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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-332)

17 MARCH 2004


  Q320 Christine Russell: So what about the timetable? You may have heard the two earlier witnesses saying that there are problems with moving elections to June because of the Spring Break. It does not seem to be the same problem with Easter, but what do you feel about the election timetable?

  Mr Forse: It is not so much a problem with June—I have not heard anyone complaining about that. There is a problem with the general timetabling when you are running an election and in the European election, say, you have a lot of all-postal voting and you have normal voting, we all only get one free postal vote—when do you send it out, early or late; broadcast—we only get one, when do you send it out; we get very little media; we are virtually guaranteed to get our manifesto launch, and when do you do that? A lot of this may take place after people have voted.

  Q321 Christine Russell: So you are not objecting to June?

  Mr Forse: Not for me. June is not an issue.

  Mr Thoms: I think it is more helpful to have elections held in the summer months when evenings are lighter and people can get out and engage with voters. I have no problem with that at all.

  Mr Croucher: Similarly with June as a specific date we do not have a problem with the particular month. We have the same difficulties, which perhaps the Scottish Nationalists do not share, being in Scotland, as it were, where you have different election timetables across the country and it creates major problems for the small parties, as the Greens have already said. When do you launch? When do you do things?

  Q322 Christine Russell: What about the issue of distributing election material with the postal votes?

  Mr Croucher: If my memory serves me correctly that was done in the London mayoral elections I believe last time round and, broadly, we were quite in favour of it. It ensured every household received a copy and you did not have boycotts or material not being delivered by the Post Office, which we do have some evidence of in previous campaigns.

  Mr Thoms: Having met with Royal Mail at the Westminster Parliamentary Panel on the Electoral Commission we hopefully will have reassurance this year that at least we understand when the people spoke out and when it will be delivered, so all parties are aware of that. It is entirely for the party to decide.

  Q323 Christine Russell: What about the Green Party? Do you have any feelings about extremist material being sent out that you may deem to be offensive?

  Mr Forse: We do, yes, but it is a balance between democracy and what in some cases could, of course, be an illegal act.

  Q324 Christine Russell: But in general you would approve of material going out?

  Mr Forse: For racist groups?

  Q325 Christine Russell: With the ballot paper.

  Mr Forse: We probably would be unhappy about it, and I know the party is very much against a particular certain party. We would be unhappy about it.

  Q326 Chris Mole: Do you believe that having all-postal voting favours one political party over any of the others? Conversely, do you believe not having it favours one party over any others?

  Mr Thoms: No.

  Mr Forse: It probably has an advantage for the larger parties over the smaller parties, but not individual parties.

  Mr Croucher: I would concur with that entirely. We have found from experience that, when it comes to postal voting where at the moment people can elect to vote by post, in my own constituency in Dartford, in the local council elections in honesty they tend to weigh the Labour postal vote just because there is already such an in-built—"majority" is the wrong word but I am sure you understand. Membership strength within that constituency, for example, for the Labour Party is very great, so it makes it much easier for existing and established parties to turn out people who are members of their parties and to encourage them to vote by post whereas, of course, for newer and smaller parties we do not have the history and 100 years of members and having our name spread. So, yes, we tend to feel that it is an advantage to the major established parties and a disadvantage to smaller.

  Q327 Chris Mole: Coming back to the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, who gave evidence yesterday, they said that many of the allegations concerning electoral fraud turned out to be spurious or malicious, and that casting doubt on your opponent's campaigning tactics seems to be becoming a feature of the mainstream. Is that to be discouraged?

  Mr Thoms: Possibly. For example, on Saturday I was canvassing for a local government bye election in Falkirk, and I knocked on the door of this elderly woman and sat talking to her disclosing various bits and pieces and she said to me, "Will I be getting my postal vote again?" When I said "What do you mean?", she said, "Last year it was sent to me. I did not ask for it; it was sent to me. Am I going to get it again this week?" Now, it is very difficult. If you do not know who has a postal vote until they have gone out because they refuse to release the postal vote list ahead of the start of an election, and if there is no marked register for postal votes for parties to assist in terms of security and detection fraud, how can we prove anything or get evidence?

  Q328 Christine Russell: Following on from that, are you saying that you consider that a marked copy of the register should be available and, if it should be, when should it be available and who should it be available to?

  Mr Thoms: It should be available in the same way as the register for people attending polling stations should be available. My understanding is that the Electoral Commission has not come to any formal position as yet, but the principle seems to be against the idea. Maybe the electoral administrator is against it because it is more paperwork for them, but it will be very helpful for the people who vote because it is a level playing field where voting by post or polling station is the same.

  Mr Croucher: Really this goes back to the advantage of the larger parties with a big activist base over the smaller parties, because certainly all of the main parties where I live are actively out canvassing their members to find out who has applied for a postal vote within their membership. There is a world of difference between us with about 200 members in Dartford and the Conservatives who I know have something like 1,700 members.

  Q329 Christine Russell: Do you not think it cuts down the hassle that voters get if political parties have access to a marked register? They know, therefore, who has returned their postal vote and therefore they do not get the nightly knock on the door to inquire if they have returned it.

  Mr Croucher: This is true, but people being upset with politicians is perhaps outside the scope of this inquiry!

  Q330 Mr Clelland: There is a point that UKIP raised before about people not being sure whether the Post Office had sent their vote back or not. If there was a rolling register of who had voted people would know whether they voted or whether their vote had been returned or not and conversely, if they had not and if someone else had voted on their behalf.

  Mr Croucher: Certainly that is true, and people who make a conscious decision to abstain and not to vote presumably take sufficient interest in a political process to make those checks, but in terms of finding out on a wider basis you do not remove the element of fraud from it. If people cannot be bothered to vote then they are unlikely to check to see whether they have or not.

  Q331 Chris Mole: Mr Croucher, in the UK Independence Party's written submission you have said: "If some people must be persuaded to vote by means . . . of a post box as compared to the ballot box, the fundamental question must be raised as to whether their views should be taken into account at all." Do you stand by that statement?

  Mr Croucher: I knew I should have read our submission first. I did not actually write it. I must confess I am a last-minute replacement for Dr Whittaker. Broadly, yes, I would stand by that. Attempting to somewhat artificially inflate turn-out by using convenience as a means to twist people's arms into voting is perhaps the wrong approach to it. Perhaps making politics more relevant to the people that we are asking to vote would be the answer. We historically never had a problem.

  Q332 Chris Mole: So you are telling postal voters that you do not think their votes are worth as much?

  Mr Croucher: No, I would not say that. There are reasons why people require postal votes—if they are on holiday, if they are disabled—but that is not the same as a general postal voting exercise.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you all very much for your evidence and can I have the next set of witnesses please.

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