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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-274)

16 MARCH 2004


  Q260 Sir Paul Beresford: If I had voted and posted it, it is unlikely that I will go down and see that my ballot paper has actually arrived.

  Mr Lloyd: I think you are right as far as an individual is concerned. I think the processes that we have set up, and it links back to the security point in terms of being able to monitor those items literally from post box through to the mail centre back to the regional returning officer, it means that that security is there.

  Q261 Mr Clelland: Would it help if the returning officer was to publish a list of those people periodically during an election who had voted?

  Mr Lloyd: Obviously that is not a decision for Royal Mail to take.

  Q262 Mr Clelland: Would it help in the verification so that people could see if their vote had not arrived?

  Mr Lloyd: Yes.

  Q263 Christine Russell: What measures are you planning to put in place to ensure that there will not be any wildcat strikes or industrial action which would prevent ballot papers reaching the electors?

  Mr Lloyd: Again we have obviously got the national agreement with the Communication Workers' Union now which has been signed following the disruption we had in the last quarter of last year. Again we have actually got a statement from the Communication Workers' Union supporting the extension of postal voting. We also, as a matter of course, locally as part of the operating fund I mentioned to you have robust contingency funds, again helped by the purple flashes, easily identifiable, so again working with the regional returning officers in particular, we have actually set individual plans, so if there is wildcat action, it can continue to operate, and that is part of the overall operating plan.

  Q264 Chris Mole: Mr Lloyd, I think you began to touch on this, but could you tell us something about the sort of systems which are used to trace delivery and return of postal ballot papers and can you tell us how those routes are audited?

  Mr Lloyd: As far as the ballot papers are concerned that actually come back which are posted in a post box or collected from elsewhere, again they go via the local office through to the regional returning officer. We have also introduced, as part of the action from the May elections, the final sweep for the four postal regions which is basically a final sweep of the mail centres between 7.30 and 9 o'clock to ensure that all the ballot papers that are actually posted are actually taken from the box and leave the mail centre so that we can be sure there are no outstanding votes in that mail centre.

  Q265 Chris Mole: What about the outgoing mail, when the poll comes out from the local authority?

  Mr Lloyd: Again in terms of despatching them, we have agreed the timetable so that we make sure that the postal packs, for example, will always go out after the electoral addresses. That is one of the first   things that we actually did. Again the recommendation that we put and the timeframe that we put is that the items go out and are delivered to us on a specific day and we will start delivering them the next day and guarantee to deliver them within three days following receipt from the local authority.

  Q266 Chris Mole: Is there anything the companies operating end-to-end services can do to kind of test the return of samples to be sure that the processes are sound?

  Mr Hearn: Ordinarily we would add seeds into mailings that we do.

  Q267 Chris Mole: Seeds?

  Mr Hearn: Our own addresses, but because of the exacting nature of the legislation we have got, we cannot legally do that. It would not be good for me to receive an extra couple of ballot papers from such and such an election because the postal docket would reflect that two extra ballot papers went out rather than the exact number, so it is very difficult to monitor in that way. However, I would just say that in our own private elections that we would conduct, we would add in our own extra addresses. I do not know whether local authorities perhaps use friendly staff to say, "Have you received your ballot paper yet? You live in the area, so have you got it?" I know certainly when we have conducted postal pilots, we will get, "My granny received it in wherever, so I know they have arrived", and that is the sort of monitoring you can do certainly on the outgoing.

  Q268 Chris Mole: Do you think there should be a change to primary legislation to allow seeding in order to create confidence in the process?

  Mr Hearn: It is a monitor of how Royal Mail are performing, but whether it is beneficial—there are ways of adding seeds presumably where you would not have to put a ballot paper in, you put a letter in, add them into the mailing. It is the problem where, come the verification, what does the postal docket say as to exactly how many were sent out if there is a challenge, those sorts of processes. If you are having to explain that one or two extra items went out, does that add doubt into a process?

  Q269 Chris Mole: Presumably it is a confidence check. Can I ask what steps you have taken to insure against the risk of a re-run of an election and have you found any underwriters who are prepared to insure the risk?

  Mr Sanders: No, is the short answer. I have spent days trying to analyse and decide exactly what the risks are, where they start and where they finish, and I think we suppliers are between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the data we are supplied with and the hard place is my friend at the other end of the table. If we wanted to insure the risk for our own performance, we have to establish a clear start to our liability and we have to establish a clear end to our liability and we cannot do that under the present proposed regulations. The only suggestion that our underwriter has made is that there should be a global insurance for the whole of the election, covering everyone from the local returning officer to the regional returning officer and that the prime purpose is to insure a re-run, not to apportion blame.

  Mr Hearn: I would echo what Jon has said, that insurance is a great difficulty and, therefore, we are looking very, very closely at the contractual terms which are going to be connected with these particular contracts. As a company, you cannot open yourself up to a liability of an all-region re-run.

  Mr Brown: I agree with everything that has been said.

  Q270 Chris Mole: Returning officers have a statutory responsibility for the conduct of an election. What assurances can a third party give to a returning officer to support that responsibility? Lost for words?

  Mr Sanders: It is down to the agreed procedure and the development of a procedure which has an audit trail, an agreed start to the audit trail and an agreed finish. All of my pilots in the past have had observers from the various authorities at the mailing centre for the entire time of the enveloping and the mailing. They sample the contents of envelopes and they sample the contents of mail bags and you develop a relationship with the returning officer to the point where you agree that the mail has been done to his satisfaction. Beyond that, all you can do is give an undertaking that if there is something wrong, you will put it right, and if it is put right, not to blame people after the event. That is all you can do, it is a best-endeavours situation really.

  Q271 Mr Clelland: When you have produced the electoral material, presumably it is true that you have to accept responsibility for storing it and securing it until it is time for it to be delivered. Can you tell us a bit about the systems for security and are you happy with that responsibility?

  Mr Brown: From a De La Rue point of view, we make banknotes for this as well, so yes, and frankly, from a security point of view, I would prefer not to go into our specific systems for that.

  Q272 Mr Clelland: Yes, I appreciate that, but the system in terms of your having this responsibility is something you are happy to live with?

  Mr Brown: Yes.

  Mr Hearn: Yes, absolutely. Regrettably, we do not make bank notes, but security probably in our premises is as high as it would be in all local authority premises that are storing the ballot papers for traditional elections, if not more so. We certainly have CCTV, locked cages, sign-in entry, identification, all the sort of processes you would expect in a professional organisation.

  Q273 Mr Clelland: The submission from Document Technology referred to, "2003: two councils returned a large number of unsigned declarations of identity, but retained the ballot papers pending return of the signed declaration". If that is an unacceptable practice, which I assume Document Technology believes it is, what should be done to try and overcome that problem?

  Mr Sanders: I think the reason for my comment is more that if you are going to send back a declaration for signature, you really should be sending back the ballot papers as well because the declaration says, "I received these ballot papers". If you are going to hang on to the ballot papers, as is the proposal this year, then you cannot actually truthfully say, "I received these ballot papers", unless there is a letter generated which says, "We have received these ballot papers. Please confirm you have actually received them and you have voted on them". The actual administrative cost of doing an extra letter is far greater than sending the whole pack back and saying, "Please complete the declaration and send the ballot papers back to us".

  Q274 Mr Clelland: Is there anything in the design of the material which might facilitate it and overcome this problem?

  Mr Sanders: The potential material we have designed would actually facilitate that very easily, yes.

  Chairman: Well, thank you very much indeed.

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