Commons Gate

Postal Voting (HC 400-iii)

ODPM Committee 17 Mar 2004

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Evidence given by Councillor Suzanne Fletcher MBE, Stockton on Tees Borough Council, and Councillor Rosemary Wyeth, Chairman, Codford Parish Council; Grant Thoms, Head of Campaign Unit, Scottish National Party, Geoff Forse, Elections Co-ordinator, Green Party, and Mark Croucher, Policy Research Team, UK Independence Party; Peter Watt, Head of Constitutional and Legal Unit, Labour Party, Gavin Barwell, Operations Director and Registered Treasurer, Conservative Party, and Lord Greaves , Liberal Democrats; Rt Hon. Nick Raynsford MP, Minister of State, Local and Regional Government, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and Christopher Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Q278 Chris Mole: The Electoral Commission propose that there should be staff delivery points for those unable or unwilling to vote by post. Are you in favour of that?

Ms Fletcher: I think that is a good idea in theory but it is going to be extremely difficult because it means that that staff delivery point has got to make sure that the ballots are kept secure for the whole of the time, whether it is 10 or 17 days, that the postal ballot is running, and the costs are going to be enormous but I am perhaps more concerned about the security of that.

Q279 Mr. David Clelland: It has been done before though, has it not, in pilots?

Ms Fletcher: I do not know. It has not been done in Stockton on Tees.

Q280 Mr. David Clelland: But the postal ballot pilots that have been held have had delivery points and I am not aware there has been any particular problem there.

Ms Fletcher: What would happen to the ballot papers overnight? That is the sort of issue electors would be concerned about.

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Q298 Mr. David Clelland: Although you are really quite sceptical about the idea of all-postal ballots the fact is they are popular because turnout goes up quite considerably, or has done, in the pilots that have been held. However, they rarely reach the turnout that general elections see. Does that suggest to you that, when it comes to turnout, it is not so much the method of voting but the issues at stake and, perhaps, the perception of the quality of the candidates?

Ms Fletcher: I think the issues at stake are quite significant. Increasingly people are wondering why they bother voting for us at district level because we cannot do what they want in all sorts of fields - planning, etc. We cannot deliver; we have not got the powers; and so there is a bit of, "I do not know why we are bothering". They save it up for what they call the "big" election. There is a lot more media and the media is a very significant influence on the turnout because it is constantly in people's minds, and of course, when you have the pilots we are quite out of sync and if we are going to have this with the European elections then the national media will be geared up to having a polling day on June 10 and the pilots will be having their election day virtually some time before then.

Ms Wyeth: Our district council elections did turn out a lot of people because we had an independent candidate who had worked for us for a considerable amount of time and a more traditional candidate who was a very nice guy, but why take over from somebody else? So basically people turned out in massive numbers to support the independent literally to give him a mandate. One of the things we are particularly concerned about where I live, however, is we have a problem with our postal service. Our central is in Trowbridge and so our district council paperwork, including planning details that the parish council have to be aware of, comes from Trowbridge, and at one time there was a postal office in Bath and when the actual sorting officer was in Bath we used to get our post just as normal people do but then they moved it to an all-singing-and-dancing one in Bristol --

Q299 Chairman: I do not think we need all the detail. It is enough for us to know that you feel there is a problem with the Post Office.

Ms Wyeth: There is. It is taking three or four days for things to get to us.

Q300 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think all-postal ballots are particularly disadvantageous to independent candidates?

Ms Wyeth: The truth is I have no experience of that and I really would not know, but I do not like the thought of all-postal ballots. At the moment councillors can go along to the count and see our votes being counted and democracy is very evident and very open, and with all-postal ballots I am not happy about the thought of not being able to go along and see the votes and make sure that the process is working. I am not saying it is not working but it is nice to see it working.

Q301 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think that postal ballots favour one political party over another?

Ms Fletcher: No. I have done some research into the result in Stockton and I looked at wards where there had not been any other factors like a local issue, another type of candidate coming along, that type of thing, and I did a comparison between this year and last year and four years before that, and although obviously the turnout was higher the percentage of the vote was more or less the same, and of our wards, two Labour and two Conservative were active councillors with active campaigning going off and I thought that was quite interesting. I did wonder, before we went into it, if it would favour one party or another.

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Mr Forse: We oppose it; we feel that it is too much of a risk. There have been a lot of problems with the postal votes that have already taken place. We believe it should be limited to the smaller regions so it is more contained.

Q304 Mr. David Clelland: What problems?

Mr Forse: In our submission with places like Hackney and Brighton there have been all sorts of problems regarding the secrecy issue. There was a case, for instance, in Hackney in our submission where it was threatened that the churches had a voting day where people took their votes to the church and voted collectively. The idea of course is still to have secret votes, and the whole postal vote system really makes that a lot more difficult. Obviously some people will vote in private but a lot of them are subject to family pressure, particularly if there is a dominant member of the family. Also we believe there is greater pressure from political parties. My constituency is Leicester West which is going to have an inquiry on this, including the MP, so we do have, in principle, problems with postal votes. But there is so much going on at the moment in legislation with the PPERA and everything that it is very difficult for small political parties to keep on top of all of it, and therefore we believe it is best to play safe on this. We would rather have it in a sense in no region and know more first but, if not, then let's do it in the smaller regions rather than the larger regions. There are, I understand, very small local elections in the those regions in the north east; I think there are a lot more in Yorkshire Humberside than in the north west.

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Q330 Mr. David Clelland: There is a point that UKIP raised before about people not being sure whether the Post Office had sent their vote back or not. If there was a rolling register of who had voted people would know whether they voted or whether their vote had been returned or not and conversely, if they had not and if someone else had voted on their behalf.

Mr Croucher: Certainly that is true, and people who make a conscious decision to abstain and not to vote presumably take sufficient interest in a political process to make those checks, but in terms of finding out on a wider basis you do not remove the element of fraud from it. If people cannot be bothered to vote then they are unlikely to check to see whether they have or not.

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Q334 Mr. David Clelland: The Electoral Commission were asked to rank regions in terms of their appropriateness for all-postal ballots, as I am sure you are aware. However, two of the regions it did not positively recommend are being required to have all-postal votes by the Government. Could you comment on that?

Mr Watt: The Electoral Commission said that there were two regions that it was going to recommend and there were a further four that it thought were potentially suitable and it was for the government to decide which of those other regions, if any, were suitable. The Government and subsequently the House of Commons on two occasions has said that four regions should be put forward and the two that the Government put were in addition to those which by the Commission's own analysis were potentially suitable. I think if you look at what the Electoral Commission actually said when it was trying to differentiate between the regions, there were margins between why one region was more suitable than another. Four regions seems to me an eminently sensible size for a postal pilot bearing in mind the postal pilots that have taken place over the last two years. It still means that just under 70 per cent of the population will be voting by traditional methods.

Q335 Mr. David Clelland: Anyone else?

Lord Greaves: Our view is very clear, that on this particular issue the Government should follow the recommendations of the Electoral Commission - and some of us are involved in the discussions going on about that at the moment, which are not yet resolved I have to say. I think our main concern about having all-postal votes in Yorkshire and Humberside and in the North West at this stage is the opportunity that there is for quite substantial electoral fraud in some of the areas which have already ---

Q336 Mr. David Clelland: That has got nothing to do with whether we have two regions or four regions.

Lord Greaves: I think it is.

Q337 Mr. David Clelland: Is it? Why?

Lord Greaves: Because the places where it is believed - and this is certainly well-known locally and believed by us - there have been difficulties with postal voting fraud in recent years are some of the towns in those two regions. That is the problem. In Yorkshire it appears to be mainly concerned with Bradford. In the North West it is a whole range of towns where people have been taking advantage of the postal vote system to conduct elections in a way which does not comply with the law. I am not making any party political points here. I think across these towns, the allegations and what is well-known locally to have been going on, go right across the parties.

Mr Barwell: From our point of view the Government guidance to the Electoral Commission said that the Government was looking for up to three regions. I think, like Lord Greaves, it is curious that the Government has not followed the advice it received from the Commission which was to specify two particular regions. They have not chosen as one of their two additional regions Scotland, and Scotland was the third region in order of suitability that the Electoral Commission recommended. To quote from a letter from Sam Young, the Chairman of the Commission, which is in the public domain, he said: "We were surprised to learn the Bill was to be amended to make four regions. In our view pilots that cover a third of the English electorate in June go further than we think necessary in order to address issues of scalability. There is also, in our view, an increased risk with combined elections and in some cases new boundaries in running on such a large scale. We are not persuaded the risk is outweighed by what we might learn from four regional pilots as opposed to two." The Conservative Party would entirely agree with those comments.

Q338 Mr. David Clelland: Given the problem that the legislation is having as it goes through Parliament and the scale of the proposed pilots, do you have any comments on problems that might arise?

Mr Barwell: We very much agree with the points that the Commission have made. We have had fairly extensive piloting of all-postal ballots in local elections. I think there is an additional issue about scalability, about running a pilot on a wider area. I do not see why there is a need for more than two pilot regions in order to test that issue.

Mr Watt: In terms of fraud it is slightly spurious. When the Electoral Commission have looked into the postal pilots that have taken place and in its evidence in terms of recommending regions it saw no evidence of increased fraud in postal pilots. It said if there was any instance of it then it in itself was not enough to further extend the use of postal voting in elections. I just feel in a sense if we are saying it is okay for two regions, quite frankly, then why not for four regions, particularly when again the Electoral Commission was asked to recommend three but felt it could only recommend two because there were a further four that were potentially suitable and left it up to the Government to decide. The Electoral Commission was asked to give the Government advice. The Government has looked at the advice and has come back with four. As I say, it seems perfectly reasonable if you are trying to extend the amount of knowledge you have about postal voting and the impact it has to look at four regions, particularly when three of the regions within a matter of weeks or months will have to have a postal vote election themselves in terms of the regional referenda. So you are actually asking people in those regions, and more importantly the electoral registration officers to go from operating a system of elections in a traditional way to a postal vote in a matter of weeks. It seems absolute nonsense particularly, as I say, when the Commission could not particularly separate the regions at all.

Q339 Mr. David Clelland: Could I ask you about the principle of all of this. Is the reason for postal pilots because it is more popular and more people vote in postal voting pilots than they do normally at the ballot box, at local elections in particular? Although even at the levels at which they vote it rarely reaches the level of people voting in general elections. Does that suggest that it is not really the method of voting which matters to people but the issues at stake and perhaps their perception of the quality of the candidates?

Lord Greaves: It is quite clear in the pilots which have taken place that the number of ballot papers which have been returned has increased substantially in almost all cases, and there is no dispute about that obviously. There is some dispute about who has returned all those ballot papers. Just because a ballot paper has been returned does not mean that that voter has returned it.

Q340 Mr. David Clelland: You are suggesting in that comment that there is massive fraud if that is the case, surely? If we are getting a huge increase in turn-out and you are putting it down to the fact that we do not know who has returned the ballot paper, it is fraud, is it not?

Lord Greaves: We do not know. The problem is that the research that has taken place into the all-postal pilots has consisted of asking people if they find it more convenient, touchy-feely questions, do you feel good about the system, and so on. Nobody has done any hard research, as far as we can tell, into who is sending back these extra ballot papers and whether they were sent back legitimately or not. It is easy enough research to do because we know who the people are who voted at the previous election, we know who the people are who voted in the pilots. There may then be ten per cent or 15 ten per cent of the electorate, or whatever it is who voted in the second and not the first and it is time that somebody did some research by going to those people and individually tracking down who they are. That is interesting in itself because a lot of anecdotal evidence, and to my knowledge it is anecdotal still, is that a lot of the extra people who vote are people in larger families who otherwise would not vote. So where perhaps two people in a household vote in a normal election and go to the polling station, what is happening in the pilot is the whole of that household, perhaps three, four or five people are voting. Are they legitimate votes or is it the two keen voters voting for everybody else? The fact is we do not know at the moment because nobody has done that research. It is that hard research on facts which are publicly available without in any way compromising the secrecy of the ballot which needs to be done.

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Q371 Mr. David Clelland: Can you tell the Committee why you have ignored the advice of the Electoral Commission and added two regions to the proposed pilots which were not recommended particularly highly?

Mr Leslie: As the Minister for taking the European Parliamentary and Local Elections Pilots Bill through the House of Commons perhaps if I can explain the rationale behind the choice of regions as they came through that might help the Committee. I would not accept the contention that we have gone against the advice of the Electoral Commission although I will explain why we do have a disagreement with the Electoral Commission about the definition of the scale of a pilot. My understanding of the advice that we have been receiving is that our choice is broadly consistent with the advice received from the Electoral Commission about specific regions we have chosen. Last year when we asked the Electoral Commission to give us advice on which regions might be suitable for all-postal pilots for June's combined local and European elections we asked for them to advise on up to three regions and also one which could potentially undertake an e-voting pilot. They reported us to in I think December with the conclusion that they did not feel an e-voting pilot should go ahead and they also rather than simply name three regions had different categories for the regions that were eligible. They had a category where they made positive recommendation and those were for the North East and the East Midlands. Then there was a further category where it was felt that a certain number of regions were potentially suitable but not positively recommended. My understanding of that was that the Electoral Commission were saying these were suitable regions where we could proceed and they were ranked in order by the Electoral Commission, Scotland first, then Yorkshire, then the North West and then the West Midlands. The other remaining regions were then in a separate category defined by the Electoral Commission as not suitable. We then faced a decision in the light of the ranking that came through. We then faced a decision about if we wanted more than the two that were positively recommended where we should look. We approached Scotland. We took on board the Electoral Commission's suggestion that we should enter into greater dialogue with the returning officers there. The electoral administrators in Scotland were very concerned that they might not be able to capably administer all of the postal piloting in Scotland, so being cognisant of that advice we did not feel we should go ahead with that even though it was top of the Electoral Commission's potentially suitable category. The next two regions down in ranking are Yorkshire and the North West. Given that we agreed with the Electoral Commission that the e-voting pilot was not a runner and that the resource envelope, which was effectively the main constraint on how many pilots we could undertake, was therefore a bit more flexible if we were not doing an e-voting pilot that enabled us to look at taking on board both Yorkshire and the North West. The other factor which plays into this, and it would be foolish and rather perverse to ignore it, is the fact that the three northern regions, North East, North West and Yorkshire will and were at the time signalled to be by all-postal voting in the referendum for elected regional government, something that the Electoral Commission themselves had recommended. It was on that basis that we have therefore sought to ensure that we see all-postal voting in those four regions: East Midlands, North East, North West and Yorkshire.

Mr Raynsford: Could I add one other consideration which I think is very important, as Chris Leslie has pointed out we are intending to hold all-postal voting pilots in the referendums in the three northern regions in October 2004. We made that view known in October, we consulted on it and the Electoral Commission responded to our consultation on 17 February this year. In that response they said "The Commission welcomes the intention to hold the regional and the local referendums by all-postal ballots". They then went on to say, and I think this is very important, indeed I shall quote the whole of paragraph 19 of this response of 17 February. They say, "We also note that all-postal voting will be used at four regional electoral pilot schemes at the European Parliamentary and local elections in June 2004. We urge ODPM and the DCA to ensure that the all-postal arrangements for the electoral pilot schemes in June 2004 and the referendums in autumn 2004 are as closely as possible the same, particularly as the three referendum regions are also electoral pilot regions. Any unnecessary inconsistency is likely to cause confusion for electors and for administrators alike". It seems to me that is a very persuasive argument for not having different arrangements in June to the ones that will apply in October because that is likely to cause confusion to administrators and electors, and I wholeheartedly agree with that view of the Electoral Commission. I have to say it is not entirely consistent with the view the Electoral Commission have been expressing about the June pilots.

Q372 Mr. David Clelland: Relations between your department and the Electoral Commission have not been bruised by this?

Mr Raynsford: Relations between the ODPM and the Electoral Commission have always been very good and cordial. Frankly we think they have made a mistake on this. We think they are right in stressing the importance of consistency. They have always supported the measures to improve and extend all-postal pilots. We have had, as you will know, a series of programmes running since the year 2000 which have scaled up, from very modest ones, just a handful of local authorities in 2000 to a very extensive one involving over six million people voting in pilots last May. It was always our intention to continue to pilot as part of a programme to test ways of increasing participation in voting and the Electoral Commission has been very, very supportive of that, we have worked very closely with them and we have a very good relationship.

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Q397 Mr. David Clelland: Having been an election agent myself when local and general elections have been held on the same day and when local government boundary changes have taken place I always have a great deal of respect for electors because they know exactly what they are doing when they go down to vote, and that has generally been the people who have taken the bother to get out of the armchair and go down to the polling stations and they are generally thinking about what they are doing. In the postal vote situation a lot of people are going to be voting who may not have voted before - by implication that is why the poll goes up. This year we are going to face a situation in these four regions where we have the all-postal votes; in the metropolitan areas there are going to be all-out elections because of boundary changes, so voters are going to be asked to vote for up to three candidates on a ballot paper which might have as many to 15 to 21 names on it; at the same time they are going to be voting in new wards, which sometimes have new names, which could itself add to some difficulty; they are also going to be asked to vote in European elections, which is on a proportional representational system; and then when it comes to referenda in three of those regions in the autumn, again an all-postal vote, and in the Shire areas they are going to have multiple choices to make about the local government structure if they vote for a regional government. Is this likely to lead to any confusion in the minds' of the electorate?

Mr Raynsford: Can I answer that and say you started off rightly by saying you had great respect for the electorate and their ability to make their own mind up and reach a decision. I have similar respect for the electorate and provided the issues are presented clearly - and there is a real issue there about ensuring that the options available in the respective elections are well presented and clearly presented, and we are very keen to ensure that happens - then I do not feel anxiety about this. I do notice, and you will be very well aware of this, that Gateshead has been one of the pioneers in all-postal voting. It was in 2000, the very first year, and it had a spectacular increase in that year, I think to 54% in the participation rates compared with an average of half of that in previous traditional elections and has subsequently followed up in 2002 and 2003 and has sustained that high level of participation of over 50% of the electorate. That seems to me to be pretty clear testimony to the fact that people in your area and indeed in many others have found the option of all-postal voting very helpful and valuable.

Q398 Mr. David Clelland: I have no problem with that, it is just there are multiple choices that people are going to have to make because of all of these circumstances coming together. For instance might it not have been better to put the local government boundary changes off until next year or the year after rather than bring everything in on top of everyone at once?

Mr Raynsford: The counter argument is that when people come to take their decision on whether they want to vote for an elected regional assembly they should be aware about the implications if they live in a two-tier local government area of local government reorganisation.

Q399 Mr. David Clelland: I was not referring to those local government boundary changes, I am talking about the ones in the metropolitan areas which are going to take place in June, they could have been put off, two years' time would not have made much difference, would it?

Why do we have to pile all of this on top of the electors at once?

Mr Leslie: As far as the elector is concerned they will always be in a ward regardless of changes.

Q400 Mr. David Clelland: Normally they vote for one candidate and this year they will be asked to vote for three.

Mr Leslie: You will be delighted to know we have made decisions about the colour coding of different ballot papers, the European ballot paper will be white, the local government principal authorities will be of a grey scale, which means a slight shade of grey, and if there are any parish council elections they will be lilac.

Q401 Chairman: How do blind people tell the difference?

Mr Leslie: I hope they will be able to get in touch with the returning officers and get somebody to come and assist with a tactile voting device.

Q402 Mr. David Clelland: Will the local government ballot papers be grouped by political party or in alphabetical order? Would it not make it easier for people to have them grouped?

Mr Raynsford: It is traditional for the grouping to by alphabetical order. I am conscious there have been some concerns about advantages to those people whose names begin with the letter "A", and as somebody whose name begins towards the end of the alphabet, certainly lower than my colleagues, I can see merit in testing alternatives. It has been put to me there might be merit in grouping by political parties.

Q403 Mr. David Clelland: Coming back to postal voting again, when are we likely to see postal voting in a General Election or a pilot in a General Election?

Mr Leslie: We have thought about moving from the local pilot experience now to the regional to look at increasing the level of the scale in which all-postal voting is sustainable and can work properly. We have said that we would not envisage a General Election, certainly before 2006, having what is known as the multi-channel option approach of either electronic voting or all-postal voting, not least because General Elections have a very short notification period and there would not be the long preparation periods that we have had for these local elections and European elections for this June. We have said that we do not envisage any multi-channel General Election until after 2006.

Q404 Mr. David Clelland: The Electoral Commission recommended the removal of the declaration of identity but we have had concern expressed by some groups about the possibility of fraud, how do you balance these two?

Mr Leslie: Last night in the debate after the House of Lords insisted on retaining the declaration of identity, in other words where a witnessed signature has to verify the identity of the person casting their vote, the government decided that we need to concede on that particular point and we conceded amendments that were approved in the House of Commons last night. The June local and European elections will now have that witnessed signature declaration of identity within them. We did that reluctantly because of course that was against the advice of the Electoral Commission, which is quite interesting given that this was a matter that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in the House of Lords were adamant was absolutely necessary, you must have the declaration of identity, of course flying in the face of advice from the Electoral Commission. Nevertheless advice is advice and Parliament and government decides. We do not feel that having that declaration of identity brings overriding harm to the general principle of all-postal voting so we felt that was a concession we could put in. We will have to look at it again for future elections because the advice from the Electoral Commission is that if an individual is likely to fraudulently sign their own ballot paper then it does not take a massive step for them to also sign the counter-signature as well. It may even be an inhibition to the fairest possible voting system in that it forces an individual to disclose to a third party that they intend to cast their vote. They have to share with another person the fact that they are intending to return a ballot paper by having a requirement for a counter-signature. If an individual can cast their vote on their own without sharing that with somebody else then the Electoral Commission advise that would be a better arrangement. For the time being we will continue with that declaration of identity which is the current practice in the normal postal voting on demand arrangements.

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Q420 Mr. David Clelland: Can I ask what research you have done on the costs of all-postal elections as opposed to conventional elections? Would you not agree with the Electoral Commission that there ought to be a government funded central pot to pay for elections, particularly as this can be fairly burdensome on local councils like parish and town councils?

Mr Leslie: Our estimate is that of course all-postal voting is more expensive and we think it is worth it because it gets greater turnout. My colleague is helpfully pointing out that at the 2003 local elections the cost per voter in an all-postal scheme ranged from 1.42 to 5.00 per elector compared to just over 1.00 for a traditional election, so we do have an estimate of that and we have put aside a certain amount of resource. As I said at the outset, that helped provide an envelope determining how many regions we could pilot in and we feel we can afford four regions.

Mr Raynsford: I think it is true to say that Jeremy Beecham, in giving evidence to you a short while ago, emphasised that although there was a greater cost involved in all-postal, the gap between the cost of all-postal and traditional elections was reducing and there is the very obvious point about the benefit to democracy of ensuring a significantly higher level of turnout.

Q421 Mr. David Clelland: Oh, absolutely, I would accept that point, but we have had evidence from the National Association of Local Councils that it is a particular problem for first tier councils. Is that something you have looked at?

Mr Raynsford: It is in the light of the additional costs that we have agreed to make available the funding, the 13 million or so that we made available jointly between DCA, ODPM and the Treasury to ensure that all-postal voting could be conducted, or pilots could be conducted, in June this year without imposing new burdens on local authorities.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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