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My inclination would be to grant the returning officer discretion so that, when there has clearly been a simple error such as entering the wrong date on the postal vote application or statement, the returning officer might write; but where the returning officer suspects fraud, he or she might consider that notifying the police to investigate is the correct course of action. This judgment should be made in conjunction with administrators and the Association of Chief Police Officers, rather than leaping to a decision that may hinder rather than help attempts to tackle fraud. At this late stage in the passage of the Bill, I do not consider there to be the time available for us to work through the issues so that we can be confident about making a change of this nature.

9.15 pm

Another matter for further consideration is the question of those electors who do not respond to the letter issued by the returning officer. It may well be desirable for additional follow-up action to take place in this instance in order that the ERO might establish beyond doubt the identity of the individuals residing at that address with a view to ensuring the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the electoral register. However, this is properly a role for the electoral registration officer. Clarifying the powers for returning officers and electoral registration officers to share data for these purposes is another area which would need careful consideration. Rightly, there are clear provisions in law concerned with the safe disposal and secrecy of election documents. It would be all too easy to implement a change in the legislation which sought to provide access to election records for one purpose, but which inadvertently compromised the safety and secrecy of the information that those records contained.

On the provisions for dealing with election documents, I should also make it clear that the amendment put forward by the noble Lord is defective. It provides that the proposed list should be regarded as a relevant election document for the purpose of Section 42 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006. However, this section provides for access to election documents in relation to elections other than parliamentary elections. Corresponding provision in respect of parliamentary elections is made in Rules 55 to 57 of the parliamentary elections rules.

I am sorry that I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Henley, any answers, but his questions make the point that the Government would make. It is not straightforward. We would need to understand the size of the burden, the implications for a successful criminal prosecution and the implications for the whole area of privacy.

To summarise, we agree that there is merit in the intention behind the noble Lord’s amendment, but we are concerned that the right measures are put in place and we would wish to consult more widely before bringing forward proposals. I note from its briefing that the Electoral Commission supports the intention of the noble Lord. However, I understand that it shares our concerns about moving to legislation without due consideration of the issues at hand. The Government will therefore undertake to consider this issue with the

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commission, ACPO and other appropriate stakeholders with a view to legislating in the next electoral Bill. On this basis, I would ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am very grateful for that reply. I agree with a great deal of what the Minister has said, particularly about the potential tension between, on the one hand, when a returning officer or an electoral registration officer writes to people to say, “Sorry you have made a mistake. You ought to know this because you are losing your vote”—accidentally, presumably—and, on other hand, when they think that it might be evidence of fraud. I thought about that issue before writing this amendment, but I came to the view that it would be best to put down a simple amendment in order to raise the issue and in the hope of getting the response that the Minister has given. I am very grateful for that and for his promise. I was getting quite excited until he used the word “stakeholder”, then I lost interest.

In response to the noble Lord, Lord Bates, I do not think that there will be a huge administrative burden. There will be a little extra administrative burden because when someone applies for a postal vote—at general elections a lot come in at the last minute—the returning officers write to people to check that they want it and that it is okay. Election offices are full of computers which are for ever churning out letters and envelopes. They do that all the time—perhaps they do it too much. Nevertheless, it is not a huge question. On the privacy and secrecy of documents, it is important that lists of everyone who has voted and everyone who has returned a postal vote envelope are produced, just like those that are produced at the moment.

The noble Lord referred to spoiled ballots. We are not talking about spoiled ballot papers, but those that have not even been looked at. I agree that a spoiled ballot paper should never be divulged because that is the way someone has voted, but here we are talking about ballot papers that have not been looked at or counted, so no one knows if they have been spoiled because they are still in their envelopes, having never been opened.

The Government said that they would work through these issues. Instead of waiting for the next election before introducing legislation, I wonder whether it might be possible to deal with this through secondary legislation by introducing statutory instruments to amend the election rules. I would ask the Government to look at that once they have carried out the consultation. However, I am very encouraged by what the Government have said and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 84 withdrawn.

Amendment 84A

Moved by Lord Pearson of Rannoch

84A: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—

“Ballot papers

(1) Except in the case of postal votes, ballot papers must be given to voters unfolded.

(2) The Commission shall monitor, and take such steps as they consider appropriate to securing, compliance with subsection (1).

(3) Within three months of an election, the Commission shall publish a report pursuant to subsection (2).

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(4) If the Commission consider that failure to comply with subsection (1) may have affected the result of an election, it shall advise the Secretary of State on the validity of the election result and make public its advice.”

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, as I mentioned at col. 893 during our last proceedings, this amendment is inspired by the very unsatisfactory events of 4 June during voting for the European Parliament. The name of my party, UKIP, which came last alphabetically on ballot papers, was folded over at the back of a large number of them. The result was that many hundreds of voters blocked our call centre saying that they could not find UKIP on the ballot paper and either asking what to do or telling us that they had voted for another party. I appreciate that a number of noble Lords may feel that this could not have happened to a nicer party, but it is worth recording that Mr Nick Griffin of the BNP won his seat from us in the north-west by only 1,300 votes.

The problem appears to have been at its worst in the south-east, where I understand that we may have been denied another seat. It is certainly true that we received a great many complaints from voters in East Sussex, especially Bexhill; from West Sussex, especially around Worthing; from Hampshire, especially in Farnborough; and from Surrey, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, especially in Aylesbury. Such inquiries as we have been able to make indicate two main causes: machine folding, perhaps before the ink was dry, by printers supplying local returning officers, and the manual folding of ballot papers by polling clerks. This latter practice is encouraged by the Electoral Commission in its guide to polling station staff. Machine folding by printers appears to have been a major problem in Yorkshire, while manually folded papers caused serious problems in the eastern region and the West Midlands.

Following a complaint from our party leader, Mr Nigel Farage, the commission did issue guidance on 4 June that all ballot papers should be handed out unfolded, but this followed only very late in the day, sometimes as late as 9 pm, and does not appear to have been generally followed at all in the north-west. As things stand at the moment, the onus appears to be on UKIP to discover exactly what happened and where, and if it can muster sufficient evidence, to mount a petition to the commission for a re-run. This is a prohibitively expensive task and one, I submit, that should not fall to the affected party but to the commission. I would have hoped that, at the very least, the commission would find out how many ballot papers with UKIP over the back were machine folded and where they were distributed, and how many were folded at polling stations. I would have thought that the commission should also employ a good independent psephologist, if it does not have one in-house, and publish an objective report drawing on all these inputs. If anything like this happens in the future, surely the commission should sort it out, not the damaged party. I look forward to the Minister’s view on these questions.

I also wonder whether the commission should be empowered to oversee and direct regional and local returning officers on the printing, distribution and handling of ballot papers, especially when the list of candidates is as long as it was in many areas on 4 June. I understand that the commission does not think that

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this amendment is necessary, so may I assume that it will be doing all the things I have suggested above under the present Act? If not, how will we get redress? What happens next? I look forward to the Minister’s reply and I beg to move.

Lord Bates: My Lords, I shall comment briefly on the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and, in doing so, I recognise that it is of the utmost importance that people get the opportunity to vote for the party they wish to vote for.

One of the consequences of the ever expanding list of parties seeking election under our proportional representation system for European elections is that the ballot paper is ever lengthening. An interesting point has been raised as to whether someone needs to think—forgive the pun—outside the box on this and consider whether the shape of the current ballot paper is the right one. The noble Lord’s amendment, which I assume is a probing amendment, might not be able to answer the point. If a burden is placed on people to ensure that papers are not folded, it might lead to disputes in polling stations. If a paper were folded there could be a discussion about whether it was done by one of the polling clerks or by the elector. I can foresee many such disputes.

The noble Lord raises a valid point. If he cannot find satisfaction on this issue, he might consider changing his party’s name so that it appears further up the ballot paper. However, I do not wish to be guilty of giving too much assistance to him.

Lord Bach: My Lords, the amendment seeks to ensure that all ballot papers are handed out in polling stations with the paper flat in order to prevent the problem of folded papers potentially hiding the names of candidates from the sight of electors. The amendment would require the Electoral Commission to monitor whether that was done and to report on it, and to assess any adverse impacts if and when it was not done.

Clarity for the elector and a level playing field for the parties are of course important factors, and I fully understand why the noble Lord has brought forward his amendment. It cannot be right that the nature of the production of a ballot paper, or any other element of the administration of an election, should adversely impact on how electors vote or on the results for a party or candidate. In this instance, I understand that the production of the ballot papers with machine folds had caused the bottom of the papers in some areas of two regions—Yorkshire and the Humber and the South-East—to be bent upwards. It is reported to have potentially obscured the names of one or a number of candidates so that they were not apparent to electors as they marked their votes. There are, however, large versions of the ballot paper posted up in all polling stations to assist voters in making their choice.

As I understand it from officials, action was taken to address the issue on 4 June, once the concerns of the noble Lord and his party were raised in the morning. Indeed, I had the pleasure of speaking to the noble Lord that morning in the environs of this Chamber. This included the local returning officers in relevant areas being asked to ensure that ballot papers were

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handed out flat, and then a subsequent notice to that effect was sent out from the Electoral Commission to all returning officers in the UK.

The ballot papers for the elections were very long due to a significant number of candidates standing. For ease of transport and handling, I am told, they were folded to fit into cardboard boxes. That in itself is not a problem; rather, as the Government understand it, it is the position and nature of the folds that may have caused an issue in this instance. In fact, the Electoral Commission’s guidance, as contained in the handbook that it produces for polling station staff, actively suggests that the practice of folding the completed ballot paper before it is put in the ballot box in the polling station is maintained to ensure the secrecy of the vote. So perhaps we should pause before moving to legislate in the manner proposed by the noble Lord. However, I suspect that this is a probing amendment and, if I may, I will treat it as such. I am therefore not going to criticise its wording because that would just be to waste time.

9.30 pm

Notwithstanding what I have said, the Electoral Commission has a statutory duty under Section 5 of the PPER Act to prepare and publish a report on the administration of the European parliamentary elections. I understand that the commission has already undertaken to report on this issue in detail. It is right that we await the outcome of that report and consider the most appropriate way forward in the light of evidence. Pending receipt of that report and consideration of its conclusions, however, we think that the issue is best addressed for the moment by identifying best practice and issuing clear revised guidance on the production, supply and handling of ballot papers. I understand that the commission’s thinking is along these lines.

The noble Lord raises an important issue. We are grateful to him, and we will respond accordingly as a Government once the full facts of the case are available.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken, particularly the Minister. Of course there is nothing wrong with a folded ballot paper, provided that it does not cause the problems that were caused on 4 June. I accept that greater secrecy is achieved by folded ballot papers, and I am also aware that there were large versions of the ballot paper in the polling booths. That did not stop hundreds of people ringing in and saying that they did not understand how to vote for UKIP. It is true, as I think I mentioned in my remarks, that the Electoral Commission issued instructions, and I am most grateful to the Minister for his interest on the day in question. It is also true, though, that those instructions did not appear until very late in the day. I hope that before Third Reading I will be able to get a better idea of what the commission proposes to do in this case. In the mean time, though, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

On a slightly separate subject, I am also extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bates, for suggesting that I should rejoin his party. That, of course, depends on whether the Conservative Party joins me on another matter.

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Amendment 84A withdrawn.

Amendment 85

Moved by Lord Tunnicliffe

85: Before Clause 25, insert the following new Clause—

“Establishment of corporation sole to be CORE keeper

(1) Part 1 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 (c. 22) (co-ordinated on-line record of electors) is amended as follows.

(2) In section 1 (CORE schemes: establishment), in subsection (10), for “must be a public authority” there is substituted “must be—

(a) a corporation sole established by an order under section 3A, or

(b) some other public authority”.

(3) After section 3 there is inserted—

“3A Establishment of corporation sole to be CORE keeper

(1) The Secretary of State may by order establish a corporation sole (“the corporation”) with a view to its being designated by a CORE scheme as the CORE keeper.

(2) The Secretary of State may also by order establish a panel (“the advisory panel”) to provide advice and support to the corporation.

(3) An order under this section may make—

(a) provision for and in connection with the appointment of—

(i) the occupant of the corporation (“the office-holder”);

(ii) directors of the corporation (including non-executive directors);

(iii) one or more deputies to the office-holder;

(iv) other officers or members of staff of the corporation;

(v) members of the advisory panel.

(b) provision about the terms and conditions of appointment of persons referred to in paragraph (a) (including provision about how and by whom those terms and conditions are to be determined and provision as to their approval);

(c) provision about the payment to or in respect of persons referred to in paragraph (a)(i) to (iv) of remuneration, allowances, expenses, pensions, gratuities or compensation for loss of employment;

(d) provision about the payment of allowances and expenses to members of the advisory panel;

(e) provision about the acquisition and disposal by the corporation, and in particular the transfer to the corporation by the Secretary of State, of property, rights and liabilities;

(f) provision about the transfer of staff to the corporation by the Secretary of State;

(g) provision about the functions of the corporation and of the advisory panel, and about delegation of functions of the office-holder;

(h) provision requiring the corporation to consult the advisory panel in relation to particular matters or in particular circumstances;

(i) provision about accounts and reports, including—

(i) provision requiring accounts and reports of the corporation to be laid before Parliament and published;

(ii) provision about auditing of accounts;

(j) provision about the name of the corporation and of the advisory panel;

(k) incidental, supplementary, consequential or transitional provision.

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(4) An order under this section may add such entries to—

(a) the Table in paragraph 3 of Schedule 1 to the Public Records Act 1958,

(b) Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967,

(c) Schedule 1 to the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, or

(d) Schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Assembly Disqualification Act 1975,

as the Secretary of State considers appropriate in consequence of the establishment of the corporation or the advisory panel.

(5) The Secretary of State may make payments to the corporation of such amounts, at such times and on such conditions (if any) as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.

(6) Neither the corporation nor any person referred to in subsection (3)(a)(i) to (iv) nor the advisory panel is to be regarded as a servant or agent of the Crown or as enjoying any status, immunity or privilege of the Crown.”

(4) In section 6 (CORE schemes: procedure)—

(a) in subsection (1), after “section 1” there is inserted “or 3A”;

(b) after subsection (5) there is inserted—

“(6) An order under section 3A must not be made unless the Secretary of State first consults—

(a) the Electoral Commission;

(b) the Information Commissioner.””

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I am moving these amendments today as they are necessary to the successful implementation of the co-ordinated online record of electors, or CORE, scheme. The amendments are essential to ensure that there is authority to create a new non-departmental public body to fulfil the role of the CORE keeper. Until November 2008 it was intended that the Electoral Commission would fulfil this role, and the Electoral Administration Act 2006 makes provision for that. Following the recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, however, the commission is seeking to refocus its functions and concentrate on enhancing its regulatory role. The Government agree with the commission that this is the right thing to do.

Furthermore, the Government have now brought forward our proposals for the introduction of a scheme of individual registration. It is quite likely that we will require a central point through which electors’ personal identifiers, such as national insurance numbers, may be validated with the relevant authority, and CORE may provide that service. Such a role does not currently fit with the Electoral Commission’s redefined regulatory role, but it is important that the public body taking on this role is demonstrably independent from government. In bringing these amendments forward, therefore, we will ensure that the CORE scheme can be delivered without delay, and that the necessary infrastructure can be developed to facilitate the introduction of individual registration.

The new clause that is brought in by Amendment 85 inserts new Section 3A into the 2006 Act to enable the Secretary of State, by order, to establish a new non-departmental public body in the form of a corporation sole with a view to its being designated by a CORE scheme as the CORE keeper.

This type of body is considered appropriate for three reasons. First, it would comprise a single office-holder, meaning that there is an identifiable decision-maker

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for accountability purposes. This is regarded as important because the CORE keeper’s functions under the 2006 Act will include the receiving and processing of electoral registration information from EROs. Secondly, it would achieve the right balance between daily operational independence and accountability to Parliament via the Secretary of State, who would appoint the office-holder. Finally, a single identifiable decision-maker is similar in concept to an electoral registration officer, and is therefore a model that is established and well understood within the electoral administration field.

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