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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-359)

17 MARCH 2004

MR PETER WATT, MR GAVIN BARWELL AND LORD GREAVES

  Q340 Mr Clelland: You are suggesting in that comment that there is massive fraud if that is the case, surely? If we are getting a huge increase in turn-out and you are putting it down to the fact that we do not know who has returned the ballot paper, it is fraud, is it not?

  Lord Greaves: We do not know. The problem is that the research that has taken place into the all-postal pilots has consisted of asking people if they find it more convenient, touchy-feely questions, do you feel good about the system, and so on. Nobody has done any hard research, as far as we can tell, into who is sending back these extra ballot papers and whether they were sent back legitimately or not. It is easy enough research to do because we know who the people are who voted at the previous election, we know who the people are who voted in the pilots. There may then be 10% or 15% of the electorate, or whatever it is who voted in the second and not the first and it is time that somebody did some research by going to those people and individually tracking down who they are. That is interesting in itself because a lot of anecdotal evidence, and to my knowledge it is anecdotal still, is that a lot of the extra people who vote are people in larger families who otherwise would not vote. So where perhaps two people in a household vote in a normal election and go to the polling station, what is happening in the pilot is the whole of that household, perhaps three, four or five people are voting. Are they legitimate votes or is it the two keen voters voting for everybody else? The fact is we do not know at the moment because nobody has done that research. It is that hard research on facts which are publicly available without in any way compromising the secrecy of the ballot which needs to be done.

  Q341 Christine Russell: Lord Greaves, can I just continue this. Are you saying that the evaluation that was carried out by the Electoral Commission on the all-postal pilots is just not worth the paper it is written on? Is that what you are telling us?

  Lord Greaves: No, no, it is worth what it is. If you ask MORI to do opinion polls and ask people do they prefer this system or do they prefer the old system or do they feel good with this system or do they feel secure, those answers are valid within the terms of the questions which are being asked. What I am saying is we are not getting down to the real nitty-gritty of what is happening in these pilots. Another example which is perhaps stretching this question a little bit is what is the electoral effect of the pilots? Does it change the results? Again, so far as we can tell, nobody knows because nobody has been doing the research.

  Q342 Christine Russell: Perhaps that is a good argument for having lots of regions included. Do you not think the more regions that are included the better you can do the academic research?

  Lord Greaves: No, you do not want that. You actually want the research to take place. I am not an expert on the academic field of ortology (?) but I consulted my good friend Michael Stead who you may know is a distinguished ortologist as well as being a distinguished member of our Party for many years, and he tells me that to his knowledge there is no serious research going on anywhere about the electoral effects of the pilots or about these other issues which we are talking about which really university politics departments ought to be getting involved in and finding interesting, I would have thought.

  Q343 Christine Russell: Do you think that the elections would be more secure if there was individual registration? I am asking all three of you. Perhaps, Gavin, if you would like to start.

  Mr Barwell: I think that we would favour a move to individual registration. Certainly we would have concerns about the extension of all-postal voting without addressing some of the issues to do with security and confidentiality that we have concerns about at the moment so, yes, I think there would be greater security if you had individual registration. Could I just pick up on the previous question about what lies behind the different turn-outs in the different elections. I think it is certainly the case that turn-out is higher in a general election because voters believe that the result of that election has a greater impact on their lives than the elections for the European Parliament or local council elections. I think that points to something fairly profound underlying all this, which is if we are interested in increasing turn-out in local elections, say, the primary way to deal with that should be to ensure that the decisions the local councils make have more impact on people's lives and the councils are given more freedom from central government control. Having said that—

  Q344 Chairman: I am very keen this morning to keep us on the postal issue.

  Mr Barwell: I think that is an important point to make. Having said that, the evidence of the pilots is quite clear that all-postal ballots do in a set context increase turn-out. I think it was something like 15 percentage points on average during the last pilot, and therefore if it is making it more convenient, certainly the issues Lord Greaves mentioned need investigating, and easier for people to vote that has got to be a good thing.

  Q345 Christine Russell: Do you accept the Electoral Commission's view that there was no evidence of fraud?

  Mr Barwell: There is a need for proper research into this.

  Q346 Christine Russell: So you want research and you want the individual registration. What about the Liberals, do you want individual registration?

  Lord Greaves: Yes we do and we are very keen if there is to be a major extension of postal voting that individual registration is something that has to come in first. We agree with the Electoral Commission on this. May I say this: it does not solve all the problems. There are two main problems with all-postal voting. One is whether the person who returns the ballot paper and fills it in is the elector. Individual registration will help enormously, assuming that councils are provided with the necessary technical equipment to be able to check signatures as they come in, and I assume that there are electronic means of doing that nowadays, although I do not know that. The second problem is the question of whether the vote takes place in secret, free from intimidation, bribery or whatever, and individual registration does not tackle that second problem on its own.

  Mr Watt: Again the Labour Party is in favour of individual registration. We have some concerns about how quickly it is brought in. If it is brought in too rapidly we will lose people off the register in the early stages which will be of concern. There are other issues as well in terms of the security of the ballot, things like impersonation away from the polling station. Whether there are two or four postal pilots this June, clearly a lot of useful evidence will come from that in terms of what other issues we need to address. On the whole we do not think that postal voting is any more or less secure or prone to fraud than traditional forms of voting which themselves have an element of postal voting in them.

  Q347 Christine Russell: Do you support the proposal to do away with the declaration of identity?

  Mr Watt: Yes, we do.

  Q348 Christine Russell: What about the Liberals?

  Lord Greaves: No, we do not.

  Q349 Christine Russell: You want to retain it?

  Lord Greaves: There are two reasons for keeping it and I have got some personal experience of this. The first reason for keeping it is that it is a disincentive to people who might be wanting to cast a fraudulent vote by picking up a vote belonging to somebody out of the waste paper basket, or whatever it is. If you have got to have somebody signing a form it does not stop the fraud if people are determined but you have got to involve somebody else in it and that is a clear disincentive.

  Q350 Chairman: Why do you have to involve somebody else in it? All you have to do is change the biro you use, is it not?

  Lord Greaves: Okay, but then you have to sign their name and put their address on this. This comes on to the second reason, that if you have suspicions that there has been funny business going on the declarations of identity are checkable, they are inspectable.

  Q351 Chairman: In practice they are not checked, are they?

  Lord Greaves: I spent two weeks the summer before last sat in the town hall checking declarations of identity for four wards where we believed there had been massive postal vote fraud taking place. I have no doubt that was taking place at that time. The reason that we were able to really identify and prove to ourselves (although the Police seemed unable to investigate this properly) was that we were able to check these declarations of identity and we were able then to follow them back to the voters to find out exactly what had happened. We discovered that the voters had indeed signed the form and had it witnessed but they had never seen the ballot papers, and in other cases we were able to identify situations where certain individuals had witnessed over 100 postal votes each and many of those the electors, when we went back to them, said they had never seen. You can go back and do the forensic work on these things and find out exactly what happened and it is a very, very useful thing to happen, obviously not in every case but when you think there is serious fraud taking place it is a very useful thing.

  Q352 Chris Mole: In terms of the approach to campaigning what issues do you think there are about the timetable for all-postal elections?

  Mr Watt: I do not think there is a problem for political parties at all. If there is a local area that is having a postal vote election—and there have been countless numbers of them over the last couple of years—then local parties very quickly adapt to the fact. Effectively it is just a new timetable. The polling day instead of taking place on one day takes place over several days. It is just about a different mind-set for local parties. We run training sessions at our conferences for local activists around the country and they are very positive about campaigning in postal vote elections. It is just a different timetable of campaigning and that is all.

  Mr Barwell: If I may make one point. In terms of what is proposed for June there is an issue about a need for a quick decision on this because what is required—

  Q353 Chairman: We understand that. Let's just stick to the campaigning. You do not disagree with what the Labour Party just said?

  Mr Barwell: The point I was trying to make was that political parties require plenty of notice that there is going to be an all-postal ballot election. If you have plenty of notice beforehand I do not disagree at all with what has just been said. Political parties require notice to prepare for the different timetable.

  Lord Greaves: I agree with that. In local elections there is no problem but if you have something like a European election or if you have a general election where part of the area has all-postal voting and part has not, then synchronising things like party political broadcasts and the whole media coverage of the election campaign, assuming there is going to be any for the European elections, means two things. It means that a lot of people are going to be voting before they have been subjected to this propaganda and there is something not quite right about that.

  Q354 Chris Mole: Are the other two parties worried about that issue with PPBs?

  Mr Watt: It is difficult to say at the moment. It is an issue because at the moment I think we are expecting to have four broadcasts in England during the campaign. That is the expectation. What we are not aware of at the moment is the dates. Working on the assumption we get roughly one a week then those voters in England who are voting by post will be subjected to only half the number of broadcasts. On the other hand, for June, as I said before, the majority of voters will still be voting by traditional methods. So minor concerns but no more.

  Lord Greaves: Can I add one brief thing to that. There is concern that the party that has the broadcast the day after the postal votes have arrived will be put to some advantage.

  Q355 Chairman: How many people listen to party political broadcasts?

  Mr Watt: Someone is going to have the last broadcast before polling day as well.

  Q356 Chris Mole: Can I ask you about the notion of candidates despatching campaign literature with ballot papers for postal voters. Is that something you support.

  Lord Greaves: As far as the GLA were concerned I think it is something that was pioneered by our Director of Campaigning, who managed to persuade the Government and the House of Lords that this was a good idea. In principle we are in favour of this, if the election is of sufficient scale to make it sensible. It would not be a sensible thing to happen in every ward and every local election. The practicalities would mean it was quite extraordinary and there is the expense of having all the extra things done. Where it is larger-scale elections like the GLA or parliamentary elections or the European elections, we are in favour of that, yes.

  Q357 Chris Mole: Do you support that?

  Mr Barwell: No opposition.

  Mr Watt: Our preference would be that the material is actually despatched separately from the ballot papers because I think there is a danger the ballot paper will get lost with the election material. One of the things we need to learn from the postal pilots this June is really the ability of the deliveries to be able to make sure that the free post is delivered in advance of the ballot papers. That is one of the lessons we will have to learn and review it after that.

  Q358 Chairman: What about the Madrid effect? If you put in your ballot paper and post it back as soon as you get it, it could be a fortnight before the final results. It is suggested that in Spain if there had been widespread postal voting an awful lot of people would have voted before that last weekend. Is that something that should be taken into account or not?

  Lord Greaves: If postal voting is comprehensive it does not make very much difference. Something might happen during the period when people can send their postal votes back but something could happen on polling day, could it not? It could happen at twelve o'clock on polling day and affect the votes of people who vote after that. I think in principle that is not a problem. People are saying what has happened in Spain? Has the result been changed by the bombing that took place? One thing that we will find out in the all-postal pilots by having partial pilots is if that dreadful thing happened in this country—

  Chairman: If it is alright we will move on to Adrian Sanders.

  Q359 Mr Sanders: We seem to have established that postal ballots increase turn-out but do they favour any one particular political party above any other?

  Mr Barwell: We have done some internal analysis on that and in aggregate there does not seem to be any advantage to any political party. Looking at it theoretically at least, I would probably disagree with the evidence you heard previously from myself and my two colleagues here and say that it would probably favour smaller parties. It seems to me that when you have a lower turn-out that favours the party with the best organisation because you are more dependent on party organisation to get people out to vote. If you increase the turn-out out, at least in the theoretical sense, I would expect that to favour parties that have less robust organisations in the area concerned.


 
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