Examination of Witnesses (Questions 333-339)|
17 MARCH 2004
Q333 Chairman: Can I welcome the three
of you to the Committee. Can I ask you to identify yourselves
for the record.
Mr Barwell: My name is Gavin Barwell
and I am the Operations Director of the Conservative Party.
Lord Greaves: My name is Tony
Greaves, Lord Greaves, and I am a Liberal Democrat Member of the
House of Lords.
Mr Watt: I am Peter Watt, I am
the Head of Constitutional and Legal Unit of the Labour Party.
Chairman: We have offered people the
chance if they want to say something by way of introduction to
do so. If not, we will go straight into questions. Happy to go
to questions? David Clelland?
Q334 Mr Clelland: The Electoral Commission
were asked to rank regions in terms of their appropriateness for
all-postal ballots, as I am sure you are aware. However, two of
the regions it did not positively recommend are being required
to have all-postal votes by the Government. Could you comment
Mr Watt: The Electoral Commission
said that there were two regions that it was going to recommend
and there were a further four that it thought were potentially
suitable and it was for the government to decide which of those
other regions, if any, were suitable. The Government and subsequently
the House of Commons on two occasions has said that four regions
should be put forward and the two that the Government put were
in addition to those which by the Commission's own analysis were
potentially suitable. I think if you look at what the Electoral
Commission actually said when it was trying to differentiate between
the regions, there were margins between why one region was more
suitable than another. Four regions seems to me an eminently sensible
size for a postal pilot bearing in mind the postal pilots that
have taken place over the last two years. It still means that
just under 70% of the population will be voting by traditional
Q335 Mr Clelland: Anyone else?
Lord Greaves: Our view is very
clear, that on this particular issue the Government should follow
the recommendations of the Electoral Commissionand some
of us are involved in the discussions going on about that at the
moment, which are not yet resolved I have to say. I think our
main concern about having all-postal votes in Yorkshire and Humberside
and in the North West at this stage is the opportunity that there
is for quite substantial electoral fraud in some of the areas
which have already
Q336 Mr Clelland: That has got nothing
to do with whether we have two regions or four regions.
Lord Greaves: I think it is.
Q337 Mr Clelland: Is it? Why?
Lord Greaves: Because the places
where it is believedand this is certainly well-known locally
and believed by usthere have been difficulties with postal
voting fraud in recent years are some of the towns in those two
regions. That is the problem. In Yorkshire it appears to be mainly
concerned with Bradford. In the North West it is a whole range
of towns where people have been taking advantage of the postal
vote system to conduct elections in a way which does not comply
with the law. I am not making any party political points here.
I think across these towns, the allegations and what is well-known
locally to have been going on, go right across the parties.
Mr Barwell: From our point of
view the Government guidance to the Electoral Commission said
that the Government was looking for up to three regions. I think,
like Lord Greaves, it is curious that the Government has not followed
the advice it received from the Commission which was to specify
two particular regions. They have not chosen as one of their two
additional regions Scotland, and Scotland was the third region
in order of suitability that the Electoral Commission recommended.
To quote from a letter from Sam Young, the Chairman of the Commission,
which is in the public domain, he said: "We were surprised
to learn the Bill was to be amended to make four regions. In our
view pilots that cover a third of the English electorate in June
go further than we think necessary in order to address issues
of scalability. There is also, in our view, an increased risk
with combined elections and in some cases new boundaries in running
on such a large scale. We are not persuaded the risk is outweighed
by what we might learn from four regional pilots as opposed to
two." The Conservative Party would entirely agree with those
Q338 Mr Clelland: Given the problem that
the legislation is having as it goes through Parliament and the
scale of the proposed pilots, do you have any comments on problems
that might arise?
Mr Barwell: We very much agree
with the points that the Commission have made. We have had fairly
extensive piloting of all-postal ballots in local elections. I
think there is an additional issue about scalability, about running
a pilot on a wider area. I do not see why there is a need for
more than two pilot regions in order to test that issue.
Mr Watt: In terms of fraud it
is slightly spurious. When the Electoral Commission have looked
into the postal pilots that have taken place and in its evidence
in terms of recommending regions it saw no evidence of increased
fraud in postal pilots. It said if there was any instance of it
then it in itself was not enough to further extend the use of
postal voting in elections. I just feel in a sense if we are saying
it is okay for two regions, quite frankly, then why not for four
regions, particularly when again the Electoral Commission was
asked to recommend three but felt it could only recommend two
because there were a further four that were potentially suitable
and left it up to the Government to decide. The Electoral Commission
was asked to give the Government advice. The Government has looked
at the advice and has come back with four. As I say, it seems
perfectly reasonable if you are trying to extend the amount of
knowledge you have about postal voting and the impact it has to
look at four regions, particularly when three of the regions within
a matter of weeks or months will have to have a postal vote election
themselves in terms of the regional referenda. So you are actually
asking people in those regions, and more importantly the electoral
registration officers to go from operating a system of elections
in a traditional way to a postal vote in a matter of weeks. It
seems absolute nonsense particularly, as I say, when the Commission
could not particularly separate the regions at all.
Q339 Mr Clelland: Could I ask you about
the principle of all of this. Is the reason for postal pilots
because it is more popular and more people vote in postal voting
pilots than they do normally at the ballot box, at local elections
in particular? Although even at the levels at which they vote
it rarely reaches the level of people voting in general elections.
Does that suggest that it is not really the method of voting which
matters to people but the issues at stake and perhaps their perception
of the quality of the candidates?
Lord Greaves: It is quite clear
in the pilots which have taken place that the number of ballot
papers which have been returned has increased substantially in
almost all cases, and there is no dispute about that obviously.
There is some dispute about who has returned all those ballot
papers. Just because a ballot paper has been returned does not
mean that that voter has returned it.