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

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 on that?

  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 methods.

  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 Commission—and 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 believed—and this is certainly well-known locally and believed by us—there 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 comments.

  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.

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