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4.44 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I am grateful, Dr McCrea, for my third Westminster Hall debate this week and the second under your chairmanship today. It is, however, slightly less popular than this morning's debate, when almost 50 Members of Parliament turned up to talk about something completely different.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) for securing the debate, which gives us the opportunity to discuss some important issues, and for her kind and generous words at the beginning. She raises some important issues, and she will know that the issues in her constituency at the close of poll also affected the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who has taken a close personal interest in the matter. Indeed, we discussed it when he and I met the chair of the Electoral Commission earlier this month. The hon. Lady can therefore rest assured that close attention will be paid to what we need to do as a result of the commission's recommendations.

It is worth reminding hon. Members of the need to be clear about the role of the Government versus that of returning officers and the Electoral Commission, for a sensible reason. Clearly, the Government have no role in the administration of elections on the ground, which is what independent returning officers are for; we need to remember that there are good reasons for that. The Electoral Commission is also not responsible for running elections on the ground, but as the hon. Lady correctly says, it has a role in providing guidance for the people who run them.

It is worth setting out for clarity what the law says about the end of polling. The law is clear: ballot papers cannot be issued after the close of poll at 10 o'clock. Courts have considered the situation where people have turned up just before the deadline but were not able to cast their vote. It is clear that once someone has been issued with a ballot paper, they are allowed the time to cast it, even after 10 o'clock. After that time, no one should be issued with a ballot paper, even if they are inside the polling station. That is clear; the law has not changed. The guidance was also clear, and apart from a change in the close of poll from 9 pm to 10 pm, the law on when voting ends has not changed since 1949. It is therefore surprising that returning officers were not clear about what to do in those circumstances.

The Electoral Commission has issued an interim report on the matter, and one of its recommendations, which the Government are considering, is to look at whether the law should be changed so that electors in a queue before 10 o'clock should be issued with a ballot paper. That raises a range of issues regarding how the queue is managed and what resources will need to be put in place. There are constituencies, such as my own, where there could be nearly 90 polling stations, so clearly there are some issues with resources if we had to put in place provision for queue management at all the stations. There are a number of concerns, but the Government are considering them carefully, and we will decide whether to include the recommendations in our parliamentary reform Bill, which is scheduled for later this Session.

The hon. Lady mentioned the case of Woodseats library in her constituency. What happened in a range of situations in her constituency, that of my right hon.
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Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and elsewhere seemed to have been driven largely by poor planning. Returning officers either had too many voters in one polling district or did not staff the districts properly.

The hon. Lady highlighted an issue of the combination of polls for local and general elections, which seemed to take people by surprise, and where there was a underestimate of the turnout.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I welcome the Minister to his position on the Government Bench.

The Electoral Commission's report highlighted one of the causes of the queues, which was that explanations had to be given to a number of people on why they were eligible to vote in the local elections but not in the general election. Early-day motion 1, which stands in my name, suggests a practical step to ensure that queues are kept to an absolute minimum on election day: we can make sure that a general election does not take place on the same day as another election. That would solve many of the problems related to the difficulty of explaining to people who do not realise that they can vote only in one election and not the other.

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes half a good point in that he puts his finger on what caused some of the delays, but allowing that to drive whether we have combined elections would be letting the tail wag the dog.

Returning officers would need to consider the problem of combined elections, which happen in many parts of the country perfectly successfully. In my constituency, the two previous general elections coincided with county council elections, and there were no problems. It is necessary for acting returning officers to think about these issues. They know from the register those areas where many voters might be entitled to vote in one set of elections but not the other-perhaps a general election but not local or European elections. It will be for them to consider whether there are many people with different franchises in their area, and to estimate how much time that will take and plan accordingly. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that not taking that into account led to some of the issues highlighted by the Electoral Commission. However, saying that we should not have two elections on the same day is not the solution.

Mr Leech: I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. The reality is that in Manchester, Withington the turnout was about 62%. That is still low by some standards, and significantly lower than in the Minister's constituency. If for some reason the turnout had been as high as 70% or 80%, as it was in some constituencies, literally thousands of people would not have been able to vote. That cannot be allowed. One practical way to prevent it from happening again would be to ensure that the general election was held on its own, as a single election.

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Interventions on the Minister must be short, if they are to be allowed.

Mr Harper: The Minister will try to ensure that his answer is shorter than the intervention.

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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; it should be heard not only by his returning officer but by returning officers across the country. However, most parts of the country have local elections almost every year. Another factor is that splitting up the two sets of elections would hugely increase the cost of holding them. As I said, the better solution is to ensure that returning officers think about such matters and plan accordingly, ensuring that they staff the elections properly and have properly sized polling districts. Those are all matters within their control. That is a more sensible solution.

Justin Tomlinson: On the specific point about evenly sized polling stations, we must also take account of the demographics of polling stations. In my constituency of North Swindon, the problems occurred in areas where there were predominantly younger families and working professionals, who voted in particularly high concentrations between 5 pm and 10 pm.

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point. He spoke earlier about internet and phone voting. I am familiar with some of the e-voting processes that took place in Swindon. We shall consider the evidence, to discover the extent to which they drove up turnout.

I pick up on the other points made by the hon. Lady. She highlighted the problem of jointly nominated candidates not being able to use their emblem. That affected my party in Northern Ireland, where we had candidates standing jointly for the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists, and the hon. Lady and other Labour and Co-operative colleagues. We are considering that; it should be relatively straightforward to correct the problem, and we are looking for an opportunity to do so. That point was drawn to our attention after the election.

Before concluding, I shall touch briefly on a couple of other issues mentioned today. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) spoke about polling cards. He is right that they should be issued in good time, and returning officers should ensure that that happens. In most cases they do so, but in the case that my hon. Friend highlights that obviously did not happen. Constituents were therefore not adequately warned about some of the key dates in the process. Again, that will be a learning curve for those returning officers.

I was asked about venues, a problem for a number of candidates. The choice of venue is a matter for the local authority and the returning officer. They need to consider the nature of the area, its demographics and the likely voting patterns, and to choose venues that are accessible and able to cope with the throughput of voters. If they need to create extra polling places in those areas because of the size of the ward or polling district, they are empowered to do so. It is also worth saying that for general elections, it is not a problem for local authority funding because the properly incurred and documented costs of a general election are funded from the centre-from central Government-so there is no excuse for returning officers to have any concern about such funding if things are done properly.

Returning to the issue with which we began, which both the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend have mentioned, there clearly were problems, and if nobody is able to
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cast their vote that should be taken very seriously. It is, however, worth putting that in context. There were problems at 27 polling stations out of 40,000, and the Electoral Commission has estimated that about 1,200 voters out of 29.6 million were affected. Although we take the issue of electors being unable to vote very seriously, given that most of the 40,000 polling stations worked well, we perhaps need to consider solutions for those stations where there were problems and, as my hon. Friend said, for areas where there might well have been problems if circumstances had been different, but without making a wholesale change.

The hon. Lady made a number of wider points about individual voter registration and the extent to which electoral registration officers are getting voters who are entitled to vote on the register. The hon. Lady knows that the coalition Government have made a commitment to speed up individual voter registration and, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister set out in the Chamber in his speech on the Loyal Address, we want to ensure not just that the register is accurate and that no one is on it who should not be, but that electoral registration officers do a better job of getting people who are entitled to vote on the register, so that they have the opportunity, come polling day, to cast their vote.

Meg Munn: In that context, I wonder whether the Government would also look at when the registers are compiled. There usually is a considerable time lapse between when they are compiled and when elections take place. They are also compiled at a time when the nights are getting darker and people might not want to answer the door.

Mr Harper: In considering individual voter registration and our commitment to speeding that up, Ministers are looking at exactly some of those issues: how the registers are complied; the other data sources to which local authorities have access to check accuracy; the extent to which rolling registration is used; and how the annual canvass is used. They are looking at all the options, to see which is the most effective way of ensuring that registers are both accurate and as complete as possible. That work is under way.

George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con): Does the Minister agree that there is also a case for ensuring that the data are stored in the same way by different councils? From our experience of compiling registers for mailings on three different district councils, councils very often store data in completely different ways, which make them astonishingly difficult to use effectively.

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but at the moment the election registration process is very localised and that has a lot of strengths, but also a number of weaknesses. I am somewhat reluctant to suggest that an all-singing national database is the right answer, since Governments of both parties are historically not terribly successful at implementing them. He is quite right, however, that we should look at how the data are stored. Another issue is ensuring that when voters move around the country, between registration areas, the data move with them. There are many issues there, which Ministers are considering.

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The hon. Lady also made some wider points about the timing of voting and options for advance voting. Ministers are looking at those matters. The hon. Lady will know that the Government have set out a comprehensive programme of political and constitutional reform, of which electoral administration and the delivery of elections are part. Ministers are considering all those issues as part of our commitment in this area. At this stage, I cannot make any particular commitments. I have listened very carefully to what she and other Members have said, particularly as the events of the last
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general election are still fresh in our minds. Ministers will have further meetings and receive further advice from the Electoral Commission as we consider how to take matters forward. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate; it has been very helpful for the House to consider these matters.

Question put and agreed to.

5 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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