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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360-368)

17 MARCH 2004

MR PETER WATT, MR GAVIN BARWELL AND LORD GREAVES

  Q360 Mr Sanders: Is the important thing to you to increase the turn-out or should it be the integrity of the ballot?

  Mr Barwell: The Conservative Party would believe that it is in the interests of democracy in this country that we encourage as many electors as possible to vote. It is only reasonable to have a system that makes it easy and convenient for people to cast their vote.

  Mr Watt: In reality what you are aiming to have is high turn out with a higher level of integrity in terms of the vote. Again the Electoral Commission would accept to some extent there are compromises to be made at the margins.

  Q361 Mr Sanders: So we sacrifice the integrity to increase the turn-out?

  Mr Watt: The Electoral Commission themselves would say at the margins there is a theoretical risk that ballot integrity would be threatened. Again, it is really at the margins. That is the decision or the compromise we will maybe have to make to increase turn-out.

  Lord Greaves: I do not think it is at the margins. I think that the level of what I would call benign fraud, not political parties or candidates rigging the election but people voting for other members of their family because they think it is a good thing to do, which is clearly against the law and wrong, is probably a lot higher than people imagine. I come back to what I said before, we do not know and we need the research on that. As far as the results are concerned, it is our view as far as our party is concerned that all-postal voting has little or no effect on our electoral performance and, as I said before, we do not appear to have any academic research into it overall. There is a general view around, certainly in the North West that all-postal voting will help the Labour Party in inner cities because there are supposed to be voters there who cannot be bothered to go and vote and who will vote if they get the ballot paper. My personal view is that that is over-stated and if it helps anybody it might not help the Labour Party. There is a second view that having all-postal voting and an increase in turn-out will help defeat the BNP and the BNP will then do worse. These are views which are overtly expressed by some people campaigning for postal voting. We have no evidence apart from some interesting evidence here, which is not all postal voting but it is comparing turn-outs in the only place where the BNP won a significant number of seats in one place and that was Burnley last May. Last May in Burnley out of 15 wards the BNP stood in 13. They won in seven of them and did not win in six. In the seven wards where the BNP won, the average turn-out was 44.02% and in the wards they did not win it was 39.09. In other words, the wards in which the BNP won had a higher turn-out on average than others. It was only 5% and you can look at the wards and say there were reasons for that anyhow so I am not arguing that high turn-out helps the BNP. I am saying in the only place where we have really got comparisons over wards they won and wards they did not win in one place the evidence is at best is inconclusive.

  Q362 Mr Sanders: The Metropolitan Police told us that they have to deal with a lot of allegations to do with electoral fraud. They have said a lot of that is to do with casting doubt as to opponents' campaigning practices and they have put that down to a tactic adopted by most, if not all, of the mainstream registered parties over the years. Have you come across such allegations and how can such practices be discouraged?

  Lord Greaves: Are you asking me?

  Q363 Chairman: We are asking all three of you. We are getting pretty tight for time now so if you could just have short answers if you think it is relevant.

  Mr Watt: I have never come across any spurious allegations. I have certainly heard what was said yesterday and I have heard people say there have been spurious allegations. I do not think there is widespread fraud and I think these spurious allegations are about casting doubt on the integrity of people involved in the elections.

  Lord Greaves: My experiences in Lancashire and in the North West where there have been lots of allegations have mainly been to do with campaigns involving large Asian communities and the police found it very difficult to investigate for three reasons. The first is that Lancashire Police do not seem so understand elections.

  Q364 Chairman: We had a lot of evidence on that yesterday about those problems.

  Lord Greaves: Can I just say the second problem is the language and cultural problem getting through to people and the third is that—and this is important—they are only prepared to go forward with complaints if the individual elector whose vote has been stolen allegedly makes an individual complaint and they will not do it on the allegation of third parties such as political parties, and I think that is a serious difficulty.

  Mr Barwell: I think there are two issues. One is what is the proven level of fraud that has taken place. The second is perception because it is important that there is public confidence in the electoral system and perception is an important part of that.

  Q365 Chairman: Do you want roll-out for the General Election?

  Lord Greaves: No.

  Mr Barwell: Not yet.

  Q366 Chris Mole: Should a "marked copy" of the electoral register be made available? If so, when? We are really after this issue of access to a daily marked register?

  Mr Watt: We are very happy with the legislation as it is currently drafted in the Pilots Bill with the polling progress information. We think it strikes a sensible balance in terms of frequency which is not more than once a day and a minimum of twice a week. I think that is very sensible and it also useful for the political parties in terms of issues of fraud, and that sort of thing. It will be political parties who will notice if there is widespread fraud. It will also be political parties who will notice by using that information if there are delivery problems. If the Royal Mail or another deliverer has a particular problem in delivering postal votes in a particular area it will be political parties doing their normal activity who will notice that first. We think it is a very welcome move.

  Mr Barwell: We would support it both on the grounds of fraud and on the grounds of driving up turnout. If you take the concerns expressed by the Electoral Commission, if you look at it from a voter point of view those people who have cast their ballot papers the effect will be that they will not be bothered by political parties so I would have thought they are very unlikely to complain about that.

  Lord Greaves: We agree with that. It is very important there is a marked register after the election, at the moment on postal votes there is not and you have to go and count them.

  Q367 Chris Mole: Do you want a right for election candidates to be able to appoint a representative to observe the process of counting postal votes?

  Mr Watt: Yes.

  Lord Greaves: Not political parties, candidates.

  Q368 Chris Mole: Mr Watt, you touched on the Royal Mail, are you confident that they are going to be able to find a sufficient and audited service? Do you think the electorate will trust the postal system with its votes?

  Mr Watt: The Royal Mail is confident they can deliver the freepost notifications and ballot papers all in the correct order and they have contingency plans. One of the critical things we need to discover with the pilots is whether or not postal voting on that scale is practical, we will know a lot more after 10 June.

  Lord Greaves: We have grave concerns, we will just have to see how it works.

  Mr Barwell: We are broadly confident, we have some concerns. We suggested in our written evidence there should be one or two delivery points within a local authority area so that if people do have concerns about the post office service in their area they have an alternative.

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





 
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