New Clause 4 — Voting procedure

Bills Presented — House of Lords Reform Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 27th June 2012.

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‘(1) Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 (c. 2) (parliamentary elections rules) is amended as follows.

(2) In rule 37 (voting procedure) after paragraph (6) insert—

“(7) A voter who is in the polling station or in a queue outside the polling station for the purpose of voting at the time specified for the close of the poll shall be entitled to apply for a ballot paper under paragraph 1 above and a ballot paper shall be delivered and the voter entitled to vote in accordance with this rule.”.’.

(Mrs Laing.)

Currently, voters who are in a queue at a polling station at 10 pm but who have not yet been issued with their ballot paper are unable to cast their vote. This amendment would allow for ballot papers to be issued to any registered voter who is in the polling station or in a queue outside the polling station at 10 pm, in order that they may then cast their vote.

Brought up, and read the First time .

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring new clause 4 before the Committee. As is explained on the amendment paper, the clause would allow for ballot papers to be issued to any registered voter who is in the polling station or in a queue immediately outside the polling station at 10 pm or whatever time the poll closes, in order that they may then cast their vote. The Committee will recall what happened at the last general election, when more than 1,000 voters in 16 constituencies were denied the right to vote.

As the law stands, voters who are in a queue at a polling station at 10 pm but who have not yet been issued with their ballot paper are unable to cast their vote. Both the Electoral Commission and the House of Lords Constitution Committee have called on the Government to change the law to ensure that voters are not disfranchised as some were at the last election. There is precedence for such a provision because the Scottish Government recently changed the law for local elections in Scotland to allow for voters in queues at polling stations at 10 pm on the close of poll to cast their ballots.

I take the findings of the Electoral Commission very seriously in this respect, and the main factors that the commission identified as having contributed to the problems in 2010 were that there was evidence of poor planning assumptions in some areas; that there was use of unsuitable buildings and inadequate staffing arrangements at some polling stations; that contingency arrangements were sometimes not properly triggered or were unable to cope with demand at the close of poll; and also that current restrictive legislation, and therefore the presiding officer having no ability to apply discretion, meant that those who were present in queues at polling stations at the close of poll, were not able to be issued with a ballot paper.

The main conclusions of the Electoral Commission published in May 2010 recommended that the law must be changed to allow people queuing at polling stations at 10 pm to be able to vote. The commission also noted that local authorities and acting returning officers must take steps to improve their planning—we all agree with that—and must review their schemes for polling districts and polling stations to make sure that they allocate the right numbers of staff and electors to each polling station. All of these practical measures should be taken, and I hope now will be taken as a result of the fact that we saw 1,000 people at the last general election being deprived of their votes. In addition, the structure for delivering elections must be reformed to ensure better co-ordination and consistency, and, as we have debated during the last few days in other parts of this important Bill, returning officers should be more accountable for the way they manage elections. Nevertheless, I want to give the House the opportunity to consider whether we here in Parliament ought to add this clause to the Bill in order to give not just the clear direction but the power to a presiding officer to act in the way I describe in new clause 4, which will ensure that everybody who is present at the right time at close of poll should be allowed to cast their vote.

We do not want to discourage people from voting. We are in the business of getting as many people to vote as possible. We should not have artificial restrictions that stop people voting when they turn up to do so. At the same time, if an unforeseen incident occurs, which means that some people are at the polling station but do not have their ballot paper in their hand, the presiding officer should have a certain amount of discretion, within very strict parameters that I am setting out here, to allow people to cast their votes. It cannot be right that we in Parliament should take action that stops people voting when they have a legitimate right to do so. It goes against everything that we are trying to do in expanding democracy and encouraging people to vote and have a say in the government of our country.

At present a ballot paper must be correctly issued to a voter who applies for one before 10 pm. Issuing a ballot paper, as colleagues will know—we do pay attention to what happens in polling stations—is not instantaneous. There is a strict process that must be followed. It includes: calling out the number and name of the elector, as stated in the copy of the electoral register; marking the number on the corresponding number list of ballot papers issued; and placing a mark in the register against the elector’s number to indicate that a ballot paper has been received. All those steps have to be taken carefully and the presiding officer must ensure that they are all taken properly.

Therefore, it takes a minute or two to issue a ballot paper, but if there are several people in the queue, those minutes can mount up, and if there is a problem in the run-up to 10 o’clock it might take more than the few minutes to issue the necessary ballot papers. The steps that must be carried out when issuing a ballot paper necessarily affect the speed with which a polling station can deal with voters, and these practical matters must be taken into account when the House considers this legislation.

At present there is no provision for extending the polling time or issuing ballot papers beyond 10 pm, except of course in the case of riot or open violence, when polling would be adjourned to the following day. I am not talking about exceptional circumstances when there are riots or open violence at polling stations; I am talking about circumstances, such as those that occurred at the last general election, when people are genuinely present at the polling station, perhaps at 10 minutes to 10, yet there were so many that the ballot papers could not be issued.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham 4:00 pm, 27th June 2012

What happens under the current arrangements if there is suddenly a medical incident, such as a car accident, outside a polling station at a quarter to 10 and the police have to secure the area while the ambulance men deal with anyone who is hurt? Would the polling station close at 10 regardless, because that seems a bit silly?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. That is exactly the sort of contingency that I am asking the House to consider in new clause 4. At present, if an incident occurs that prevents a potential voter entering a polling station or slows down their progress there from the car park, the tube or train station, the bus stop or the zebra crossing, nothing can be done about it.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

I agree. If the presiding officer is standing at the door of the polling station and sees that there are people just about to come in at 10 minutes to 10 but they are being prevented from doing so by some very good and unforeseen reason, and if he knows that when they come in it might be two minutes to 10 and there is no way 10 or 15 ballot papers can be issued in two minutes, under the current arrangements he can do nothing about it. He has to say, “Too bad. That happened and you lose your vote.” That seems entirely undemocratic and simply wrong.

This matter has been considered by the courts, which have held that

“where a ballot paper has been duly issued to an elector that elector should be allowed to complete it and put it in the ballot box provided this is done without undue delay. However”— and this is the crux of the matter—

“no ballot papers should be issued after the time of close of poll.”

So if a person is standing in a queue of five or six people—it does not have to be a crowd—at five minutes to 10, and in front of them someone is having difficulty identifying their name, or is perhaps suffering from a disability that makes it difficult for them to give their name quickly to the polling clerk—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

Yes. My hon. Friend once again comes up with an interesting contingency. Supposing someone at the front of the queue collapses or becomes ill and attention is thus diverted, the five or six people who are legitimately standing there at 10 or five minutes to 10, expecting without any problem to be given their ballot paper, cannot be given one if the clock strikes 10. That just cannot be right.

The courts—this is a statement of the law at present—have ruled:

“We are of the opinion that the true dividing line is the delivery of the ballot paper to the voter. If he has had a ballot paper delivered to him before”—

10 pm—

“he”—

I say “he”, because I think that the judgment was delivered before the female of the species was entitled to vote. Let us therefore bring this judgment of the courts up to date: when I say “he”, I mean “he” or “she”.

The judgment continues, finding that

“he is entitled in our judgment to mark that ballot paper and deposit it in the ballot box before the ballot box is closed and sealed. This interpretation of the enactment…appears to us to give a simple, definite, and just rule of procedure… As the polling commences at”—

7 am— by the officials, and the machinery being ready then to supply ballot papers to voters who apply for them, so in our view the poll must be no longer ‘kept open’ beyond”—

10 pm—

“the officials then ceasing to supply ballot papers to applicants.”

That position, as stated in court, was confirmed most recently by an election court in Northern Ireland, which in 2001 stated:

“It was the duty of the presiding officer to close the poll at 10pm by ceasing to issue any more voting papers. So long as voting papers were issued by 10pm, however, if electors marked them and deposited them in the boxes without delay the votes were valid.”

The Electoral Commission, in guidance published for the Scottish elections in May this year, issued strict directions to presiding officers on what exactly should happen. Some people have argued that it would not be possible to determine where a queue ends and where exactly the cut-off point should be for people who are entitled to vote, but that criticism has to be nonsense. The presiding officer—surely, in a position of responsibility—will be able either to close the door or to usher people inside the polling station, and to say exactly where the cut-off point should be.

The guidance states:

“If there is a queue shortly before 10 pm”— the presiding officer should—

“find out if anyone waiting is delivering a postal vote so that they can hand in the postal vote before the 10pm deadline; Make sure that nobody joins the queue after 10pm; If there is a queue at 10pm and if the polling station can accommodate all the electors in the queue, ask electors to move inside the polling station and close the doors behind the last elector in the queue”.

That is so simple. The guidance continues:

“If the polling station is too small to accommodate all the electors in the queue, a member of the polling station team should mark the end of the queue by positioning themselves behind the last elector in the queue”— again, terribly simple and straightforward. The presiding officer, the guidance notes, should also:

“Explain to anyone who arrives after 10 pm and tries to join the queue that the poll has closed and that, by law, they cannot now join the queue to be issued with a ballot paper.”

All that is terribly simple and straightforward.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

Does the hon. Lady agree that under the Bill a police officer, or a local community support officer acting with the same powers as the police, could be in attendance so that if there were any dispute they could ensure that people knew exactly where the end of the queue was?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. However, as I am sure the Committee will appreciate, this is not about an outbreak of violence, a riot, a demonstration, or unruly electors behaving in a somehow inappropriate fashion; it is about decent, law-abiding potential voters who turn up at a polling station before 10 o’clock, or whenever the close of poll might be, and find that because of some unforeseen contingency they do not get as far as having their ballot paper issued by that time.

Let me explain the difference that new clause 4 would make. At the moment, most people think that if they are in the polling station at 10 o’clock, they will get their ballot paper and be able to vote. That is a reasonable position, and the new clause would make it law. It is an unreasonable position to say that someone who has arrived at a polling station ahead of 10 o’clock, and for some unforeseen reason does not have a ballot paper issued, cannot still have one issued for a few minutes after that time. Nothing in the new clause would mean that the poll stayed open beyond 10 past or quarter past 10. We are talking about a very small amount of time for the sake of fairness. In the 2010 general election, 1,000 people were denied the opportunity to cast their vote when they had every right to do so. I am simply asking the House to bring the law up to date in order to give everybody who has the right to vote the chance to cast that vote.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury)

On a point of order, Mr Evans. I wonder whether you have had notice that a Treasury Minister intends to come to the House to make an urgent statement on the news concerning the alleged market manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate, for which Barclays has today been fined a record sum by the Financial Services Authority. The mortgage interest rates of hundreds of thousands of our constituents up and down the country depend on LIBOR. We need to know how widespread this market manipulation is across the financial services and banking sectors, and whether a Minister will come urgently to the House to talk about how the Government intend better to regulate the LIBOR-setting process.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I have been given no indication that any Treasury Minister intends to come to the House to make a statement, but I am sure that his point has been heard by those on the Treasury Bench.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. It is also a pleasure to listen to Mrs Laing. She is a doughty campaigner and defender of the values of the British constitution that she holds so dear, and it is incumbent on the Committee to listen carefully to what she has to say on these matters.

The hon. Lady outlined the purpose of new clause 4 in great detail and stated that it has the support of the Electoral Commission and the House of Lords Constitution Committee. The reason for the new clause relates to the problems on 6 May 2010, when 27 polling stations in 16 constituencies experienced problems with queuing in the period leading up to 10 o’clock and beyond. The constituencies included Birmingham, Ladywood; Hackney South and Shoreditch; Hackney North and Stoke Newington; Liverpool, Wavertree; Milton Keynes North; Sheffield, Hallam; and my constituency of Penistone and Stocksbridge. In total, more than 40,000 polling stations were in use during the 2010 elections. As well as the 650 parliamentary elections, there were local elections and mayoral elections.

Just over 1,200 voters were affected by the problems, leading to just over 500 complaints to the Electoral Commission within a fortnight of the elections. The strength of feeling was high. For example, 100 or more students at Sheffield, Hallam staged a protest after 10 o’clock, having been denied a vote. If that protest had carried on, perhaps the mechanisms to which the hon. Lady referred would have been activated. We are glad that they were not.

Given all that we have heard and read in recent years about voter disengagement, it is heartening that people cared so much about exercising their right to vote that they were prepared to queue. In Sheffield, Hallam and in my constituency, they did so in the rain. That defied all the pundits, who said repeatedly in the years before the 2010 election that people were disengaged from politics, that they were not bothered and that turnouts were going down. In fact, the 2010 election saw an increase in turnout. For that, we should be grateful. This House should feel an obligation to ensure that arrangements are in place to avoid any citizen ever again being denied the right to vote in any election.

The Electoral Commission report on the May 2010 problems identified two key problems. First, in the constituencies where problems were reported, there were common factors in the failure of returning officers to make sufficient arrangements for the elections. Despite their being issued with numerous publications detailing guidance, checklists and guidebooks, the planning processes adopted were inadequate. In particular, the plans were unrealistic and inappropriate, and in some cases were based on unreliable assumptions. On top of that, there was inadequate risk management and inadequate contingency plans were put in place in the constituencies that were affected. For example, voters experienced problems with the space in some polling stations, because they were small, cramped and unsuited to dealing with a steady stream of voters. That was not the primary cause of the problems, but where those conditions existed they impeded the throughput of voters and limited attempts to deal with the building queues.

Secondly, in several of the areas where there were problems, the allocation of voters per polling station exceeded the ratio recommended by the Electoral Commission. The recommended ratio was one polling station per 2,500 voters. In some instances, the latter figure was as high as 4,500. Staffing levels also varied considerably across the piece, with some returning officers providing only one presiding officer and one polling clerk, despite having voter ratios that demanded a much more generous staffing allocation. The commission lays down guidelines on the numbers of clerks and voters allocated to each station.

The combination of elections also made things difficult.

Photo of John Leech John Leech Liberal Democrat, Manchester, Withington

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way on that point. I have argued strongly that we should never have two elections on the same day when that includes a general election. It is not so much of a problem to have local elections and another election on the same day because the turnout is naturally much lower than for a general election. A general election should be a stand-alone election. We should never have local elections and a general election on the same day.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Like me, the hon. Gentleman represents a constituency that experienced problems. The commission makes the point that the combination of a general election and other elections might have created problems. In some London constituencies, there were local and parliamentary elections, and mayoral elections. That was given as an explanation for the queuing problems, but the commission has pointed out that there were no such problems in some constituencies that had more than one election. I do not believe that having two elections on the same day is the root cause, although it can make things more difficult. Having two elections on the same day certainly made the count more difficult—I did not get my result until 7 o’clock in the morning.

Photo of John Leech John Leech Liberal Democrat, Manchester, Withington

There was also a problem in areas where a large number of people were entitled to vote in one election but not in another. Polling station staff had to explain that to people, which slowed the process.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point—I believe he is referring to European nationals. We would have to rely on the commission for evidence of large concentrations of European voters in any one constituency or polling district in order to make that case.

Perhaps the most astonishing failure of all is that almost all the returning officers identified by the commission as experiencing problems with queues had underestimated turnout. In some cases, predictions were based on local election turnouts since 2006; in others, the turnout from the 2005 general election was taken into account. That was despite guidance from the commission—given well in advance of the election—that plans for elections should be based on an assumption of a higher turnout in 2010 than in recent elections, including the 2005 general election. I find it astounding that any returning officer could assume that the turnout in a general election would be at local election levels.

Finally, the monitoring of polling station performance on the day and the plans for drawing down additional staffing were not robust, and some staff at stations failed to notify returning officers of problems early enough. By any calculation the commission’s report demonstrates the need to improve planning and processes for elections, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest pointed out. The commission recommended in the report that returning officers should review their approach to planning for adequate polling station and staffing provision at future elections, and made it clear that it would be more prescriptive on those points in its guidance.

The report also made it clear that there had been an unprecedented late surge in voters at some polling stations, to such an extent that extra staffing would probably not have guaranteed that all voters would get their ballot papers. That is the key point—the hon. Lady made it very successfully.

The commission therefore recommended the changes laid out in new clause 4 and pointed out that the restrictive approach of the UK to the close of the poll does not compare well with electoral legislation in many other countries. In New Zealand, for example, all electors who are inside the polling station at the close of the poll are entitled to vote. In Canada, I believe that everyone in the polling station or queuing is entitled to vote. That is the approach that we want to adopt through new clause 4, which is designed to implement the second part of the recommendation in the commission’s report.

I will briefly illustrate the provision’s value by rehearsing the problems experienced in two constituencies on that day two years ago. In Birmingham, Ladywood, 2,678 electors were eligible to vote at the polling station where the problem materialised. Turnout for the election increased to 40%—up from between 12% and 18% in the previous three years—but the station had just one clerk and one presiding officer. Just before 10 o’clock, the presiding officer asked staff to confirm the time on their watches. This is how we run elections in this country! One staff member’s watch was about 5 minutes slower than the others’, but the presiding officer took it as the correct time and issued ballot papers until that particular watch said 10 o’clock. At that point, the presiding officer sealed the ballot boxes and closed the polling station. The police were eventually called to disperse the crowd. Can we wonder!

It is estimated that between 65 and 100 electors, some inside and some outside the polling station, were turned away without having been issued with ballot papers. If we take the time according to the slowest watch in the room as the time at which we close the ballot, surely we are making a nonsense of the 10 o’clock cut-off point. Does it not indicate more than anything else that legislation needs to be more flexible in order to ensure that everyone at the polling station gets the right to vote. That is a really important point.

At Sheffield, Hallam, the problem was quite significant and involved three polling stations, at which many voters were denied the right to vote. St John’s parish church polling station in Ranmoor—a place I know well—was allocated 4,469 electors, excluding postal voters, and had one presiding officer and three clerks, with additional staff deployed in the evening. In the polling stations that had a problem, 480 electors were affected, most of them at St John’s. This was the polling station at which a protest was staged at 10 o’clock, with 100 students refusing to move and the police having to be called in.Despite the best efforts of the Sheffield returning officer to ensure that this polling station, which had a large allocation of voters, had four members of staff, and despite the deployment of extra resources, nothing could be done to get everybody in to vote. That suggests that new clause 4 would be a vital change to our electoral legislation.

It is obvious that we need to change the law in accordance with new clause 4. The constituents of many Members were denied the right to vote. My hon. Friend Meg Munn has consistently raised this issue in the House and is a co-signatory to the new clause. As I said, I had 70 voters denied the right to vote in Penistone. We all feel strongly that this needs to be addressed. It is not just about students. Penistone is hardly awash with students: it is a little market town, on the edge of the Peak district, with an engineering past. It does not have a big, posh student population.

Sheffield, Hallam, on the other hand, has many student voters, 340 of whom were turned away after 10 o’clock that night. On the day following the election, Friday 7 May, Mr Clegg, now the Deputy Prime Minister, made a statement in which he said that he shared the “bitter dismay” of voters who had to wait in long queues and that it

“should never, ever happen again in our democracy”.

At a meeting with constituents on 21 May at the King Edward VII school in his constituency, the Deputy Prime Minister was asked about the problem again, and he quite rightly described it as “a fiasco”. Responding to one student in the audience, he said:

“I share your anger. I can’t think of a better illustration of how broken our politics is.”

One thing I think we can say for certain about our Deputy Prime Minister is that understatement is definitely not his style.

The problems experienced on 6 May 2010 did not illustrate a broken politics, as the Deputy Prime Minister suggested, but they do illustrate a need to change the law to make sure that this never happens again. I hope and believe that Members of all parties will recognise that and support new clause 4. Given its cross-party elements and cross-party support for its provisions, I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister and his Government will feel able to fulfil at least one of his promised to his constituents. I conclude on that note and look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 4:30 pm, 27th June 2012

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute. I rise with some trepidation to debate “clause 4”, but it nevertheless has my wholehearted support. I want to provide a few anecdotes in support of the new clause. In my view, the issues it deals with are not confined to the last general election, as they have been going on for many years. On the basis of experience of fighting elections in my part of London over 38 years, I know that turnout will double between the opening of the poll and 6 o’clock in the evening and the period after that until the close of the poll.

In my part of the world, many people travel long distances or have small shops that they keep open for quite extended hours. At the conclusion of their work, they travel back and join long queues to seek to exercise their right to vote. This is not confined to one or two polling stations, as it applies to many. This has been a problem for a long time.

The 2004 London mayoral election and the European elections were held on the same day, causing dramatic confusion in polling stations and leading to serious problems, with long queues forming—certainly in my neck of the woods. Some people were confused about what they were voting for, but the need to issue them with large numbers of ballot papers caused extensive delays.

In the London mayoral elections of 2008, the number of Londoners wanting to vote for Boris Johnson as Mayor and to kick out Ken Livingstone was so overwhelming that it led to huge queues in polling stations, particularly in areas where large turnouts were not expected, causing further problems. In the general election of 2010, because of the activities of both political parties—certainly in my constituency—people regularly had to queue for an hour to exercise their votes during the day.

The presiding officer has discretion over what constitutes a polling station. If it is a Portakabin, it is fairly straightforward, but if it is a school the question arises of where the polling station begins and ends—is it the school gates or the school hall? That causes further consternation.

The key point is this, however. When people are keen to go to the polling station to express their views by voting, it is vital for them to be able to get there and to queue for however long it takes for the ballot papers to be issued, and for however long it takes those ahead of them in the queue who have also sought to be there validly before the 10 pm watershed to register their own votes. I can think of nothing more frustrating for someone who has travelled a long distance back from work, has arrived at home, has said “Oh yes, I must go and register my vote”, has reached the polling station at 9.45 pm, and has joined the queue than to be denied his or her vote because the queue is so long, and to be told by the presiding officer “Very sorry; you arrived too late.” We can imagine the reactions of people who have travelled long distances or closed their shops quite late in the day in order to go and vote.

The problem has been raised with me many times in connection with polling stations in north-west London. I think it important for us to set in stone in the Bill that if someone has reached the polling station, validly, before 10 pm and is in the queue, that person’s vote will be recorded. I do not think it acceptable for presiding officers throughout the country to be able to interpret the position in different ways. If a presiding officer says “According to my watch it is 9.59 pm so I shall allow you to vote, although the time is actually 10.10 pm”, that is not a valid way of operating.

It cannot be right that elections could be won or lost on the basis of a presiding officer’s judgment as to what the time is. That is clearly not what Parliament wants, or what the people want. What we want is absolute clarity, so that there is the minimum wriggle room for a presiding officer in the interpretation of the rules and the maximum capability for people to register their votes validly in the way that they wish.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Does my hon. Friend agree that presiding officers should be given a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to deciding exactly where their polling station is, and should have enough flexibility to be able to say “In the interests of democracy, I should make this decision”, or does he believe that the legislation should be so prescriptive that it lays down in black and white exactly what should happen? I tend to think that it would be quite good for the presiding officer to have a bit of wriggle room, and to have a say in what should happen when unforeseen circumstances occur.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I ask my hon. Friend to imagine this scenario. A person gets home late, arrives at the polling station, parks in the school car park and dashes through the doors of the school at 9.59 pm, but of course the polling station is in a hall further on. The person then gets lost because the signage is not good enough, or, worse still, is misdirected and goes to the wrong polling station, because there is often more than one in the same building. Whose fault is that? It is the person’s fault, because he or she is the voter.

Such questions are difficult, but what is clear is that the law should say that if the voter has arrived in the polling station, or in the queue at the polling station, his or her vote should be recorded. What should not happen is that a person arrives at the place where the ballot papers are issued, only to be told “I am sorry, but it is one minute past 10 and we have closed the polling station, so you are not allowed to vote”—although the person has been in the polling station and validly queuing for 15 or 20 minutes, or perhaps even half an hour. That is what needs to be clarified. There should be the minimum discretion in that respect, but the maximum discretion for the voter.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s description of the incident that might occur. I should make it clear to the Committee that new clause 4 is not intended to help someone who runs into a polling station at one minute to 10. Each individual has a responsibility to leave enough time in which to find the polling station. The new clause is intended to help people who arrive at the polling station at 10 minutes to 10 thinking that they have plenty of time, but, as a result of some incident that then occurs—there may, for instance, be too many people or bad organisation—the ballot paper is not issued at 10 minutes to 10. I think my hon. Friend would agree that that is quite an important distinction.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

I agree. The most important thing is that people who have arrived at the polling station well before the time deadline and have formed a queue and are waiting for their ballot papers to be issued should be allowed to register their vote.

We are not only talking about general elections. In 2014, for example, there will be European and local elections, probably on the same day. There are often multiple elections, and further problems can arise in such circumstances. In a general election, turnout tends to be high, of course, but these problems can occur even in local elections, when turnout is lower. We, as democrats, must seek to ensure that people are given the optimal opportunity to register their votes.

It is often not appreciated that we have huge numbers of differentials in elections, in that different people are entitled to vote in different elections. In the 2010 elections, in my constituency 10% of the voting population were from eastern Europe and were not eligible to vote in the general election but were eligible to vote in the local elections. That caused substantial confusion at certain polling stations, particularly later in the day. People were arguing about whether they should have a ballot paper. That can add to delays in issuing ballot papers to others, so people who have left sufficient time to cast their votes can find that they are not issued with ballot papers. That is fundamentally wrong. I want us to give a strong steer in law to returning officers about what they should do in such circumstances, and there should be the minimum of discretion for interpretation.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

Sadly, in the 6 May 2010 elections my constituency was seriously affected by events that were similar to those that unfolded in other constituencies, and people were, understandably, very upset. I am a strong supporter of new clause 4, therefore. As there is cross-party support for it, I hope the Government will agree to add it to the Bill.

Three elections were taking place in Hackney South and Shoreditch on that day. Our elected mayor was up for re-election, and we had the local council elections and the general election. As a result there were three different ballot papers, each of a different type. One required electors to vote for three individuals, the general election was a first-past-the-post election with one vote to be cast, and there was a preferential system for the mayoral elections. That sometimes required some explaining. Hackney has learned lessons from that experience, which I shall discuss later.

Mr Leech suggested that general elections should always be held as stand-alone elections. I disagree. Although we are all democrats and are fond, especially in this House, of people voting, we have seen in respect of the timing of the European elections, which are usually held a month after the May elections, that it can be difficult to persuade people that it is in their interests to come out and vote twice in quick succession. There is also a huge additional cost attached to holding elections at separate times when they could be doubled up. There is therefore much sense in holding elections at the same time.

Of the six polling stations that were affected in the borough of Hackney five were in my constituency: the Ann Tayler children’s centre, which experienced some of the worst problems, the Trinity centre, St John the Baptist primary school in Hoxton, the Comet day nursery, and Our Lady and St Joseph Roman Catholic primary school in De Beauvoir. Those polling stations did not have a huge number of electors, however. My hon. Friend Angela Smith suggested some polling stations were over-optimistic and covered a larger number of electors than they could cope with, but that was not the case in Hackney. In my constituency, in each instance the total number was less than 2,500, which falls well within the tolerance levels.

In some polling stations there had been queues at other times of the day, but by about 9 o’clock—and certainly by 9.15 or 9.30—there were serious issues. One extra staff member was deployed at the Ann Tayler centre at 9 pm, where there were particular problems, but, a whole hour before the close of polling, that was not enough to deal with the scale of the difficulty or the queues. That is why I will discuss what Hackney council has done more generally to try to solve this problem.

Any estimate of the number of those affected is just an estimate, because some people went home disappointed and may never have told us about their problems. However, between 200 and 300 people seem to have been affected at these six polling stations, the vast majority of whom were at the Ann Tayler centre, where 134 people were turned away. A small protest took place. Happily, there was no violence, but there was a sit-in by some of the electors who were, understandably, very frustrated that they had not been able to exercise their democratic vote.

Of course the presiding officers were approaching the returning officer for advice, and the only advice that could be given was that where someone did not have a ballot paper, they could not vote. I will not repeat all the excellent arguments put forward by Mrs Laing and my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, but clearly that advice makes no sense. After all, these people were in the polling station, which is quite a big one. There is a long distance between where people enter the building and the actual polling booths, as there is at Our Lady and St Joseph. It made no sense to those people that they lost their vote and they were understandably very upset.

Hackney’s handling of the situation did raise some issues. I was impressed that the returning officer gave up some of the money he normally receives; returning officers, as chief executives, get extra money for managing elections. He acknowledged the errors, and I give him credit for doing so. He met me—I believe on the Monday after the election—to put up his hands and say, “We got some things wrong and this is what we are now doing to resolve them.” From the moment that the election problems started, he began planning for the next set of elections.

The returning officer has introduced changes, for which I give him credit. He is increasing the number of staff recruited who are trained and accredited properly to work on elections. He has been looking outside the town hall as well, to bring in Hackney residents, and has been overwhelmed with people’s interest in participating in our democratic process. That is a good thing. He is also increasing the number of polling stations, doubling the number of some stations and limiting the number of electors per station—my hon. Friend said that that was important. He is also allocating more staff to each station, with more on standby to be deployed if there is an evening rush. There are other procedural measures associated with keeping in touch with presiding officers at polling stations.

Let us examine the impact of this situation. In Hackney, it caused distress to those who were unable to vote. My majority is substantially higher than 200 or 300 votes, so it did not have a material impact on the outcome of the election. Even in the local elections, the majorities that the councillors achieved meant that the outcome of any one of the ballots would not have been affected. However, we all know that there are Members in this House whose majorities are considerably lower than 300, 200 or even 100, and in some cases 92 voters not being able to vote could have had an impact on the outcome. What happens if we do not change the law and that happens in a parliamentary seat?

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 4:45 pm, 27th June 2012

In Sheffield Central, which fortunately did not have a problem even though all the other constituencies around it did experience problems, the majority is only 165. That totally underlines my hon. Friend’s point.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

I thank my hon. Friend for that. We need to ensure that we tighten this law now to make it fairer for electors. They would be upset that, having gone to the expense of another election and having come out to vote again, the election result and the will of the people could be affected by such a situation. That is indeed a serious concern. Rather than repeat the excellent arguments made, I rest my case there. I hope that the Government will introduce this change in this Bill to ensure that electors in my constituency never have to have this terrible experience again.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Shadow Minister (Defence)

I congratulate Mrs Laing on tabling the new clause. She explained clearly that what we need to do is include in this Bill—we have an opportunity to do it—what is “reasonable” and “practical”, as she put it. We are not asking for any major changes to the system we use for elections in this country, but it was quite clear in 2010 that large numbers of people in some constituencies were denied the right to vote even though they intended to wait in queues to get into the polling stations, as Bob Blackman said.

One issue that needs to be clarified is that the new clause would help returning officers to know exactly what the law is, as there were different responses in different parts of the country. My hon. Friend Angela Smith mentioned Sheffield. In the Sheffield Hallam constituency, long queues of students waited to vote for the now Deputy Prime Minister. I doubt they will have that problem at the next general election, but if they have such problems when they turn up to vote him out, those who have turned up to vote in reasonable time should be able to cast their ballot.

One issue mentioned by the hon. Lady, with which I agree, concerned the preparation for elections. For nearly 11 years, I was a councillor in Newcastle upon Tyne and in 2010 I went back to help with the general election in my old ward of Walkergate. I was shocked by what the Liberal Democrat administration had done to that ward by reducing the number of polling stations. Not only did people have to travel large distances to get to the polling station, as I mentioned the other day, but there was a capacity problem in trying physically to deal with the number of electors. Making the law clear would be helpful. As I understand it, in one polling station in Newcastle the returning officer took what was referred to afterwards as a “practical” and “common sense” step by allowing people into the polling station if they had arrived at 10 o’clock, locking the doors and allowing them to vote. If the law was clear, it would, as the hon. Lady said, be quite simple to know where the end of the queue was.

The new clause is long overdue and would help not only returning officers but the many thousands of constituents who were denied their vote in 2010. As we have said on numerous occasions during the passage of this Bill, that vote is the core of our democracy.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Evans, and am grateful to Mrs Laing for tabling her new clause. We have had a valuable debate involving the hon. Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and for North Durham (Mr Jones).

It is simply unacceptable that significant numbers of electors are unable to cast their vote due to the organisation of a polling station. It should never happen again and we must take steps to ensure that it does not. Those Members who have expressed their concern and even anger on behalf of their constituents are perfectly in order to do so, as such things should not happen.

I should also point out that only a small number of polling stations were involved: only 27 out of 40,000 across the country. That is not a representative sample of electoral arrangements in this country, and there were not many large queues at polling stations at close of poll that left people unable to cast their vote. That in no way reduces the impact on those who were affected, but it at least puts it in context.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend Mr Harper, has made it clear in everything he has said on this issue in Committee and in this House that the primary cause of the problems was a lack of effective planning by returning officers. That will be effected not by legislation but by administrative action to make sure that they do the job better in future to avoid those unacceptable scenes. They should ensure that enough polling stations are provided to accommodate the electors in each area. It is not acceptable for there to be too few polling stations. They should ensure that polling station staff have sufficient time and training to manage the flow of electors well, as they generally do in most parts of the country and in most elections. In some ways, the firm closure of the poll at 10 pm should concentrate returning officers’ minds to ensure that, given that it is hardly news that the poll will close at 10 pm, they have the right arrangements in place to ensure that a complete and smooth passage for those arriving seeking to vote is effected at that hour.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

I am concerned by the tone of the Minister’s remarks. If this was simply an administrative error, why did we see it across the country in such a widespread way? There had not been problems before in my constituency but there were on this occasion. The council acknowledged that there were things it could do better but this could still happen again. I cannot see what the Government would lose by backing this new clause.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am sorry that the hon. Lady asks why this happened in such a widespread way given that we have just established that it happened at only 27 polling stations out of 40,000. I do not think we can say it was a widespread problem. It was a significant problem but not a widespread one.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

No, I really do not have time if I am going to do justice to responding to the debate.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest did an excellent job with her Select Committee on the pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. I know that she chaired many of the sessions in the absence, unavoidably, of the Chair and that she took great care to make sure that my hon. Friend the Minister was quizzed by the Committee, when it took evidence and brought forward its responses. That is why I was a little surprised when she said that her Committee backs these changes to the legislation because that suggests that I have completely misread paragraph 98 of her Committee’s report, which was produced under her chairmanship, which states:

“On the issue of close of poll the Minister set out the Government’s position that the issues around close of poll in the 2010 election were ‘largely around poor planning, poor resource management’ and that an attempt to legislate in this area could create more problems than it solved. We agree with the Minister that in this area careful planning and allocation of resources are likely to be more effective in ensuring all those who are eligible can access their vote without resorting to legislation.”

That was the view of the Committee at the time.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Conservative, Epping Forest

The Minister is right to read out that part of the Committee’s report, but since then the Electoral Commission has looked at this matter in greater detail, has taken further evidence and has recommended very strongly that new clause 4 should become part of the Bill. I have listened to the Electoral Commission and that is why I have brought this new clause before the House.

Photo of David Heath David Heath The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I do not think the Electoral Commission has changed its position. [ Interruption. ] I do not think it has. It took evidence but it took no further evidence after the hon. Lady’s Committee took its evidence and came to a conclusion. I am grateful to her Committee for supporting the view that the Minister took.

Any changes that we introduce create more potential for problems. For example, this is not what the hon. Lady has proposed but if we were to introduce discretion on the part of returning officers they would be open to challenge because of the way in which they applied that discretion. I am glad that she has not gone down that road.

[

Interruption.

]

She says, “No one suggested it,” but that was suggested by one of her colleagues. That is why I am responding to that point in the context of this debate.

There is a suggestion that the problem could be addressed by reference to the limits of the curtilage of the polling station, but that would be extremely difficult because it varies enormously among polling stations. The hon. Lady’s proposal is probably the least bad option, but the queue itself presents problems with definition and management, which is why it is extremely difficult to accede to such a measure. The situation did not happen widely before 2010 and has not happened widely since, but we must ensure that it is not allowed to arise, and the key to that is proper management.

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 23 May ).

The Chair put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83D), That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 211, Noes 284.

Division number 32 Bills Presented — House of Lords Reform Bill — New Clause 4 — Voting procedure

Aye: 211 MPs

No: 284 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

The Chair then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83D).

Clauses 22 to 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.