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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)

17 MARCH 2004

RT HON. NICK RAYNSFORD AND MR CHRISTOPHER LESLIE

  Q400 Mr Clelland: Normally they vote for one candidate and this year they will be asked to vote for three.

  Mr Leslie: You will be delighted to know we have made decisions about the colour coding of different ballot papers, the European ballot paper will be white, the local government principal authorities will be of a grey scale, which means a slight shade of grey, and if there are any parish council elections they will be lilac.

  Q401 Chairman: How do blind people tell the difference?

  Mr Leslie: I hope they will be able to get in touch with the returning officers and get somebody to come and assist with a tactile voting device.

  Q402 Mr Clelland: Will the local government ballot papers be grouped by political party or in alphabetical order? Would it not make it easier for people to have them grouped?

  Mr Raynsford: It is traditional for the grouping to by alphabetical order. I am conscious there have been some concerns about advantages to those people whose names begin with the letter "A", and as somebody whose name begins towards the end of the alphabet, certainly lower than my colleagues, I can see merit in testing alternatives. It has been put to me there might be merit in grouping by political parties.

  Q403 Mr Clelland: Coming back to postal voting again, when are we likely to see postal voting in a General Election or a pilot in a General Election?

  Mr Leslie: We have thought about moving from the local pilot experience now to the regional to look at increasing the level of the scale in which all-postal voting is sustainable and can work properly. We have said that we would not envisage a General Election, certainly before 2006, having what is known as the multi-channel option approach of either electronic voting or all-postal voting, not least because General Elections have a very short notification period and there would not be the long preparation periods that we have had for these local elections and European elections for this June. We have said that we do not envisage any multi-channel General Election until after 2006.

  Q404 Mr Clelland: The Electoral Commission recommended the removal of the declaration of identity but we have had concern expressed by some groups about the possibility of fraud, how do you balance these two?

  Mr Leslie: Last night in the debate after the House of Lords insisted on retaining the declaration of identity, in other words where a witnessed signature has to verify the identity of the person casting their vote, the government decided that we need to concede on that particular point and we conceded amendments that were approved in the House of Commons last night. The June local and European elections will now have that witnessed signature declaration of identity within them. We did that reluctantly because of course that was against the advice of the Electoral Commission, which is quite interesting given that this was a matter that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in the House of Lords were adamant was absolutely necessary, you must have the declaration of identity, of course flying in the face of advice from the Electoral Commission. Nevertheless advice is advice and Parliament and government decides. We do not feel that having that declaration of identity brings overriding harm to the general principle of all-postal voting so we felt that was a concession we could put in. We will have to look at it again for future elections because the advice from the Electoral Commission is that if an individual is likely to fraudulently sign their own ballot paper then it does not take a massive step for them to also sign the counter-signature as well. It may even be an inhibition to the fairest possible voting system in that it forces an individual to disclose to a third party that they intend to cast their vote. They have to share with another person the fact that they are intending to return a ballot paper by having a requirement for a counter-signature. If an individual can cast their vote on their own without sharing that with somebody else then the Electoral Commission advise that would be a better arrangement. For the time being we will continue with that declaration of identity which is the current practice in the normal postal voting on demand arrangements.

  Q405 Chris Mole: Was not the evidence from the Newcastle pilot that a significant number of the invalid votes were invalidated because the declaration of identity was not properly completed?

  Mr Leslie: Indeed, it was. It was our intention to move away from that to the single signature arrangement. Constant defeats in the House of Lords forced us I think to make that particular concession, as I say, without causing overriding harm to the better and bigger gain to be brought from all-postal voting, which is why we are insistent on four regions.

  Q406 Chairman: In one of the pilots when the local authority got the ballot papers back and found that there was not the signatured witness statement they send them back giving people the chance to correct that error. Is that going to happen for the European ones?

  Mr Leslie: That is my understanding. The policy paper gives a description of the ability for returning officers to go to reasonable steps to give electors the opportunity to properly complete their declaration of identity or their security statement if it is incorrect. There is only a certain length those returning officers can go to given the other tasks that they have to do. Ultimately it is the responsibility of the elector to get it right first. If it is not right those votes will be held as impartially rejected until such point as either the security statement or the declaration of identity is properly completed. If it is not then they will be rejected.

  Q407 Chairman: I approve of that but there is a problem, is there not, that those people who vote early, as soon as they get their postal vote, will be able to send it into the council, the council will verify that the documentation is not there and they may have anything up to 14 days to get back to the elector and try and get the proper verification in place. If I was to vote either the day before or on polling day itself by taking the ballot paper then there is a possibility that I will not be given that chance. Do you not see that as discrimination between electors?

  Mr Leslie: No. I think that all electors will have an equal opportunity to return their ballot papers quickly and the vote early mantra comes into play to a certain extent to—

  Q408 Chairman: So vote early if you are going to make a mistake?

  Mr Leslie: I doubt many people will be thinking in the manner that your brain, if I may respectfully say, Mr Chairman, is working today.

  Chairman: I am just concerned about the possibility of challenges because I think it is very important that if you are going for—and you have now conceded you are—a complicated way for people to complete the ballot paper then it would be helpful if they are in a position to correct it, but I do see the problem I have just addressed.

  Q409 Mr Sanders: Should a marked copy of the electoral register be made available and, if so, to whom and at what point during the election?

  Mr Leslie: In the passage of the bill at the committee stage in the Commons we did introduce an amendment to allow for what is known as polling progress information to be made available to candidates and agents and, of course, also to the electoral administrators themselves so that they can tell effectively who has returned an envelope containing a ballot paper. This is effectively mirroring the arrangements in conventional elections where parties and their agents can sit outside polling stations and see who turns up to vote and that enables campaigning so that candidates in the normal way can then see if they need to chase up persons who they feel need to be aware that there is an election. This is effectively a mirroring of the marked register arrangement into all postal arrangements and this was something that was requested during debate by opposition parties. The Conservative Party suggested that it was necessary, and the Liberal Democrats, even the Scottish National Party, were urging it on the government and in response to the debate that came through in committee stage at report we made that amendment to enable polling progress information to be made available.

  Q410 Mr Sanders: What form will it take? Will it be a register that is open to inspection by whom? The public, agents, people involved with the election?

  Mr Leslie: My understanding is, and obviously if I have got this wrong I will let the committee know, that it will be for candidates and agents and electoral administrators only to have the data of those people who have had envelopes returned to the returning officer with no more frequency than one list per day of polling numbers and names and no less frequency than twice a week, and we hope that parties and the returning officers will negotiate between them what is the most efficient—

  Q411 Mr Sanders: Will that be a manual list?

  Mr Leslie: I suspect it will need to be manual. It may well be that we can deal with it electronically if the technology is available, the software is in place. In many areas it may need to be manual as a way of ensuring that it can work effectively.

  Q412 Mr Sanders: And that will be done on a constituency by electoral officer basis?

  Mr Leslie: It will be done by local authority area.

  Q413 Chris Mole: What about the system of prevention of fraud if the list was available to electors as well so that they could see if someone had voted on their behalf or even verified themselves that their vote had been registered?

  Mr Leslie: Of course, the electoral officers themselves will have access to this polling progress information and that is part of the reason why we wanted to put it in, because they will be able to use it as a tool to check against any malpractice. For example, if an elector comes with an inquiry, as you are suggesting, "Has my vote been returned improperly?", they can report to the electoral administrator and the electoral administrator will then be able to tell whether an envelope has been returned purporting to contain their ballot paper, so it is an extra safeguard in that respect as well.

  Q414 Chris Mole: People are worried that inaccuracy in the register increases the risk that ballot papers may be inappropriately used with an extension of postal voting. Do you think there should be a national electoral register cleansing exercise before you go on from the pilots to more extensive use?

  Mr Leslie: I think on the register issue, and of course these are administered locally and so my colleague my want to make his own comments on this, we do not need to have a special national cleansing exercise for the June local and European elections. We have the best electoral registers that we have ever had in this country—more accurate, more up to date than ever before. They do reflect up to date population changes. Electoral registration officers have had powers to canvass not just by post but in person and have made sure that they are as accurate as possible, so I do not think there is any sense that the register is a particular issue. In any case, I think that this is not something that particularly bites on whether it is an all-postal or a conventional arrangement.

  Q415 Christine Russell: Can I ask you two questions, slightly different ones? What are your views on this issue about whether or not political material should be sent out from the parties with the ballot papers? The second on is on the police's ability to investigate any possible fraud. We had evidence yesterday, for instance, from the Met that few forces really do prioritise electoral fraud and I just wondered if you had any views on whether we should have a national election fraud squad or something. What discussions have you had with the police?

  Mr Leslie: On the first point I think it would be wrong to have party political material despatched with the ballot papers. I do not think that would be the right approach.

  Q416 Christine Russell: It was used in the GLA elections, was it not?

  Mr Leslie: There is a difference between the booklet of description that goes out for Greater London Authority elections, as I understand it, and the party political literature that some parties in some elections, including European parliamentary elections, have a free post entitlement to. I asked officials to compare the volume of post between an all-postal election and the Christmas post and, although we are talking about potentially 83 million items of electoral mail in the weeks of the election period, in the Christmas period over a couple of billion items of mail are handled by the Royal Mail. In fact, I think they handle 82 million items per day in the Christmas period, so this is well within the scope of the Royal Mail to cope with that. On the question about the police and dealing with fraud, I believe that the increased scale upon which we are looking at all postal piloting has brought in a greater sense of priority within all criminal justice organisations—the police and the Crown Prosecution Service and elsewhere—who will have at that regional level the ability to have a dialogue on a wider level.

  Q417 Christine Russell: Who is going to investigate because the fraud could cross police boundaries? Have you thought that one through?

  Mr Leslie: Because the boundaries will be regional there will be fewer boundaries. They will all be covered by the pilot and so there is a very close dialogue between the regional returning officers and the chief constables and the police.

  Q418 Christine Russell: So who is going to take the lead?

  Mr Leslie: All criminal prosecutions are obviously undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service on the advice of the police and returning officers will report any malpractice that they find.

  Q419 Christine Russell: So it is where the malpractice occurs and not the constabulary that serves the area where the regional returning officer is?

  Mr Leslie: Yes, it would be where the malpractice occurred.


 
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