Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-65)|
23 FEBRUARY 2010
Chairman: Ms Watson, Mr Wardle and Mr
Scallan, welcome. We are glad to have you with us again. Various
members around the table have what are not really interests in
the normal sense of the word, but you will know, I think, that
Mr Heath and Dr Whitehead are members of the panel of people
advising you. Is that right?
Dr Whitehead: The parliamentary
panel of advisers, electoral.
Q1 Mr Heath: We cannot remember the
Jenny Watson: The parliamentary
Q2 Chairman: Mr Michael is a member
of the Committee on Standards in Public Life which inquired into
you, and of course I am, by virtue of being Chairman of this Committee,
a member of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission,
which gets to the point, amongst others, so we are very glad to
see you today. The electoral law of the United Kingdom is now
scattered across an enormous number of statutes. Is that a bad
idea and ought it to be consolidated, and is it worth the effort
to do so?
Jenny Watson: The short answer
to that would be yes. I hope you will forgive me, since it is
the first opportunity that I have come before you, if I just make
a couple of general remarks to put the rest of what I am going
to say into context because I have not had the chance to do this
Q3 Chairman: Yes, by all means.
Jenny Watson: The Commission takes
as its starting point that democratic politics is not an optional
extra, it is a public good, and we see the need to tackle that
question head-on. We need democratic politics because, as I think
everybody in this room recognises, we disagree about how we might
tackle the big questions that face us as a country and we see
the parties' competing manifestos and programmes that we choose
from as voters, indeed will choose from before too long, as not
at all part of the problem, but part of a solution and part of
a foundation for democratic politics in this country. Our approach
to politics in this country is founded on having strong political
parties, and that is a good thing. We are conscious that all of
you, as political parties, are dependent on volunteers and we
try to remember that in everything we do and make the rules as
easy as we can. That brings me to your question. I think we would
consider that a review of electoral law is certainly overdue.
Indeed, in the last 10 years, we have had around 38 new pieces
of legislation and many of those are things that are welcome.
Q4 Chairman: Thirty-eight?
Jenny Watson: Yes, it is obviously
a significant amount. What I would stress to you is that we are
running elections on a system that can cope, but it is coping.
We are running 21st-Century elections on, effectively, a 19th-Century
electoral administration system and that is beginning to show
its age and it is not designed to support mass participation,
and of course we now expect and anticipate that there will be
mass participation with around 46 million people on the electoral
register, so we would certainly want to see a debate about the
future of electoral administration coming pretty soon actually
after the General Election. I hope that whoever forms the Government
after the General Election will be able to bring forward such
a debate, and we could discuss in a bit more detail what that
might need to look at.
Q5 Chairman: How far have you got
with your review because, following the Gould Report, you instituted
a review of administration of elections, did you not?
Jenny Watson: Yes, indeed, and
we have published proposals, looking at reforming electoral administration,
which suggested that we could build on what is already in place,
taking into account the very strong local-level delivery, with
electoral management boards which would, broadly speaking, build
on the regional returning officer structures, and Andrew may want
to say a little bit more about that, so we published those proposals
some time ago and we are now waiting for that broader debate to
emerge. Is there anything you would like to add to that, Andrew?
Andrew Scallan: Just that the
model that we suggested of electoral management boards builds
on, as Jenny has said, the infrastructure that currently exists
and has been now tested over a number of elections and preserves
local identity, which we think is also very important, around
elections and electoral registration, but gives a framework which
is better than having 370-odd individuals operating individually
without any co-ordination or control.
Jenny Watson: But we might want
to range more broadly than that to also think about things like
giving voters a greater choice in the way that they cast their
vote. Now that we have the advent of individual electoral registration,
that gives us the possibility to move forward and think about
e-voting, advance voting and those kinds of things.
Q6 Alun Michael: I am just intrigued
that you made this sort of pre-emptive strike in saying that we
want a reform of the system where, and it will come out in later
questioning, there are issues about the way in which the Electoral
Commission has, over a number of years, failed to operate in a
clear way as a regulator, particularly at the regional level within
England, so calling for a debate is always very easy, but are
there not two issues: one, using the powers and exercising the
responsibilities that the Commission has; and, secondly, being
clear what ought to be happening in order to inform a debate?
Jenny Watson: Well, perhaps I
am being loose in my language, so let me be clearer for your benefit.
The proposals that we have put forward suggest that there should
be electoral management boards introduced, and clearly that needs
a response from Government in order to move that debate forward
and, as yet
Q7 Alun Michael: At what level?
Jenny Watson: Well, it would require
Q8 Alun Michael: No, I mean at what
level would you want electoral management boards?
Jenny Watson: As we just described,
to sit based on the regional returning officer structure, so you
would have a board which brought together at a regional level,
or at a national level in terms of Scotland and Wales, a structure
of returning officers and registration officers who might be better
equipped not to reinvent the wheel.
Q9 Alun Michael: Yes, but would that
not be more convincing if you had done in the regions of England
what has actually been very successful in Wales, but which the
Commission failed to do?
Jenny Watson: We do have regional
offices in England and we have a regional lead, and again Andrew
might want to say more about how that management is organised.
I do not recognise the picture that you paint which suggests that
we do not have strong links in the regions of England; we do.
We have a performance standards framework which monitors the work
of returning officers and registration officers, and both Andrew
and Peter can talk in more detail operationally about how that
is delivered and perhaps I should give them a chance to do so
to make sure that the Committee is clear about how that works.
Andrew Scallan: Just to deal with
England, we do have regional leads, as Jenny has said, and they
are responsible for liaising with the local authorities in their
area and, as you know, the regions of England vary in size from
about 12 authorities in the smallest region to 63, I think, in
the largest, but we have very close links in those areas and we
understand how they work. I would draw the distinction between
the English regions and Wales and Scotland where the nature of
our offices in Wales and Scotland is significantly different because
they are dealing with different legislatures and dealing with
different political parties, so there is a significantly different
role for our offices
Alun Michael: Forgive me, but the issue
of making sure there is equality of
Q10 Chairman: We are going to return
to performance standards and I think Dr Whitehead wants to deal
with that a little later, so I think I am going to park that performance
Peter Wardle: Perhaps I can just
remind the Committee of an answer I gave in fact to Mr Michael
the last time we appeared in 2008 before the Committee where I
think I tried to say that the approach we take in England, which
Andrew was just describing, was very much an attempt to reproduce
all that was good about the experience we had had in Scotland,
Wales and Northern Ireland, but not, as Andrew also says, with
the need to interact with an elected legislature in those parts
of the country, so all the things that the Wales Office does in
relation to guidance, advice, co-ordination of the work of the
returning officers and the Electoral Registration Office in Wales
is exactly what we are now asking of people in our English offices
and have been doing since we set them up two or three years ago.
Q11 Alun Michael: So you are doing
that on an English regional basis?
Peter Wardle: Yes.
Q12 Alun Michael: Regions as they
are understood by everybody else?
Peter Wardle: The Government Office
regions, the European Parliament regions. We have been talking
about the regional returning officers and they are the European
parliamentary officers. Those regional returning officers, it
is worth remembering, are not appointed simply for the period
of a European election, but they are a permanent appointment,
and what we are trying to do is build on that, so actually in
Wales we have seen a much stronger co-ordination from the regional
returning officer in Wales, but that is not the only place it
is happening. In Scotland, there is a very strong move since 2007
and the Gould Report to have co-ordination at a national level
across Scotland. Also, in some parts of England, and the South
East springs to mind, we have got regional returning officers
who were the regional returning officers in the European elections,
but are continuing in that role to co-ordinate the work of returning
officers in areas across their region very much with support from
our regional offices as well.
Q13 Chairman: If I can claim the
floor for the moment and ask you a very broad question: how do
you measure public confidence in the integrity of the system?
Jenny Watson: We have a number
of different ways of doing that. Specifically looking at different
elections, we would generally produce a report post-election looking
at the events of that election and that would include finding
out views from voters, members of the public, as well as indeed
from those who had sought election.
Q14 Chairman: By surveys?
Jenny Watson: Yes, opinion polling-type
surveys and through that, for example, we know that at last year's
European elections many people who did not vote, I think around
a third, told us that they might have been more likely to vote
if there had been some form of advance voting available to them,
so at a polling station, say, the weekend before polling day itself,
but we also do year on year something which we internally describe
as our "winter tracker" which is again opinion polling
which looks at a whole range of issues and assesses voters' confidence
with those, so, for example, through that we know that the most
important thing for people when casting their vote is that it
is secure, but that is very closely followed by the fact that
voting needs to be easy to do or convenient, so that is around
a third each. We look at a whole range of issues like that and
then from time to time we would do broader work on a specific
project which engaged with voters.
Q15 Chairman: I want to deal with
a couple of specific questions, one of which arises from the Constitutional
Reform and Governance Bill where an amendment was passed without
debate, which requires returning officers to start the count within
four hours of the close of the poll, unless there are exceptional
circumstances. The Secretary of State has to prepare draft guidance,
yes, "The Secretary of State shall, after consulting the
Electoral Commission, prepare draft guidance on the definition
of `exceptional circumstances' for this purpose". Do you
think that exceptional circumstances, in your view when you are
consulted, will include the circumstances of at least those authorities
which currently count on the following day?
Jenny Watson: Well, if I can,
I will start that answer in a slightly different place. I think
I understand the frustrations around the nature of a very fragmented
system with some lack of co-ordination in terms of the delivery
of elections, and I think there is some degree of a lack of accountability
for returning officers which led to some of these concerns being
raised, but we said at the time that we have real concerns about
the workability of the amendment that was passed. I would think
it would be extremely difficult to define a set of exceptional
circumstances that could realistically stand and I think we would
also have concerns about the timing of the amendment that has
been passed in that it could possibly push people who have already
had plans in place for some time to unpick those, which could
put the delivery of the election in that area in a slightly higher
risk category than it currently is. Now, we are talking to all
parties about the workability of that amendment, and again Andrew
may want to say more, but I think the broader point I would want
to make which feeds into the conversation that I tried to start
at the beginning is the need for a debate led by Government on
how we organise electoral administration because the fundamental
Q16 Chairman: We have got to resolve
this very specific one very quickly, have we not?
Jenny Watson: We have.
Q17 Chairman: Otherwise, as you say,
they will be unpicking the arrangements they have already made.
Andrew Scallan: But beyond that,
after this election
Q18 Chairman: No, I do want you to
clarify what is going to happen over this.
Jenny Watson: Well, I do not think
at this stage we know because, as I understand it, those discussions
are still going on. We have concerns about the workability of
that amendment. I think it would be completely reasonable for
Government to ask returning officers to justify, with reasons,
the decisions that they took about when they would count, and
Peter may want to say more about what we did from last autumn
to now in order to prepare to be at this place in the right way.
Q19 Chairman: I think what is going
to happen, you are doing your best to help with that, but of course
the Bill could fall. We are very close to the end of the session
and all sorts of arrangements to hire helicopters and so forth
might be made and the amendment might never pass into law.
Jenny Watson: That is true and
I am genuinely trying to answer the question, but I think the
answer from our side of the table at this point is that we do
not yet know what will happen because with that amendment we have
significant concerns about the workability, about its impact on
the independence of returning officers and about how we would
define "exceptional circumstances" in any way that would
be workable. Andrew, do you want to say anything more about that
Andrew Scallan: I think the only
thing to say is it seems to me that the concern is not when a
count starts, but when it finishes, and that is one of the flaws,
I think, in the way the amendment is currently drafted because
any count would probably start within four hours, but it is the
length of time it takes to do the count and the resources that
are put into it, so there are other issues as well around the
drafting of the amendment.
Q20 Chairman: Presumably, the returning
officer has the power to adjourn the count if he decides it is
going to go on for too long?
Andrew Scallan: He or she has
the power to adjourn, but with the consent of the agents present
at the count.
Jenny Watson: Our concern all
the way through this has been to have a result that is delivered
as soon as practicable and a result that is accurate, and there
are particular circumstances at this election which may put additional
difficulties in the way of that, which is why I was asking Peter
if he wanted to say more about the letter that he wrote to returning
officers back in the autumn on this issue.
Peter Wardle: Simply to say that,
when all this started to become an issue back in the autumn, in
September we wrote to all the returning officers in the country,
saying that they were going to be under pressure and under scrutiny
this time round to explain the decisions they were taking. We
reminded them of the sorts of issues that we would expect them
to take into account and we reminded them of the need to explain
those issues to their candidates' and parties' satisfaction locally.
Some have done that well, some have done that not so well, and
I think that was the point that Jenny was referring to in terms
of some questions about the ability of the returning officers
perhaps to take the accountability that goes with the responsibility
of independence. Just to come back to your first point, it is
true that on a practical level one of the most difficult things
will be for those returning officers who have taken decisions
for good reasons and explained them, why they are going to count
on a Friday morning, who may now feel under pressure to change
their position, and I would certainly hope that that is one of
the key things the Government is looking at.
Q21 Chairman: So is it your advice
that they should wait while your further discussions go on before
making drastic changes to their plans?
Jenny Watson: Some of them have
not yet decided when they intend to count, and I suspect that
they will be waiting. We have just been trying to collect in as
much more information as we can from people, from those who are
currently undecided, but I think it is inevitably the case that
there will be people who are starting to rethink their arrangements
on the basis of this debate. Do you have any more intelligence
on that, Andrew?
Andrew Scallan: We published today
on our website the details of the latest position and the decisions
which have been made, and there are still 127 constituencies that
are undecided and some are still waiting to see whether the election
is combined on 6 May.
Q22 Mr Heath: Not directly related
to this, but just a very quick observation: I am a member of the
Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation of Security and Co-operation
in Europe, I have done election-monitoring all over Europe and
America and nobody has ever done an international observation
in this country because it was against the law, but it is not
now against the law, and I wonder whether the Commission has issued
invitations yet to the international organisations to invite them
to observe the next General Election?
Andrew Scallan: We certainly have
a list, working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, of organisations
that would be invited, but I think one of the key features of
the observer scheme is that it is open to anybody to apply to
be an observer, whether invited by Government or not, and it is
an essential underpinning principle of the observer scheme. We
have recently simplified our observer scheme in terms of the application
process and that was laid before the House a matter of weeks ago,
but the principle is there and we will be inviting a range of
organisations and have currently plans to have a system for briefing
them on the process here.
Peter Wardle: And the OSCE are
already making plans to come.
Q23 Mr Heath: The OSCE are probably
the prime candidates, are they not?
Peter Wardle: Yes, and they are
already on their way.
Jenny Watson: It is going to be
a long journey!
Q24 Chairman: One further point,
before I move on to Mr Michael, is that this report yesterday
in the Glasgow North by-election sort of gave you the opportunityand
I ask you as I have a personal interest in itto clarify
whether you are seeking fresh agreement or understanding between
the parties or some other provision to limit the time that can
elapse before a by-election takes place. I think the observation
was made that the three-month convention has been in force for
35 years and that is because I was elected 36 years ago in a by-election
which took six months to be brought into effect and the convention
was devised in the immediate aftermath of the criticisms of that.
Would you just like to clarify what you said in that report?
Jenny Watson: Yes, I think what
we were trying to do in that report was to draw attention to the
fact that four and a half months had gone, partly because Parliament
was in recess, without the ability for voters to go to the polls
and elect a new MP, simply to draw that to the attention of Parliament
to see if Parliament wants to revisit this issue again. Parliament
can decide that it does not, but we felt that, in the interests
of the voters, we should flag that issue and say, "This is
longer than it has taken in the past and this may be time for
Parliament to think about this again". Of course, I think
we are all very sanguine of the fact that anybody would want to
make sure that an election avoids obvious periods when people
may not be around, like school holidays and things like that,
which was the case in part in relation to Glasgow, but there is
a broader point which is that this has not been, as you say, revisited
for some time and it may be time to do so.
Q25 Chairman: The Scottish school
holidays are over by mid-August.
Jenny Watson: Indeed.
Q26 Alun Michael: Just on this whole
business of the timing of the count, it is all very well to say
that there is a flaw in the amendment that was put forward, but
would you not accept that that amendment was one that had cross-party
support and was, in many ways, a gesture of frustration that the
issue had not been sorted out earlier?
Jenny Watson: I share the frustration
about the nature of the fragmented system. Returning officers
in this country are independent and they are independent for a
reason. We have no power to direct them, the Secretary of State
has the power to direct them, and I would question, and I think
the Secretary of State would probably question, the degree to
which that is the right place for that power to sit. I can see
the frustration that was there in Parliament with MPs feeling,
"We would like to get the result as soon as possible",
and of course volunteer activists have been busy, people have
put their lives on hold to stand for a candidacy, of course we
all understand that and, goodness knows, we all understand the
excitement of it, but our concern is about the accuracy of the
result, and I think it is legitimate for us to raise concerns
about the workability of the amendment because we are now at the
timeframe where to change existing plans that have been in place
for some time may pose a risk.
Q27 Alun Michael: I accept that there
is that risk and one of the things about legislation generally
is that it should be the last avenue that one takes on the grounds
that unintended consequences follow from legislation, and that
is a generalisation not just in this field, but things like the
Dangerous Dogs Act and equivalents in other fields of legislation
largely arise when there is a feeling, "Well, it hasn't been
sorted". I accept your point that the power of direction
lies with the Secretary of State and I also, by the way, think
that your query about whether that is the right place is a very
legitimate question to be asking. If we are going to learn lessons
for the future though, does there not have to be a much more proactive
way of getting to a sensible outcome than appears to have happened
on this occasion?
Jenny Watson: I think that is
precisely what we were trying to do when we wrote to returning
officers, when Peter wrote to them back in the autumn to say,
"These are the circumstances, these are the factors you'll
have to consider and you should be prepared to account for the
decision at a local and at a national level".
Q28 Alun Michael: Turning to another
aspect, the mandate of the Commission essentially, until a couple
of years ago, had three elements within it: the regulation of
electoral administration; the regulation of party funding and
campaign expenditure; and the other, if you like, softer elements
of public education and engagement. We had the agreement a couple
of years ago that the work of the Commission should focus very
much on the first two of those. Has that actually happened and
has the change in the way that you organise yourselves and the
administrative changes and all of that worked their way through
Jenny Watson: Yes, and I would
say it is working well, and Peter may also want to comment, but,
as I think you know, we are now very much more focused on seeing
our part of the picture, if you like, in the broader sphere of
democracy being about making sure that people know how to vote
and know what they must do in order to be able to vote, so getting
people on the register is something which we take very seriously
and we then pass the baton to all of you to say that it is for
you to inspire them to actually go and turn out to vote. We do
take that very seriously indeed, and that has enabled us to focus
our spending and focus how we deliver our public awareness campaigns,
I think, very effectively and we get a pretty good bang for our
buck. If you look across Government, we are one of the most effective
use of resources in terms of those campaigns, so that has delivered,
and our objectives for this year have gone down to only two, so
regulating party finance, transparency and integrity of party
finance, and well-run elections, referendums and registrations.
Peter do you want to add anything to that?
Peter Wardle: Just that, as an
indication of that, as Sir Alan will know from his work on the
Speaker's Committee, we have managed to keep our overall budget
reasonably flat since I have been at the Commission, but, if you
look at how much we spent on public awareness in my first year
in the Commission, 2005-06, we spent around £7 million on
the campaign around the General Election in 2005, and we are planning
to spend only about £4½ million in the 2010 election
and that is because it is all focused on registration and we are
no longer doing any work on simply, "Isn't it a good thing
to vote?" and so on because, as we discussed at the CSPL
hearings and elsewhere, I think we share the view of many others
that what gets people out to vote is actually the issues and the
candidates, not an independent body saying that it is a good idea.
Q29 Alun Michael: So, given that
focus of your expenditure, have you got the resources that are
necessary? Tied to that, we know that we are going to be in a
very difficult public expenditure environment over the next couple
of years, so how are you planning to cope with that, whether it
is in terms of efficiency savings or the focus of your resources?
Jenny Watson: Well, again I am
going to let Peter pick up most of that question. I will say that
the Board are acutely conscious of the nature of the current public
spending cycle. I think we currently cost around 52p per elector,
which I think actually is not bad in terms of what we deliver
and, if we can deliver that more efficiently, then we will of
course do so. Peter, do you want to say a little bit more about
the process by which we get those resources?
Peter Wardle: There is not a great
deal more to say, but we are expecting next year, as in previous
years, to keep our spending down, in fact to do that and also
to fund from within the overall envelope the cost of spinning
off the Boundary Committee, which was one of the recommendations
of CSPL, which will now happen on 1 April and they will have to
be established as an independent body and that will have some
initial set-up costs, but we are still managing to do that. Next
year, we will be continuing to keep our budget around the same
as it has been in previous years. It is very clear from the discussions
we have had or the Treasury advice that has gone into the Speaker's
Committee in that process that, when we are looking beyond next
year, all bets will be off, and that is no great surprise to us
and we are obviously looking at what our options will be and listening
to what various politicians of various political parties seem
to think might be the environment, but I do not think we can expect
to be exempt from the general pressure on public expenditure.
Q30 Alun Michael: Can we focus in
on that question of registration now. I have always been very
clear that registration is a means to an end, it is not an end
in itself. The fact is that the right is the right to vote and,
unless people are registered, they cannot exercise that right.
How do you think that you are doing in improving both the level
of registration and the consistency of a high level of registration
across, particularly, England and Wales?
Jenny Watson: Well, there are
a number of ways in which we would do that. Some of that would
be through our public awareness campaigns. For example, in the
run-up to this parliamentary General Election, we will be running
a multi-media public awareness campaign which is heavily targeted
at those people who are less likely to be registered to vote,
so I would ask all of you to bear with us: if you do not see it,
that is because you are not the target and it does not mean it
is not happening. The campaign that we ran in the run-up to the
European elections had a very successful strike rate, if you like,
and I think we had 150,000 voter registration forms downloaded.
Of course, the other side of what we do, and this must be right
because the responsibility for getting people on to the register
broadly rests with registration officers, is through our performance
standards and driving up the standards there.
Q31 Alun Michael: That is the part
I was most concerned about, going back to the comments earlier
about driving up the standard at a regional level and the lessons
to be learned for Wales which was not anything to do with the
Assembly, but was to do with the fact that there was a Welsh Office,
a regional office and a Commission very, very clearly focused
on building a higher performance of quality.
Jenny Watson: Absolutely.
Q32 Alun Michael: But there still
are inconsistencies, are there not?
Jenny Watson: There are, and I
will ask Andrew to say a bit more about it. What I would say is
that we are just about to publish in fact our second year of performance
standards monitoring for registration officers in the next few
weeks, so we will send you a copy of that.
Andrew Scallan: On the work that
we have been doing with electoral registration officers, we have
a huge range of material for them to look at for practice, we
give them a lot of detailed advice and we remind them of precisely
what the law is that they are required to follow, and at the end
of this week, by the way, the ONS will be publishing the details
for last year's register, the 1 December register, so we produce
a range of material. It is very clear from the work that we have
been doing on performance that people understand the need to have
plans in place because one of the problems, as you will know,
in some of the smaller authorities is that they are very dependent
on very few human resources to run their electoral registration,
so we have a range of material and, for those people who have
not been performing on performance standards, we have revisited
all the electoral registration officers and agreed an action plan
Jenny Watson: Again, that has
been done through regional offices.
Q33 Alun Michael: You focused the
comments though on providing material enabling support. Obviously,
you are about to publish a report which may answer the question
that I am asking, but I think there is a lot of frustration among
some colleagues about the fact that there has not been a success
in driving up the level of registration in their areas and a feeling
that perhaps not enough is being done to really insist, require
and push electoral registration officers and the local authorities
that employ them, by the way, because of course particularly on
the resource issue there is quite a bit of variation there between
authorities, that this is not an optional extra, this is an absolutely
basic responsibility of local authorities, yet there still seems
to be a soft edge to it. As I say, your report may answer some
Jenny Watson: It will answer some
of those questions and you will forgive me for not going into
more detail about it now, but there are still some finishing touches
being put to it. Andrew is absolutely right to say that 58 electoral
registration officers who did not meet the standard got a one-to-one
visit and were told, I would say, to pull their socks up, though
my colleagues might be more polite, so that is happening. Some
of that is in the context of, "Is there more help we can
give you because we have got all this material here and this is
what's expected and look, you're really going to need to do a
bit more to get there". Peter, do you want to add anything
Peter Wardle: Just to say that
the first year, last year, established a baseline, and we have
talked about this in a number of contexts, but we did not know
their level of performance. It looked very much at the level where
people were doing the things they ought to be doing as an absolute
minimum and also the extent to which they were following the good
practice that we recommend, and there were some areas where people
were really falling down and they were particularly in relation
to work around the integrity of the register and work about promoting
participation, so, if you like, the two classic sides of registration.
We have made it very clear to them in the conversations we have
been having that we expect to see an improvement in year two,
and that is what this report will be about. We have still got
no powers to insist or require, as you suggest, but we have certainly
got powers to persuade and name and shame, and I think in year
two, if there has not been the progress that we want to see, we
would be much less reticent about drawing that to people's attention,
including local politicians and council leaders.
Jenny Watson: We have had discussions
with the Local Government Association and with local authority
leaders, taking in mind your point about the resources, because
they do need to be, I think, more aware of what is going on, and
I know that these are statutorily independent officers, but certainly
they do need to be more aware.
Q34 Alun Michael: Certainly, there
is a lot of feeling that there is a need for the Commission to
feel confident and to be robust and push the limits on this.
Jenny Watson: Indeed.
Q35 Alun Michael: One of the elements
where again there is cross-party agreement is on a move towards
individual voter registration. Now, as I said, it is the right
to vote which is the essential right, not the right of registration
which is merely a mechanism, but, on the other hand, if we want
to move to individual voter registration, there has to be a really
robust and dependable register on which to make that move, and
that is one of the things which drives the urgency. How close
do you think you are to the quality of the register being sufficient
to take the risk of making that move, because there is a risk
that people get lost, as we saw in Northern Ireland, numbers do
get lost off the register in that changeover, but nevertheless,
there is a will to do it which, as I understand it, the Commission
Jenny Watson: Indeed, and we now
have, through the Political Parties and Elections Act, a timetable
set out to move to individual electoral registration with, I think,
an important role for us in monitoring the progress towards that.
We have often talked about this in terms of both completeness
and accuracy, which I think comes back to the point that you are
Q36 Alun Michael: Absolutely.
Jenny Watson: A complete register
has to be accurate and it cannot be accurate unless it is complete,
so those two things are often set up as polar opposites and actually
they are not, they are very similar.
Alun Michael: I agree with you entirely
Q37 Julie Morgan: I wanted to ask
you about the proposed referendum on electoral reform, which has
recently been agreed on in the House of Commons, and really to
ask you what will be the key considerations that you will look
at when you are deciding to form the question?
Jenny Watson: Well, strictly speaking,
I should say of course that we do not form the question, that
what we do is comment on the question that is put to us, but I
think what we would do, and we have recently set this out clearly
for people to see, is to conduct a process that really engages
with voters because actually it is voters that are going to have
to understand the question and be able to make an informed judgment
about the question. What we would seek to be doing, I suspect,
and I know it is a fairly unpopular term, is a fairly substantial
amount of focus group research of engaging the voters and seeing
how they approach that question and seeing if they thought, when
they had gone through the process, they would cast their vote
in the way they had intended to at the beginning of it. We would
anticipate that that process would take us about 10 weeks
from start to finish. We would also of course want to engage with
any nascent campaign groups that would be out there and with political
parties and others who were interested, but the bulk of the evidence
that would inform our view would be from that voter testing.
Q38 Julie Morgan: So, with focus
groups, would you present a possible question and then have feedback
from the focus groups?
Jenny Watson: Well, the question
will be put, so it will not be us coming up with a question to
put to voters, but the question would be put by the Government
and we would then test that question and make sure that we gave
comments on it, and we would also want to make sure, I think,
that it was in plain English.
Q39 Julie Morgan: So the Government
would come forward with a proposed question and you would then
test that out on the focus groups?
Jenny Watson: Yes.
Q40 Julie Morgan: So it is for the
Government to choose the question?
Jenny Watson: Exactly, and then
we would give our views publicly and in a very transparent way
on that question. Now, it may be at the end of the process that
we say, "This is a very fine question and voters understood
every word of it", or it may be that we say, as indeed we
did in the question around the North East referendum, that there
were some things that needed to be changed to make that process
as comprehensible as it could be.
Q41 Julie Morgan: And the fact that
this may not divide on party lines, does that cause any additional
Jenny Watson: Not from the perspective
of the testing of the question, but it is the case that, in order
to register as a permitted participant for the purpose of a referendum
campaign itself, if a political party wanted to do that, it would
have to tell us the outcome for which it was campaigning. If it
could not do that, then it could not register as a permitted participant,
so that is a stage further down the track, if you like.
Q42 Julie Morgan: And you have to
establish the lead campaign organisations?
Jenny Watson: We have to designate
the organisations who would form the "yes" and "no"
campaigns, yes, and our proposition for doing that would be that
we would look for umbrella organisations that could command a
breadth of public support, I think, in the first instance.
Q43 Julie Morgan: So the leading
organisations would be the biggest ones or?
Jenny Watson: They would be the
designated "yes" and "no" campaigns. We have
to designate both or neither, so we cannot just say, "Oh
yes, there's a great `yes' campaign, but there isn't a `no' campaign".
Other people who would want to spend more than £10,000 in
the campaign would have to register with us as a permitted participant
in order to do that. Do you want to add anything else to that?
Andrew Scallan: Not to that, but
I think I would just say that in terms of the framing of the question
we would hope that any Government would look at the guidelines
that we have published to help frame the question.
Q44 Julie Morgan: I think that you
have also the duty of promoting public awareness about the referendum.
Is that one of the duties that have been given to you?
Peter Wardle: Strictly speaking,
we would hope so, but that has to be legislated for on a referendum-by-referendum
basis, so we had that duty for the North East referendum and we
will have it for the referendum that is currently being discussed
in Wales on the powers of the Assembly, and we have made it very
clear that we would want to have a similar power in the event
of a UK-wide referendum.
Q45 Julie Morgan: Do you have the
resources to do that effectively?
Jenny Watson: Well, we would have
to go to the Speaker's Committee and set out to them the fact
that there was a planned referendum and ask for additional resources.
Again, Peter may want to say more about the process by which we
do that, but in our current budget we would not be able to tackle
an issue of a UK-wide referendum, but I think the Speaker's Committee
understands that we will come back on a case-by-case basis.
Q46 Julie Morgan: The amendment also
says that you may take whatever steps you think are appropriate
to provide information about each of the two voting systems, so
how do you interpret that provision?
Jenny Watson: Well, I think we
would want to look at that against the context of whether or not
we had designated "yes" and "no" campaigns
to run referendum campaigns beyond that, so I do not want to seem
to be avoiding the question, but everything will be considered
in the specific context. We may well decide that it would be useful
for us for there to be another source of advice and information
beyond the "yes" and "no" campaigns which
looks at the different systems and says to people, "This
is how they work" and which is a very objective provision
of information, but I think we would want to look at that in that
Q47 Julie Morgan: Would you see yourselves
as collecting misleading information?
Jenny Watson: Put out by the "yes"
or "no" campaigns?
Q48 Julie Morgan: Yes.
Jenny Watson: Well, again I think
we would have to look at that during the course of a referendum
campaign, but the principle would be that those "yes"
and "no" campaigns would be out there mobilising support
for the outcomes that they would want to see and that more objective
information might be there to try and fill in some of the gaps
or to present a different view.
Q49 Julie Morgan: Do you welcome
the challenge of this referendum?
Jenny Watson: I always welcome
the challenge of a referendum! I think we are preparing for it,
and we are also, as Peter already alluded to, preparing for a
potential referendum in Wales. There are big differences in our
role in a referendum than there are in our role in an election.
We have a very different role; we are the chief counting officer
in a referendum and we do provide direct advice and guidance.
There are other powers that we would like to see come to us during
the course of the legislation that brings the referendum legislation
to reality, but it is a very different role and it is a much less
fragmented role than that which exists within an election. Of
course, it is just as important during a referendum period that
people are on the electoral register because, just as they cannot
vote in an election unless they are on the register, they cannot
vote in a referendum unless they are on the register, so yes,
we welcome the challenge and we are up for it.
Q50 Julie Morgan: You have mentioned
the two referendums, the possible Welsh one and the national reform
one. With those two different sorts of subjects, do you approach
it in a different way?
Jenny Watson: The basic premise
would be the same, that the question needs to be understood by
the voters because they are the people who are going to engage
with the question. That is the absolutely key thing.
Q51 Mrs Riordan: Without wishing
to prejudice the forthcoming debate, what responsibility does
the Commission have to make an assessment of the potential and
likely impacts of a switch to, for instance, an alternative vote
system on voter awareness, electoral registration, turnout and
the proportion of valid votes as opposed to those who are confused
with the new system and spoiled ballot papers?
Jenny Watson: Well, there is a
question! I should make it very clear that, whilst we welcome
the challenge of running a referendum, we would not come down
on one side or other of the debate. Andrew, you have been giving
some thought to, if there were to be a "yes" vote, what
that outcome might entail for those who run elections.
Andrew Scallan: If there were
to be a "yes" vote in the referendum and the change
were to be brought in, I think we need to remember that we have
already got five voting systems, electoral systems, operating
in the UK on which we give advice and guidance to returning officers
and public awareness to the voter, so I think what we would then
have is a sixth and for us then the task is essentially one of
public awareness to make sure the voters understood what they
were doing. From an administrative point of view for returning
officers, there would again clearly need to be a range of material
and guidance produced, but we are used to having different electoral
systems, I have to say. Sometimes, there have been issues when
the electoral systems have been combined, but we are used to providing
suites of guidance to the staff who are there to administer them.
Q52 Mrs Riordan: And the turnoutany
comments on that?
Jenny Watson: I do not think we
could begin to comment.
Peter Wardle: There is no particular
evidence, I think, that we have seen that turnout is particularly
driven by different electoral systems. If you look around the
country at the same elections to the same assemblies held under
different electoral systems, I am not aware of any very conclusive
evidence that says that people are more likely to turn out using
one electoral system than another, but that is an ongoing subject
of debate and the difficulty is that turnout is such a combination
of different factors that it is very hard to isolate the impact
of an electoral system. Some people would argue that the electoral
system has an impact and some would say it absolutely does not
and is completely dwarfed by other factors.
Q53 Mrs Riordan: So what lessons
are there from previous elections within the UK, say, for the
London Mayor, or elsewhere on the impact of a switch to an AV
system on voter participation and the number of spoiled ballot
papers? Are there any lessons?
Andrew Scallan: The numbers are
not significant. I cannot remember the figures, but, if they had
been significant, I am sure I would have remembered them. The
task is a clear explanation both in the build-up to the election
and within the polling station itself to make sure that the staff
fully understand what they are saying to voters when they vote,
but there are not, I think, significant issues around spoiled
Q54 Mr Heath: Can I move on to party
funding. Are you on top of it and are the parties on top of it?
Jenny Watson: That is another
good question. I think we have a good and effective system of
regulating it. We are starting to deal with this and are very
busy at the moment. I think in the last quarter we answered around
500 queries and requests for information, so I am tempted to say,
"There must be an election coming along"! We do take
it very seriously and we publish regular information. I think
what will immeasurably help us, when we finally get them, is the
new powers and sanctions that are bestowed on us through the PPE
Act. I understand that the Statutory Instrument that was laid
before the House has been withdrawn due to a legal drafting problem
and that will not now be tabled before the election. Now, we are
working to an implementation date for the majority of those powers
and sanctions of 1 July and it would be really important to us
that that comes through quickly after the election because of
course all political parties will need clarity and we are providing
guidance for people on what they should be doing under the new
system and how we intend to enforce, but without the powers.
Q55 Mr Heath: And it is daft, is
it not, not having the powers before the election, yet alone delay
it even further beyond July?
Jenny Watson: Well, I think I
would take issue with you on that because I think one of the things
we have said very clearly in the past is that there should be
at least a six-month gap in terms of anything electoral between
legislation and implementation, and that applies to powers we
would like to use just as much as it applies to anything else,
so I am happy with 1 July, but that is the date to which we are
now working and it does make it rather tight post-election. I
think that new suite of civil sanctions and civil powers, including
things like compliance notices to say to parties, "Can you
put in place a better system than currently exists?" and
stop notices, will be really important potentially during a referendum
campaign when you perhaps have organisations that are not like
parties with a long tradition of wanting to keep their reputations
squeaky clean and they may be less tempted to comply with legislation,
we need that kind of power.
Q56 Mr Heath: Is there not a problem
at the moment that, without the new suite of civil sanctions,
effectively you can only really hit hard some poor honorary treasurer
in a little branch of a political party who is desperately trying
to comply and cannot because he cannot get his figures in the
right order? Does that not give a real problem actually to helping
them, and I am not talking about the professional people in the
party headquarters, I am talking about the voluntary parties?
Jenny Watson: I do not think any
of us would try and pretend that the powers that we have now are
ideal; that is why we wanted the new powers and we made that argument
very strongly. One of the things that our enforcement policy consultation,
which is the process we ran indeed in consultation with volunteer
treasurers, enabled us to say is, "With this new suite of
civil sanctions, this is how we will use them" and, by the
way, we have never come down like a tonne of bricks on a poor
voluntary treasurer anyway, so it did enable us to get that message
Q57 Mr Heath: But they are frightened
that you will, are they not, still?
Jenny Watson: I am sure they are
and this will be better. The fact that we have been able to share
the way that we will approach it with them and be reassured that
they now understand our approach and will continue to issue that
guidance, I think that is very helpful. We would like the powers
by 1 July and, if there is anything you can do to raise those
points, we would be most grateful to you.
Q58 Mr Heath: I would love to do
that. Are there any glaring holes that you see at the moment in
the regulation either on the donations side or the expenditure
side where the parties, I know perfectly well, have a talent for
finding these holes and using them? Is there something you would
like us to be doing to close a loophole?
Jenny Watson: I think at the moment
perhaps I could leave it that the new powers are most welcome.
We always keep the legislation under review and it may be that
we have more to say about that in due course.
Q59 Dr Whitehead: Could I ask some
questions on integrity and also the role of returning officers
in preparation for elections and standards. You published a report
in June 2009 on electoral malpractice, particularly relating to
the 2009 elections. I think there were two convictions eventually
out of something like 107 allegations of malpractice which arose
in 2009. What sort of malpractices were both alleged and convicted?
Jenny Watson: My memory from the
European elections is that it was rather fewer than that actually.
I thought it was around 48.
Q60 Dr Whitehead: Sorry, it is 48
cases out of 107 allegations.
Jenny Watson: We use that very
broadly, and I am going to ask Andrew to pick that up. This is
an area where we remain vigilant, so we might also, if you have
the time, take the opportunity to talk to you about what we are
doing with returning officers and the police.
Andrew Scallan: There was a range
of offence types and they are all spelt out in the report in some
detail. A large number of them were to do with electoral malpractice,
but might have included, for example, the imprint on documents
which, if we go back many years, is one of the least serious of
electoral crimes. Of the 107 figure, 23 of those allegations related
to a ballot paper that someone had photocopied in Aylesbury, so
it is simply a very crude attempt to manipulate the system where
a ballot paper had literally been photocopied and sent in, but,
because it was taken seriously, it appears in the statistics.
There was a range of issues and with a number of them no further
action was taken by the police and there have been some convictions,
and again they are all spelt out in the report. There is not anything
more that we can update on the report that we actually published
in January this year. In our June report on the European elections,
we put the headline figures in, and the report that we published
in January sets out in detail what happened with all the cases
and also updates our report from 2008 on the offences that had
been reported during elections then.
Q61 Dr Whitehead: To what extent
would you say that those electoral malpractices particularly focused
on postal voting? Obviously, that relates to the claim that postal
voting is vulnerable to fraud, but to what extent did you find
in those particular prosecutions and claims that that was indeed
a focus of fraud?
Andrew Scallan: There were very
few that related to postal voting. The postal voting system is
so much more secure than it was before the 2006 Act gave provisions,
so now it is very difficult for anyone to steal someone else's
postal vote in the way that they had been previously because the
signature and date of birth are required. One of the things that
we have talked about is that there are some vulnerabilities in
the system, and individual electoral registration will close that
particular vulnerability, so it should ensure better integrity
of the whole system.
Jenny Watson: But, having said
that, I think we would all recognise that the European election
is a different type of election with a very much larger constituency
and possibly less temptation to those who might commit fraud,
and we will be vigilant in the run-up to this election which could
be combined with local elections, which is a slightly different
animal, and Peter may want to say a little more about what we
are doing with the police in relation to that area.
Peter Wardle: Yes, very briefly
just to say that we are getting very good co-operation these days
from the police. If you think back five years or so, the police
were very afraid to tread in a lot of areas on something that
they saw as political. Nowadays, every police force has got an
expert within the force who will take responsibility for that.
ACPO have appointed a lead, as have ACPO Scotland, and we have
seen some very good examples of returning officers and local police
forces working together to risk-assess their elections in the
same way as they would risk-assess anything else. Actually, the
police are bringing some very useful skills to that process which
returning officers perhaps were not so used to, so I think we
are seeing much more vigilance, and certainly in the areas where
people have seen concerns and risks they are acting very visibly
to try to prevent it. One of the things the police have learnt
literally to their cost is that prevention is very much better
than cure when it comes to dealing with electoral offences.
Jenny Watson: Certainly, it is
very welcome that the Ministry of Justice will provide funding
in this election for 100% of absent voter identifier checking.
We would still like them to mandate that, but the funding is very
Q62 Dr Whitehead: Turning to returning
officers themselves, you also published a report on the extent
to which returning officers were meeting performance standards,
and I think the April 2009 report was the first assessment of
that, and you mentioned that in your written evidence to us, but
in that written evidence you also referred to failures in some
places, particularly in terms of plans for public awareness and
participation, and also indeed to some gaps in the identification
of electoral malpractice among returning officers. What assessment
have you made, particularly relating to the previous issues of
electoral malpractice, of what are the genuine risks to the integrity
of the system in those areas?
Jenny Watson: I am going to ask
Andrew to pick that up, but, before I do, I am going to take the
opportunity to correct something that I said earlier where I have
been looking for an opportunity and have not had, which is of
course that the Secretary of State cannot direct returning officers,
but can only direct electoral registration officers, so that gives
me the opportunity to put that on the record. Andrew, would you
like to pick up the question.
Andrew Scallan: In terms of returning
officers, the approach we have taken to their performance standards
has been very similar to the one we have with electoral registration
officers that, where there have been failures, there have been
personal interviews with the returning officers. A lot of our
performance standards are actually about making sure there is
an infrastructure in place within local authorities, so it has
been about having plans in place for all the activities that form
part of the performance standards and integrity has been one,
and it applies to others as well, that because a plan is not in
place does not mean that work is not going on, but it is just
that it is not well-documented and there is not a clear plan of
action. For those who have not had plans in place, we have visited
them and, I have to say, they have typically been areas where
they have not felt impacted by electoral malpractice in the past,
which of course is a very complacent way to react to that. The
message that Peter has said, that prevention is better than prosecution,
as we describe it in the report, is because you never know when
it is going to happen and, when it does happen, it takes up a
huge amount of resource both from the local authority and from
the police force, so we have visited all the returning officers.
We doubled our efforts with ACPO and with local police forces
to make sure that they were working very closely with local authorities
to make sure that they had their plans in place and that they
were able to respond and, very importantly, the police are attending
candidates' and agents' meetings and making sure that people understand
that the police forces are aware of electoral malpractice in a
way that historically they have not.
Q63 Dr Whitehead: When you say you
have visited, you state in your evidence that you contacted all
58 EROs who did not meet the standards for completeness and
accuracy in 2009. Would they have been the subject of a visit,
Jenny Watson: Of the EROs, yes.
As we were saying earlier on, yes, each one of those will have
had a visit, but we have also followed up with returning officers
who did not meet the standards.
Q64 Dr Whitehead: Were those visits
made public? Is there a public record of what was said in those
visits and what transpired, or were they, shall we say, under
Jenny Watson: Well, they were
not secret visits, to put it like that. The information about
who meets the performance standards and who does not is available
on our website, so it is there, and I think what you will see
when we publish the next report on performance standards for electoral
registration officers is any change against that, let us say,
and we are writing to local authority leaders to make sure that
they know in their authority how the electoral registration officers
and returning officers are performing, and sometimes that is an
uneasy relationship, but they should know.
Q65 Dr Whitehead: The implication
of the 58 EROs who did not meet the standards is that there are
58 registers that are incomplete and inaccurate, by turning
your statement in your evidence around, and I presume that, should
there be 58 incomplete and inaccurate registers, that would be
a matter of some considerable concern.
Jenny Watson: I think if you took
the point more broadly, which we have made before, that we estimate
that there are 3.5 million people, 8% to 9%, who are not on the
electoral register, I am afraid I think it is a rather larger
number of registers than that that we know and could say, hand
on heart, are not complete and accurate. That is the system with
which we are working, and again individual registration, to refer
to Mr Michael's question earlier on, will help with that because
it will give, for example, the ability to do some greater data-matching
to try and see if there are better ways of working out and other
ways of working out other people that could be on your register
that are not. What we will do as we develop the performance standards,
bearing in mind they are only in year two this year, is look at
outcomes as well as outputs in terms of plans, and that is part
of the development work.
Peter Wardle: There are, very
broadly and very simplistically, two reasons why a register is
incomplete and inaccurate. One is because the electors do not
do something and the other is because the electoral registration
officers do not do something, and our focus on the performance
standards is very much on making sure the EROs are doing everything
they can so that problems with the register cannot be put down
to their inactivity and lack of attempts to do things. However,
as Jenny says, we need also then to look at those areas where,
even though the ERO is doing everything they should be, we have
still got very low levels of registration and that is where we
need to start looking much more imaginatively at whether there
are other things, including potentially legislative changes, that
would make their task easier. If you have got an ERO who really
is trying their hardest, is well-resourced and yet is still achieving
low levels of registration, and we have never known that with
any certainty until we have had the performance standards and
we have started to do this manual tracking, but I am sure that
it is going to be an ongoing process. We are not simply going
to rest on our laurels when everybody is meeting the basic standards
and say, "Everything must be fine now; there is nothing more
we can do", but I see it very much as saying that, as long
as we have got them up to standard doing everything they should,
then we need to look at what other factors are contributing to
the fact that their register is not where it should be.
Jenny Watson: And I would expect
us to be raising the bar as we move forward, and I would also
expect, as we go through the voluntary phases of individual electoral
registration, that our monitoring and the way we present that
would be sufficient to make sure that we can give a picture in
different local areas rather than a very generalised wash across
the country because it will not look like that and it will be
particular areas where we will need to focus.
Chairman: At which point we must move
on to another session, so thank you very much.