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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 211-219)

16 MARCH 2004


  Q211 Chairman: Could I welcome you to the Committee, to the third session this morning of our inquiry into postal voting. Could we ask you to identify yourselves for the record.

  Ms Scott: Ruth Scott, Head of Campaigns at Scope.

  Mr Fuller: Martin Fuller. I am the Ministry of Defence Director responsible for the conditions of service for military personnel. Colonel Don Kent is the Deputy Chief Executive responsible for defence postal services.

  Chairman: Would any of you like to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight to questions? Straight to questions.

  Q212 Christine Russell: Could I ask Ruth Scott my questions, which are actually about views on postal voting, because Scope ran a very successful campaign to get polling stations accessible and I seem to recall that your campaign at the time was for making polling stations accessible and postal voting very accessible. Are you aware of any detailed research that has been done with your members or, indeed, apart from your members on the effectiveness of postal voting?

  Ms Scott: Through the research that Scope ourselves have done and also through the work we have been commissioned to do for the Electoral Commission, we have been actually looking some of the pilot voting schemes as well as traditional voting which changed through the introduction of the Representation of the People Act 2000 to enable anybody to apply for a postal vote. In terms of our experience, a large number of disabled people are very keen on postal voting, particularly those with mobility impairments where people have traditionally found voting at polling stations very difficult. In 2001 our Polls Apart survey asked disabled people whether they would prefer to vote by post and 75% said that they did. However, we have concerns that postal voting is inherently inaccessible for a number of other groups of disabled people, particularly those with visual impairments, dexterity and co-ordination impairments, and some people with learning disabilities and other cognitive impairments as well as those with low literacy. Our research has shown that no single voting method is fully accessible to all disabled voters and, as such, we are calling for multi-channel elections to enable as many disabled people as possible to vote independently and in secret. We believe that the key to maximising accessibility is maximising choice of electoral systems available and we very much support the Government's aim to introduce multi-channel to enable voting for general elections and hopefully for other elections as well in the future.

  Q213 Christine Russell: Would the idea of staffed delivery points, which I think was used in some of the pilots, meet those concerns of those particular groups?

  Ms Scott: I think the issue for us is that in terms of providing staffed delivery points, you have to question whether that is actually all-postal voting or not, and as many disabled people have had a long history of being excluded from the democratic process, what we do not want to see, in terms of considering new systems of voting and introducing new systems, is that disabled people again are going to get the worst of both worlds in some ways where they have to vote by post, but then additional systems need to be put in place in order to enable them to vote. We are very clear that disabled people ought to have the same rights as every other person to vote secretly and that means independently and we feel that staffed delivery points are going some way towards providing that, actually it is about providing assistance to vote rather than actually making the system itself inherently accessible. We have got some particular concerns around the proposals for the staffed delivery points in June, largely, that there are not going to be very many of them and there are only plans to have one per local authority area. For some people in the north of England, living in rural areas, this could mean having to travel up to two hours to get to somewhere where they can get assistance to vote, which we do not think is acceptable at all. If postal voting is being promoted on the basis of ease and convenience, we do not think that a four-hour round trip in order just to get help to fill in your ballot paper constitutes convenience for many people.

  Q214 Christine Russell: Have you any other suggestions, such as more of them?

  Ms Scott: We would like to see more, particularly if in an all-posting situation. We have also been pushing very hard for disabled people to be able to request home visits from electoral staff so that if they need assistance in filling in their ballot or a copy of the tactile voting device or a copy of a large-print ballot paper which voters are entitled to, they should be able to request that an electoral official visits them at home and we are happy that the DCA are supporting this.

  Q215 Christine Russell: What about the LGA?

  Ms Scott: As far as I understand, local authorities are also happy to provide this assistance and actually they did so in previous pilots. What we are concerned about obviously is that disabled people have the same opportunity to vote when they like within a three or four-week period of postal voting and if large numbers of disabled people ring up on the last day before the polls close and say, "I need some assistance", we want assurances that they will   get that assistance and that nobody is disenfranchised because the assistance they need is not available.

  Q216 Chris Mole: What practical steps can actually be taken within the household or residential home to ensure that the elector is not impersonated and has voted securely and in secret? Were you pointing towards some of the electronic developments as some of your main solutions?

  Ms Scott: I think what we want to emphasise is that there should be a variety of methods. We are certainly very keen on some the e-enabled methods. One of our campaigners wrote to us at the last pilot scheme to say that she had managed to vote for the first time completely independently using the Internet which was something which was very important to her and we think that those kind of developments should be rolled out to ensure that any disabled person can immediately take advantage of that.

  Q217 Chris Mole: Many of the problems in terms of access to the ballot paper are exactly identical whether it is a postal vote or whether you go to a booth, are they not?

  Ms Scott: I think there are slight differences in that postal voting is a lot more complicated than traditional polling station voting. You also have to take into consideration the fact that with a postal vote people do not have staff on hand in order to help clarify queries or explain the process to them. There were discussions this morning about combining PR elections with the first of the postal elections, but you would have to explain all of that in instructions to a voter without anybody on hand to explain perhaps how that system works and we think there are significant issues. We have seen, in some of the pilots evaluated, incredibly complicated instructions, unnecessarily complicated instructions as to how to fill in your ballot paper and instructions on how to fold a ballot paper which is more like origami than a postal vote.

  Q218 Chris Mole: So just concentrating on the postal voting system, how can that actually be improved for people with visual impairments? Is it about not having purple ballot papers or is it to do with how they actually get to the point of the balloting process?

  Ms Scott: There are obviously a number of things that you can do to maximise access for groups of disabled voters, and not just disabled voters, but older voters as well, many of whom would not recognise themselves as being disabled people, but they have similar issues. Obviously there is making sure the ballot paper takes into consideration font size, type face, the colour, design and layout of the ballot paper and any supporting electoral material as well to ensure that access is maximised and to ensure that people understand the process. Also we would encourage that all information is actually written in plain English and instructions are clear and easy to follow. Some of our experience has been that plain English has not been used in the past and we have evidence that this does increase the number of spoiled ballot papers and people just do not understand the process and as a result their ballot is not counted when they submit it.

  Q219 Mr Clelland: The City of Newcastle, of which my constituency is a small and significant part, held an all-postal pilot and they had to reject 6,000 returned ballot papers because people had not filled in the forms correctly. They were 6,000 people who   clearly wanted to vote, but who were disenfranchised, so how can that be avoided?

  Ms Scott: I think we are concerned that the security measures, such as the declaration of identity and a witness statement, are balanced with ease of use and convenience of postal votes for voting. Obviously postal votes are supposed to make voting more easy and more convenient, but if large numbers of people are actually spoiling their ballot paper or filling it in incorrectly, then that is an issue that we do need to address. We actually support the Electoral Commission and the DCA in asking that the requirement to have your ballot witnessed is actually removed.

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