Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-240)|
16 MARCH 2004
Q220 Mr Clelland: This is the proposed
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
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
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
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.