Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-44)|
JENNY WATSON, PETER WARDLE AND ANDREW SCALLAN
10 FEBRUARY 2011
Q1 Mrs Laing:
Thank you very much indeed for coming back to see the Committee
again. We greatly valued the evidence that you gave us when you
came before us in the autumn. What we are now doing is updating
the position with a view to keeping the House of Commons updated
on the position, although I think probably the newspapers in a
factual way are doing that. We want to make sure that we are able
to assist in putting before the House the actual facts straight
from you, and we are very grateful to you for coming back again
We appreciate that the Bill that we discussed last
time you were here has gone through various stagesit has
been pummelled about a bitand is currently being squeezed
one way and another by the House of Lords, including in a fairly
dramatic vote last night. We appreciate that some of these things
that have happened don't affect the way in which you are operating,
but we would like to bring up to date the areas that do.
First of all, before we ask questions, would you
like to make a statement or give us your views on the current
Jenny Watson: Thank
you for inviting us back. I don't have a statement but I could
start, if it would help the Committee, by just outlining what
has been happening and what we have been doing since we last came
to see you. I know at that time we talked about the fact that
we would be issuing a statement on preparedness around the six
months before Royal Assent. So, if it is helpful, I can start
by outlining what we said then and what we have doing since.
Q2 Mrs Laing:
That would be very helpful indeed.
Jenny Watson: Previously
at the Select Committee, we talked to you in September about the
fact that we would be putting out a statement six months ahead
of Royal Assent, giving an assessment of preparedness. We did
that on 11 November, thinking about the assessment of risks that
we had set out originally that we thought had to be met to be
clear that the proposed referendum could safely go ahead. We said
the rules needed to be clear six months before the referendum.
We said that we needed to be able to be supported by the Government
in our planning to make sure that we were bringing together those
who would be the regional counting officers to plan successfully,
and we said that we needed the rules for combination of the poll
to be clear. Just grouping those together, our assessment on 11
November was that there was sufficient progress against all of
those for us to be able to move ahead.
Since then we have obviously shared our assumptions
with counting officers around the country so that they could prepare
for planning for the referendum. We did that in November. That
is my assumption as Chief Counting Officer as to the directions
that I would issue for the referendum. We have also now issued
all the modules of detailed preparation to counting officers around
the country. We have also issued the templates for the voter-facing
materials that, as you may remember from the previous discussion,
as Chief Counting Officer I have the power to modify. Just to
give you some examples, that is things like poll cards and postal
voting statements. So that is all out there with electoral administration
staff and they are pushing ahead with that.
We had, when we saw you, held the first meeting of
our steering group. We have now had several subsequent meetings.
We are meeting every month. That includes all the regional counting
officers who are supporting me in my role as Chief Counting Officer.
We are able to consult them before we issue directions, and we
can get their views about things where there perhaps isn't consensus.
That also includes the territorial departments and others with
an interest in delivering the elections and referendum. We have
also now started to hold our regional seminars, which means that
I, as Chief Counting Officer, and Max Caller, my Deputy Chief
Counting Officer, can go out around the country and talk directly
to electoral administrators about the safe and successful delivery
of the polls on 5 Mayboth the elections and the referendum.
There were two other areas that we flagged in that
statement. One was about sufficient resources to be able to carry
out a public awareness role. To be clear, that is the commission
rather than me as Chief Counting Officer. On 11 November, we said
we had secured the funds to do that. Since then we have been developing
the material that will form the text of a booklet that will go
to people saying, "There are elections, there is a referendum;
here's how you vote in the elections and here's what the referendum
question is," and some basic information to help people understand
the question. So that is now on our website and I am sure that
many of you will have seen that text. We are also developing an
advertising campaign that will come into place in due course,
if Parliament votes for the referendum to go ahead.
Finally we said that there needed to be adequate
funding for the delivery of the polls. We don't yet have a fees
and charges order, but we wouldn't have because that is something
that happens after Royal Assent. The funding assumptions for that
order are based on my directionsas will be directions when
I have the legal force to make them that as Chief Counting Officerand
the fees and charges order is based on data provided by counting
officers around the country as to the impact of those directions.
So that is where we are now. We are ready to go and
I am happy for us to take any questions that you may have. My
colleagues may want to add to what I've said, but we can come
to that in due course.
Q3 Mrs Laing:
Thank you very much indeed. There has been conjecture and there
have been statements about the absolute deadline that you have
to work to. Is it the case that Royal Assent has to be given to
the Bill by 16 February so that preparations can be properly put
in place for 5 May, or is that something that has been guessed
Jenny Watson: No.
The fact is that Royal Assent has to be given by 24 February,
and those of you who are quick will see that the reason it is
the 16th is because, of course, the House is in recess. So the
16th becomes effectively the last day on which we could have Royal
Assent to be able to go ahead and deliver the referendum on 5
I'm grateful for the opportunity to correct one part
of the media reporting. There has been some reporting that this
is our deadline. It is not our deadline; it is in fact Parliament's
deadline. It is a statutory deadline that exists in PPERA. Possibly
the simplest way to explain it is to say that there is a four-week
period for people to apply to us to be designated lead campaigners,
a two-week period where we make that designation decision and
a four-week period for the referendum campaign itself. So, in
order to deliver that "four two four week" period, we
have to have 10 weeks, and that is effectively 16 February. There
are a number of other things that are contingent on Royal Assentthings
like the fees and charges order, for example, can't happen until
Royal Assentbut that is the reason for the 10-week period.
Q4 Mrs Laing:
It is very helpful to have that clarifiedthank you.
We understand that 16 February is creeping up quite
quickly. Just to make it absolutely clear, you told us last year
that the six-month deadline for preparedness was from 5 November
and that there should not be any significant changes after 5 November.
We appreciate that there have been some changes, but are you now
saying that to date the changes that are being made to the Bill,
which may or may not stand, are not significant in the work that
you have to do in the six-month period that you were able to start
on 5 November?
Jenny Watson: Yes,
that is absolutely right. We are now at a stage where we are ready
to go, and I think it is important to clarify that because, again,
some of the reporting has been that we need 10 weeks to prepare.
I can tell you it has been a great deal longer than that to prepare
for this referendum, and we obviously would have said in November
had we thought that we did not have sufficient clarity to proceed.
We do think that there was sufficient clarity at that time. Obviously
there is one amendmentin fact it was passed this weekwhich
is the threshold amendment, that we might want to discuss and
on which we do need clarity, but we are certainly ready to go
should Parliament decide that it wants to ask us to.
Q5 Mrs Laing:
The threshold amendment is exactly the one that I was going to
come to first. If the threshold amendment stands in the House
of Commons in some form or other, will that affect the work that
you have to do in the 10-week period?
Jenny Watson: There
is more clarity that we need. I will perhaps give a kind of top-level
overview of that and then I will turn to Andrew to amplify. First,
to be clear, whether or not there is a threshold is not a matter
for us. We would not take a view on that; that is a matter for
Parliament. If there is to be a threshold, so that we are able
to tell Parliament whether the threshold has been reached, we
will need clarity about the definition of the electorate and the
definition of turnout, and Andrew might want to say more about
that. At the moment we don't have that clarity. We are happy to
help Parliament to understand what that clarity might be and I
have written to the Minister to make that clear. Andrew, do you
want to say anything more about that?
The nature of the electorate may seem at first sight to be very
obvious. However, there are any number of days at which the electorate
might be assessed, including the day itself, because it is possible
for people's names to be added to a register because of a clerical
error discovered on the day. We will therefore need absolute clarity
about that so that all participants understand the basis on which
the decision is taken and also what "vote" means, because
there will be rejected votes, which will mean that a member of
the electorate has voted but the vote has been rejected. We need
clarity around some of those details so that we can establish
the precise figures that Parliament intends.
Mrs Laing: I thought that
might have been the case. Would anybody like to take that subject
Q6 Mr Turner:
Could I just ask a further question? In 1979, I think, there was
a referendum in Scotland. What were the rules then and how are
those rules different now?
I can't tell you the detail of the Scottish referendum.
Jenny Watson: We
can certainly write to you with that detail if you would like
Q7 Mr Turner:
Surely that would have helped you find out what the answer was
to some of your questions?
Jenny Watson: I
think what we need on the face of the Bill is clarity about the
way in which the terms are being used. At the moment, the amendment
that was accepted simply gives usyou will have seen this"if
less than 40% of the electorate vote". What we are saying
is that the two words "electorate" and "vote"
are not as straightforward as might first be assumed. It might
well be that the answer will be it is the same as it was in Scotland
in 1979, but we need the clarity on the face of the Bill and that
is what we currently don't have.
Q8 Mr Turner:
But surely the absence of anything in more detail would show you
to follow the precedent, and the precedent is what happened in
Scotland in 1979?
Peter Wardle: I
don't think we can make that assumption and I think I would certainly
want some legal advice to tell me that I was safe in a nationwide
UK referendum under one piece of legislation to follow a precedent
that was established for a different referendum under different
legislation. One of the important things, of course, is that the
Scottish referendum in 1979 was held many years before PPERA came
into force and therefore provided a generic framework for referendums,
which of course we didn't have before.
Jenny Watson: If
I may be very blunt about it, as Chief Counting Officeras
the person who has to certify the resultI would want to
be very sure that everybody understood exactly why I was giving
the result that I was. Simply basing it on precedent and perhaps
assumptions that I draw from that really doesn't give me the confidence
that I need.
Q9 Mrs Laing:
It is a very good point. Electoral law has changed significantly
since 1979 and, from recollection, the outcome of the 1979 referendum
was not close and the arithmetic was not questioned, whereas we
have a situation here
Sheila Gilmore: It was
a different kind of threshold and you didn't have the rolling
register either because, as far as I recall, at that stage it
Mrs Laing: That is absolutely
right. It was a different kind of threshold and, as Ms Watson
has said, there is a big difference between defining the threshold
in terms of the electorate and defining it in terms of one set
of votes as compared with another, which is what happened in 1979,
so we appreciate that that is possibly not a very good precedent.
Jenny Watson: The
only other thing I would add is if the way the electorate figure
was to be defined is with numbers very close to the date of the
poll itself, I would need to be very certain that I had the power
to get from individual counting officers around the country the
information that would allow me to make an assessment about whether
the threshold had been reached, because effectively that could
mean people sending us data in real time and I need to be sure
that they will do so.
Q10 Stephen Williams:
I was about to say that the threshold, of course, is totally different.
The 1979 threshold was 40% of people had to vote yes for it to
be binding; this is of turnout of the whole. So it is not the
same; I think it is a red herring.
Isn't the practical issue that the franchise for
the referendum on AV is the parliamentary franchisethe
House of Commons franchisebut the people who will be turning
up to vote, certainly in Bristol, will be voting in the local
government elections, for which the franchise is different? EU
citizens will be voting then, whereasone of the very first
questions I asked the Deputy Prime Minister when he came before
this Committee was about the distinction between himself and his
wife, for instanceit will be only UK citizens who are allowed
to vote in the referendum for AV. So isn't the practical difficulty
that if returning officers around the country had to calculate
a turnout, it would be quite a convoluted task to have two verifications
for who has been eligible to vote in the referendum and mark those
against the register, and who was eligible to vote only in the
local government election? Isn't that the difficulty?
Jenny Watson: First
on the franchise: parliamentary plus peers. The turnout threshold
would be calculated at a UK-wide level. So, in fact, I would expect
that we would be getting that data, and from the verification
data that we have, we would not necessarily be expecting that
calculation to be done at a local level. However, my understanding
is it would be possible for people to provide that data, because
obviously people will be issuing ballot papers to some voters
and not to others.
It is possible. Combined elections or combined electoral events
are not unusual, so the same issue applied at the general election
in many areas, and there are calculations that are capable of
being made for turnout at different elections that take place
on the same day. It is entirely possiblethe computer will
tell youbecause that there are flags put against electors'
names if they have a different franchise, so it is entirely possible
to do that calculation.
Q11 Mrs Laing:
Can I just make certain that what you are saying here is that
you require clarification, but are you saying that it is far from
impossible? You need the clarification so that you could put the
necessary safeguards and information-gathering systems in place
but, given all the other preparations that you have made, presumably
this will just be another part of preparationit wouldn't
be incredibly difficult.
Jenny Watson: Yes.
We need to have clarity on the face of the Bill and once we have
that clarity, we can continue to go ahead. Given that clarity,
there is nothing that would stop us and nothing that would mean
that we come back and say, "Actually, this is not possible."
Mrs Laing: Thank
you, that is helpful.
Q12 Simon Hart:
A quick question in the context of Wales where you're going to
have a potentially different turnout for people voting in the
Welsh Assembly election and voting in the referendum. We accept
that and I accept your point about it being reasonably easy to
calculate. You mentioned earlier your discussions with election
administrators around the country. Were any significant concerns
raised by themin my case I am particularly interested in
Walesor did they share to the letter your view about the
deliverability of this in the next few weeks?
Jenny Watson: Given
that we've been working so closely with the regional counting
officers and keeping counting officers around the country very
much in touch with what we are doing, I would hope that they would
share our view about the deliverability of it. We have previously
discussed with the Committeefor example in relation to
some of the problems that arose at close of poll at the last election
and some of the poor planning by local authorities that led to
some of those problemsthat there is a variability of practice
in terms of delivering elections around the country. Many people
are very good: they follow our guidance; they engage with us;
they do an absolutely fantastic job. Others perhaps might not
rise always to the highest standard, so I am sure that some of
the directions that I intend to issue may be more of a challenge
for some people than for others, but those directions are completely
in line with what we would expect in best practice.
Q13 Simon Hart:
Absolutely. I completely accept that. My question really is: have
election administrators raised concerns with you? Would you describe
those concerns as significant in certain places? If they are significant,
are you able perhaps to share some of those significant concerns
with the Committee?
Jenny Watson: Let
me give you an example. I intend to issue a direction about the
timing of the referendum count because I think it is extremely
important that those who are standing for election, particularly
in Scotland and Wales and for local government elections in EnglandI
exempt Northern Ireland from this because their results would
not come through for the Northern Ireland Assembly until the Saturdayknow
soon who has been elected and, from the voters' perspective, that
voters know the people they will be holding to account and will
be forming the administration in that area. So, with that in mind,
and because I want it to be a UK-wide event with one resulta
UK-wide referendum resultI intend to issue a direction
that the referendum count should begin at four o'clock on the
Friday afternoon of 6 May, which will give time for the election
results to the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament and
local elections results in England to be counted.
For some electoral administrators, that has been
completely fine. I should say that the regional counting officers
in Wales and the chair of the Electoral Management Board in Scotland
certainly very much welcomed that. Other electoral administrators
have said, "This isn't what we usually do and we'd like to
start counting on the night, so why are you telling us that we
have to wait until 4.00pm?" So there are sometimes concerns
that are made, and that is all very public. That is on our website.
We have published a response to the consultation that we issued
that includes a kind of summary of the views that were expressed.
So, yes, from time to time there are concerns raised.
Some of those, of course, I listened to extremely carefully because
they affect the delivery of the poll and some of those sometimes
can have the appearance of being occasionally, "Actually,
we've never done it like this before so we'd rather just carry
on with what we've always done." I think what I would say
very respectfully to my colleagues in the electoral administration
world throughout the UK is that sometimes doing what you have
always done might not deliver the kind of consistency that we
need for a UK-wide referendum. It is really important to get
across that critical point. There has been a very interesting
discussion with the regional counting officers.
There is something very different between a referendum
and an election. A referendum is not something that happens only
in one constituency. To be sure about that consistency and that
voters get an equally good chance to vote in the referendum and
the elections that are taking place on the same dayand
that the count takes place in the same way, because of course
we can't have some people giving recounts on one basis and others
notthere are a range of consistency points that need to
be in place.
Q14 Simon Hart:
Last question. I am less concerned about the follow-up and about
how the result is announced. I am more concerned about the preplanning,
which was where I was driving. Are you content that they are contentI
suppose that that was where I was going? There are those who may
take a different view, and I just wanted to be absolutely certain
that you felt there wasn't an electoral administrator anywhere
who had raised a significant concern that had caused you concern
about preplanning. Forget how they count the votes; that will
happen somehow. I am talking about preplanning so they can deliver
a fair election.
Jenny Watson: I
don't think there has been anybody who has raised a concern that
is significant in the way that I would define it, which would
be that it caused me to question whether the elections and the
referendum could safely be delivered. Another way to answer the
question would be to say, "Will there be things that we can
learn about how we've worked on this referendum that we might
want to share with people afterwards?" I am sure there will
be. It would be a rare organisation that doesn't sometimes say,
"Actually, we could have done that a little bit differently
and it might have been a better process." I am sure there
will be some of those things, but there is nothing at the moment
that is of a level of concern where I think it causes me, as Chief
Counting Officer, to think we have to rethink the whole process.
Andrew and Peter may want to add to that.
It might just be worth mentioning that one of the things that
we have asked counting officers to do is supply us with their
project plans for how they are going to manage the election. We
gave them a deadline of 4 February, and I think that yesterday
there were five outstanding. So what we have got from each counting
officer is their statement of where they are with their preparedness.
They will be worked through now by our staff to make sure all
the key issues are there. We have had a very good response and
we're working through them, and essentially putting into place
all the things that we have been training them to do, we think,
over the years in terms of our performance standards.
So there is a process in place that counting officers
report to us and their regional counting officer. We have good
intelligence about the individuals who work in each local authority
and we are able to have good dialogue and regular updates about
where they are, but there are always going to be issues, when
asking people to do things differently, that people will raise.
Some sometimes they get escalated into a level that is not appropriate
and then they die away once people have received an answer.
Jenny Watson: The
role of our steering group and the role of the regional counting
officers in helping us think some of these things through have
been really indispensable as a kind of framework for taking the
thing forward. I am sure that you will know Bryn Parry-Jones,
who is a regional counting officer in Wales and is also working
with us to deliver on the Welsh referendum taking place in three
weeks. They have input and are able to say, "Well, that might
look fine from where you sit, but can you think about it from
where we sit?" Quite a robust discussion goes on in those
Q15 Tristram Hunt:
I was just going to ask what the nightmare scenario is in terms
of Royal Assent not taking place, or if it goes to October. What
is the file at the bottom that says, "What we don't want
Jenny Watson: We
are ready to deliver if Parliament asks us to deliver. Some of
the things like whether we have Royal Assent or not or when is
it are, in a wayI know this sounds like a strange thing
to saynot necessarily top of our horizon. We are obviously
doing a lot of quite thorough risk management and planning around
what could go wrong, and I think it is probably fair to say that
most of it is not about things like that, but about working through
some real scenarios that have happened in other polls and elections,
such as results being transposed as they are sent back to the
Chief Counting Officer so that the yes column ends up in the no
column and vice versa. They are things like that; they are not
things like the timing of the referendum.
Q16 Tristram Hunt:
You are effectively quite confident about the timing.
Jenny Watson: I
think what I would say is that we are ready to go. I think we
will do a good job. I think we have good relationships with the
regional counting officers and we are working that through very
thoroughly. I don't want to sound in any way over-confident about
it. There is still a lot to be done and we are currently working
on two referendums: one that happens in three weeks, which is
real and very live; and one that is, at this stage, still a proposed
referendum, for which I am confident that we have done the planning
work that we need to deliver, and there will be a phase after
Royal Assent when we will get into the actual doing of it.
Q17 Tristram Hunt:
On your "four two four" model, it is only four weeks
incorrect me if I'm wrongthat you begin to determine
who the official advocates of yes and no are, and then apply public
money to them. Is that right?
Jenny Watson: There
was a stage last night when I was thinking of recommending "four
two four" to the England team. There is a four-week phase
during which campaigners who want to be designated as the lead
campaigners can register with us. Then there is a two-week phase
during which we make that designation decision, and then the campaign
Q18 Tristram Hunt:
So all the campaigning that is going on now, in terms of literature,
activities, public meetings and all the rest of it, is paid for
privately by the organisations.
Jenny Watson: Yes.
The campaign regulated period starts at Royal Assent.
Q19 Tristram Hunt:
So up to now it is all free money. I mean, it is not free money
Jenny Watson: It
is not caught by the regulated period. I think we might have discussed
this with you last time we came but, yes, that is right.
Q20 Mrs Laing:
We did, thank you. I think you gave us information on that. Is
there anything you would like to clarify on that?
Jenny Watson: No.
I really just wanted to go back to Mr Hunt's question about the
level of preparedness. What we see, and obviously what members
of the Committee can't see, is the kind of risk monitoring, and
relationships and processes, that we have in place behind the
scenes to see whether and where problems might be developing.
Perhaps because we have that information, we can see the process
that we would use to spot when things might start to go wrong,
if they do.
Q21 Stephen Williams:
Can we come back to the information for the voters to understand
what the options are before them, both in terms of the referendum
and the other elections that are taking place? Jenny Watson said
that there was going to be a booklet issued to each household.
Is that going to differentiate in any way between areas of the
country that have local government elections and Welsh Assembly
elections on the same day, or is it going to be a UK-wide booklet?
Jenny Watson: There
are effectively four booklets, so there is one for England, one
for Scotland, one for Wales and one for Northern Ireland. Where
there are polls, they will explain how you vote "This
is how you cast your vote"and it will also then talk
about the referendum question and give some very basic information.
Peter might want to say more about how we have been developing
that information material.
Peter Wardle: This
is work that has been going on for some time. We realised quite
early on that we would have to have different versions. It is
important that someone in Scotland understands that there are
Scottish Parliament elections and knows the importance of being
registered and how to cast their ballot, but each of the booklets
will include the same text about the UK-wide issue of the referendum.
The text, as the Chair said earlier on, is currently more or less
on our website. The language on our website is likely to find
its way through to the booklet for the explanation. That language
has been developed over a fairly thorough period with expert input
from academics and legal checks to make sure that it faithfully
reflects what the legislation says. It has also been trialled
with real voters, so we have tested it to say, "Does this
actually make sense? Is this the best way of explaining the concept?"
We are pretty happy with where it is at the moment. We have one
or two people still raising some fairly technical points about
it. We will take those into account and take a decision on what
finally goes in, but we are pretty confident we have the best
and clearest description that we can come up with of what the
two voting systems under consideration are and how they work.
Jenny Watson: It
is perhaps worth adding another implication of a threshold amendment.
One of the things we are doing in that booklet is saying to voters
what happens nextif the vote goes this way what happens
next, and if the vote goes that way what happens next. Obviously,
we will have to find some language to explain the threshold amendment,
but again we are confident that we can do that in the time that
Q22 Stephen Williams:
It seems fairly clear to me what will happen in Wales, Scotland
and Northern Ireland, because everyone will understand they need
to turn up and vote for the devolved Parliament and Assemblies.
In England, however, some parts of the country have all-out local
government elections but parts of the country like London have
no local elections. Bristol uniquely elects in a pie chart fashion,
so part of the city comes up and part doesn't. So, in my constituency,
seven of the wards electing one councillor go to the vote, but
two of the other wards have no election at all. Is there going
to be any local discretion for giving information to people that
even if you don't have a local government election, you have the
opportunity to turn up and vote in the referendum?
Peter Wardle: Everybody
in England will get the booklet that will tell them there is a
referendum on 5 May, assuming the Bill is passed, and we will
inevitably in the booklet have to say effectively there may or
may not be local elections in your area. What we are then doing
is working with the local counting officers and returning officers
to make sure that they do the necessary local publicity so that
people can be as clear as possible, and this includes making sure
that the poll cards are as clear as we can make them. Poll cards
are notoriously not always terribly informative, and we are trying
to take the opportunity to use the delivery of poll cards to make
it clearer to people what elections they can expect in their own
particular area. You are right; it is a more complex position
Q23 Stephen Williams:
Will there be advertising locally, or will you be expecting local
authorities to put more effort into advertising locally for this
round of elections than they would have done in the past, which
some of them might find difficult given budgetary constraints
that they are under at the moment?
Peter Wardle: We
are discussing quite what it is going to mean. There are budgetary
constraints in local authorities, and it is local authorities
that have to fund advertising for local authority elections. This
is not something that the Chief Counting Officer can direct on,
because it is to do with the elections rather than the referendum,
and nor is it something that can be claimed back through fees
and charges. As you say, it is a local authority-funded activity,
but we are working with counting officers and their communication
teams to make sure they understand all the free and cheap ways
that they can get the message across, and there are lots of those
that do not involve running major advertising campaigns with a
large cost. We have seen lots of good examples of that up and
down the country, and we are trying to spread that best practice
as well as we can. We hope, given the budgetary situation, that
that will be welcomed.
Jenny Watson: Members
of the Committee might not be aware that what we always do before
any election is to have what I would call template publicity material.
That could be posters, but equally it is press releases that people
can simply lift and use in their local area, if that is what they
want to do. We provide a number of free resources that people
can use. From my memory, although we can certainly circulate the
text if people would like to see it, the booklet also suggests
that people visit our aboutmyvote.co.uk website, which will tell
you or enable you to go and find out from your local authority
if you do have elections. So there is another route there as well.
Q24 Mrs Laing:
Will you be able to evaluate, after it has all taken place, how
much it has cost local authorities to run the referendum? Will
you be able to do that calculation and come back and tell us in
another six months' time?
Jenny Watson: Yes.
Peter Wardle: Yes,
we will. Whether it will be six months, I'm not sure.
Q25 Mrs Laing:
It doesn't matter. Eight months, nine months; we will wait.
Peter Wardle: There
will be an answer, and the reason we will know the answer is that
the claims that the local authorities put in will come to the
Commission for the first time rather than to the Government. It
might not be six months, but we think it will be rather quicker
than it has been in the past for some elections.
Q26 Mrs Laing:
So we will be able to have a figure of how much it has cost local
Peter Wardle: The
cost of the referendum.
Jenny Watson: Yes.
Q27 Mrs Laing:
That is very helpful. Thank you. What about the cost of the publicity
material that you are required to send toam I right in
saying?every household in the country?
Jenny Watson: It
will be every household in the UK. Again, I will let Peter talk
about those costs, but just to let you know that of course we
will also evaluate that. We always evaluate our publicity material,
and actually our voter registration campaigns do very well when
they are set against other public sector spend. I think the cost
of this particular campaign will work out at about 15p per elector.
That is the figure that has stuck in my mind but, Peter, you might
want to say more about costs in the round.
Peter Wardle: The
total cost. It is by far the biggest element of what the Commission
will be spending on the referendum. The biggest element of what
the Commission spends on any poll is always the public awareness
work. The latest figure we have is that will be about £6.8
million across the country. I don't have a detailed breakdown
Q28 Mrs Laing:
It will be £6.8 million for voter education.
Peter Wardle: For
voter education, but I can give you a more detailed breakdown,
although I can't give it to you right now.
It is not all the booklet; it includes work we are doing on our
website and advertising campaigns, including TV advertising campaigns,
which is quite a significant part of it. There will be an advertising
campaignTV, radio, online, printto tell people,
effectively, to look out for the booklet.
Q29 Simon Hart:
Just on that point, obviously you will be doing it bilingually
in Wales. Have you an estimate of the price per elector in Wales?
Jenny Watson: Do
you mean for the referendum on 3 March or for the
Simon Hart: Well, take
Jenny Watson: It
is quite different.
Simon Hart: No, AV principally,
although I did want to know, funnily enough, whether your information
for the referendum in March refers in any way to the referendum
in May, because some people are already confused about what is
coming up and I am wondering how you are educating people to the
distinction between the two referendums.
Peter Wardle: The
3 March public awareness campaign does not refer to 5 May, not
least because there is no 5 May referendum yet and I think we
would fall foul of the Lords if we were to do that. But that is
not the only reason. We also have tested what we are doing in
Wales for 3 Marchand it works. We are confident that the
best thing to do is to stick to the 3 March issue on its own.
We will have the detailI am afraid I don't have it with
me at the momentbut I will find the detail on cost per
elector for both 3 March and 5 May in Wales and give it to you.
Jenny Watson: I
can tell you cost per elector for Wales. It is 64p per elector
for 3 March, and the difference between the two15p and
64pis simply around fixed and variable costs. It costs
pretty much the same to produce an ad regardless of the number
of electors who might see it. I should reassure the CommitteeI
am sure you will want to know thisthat obviously we sought
the Speaker's Committee's permission before we went ahead and
committed any of this spend, because we are mindful of the in-general
rule on public advertising. It gave us that dispensation, so
we have been able to go ahead.
Mrs Laing: Thank
you very much, that is very helpful.
Q30 Mr Turner:
Could you tell me what you are doing about people who don't speak
or read English?
Jenny Watson: Yes,
I can give you some indication, and it might be something where
we could follow up with you separately because what I don't have,
I'm afraid, is a list of the different kinds of languages that
we might translate. We will have material available on our website
that will mean that people whose command of English is not as
great as their command of another language will be able to look
at that material in a language that better suits them, but I'm
afraid I don't have the list. Peter, do you know?
Peter Wardle: As
the Chair mentioned earlier on, there are about a dozen languages
on that list. I don't have the specific list with me but we can
easily let you have that. The Chair mentioned earlier on the free
resources that we provide to local authorities and among those
are translations of common pieces of information about the poll.
Local authorities with a concentration of people who are more
familiar with a language other than English in their area can
pick that up from us and use it rather than incurring huge translation
Q31 Mr Chope:
I apologise for being late. I was chairing a Committee, I'm afraid.
I was just looking at schedule 3, as amended last
night in their lordships' House very late on, in relation to absent
voting arrangements. My understanding is that if you are registered
in a local authority area, you may be registered in two different
local authority areas, and so if you have a postal voting arrangement,
that is fine because in a sense you are in charge of whether you
are going to be voting once or twice. If you are registered in
two places for the local authority, you will only be allowed to
vote once in terms of the postal vote in the referendum, because
you can only have one vote in the referendum.
I wonder what the situation is where you are registered
in two different localities for a proxy and those proxies are
different people. How is the proxyfor example your proxy
at your London addressgoing to know whether or not he is
entitled to exercise your proxy in the referendum when your wife
may be your proxy at another address? If you have two different
proxies at two different addresses, how are we going to ensure
that there isn't double voting? Does this long list of amendments
cover that scenario and were you consulted about these amendments?
It doesn't cover that scenario, just as it is very difficult to
police double registrations at any election. There is no special
provision that exists to prevent someone. There is not a link
between individual electoral administration officers to say, "This
person is registered on ours and they're also registered on yours.
This is the absent voting arrangements they have." There
is no link of that type, so it would be down to the elector to
be sure about what they were asking their proxy to do so that
no one was committing an offence.
Peter Wardle: That
is a legal rather than administrative point. When we say there
is no link, there is no statutory link. It is not simply that
the administrators don't do it; there is no statutory provision
for electoral administrators to cross-check their absent vote
applications between different electoral registers.
Q32 Mr Chope:
So there is no way to police double voting where there is double
It would be wrong to say there is no way. There is a very complicated
way, and you need to be in possession of a lot of detailed facts,
but it is not an easy or straightforward way.
Jenny Watson: But
that would be common to any poll, not only the poll on 5 May.
Just so that we are very clear, it is not a specific issue that
arises in relation to the proposed referendum. It is simply an
issue that is present in our system.
One other thing I might add if I can, Madam Chair,
is that we are always very clear in the material that we put out
for electors what they can and can't do. So, for example, we will
do a push at some point to say, "If you suddenly realise
you need a proxy vote, this is what you must do if you're going
to apply for it," and we can make clear that if you were
to end up with a proxy vote in more than one place, you can vote
only once in the referendum. But clearly, because we have a trust-based
system, that will depend on the elector exercising it in an honourable
Q33 Mr Chope:
As I understand it from looking at the amendments proposed last
night, if somebody has already appointed a proxy for a local election,
that person is automatically going to have a proxy for the referendum.
My concern is that that means that without any action by the elector,
there could be two proxies appointed on his behalf to vote in
the referendum automatically without his involvement, because
of the automaticity of the arrangements that were incorporated
in the amendments last night. Is that correct?
Jenny Watson: I
think that would be correct, yes.
Q34 Mr Chope:
Is that a problem then? It seems to me it is a problem because
it is enabling people, without their own knowledge, to have proxies
on their behalf in the referendum whereas otherwise, if it was
a general election for example, they would know that if they appointed
a proxy to operate for them in the general election in more than
one place, they were doing something wrong, but because this is
an automatic creation of a proxy, even if you have applied only
for a proxy for the local elections, the proxy is going to be
able to go off and vote in the referendum, even though another
proxy for the same person may be doing something in a different
Jenny Watson: I
wonder if it would help if Andrew talked through the genesis of
that amendment, which might shed a bit more light on that.
I think the amendment came as a result of people drawing attention
to the fact that the way the legislation had been previously drafted
meant that those people who did have proxy or postal vote applications
approved for 5 May would have had to apply again for the referendum,
or alternatively the electoral registration officer would write
out to everybody again. I think this was considered to be more
convenient for the elector rather than generating, as it inevitably
would have done, a lot of concern saying, "Well, I've applied
for a postal vote or a proxy vote for 5 May; why on earth am I
having to apply again?" or alternatively turning up at the
polling station and being allowed only to vote in one because
they have absent votes for the others. It was an attempt to clarify
the position and put it in its simplest way. It does raise issues,
both for proxy voters and for postal voters. Clearly the number
of proxy voters is not significant compared with the number of
people who vote by post, but the principle applies across the
Q35 Mr Chope:
So you have decided not to worry about the concerns I have expressed
when promoting this amendment? My concern would be covered if
people knowing that there is now going to be a referendum had
to apply for a proxy, because they would know that they could
apply only for one proxy for their vote and it would be in either
of the two locations where they were registered for local voting.
Without this amendment, it wouldn't be possible for people to
double-vote with proxies in the referendum, whereas with this
amendment it is possible to do that. I am surprised that, as the
Electoral Commission is designed to establish integrity in our
voting system and to minimise the opportunity for fraud, you seem
in this case to have actually facilitated fraud or double-voting
with no fraudulent intent.
Jenny Watson: I
don't think that that is the intention that we have had in any
way. I think what we have been trying to do is make it possible
for electors who have already registered for an absent voteperhaps
a postal voteand think, "Yes, I've done that in relation
to 5 May," not to find suddenly that in fact they haven't
and therefore they have lost a vote that they thought they had
because they had registered for an absent vote. Both these things
come into play, and I think we were mindful of the need to try
and minimise the complexity around this, so that is where the
amendment has taken us.
Q36 Mr Chope:
You recognise the consequences which we described?
Jenny Watson: There
are consequences right across the piece from having what is effectively
a trust-based system. We have spoken with this Committee before
about things like, for example, the introduction of individual
electoral registration, which is one way to change the system
to one that requires more information from the person applying
for the vote. We have raised with the Government the issue of
having ID at polling stations. We think it is time for them seriously
to consider that as an issueof course, it is already the
case in Northern Ireland. There are a number of different issues
across our electoral system that arise from having a trust-based
system, and this is one of those.
Q37 Mr Chope:
Just finally, how many people do you think are registered in more
than one location at the moment?
It is very difficult to say because there is not one register
and because people are not asked those questions. It is anticipated
that the census next year will ask questions about second home
ownership in a way that might allow information to be gathered
that could give some indication, but second home ownership would
not on its own mean that people had registered more than once,
so it is very difficult to give precise details.
Q38 Mr Chope:
I am asking not for absolute precision, but for a rough idea.
Jenny Watson: If
we don't have the figures now, we can certainly go away and give
you how many proxy votes would be cast, for example, and that
might be an indication.
It may not be possible to say how many proxy votes are cast. It
would be possible to say how many people have appointed proxies,
which I think is something less than or around 2%, but I will
confirm that figure. If 2% of voters overall have proxies, it
is a question then of how many people are registered more than
Q39 Mrs Laing:
The answer that you have just given, Mr Scallan, is very important.
Am I right in saying that you have just told the Committee that
the Electoral Commission does not knowand there is no way
of evaluatinghow many people are registered in more than
one constituency? If that is the case, it follows that it is not
possible to say what is the precise size of the electorate, and
if you cannot say the precise size of the electorate, you cannot
tell us what 40% of the electorate is. I am not blaming the Electoral
Commission; I see why you can't tell us, and I don't see how you
Peter Wardle: It
is a good point. We discussed before that the electoral register
consists of entries, and entries aren't necessarily the same as
Q40 Mrs Laing:
No. Most of us, for example, will be registered in two places,
but very carefully exercise our vote in only one, but that means
that the size of the electorate cannot be accurately pinpointed.
Is that correct?
Peter Wardle: It
is very hard to calculate.
Well, the electorate is what Parliament has agreed the franchise
should be and the courts and Parliament have agreed that people
can be registered in more than one place. We also have an infrastructure
that says there are separate electoral registers for each local
authority area and there is no combining of information. There
is no suggestion, as a result of the referendum, that the nature
of the franchise has to be changed, but there is a definition
that needs to be arrived at.
Peter Wardle: If
you go back to the concern, in a practical sense, if Parliament
is clear what it wants as the denominator for the fraction, we
can operate it. Parliament will have to consider whether it is
satisfied with a denominator that may, because of the way the
system works, include some double counting.
Q41 Mrs Laing:
Thank you. That is a perfectly logical answer to the question.
Just coming to that then, given that effectively
one week from now there has to be Royal Assent to the Bill so
that that you can do what has to be done in the correct time scale,
if the current amendment passed in the House of Lords stands as
it is, you said that we will require clarification on the face
of the Bill. Is that correct? That means that within the next
week, there will have to be a further amendment to the Bill clarifying
exactly the arithmetic point that we just discussed.
Jenny Watson: If
that amendment is to stay in the Bill, yes, we need greater clarity
and we are already talking to the Cabinet Office about the need
for that clarity. I think, as Andrew just said, we know what Parliament
has said it wants the franchise to be and so our assumption would
be that that clarity would be predicated on the current will of
Parliament around the franchise. That, I think, is as clear as
we can be at this point. You raise a good and much wider point,
which is again something I think we would be happy to come back
and talk to you about in due course, which is the nature of the
modernisation of our system, given that we are a much more mobile
society and many more people do have registration perhaps in more
than one place.
Mrs Laing: Some of us
in Parliament have been talking for over a decade about the need
to clarify the franchise and to have a properly kept register
of electors, but that is another point and one that we can't expect
you to address here. You have given us very clear information
about the amount of work that has to be done within the next seven
days to give the clarity that would be necessary if the House
of Lords' amendment on thresholds stands. I'm very biased in this
matter so I shall stop now, because I did propose that amendment
in the House of Commons, where it wasn't carried. If my amendment
in the House of Commons had been carried last autumn, the Government
would have had plenty of time, as would you, to clarify the position,
but that is another matter entirely.
Q42 Stephen Williams:
It proves that the House of Commons is much more sensible than
the House of Lords, Chair.
I was going to say that maybe for our next witness
this issue about the double-counting of the electorate is very
relevant for the construction of parliamentary boundaries, but
I wanted to ask a final question to the witnesses we have before
us at the moment. We are talking about preparations for elections
or referendums that are on the immediate horizon. There are a
couple of other bills before Parliament that introduce other new
elections as well: mayoral referendums in some parts of the country
and the police commissioners. I just wanted to ask briefly, although
I think we will need to return to this: is the Electoral Commission
already advising the Government or making preparations for those
elections, particularly for the police commissioners, which will
be a completely novel election for this country?
Jenny Watson: There
are two more Bills where we have, I think, already provided some
briefing to parliamentarians. One of those is the Localism BillI
can despatch that one fairly quickly, I thinkin which there
is a proposal for local referendums. At the moment, we don't have
a role in relation to local referendums in terms of the fairness
of the question, and nor do we regulate any system of campaign
finance. It is possible, depending on the topics that might be
proposed for local referendums, that some system of campaign finance
regulation might be desirable and we have simply suggested to
Parliament that you will want to think about that. So that is
the Localism Bill, and we will continue to brief as that goes
The other is the Police and Social Responsibility
Bill, which does contain the election of police and crime commissioners.
Yes, we do have a number of concerns there, and I suppose I can
divide them into two or three compartments. One is the framework
on which the elections will be run. These are completely new elections
using a voting systemthe supplementary votethat
most people in England and Wales will not have used before, and
they will be run on boundaries that are not necessarily coterminous
with local authority boundaries, which means that local authorities
will need to work with each other, for example to produce an electoral
roll and to administer the election. We think there is therefore
a need for some kind of leadership and strategic co-ordination
in the delivery of that election.
We also think that the legislation will need to be
brought forward in a very timely manner. One of the things about
this proposed referendum is that there is, through PPERA, an underlying
system for how we run referendums in the UK now. There is not
any kind of underlying framework in legislation for how one might
run elections to police and crime commissioners. So we would need
that legislation, to be clear, with Royal Assent by November of
this year for elections to go ahead in May 2012.
There are also outstanding questions to be answered
on the party finance regime that would operate for those elections.
For example, what would the spending limits be, how can we be
sure that we would have the same kind of transparency around financing
of independent candidates' campaigns that we would have of party
candidates' campaigns, and indeed what is the length of the campaign
finance regulated period.
So there are a number of issues there that we are
going to want to, I think continue to discuss with Members of
Parliament as that Bill goes through.
Stephen Williams: We might
have to come back to that.
Mrs Laing: We would be
delighted to come back to that.
Q43 Mr Chope:
Can I come back to the point about the 40% amendment that is now
in play? As I understand it, you are saying that in order to make
that amendment work, it needs a further tweaking?
Jenny Watson: Yes.
I'm sorry, shall I just read out
Mr Chope: All I was going
to say was that if it needs a bit more tweaking, is there any
way in which you could provide us with what you consider to be
the relevant draft of an amendment that would achieve that tweaking?
It would then be open to this House to move that amendment to
the Lords amendment when it comes up for discussion on Tuesday,
thereby ensuring that if that amendment and the Lords amendment
was carried in this House, everything would be hunky dory in time
for Royal Assent.
Jenny Watson: I
think we would be happy to provide to Parliament at the time the
Bill comes back to the Commons a briefing that sets out the type
of clarity that we need, which is what we would always do. We
were saying to Committee members earlier that we need a clearer
definition of electorate and we need a clearer definition of turnout,
and we are happy to express those views to Parliament when the
Bill comes back.
Chair: We look forward to receiving that.
Q44 Mr Turner:
On the dates
Mrs Laing: We will have
to wrap up very quickly.
Mr Turner: I know, but
the problem is the dates. Is there going to be time for people
who are not Ministers to have the information and to submit amendments?
Mrs Laing: I don't think
that is the Electoral Commission's
Mr Turner: No, it is very
Mrs Laing: It is not a
question that we can expect the Electoral Commission
Jenny Watson: No,
but I think we are in a position probably to tell you when we
would provide a briefing. Sorry, I am just conferring with my
colleagues, but our usual practice would be, if a Bill is coming
to the House one week, to provide a briefing by the end of the
previous week, and since it is Thursday today, I think that would
probably mean tomorrow. So I would imagine that that is what we
would do in this case, and I will feel a kicking of my chair from
behind me if I have that wrong, I am sure.
Mrs Laing: We look forward
to seeing your briefing tomorrow. Thank you very much indeed.
I am going to wrap up, unless Christopher has something very urgent
You have been extremely good in coming before us
this morning. Thank you very much indeed. We have explored some
issues that had not previously been explored and we are very grateful
to you. We look forward to having you come before the Committee
again in the near future, because we have earmarked further questions
which can't be answered at the moment, but we know that you will
be happy to do so in due course.
Jenny Watson: Indeed, thank you
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