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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) and the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2007

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Derek Conway
Atkins, Charlotte (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab)
Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
Berry, Roger (Kingswood) (Lab)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing, West) (Con)
Burgon, Colin (Elmet) (Lab)
Cryer, Mrs. Ann (Keighley) (Lab)
Devine, Mr. Jim (Livingston) (Lab)
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias (Bournemouth, East) (Con)
Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Godsiff, Mr. Roger (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab)
Hughes, Simon (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD)
McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol, East) (Lab)
Penrose, John (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs)
Willott, Jenny (Cardiff, Central) (LD)
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)
Hannah Weston, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

First Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 19 March 2007

[Derek Conway in the Chair]

Draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) and the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2007

4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) and the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2007.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the draft Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007.
Bridget Prentice: It is a delight as always to serve under your expert chairmanship, Mr. Conway, and I hope that the Committee will debate the regulations in the way that you would expect.
Turning first to the draft Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007, I wish to ensure that the Committee has before it the most recent version because there was a small but crucial error in the previous one. In the correct version, the commencement provision in regulation 1(2) should refer to the “26 March 2007”. The previous version incorrectly referred to “27 March”. That was a simple typographical error but, had it been left, the regulations would not have applied to the whole timetable of actions for the local mayoral elections that will take place this May.
Despite the fact that the document had been read through by a number of individuals, the error was not spotted until after the instrument had been laid before and scrutinised by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Therefore, the Government have had to withdraw and relay the draft after correcting the date. Nevertheless, it is crucial that the instrument be brought into effect by 27 March, for the beginning of the timetable for the May elections. I wish to put on the record my extreme thanks for the assistance provided by the House authorities, and for the agreement ofthe Chairman of the Joint Committee to allow this Committee to debate the current version before the Joint Committee reconsiders it. Any subsequent motion for approval on the Floor of the House will take place only after the Joint Committee has reconsidered the instrument. I am grateful for the co-operation, advice and help that we have received on the matter.
The purpose of the mayoral elections regulations is to implement the changes made to parliamentary elections by the Electoral Administration Act 2006, to ensure consistency of practice between the conduct of elections for local councillors and those for local authority mayors held on or after 3 May 2007. That includes changes to nomination procedures—candidates will now be able to use their common names on nomination forms and papers. The rules on the use of authorised descriptions by candidates standing on behalf of registered political parties are amended to reflect changes to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Returning officers will now be able to correct minor errors on nomination papers. New security measures were introduced by the 2006 Act, and those will now be applied in mayoral elections: separate security markings and unique identifying marks will be required for ballot papers. Ballot paper counterfoils will be replaced by corresponding number lists. Postal and proxy postal voters will be required to provide both their signature and date of birth when returning ballot papers. Alterations are being made to the circumstances in which a person may be given a tendered vote, and new requirements concerning the information and accessibility of information to be provided to electors by returning officers are being introduced.
Changes are being made to the rules concerning persons who may be admitted to polling stations, and to observe election counts. Amendments are being made to provide for the transmission of information to a presiding officer about alterations to the electoral register that take effect on the day of a poll. The regulations will facilitate the introduction of a scheme for the anonymous registration of certain electors, which will come into force on 1 June 2007. Changes are also being made to arrangements for the retention and inspection of election documents following a poll.
A full set of forms is appended to the rules, reflecting the changes that are being made to implement the2006 Act.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Minister has summarised the main changes set out in the notes. Do we deduce therefore that the consequence of the regulations, as in the others that we shall debate in a moment, is that the Government have not organised themselves, so that signing at the polling station will not now happen this year for the mayoral elections or for any others? The Department for Constitutional Affairs has slipped up in both respects, contrary to the advice of the Electoral Commission.
Bridget Prentice: During the elections, there will not be signing in polling stations because of that particular part of the regulations, but we shall come back to such matters.
The regulations also increase the election expenses limit for candidates at mayoral elections. The limit is now calculated by taking £2,362 as the base figure and adding 5.9p for every entry on the register of electors. That allows for inflation, and the change was made on the recommendation of the Electoral Commission. The 2002 limit was based on a figure of £2,000 plus 5p for every entry on the register.
I come now to the second set of changes to regulations, the Representation of the People (England and Wales) and the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2007. Consequential changes are being made to the decision not to implement the provision in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 that required a voter in polling stations to provide a signature before being issued with a ballot paper. As a result, we are therefore amending the prescribed forms in the Representation of the People (England and Wales) and the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) Regulations to remove the signature column from forms L2 and M2 and to remove references to electors signing for their ballot paper on the official polling cards. The regulations will also remove references to electors signing for their ballot papers from the guidance for voters that is issued at combined polls. They will also correct minor drafting errors in the regulations.
The Electoral Commission has been consulted on the provisions in the regulations and, on that basis, I recommend them to the Committee.
4.38 pm
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Conway. I declare an interest as a former practising barrister.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): And a voter.
Mr. Bellingham: Indeed. Can we have a quick look at the Representation of the People (England and Wales) and the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations, the second set of regulations to which the Minister referred? Obviously, the decision not to implement the provisions under the Electoral Administration Act 2006 requiring voters in polling stations to provide a signature before they were issued with a ballot paper is regrettable. We know why the Government have to make that requirement and the policy background to it, but Opposition Members regarded paragraph 75 of schedule 1 of the Electoral Administration Act, which inserted the new rule 37, as good news. We were concerned about the increasing instance of fraud at elections, of criminal dishonesty at polling stations and of stolen identity cards, and we welcomed the requirement for voters to sign for their ballot paper.
The Government have made it clear that they will bring forward primary legislation to correct this problem. Can the Minister confirm that primary legislation is needed to do that, and if so, when will it be introduced? Why did the Department get it wrong? It is regrettable that it did so, and it would have saved a great deal of trouble if it had got it right first time.
May we now look at the regulations before the Committee on mayoral elections? We certainly go along with what the Government are proposing; it all makes a great deal of sense, and what the Minister said stacks up. I am pleased that throughout May 2005, various advisory groups with practical and in-depth knowledge of running elections provided feedback ona number of points, as the Minister made clear. Furthermore, we support the detail of the regulations, which, we feel, make sense and have been well thought out. However, paragraph 7.14 of the explanatory memorandum—the Minister mentioned this point, which I should have picked up at the time—says that
“amendments consequential upon the instruction of a scheme for the anonymous registration of certain electors... come into force on 1 June 2007”.
Can she tell us a little more about the scheme for the anonymous registration of certain electors? Who are those electors, and what exactly does “anonymous registration” mean? Can she assure the Committee that there are no possible loopholes in that provision?
As I said, we support the regulations, and we obviously understand why the Government are having to act in the way that they are. However, can the Minister do all that she can to ensure that her Department gets it right in future? It seems as if a lot of things in her Department are not going as well as they should. For example, the freedom of information provisions have caused a huge amount of concern. There are also many problems with legal aid, the magistrates courts system and the county courts system, and I hope that the Minister will reflect on and learn lessons from that. However, on the basis that those lessons will be learned, and that the Minister has no alternative but to bring in the regulations, we certainly endorse what she is doing and we will not vote against them. That said, can we have a clear assurance that legislation to introduce the original intention will be introduced as soon as possible, presumably through primary legislation? If the Minister can answer those points, our minds will be, if not completely at rest, certainly more at rest.
4.43 pm
Simon Hughes: I am very happy, Mr. Conway, to serve under your chairmanship. I do not think that you have chaired a Committee that I have sat on until today.
I have three questions for the Minister. The first predictably duplicates the question that she has just heard. I have still not heard an adequate explanationas to why the bit of the plan to make elections more secure has not been delivered, other than due to internal Department maladministration or incompetence. We know that the Government resisted having identifiers; we have been through that battle. It is a battle yet to fight, but the agreed bit of the plan was not a matter of party division. It is disappointing, to put it mildly, that we are not able in this May’s elections to take one step that would at least put off people who might be minded to come to the polling station with the intention of fiddling the system. We all have the same objective and the same interest, but one of the things that we must do is restore the system’s credibility. It would therefore be helpful to have a clear and honest explanation of what has happened.
My second question is not entirely answered by reading the regulations, although it was the subject of one of the Electoral Commission’s responses to them. What guarantee is there under the regulations that people will not abuse the system, as they did in the past, by applying for tens or hundreds of postal or proxy votes to be sent to one address? It is clear from the evidence in the Birmingham case, if not in others, that many votes were sent to one address, and the same allegation has been made in Tower Hamlets, although the investigation there has not been fully concluded. Paragraph 33 of the Electoral Commission’s response stated:
“We would also wish to see an amendment to Regulation 14 to require the ERO”—
the electoral registration officer—
“and the Returning Officer to send all electoral correspondence to an address supplied under paragraph 6 of Regulation 31G. This may require consequential amendments to the Regulations regarding the address for sending poll cards and postal ballot papers.”
I am keen—again, I am sure that the Minister shares this objective—to ensure that someone cannot go around signing up loads of people, who will, in effect, be handing over their votes, and then go to some house somewhere and fill in the forms in their tens or hundreds. I need an assurance on that.
The third issue is that the regulations contain provisions on the checking of documents after the election. I do not know whether this is the case in your borough, Mr. Conway, but there has been great difficulty elsewhere in obtaining marked registers quickly or, in some cases, at all. That has certainly been the case in my borough, in Woking after the previous general election and elsewhere. In some cases, the marked registers went missing; those from the Woking borough council area were meant to be taken from the count at the town hall to a warehouse in the east end of London, and people were supposed to be able to apply through the High Court to get them, but that did not happen and the registers disappeared. What guarantee can the Minister give us that all marked registers will be available and, more importantly, that they will be available promptly in written and electronic form, as appropriate? Everybody who wants to check the turnout, the accuracy of the figures and so on has an interest in making sure that they can follow up the election events. Those are my three questions, and I should be grateful for an answer.
4.48 pm
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): We know that the word “cleave” means both to stick together and to split apart, and I congratulate the Minister and her team on demonstrating in paragraph 7.3 of the explanatory memorandum to the Draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) and the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 that the word “sanction” also has two meanings—to permit and to put a penalty on. In this case, I think that it is designed to say that the withholding of a ballot paper is permitted, which is a useful combination of both meanings of the word “sanction”.
Given the Minister’s explanation and the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, the situation is pretty clear. Willthe Minister confirm, however, that although the Government announced that they aim to bring in changes to primary legislation, they have chosen not to do so before the coming elections? I think that that explanation would satisfy the Committee, and it would be useful to have the situation made doubly clear.
One issue that concerns me relates to anonymous voting. Clearly, particular individuals should not have their names and addresses tied down if there are security threats against them—it may be a matter of witness protection or something like that—but there would be concern if the number of anonymous people in each area was not known. If there turned out to be 200 or 300 anonymous voters in a ward or a division in a county election, people would start raising eyebrows. We therefore need an assurance that there will be some kind of invigilation to ensure that no electoral ward is packed with people who are not known and who cannot be canvassed or solicited by candidates.
My next point is slightly apart from the regulations, but I hope that I will be permitted to ask whether the Minister can confirm that there is no intention of using for voting purposes the biometric system envisaged for passports and identity cards—or is that one of the things for which we ought to be preparing ourselves?
Finally, we know that there is an obligation on returning officers and their staff to perforate voting papers. We also know that sometimes some groups fail to perforate them, and that at the count it turns out that significant numbers of voters in a particular area have been disqualified. We can understand one voting paper not being perforated for one reason or another, but not a whole book not being perforated, and perhaps 50 or 150 voters being disqualified because of that failure. Can a review mechanism be introduced whereby the candidates standing for election and their agents could absolve the returning officer from that obligation, so that a large number of people who have made the effort to go to a polling station, to return a postal ballot or to organise a proxy are not disqualified because of an unintended error by people in the polling station?
Bridget Prentice: I want to try as best I can to give hon. Members the reassurances that they have asked for. First, I apologise for the fact that we have not been able to introduce a measure for the upcoming elections to allow people to sign in polling stations. That is a matter of regret for me, as it is for other members of the Committee, particularly as I have said in previous Committees that my borough was one of the pilot areas for signing at the last elections. Indeed, I signed in my ward when I voted, so I know that the system can work.
However, the regulation was not drafted sufficiently tightly to satisfy those with legal expertise that it could not be challenged. Therefore, we decided that it would be better to withdraw it. As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk rightly says, such a measure must be introduced under primary legislation, which we will introduce as soon as we can, but I cannot say when. It is for people much further up the food chain than I am to say when such things can be done.
It may be helpful to offer a clarification. One reason why there may have been a difficulty was that the wording was different from the wording of the provision that allows signing in Northern Ireland. That is why the people with legal expertise felt that there could be a challenge. I cannot clarify the situation much further than that.
Simon Hughes: Do I deduce that a Back Bencher who chose to offer to take such legislation through the House in the private Member’s ballot next year would have the support of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, without getting in the way of the Government’s timetable?
Bridget Prentice: If a Member chose to introduce such legislation privately through the ballot, I am sure that we would be happy to give it a fair wind. Hopefully, we would have time before that to table such legislation, but I can see no reason why we would not be happy for it to be introduced through the private Member’s ballot.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk for the support that he has given to the regulations as a whole. I accept that errors have been made, but I hope that we have managed to rectify them. He listed a series of other things that were happening in my dynamic Department, all of which are good. Freedom of information and the reform of legal aidare good things, but you will not let me debate them, Mr. Conway. We are supposed to be discussing electoral regulations.
On the question about postal votes going to one address, the regulations that we introduced last year provide that a request for redirection of a postal or proxy vote must be responded to by notifying the elector of the decision on the application; in other words, the notification will go to the elector’s address, not the redirection address. It would not be easy for someone to amass a number of postal votes and have them redirected. There has to be communication between the returning officer and the elector about where the postal or proxy vote should go, and the postal voter has to give a reason for wanting the postal vote to go to an address other than his own.
Simon Hughes: I hear what the Minister says, but that does not solve the problem. Let us say that 100 people name 26 Vauxhall Bridge road as the address to which they want their postal votes to be sent. Unless a system is in place that allows the registration officer to spot that and to intervene, it would still be possible for one person improperly to fill in all the postal votes sent to that address.
Bridget Prentice: The system does allow the returning officer to intervene. In a sense, officials realised that something was amiss in the local elections at Tower Hamlets, and through their interventionthe police were brought in, in order to discover the potential fraud. We have tightened the system so that officials have the power to intervene if they think that a number of votes are going to one address and it seems not to be legitimate.
Peter Bottomley: I can confirm what the Minister said about electoral returning officers writing to registered voters asking them to confirm that they want postal votes. It is good to hear that they also have the power to take action if they believe that too great a concentration of postal votes is being redirected to one address. Will the Minister double check—she can write to members of the Committee about this—that electoral returning officers themselves believe that they have sufficient power to take effective action if they think that something is wrong? Can they check; and if still unconvinced, can they take further action?
Bridget Prentice: I am more than happy to write to the Committee to reiterate that returning officers can use their new and existing powers to ensure that such situations do not arise. We are working with them, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Commission, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the police to ensure that everyone is aware of the available powers; and I am encouraging them as much as possible to ensure that those powers are used.
Simon Hughes: The hon. Member for Worthing, West may be right; however, my understanding is that the electoral registration officer will write to those who have applied for a postal or proxy vote at the address where they live, but that those people are not required to provide confirmation. So there is no confirmation—people are simply being told that their vote is going somewhere else. Is that not right, or do they have to provide confirmation through a second communication saying, “Yes, I confirm that I want my vote to go to x address”?
Bridget Prentice: The regulations insist that those who wish to have their votes redirected to another address give a reason, and the returning officer will write to them asking for confirmation of that request. The hon. Gentleman is right that they do not, at that stage, have to confirm it again, but I will make absolutely sure that I am not misleading the Committee.
Peter Bottomley: Could a note be sent to members of the Committee on that point? My experience is that the voter is expected to answer the electoral returning officer, giving confirmation in a franked envelope. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey has exposed the question whether, if no confirmation is given, the application for postal votes should be regarded as null and void. A letter of confirmation on that point would be useful.
Bridget Prentice: I take hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will ensure that the Committee receives an answerto it.
As for anonymous registered voters, local registration officers will provide the Secretary of State with the total number of anonymous electors. I want to reassure the Committee on this issue. As the hon. Member for Worthing, West said, the provision is generally for people who need witness protection orfor those fleeing domestic violence, and so on. The returning officer will usually take the advice of the police when determining whether someone should be an anonymous registered voter. This is not meant to be an ex-directory system. The poll number will be listed at the end of the ward register; it is simply the name and address that will not be listed.
We do not have plans at this time to introduce biometric technology. We are working slowly through the technology of e-voting and e-counting that is available to us, but we are not quite at the stage when we would even consider a biometric system.
Mr. Ellwood: I am sorry to press the Minister, but she did say “at this time”. Is she suggesting that we are likely to have such a system in the future?
Bridget Prentice: No, I am not. I knew that as soon as I said, “at this time”, someone would think, “Aha, you mean that you are going to do it next week”. No, there are no current plans—to use the technical term.
I have every sympathy with the point made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey.I know the importance to political parties of havinga marked register as quickly as possible, and we are introducing a marked postal vote register. The administrators will be able to produce a marked register for both the polling station and absent voters, on request. It is expected to be available betweenseven to 14 days after the election. Obviously, local circumstances may dictate otherwise, but we expect them to produce the marked register within that time.
The hon. Member for Worthing, West asked about a review system for disqualified votes in cases where the papers have not been perforated and thus not included in the count. I shall clarify the situation for him, but the voting papers will be different for the e-counting system from those used in the past. I want to be absolutely sure that the perforation issue will remain as important; I am not sure that it necessarily will under the new ballot paper system.
Peter Bottomley: Forgive me, Mr. Conway, for not raising this issue earlier, but there has been discussion about voters signing for papers. To switch subjects slightly, one of the most common reasons why a vote is disqualified is when an elector signs the ballot paper or gives some other indication of who they are, whether real or not. It would be useful if the Minister consulted local election officers, to make sure that voters know that that is a way to lose their vote, rather than use their vote, and that they should not do it unintentionally.
Bridget Prentice: Again, I appreciate what thehon. Gentleman is saying. As we are all intimately concerned with elections, whether for ourselves or our parties, the loss of any vote always causes grief. Of course, we have changed things in recent years and given returning officers much more flexibility in determining what is acceptable as a properly marked ballot paper, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am always in favour of providing electors with as much education and information as possible to make the process simple, clear and transparent, and I shall ensure that the Electoral Commission and local authority organisations do everything that they can to ensure that voters are aware of the best way to make their opinions known, not just on 3 May but in the future. On that basis, I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (England and Wales) and the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2007.

Draft Local authorities (Mayoral elections) (England and Wales) regulations 2007

That the Committee has considered the draft Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007.— [Bridget Prentice.]
Committee rose at five minutes past Five o’clock.

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