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 JuneI 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 votewhen do you send it out,
early or late; broadcastwe 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
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
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
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
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
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 votesif
they are on holiday, if they are disabledbut 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