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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)

9 MARCH 2004


  Q120 Mr Cummings: Do you see delivery points being more expensive in certain parishes?

  Mr Green: Good democracy is expensive. At the end of the day if what you are trying to do is engage more people in the democratic process then other than a disproportionate cost, like giving everybody the ability to e-vote with a hand-held the costs that you accrue from having a vote with an appropriate number of delivery points/polling stations on the big day is proportionate and it is something that in the end if the proposal from Electoral Commission for the general part is to be taken forward would reflect well on this country and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister understanding the importance of accessibility and the ability to vote.

  Q121 Mr Sanders: Are local authorities satisfied that secrecy and security can be maintained during the all-postal election?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: We do not see a particular problem with this. We feel that not requiring a witnessed signature may help the secrecy point since it is no longer required to have somebody there by definition who might see how the individual votes. In Newcastle we have dispensed with the witness signature, that is of course in the Electoral Commission's recommendations. We do not think there is a particular problem and there is no evidence that it has caused a particular problem. In any event, as I was saying, the proportion of postal votes on a voluntary basis was rising to a significant extent anyway again without any evidence of any difficulty.

  Q122 Mr Sanders: Many of the submissions which have been received have highlighted a number of concerns about local issues and matters that are sub judice and together they could add up to a catalogue of problems and the problem here is whilst everyone wants to increase turnout if at the same time you are reducing public perception and credibility within the system what is actually more important is a fair and obviously proper democracy ballot or lots of people voting?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: Both are crucial.

  Q123 Mr Sanders: Both are crucial, surely one is far more important than the other? Surely a fair ballot is far more important?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: I think the two things are interconnected. I think it is important to have a high turnout and that must depend on a robust and secure system.

  Q124 Mr Sanders: Surely it is more important that the system has integrity than the level of turnout?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: I regard that as a condition of the high turnout. You have obviously received submissions which reflect concerns. It would be true to say there have been concerns under the previous system. I can enlarge on the history in Northern Ireland about electoral malpractice but even in England there have been problems around residential establishments, and the like, and problems with nomination, and so on. The system is always going to be tested by a tiny minority of people who may wish to subvert it. The Commission and the authorities have found no evidence of any greater problems under the pilots than existed outside and before the pilots.

  Q125 Chairman: Do you think the police and the Crown Prosecution Service take alleged electoral fraud seriously enough?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: That is questionable. It is also questionable whether authorities take the question of registration seriously enough, failure to register is an offence as well and there are very few prosecutions for that.

  Q126 Chairman: Are you recommending more to your members?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: Yes, actually. Personally I am not sure how popular this would be but I have made that recommendation. If I might illustrate it and put in this document, this is a leaflet we distributed in the by-election I referred to and its make it very clear that it is an offence to use a ballot paper that is not addressed to you and warns people about prison sentences. We need that kind of publicity and we need to make it clear to people there will be some checking of the kind I described that took place in Newcastle last year, we certainly need to make those things clear. Where there is any misconduct of course that must be pursued relentlessly.

  Q127 Christine Russell: What steps are you aware that your members are intending to take or have indeed taken in trials for people who have disabilities that may prove problematical, like visual impairment for instance?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: The literature we have distributed in Newcastle, and I think this is true of other pilots, made clear that if people required ballot papers in Braille then contact could be made.

  Q128 Chairman: How do you know that is going to be available in Braille if you cannot read?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: People who are visually handicapped will receive ordinary correspondence as a matter of course and most of it will be written or printed material presumably they will have some help in dealing with that.

  Q129 Christine Russell: Will you be telling your members to work with groups like RNIB?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: Absolutely. For physically handicapped people postal voting is going to be, generally speaking, easier to facilitate than an appearance or attendance at a polling station.

  Q130 Christine Russell: Have you had any representations from any groups, because we have had some evidence, quite surprisingly, from groups representing people with disabilities saying that voters should still have a choice as to whether they go in person or whether they have a proxy vote or a postal vote, have you received any similar representations?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: I am not aware of any significant representations to that effect. There are people who have affection for the current system but I do not know if they are defined by disability.

  Q131 Mr Clelland: Michael Green referred earlier to the cost of an election and had some suggestions as to how they might be financed in future, in terms of the elections coming up are local authorities having to face any particular difficulty in financing the postal ballots?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: They will be more expensive in gross terms, the unit terms will fall somewhat. We are looking in a number of boroughs in Tyneside at electoral counting which will be more expensive but more efficient as well and we are prepared to run with that. I think the point that Michael has made about the costs being underwritten would be sensible.

  Q132 Mr Clelland: That is not likely to happen for these elections, is it?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: Not on the face it of, no. In the North-East certainly all of the local authorities agree that we want this system and we are prepared to deal with the costs.

  Q133 Mr Clelland: Given the point made by Michael Green about what lengths some local authorities would go to to try and keep costs down is there any danger that security might be compromised?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: I do not think so. I think the good practice regulations will take care of that.

  Q134 Mr Clelland: What about parish councils, how difficult will it be for them to come up with their costs?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: That is another matter. It may be that the election style which he referred to will bear the cost in some cases.

  Mr Green: Given that the figures have been used today by previous witnesses it tends to show that the difference in costs between the traditional elections or postal elections is somewhere in the region of 10%, clearly it is sensible for those councils that consistently know they will be recharged and there will be areas where there will be postal voting to factor that in in terms of their finances? However, and can I make a point, things tie in together and you have recently had another recommendation from the Electoral Commission on the cycle of elections and it clearly should be the case that if the cycle of election proposals are to be accepted by the Deputy Prime Minister then the proposals in the central pot for the funding of elections need to be accepted in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister at the same time. We would be slightly astonished if in the 2007 local government elections, which will be where the majority of the procedures will happen, there is cycle of elections but there is no central pot for the administration costs.

  Chairman: That is pretty good hint for our questions when we see the Department.

  Mr Brady: Are you able to give any estimate what the further additional costs would be if the Electoral Commission on an individual basis of registration and checking of signatures were to be put in place?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: I do not know that we have an estimate of that. We support individual registration, it would be an additional way of securing the process.

  Q135 Chris Mole: The Association of Electoral Administration highlight concerns over the farming of votes, as they call it, Sir Jeremy do you believe that the political parties have the capacity to interfere with the voting process in that way?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: I am not sure how much capacity we have full stop. I do not think that is likely to happen in any event. I would not expect a responsible political party to engage in those practices. There must always be a risk, as there always was, of malpractice. If I can just say this, there are some concerns not necessarily about parties but about other organisations, in one case a London borough suggested that everyone brought their votes to a religious organisation, a Christian organisation, and cast their votes together. That should be discouraged.

  Q136 Chris Mole: Moving to people who receive the ballot papers forward, are there practical difficulties? Is there a question of change of culture?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: There are practical difficulties and I have suggested and the Association has suggested that one thing which needs to concern us for the future is the date of local elections. Given that the timetable becomes elongated for elections the prospect of knocking on doors in the freezing, dark March nights is somewhat less appealing than doing it a bit later when the clocks go forward and therefore a June election makes it more comfortable for the canvassers and canvassed. We will be recommending that to the Commission and we have asked the Commission to look at the date for local elections in the light of that.

  Q137 Chris Mole: Mori suggested that people are uncomfortable with a marked copy of the register on a daily basis, whereas with postal voting it means that you do not necessarily see who has voted, because people have a worry about whether a political party should or should not know how they have voted or not, do you think there is a job to be done in educating people that by providing that information they are protecting themselves from the unwanted attentions of political parties for several weeks in a row?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: Most people's experience, obviously the experience of members of this committee, is that people are very happy at their polling station to give you their number, very few decline to give you their number, fewer do that than refuse to identify their political preference when you canvas them. I do not think in principle there would be a vast objection, people do not seem to realise under the present system you could in theory trace how people have voted, people are not aware of that, a bit more education generally would not go amiss

  Q138 Chris Mole: Should we give people the option to opt out?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: I think that would be difficult to administer.

  Q139 Chairman: On this question of timetable, in the North East your election is going to finish a week earlier than the rest of the country that is not part of the highlands, how is that going to affect political broadcast?

  Cllr Sir Jeremy Beecham: Marginally fewer people will watch than would otherwise be the case. It would be difficult to determine how few.

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