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10.36 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): It is normal to begin an Adjournment debate by saying that one is grateful to have it, but in this case I am rather disappointed to have had to apply for the debate at all. The organisation of the local elections in Warrington this year revealed both an astonishing degree of incompetence on the part of the acting returning officer, Mrs. Terris, and a disregard for the basic principles of democracy that was frankly breathtaking. It also revealed some gaps in our system for ensuring that returning officers deliver a proper degree of service to the electors and for holding them to account when they do not.

This is not a party political matter. All parties in this House are committed to the principles of democracy and we all want the highest possible participation in elections. I have been involved in elections now for more than 30 years, under councils of all different political complexions and a wide variety of returning officers, and I have never had cause to complain about any of them. However, I believe that the shambles that we saw in Warrington in these local elections needs to be properly investigated and we need to take steps to ensure that it does not happen again.

Our problems began even before the elections were called, when the council conducted a review of polling stations. It did not consult political parties through their elected officers. It appears from conversations that have taken place since with candidates, agents and the deputy returning officer that the only people whom the council consulted were elected councillors. I find it astonishing that anyone could believe that only those people who have already been elected should determine the sites of polling stations but, together with the fact that the council’s website showed the polling stations still in their original positions, that meant that many candidates and agents did not discover that there had been changes until the election campaign was under way.

Some of those changes caused real problems. For example, one polling station in the Orford ward was moved from Beamont primary school to St. Benedict’s, which meant a much longer journey for many people. In the Culcheth, Glazebury and Croft ward there were severe problems, in that the polling station for the Newchurch area was supposed to be moved right to the end of that area, meaning a long walk down a long road for many voters. The polling station in Mee Brow, which is traditionally an area of low turnout, was to disappear altogether and people were expected to trek more than a mile up a very busy road to the village of Glazebury.

All of that ignored the advice of the Electoral Commission, which makes it clear that a building used as a polling station

It also gives serious advice about looking at the public transport structure in an area, but that was clearly not done in Mee Brow, where the level of car ownership is lower than average.

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The site proposed for the Newchurch polling station would have been accessible only by going past the Tory candidate’s house, which he was perfectly entitled to plaster with posters. I am not making a party political point, as that would be wrong whichever party was involved. However, as people raised these problems it became apparent that the returning officer and her deputy had no idea where the polling stations had been, and no idea of the areas to which they were being moved. Again, that is contrary to the advice of the Electoral Commission, which states that it is

Clearly, that was not done in the two instances that I have given, which happened in areas with a higher proportion of elderly people than normal. It was also interesting that one of the suggestions for putting matters right was to move the Newchurch polling station to a pub car park—an idea that will always encourage people to vote in the evenings and late at night.

The problem was eventually resolved, with polling stations returning to their original locations, but we have still received no explanation of why the consultation was not conducted properly in the first place. Indeed, I think that the returning officer’s interest in the elections can be judged by the fact that she went on holiday during the nomination period. I am well aware that she is legally entitled to devolve her responsibilities to someone else, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look seriously at the relevant legislation. It seems ludicrous that the person with the legal responsibility for running an election can be away for part of the process. It is not as though we did not know when the elections were going to take place, as they were always going to be on 1 May. There was nothing unexpected about that.

However, as the election progressed, it became apparent that there were other problems. Many people did not receive their polling cards, and I again quote the Electoral Commission, which states:

Significant numbers of voters in Warrington did not receive their poll cards, and the problems were especially acute in the ward of Culcheth, Glazebury and Croft, as well as in Penketh and Cuerdley, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth). In Culcheth, one of the candidates became aware of the problem the day before the election and attempted to contact the returning officer or her deputy. He left his mobile telephone number, and the number of the constituency office, but he did not get a call back until lunchtime on election day. His call was returned by the council’s communications officer, but picked up by someone else. The officer’s reason for not ringing until then was that she had been very busy setting up the media centre for the elections. Apparently, council officers believe that that is more important than ensuring that people know of their right to vote.

The answer that we were given at that stage was that council officers would leaflet part of the ward to tell people of their right to vote. However, two polling districts were not to be leafleted, even though it was pointed out that there were problems there. In fact, it now appears that council officers had known about
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those problems for a week but had taken no steps to find out whether other parts of the ward were affected.

In Penketh, canvassers discovered that there was a problem in a particular polling district over the weekend before the election. They notified the deputy returning officer on Monday 28 April. A request that the returning officer should write to all affected voters and ensure that they were aware of their right to vote was refused, and A5 flyers were delivered instead. They were flimsy things, delivered after people had gone to work and easily confused with junk mail. In Penketh, some of them were delivered outside the area affected, meaning that some people turned up at the wrong polling station and had to be turned away.

That selective leafleting and the failure to deal with the problems has led to the returning officer being accused of bias. I genuinely regret that, but she and her staff left themselves open to that kind of accusation by not taking the problems seriously. It was quite wrong for the communications officer to respond as she did when someone told her, “People haven’t got their polling cards.” She responded—I heard her say it—“Some people have got their polling cards.” In some countries, there may be a career for people who take that view of elections, but that is not how we run a democracy in Britain.

There were also problems with the postal vote, with a number of people receiving their postal votes only the day before the election. The Electoral Commission makes it clear that although there is no last date for distributing postal votes:

Some people did not receive their postal votes at all; there are a number of such cases in the Poplars and Hulme ward. When the problem was reported, officers blamed Royal Mail. At that stage, it did not matter whose fault it was; what mattered was whether they tried to put things right. People who had not received their postal votes were told to turn up at the town hall with identification, where another one would be issued. That quite ignores the fact that many people with postal votes are elderly or disabled. If they could get to the town hall, they would not need a postal vote in the first place. A returning officer has the power to correct procedural errors, and there is provision for ballot papers to be delivered by hand, so one has to ask why nobody tried to visit some of the people affected, check their identity and deliver their ballot paper.

I heard a candidate report that there was no disabled access at some polling stations, and the same cavalier attitude was taken. He was told, “We haven’t got enough ramps.” I do not know whether those involved believe that the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 does not apply in Warrington, but the Electoral Commission believes that it does. It said:

The problems were compounded by people not being able to get hold of the returning officer or her deputy on election day. In my experience, that is unprecedented. I have always been able to get hold of a returning officer, and if any problem occurred, it could be put
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right then and there. Instead, candidates and agents were told that the returning officer and her deputy were out visiting polling stations. Apparently they did that all day, and unlike the rest of the population they do not have mobile phones. That in itself raises questions: if two senior officers were visiting polling stations all day, why did they not notice that there was no disabled access at some polling stations, that people were turning up at the wrong polling station, and that in one polling station votes for two wards were being put in the same ballot box?

I now turn to the problems at the count, which were reported to me by the candidates and agents. It is generally agreed by everyone to whom I have spoken that there was far too much noise at the count, both from the counters and people around the count, and that the returning officer did very little to stop it. Noise distracts counters and is not the sign of a well-conducted count. Indeed, at one point, a candidate—not from my party—had to call for silence so that the results could be heard. Again, nothing was done.

As I say, the votes for two wards—one was Poulton South, and the other was Fairfield and Howley—were put in the same ballot box at one polling station. They were checked and verified at the beginning of the count and separated out, but by the time the Poulton South count finished, officers had clearly forgotten about that. They could not make the figures tally and had to recount three times before they remembered that other votes had been in the same box. I do not know how they eventually verified the totals, because I presume that the Fairfield and Howley votes had already been put in with the other votes for that ward.

It was also the case that bundles of 25 votes were secured with flimsy paper clips and frequently fell apart, and that the bundles of 100, instead of being tied with coloured bands, as is normal, were held together with ordinary plastic bands. That made it much easier to confuse the votes, and in one case 100 votes for one candidate were wrongly allocated to another. On another occasion, a bundle was found to contain 125 votes instead.

At the end of the Poulton South count, the candidate was told—it was the successful candidate, as it happens—that his result was to be announced. He said, “Not until you have told me the figures.” The officer refused to tell him and he had an argument with the officer before the candidates were given the figures. Not giving candidates the figures removes their right to ask for a recount before the result is announced and is a serious matter.

Although these issues were picked up, it is clear that others were not. In the parish wards being counted on the same night, for instance, candidates and agents were not shown the spoiled ballot papers, meaning that the requirement to adjudicate spoiled papers with the candidates and agents present was ignored, and the provision for agents to object to the inclusion of any vote could not be carried out. At least two parish wards were counted in the middle of the room, away from the counting agents, and candidates and agents were not notified that the counts were taking place. In one case, the first they knew about that was when the deputy returning officer arrived with the ballot papers bundled. In another case, they found out only when the result was announced.

I have seen some of the letters that the returning officer has written in response to complaints. Her view
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seems to be, “Unless you’re taking an election petition against me, it doesn’t matter.” She said to one candidate who complained about not seeing the count, “It did not affect the result.” That will not do. In this country we count the votes where people can see them. My hon. Friend knows as well as I do that it is easy for votes to be put on the wrong pile or for a bundle to be allocated to the wrong candidate. That happened in district wards and was picked up by the counting agents. Neither the returning officer nor anyone else can have an assurance that that did not happen in counts where people did not watch the count.

The returning officer describes these shortcomings as oversights. They are not oversights. They reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that elections ought to be run. The difficulty is that, short of a police investigation and a court case, we do not seem to have a system for holding returning officers to account. The Electoral Commission was given power in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 to draw up performance standards. It will not begin even to consult on them until this autumn.

That is not good enough. Democracy should not depend on where one lives. People’s access to voting should not be a matter of chance; it is a matter of right. I urge my hon. Friend to investigate these matters to ensure that a proper review is carried out, if possible by an experienced returning officer from another area, and to make sure that such things do not happen in my constituency or anywhere else in the future.

10.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate. She said she was rather disappointed that she had to bring the issue to the House, but if even half of what she described turns out to be true, it is important that the House has been able to hear and consider it. She brought the matter to the House with her usual eloquence, passion and panache.

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. Her concerns relate to the administration of elections in her constituency, although they have a wider resonance for the rest of us across the country. The effective delivery of an election goes to the heart of and underpins our healthy democracy—the principles of democracy, as she said. All of us want to see elections around the country effectively and efficiently run, and it is vital that that process has the confidence of electors, candidates and the political parties. Better access and enhanced confidence in the system will be achieved only if the system is working effectively and is managed professionally.

My hon. Friend set out a number of concerns about the recent elections in Warrington, and she highlighted some important and serious issues arising from them. They are a matter of grave concern, especially if it is the case that electors are denied the right to vote as a result of any shortcomings in how the election is administered. She is quite right to say that the points that she has raised merit further investigation.

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, I do not speak for Warrington council. I have to say that I am rather pleased to be in that position, after hearing about her experience. However, my Department has contacted the
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authority to obtain some of the background to the issues involved, and I understand that the monitoring officer for the council is instigating a comprehensive review of the election with some independent support being provided to gather evidence. I understand that the issues that my hon. Friend and others have raised and the representations that they have made will be fed into that review, and she will be invited to give her views more directly. I believe that the review will conclude in the late summer.

As a result of my hon. Friend securing this debate, I shall ensure that the report of it in Hansard is sent to the monitoring officer and the Electoral Commission, which is also examining the way in which the elections in Warrington were conducted as part of its own evaluation of the 2008 elections. The commission will visit Warrington in July, and I hope that my hon. Friend will take the opportunity, if she can, to meet it to discuss some of her particular concerns.

I do not wish to prejudge the outcome of that review, but I want to make a couple of comments on some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised. It certainly appears that the changes made to the location of a number of the polling stations prior to polling day were not published on the council’s website. That clearly is not at all satisfactory, and it is one of the issues that I hope will be examined properly in the review. I am particularly concerned about my hon. Friend’s description of the fact that a number of polling stations lacked access for the elderly and the disabled. That is a clear duty that the returning officer and the administrators of an election have to fulfil as part of the conduct of elections. I hope that the review will look at that point in great detail, and I am sure that the Electoral Commission will look seriously at any authority that does not do its absolute utmost to ensure that those least able to get to a polling station have the opportunity to do so.

With regard to the delivery of poll cards, I understand that the picture is not entirely clear. I am told that the council was made aware prior to polling day of problems in some wards and that as a result it took steps using different channels, including radio, press and the internet, so that people would know that they could vote without using their poll cards.

Helen Jones: Not many people look on the internet to find out why they have not had their poll cards, and the weekly paper in Warrington comes out on election day but is read by most people on a Friday.

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and rightly so. I hope that that will come out in the review and that it will be seen whether the excuses or reasons that I have been given with regard to addressing some of these points in the run-up to the election were valid, and that appropriate action will accordingly be taken.

It is important that electors should receive their poll cards. Although people do not need them to go to the polling station, they still value them. Apart from anything else, the cards often give a reasonable map showing how to get to a polling station, particularly if it is one that has been changed, so my hon. Friend makes an important point in that respect.

I understand that the count went smoothly and that the votes were properly counted and the correct people were elected. Nevertheless, changes to the venue of a
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number of parish counts were not initially communicated to candidates and their agents, even though Electoral Commission guidance makes it clear that candidates and their agents should be advised about the time and place at which the count begins. Candidates and political parties are part of the process of the election; without them, there would be no election. It is therefore important that administrators and returning officers respect and value the contribution made by candidates and political parties in the course of our democratic elections. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is extremely poor practice not to give the candidates and their parties that information. I have been told that once administrators and returning officers realised the situation, they provided the information as quickly as possible.

I cannot comment on annual leave. I have been told that both the returning officer and her deputy were not on leave between 27 March and 4 April. If either of them were on leave, it would be extremely unusual for them to be away at an important time in the election cycle, because they have direct responsibility, independent from the local authority. I will take a close interest in the results of both the internal review and the Electoral Commission report. It is certainly clear that lessons need to be learned and improvements made for future elections.

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