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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-240)

16 MARCH 2004

MS RUTH SCOTT, MR MARTIN FULLER AND COLONEL DON KENT

  Q220 Mr Clelland: This is the proposed security system?

  Ms Scott: That is right, yes, because we feel that it adds an unnecessary additional layer of complexity to the voting process and does not add significantly to the security of the ballot. It is particularly problematic for disabled people and people who live alone or who are isolated. We have had a number of people responding to our surveys who said that they just could not find anybody who could verify who they were, which is not a reason why somebody should not be able to vote. We also think that making the system any more complicated than it already is when this method as it stands is already very complicated for a number of disabled people, adding to that does not help. In fact actually requiring a witness, having to have your ballot witnessed does actually mean that many disabled people are going to have to show their ballot paper to somebody else which I think brings it then into some of the issues around coercion which we are also very concerned about in terms of postal voting.

  Q221 Mr Clelland: Do you think the instructions given to postal electors are clear enough?

  Ms Scott: No, in a nutshell.

  Q222 Mr Clelland: How could that be improved then?

  Ms Scott: Through plain English, through making sure that the instructions are as short, concise and clear as possible. We would also like to see the inclusion of pictograms used to help people who have low literacy understand the process. We saw some good examples of this in the pilots over the last couple of years, as well as some examples which used words which were not very helpful.

  Q223 Chris Mole: We have got all-postal elections coming up in June, but in general how will those elections impact on the ability of Service personnel and their dependants, especially those who are overseas, to vote?

  Mr Fuller: I think Service personnel are pretty mobile people generally who depend a lot on the options for postal voting and voting by proxy, so we would hope to have those options retained in the future. I should perhaps draw attention to one small inaccuracy in our memorandum which we provided, for which I apologise, where we said in our paragraph 2, "Those overseas who are registered as Service voters can vote only by proxy", and talking to the Electoral Commission last week, we find that they interpret it differently and believe that they can vote by proxy or by post, so if that is confirmed, we will amend our guidance. I apologise also to Mr Brady because we gave a similar answer to him in a Parliamentary Question last year, but it does seem that we are unduly restricted, but they can vote by post or by proxy.

  Q224 Chris Mole: Do you or your personnel have any concerns about the security and reliability of the British Forces Post Office?

  Colonel Kent: In my experience, there are no concerns about the reliability or the security of forces mail generally.

  Q225 Chris Mole: But if the numbers were suddenly to increase, would that create any problems for them?

  Colonel Kent: No, because if you take the recent operation in Iraq where volumes now handled by our organisation have increased by 200 or 300% or more, we have coped appropriately.

  Q226 Chris Mole: Who meets the cost of sending ballot papers overseas?

  Colonel Kent: The local authorities to a degree, but then the Ministry of Defence will pick up some of the additional costs of transporting mail overseas.

  Q227 Chris Mole: Are they treated as personal or commercial mail?

  Colonel Kent: All mail eventually, when it ends up overseas with the Services, whether personal or official, is amalgamated, so once it gets into the BFPO system, it is all amalgamated.

  Q228 Mr Sanders: Is it treated for cost purposes as commercial or personal because personal mail is at the normal UK rate?

  Colonel Kent: There is a concessionary rate for mail for servicemen overseas, so the cost of sending a letter inland is the same as sending it overseas to servicemen.

  Q229 Mr Sanders: But is a ballot paper treated as personal mail or commercial?

  Colonel Kent: It will be treated as personal mail addressed to the individual soldier, yes.

  Q230 Mr Brady: Is it realistic to get ballot papers out to voters and returned within the confines of an election period?

  Colonel Kent: Well, it is not always going to be possible. I am not sure exactly what the timeframe is. Three weeks has been mentioned as maybe the timeframe. Typically, for most servicemen serving all around the world, we despatch mail five days a week.

  Q231 Chairman: You despatch it, but can you tell us when it arrives?

  Colonel Kent: I should perhaps follow through the journey of the letter to make it easier for everybody to understand the timeframes involved. It is despatched by the local authority, then it is one to two days for Royal Mail to get it into the BFPO system. We do not hang on to it for more than a day, maybe two days, depending on our five-day-a-week despatching process, so we are talking about another two days to get it to most servicemen around the world. Then you have the internal arrangements for that serviceman to handle that ballot paper however he sees fit and in whatever timeframe he personally gives to that. Then we have the return journey which is pretty much the same, two days, say, back to the UK and then two days back through the Royal Mail Group, so we are talking about ten to 14 days, I would suggest, as the absolute minimum. Then there will be, as we were suggesting there, some places around the world where we cannot meet that quite reasonable timeframe. The Falklands Islands would be an example where we only despatch mail twice a week. Currently in Afghanistan we do not use scheduled flights five days a week, but we use the RAF and that is only twice a week, and there are a few other places around the world where we could not operate to twice a week, and ships of course are another story altogether.

  Q232 Chairman: Would you like to explain that briefly. What about a submarine?

  Colonel Kent: There is no standard schedule for how ships might decide to be operating at any one time around the world, but typically, and this month, for instance, there are 31 ships, I believe, at sea and six months ago there were more, about 47, and there might only be 17, 18 or 19, so there is not a pattern, which is the first point. When they are at sea, depending on where they are, the calling in at ports is variable. HMS Ironduke last spring and summer was moving around the Caribbean and called into ports at least twice a month. We have advance information on what ports it is calling into, so we know within a five-day window that is going to that port and we despatch mail. Every time it calls into a port, it definitely collects its mail and it almost always returns some mail. Mail comes back from, say, Miami and it takes a couple of days, though from Jamaica it took three weeks, so depending on the local country's mail system, it is varied and would not easily reach the parameters of the election process.

  Q233 Mr Brady: Are steps taken to ensure that election literature would reach servicemen so that they can take informed choices about candidates?

  Mr Fuller: If it is posted to them and addressed personally, then it will go through the system in the way that Colonel Kent has outlined. We also notify personnel of all parliamentary elections. That goes out by signal so that they are made aware of it, but otherwise, we do not take any particular steps to pass on election literature to people. It is only if it is addressed to them personally that it gets through.

  Q234 Mr Brady: Since you have mentioned the parliamentary questions that I tabled last year, since that time have any steps been taken to assess and estimate how many servicemen and women are registered to vote and whether that percentage has changed since the 2001 change in the system which requires annual re-registration?

  Mr Fuller: No. We tend to regard voting as a private-life matter, but we do not survey it as part of our regular attitude surveys or questionnaires, so it is left entirely to the individual. From anecdotal evidence, we suspect that registration on voting levels are probably lower than you would wish, which is partly a reflection of the mobility of Service personnel and the fact that we have a large community of quite young people for whom voting perhaps is not a top priority, although we do brief all recruits on voting arrangements and it goes out in unit standing orders and then it is periodically updated. We remind people once a year to re-register, but beyond that we do not check how many of them have registered or voted.

  Q235 Mr Brady: Would the maintenance of a Service register be more likely to facilitate people voting and being registered rather than expecting them to register at home when they may be away from home for very long periods?

  Mr Fuller: It may do and of course that is the system that we had up to the year 2000, but with the introduction of the wider range of registration options under the Representation of the People Act, we then discontinued the Service register and relied on the individual to register and to exercise their rights. We advise them on how they can register and we try and facilitate the registration process by making forms accessible, but we do not take it beyond that.

  Q236 Chairman: What about proxies? If you are away, it is going to be quite complicated for you to get all the election literature and the ballot papers, so there must be some advantages in looking for a proxy. How far do you help people to get proxies?

  Mr Fuller: Again we leave it to the individual to appoint a suitable proxy. We brief people on the proxy system as part of our general briefing to recruits on the electoral process.

  Q237 Chairman: Does that mean that you provide a form with which people can apply for a proxy or do they actually have to write to their local returning officer asking for a proxy form?

  Mr Fuller: I think it is the latter. We provide details of all the electoral registration officers and their addresses so that they can approach them, but I do not think we provide them. The forms tend to be different, I think, from one area to another to some extent, so we do not provide forms, but we aim to provide them with contact names and addresses.

  Q238 Chairman: Would it not be logical for you to be able to provide an e-mail system by which they can actually apply at least for the proxy?

  Mr Fuller: That may be practicable at least for some people. Some people have easier access to e-mail than others, but it certainly is a possibility that we can look into. One of the changes we may introduce when we issue our guidance, which we are due to do shortly, is to encourage people to use the proxy system rather more, and this is partly because of the preparation for this Committee and looking into the system and talking to the defence postal services, that I think we should encourage people to use proxies more. At the moment we leave it pretty neutrally as to whether they rely on postal votes or proxy votes, but clearly for those who are likely to be away from home on deployment or posted overseas at short notice, the proxy system would probably serve them better.

  Q239 Chairman: One or two pilots were done last year with electronic voting. Have you any evidence from Service personnel as to whether they were able to participate in those schemes?

  Mr Fuller: No, we have no evidence.

  Q240 Chris Mole: Have you looked at the study from the States which has concerns about introducing electronic voting services for their Armed Forces?

  Mr Fuller: No.

  Chairman: On that note then, can I thank you very much for your evidence.





 
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