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Session 2006 - 07
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2006

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Janet Anderson
Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
Betts, Mr. Clive (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)
Cousins, Jim (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias (Bournemouth, East) (Con)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) (Lab)
Hands, Mr. Greg (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Hughes, Simon (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD)
Knight, Mr. Greg (East Yorkshire) (Con)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Marshall-Andrews, Mr. Robert (Medway) (Lab)
Michael, Alun (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs)
Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Wyatt, Derek (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab)
Hannah Weston, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Seventh Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 6 December 2006

[Janet Anderson in the Chair]

Draft Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2006

2.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2006.
I am very pleased to be serving under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson; it is the first time and it is a delight.
I have no intention of delaying the Committee over the regulations, which make some minor but technical changes necessary as a result of changes to the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) Regulations 2004, and because of changes introduced by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. The regulations will provide for the effective combination of a parliamentary election with another election or referendum.
The regulations revoke the provisions made in the 2004 regulations which applied specifically to combined elections in June 2004, as they are no longer needed. They revoke the prescribed form H from the 2004 regulations as a new form H has now been prescribed in the Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2001, as amended in 2006.
The regulations also provide for the combination of three further functions when there is a joint issue and receipt of postal ballots, as a result of changes introduced by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. The returning officer in charge of the combined functions will also have responsibility for the creation of a corresponding number list prescribed under rule 19A of the parliamentary elections rules, the creation of a marked postal voters list and proxy postal voters list under rule 31A, and verification of personal identifiers on postal voting statements underrule 45(1B)(d).
The regulations also make a number of modifications to the 2004 regulations to reflect changes made to the parliamentary rules by the 2006 Act. They will amend the form of directions for guidance of voters at combined polls to provide improved clarity for voters, and remove the specific reference to European parliamentary elections from the formal declaration to be made by the companion of a voter with disabilities.
Finally, the regulations will replace the reference to incapacity with a reference to disability to reflect the change in terminology introduced by the 2006 Act.
2.32 pm
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): As the Minister pointed out, these are very technical matters. My colleagues have read the regulations carefully, and they are obviously satisfied with what they read because they decided that the issues are not controversial enough for them to stay.
I will not trouble the Committee very much, but I have one or two questions to put to the Minister. If she turns to page 2 of the regulations, she will see that regulation 4 states that ballot papers
“shall be of a different colour from that of any ballot papers used at any relevant election of referendum”.
Is the idea to have different coloured ballot papers if there are simultaneous elections? Presumably, that is what the legislation is getting at.
Regulation 4(4) states that
“for the words “at this election”, wherever they appear, substitute “at this Parliamentary election””.
Why is it necessary to stipulate that it should be a “Parliamentary election”? Surely, a parliamentary election is an election, so is it necessary to clarify it in that way?
In regulation 4(11), proposed regulations 27A, B and C relate to circumstances in which one of the candidates dies during an election. The passage is technical and quite difficult to follow without having the earlier statutes to hand. Am I right in saying that it is the South Staffordshire clause, the so-called Cormack clause, that allows for the changes in procedure should a candidate die? What happened was that the election in South Staffordshire was postponed. There was not a by-election for the seat; there was instead a mini-general election that took place about four weeks after polling day. Will the Minister elaborate on that?
Page 5 of the regulations makes new provisions under the heading “Guidance for voters at combined polls”. The guidance is quite detailed. Paragraph 3C says:
“At the European Parliamentary election, mark a cross (X) in the box ... opposite the name of the party or individual candidate you are voting for.”
As we have a list system in this country, I did not know that one could vote for an individual candidate in a European election—we vote for a party, and we cannot vote for an individual candidate.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Unfortunately.
Mr. Bellingham: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a pity, but it is the law that probably all of us, including him, voted on, and the House voted for changes in the electoral system for European elections.
Under the same heading as paragraph 3C, paragraph 4 says:
“Please do not fold the ballot papers for”
“at which the votes are to be counted electronically”.
Will the Minister elaborate on that? I did not know that we had launched any pilot electronic voting schemes yet, but she may have them in mind and we shall be examining them at some stage.
Rule 19A concerns the situation in which, according to the explanatory notes,
“ballot papers will no longer need to be attached to a counterfoil, instead returning officers will be required to produce a corresponding number list of ballot papers to be issued to postal voters and postal proxy voters for use in a polling station.”
Does that refer to postal voters who have not actually used their postal vote? I understand that someone who has a postal vote but does not use it can still go to the polling station and vote in person. Is that what rule 19A refers to?
Will the Minister address those few points? Otherwise, the Opposition have read the instrument and the other papers very carefully and we are satisfied with them.
2.37 pm
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I apologise, Mrs. Anderson, for arriving late and not hearing the previous, great contributions. I shall not extend the debate long and I apologise also to the Minister and to other colleagues. Having a local constituency has advantages and disadvantages: one can sneak off and do things at lunchtime but they take longer on some occasions than on others.
I have three questions. First, will the new regulations permit more than two elections on the same day—a local election, a general election and a European election, for example? That was not clear to me from the paperwork and it would be useful to know the answer. Secondly, my colleague Lord Greaves asked some questions yesterday in the House of Lords which the Minister will have seen. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) may already have dealt with the point, but will the Minister address the question of the privacy of the ballot process if there is more than one ballot paper, and the process from issue to insertion in the ballot box? That is controversial.
Thirdly, there is an issue that we have probably all confronted—ensuring that there is a clear and unambiguous record of who has taken a ballot paper for a particular election. I had an exchange with the Minister on that point in another context. On one occasion I turned up and I was told, “No, you can’t vote—somebody’s voted for you.” Clearly they had not, and there was an error. In the end, the error turned out to be that a line had been put through the wrong name—a small mistake, but a serious one. What is the process for ensuring that the signs that indicate which ballot paper somebody has taken, and which do so in a way that can be checked, can be verified—both by the individual later, if there is a contest, or in another way? I ask that question because there seems to be no specific requirement as to how the markings are made on the single sheet of those who have voted if there is going to be more than one election on the same day, which is obviously the situation that the regulations address.
2.40 pm
Bridget Prentice: First, in response to the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, I can confirm that there will be different coloured ballot papers for different elections. That is easier for both the elector and the counters. We specify parliamentary elections because where elections are combined it will be necessary to be able to distinguish between, for example, a parliamentary election and a local government one.
On the Cormack clause, the regulations provide that a parliamentary election and another election may be combined, and if the parliamentary election has to be abandoned because of the death of a candidate, the local government election would be able to go ahead.
People will be able to vote for individual candidates in European elections if independents are standing. That is why we included a specification.
There have been a number of pilots on electronic voting. The last Greater London assembly and London mayoral election ballots were counted electronically, and my borough used electronic counting in this year’s local government elections. We have done quite a lot of piloting on electronic voting. The papers have to be kept flat so that they can be scanned into the electronic machines.
Simon Hughes: I obviously followed the London elections closely and saw the machinery at work. The Minister will also have been involved in those elections. I do not know what her view is, but I do not trust the electronic system to be as accurate as real people who can do a recount. Once something has been put inthe machine, who knows what happens? What encouragement can the Minister give the voter that they will be able to check the accuracy of the machine or know that it is accurate? How can the public have confidence that the machine does the job properly?
Bridget Prentice: All the pilots, and all our experience of electronic voting elsewhere, show that, generally speaking, the machines are more accurate than humans. If a machine were to reject a ballot paper, the human eye—the returning officer, the agents and so on—would have the opportunity to inspectit and decide on its acceptability. I have a lot of confidence that the machine will give a true figure, possibly more so than I have in respect of human error.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of two elections on the same day. It would be possible to have two elections on the same day.
Simon Hughes: More than two?
Bridget Prentice: More than two is possible. In London, were not European, GLA and mayoral elections, and, in my constituency, a ward by-election, held on the same day?
The list for postal and proxy voters in rule 19A is the corresponding number list for the ballot paper used at the election, so it would not be possible to do as the hon. Gentleman suggested. I think that he asked another question, but I have forgotten what it was. I apologise for that.
I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee rose at fifteen minutes to Three o’clock.

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Prepared 7 December 2006