Parliamentary Voting System - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-44)


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 this morning.

We appreciate that the Bill that we discussed last time you were here has gone through various stages—it has been pummelled about a bit—and 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 position?

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 May—both 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 directions—as will be directions when I have the legal force to make them that as Chief Counting Officer—and 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 at?

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 May.

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 Assent—things like the fees and charges order, for example, can't happen until Royal Assent—but that is the reason for the 10-week period.

Q4   Mrs Laing: It is very helpful to have that clarified—thank 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 amendment—in fact it was passed this week—which 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?

Andrew Scallan: 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 forward?

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?

Andrew Scallan: 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 us to.

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 us—you 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 Officer—as the person who has to certify the result—I 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 could only—

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 franchise—the House of Commons franchise—but 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, whereas—one 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 instance—it 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.

Andrew Scallan: 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 possible—the computer will tell you—because 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 preparation—it 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 them—in my case I am particularly interested in Wales—or 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 Committee—for 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 problems—that 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 England—I exempt Northern Ireland from this because their results would not come through for the Northern Ireland Assembly until the Saturday—know 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 result—a UK-wide referendum result—I 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 day—and 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 not—there 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 content—I 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.

Andrew Scallan: 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 meetings.

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 to happen"?

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 way—I know this sounds like a strange thing to say—not 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 in—correct me if I'm wrong—that 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 begins.

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 but—

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 next—if 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 we have.

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 across England.

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 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 authorities?

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 to—am 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 of—

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.[1] 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 campaign—TV, radio, online, print—to 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 your pick.

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 March—and 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 detail—I am afraid I don't have it with me at the moment—but 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 two—15p and 64p—is 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 Committee—I am sure you will want to know this—that 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 costs themselves.

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 proxy—for example your proxy at your London address—going 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?

Andrew Scallan: 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 registration.

Andrew Scallan: 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 way.

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.

  Andrew Scallan: 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 constituency.

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.

Andrew Scallan: 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 two.

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 vote—perhaps a postal vote—and 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 issue—of 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?

Andrew Scallan: 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.[2]

Andrew Scallan: 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 once.

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 know—and there is no way of evaluating—how 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 can.

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 people.

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.

Andrew Scallan: 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 Bill—I can despatch that one fairly quickly, I think—in 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 through.

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 system—the supplementary vote—that 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.[3]

  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 much a—

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 to say.

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 very much.

1   Ev 18. Back

2   Ev 19. Back

3   Ev 18. Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 23 May 2011