Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-399)|
17 MARCH 2004
Q380 Chairman: Why can we not see and
why can the public not see a draft of those regulations now?
Mr Leslie: My understanding is
that we do effectively have the draft of the detailed regulations
in the policy paper, it is all there in the policy paper, there
are not extraneous matters which will be in the regulations that
are not in the policy paper. Effectively the content but happily
in a more plain English form is there for the returning officer
and others to work with. My understanding is that is in the public
Q381 Chairman: Actually putting that
policy into regulation can sometimes be a fairly thwart process,
can it not? If somebody had a draft and parliamentary council
could see it the joint committee between Commons and Lords who
look at statutory instruments would be able to look at it next
Tuesday, would they not?
Mr Leslie: Given that it is a
non-parliamentary process for this pilot order there is not the
same time requirement for that level of scrutiny if it were an
affirmative order. We are committed to making sure that we get
the pilots order very swiftly in place after royal assent. I give
the Committee my assurance that we have the content of what will
be included in the policy paper, that is available and shared,
indeed authored in part by returning officers who have been party
to the drawing up of it.
Q382 Chris Mole: What help will you give
to any council or region that comes to you and says they are struggling
to get arrangements in place in time?
Mr Leslie: All the help that is
necessary. We have not had that level of contact from the returning
officers, quite the opposite. They are very enthusiastic, very
keen to press ahead, they do not want to fall back to the conventional
arrangements, that is the message we have been getting from them.
If we hear from them that they need any help we will make sure
we deliver it. I am exceptionally motivated to make sure we do
not see problems in this June's all-postal voting.
Q383 Mr Sanders: What if they need more
Mr Leslie: If time is an issue
then I would have thought the returning officers would not be
saying they want to do it. As in Scotland where they thought about
it, they looked at their capabilities and they advised "do
not do it in Scotland" and we accepted that.
Q384 Mr Sanders: That was before the
ping-pong with the House of Lords?
Mr Leslie: Indeed it was. The
returning officers are still sayingthey are the experts,
they are the ones on the ground we have to listen tothey
want it to be done by all-postal.
Q385 Chairman: If they are the experts
they are also pressing us that they want to see those regulations
in their final legal form rather than your draft. I just hope
that you can give us assurances that those are going to be available
to them early next week assuming royal assent is given?
Mr Leslie: We will make sure we
get that as soon as absolutely possible. There is not a dearth
of information, it is not that they do not know what is going
to be in those regulations, the policy paper covers it. I will
certainly make sure we get that regulation out.
Q386 Chairman: I hope somebody has done
the drafting of those regulations?
Mr Leslie: It is in hand.
Q387 Christine Russell: Last week we
were told by the Regional Returning Officer for the East Midlands
that he had concerns over securing insurance against the risk
of a re-run, what can you say to allay his worries?
Mr Leslie: My understanding about
the insurance is that returning officers working with the Department
have been looking at legal liability questions and there is insurance
about to be undertaken for that aspect. If there are other areas
where indemnity needs to be provided in a case, extreme though
it may be, where you may have to have certain areas having re-runs
and so forththat is not foreseen in any way, although obviously
all possible circumstances need to be thought throughthe
Government would indemnify against those and we would provide
that level of assurance to the returning officers, there is that
measure of protection for them.
Q388 Chairman: If there has to be a re-run
the Government will pay for it, is that right?
Mr Leslie: Yes.
Q389 Christine Russell: Would that include
all returning officers?
Mr Leslie: If we are talking about
all-postal voting it was not just the East Midlands Returning
Officer who was raising this point with you, it would be for the
four regions that we are recommending. We do not see any reason
to think there will be a need to have such expenditure, we are
confident it will work smoothly.
Q390 Christine Russell: Can I ask you
about the third party suppliers, what discussions have you had
with them because they were also raising the concern about re-runs?
Mr Leslie: We have obviously been
talking not just with those companies involved in contracting,
printing, and so forth, but also organisations like the Royal
Mail involved in the delivery side of things. Certainly on the
part of the Royal Mail we had very positive feedback, they are
exceptionally keen to do this, they want to undertake this and
they think it is big business for them and they want to make sure
that it goes ahead successfully to prove that this is one way
forward. I think that is to be welcomed. As far as other suppliers
go we do understand that while some of those suppliers may be,
as the returning officers will be, concerned if the House of Lords
continues to thwart the resolution of this issue, then obviously
we will all be very keen to see that quite quickly. My understanding
is that returning officers do have a wide range of contractors
well in place able to act quickly. Do not forget returning officers
are used to being able to act quickly and flexibly in sometimes
challenging circumstances. General elections take place, often
with barely over three and a half, four weeks notice and they
are able to turn those round exceptionally quickly. Even with
all that has being taking place in terms of royal assent, and
I realise that is a different kettle of fish because it is all-postal,
there is still quite a lot of skill and capability with the returning
officers and the contractors to make sure they can make it work
Q391 Chairman: The indemnities for the
European ones, if a local election which is held on the same day,
on the same system was challenged in the courts and had to be
re-run you would also meet the cost of that, would you?
Mr Leslie: That is my understanding,
unless there is a particular local failure. I will go back and
look at the relative split of responsibility. Clearly Government
is paying for the all-postal pilot on the basis that these are
European constituencies and need to take place on that regional
level. There is also obviously a continuing contribution from
a local government level because they would have to run local
elections anyway. I would want to make sure that each part of
government was paying its fair share towards any possible consequences
down the line. Perhaps if I drop a note to the Committee on the
financial split between local and national government that might
be more helpful for you.
Chairman: Fairly quickly because the
implications are worrying some of these returning officers.
Q392 Chris Mole: Turning back to the
principle again, why all-postal voting only? Would you not get
higher turnouts, which is the target, if you give people more
Mr Raynsford: We did, as you know,
put to the Electoral Commission the possibility of an e-voting
pilot as well as the all-postal pilots and that would have allowed
a range of different channels, a range of options as we offered
in some of the local government pilots in May last year. The Commission's
judgment, and we wholly concur with it and agree with it, was
that this would be too risky in the context of the European elections
because we would have to apply the e-pilot across all of the constituencies
involved in a European region whereas up to now in local government
pilots it has only been the case that committed authorities, and
some have been very committed to exploring e-voting, have been
conducting such pilots. The complexities and indeed the cost is
significantly more. There is, in my view, a real difference between
allowing local authorities that are keen to do that to do so as
against imposing it as an obligation across the entire region,
which would be necessary to ensure consistency throughout the
whole European constituency. For that reason the Electoral Commission
found against holding an electronic pilot, we concurred with that
but we are committed to continuing with our programme of e-voting
pilots, which have been taken forward both last year and will
be resumed again in future at local elections.
Q393 Chris Mole: We received evidence
from SCOPE who told us the more channels you make available the
better the options for disabled people, the example they gave
us was a disabled person who said that the electronic voting was
the first time they had independently been able to vote. Your
commitment would be to future elections?
Mr Raynsford: We fully understand
that, we support that and we wish to resume the programme of e-voting
pilots as soon as possible.
Q394 Chris Mole: They and several other
witnesses have supported the Electoral Commission's proposal for
staffed delivery points for those unable or unwilling to return
their vote by post. It could be argued they are mini polling stations,
do they defeat the object of an all-postal vote or do you think
this is a good solution for a few people who have concerns?
Mr Leslie: I was quite keen to
see the use of staffed delivery points, even though these are
all-postal elections because there are some people, I suspect,
a very small minority who for whatever reason want to cast their
vote in a secret environment or want to physically hand over their
ballot paper. Although that is a very small minority who would
not be prepared to use the postal arrangements I felt it was important
to give that opportunity. I think we have provided that each local
authority area should have at least one staffed delivery point
effectively with a secure, safe ballot area where the vote can
be marked and cast and deposited in a ballot box in what would
in other circumstances seem to be normal conventional arrangements.
That is something that I think gives us a level of protection
if for some unforeseen reason people do not feel they would like
to cast their vote like that.
Q395 Chris Mole: Open for the full three
Mr Leslie: Open on the day of
Q396 Christine Russell: What SCOPE told
us was that while postal voting is welcomed by people particularly
with physical disabilities there are one or two groups, especially
people with visual impairments and perhaps people with learning
difficulties that do encounter real problems with postal papers,
have you had any discussions or have your officials had discussions
with disability groups particularly that represent those people?
Mr Leslie: Yes, we have. We have
tried our best to make sure that we provide for better provision
for people with disabilities, and so forth, and visual impairment
in circumstances for all-postal voting. What I would like to see,
and I think we are able to provide for, is for returning officers
to have a hot-line contact number where they can come out and
visit electorsthose who have been sent their all-postal
ballotwith tactile voting devices so that they can help
ensure that that voter even in their own home can cast that ballot
in a secure way so there is a more proactive level of assistance
from retuning officers. They are supplementing the supported delivery
point arrangements where there will also be electoral officials
able to assist.
Q397 Mr Clelland: Having been an election
agent myself when local and general elections have been held on
the same day and when local government boundary changes have taken
place I always have a great deal of respect for electors because
they know exactly what they are doing when they go down to vote,
and that has generally been the people who have taken the bother
to get out of the armchair and go down to the polling stations
and they are generally thinking about what they are doing. In
the postal vote situation a lot of people are going to be voting
who may not have voted beforeby implication that is why
the poll goes up. This year we are going to face a situation in
these four regions where we have the all-postal votes; in the
metropolitan areas there are going to be all-out elections because
of boundary changes, so voters are going to be asked to vote for
up to three candidates on a ballot paper which might have as many
to 15 to 21 names on it; at the same time they are going to be
voting in new wards, which sometimes have new names, which could
itself add to some difficulty; they are also going to be asked
to vote in European elections, which is on a proportional representational
system; and then when it comes to referenda in three of those
regions in the autumn, again an all-postal vote, and in the Shire
areas they are going to have multiple choices to make about the
local government structure if they vote for a regional government.
Is this likely to lead to any confusion in the minds' of the electorate?
Mr Raynsford: Can I answer that
and say you started off rightly by saying you had great respect
for the electorate and their ability to make their own mind up
and reach a decision. I have similar respect for the electorate
and provided the issues are presented clearlyand there
is a real issue there about ensuring that the options available
in the respective elections are well presented and clearly presented,
and we are very keen to ensure that happensthen I do not
feel anxiety about this. I do notice, and you will be very well
aware of this, that Gateshead has been one of the pioneers in
all-postal voting. It was piloting in 2000, the very first year,
and it had a spectacular increase in that year, I think to 54%
in the participation rates compared with an average of half of
that in previous traditional elections and has subsequently followed
up in 2002 and 2003 and has sustained that high level of participation
of over 50% of the electorate. That seems to me to be pretty clear
testimony to the fact that people in your area and indeed in many
others have found the option of all-postal voting very helpful
Q398 Mr Clelland: I have no problem with
that, it is just there are multiple choices that people are going
to have to make because of all of these circumstances coming together.
For instance might it not have been better to put the local government
boundary changes off until next year or the year after rather
than bring everything in on top of everyone at once?
Mr Raynsford: The counter argument
is that when people come to take their decision on whether they
want to vote for an elected regional assembly they should be aware
about the implications if they live in a two-tier local government
area of local government reorganisation.
Q399 Mr Clelland: I was not referring
to those local government boundary changes, I am talking about
the ones in the metropolitan areas which are going to take place
in June, they could have been put off, two years' time would not
have made much difference, would it?
Why do we have to pile all of this on top of
the electors at once?
Mr Leslie: As far as the elector
is concerned they will always be in a ward regardless of changes.