Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)|
17 MARCH 2004
Q400 Mr Clelland: Normally they vote
for one candidate and this year they will be asked to vote for
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
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
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
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
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 forand you have now conceded you
area 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
Q411 Mr Sanders: Will that be a manual
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
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 countrymore 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
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 organisationsthe police and
the Crown Prosecution Service and elsewherewho will have
at that regional level the ability to have a dialogue on a wider
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.