Elections: May 2021

– in the House of Commons at 1:37 pm on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement 1:37 pm, 13th January 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the May 2021 elections.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Safe and secure elections are the cornerstone of any democracy, and Parliament’s decision, as set out in primary legislation, is that these polls should go ahead in May. Due to the pandemic, many of these elections have already been delayed by a year, but voters have a right to be heard and to decide who governs them. During the pandemic, local authorities will have taken many serious decisions impacting directly on residents, on matters from council tax to road closures, and those are important issues on which elected representatives should be held to account.

Given the situation, however, we are, as the Prime Minister set out last week, keeping this position under review. Any change would require very careful consideration, including by this House, and would need to be based on robust evidence. There should be a high bar for any delay.

I remind the House that we have already seen polls go ahead despite coronavirus, in this country—for example, council elections in Edinburgh and Aberdeen—and internationally, with other countries holding general elections. Since the announcement of the postponement of the 2020 elections, we have been working towards holding them in a covid-secure manner, and we will put in place a strong set of measures to support this. Voters have a choice as to how they participate in elections—at the polling station, by proxy or by post. We want to maintain that choice, but we recognise that the pandemic may change people’s needs and preferences. We actively encourage anybody who is shielding or who would prefer not to attend a polling station to apply for an absent vote instead of going in person. We will bring forward additional measures to support absent voting, including extending the ability to appoint a proxy, so that anybody who might be affected by covid-19 in the days before the poll is still able to make their voice heard. The Government this week set out our plan to roll out vaccines at pace, which will ensure that the most vulnerable are protected and provide a route map towards relaxing the restrictions when safe to do so.

We have worked closely with the Electoral Commission on the production of guidance to aid all involved. This guidance is based on the latest public health advice and will be updated as necessary ahead of the polls. We have been working across Government to ensure that any activity required for participation in and the delivery of the polls is technically allowed under covid regulations. I thank local government officials, who have stepped up to the mark enormously in dealing with new and challenging issues, in many cases since last March. That should be recognised. We are grateful to them for all the work they have done, and we will continue to work closely with them and all involved in elections to support them in delivering the elections successfully.

Finally, hon. and right hon. Members will know very well the importance of campaigning and providing information to voters. As well as the technical aspects of elections, voters rightly expect that campaigning activity should only be carried out safely. I can confirm that the Government have also worked with the parliamentary parties panel to ensure that we are aware of the views from political parties, and we will continue to do that. We recognise the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of this area. We will continue to keep the House updated on the preparations for the safe holding of these elections, which are an important upcoming moment in our shared civic life.

Photo of Cat Smith Cat Smith Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Engagement

It is a pleasure to see the Minister respond to the urgent question. I wish her well with her continued recovery.

As the Minister set out, elections have been suspended for more than a year, and a record number of polls are now set to take place on the same day, with every elector able to cast a ballot in one election or another. It is deeply disappointing that the Government have failed to provide clarity on how these polls will be covid-secure.

Clarity is urgently needed by local councils, electoral staff, candidates, campaigners and, of course, the public. This is yet another example of the Conservative Government being too slow to act. Ministers have had many months to make the necessary changes to protect our democratic process. Instead, they are treating these elections like business as usual. Across the world, countries have demonstrated that elections can take place safely with the right safety measures in place. National elections were held in the US, New Zealand, Singapore, Iceland and Lithuania last year. Labour has consistently called for safer voting methods to be introduced, including voting over multiple days and an all-postal ballot. Will the Minister explain why the Government have taken no action so far? Will she also confirm whether the Conservative party chair took advice from Conservative party candidates about the timeframe for a possible delay? The scheduling of elections should come above party political advantage.

Will the Minister confirm, in no uncertain terms, that these elections will not be postponed in an irresponsible, last-minute U-turn? Unless councils are informed of changes in good time, unnecessary expenditure will be wasted on the printing of poll cards and other preparatory work. Given the crippling Government cuts, councils simply cannot afford to be caught on the hoof here. Electoral staff have expressed deep anxiety about running these elections safely without additional funding, so will the Minister produce clear guidance and training for local authorities about how to make polling stations and the count covid-secure?

High numbers of electoral staff are volunteers, with many in the high-risk category under covid-19 guidance. Does the Minister expect at-risk people to risk their health to support the safe running of these elections? The Welsh Labour Government have been working to ensure that elections can still go ahead safely. What steps have the Government taken to co-operate with the devolved nations? Finally, does the Minister share my concern that the Government’s lack of preparation will force many people to choose between their health and their right to vote?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Before I call the Minister to answer, let me say that the hon. Lady took rather longer than the time allocated to her. I simply warn everyone taking part in the statement today that I will not allow long questions or speeches from people who are meant to be asking questions. I know that the Minister will give short answers. I am determined that in one hour, we will get all 25 people on the Order Paper in to ask their questions. If we do not, those who do not get to ask their question can blame those who took too long in asking theirs.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I will do my best to help you to get this moving as quickly as we would all like, Madam Deputy Speaker. First, on a personal note, may I thank Cat Smith for her support? It is nice of her to say. I have been grateful for lots of support from across the House as I have treatment for breast cancer.

On the hon. Lady’s questions, however, I am afraid that she is wrong to take a party political position on this issue. The Labour party has perhaps been so busy telling itself a story that it has been spinning that it has not looked at how we can actually get it right. It is simply not the case that there has been no action. If she had listened to my opening statement, she would have heard that loud and clear. I absolutely agree that it needs to be done in good time, and it has been. As I have set out in the House, in parliamentary questions and in working with, for example, the election administration sector, there is a record of all the preparation that has been done and that is being taken careful account of ready for May.

The hon. Lady asked specifically whether there will be clear guidance. As I said, there will be. She rightly asked about staff, who are of course a concern. Naturally, we want to make sure that staff in any employment sector are protected in their workplace, as has been the case during the pandemic across the breadth of business sectors, public and private, up and down the land. That is being accounted for in the careful planning.

The hon. Lady also understandably asked about co-operation with the devolved Administrations, because elections are taking place in England, Scotland and Wales. Although it is naturally not my responsibility to answer for the polls in Wales and Scotland, I hope that a sensible position can be achieved that allows voters the clearest opportunity to go to the polls and, as I said, to hold those who have the privilege of governing them to account. That is important in these elections. It is my intention to carry on working in the collaborative way that I do with my counterparts in those Administrations to assist that happening across the Administrations wherever it is needed.

Finally—I will not dignify it with more of a response than this—the very idea that somebody would be forced to choose between their health and their vote is simply not an issue in this case. It degrades the debate we ought to be having about how to have sensible elections, and it undermines the sensible work that has gone on by those who are responsible for running elections across the country, to whom I pay tribute.

Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

On behalf of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I send our best wishes to my hon. Friend for her recovery. I ask her to reflect on the legal maxim that justice delayed is justice denied, and that democracy delayed is democracy denied. Will she ensure that, if there is any possibility of delay, it will be for the shortest possible time? After all, this is one situation to which an algorithm, no matter how finessed, will not be the answer. Can she confirm that any delay to elections in England will require new primary legislation?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

It is the case that a new election date would require a change in legislation. For that reason, we can all understand that the bar for change would have to be quite high. I pray in aid the point that elections have already been held in this country and other countries, so we have seen that elections can be held. As I say, the bar for change ought to be set fairly high, in addition to the point about primary legislation.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his kind words and for all his and his Committee’s work. I also thank him for his important underlining of the maxim that democracy is very important indeed and should not be delayed disproportionately.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

We look forward to seeing the Minister back at the Dispatch Box; much as I like the Leader of the House, he was a poor substitute throughout the final stages of the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill.

Last month in Holyrood, legislation was endorsed by all parties to establish contingency measures in respect of May’s elections. The legislation was developed with the Electoral Management Board for Scotland and the Electoral Commission and makes provision for an earlier deadline in respect of postal voting applications, given the increased demand that would be expected. Dissolution will not take place in March but instead on the eve of the poll, to allow Parliament still to function and pass emergency legislation in what is clearly a very volatile situation. There is scope to allow polling to take place over more than one day, if needed, to support physical distance in polling stations.

At the moment, it is our expectation that elections can go ahead as planned, but I think we would all agree in this House that it is prudent and responsible to ensure that we have planned for every eventuality, so that the poll can be conducted safely and indeed fairly during the pandemic. Although we in the SNP have no skin in the game in terms of what happens at elections in England, it is clear that this Government are less well prepared for an election that cannot be treated as business as usual. Has the Minister looked at the measures adopted in Scotland, and will the Government be following suit with similar primary legislation to ensure that voter safety and confidence can be maintained during this year’s election?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words; it is good to see him, and I look forward to being back. I also thank him for making sure that our House is kept informed of what is going on in Holyrood. It is important that we have that mutual awareness, but may I gently pick him up on the idea that this Parliament and this Government are in some way less prepared? That is simply not the case.

There is a very full record of preparation that has gone on to ensure that the elections for which we are responsible will be a success. I laid that out in my statement and, as I undertook, I will be keeping the House further updated with more as it comes forward, for example in terms of guidance. However, I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that I am aware of those parallel plans and, as I said in an earlier response, I also intend to continue working collaboratively with my opposite numbers in the two other Administrations to ensure that, wherever sensible, we have the right kind of co-operation.

Photo of Joy Morrissey Joy Morrissey Conservative, Beaconsfield

Over the past year, as the Minister mentioned in her opening remarks, elections have successfully been held in the United States and across Europe, and indeed Germany is set to hold its elections in a few months’ time. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that if these countries are able to successfully hold their elections, there is no reason for us not to do so?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

That is a very important point. We have these examples going on, and elections have successfully been held both inside our country and around the world. It is important therefore to remember that people have that appetite to cast their vote and that it can be done safely, and that is what we are working towards.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

It is great to see the Minister; on behalf of my colleagues, I wish her all the best for a full and speedy recovery. I am personally very keen to have elections in May and even keener that the Government make the decision now and stick to it. Clarity is important to stop the uncertainty that leads to instability within local authorities up and down the country. What adds to that instability, in three parts of England—Somerset, Cumbria and North Yorkshire—is a ludicrous plan for a top-down reorganisation of local government in the midst of a pandemic. Does the Minister agree that it is far wiser for those authorities to focus on delivering social care, education, housing and economic development, rather than labouring under a pointless, badly-timed, top-down reorganisation?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I will not anger you, Madam Deputy Speaker, by going too deeply into another Department’s brief, but I will undertake to raise that point with my colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

My hon. Friend will be well aware that it is about not just 6 May when elections are held, but the deadline date of 29 March when the elections are advertised. Will she undertake to keep the House updated on the position so that, if these elections have to be delayed at all, that is done in a timely fashion and everyone can plan for them appropriately?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Yes, I certainly am giving that undertaking to the House today, and I am keen to do that because it is extremely important. My hon. Friend makes the right point about the lead-in that there is to any election. To the example of the date he gave I can add that there is a huge tail of logistical organisation that has to go on, to ensure that there are the right venues; that the right materials have been produced, printed or distributed; and that staff have been recruited. All that is the stuff of running elections. It is a huge amount of work, for which, as I say, I thank officials across the country. His point reminds us that we therefore have to give people guidance in good time, which is what I am undertaking to do. That is in addition to the preparation that has already been ongoing for the past year to ensure that we are looking at covid-secure elections this May.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Transport)

I, too, extend my best wishes to the Minister. Bristol has a particularly complicated set of elections coming up. We have the all-outs for councillors; the mayoral election; the West of England Combined Authority metro mayor election; and the police and crime commissioner election. That would be difficult enough for people to get their head round in ordinary times, so what extra support will the Minister be able to give to local authorities such as Bristol’s to try to ensure that people understand what they are voting for and quite what is up for election? I am thinking, in particular, of those who perhaps do not have the best command of the English language, and those who have visual disabilities or other reasons why this would be particularly tricky for them.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful for that point and for the hon. Lady’s personal wishes. She rightly says that at any election there is a need to make sure that the public are well informed of what it is for, how to go about it and how to have their voice heard. The Electoral Commission, will, as always, be performing that role ahead of this election. That is in addition to dealing with the specific circumstances of this year, where, as I have said, we will be working together to ensure that there is the right guidance to help people approach these elections with safety, as well as the usual election issues, in mind. All of that together is absolutely the work ahead of us. This is made a little more complicated by the fact that this is already, in part, a postponed set of elections. This House took the decision to postpone a set of elections not at all lightly, in the knowledge that greater complexity would arise later, and that we cannot keep postponing elections and then have to be able to lay the plans and deliver them successfully. That is what we are now doing.

Photo of Jane Stevenson Jane Stevenson Conservative, Wolverhampton North East

Obviously, candidates for these elections are keen to get their message across. The Conservatives have rightly suspended in-person campaigning, and I believe the Labour party has taken similar action. Does the Minister share my concern that Liberal Democrat activists are being encouraged to do face-to-face campaigning at the moment? Will she seek agreement between parties to put candidates on a level footing and ensure that all campaigning is absolutely safe?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I thank my hon. Friend for that point, as it is important. This goes to the heart of the fact that voters expect to be able to participate safely in elections, and at a time such as this they expect everybody to play their part in that, so I fully endorse the way she has put that question. What I will be able to do assist voters in this case is to work with the Electoral Commission to provide guidance on the safe, technical delivery of polls. I am also inviting political parties to play a responsible role, in ensuring that they are providing information to voters in a safe way that does them the credit they deserve of an important moment of choice, but one that takes place in unusual times.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

There is a history with this Government of treating disabled and vulnerable people as an afterthought, so it is not surprising that today the Minister has not offered any real detail on how they are going to ensure that everybody who is shielding can play a full part in these elections. When will that detail be forthcoming?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I referred to this in my opening statement, and proudly so. I am pleased that the hon. Lady has emphasised it once again; she is right to do so, and I fully share her concern that it should be delivered. Therefore, I will be bringing to the House the relevant piece of secondary legislation that allows people to extend their application for proxy voting. I look forward to discussing the details with her. But prior to such a change, I think the first point is actually to say that absent vote arrangements already exist. As I said in my opening statement, I encourage anybody who is concerned about physically attending the polling station this year to apply now for a postal vote so that they have it in hand. Those are the ways in which we can help everybody to be confident and comfortable at these elections, which is what we must do. These elections are a very important moment and should not be delayed. They should be supported to be a success, and that is precisely what we are doing.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Conservative, Redcar

Redcar and Cleveland have been left without an elected police and crime commissioner for a number of months after our Labour police and crime commissioner resigned following an investigation into him. As last year’s elections were postponed, there will be a knock-on effect on the length of term faced by both the Tees Valley Mayor and the PCC for Cleveland, who are both now facing three-year terms instead of four. May I urge the Government to consider reviewing these term lengths in the event that there are any further delays to the elections? The Labour party has left Cleveland police in a mess, and it will take us enough time to fix it.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this point, because he reminds us of the consequence of the first postponement. It is therefore important to think this issue through carefully again, rather than to reach easily for the argument for yet more delay. He will have heard me say clearly that I am not in favour of delay and I think that there are very strong arguments for the elections to be able to go ahead safely, so it is not my intention to have to do as he asks. None the less, I will take his point away and discuss it with colleagues in the Department responsible—the Home Office—so that his concerns can be properly understood.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

It is a great pleasure to see the Minister on the road to recovery; I wish her well. Does she agree that, for these elections to have validity, we need people not only to be able to vote in them safely, but to be able to campaign in them safely? Will she do a lot more than what she has laid out so far and work with the other political parties that will be competing in these elections in England to ensure that there is agreement about a way in which the elections can be held safely and which can allow political parties to campaign in them as fully as possible?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am very grateful for the tone that the hon. Gentleman strikes. It is important that there should always be a level playing field in our elections; that is a critical principle of our democracy. I am therefore keen to secure the kind of cross-party consensus of which he speaks. If he and his Labour colleagues would like to begin by creating that today, that is excellent. In addition to what I have said today, I point him to the written ministerial statement that I provided to the House late last year, in which I referred to the technical area of spending limits. Given the circumstances, it would be quite understandable if parties and candidates wished to be able to use more digital methods this year to campaign and properly communicate with voters. I hope that that piece of information will be helpful to the hon. Gentleman in thinking through how voters can be assisted to get the widest range of information ahead of these polls.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

It is very good to see the excellent Minister at the virtual Dispatch Box. Here in Northamptonshire, we have a problem. Two new unitary authorities will be created on 1 April. If the elections are delayed, I assume that that council will be governed by the shadow authority. Those councillors will be going into their seventh year without being re-elected, so I hope that we can press on with the elections on the right date. Could the Minister look at the possibility of allowing candidates to use freepost delivery through Royal Mail for their election literature, as that would be safe and would help in the campaign?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind comments and for again underlining the consequences of there already having been a delay to these elections. He makes a good point about the use of Royal Mail, which gives me the opportunity to reassure the House that my officials and I are in touch with Royal Mail to be sure that it is part of elections—for example, postal votes will be capable of being delivered properly, which is, of course, what voters would expect. I will take away his point about those particular elections and election addresses to give it proper consideration, but I would note that there are already many ways of providing information to voters in a safe manner that I hope can be made use of.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

In Warrington, all-out borough council, parish council and police and crime commissioner elections were due to take place last May but were delayed until this year and risk being delayed again if the Government fail to get a grip on covid transmission, particularly in the light of this new strain. In the US, early voting and drive-through ballot boxes enabled a historically high turnout. The Government have had many months to prepare and adapt to protect our democratic process, so why have they failed to take the initiative and introduce changes following successful international models to ensure no further delays for voters in Warrington and elsewhere?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Labour Members here today are so keen to paint a picture of delay that they are not seeing the wood for the trees. The point is that a whole set of preparation has already been laid. If the hon. Member were to speak to her colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government, she would know that those colleagues and I have already had extensive discussions about the merits of, for example, early voting. I have also had those conversations with administrators across the relevant area, who do not necessarily share the merits of that argument. I do not think there is a clear case for early voting, because it introduces extra complexity at a time when what voters need is polls delivered safely and easily.

I also take this opportunity to emphasise that I have considered the case for all-postal ballots, which has occasionally been raised in the House, but there are some drawbacks to that—namely, that it would prevent people from being able to exercise their preference of how they vote at elections. As I said at the outset, it is important to help people to take their preferred choice in how they vote. That is why our comprehensive set of preparations gives rise to people being able to apply as early as they wish for a postal vote, and I encourage people to do so; to take advantage of new arrangements for a slightly extended proxy scheme, which makes sure that nobody would be excluded; and, finally, to vote in person if they wish, at which point polling stations will be covid-secure.

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

May I say how delighted I am to see my hon. Friend in her usual robust style with a good grip on her brief? Following on from the previous question, in terms of those who are pushing for a full postal vote election, what would be the lead time to put that in place? I assume that quite a lot would have to be done to make everybody vote by post in this election.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Yes, there is a lengthy lead time, and it would require a lot to be done. I do not think it is the right thing to do, so I can confirm to the House that any such preparation has not been laid for that.

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Public Health and Primary Care)

It is extremely important that the democratic process is able to go ahead if it is safe to do so. Does the Minister agree that we need to make voting as safe as possible? What more needs to be done to encourage greater take-up of postal voting and to ensure that the applications can be processed in time?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am grateful for the tone that the hon. Gentleman strikes, because this is critically important. I would like the message to go out loud and clear across our parties that postal voting will be a sensible option at these elections for obvious reasons. As I said, the Electoral Commission will also play a large part in this, with its usual role of public information campaigns ahead of all polls, and in this case we are already drawing up the ways in which we will encourage the public to apply for absent voting arrangements.

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

Does my hon. Friend agree that, with Great Britain seen as the gold standard for well-organised elections and the peaceful transfer of power, it should be perfectly possible to run a covid-secure set of local elections, having had over a year’s notice to prepare for them?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Yes, it is possible, and that is precisely what we are doing. I am very glad of my hon. Friend’s support for that.

Photo of Feryal Clark Feryal Clark Labour, Enfield North

Across the world, postal votes have been a crucial part of delivering covid-safe elections. In the UK, however, postal vote application forms require physical printing to return the form, creating a significant barrier to many who do not have access to a printer. For the clinically vulnerable, this may be their only route to register. What steps are the Government taking to introduce fully digital application forms for postal votes?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I really welcome the hon. Lady’s question, because she clearly displays an important knowledge of the subject that is ahead of us. I am looking at this particular area for the polls that are ahead. It is not something necessarily that is capable of being delivered for these May elections, but it is something that I am looking at for the future, so I look forward to keeping her closely informed as that development goes on.

Photo of Angela Richardson Angela Richardson Conservative, Guildford

I love campaigning, but when the national lockdown was declared, I stopped campaigning as that was the right thing to do. I was therefore incredibly disappointed to see not one, not two, but several examples of the Liberal Democrats across the country exploiting a loophole to keep delivering literature. Does my hon. Friend agree that the messaging is perfectly clear: stay home, protect the NHS and save lives?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

It is really important to emphasise that point in the midst of this debate. We are having this debate because we are in a public health crisis and in a pandemic, and we therefore have a duty to the public to ensure that important civic functions, which include elections, go ahead only in a safe way. That is what we are absolutely committed to delivering in this case. It is also important that political parties play their part in that, as so many other workers and volunteers across all sorts of sectors across the country over the months have been able to do. It is that kind of behaviour that we will also have to look for in the delivery of these important events this spring.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons)

May I also wish the Minister a speedy and full recovery? With numerous elections due to take place across the different parts of the United Kingdom, it seems that the Government are a barrier to the critical changes needed to our voting methods to deliver covid-secure elections. For example, the police and crime commissioner elections are the responsibility of the UK Government, making it impossible for the Welsh Labour Government to introduce new voting methods without causing widespread chaos and confusion on polling day. Can the Minister explain why the Government have so far failed to heed the calls from the Welsh Labour Government to make voting safer in the upcoming polls?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I do not think I recognise the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints. I can assure him of my very good relationships with Julie James and other colleagues in the Welsh Government. Indeed, I am expecting to speak to Julie later this week, so, should there be some fundamental misunderstanding about how we can all deliver polls safely, I look forward to taking that up with him and with her.

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield

We cannot predict the future or be totally certain of what the situation will be in May, but I am pleased that my hon. Friend is looking at all sorts of options in order to be able to do this on time. Elections are vital in any democracy and we are already a year behind. Some have called for a further year’s postponement, which would seem to fly in the face of our democratic processes. Can she assure me that, if any delay is required for health reasons, it would not be an arbitrary or lengthy postponement but the minimum possible time so that we could hold the votes as soon as possible?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Yes, I can give that commitment. As the House will, I hope, have heard me say clearly today, I am not saying that the polls are to be postponed or that they should be postponed; we are carefully keeping the situation under review. I hope that, in answer to several questions today, I have been able clearly to make the point that that needs to be done carefully and that that is what we are doing.

My hon. Friend makes the excellent additional point that we cannot take this lightly. We have already postponed a set of elections once; we cannot postpone democracy forever. Voters expect to be able to have their choice and they shall have their choice. We have to be able to apply ourselves to running covid-secure elections, which is precisely what the comprehensive set of preparations that I have been leading has been doing, and I will be able to keep the House updated on that basis.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I strongly support the Government’s plan to go ahead with the May elections, which are crucial to our democracy. Given that many more people may well need or want a postal vote, will the Minister bring forward, before the elections, measures for enhanced security? There are worries about fraud and it is surely important that anyone who exercises a postal vote should have just the one vote and they should make the decision.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s vigilance on electoral fraud, which is extremely important. We all want all forms of voting to be secure, and it is helpful of him to point out the fact that postal and proxy voting should be just as secure as when someone casts their vote in person at a polling station. In respect of both the elections we are discussing today and future elections, this issue is a top priority of mine. My right hon. Friend can look forward to the measures that I will bring forward, in line with the Conservative party manifesto, to improve the security of our postal and proxy voting systems and some other aspects of electoral integrity. We look forward to much longer discussions on those issues.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons)

The upcoming local elections will see a record number of elections with various different voting systems in use on the same day. In normal times, this would cause an immense logistical challenge; given the added pressure caused by the need to run safe elections during a pandemic, will the Minister outline why local authorities have not been given any additional funding to ensure that voters are able to exercise their democratic right without risking their health?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

[Inaudible.]—based on an inaccuracy. Up until November last year, the Government had provided a total of £4.3 billion to local authorities to help with pandemic costs, and on 17 December last year the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government allocated to councils in England a further £1.55 billion non-ring-fenced grant for covid-19 pressures, which explicitly included the concept that the money might need to be used to support the running of covid-secure local elections.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw

I thank the Minister for clarifying the situation regarding the prospect of all-postal votes. Can she reassure the House that steps have been taken to address previous concerns expressed about this method of voting?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Yes. There have been some trials of all-postal voting in the past, under a previous Government. My officials and I have looked at that evidence, and we will continue to look at any other evidence that is provided. As I said in answer to an earlier question, I do not think all-postal voting is the right way forward—it takes away from people an element of choice as to how they wish to cast their vote—but I hope that my reassurances about the importance of electoral integrity generally and about making sure that any method of casting a vote is absolutely secure are helpful to my hon. Friend and to the House more generally.

Photo of Janet Daby Janet Daby Labour, Lewisham East

What steps has the Cabinet Office taken to ensure that people who are asymptomatic of covid-19 and instructed to self-isolate are able to cast their vote? Will the Minister consider changing emergency proxy voting rules to enable those testing positive on the day of the election to vote via proxy?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

This is an excellent point on which to end the session. This is exactly the measure that I was referring to earlier that will complete the set of preparations to enable that to happen for anybody who might be affected by covid-19 in the few days before an election, when, traditionally, it would have been too late to apply for an absent vote. The details of this scheme will be coming to the House shortly. This also allows me to recap on the point that I have been making throughout this session, which is that to change the date of these elections at this stage would require primary legislation, which is a high bar and it is not something to be taken either lightly or quickly, and I know that the House will understand that. That is why we are keeping this point under review. Clearly, given the Prime Minister’s announcements of further national restrictions, circumstances have changed, but we are taking a careful review of the situation, being conscious of the timescales that would be required to make any changes were they strictly necessary. I also hope the House will have understood from my tone that we are all extremely keen to ensure that democracy goes ahead and does not suffer further delays. I look forward to bringing those other details to the House, as such scrutiny is important and hon. and right hon Members have a close interest, as we all should, in helping our residents be best informed about the choices in front of them.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I am delighted to note that we took exactly the right amount of allocated time for that statement. I am extremely grateful to all colleagues for their brief questions and, in particular, to the Minister for her brief and timely answers. I am sure that all colleagues join me in wishing her well and saying how good it is to see her looking so healthy and full of energy. We look forward to seeing her back here with us as soon as possible. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

In order to allow the safe entry and exit of Members, Ministers and spokesmen, I will suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.