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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)

17 MARCH 2004

MS SUZANNE FLETCHER MBE AND MS ROSEMARY WYETH

  Q280 Mr Clelland: But the postal ballot pilots that have been held have had delivery points and I am not aware there has been any particular problem there.

  Ms Fletcher: What would happen to the ballot papers overnight? That is the sort of issue electors would be concerned about.

  Q281 Christine Russell: Can I ask you what concern you have about cost, because in your submission from the parish council you raise this as an issue. How do you feel the costs compare between a traditional ballot and an all-postal ballot?

  Ms Wyeth: I think it is totally ludicrous. One of the things at the moment is, with us, when we have a parish council election it coincides with the district council elections, so if there is a dual election we are using all the same facilities and we share the costs of that particular election. In this instance it was just over a thousand pounds and Codford parish council paid half. Firstly, I am not sure how this would work if we are having all-postal elections, whether the parish would pay their bit, the district council their bit, or whether there would still be a 50/50 split. The other thing I was concerned about was the fact that considering a district and council election cost £1,022 and somehow or other the parish council picked up maybe about £600 of that. The actual estimate I believe was considerably higher than that and they were suggesting that an all-postal election could cost about £1,280 and that was just for a parish, so saying it would be simpler and less expensive for the parish was totally ludicrous because obviously they were saying it would cost you more for a single election than for a joint election.

  Q282 Christine Russell: So what price do you put on democracy? How much should you pay for it, and who should pay?

  Ms Wyeth: I am not putting a price on democracy. In fact, I think the democratic process is far better served when people are able to access the ballot box and really think about what they are doing. Today we have access to postal voting in a way we did not have before because you do not have to prove you are sick or in hospital, you can say that you want a postal vote, but I am a small Wylye Valley parish council with 700 people and we precept something like £3,500 a year approximately, and we try to just pay for the things we have to and put aside a certain amount for other things. Our council taxes are absolutely enormous in the county and from the district, and basically the parish council try to work within a budget. We have all ranges of income, very poor people, rural people living on fixed incomes, and what we would say is obviously we do not want to bump the price up unnecessarily, and this is one of our big costs. If we have an election then obviously the election costs are significant. If you have only got £3,500 you precept that year then obviously, if you have to pay over £1,200, you do appreciate our precept would have to go up considerably to afford that.

  Q283 Chris Mole: You said in your submission you only had 10% turnout in some of those elections.

  Ms Wyeth: No. What we actually said was the village turnout was considerably higher than the 10-17% turnout which was reported. I am not sure; I think it is more like 50 or 60. Our people do turn out because we feel very strongly about this, and obviously when it is a district council and a parish council election they are talking about local representatives, but we do get high turnouts. My comment was they were saying that most turnouts are between 10 and 17%, and what I was saying is this is ludicrous. We get a lot more than that in this particular rural area.

  Q284 Christine Russell: Is not the increased cost partly due to the fact that the turnout is higher and, therefore, it is the cost of returning the ballot papers, so what I am saying to you is who should pick up the bill if you have all-postal ballots?

  Ms Wyeth: I am saying I do not like all-postal ballots.

  Q285 Christine Russell: So it is not really the cost; it is just you do not think there should be all-postal ballots?

  Ms Wyeth: I do not like the idea that you have no option but to have a postal ballot, with the amount of junk mail that comes through people's doors today. For instance, think about the Census. How many people lose their forms? If you have something through the post and you have it for a little time and you have a period in which you have to return it, it is terribly easy to lose that bit of paper. It is also easy for other people to go to an elderly neighbour, tick off their boxes and send it back for them. So "one man one vote" is in danger if this happens.

  Q286 Christine Russell: So do you have evidence of people who have postal votes at the moment who lose them? What is that belief of yours based on, because you are saying if the postal vote comes through the door people are going to treat it like junk mail and it will go in the bin, and too late they are going to realise it was an important piece of paper. What evidence have you?

  Ms Wyeth: I am basing it on human nature. At the moment if you want a postal vote you ask for one, so if I ask for something I want it and use it. If it comes through the post and you have a period of time for it, it is very easy to think, "Oh, well, I have two weeks and I will put it aside", and to miss the deadline. Knowing the way people are and knowing the amount of junk mail that comes through I am basing it more on human nature observation than anything else.

  Q287 Mr Sanders: Linked to that, you have a longer period of time in which to vote. When the ballot papers come through some people will fill them in on the day and send them back. Given this longer period, did you come across anybody who said a week or two later, "I wish I had not voted because this other issue has come up and I would have voted a different way"? Is there a danger in the length of time and do you have any anecdotal stories on that?

  Ms Fletcher: Yes. We did come across a number of people who had not read all the literature but who had 17 days between the issue of the ballot paper and election day and we did have people who would have wanted to have changed their mind as things went on, because, of course, the national media campaign is still going on while these postal ballots are going in and obviously the whole purpose of that is to influence people's minds. So we did come across that, and also people who had mislaid their ballot papers.

  Q288 Chairman: As far as parish councillors are concerned, how far is cost an influence in trying to limit the number of candidates to just the number of seats?

  Ms Wyeth: I am sorry, I do not quite understand that question.

  Q289 Chairman: It has been put to us that what happens in a parish is that people go round and try and encourage people not to stand so that you only have the right number of people for the seats and therefore you have no cost of an election.

  Ms Wyeth: We frequently do not have the cost of an election, it is true, although we have done this time. We deliberately made an effort because for quite a few years we had the right amount of people for the right amount of seats. You are right, it is totally improper, but at one time there have been parish clerks saying, "Okay, there are 10 people are standing for nine seats. If one person withdraws we will not have to have the cost of an election", but very often you have the same councillors or maybe new ones and you have a balance. I am not suggesting that happens very often but what I am suggesting, looking at the difference in price between the two issues, is that it was quite a considerable jump, and I was also wondering about the query of whether you were having a joint election, whether each election costs that much, or whether you would halve that cost.

  Q290 Chairman: I understand the argument that parish councils would like the district council to pay for their elections, yes. Also, you are saying it is easy now to get postal votes and therefore the ideal would be to have a physical vote for most people but postal for others. If you got to a stage where almost half the electorate was asking for a postal vote, that would be more expensive because you would have the traditional expense of the traditional ballot and the expense of the postal vote. Do you not see there is a problem with that?

  Ms Wyeth: I do and, if the majority of the population did decide that, that would be the way to go. What I am saying is that most people I talk to in the area I live, which is very rural in the Wylye Valley, like the chance to go along and make their vote on that particular day. It is really a bit like a pinprick in eternity: we have one day when all of the things come together, all of the media, whatever is happening, we have this one moment, and all of us are doing the same thing. The great thing now is that we do have easy access to postal voting, so there is no excuse for people not to have it if they want it but, if they prefer to use the ballot box than to go physically to vote, it is a statement of citizenship in a way and a lot of people where I live do want to do that.

  Q291 Chris Mole: What are the practical difficulties of campaigning as candidates within the timetable for all-postal elections?

  Ms Fletcher: We found it extremely difficult. We had to start so much earlier to make sure that campaigning was completed by the time the postal ballots came out, and there were several difficulties with that. The first was that we were canvassing before the clocks changed, so we could do less canvassing because you cannot canvass in the dark.

  Q292 Chairman: You just have later elections, do you not?

  Ms Fletcher: We did not have later elections, but that will be a problem and I have thought about this. A lot of our deliverers in particular, and party workers, go on holiday at the Spring Bank Holiday and start going on their full family holidays in June, and that is going to cause serious concerns across all the parties. The other issue that we have found with the postal ballot is that, because of the rolling registration, we had not got the names for the March and April people going on to the electoral roll filtered through into our system in time for those people to be called on, so quite a number of people did not get called on and we could not hit that point. They were fully registered and we had all the details by the time it was polling day but we had finished our canvassing by then.

  Ms Wyeth: For parish council elections we do not canvass. Basically we do not stand on a party political basis; we are apolitical; we all stand on our own records; they know us and live with us; if they do not like us they tell us; and at the day end of the day they vote us out so we do not canvass. I do canvass for our district councillor at the moment but I do not have any experience of it making a problem because we have not dealt with it yet.

  Ms Fletcher: On the difficulty in campaigning, if we wanted to do telephone campaigning, both the canvassing and reminding people to vote, as it were, under the legislation we have to be telephone preference service cleared 28 days at a time and, because of the very long period, starting canvassing early and going right through to polling day, we had to re-register several times.

  Q293 Chris Mole: Do you not campaign and keep in touch with your constituents all the year round these days?

  Ms Fletcher: Indeed we do!

  Q294 Chris Mole: So is three weeks really a problem?

  Ms Fletcher: But we do not telephone canvass them all the year round; we deliver leaflets, knock on their doors and talk to them all the year round.

  Q295 Chris Mole: But you would be happy with June as an alternative?

  Ms Fletcher: I would find that very difficult because of the holidays.

  Q296 Chris Mole: So do you think political campaign literature should be allowed to go out with the postal ballots, if we are going to have all-postal ballots?

  Ms Fletcher: I think that is an interesting concept and could be helpful.

  Q297 Mr Clelland: A lot more paper though.

  Ms Fletcher: Yes.

  Q298 Mr Clelland: Although you are really quite sceptical about the idea of all-postal ballots the fact is they are popular because turnout goes up quite considerably, or has done, in the pilots that have been held. However, they rarely reach the turnout that general elections see. Does that suggest to you that, when it comes to turnout, it is not so much the method of voting but the issues at stake and, perhaps, the perception of the quality of the candidates?

  Ms Fletcher: I think the issues at stake are quite significant. Increasingly people are wondering why they bother voting for us at district level because we cannot do what they want in all sorts of fields—planning, etc. We cannot deliver; we have not got the powers; and so there is a bit of, "I do not know why we are bothering". They save it up for what they call the "big" election. There is a lot more media and the media is a very significant influence on the turnout because it is constantly in people's minds, and of course, when you have the pilots we are quite out of sync and if we are going to have this with the European elections then the national media will be geared up to having a polling day on 10 June and the pilots will be having their election day virtually some time before then.

  Ms Wyeth: Our district council elections did turn out a lot of people because we had an independent candidate who had worked for us for a considerable amount of time and a more traditional candidate who was a very nice guy, but why take over from somebody else? So basically people turned out in massive numbers to support the independent literally to give him a mandate. One of the things we are particularly concerned about where I live, however, is we have a problem with our postal service. Our central is in Trowbridge and so our district council paperwork, including planning details that the parish council have to be aware of, comes from Trowbridge, and at one time there was a postal office in Bath and when the actual sorting officer was in Bath we used to get our post just as normal people do but then they moved it to an all-singing-and-dancing one in Bristol—

  Q299 Chairman: I do not think we need all the detail. It is enough for us to know that you feel there is a problem with the Post Office.

  Ms Wyeth: There is. It is taking three or four days for things to get to us.


 
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