vote or otherwise, then everything will be fine. There is a human right consideration in determining whether or not a particular method that we use is applicable.

  Q113 Chairman: Do your member organisations think postal votes were a good thing in the pilots?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: Yes.

  Mr Green: We are quite happy so far.

  Q114 Chairman: There is no downside to them?

  Mr Green: The potential for downside is cost.

  Q115 Chairman: You think the problem is cost rather than any other difficulty?

  Mr Green: Yes. If I might expand on that, it is a well known barrier to the reputation of our sector that some councils with a certain amount of subtlety try and limit the number of candidates that stand in their area with the number of seats available in an attempt to ensure that the cost does not fall on them. The Quality Parish and Town Scheme is one where that has been addressed. That pressure is likely to increase if there is a perception, and I listened to the figures for Sunderland and Doncaster earlier and I thought the difference in the round was insubstantial. There is an answer to that, which is that the recent Electoral Commission recommendations to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister were that all administration costs for elections and all tiers of government should be paid out of a central pot, probably administered by local authorities, but given to the Electoral Commission to distribute to pay for local government elections.

  Q116 Chairman: If that happened do you think in some of these first tier authorities you would get a lot more candidates coming forward and you would have a democratic election?

  Mr Green: Not exclusively on the use of postal votes, it is one tool in a series of tools which will encourage it. There are two aspects to this, the perception of some councils is based on one or two examples we have but there are 80,000 elected and soon co-opted members on the first tier council contracts and that is a lot of people making themselves available to be represented to their community.

  Q117 Mr Cummings: Do local authorities have the capacity to cope with the additional demands, especially the logistics of delivering an all-postal election?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: Experience of the pilots is that they do. There have been very few problems encountered and in most cases the turnout has gone up significantly. The one case where that was not true was Hackney, they seem to have a rather cumbersome system. That is about the only case where—I see the Chairman thinking not only in electoral registration—particularly on that occasion there did seem to be some problems. In every other case there seems to have been a significant increase in turnout and very few problems have been recorded. The Electoral Commission has reported back on pilots and validated the exercise.

  Q118 Mr Cummings: How adequate do you believe the proposed delivery points to be in meeting the concerns of those who wish to use their vote to return to the ballot box?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: We are in favour of having a delivery point, at least one, in each ward. Not much use was made of those. I have a report on the by-election in Newcastle where the turnout was of the order of over 3,000 and only 20 odd votes were deposited in the ballot box. It is important that that facility should exist particularly for people who remember late in the day they have not voted because it enables them to vote.

  Q119 Chairman: If you have a European election and a first tier authority you would have to have the delivery point in that first tier authority, would you not?

  Mr Green: I think that would have to be taken on board by the principle authorities concerned who were responsible for ensuring local reviews. We take the position that a number of delivery units would have to be based on a reality that you cannot have one where every polling station previously was but you do not necessarily have to narrow the options down to one ward. I think principle authorities can identify sustained communities within themselves and identify where communities would like to have what would be called a delivery point—I do not know why it cannot be called a polling station on polling day, I do not think there is an issue there. In terms of first tier councils that is an appropriate size.

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