European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill
Baroness Hanham (Conservative)
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 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.