Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)|
17 MARCH 2004
FLETCHER MBE AND
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
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
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
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
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
Ms Fletcher: Indeed we do!
Q294 Chris Mole: So is three weeks really
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 fieldsplanning, 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.