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Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I was not going to intervene but this has stirred up my recollection of what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said earlier. He gave a very graphic description of what would happen if all-postal votes became a generality. He said that there would be a disconnection between the candidates and the electorate. It is one of the reasons why, although we see some of the difficulties, we do think that it is important to have access to the list of people who have voted. It is absolutely clear that that does not mean a description of how they voted—they may have spoilt their ballot paper within the envelope—but the mere fact that they have voted means that candidates can concentrate on those who have not voted.

It may be that all electors will be thrilled to bits that nobody calls on them ever again—neither rings them up nor has a go at them, but it is not what our system allows for. As long as we have a party political system where candidates are trying to present their manifestos and themselves to the electorate then it seems perfectly proper that there is some way of knowing when and at what time people return their ballot papers, or whether they have returned them at a given stage. I see that the policy paper allows for that—it suggests that the political parties within each area should come to a

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conclusion with the electoral officer as to how they want that information to be presented. That seems fair and reasonable.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, there has been an extremely interesting debate on this amendment. We know why it is an issue. Strong representations were made by political parties in the other place that a marked register should be distributed during the period of the election campaign. That was in part for a party political reason but also for a good reason, that reason being that by so doing it was more likely that more people would be encouraged, assisted and persuaded to vote. The problem for the political parties is the fact that you can lobby and take someone to the polling station, but that does not necessarily mean that they will vote for you as a consequence. Nevertheless, there is a good intent which goes beyond party politics that sits beneath this and since this issue is above all about trying to increase the electorate's participation in elections it is in alignment with that central thrust.

What is interesting in what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, advanced is the question of ECHR compliance. I want to reflect on that point; I do not want to busk at the Dispatch Box on it. But if it were thought that the right to privacy might be infringed, one could well see that what was given as the advice on all-postal balloting would apply also; in other words, that it was balanced by the wider benefit of increasing the electoral turnover. Perhaps I may reflect on that and send a letter to the noble Lord before Third Reading, with a copy, as usual, to the Opposition Front Benches. Clearly, if we think that it is compliant I shall just set out in the letter why we consider it to be so.

The second issue raised by the noble Lord is whether, if there is a risk of infringement of privacy, there is a way around that which does not frustrate the legitimate ambition of the political parties to have a marked register. Essentially he asked whether it would be possible to have an opt-out at the time of the register which would replicate that which takes place outside a polling station; that is, when someone is asked "What is your name and have you voted?", for the person to be able to say, "No, I shan't tell you".

The noble Lord is right that it would be impossible to do that in time for the June election. However, perhaps we should reflect on that without implying that we shall concede the point. I believe that was the nub of the point raised; namely, whether there is a way which does not frustrate the ability of political parties to affect turn-out but which allows an elector to have privacy.For the reasons I have given, apart from promising to send the noble Lord a letter before Third Reading, I do not believe that we should accept the amendment. As stated by the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Greaves, there is a good reason for the marked register being issued to political parties. I believe that that outweighs the other interests advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. With that explanation, I hope that he will be minded to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by agreeing with the Minister that this has been

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an interesting albeit short debate which raised relevant points. I shall make three brief points in response. First, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is right; at the heart of this matter is the question of getting the balance right. The Minister recognised that in agreeing to reflect on this in the light of the convention. I very much welcome his comments in that regard.

Secondly, the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Greaves, raised important issues concerning access to the marked register, including the present arrangements, which take us beyond what is at the heart of my amendment. There is a much wider issue on which we should reflect in respect of that which is independent of the Bill.

Thirdly, nothing which was said undermines the provision of a safeguard, for example in the form of an opt-out. I appreciate that the Minister cannot make any commitment on that. As he said, in effect one is looking to the future, although I suspect very much that we shall end up at that point. However, I am grateful for what the Minister said and for what he has promised to do. In the light of that I have no hesitation in begging leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Filkin moved Amendments Nos. 12 to 19 en bloc:

    Page 2, line 15, leave out first "The" and insert "A"

    Page 2, line 16, leave out "the election" and insert "a pilot election"

    Page 2, line 26, leave out second "the" and insert "a"

    Page 2, line 26, after "order" insert "relating to a pilot region"

    Page 2, line 27, leave out "a region specified in the main order" and insert "the region"

    Page 2, line 30, leave out "each region specified in the main order" and insert "the region"

    Page 2, line 32, leave out first "the" and insert "a"

    Page 2, line 34, leave out subsection (10) and insert—

"( ) The Secretary of State must not make a pilot order unless he first consults the Electoral Commission.
( ) It is immaterial whether such consultation occurs before or after the passing of this Act."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 12 to 19 are consequential to Amendment No. 3 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, which amends government Amendment No. 2. I beg to move.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 20:

    After Clause 2, insert the following new clause—

(1) The Secretary of State may not make any order under section 2 unless the chief executive of each of the postal authorities involved has made a written statement that he has made alternative arrangements for the delivery and return of postal ballots in the event of a postal service being suspended for whatever reason.
(2) The Secretary of State must place a copy of each statement made in pursuance of subsection (1) in the Library of the House of Commons not less than two months before the election."

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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we return to the technicalities of postal voting in terms of the role of the Royal Mail. We tabled this amendment in Committee to try to provide an assurance from the Royal Mail that all necessary provisions had been undertaken in relation to all-postal ballots.

At Second Reading a lot of scepticism was voiced by noble Lords from all sides of the House and in another place about the ability of the Royal Mail to handle an all-postal vote on such a large scale. Subsequently, we have seen the policy paper which I understand was the result of talks between the Royal Mail and the Electoral Commission. I was heartened initially by the amount of detail in the policy paper on the formatting of envelopes containing ballots and how the return process will work with special envelopes, barcodes and postcodes to assist the Royal Mail for easy identification during the sorting process. That helped to alleviate some of my concern over the possibility of ballot papers getting lost in the post.

However, I still have considerable unease about the contingency plans were there to be a strike or some other disruption to the Royal Mail service. As I understand the policy paper, the process would be to find any electoral post within the system and return that to the electoral administrators and then to seal up post boxes and provide instead ordinary delivery points. It is that second stage on which I wish to probe the Minister. We hear that the returning officers may use their discretion to employ ordinary delivery points (ODPs); that such ODPs must provide a delivery/drop off/ballot box that is securely stored and monitored but without an area to complete ballot papers in private or staff to provide assistance. Moreover, the way in which these ODPs are to be publicised is unclear as are the staffing provisions. Can the Minister shed any more light on those provisions? I am concerned primarily about the vagueness of whether an ODP is to be a delivery or drop-off point or a ballot box. Which is it to be? Also, where will they be located? Will there be the same amount as conventional post-boxes? How will they be advertised?

I am afraid to say that the contingency plans are not sufficient to assure me at present that the Royal Mail can guarantee delivery of votes in the case of a strike or other disruption. I have just seen the letter which was sent to the Minister by the Royal Mail and I am bound to say that it is about as woolly as I would not have wished. It is not at all clear. It simply states that the Post Office has contingency arrangements and that it will endeavour to try to deliver all the postal ballots to the returning officer.

Trying and endeavouring to deliver ballot papers simply is not good enough. If people vote—unless they vote late and that is their fault—they expect their ballot papers to be with the returning officer. We all know that from time to time there are localised skirmish strikes. That happens in all kinds of industries. It is crucial that the Royal Mail has a robust provision for dealing with that. I can see that it may not want particularly to say what that is because that would give the hand away. However, we have to move the Royal Mail from a spirit of "endeavour" to a spirit of guarantee. The letter which I saw was completely insufficient in that regard. What is even more salient is that it was originally sent to the

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Government in December and could have been made available to us at a far earlier stage so that we could discuss it in detail.

I remain extremely concerned about the contingency provisions of the Royal Mail to deliver in the face of a crisis. We have amended the Bill to cover two circumstances so we are probably reducing the area of concern and impact. However, this must not go wrong. If the Royal Mail is to do this job, it must be in a position to ensure that every ballot paper posted on time is returned to the returning officer. After all, that is what happens when people put their votes into a ballot box; they are guaranteed to arrive. We should not expect any less from a postal ballot. I beg to move.

7 p.m.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I am happy to return to this issue which we discussed in Committee. First, one should mark that we are talking about low risk. That does not mean that there is no risk, but we are talking about a low-risk situation of industrial action either nationwide or in some of the returning areas concerned in the June pilot. Clearly, there is currently a risk—it does not happen that often but it is perfectly conceivable—that local authority staff could strike. That, in itself, could cause problems for an election. Such things have happened.

We have sought to ensure that, for what are low risks, contingency plans are put in place which are as robust as possible. In Grand Committee we passed on a commitment by Adam Crozier, the chief executive of the Royal Mail, to write giving his assurance that robust contingency plans are being put in place for postal arrangements. That letter, as has been signalled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has now been copied, I trust, to the Front Benches.

This issue is clearly one of credibility for the Royal Mail. One could not have an issue more damaging to its reputation if it fails to deliver the election in these regions. That consequence would be such a contradiction of our democratic process. The Royal Mail is well seized of the importance of fulfilling the expectations. We are confident that it has treated the issue with the level of management and chief executive and chairman attention that one would expect in the situation.

Local plans will be drawn up for every local authority area. The plans will include the local returning officer, the local Royal Mail management and Royal Mail customer operations managers to address how they would deal with risk in those situations.

All such plans, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, will not be publicised—for reasons I think she respects—but they will be quality assured by the central Royal Mail team to see whether they look robust. There will be a further oversight of the process by a project board, which includes senior DCA and ODPM officials and other senior stakeholders. So I believe that we, the Royal Mail and the returning officers are going a long way to try to ensure that there are very strong contingency plans in the event of industrial action.

The noble Baroness raised a number of points about ordinary delivery points, on which I may have to write to her. But I would expect that the ordinary delivery points

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would be mostly dropping-off points where one can post one's ballot paper rather than being like SDPs where, in the usual case, one could go and vote. I am sure that that would be the likelihood, but I should like to give the noble Baroness more information on that point and will do so via a letter.

We have sought, both by the processes that we have put in place prior to Committee and the Bill and by giving a fairly public commitment from the chief executive of Royal Mail about how seriously this issue is being taken, to demonstrate that there is some very serious contingency planning, albeit for a small risk. While I may not have totally satisfied the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, on this issue, I hope that she recognises that it is treated extremely seriously by returning officers and the Royal Mail.

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