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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 241-259)

16 MARCH 2004


  Q241 Chairman: Can I welcome our next four witnesses, and may I emphasise that if you agree with each other, please do not repeat that agreement, but if you disagree, please chip in as quickly as possible. Does anyone want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?

  Mr Brown: Straight to questions.

  Q242 Mr Clelland: Acknowledging at the moment the problem of timing, which I will come to in a second, can we just talk about the sheer scale of the all-postal voting in June this year, and do you envisage any problems with the scale of the voting system?

  Mr Sanders: Yes, I think it is over the top and we have no experience of handling such a large-scale postal vote.

  Mr Brown: I would just say that given the timeframe in which the documents have to be produced, it will be a major challenge, particularly for the print and finishing capacity.

  Mr Hearn: Adding to that, I think the format that the election takes, the exact design and format of the ballot papers and envelopes determines a great deal of the capacity of the industry, so a simple format is probably achievable and more complex is almost certainly not achievable.

  Mr Lloyd: Whilst I acknowledge that there could be issues around printing, in particular, and capacity, I think as far as the four regions are concerned, we have been working very closely with them in terms of the actual volume of mail we feel confident we can actually deal with.

  Q243 Mr Clelland: So turning to the question of timing, you have all raised, or at least two of you did, this whole problem of the question of timing, that we do not know as yet exactly what the legislation is likely to look like, but do you all still intend to bid for contracts at this stage?

  Mr Brown: In our written evidence, we put forward the view that time is already tight. We took the view subsequent to that, early in March, that we have withdrawn from this year's pilots on the basis both of potential lack of print capacity, but also in terms of procurement lead times for key pieces of equipment. Until the legislative framework is fully complete, we cannot finally specify, and some of that specialist equipment has 10 to 12-week lead times, so for anybody who needs to acquire equipment, it is probably now already too late, in our view.

  Q244 Mr Clelland: The same?

  Mr Sanders: Yes.

  Mr Hearn: Certainly we are looking at the contracts very hard to see whether we can deliver on them, and concerns on timescales and decisions on formats are things that are putting us in doubt as to whether we would go forward.

  Q245 Mr Clelland: So are you all saying that the last possible date has already passed or is there some flexibility there?

  Mr Sanders: The jury is out.

  Q246 Chairman: So you are still bidding for contracts at this stage, but you are getting increasingly worried?

  Mr Sanders: We are looking at the contracts, but I have not submitted a single contract yet.

  Q247 Chris Mole: Those of you who are involved in designing and producing electoral material, how do you set about balancing printing, security and disability issues, particularly with such a tight timescale?

  Mr Hearn: In terms of printing and design, the pilots that have taken place over the last few years, you are seeing a move through and a progression. To start off with, they were very traditional in approach and it was simply, "Can we do it all-postally under the traditional system?" Now, as the years have passed, local authorities and suppliers are looking at how we can actually almost drag a little bit more into incorporating better design and aspects like that. It is part of a process of confidence, that you can take the traditional, do that, and then to ask how you can adapt that traditional to add in all the things we have heard about, such as plain English, diagrams, those sorts of aspects. I think very much at first both the returning officers, the EROs, and ourselves were very reluctant to over-design because all you would get would be new-fangled processes which are not really working, whereas if it is a gradual progression, I think had there been more time on this particular range of pilots, then the opportunity for gradual design and gradual innovation would have been there. I think what you are going to find now is that they will look very similar to last year's pilots, but just bigger.

  Mr Brown: I would add that assuming the move goes forward to all-postal ballots, I think the trade-off between efficiency, security and design changes in that under the current system of effectively stamping it at a polling station, the document only becomes secure at the point of issue. I think that with postal voting, you have in effect a secure document going through the postal system and I think, and I have been here for most of the morning, that all of the electoral fraud issues to date raised around the issue of personation, if you move towards all-postal voting, I think there is, albeit a relatively small risk, but an increased risk of counterfeit elections. At that point, I think there is a serious issue both in terms of public perception, but also potentially in terms of influencing either one seat or many seats in a particular election and in a sense the whole thrust of our written evidence was to point this out to the Committee. We think as of right now that this issue is not getting the prominence it deserves.

  Chris Mole: You mentioned evolving ballot paper designs, so has anyone actually got any experience they can share with us of research that looks at how voters react to different types of ballot papers? A clear no then.

  Q248 Mr Brady: The Committee has noticed considerable variation in the design of electoral material used in previous pilots. Would you support tighter regulations on aspects of design or do you consider your ability to innovate and implement new ideas essential to your commercial success in bidding for contracts?

  Mr Sanders: I believe that the systems that are devised must cope with the regulation design. I do not believe there should be wide variation and I do not believe it is necessary. I think the election this time has forced us to be more within a set of regulations.

  Mr Hearn: I think the more there are flexible designs in which to work, it is obviously of benefit, but you need some core parameters. What you are looking at here, the idea is to continue to scale and scale and scale and then you need to be able to make sure that respectable mailing houses and printers are able to do the work that you want them to do and, therefore, you need to be able to be saying, "We believe these designs are scaleable", as opposed to incorporating very tight designs which might not be scaleable. You are talking here about very high-end security papers and with these sorts of processes, then again the scaleability immediately comes down a bit because it is not something familiar to the print industry, so you are balancing these demands.

  Mr Brown: I suppose not surprisingly, given what I have already said, I very much favour tight regulation and in almost a very tight specification that as wide a group of suppliers could meet as possible, but I think if you do not have that tight regulation, then, as a member of the general public, how do I know what to look for in a particular ballot paper coming through the post?

  Q249 Mr Brady: Can you estimate the cost per voter of a ballot like this pilot?

  Mr Brown: I guess if I knew what the final regulatory framework was, then maybe. One serious point is that one of the issues we face right now is that I cannot put a scale on the total cost. I think what I can say is, we would see increases here adding probably 10 to 15% to the total cost. So not an insignificant number, but equally not a draconian one either.

  Q250 Mr Brady: As we move towards the final deadline and the point of no return with some of the potential contractors dropping out of the bidding, does the price go up?

  Mr Sanders: Onwards and upwards and ever up.

  Q251 Chairman: It always goes up?

  Mr Sanders: Absolutely.

  Mr Hearn: The thing about any of these contracts is that you are buying space and you are looking at sub-contractors. The issue about the time is that you are trying to secure from mailing houses that gap to do the work in and that gap disappears because there are other contracts and other businesses that fill that gap because they are commercial organisations as well, so inevitably to buy that gap becomes more expensive. It is not a ceilingless amount of money, but certainly it does increase. Having said that, as commercial companies, talking commercially, you want the business to continue, therefore, there is no value in pricing it out of the market.

  Q252 Chairman: It is a loss leader then?

  Mr Hearn: To some extent if you are a commercial company, yes, of course.

  Q253 Mr Brady: Are you confident that the capacity is there and at what point will it cease to be there?

  Mr Hearn: Again it depends on formats and it depends on how exactly the legislation ends up, and because we do not know that, I cannot answer that question.

  Q254 Chairman: Mr Brown, are you really suggesting that there is a possibility for people to print their own ballot papers? I am sure with things like Photoshop and all the other computer things, it is difficult to do bank notes, but are you really saying it would not be that difficult for people to forge ballot papers?

  Mr Brown: In our experience, any value document eventually becomes at least threatened with counterfeit, if not actually counterfeited. I think the more ballots go to all-postal ballots, then the ballot itself, I think, becomes a value document and the risk increases. I am not saying it is going to happen, I am saying it may happen, and the impact of it happening would be potentially very detrimental to the validity of the electoral process going forward.

  Q255 Chairman: Looking at the various ones that the Committee has seen, ballot papers, they tend to be in black and white and they tend to be pretty simple, so those would actually be fairly easy and not expensive to copy, would they?

  Mr Brown: Based on that specification, Black and White and pretty simple, I could probably come back in ten minutes with a pretty good facsimile, if you would like, if that answers the question.

  Q256 Christine Russell: Can I ask you, Mike Lloyd, some questions about the ability of Royal Mail actually to deliver on time all the postal ballots if we had an all-postal election?

  Mr Lloyd: We have obviously got a lot of experience with the previous postal ballots, particularly from the last May local elections. As a result of that and   working very closely with the Electoral Commission, et cetera, we developed best practice postal voting which really is a document which is designed to be used by our local operational people and also contacts within the local authorities or the regional returning officer departments. As a result of that, we have made quite a lot of changes from the May elections, as I say, and within that is a local operating plan which literally is the action leading up to the actual postal vote, what is required by each individual organisation plus each individual within that organisation, so a fairly robust plan in terms of the four pilot regions.

  Q257 Christine Russell: So what improvements are you planning to introduce, especially regarding the security?

  Mr Lloyd: If we look through, one of the main things we have introduced on everything, including the cages as they actually go into the mail centres, including the envelopes themselves with purple flashes which, one, means we can easily identify the items and, two, if we need to identify and extract any items for any particular reason we are able to do that because they are obviously distinctive, so from a security point of view, as soon as they actually reach our regional distribution centres, through to our mail centres, through to delivery offices, the same sort of process will be used in terms of this purple flash, whether it be on a cage, whether it be on a bag or whether it be on an individual item.

  Q258 Sir Paul Beresford: Bearing in mind that some local government elections swing on one or two votes, sometimes even smaller, how confident can you be that you will not have a politically motivated postman who will not deliver to the voter or in effect will not deliver the mail which comes back when you have no way of checking?

  Mr Lloyd: One of the things we are extremely keen on in terms of the code of conduct is obviously around education of our front-line post people. We are as confident as we can be that that will not happen. Obviously it can happen in any walk of life. If any allegations are made, we obviously investigate them, but, as I say, if you look at the evidence of the past, there is not the evidence there to support any thinking that that actually happens.

  Q259 Sir Paul Beresford: That does not come as a surprise, does it? Nobody posting a vote is going to check that it has arrived, are they?

  Mr Lloyd: Could you say that again, please?

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