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

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 domain.

  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 time?

  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 saying—they are the experts, they are the ones on the ground we have to listen to—they 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 forth—that is not foreseen in any way, although obviously all possible circumstances need to be thought through—the 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 choice?

  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 weeks?

  Mr Leslie: Open on the day of the election.

  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 electors—those who have been sent their all-postal ballot—with 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 before—by 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 clearly—and 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 happens—then 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 and valuable.

  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.

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