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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 369-379)

17 MARCH 2004


  Q369 Chairman: Can I welcome you to the Committee and ask you identify yourselves for the record?

  Mr Raynsford: Nick Raynsford, Minister of State, Local and Regional Government, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

  Mr Leslie: Chris Leslie, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Court and Constitutional Reform, the Department of Constitutional Affairs.

  Q370 Chairman: Do you want to say anything by way of introduction?

  Mr Raynsford: I am happy to go straight to questions.

  Q371 Mr Clelland: Can you tell the Committee why you have ignored the advice of the Electoral Commission and added two regions to the proposed pilots which were not recommended particularly highly?

  Mr Leslie: As the Minister for taking the European Parliamentary and Local Elections Pilots Bill through the House of Commons perhaps if I can explain the rationale behind the choice of regions as they came through that might help the Committee. I would not accept the contention that we have gone against the advice of the Electoral Commission although I will explain why we do have a disagreement with the Electoral Commission about the definition of the scale of a pilot. My understanding of the advice that we have been receiving is that our choice is broadly consistent with the advice received from the Electoral Commission about specific regions we have chosen. Last year when we asked the Electoral Commission to give us advice on which regions might be suitable for all-postal pilots for June's combined local and European elections we asked for them to advise on up to three regions and also one which could potentially undertake an e-voting pilot. They reported us to in I think December with the conclusion that they did not feel an e-voting pilot should go ahead and they also rather than simply name three regions had different categories for the regions that were eligible. They had a category where they made positive recommendation and those were for the North East and the East Midlands. Then there was a further category where it was felt that a certain number of regions were potentially suitable but not positively recommended. My understanding of that was that the Electoral Commission were saying these were suitable regions where we could proceed and they were ranked in order by the Electoral Commission, Scotland first, then Yorkshire, then the North West and then the West Midlands. The other remaining regions were then in a separate category defined by the Electoral Commission as not suitable. We then faced a decision in the light of the ranking that came through. We then faced a decision about if we wanted more than the two that were positively recommended where we should look. We approached Scotland. We took on board the Electoral Commission's suggestion that we should enter into greater dialogue with the returning officers there. The electoral administrators in Scotland were very concerned that they might not be able to capably administer all of the postal piloting in Scotland, so being cognisant of that advice we did not feel we should go ahead with that even though it was top of the Electoral Commission's potentially suitable category. The next two regions down in ranking are Yorkshire and the North West. Given that we agreed with the Electoral Commission that the e-voting pilot was not a runner and that the resource envelope, which was effectively the main constraint on how many pilots we could undertake, was therefore a bit more flexible if we were not doing an e-voting pilot that enabled us to look at taking on board both Yorkshire and the North West. The other factor which plays into this, and it would be foolish and rather perverse to ignore it, is the fact that the three northern regions, North East, North West and Yorkshire will and were at the time signalled to be by all-postal voting in the referendum for elected regional government, something that the Electoral Commission themselves had recommended. It was on that basis that we have therefore sought to ensure that we see all-postal voting in those four regions: East Midlands, North East, North West and Yorkshire.

  Mr Raynsford: Could I add one other consideration which I think is very important, as Chris Leslie has pointed out we are intending to hold all-postal voting pilots in the referendums in the three northern regions in October 2004. We made that view known in October, we consulted on it and the Electoral Commission responded to our consultation on 17 February this year. In that response they said "The Commission welcomes the intention to hold the regional and the local referendums by all-postal ballots". They then went on to say, and I think this is very important, indeed I shall quote the whole of paragraph 19 of this response of 17 February. They say, "We also note that all-postal voting will be used at four regional electoral pilot schemes at the European Parliamentary and local elections in June 2004. We urge ODPM and the DCA to ensure that the all-postal arrangements for the electoral pilot schemes in June 2004 and the referendums in autumn 2004 are as closely as possible the same, particularly as the three referendum regions are also electoral pilot regions. Any unnecessary inconsistency is likely to cause confusion for electors and for administrators alike". It seems to me that is a very persuasive argument for not having different arrangements in June to the ones that will apply in October because that is likely to cause confusion to administrators and electors, and I wholeheartedly agree with that view of the Electoral Commission. I have to say it is not entirely consistent with the view the Electoral Commission have been expressing about the June pilots.

  Q372 Mr Clelland: Relations between your department and the Electoral Commission have not been bruised by this?

  Mr Raynsford: Relations between the ODPM and the Electoral Commission have always been very good and cordial. Frankly we think they have made a mistake on this. We think they are right in stressing the importance of consistency. They have always supported the measures to improve and extend all-postal pilots. We have had, as you will know, a series of programmes running since the year 2000 which have scaled up, from very modest ones, just a handful of local authorities in 2000 to a very extensive one involving over six million people voting in pilots last May. It was always our intention to continue to pilot as part of a programme to test ways of increasing participation in voting and the Electoral Commission has been very, very supportive of that, we have worked very closely with them and we have a very good relationship.

  Q373 Chairman: They have been suggesting that probably postal voting is a good idea but there are a series of safeguards which are needed. Would it not have been better to try and get those safeguards into place for the June elections rather than to have another lot of pilots without those safeguards in place?

  Mr Raynsford: Chris will be able to explain the safeguards that are going to be in place for June. The one area where the Electoral Commission recognises that we cannot act, we would like to, but we cannot act without new legislation is to move towards a system of individual registration. That is something that we have been considering but the Commission recognise that requires primary legislation and there was no way that could be done in time for June.

  Mr Leslie: In any case of course postal vote on demand as it is known in the conventional sense is moving forward apace and in terms of the number of people taking up the opportunity to vote by post it is almost becoming de facto majority all-postal voting. This is something that many people welcome, including the Electoral Commission. We, of course, want to make progress where we can on responding to the recommendations of the Electoral Commission for wider reform of the electoral system but often many of these things do require primary legislation and the Committee will be aware that there is always pressure on parliamentary time for slots in the legislative timetable. We have made progress where we can but there are other protections in for June where together with the Electoral Commission, and not just in their formal responses to our request for advice, but also in their informal involvement as advisers to the Programme Board that manages and oversees electoral policy and their involvement in the Pilots Project Board on a very detailed operation level we have been consulting and working with them so that for example the extension of the offence on personation can be put into the Pilots Bill that we have to address some of the concerns we have about fraud, and so forth. I think we have been working quite closely with them.

  Q374 Chris Mole: We have taken evidence from EROs, RROs and some of the organisations which might be providing balloting services, do you have any concerns about their capacity to prepare in time for the June elections given the relatively slow progress of the European and Local Elections Pilots Bill?

  Mr Leslie: I wrote to all of the regional returning officers in the four regions which we were recommending more recently. Indeed I read into the record some of their responses, and I can provide those responses to the Committee. I asked them about their preparedness, the views of local returning officers—not just the regional returning officers and in particular Yorkshire and the North West, where most of the focus has been—about whether they were enthusiastic, and so forth, and they came back with very upbeat responses. Paul Rogerson, the Chief Executive of Leeds City Council, who is the regional returning officer for Yorkshire, was positive in reporting that the returning officers in the region were now very keen to proceed with all-postal voting, they felt it would be a backward step to fall back to conventional elections, it would create problems for them to be forced to do that if the legislation did not got ahead. The Chief Executive of Manchester City Council, who is the regional returning officer for the North West, has also reported great enthusiasm by the local returning officers. In that region 42 of the 43 local returning officers were all very keen and signed up to making sure they could deliver it. Yes, we are working with them on any capacity issues that come up but we have not encountered any of overriding significance to suggest that there is a problem.

  Q375 Chris Mole: Do you think there is a deadline cut-off for the Bill to receive royal assent after which it will be too late?

  Mr Leslie: Yes. If the elections take place on 10 June and the election period commences and we do not have legal cover, as it were, with an enacted piece of legislation clearly that would be a problem. That is why we have been very strong in advising the House of Commons to rebut the suggestions from the other place not to insert Yorkshire and the North West. We feel there is now a greater pressing urgency to see resolution to this. The returning officers want a decision now.

  Q376 Chairman: Wait a minute, they wanted a decision last week. It is getting pretty urgent, can you give us any time scale for it going back to the Lords and back to the Commons?

  Mr Leslie: In some ways your guess is as good as mine about the Lords timetabling arrangements, you will know they are not necessarily as formal as we are in the House of Commons about when certain business comes up. My understanding is that the Lords may well consider it again in a day or two. We will then have to make our own judgments depending on what they do.

  Q377 Chairman: It must be very clear to them now that they are causing very considerable inconvenience to those returning officers who do not know what they are doing?

  Mr Leslie: That is my view, to put mildly. I hope I was fairly explicit about this in the debate last night where I do not believe that any new substantive arguments were raised in the Lords and their debate on this point. We in the Commons took our decision in full view of the fact and in full awareness and basically I suspect there are coming into this now some bigger constitutional issues about the House of Commons being able to make a decision. The revising chamber should certainly do its job in revising and making suggestions but if they come back to us with those suggestions and we say, "Thank you, we disagree and will continue to disagree" then ultimately the House of Commons should be able to have its business.

  Mr Raynsford: There is something particularly poignant in relation to this debate given that this is about extending opportunities to vote and to increase turnout. For an elected chamber to be opposed by an unelected chamber on measures designed to make it easier for people to exercise the franchise I think does raise quite important constitutional issues.

  Q378 Chris Mole: Are you ready to go with detailed regulations that the EROs are going to need to know what shape and size the ballot papers are, the envelopes, and where the perforations should be, all that sort of stuff?

  Mr Leslie: We recognise that after royal assent there is a pilots order needed through a statutory instrument whereby we fill out the nuts and bolt details of how the actual system will work in those all-postal regions. We have already published a policy paper which is effectively the plain English guide to what would be the content of those regulations.

  Q379 Chris Mole: The guidance notes essentially.

  Mr Leslie: It is called a policy paper rather than a guidance note. We drafted it in consultation with the returning officers at the Project Board for the pilots and so they are quite au fait with the content there and that will be the basis upon which the legal jargon of the regulations will come out. We want to make progress as soon as we get royal assent.

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