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

Memoranda submitted by the Scottish National Party, the Green Party and the UK Independence Party

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 303-319)

17 MARCH 2004


  Chairman: Can I welcome you and can I just stress that, if you agree with each other, please do not repeat what one or the other has said and, if you disagree, please come in quickly.

  Q303 Mr Sanders: The Electoral Commission was asked to rank regions in terms of their appropriateness for all-postal voting at the June European Parliament elections. Two of the regions it did not positively recommend are being required to have all-postal voting. What are your views on the government's proposal to include those two additional regions?

  Mr Forse: We oppose it; we feel that it is too much of a risk. There have been a lot of problems with the postal votes that have already taken place. We believe it should be limited to the smaller regions so it is more contained.

  Q304 Mr Clelland: What problems?

  Mr Forse: In our submission with places like Hackney and Brighton there have been all sorts of problems regarding the secrecy issue. There was a case, for instance, in Hackney in our submission where it was threatened that the churches had a voting day where people took their votes to the church and voted collectively. The idea of course is still to have secret votes, and the whole postal vote system really makes that a lot more difficult. Obviously some people will vote in private but a lot of them are subject to family pressure, particularly if there is a dominant member of the family. Also we believe there is greater pressure from political parties. My constituency is Leicester West which is going to have an inquiry on this, including the MP, so we do have, in principle, problems with postal votes. But there is so much going on at the moment in legislation with the PPERA and everything that it is very difficult for small political parties to keep on top of all of it, and therefore we believe it is best to play safe on this. We would rather have it in a sense in no region and know more first but, if not, then let's do it in the smaller regions rather than the larger regions. There are, I understand, very small local elections in the those regions in the north east; I think there are a lot more in Yorkshire Humberside than in the north west.

  Q305 Mr Sanders: You have introduced something I do not think we have heard about before about people going to a church to vote collectively. Can you tell us more about that?

  Mr Forse: Yes. I did not give this submission; our election agent did. He submitted an overall paper and then he submitted reports from various places based on all-postal votes as opposed to the postal votes in line with normal voting which was the case in Leicester West, so we had Hackney, and Brighton where there was a problem picked up by a letter that went out from the leader of the Labour Party there to say that they had—not "proof", I forget the word exactly, but that in some wards it was very close—

  Q306 Mr Sanders: I am interested about this allegation that people came together and were in a room where they all filled in their ballot papers, because that goes right against the whole concept of our electoral system.

  Mr Forse: Absolutely.

  Mr Sanders: If you have that, it needs to be on the record—if it happened.

  Q307 Chairman: It is in the evidence that we have.

  Mr Forse: It is.

  Q308 Mr Sanders: Do you have any concerns about the scale of the pilots in June, particularly given the slow progress of the European and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill?

  Mr Croucher: Our feeling is that the postal voting pilots in these regions, particularly for the European nations, are unlikely to make the differences we have seen in previous elections where postal voting has increased the turnout. There is a general disenchantment amongst the voting public plus an almost complete disinterest in the issue of the European elections. Any turnout increase this time round will be rather less than we have seen in the past from postal voting

  Mr Thoms: Going back to your original question about the additional two more regions and the Electoral Commission's recommendations, it does question why the government put the Electoral Commission to look at this in detail, analyse it and then make clear recommendations on which regions are capable and should be selected for electoral pilots, and then for the government to go over and above that without any further analysis that we are aware of. It does seem to question the process of people bothering to go to the Electoral Commission in the first place.

  Q309 Mr Sanders: General elections still tend to have higher turnouts than local or European elections. Does that suggest that the issues that are at stake, the importance of the election and perhaps the quality of candidates or indeed the campaigning that is undertaken by the parties, deters the electorate rather than the voting system itself?

  Mr Thoms: Research has shown that people feel more motivated to vote in an election depending on how powerfully they believe the legislature is going to affect their lives, and the reality is, because the powers of the United Kingdom Parliament are greater than any other devolved assembly or government, that it will always have a higher turnout.

  Q310 Mr Sanders: Surely, from the UKIP point of view, in a European election the power is with Europe, is it not, not with Westminster, so why do more people not turn out in a European election?

  Mr Croucher: Our feeling is that broadly people see the European Parliament as an expensive talking shop with limited powers. It is an assembly and not a parliament in the sense of the Parliament of which you are members. Also people do not see the relevance of the European Parliament to their daily lives—

  Chairman: I understand those arguments. I want to keep us on postal votes, if I can.

  Q311 Chris Mole: The Metropolitan Police say that concerns about security with postal voting are isolated. Anecdotal evidence can be produced but do any of you have accumulative statistical evidence of problems arising from security, administration, postal glitches and so on?

  Mr Croucher: I would argue that is one of the problems with the postal voting system; that it is very difficult for these concerns to be proved. There have been in a number of constituencies and a number of elections issues raised over the fraudulent use of postal voting, but where you go to your local polling station you are likely to know or be known by at least some of the people there, and the chances of fraudulent use of a vote at a ballot box when you turn up in person is much lower than with a postal vote, because, if you made a decision in a postal election that you are not going to vote, how do you know whether your vote has been cast or not? You have no means of finding out. Purely anecdotally I suspect that in areas that have a very low turnout anyway—

  Q312 Chris Mole: But you have no way of proving that the ballot box gets to the election count?

  Mr Croucher: That is not strictly true. The ballot boxes are supervised by the police on the way to the election count.

  Q313 Chris Mole: So the police are okay but the Post Office is not?

  Mr Thoms: The ballot box is sealed, as I am sure you are well aware, when it leaves the polling station by the presiding officer, and then broken at the time of the count so I do not think that should be an issue.

  Mr Croucher: Indeed, and at the polling station itself you might have anything up to nine or ten people all of whom are fairly local to the polling division where people are casting their ballots, so there are no opportunities for identity fraud and anyone who is proposing to do that is taking a fairly significant risk that somebody at the polling station will know they are not who they claim to be.

  Mr Thoms: It goes wider than that. If you look at the review of elections, particularly in 1997-2001, the police certainly in Scotland said at one point that no electoral offences had been committed in total, never mind for postal voting, and part of what came out of that process was that nobody understood how to report electoral offences. There were lots of stories going through all the parties about what had happened, but it was very difficult to make a very clear case and know who to report it to. A lot of people think the returning officers have the power to investigate and do not understand the police do, and out of that process for the 2003 elections in Scotland there was new guidance given to the police on how to record it, and we were then able to advise our activists, candidates and agents on how to record it, and for the first time we had formal complaints made over a number of issues to the police. Some of them are still being investigated so we cannot even tell you what the outcome is.

  Mr Forse: I had a case in my own local election last year where, though it was not about postal votes, we did question the validity of one of the candidates standing but the cost of complaining was so expensive that we got frightened off, and that would apply to postal votes as well.

  Q314 Chris Mole: The Electoral Commission has called for individual registration as a way of more clearly identifying who the electors are. Do you think that is a necessary precondition for a wider extension of all-postal elections?

  Mr Thoms: I think it would be very useful. In terms of the development of individuals taking responsibility for their part in the democratic process, one of your questions for the submissions was around voter participation and, if postal voting is just about increasing turnout, then you could take it further and say, "Why not have compulsory voting?" Making people vote and encouraging them to vote is what is so important, and I think it is more important for people to engage with the democratic process because they want to and of their own volition, and one of the ways is by individual registration.

  Q315 Chris Mole: Can I ask then about the proposals to modify the declaration of identity and do away with witness attestation? EROs have told us that nobody ever checks them so what is the point of having them?

  Mr Thoms: None whatsoever.

  Q316 Christine Russell: Do you have any postal voting within your own party organisations, and have you had problems there?

  Mr Forse: We have postal voting for certain positions on our National Executive.

  Q317 Christine Russell: Any difficulties?

  Mr Forse: To my mind, no, but we are talking about only 4-5,000 voters as opposed to millions, so I think the comparison is not valid.

  Q318 Christine Russell: So the Post Office has never let you down?

  Mr Forse: I have not complained about the Post Office. I have complained about the Post Office on free postal units but that is a different issue. One of the submissions does say, and I think it was Hackney, that the envelopes need to state clearly that there is a ballot.

  Q319 Christine Russell: I think there is another question coming on that. What about the SNP and UKIP?

  Mr Thoms: In internal elections we use postal ballots for island communities and, again, we get more postal votes returned by fax which is permissible under the rules than to rely on returning it by the mail. If you live in the Western Isles or up near Shetland and rely on Royal Mail to get your vote anywhere—!

  Mr Croucher: Yes, similar to the Greens we use postal voting for internal elections, and when we had the change from people turning up and voting at party meetings we did see a temporary increase in the turnout but that has now dropped back, although we are a little larger than the Greens but the numbers we are talking about are relatively small.

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