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
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 momentwhether 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 councilsparish and town
councilsfinance 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
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
Q114 Chairman: There is no downside to
Mr Green: The potential for downside
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
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 whereI
see the Chairman thinking not only in electoral registrationparticularly
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 pointI 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.