My Lords, in moving this amendment, I should like to give a word of explanation. This amendment, along with a number of others that we will come to during the course of our discussions this afternoon, is consequential on the amendment to Clause 1 that was made by the Government in their Amendment No. 2, as amended by the Opposition's Amendment No. 3. They simply make it clear that there will not be a need for a general order for the reasons that we gave in the earlier discussion. I beg to move.
moved Amendment No. 5:
Page 2, line 6, at end insert—
"( ) The pilot order must provide that—
(a) all postal ballot papers must be accompanied by a declaration of identity, signed by the elector and by a witness, and containing in legible form the name and address of the witness;
(b) each elector who has returned a postal ballot paper is sent an acknowledgment by the returning officer."
My Lords, our earlier debate featured a number of serious concerns about voting by post. This amendment is about minimising those concerns where all postal vote pilots will still take place. I would be rather less concerned if they took place in two regions rather than four, but there are still important concerns about the possibilities of personation.
Postal vote fraud is a serious risk. Requiring a witness signature to accompany the vote could make a considerable difference in reducing problems, particularly in areas of multiple occupation homes and in inner cities.
Some people say that fraud in postal voting is very rare, but I do not believe we should open up the system to abuse. I can see how, with all-postal voting pilots in a number of areas, there could be extensive abuse.
On the whole, the Electoral Commission is of the view that so far there is not widespread abuse. It points to the fact that, generally, abuse in our political system is pretty rare. However, as a number of noble Lords have pointed out, there are abuses and examples of fraudulence in a number of places. The noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, referred to our experience in Liverpool in the 1980s. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, was mindful of some of the tactics employed by the Militant Tendency in the 1980s regarding personation at the polling stations.
It is rather difficult in some places to go to the polling station and impersonate someone else; I suggest that it is very much easier if you simply collect in the postal votes. You could collect 10 postal votes put through one letterbox in a house and sign to the effect that you were those 10 people. If you had to require a witness signature to say that you were such and such a person, that would be a significant deterrent to abuse. People at the Electoral Commission, with whom I have discussed this in some detail, say that checks are not often made on these anyway. My point is that a check can be made, and it is a deterrent to someone claiming another's vote.
I know also that there may be some problems for deaf-blind people or other disabled people, but I suggest that postal voting with a witness signature is still easier for many than going to a polling station. If you apply to vote by post in the London elections in June and receive a postal vote, you will have to obtain a witness signature to say that you are the person voting in that way. I see no reason for suggesting that if an all-postal pilot takes place, in the east Midlands or the northern region, for example, that requirement should be abandoned.
I would say by way of comfort to people who are concerned that the witness signature requirement may reduce turnout slightly or make it slightly harder for some disabled people to vote that the solution will come in a few years, I hope, when there is individual registration of voters on the electoral register. At present, one person tends to fill in the form for everyone who lives in the household. That means that only one signature is kept by the returning officer, and it is impossible for other people on the electoral register in that household who return postal votes to have their self-certification signature checked because there is no other record of their signature.
Within a few years we will have a new system, I hope, whereby every individual will go on the electoral register, with a copy of their own signature. When we reach that point, there will be no need for a witness signature, but until then, I suggest this amendment is very necessary. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. There was a good deal of discussion in Grand Committee about the best way to ensure the validation of postal votes and how to ensure that there is no personation. We discussed several methods. Like the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, I believe that the best possible way is by witnessing postal ballots. Therefore, I support the amendment.
My Lords, this is one issue that we discussed in great detail in Grand Committee. While we were discussing these matters, we were told by the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, and, on the second day, the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting—that we would be sent a draft policy paper or something of that kind. I understand that a 70-page document has been sent out, but I am afraid that I have not received it. I am not sure whether it is the draft pilot order—no, it is the policy paper. Hansard could provide many instances of when I was personally told that I would receive the information, but I have not. I should be grateful if I could have the information as quickly as possible, not least to dissuade me from tabling lots of amendments for Third Reading.
I strongly support the amendment moved by my noble friend. There is a real fear that widespread postal voting means the end of the secret ballot. That is the fundamental point of principle behind the concern about and opposition to postal voting. The Electoral Commission and the Government have examined ways of addressing the problem. I remain to be convinced that they have found a satisfactory solution. However, some of the measures in the policy paper—which I look forward to reading—will, we are told, seek to address this vital fundamental problem. We could have all the postal voting in the world, but if the fundamental principle of the secret ballot goes out of the window, that is the end of democracy as we know it. This is a crucial issue. As my noble friend said, the Electoral Commission suggests that individual registration is, in the long run, the best way to tackle the problem, but that cannot be included in the pilots this year.
I believe that it is wrong to do away with one of the safeguards that currently exist. There is no point in introducing new safeguards if, at the same time, we do away with the only one that ensures that the person filling in the ballot paper and sending it back is the person to whom it has been sent. That is the fundamental problem. Requiring a witness provides a safeguard. I have personal experience of looking into irregularities in a particular local election two years ago. It is possible for members of the public or representatives of the candidates to inspect the declaration of identity—as it is called at the moment—after the event. Inspecting declarations does not prove anything in a hard and fast way, but it gives one a very good idea of what has happened when people have gone out to rig an election. We found that several individuals had witnessed more than 100 postal votes each. That sets one on the trail of working out how that particular election may have been rigged—as there is no doubt that it was in Pendle two years ago. It is a crucial safeguard and a pointer to what happens.
Secondly, because witnesses use their own signatures, it is relatively easy to examine the signatures of the electors concerned and assess whether they have been forged by the person who witnessed the signature. Indeed, I have no doubt that that happened in Pendle two years ago. Therefore, this is almost the only safeguard that people have if they are examining allegations that a particular election has been rigged. Under the pilots, when the Government are looking for other safeguards to introduce to protect the secrecy of the postal vote, it would be wrong to remove the one safeguard that we have at the moment.
My Lords, I declare an interest as President of the Electoral Reform Society. It will not surprise the House to find that I am in entire agreement with my noble friend Lord Rennard, who is a member of the council of that society. However, I feel that I owe it to the House to report some misgivings from well informed people, which I do not share, but on which the Minister should have a chance to comment. They come from among others the campaign manager of Scope, and from my son, who is parliamentary officer of the Royal National Institute for the Blind. They are concerned about the witness requirement. They fear that it may infringe the secrecy of the ballot, discourage disabled turnout and create alarm and despondency. They fear that the requirement for a legible signature may have an adverse effect on disabled people. It is true that blind people have difficulty in producing a legible signature on occasion, but I hope that the Minister will confirm that the signature is that of the witness and not the voter.
This issue is one of the possibility of fraud. There is a real fear of fraud in the case of proxy voting. I know of several cases in which there has been a vehement suspicion of fraud in proxy votes, but it has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt—a point of some importance. Does the danger of fraud justify the need for a witness, and, if so, why? That answer would be worth having on the record before the Bill leaves this House.
My Lords, in rising to respond to these issues, I again put on record that, although we do not necessarily think that concerns about fraud are of the level signalled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in Grand Committee, there is regrettably some fraud in our electoral practices. Neither of those statements implies that the Government are quiescent or passive about the importance of investigating and appraising whether, through further use of postal ballots, fraud increases or can be removed or reduced to the minimum possible level. I want to make that absolutely clear before I respond specifically to these issues.
Although we may not agree about the mechanisms or the quantum we certainly do agree about the importance of ensuring that, if postal balloting is taken further, we find effective ways of resisting, rebutting, and deterring fraudulent practices. For good reasons that I am sure will be shared throughout the House, that will be an essential component of such ballots having credibility in the future and therefore having the confidence of all electors and political parties.
We discussed this specific issue in Grand Committee and I made clear our intention to mandate within the pilot order that a ballot paper must be validated with a security statement signed by the elector. We do not intend, as this amendment suggests we should, additionally to require electors to obtain the signature of a witness. I will try to explain why. We have taken our lead on this issue from the Electoral Commission. In its report, The Shape of Elections to Come, the commission identifies a number of reasons for utilising the security statement in place of the declaration of identity.
Those reasons are reiterated in a briefing the commission has produced specifically on the amendments under discussion today. They were; first, that the requirement to complete a declaration discourages some electors from voting as it could be difficult to find a witness. Secondly, the necessity of a witness could increase the risk of a breach of secrecy as the witness may see the elector's vote. Thirdly, the Electoral Commission said that involving another person in the voting process would create the potential for a breach of security, mitigating that as a safeguard against fraud. Fourthly, it said that there was a significant issue of a risk of disenfranchisement being increased. The commission was strongly concerned that paragraph (a) of the amendment would introduce a feature that its previous evaluation of pilot schemes had indicated served little purpose in terms of fraud prevention and created real risks.
The commission recommended to the Government in September 2003 that in future all postal ballots should not require a witnessed declaration, for the reasons that I have given. Instanced in that was evidence from opinion polling and other sources, which showed that some potential voters in all-postal pilot schemes had been deterred from voting because of the difficulty or inconvenience of finding a suitable witness. The commission also said that a witness statement offered no guarantee of security, as there was no register of signatures. Therefore, it was perfectly possible for witness signatures also to be forged.
I shall give a further example from the piloting experience that the commission reported on in 2003. It noted that in Trafford, only 414 ballot papers were rejected out of a total return of about 84,000. In the previous year, with a declaration of identity, 2,164 ballot papers had to be rejected. The commission pointed out that that equated to 2.5 per cent of the total turnout. In other words, there is a much higher rate of invalid ballot papers as a consequence of the requirement. If we were to extrapolate those figures across the four pilot regions and assume, optimistically perhaps, that there was a 50 per cent turnout at those elections, the consequence would be that 175,000 people could be disenfranchised because invalid papers had been submitted.
In essence, we are taking the Electoral Commission's view and advice on the matter. That does not mean that we do not believe there to be an issue about fraud, but on the advice of the commission and in our own opinion, we do not believe that the proposal suggested by the amendment is the way to deal with it.
As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, there is considerable concern that such a measure might discriminate against those with disabilities. Officials in the department met representatives from Scope and RNIB last week, and a strong view was expressed that a witness requirement only added another obstacle barring many disabled people from voting in secret and at their convenience. Scope feels so strongly about the issue that it has written to two noble Lords expressing its views, saying:
"We are clear that requiring voters to have their ballot witnessed by another person not only increases the likelihood of people spoiling their ballot or returning them uncompleted but also puts many disabled and older voters, who are more likely to be more isolated or live alone, at a substantial disadvantage".
As I have said, the forgery of one signature does not preclude the forgery of a second signature.
Furthermore, it has been suggested that voters must be sent acknowledgement. I understand why that is suggested, but both our and the Electoral Commission's view is that that should not be done because it would substantially increase cost and bureaucracy. More importantly, it is not an effective anti-fraud measure. It is also doubtful whether it would really work. We have taken steps to reduce the risk in situations such as houses in multiple occupation. An individual who is willing to accept the potential consequence of fraudulently taking an elector's vote is likely to put in place contingencies to accept any acknowledgement. Electors can ask whether a vote has been received, and returning officers will be able to give them that information.
Without more ado or delaying the House further, I reiterate that we agree on the importance of using the pilots as ways in which to identify whether fraud is taking place and effective ways in which to resist, rebut and deter it. However, we do not believe that the amendment is a good way in which to do that. For those reasons, I hope that the noble Lord will be minded to withdraw it.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I understand the sincerity of his argument about various measures to overcome fraud with postal voting. However, I still believe that the witness signature on the declaration of identity is a necessary weapon in the armoury against fraud at this stage, until such time as there is individual voter registration.
I understand that there may be concerns about the secrecy of the ballot. However, as the ballot paper is inserted into one envelope and can be sealed and seen by nobody else and the declaration of identity then accompanies it, there should be no problem with secrecy. I accept that there may be some problems for some people in acquiring a witness to sign that they are who they say they are. However, we are now at a point at which the all-postal pilot votes may not require that, while in any other region in England, Scotland and Wales, if one votes by post on
My Lords, I should like to make one response, which I omitted earlier, to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about the policy paper. He has my apologies if he has not received a copy. We believe that one was sent, but I shall try to ensure that one gets to him this afternoon.
My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, speaks to his amendment, I draw to the attention of those of your Lordships who did not notice the fact that the Division Bells failed to function in the last Division. The Division was therefore extended to 10 minutes from the conventional eight minutes. If the Division Bells cannot be repaired, we may need to give further thought to how we proceed in future Divisions. Obviously, in this particular case we were caught short, as it were, by the failure of the equipment. Let us hope that it can be repaired.
moved Amendment No. 7:
Page 2, line 14, at end insert—
"( ) The pilot order must make provision for including in the count of votes any postal ballot paper received by the returning officer through the post on the day following the day appointed for the poll (or, where more than one day has been appointed, the last of such days)."
My Lords, as one of the tellers for the "Not-Contents" in the first Division this afternoon, I feel a certain sense of guilt about the correction that has just been made.
I tabled this amendment because I think it is essential to allow postal voters to vote on polling day, which would be the effect of this amendment. It is wrong in principle to say that postal voters in pilot regions must vote a day earlier than voters in the regions that have conventional polling. It is true, of course, that most recipients of postal ballots are likely to vote quite shortly after receipt of a ballot. That is not necessarily a good thing, but that is what seems to happen in practice. Surely, however, they should have the right to delay their vote until polling day. As has been said, people change their minds as a result of events which may happen at a very late stage during the poll. So it seems right that it should be possible to vote by post on the polling day itself.
When I originally tabled the amendment I had assumed that postal votes cast on a Thursday would be delivered to the returning officer on Friday morning and that postal votes cast on Friday would be delivered until Saturday, with the result that votes received on the Friday would be votes cast on the Thursday—assuming that to have been the polling day—and that they should therefore be counted. I recognise that it is possible under the Government's proposal for people to go to a supported delivery point, but that is likely to be inconvenient in a great majority of the cases and impracticable in a substantial number of them. If there are one, two or, at most, three supported delivery points in each constituency, a journey of many miles may be required to reach them in rural areas. Even in urban areas, supported delivery points may be located in places where parking is difficult or impossible. They may be beyond easy walking distance and involve the voter having to use and pay for public transport.
It now appears from the policy paper published by the Government—I am very grateful for having been sent a copy of it—that I may have been wrong to assume that ballots posted on polling day will not be collected and delivered on that day. Section 6 of the paper states:
"Royal Mail will be offering a specialised service for these elections which will provide for all electoral mail collected on the day of poll, up to the last collection from post boxes within the local authority area, to be sorted out and made available to electoral administrators at a time that ensures the ballots are available for the close of poll . . . It will ensure that ballots put into post boxes within the local authority area up until the time of last collection (usually between 4.00 pm and 6.00 pm) on the day of the poll are collected and made available for the count.
The policy paper goes on to say:
"Electoral administrators should make it clear in elections materials that ballots should be posted no later than midday on the day before the date of the poll or otherwise to return completed ballots at a SDP. The 'day of poll sweep' will act as a contingency to catch ballots where electors do not heed this advice".
So far, so good; that means that postal voters will be able to vote by post on Thursday. At the same time, however, it appears that voters will be told not that they can vote on the Thursday, but that they must vote by Wednesday, even though they will in fact have been able to vote by post on the Thursday. If that is the position, then that seems very unsatisfactory. Surely the official election literature must accurately tell the voters the true position. It is entirely legitimate for them to be encouraged to post not later than the day before polling day. However, surely they must be told that ballots posted before the last collection on polling day will in fact be delivered and counted. Can the Minister confirm that that will be the case? I beg to move.
My Lords, as I think the Liberal Democrats appreciate, although we exactly understand the situation, we are not totally in support of the amendment, mainly because we think that without a poll closing time it will be very difficult to decide the time by which a ballot has to be received in order for it to be counted. What will the election literature specify as the time by which a ballot must be posted to ensure that it is counted? To some extent it will depend on the Royal Mail. However, we need to know a little more clearly what the Royal Mail is intending to do. We shall come to that point in a later amendment.
When we spoke to the Minister in a meeting a week or so ago, there was some confusion between the time at which the Royal Mail would make the final collection of ballot papers—between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on the day of the poll—and the time by which it would be advisable to post the completed ballot as stated in the election literature. The point may have been covered in the policy paper, but the policy paper will have to be turned into something else, which I presume will be the pilot order. The point will have to be covered in that.
I was pleased to see included in the policy paper a commitment that the number of votes received after the close of poll will be counted to inform an evaluation by the Electoral Commission on the reliability of the system.
My Lords, we explored this issue in Committee and in a meeting between Committee and Report stages. I should set down a number of foundation principles. It is absolutely critical that there should clearly be a time when polling ceases. That time is, and it will be, 10 o'clock on the day itself. Both we and the Electoral Commission think that it would be quite wrong to have any confusion about that at all.
As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, indicated, we are minded to include in the advice that electoral officers should provide the advice that, if people in the polling areas are intending to post their vote rather than go to an SDP, they should post it by 12 o'clock on the day before. I think that that is sound and good advice because doing that will minimise the risk that one's vote does not arrive in time. In practice, the elector will have had not only the previous day but the previous two weeks to decide whether to vote by post and to post their ballot. The evidence from many places is that, for fairly obvious reasons, people tend to do it fairly early; if they are going to vote they tend to get on with it and do so. So the position is that most people will vote well before the final day. The advice will be that, if they are going to post their ballot, they should do so no later than 12 o'clock on the day before. If they wish to vote on the day itself, they can always go to a supported delivery point to vote in person.
That brings us to the final question about what the Royal Mail will seek to do. The Royal Mail has said that it will seek to scour the post boxes and sorting offices within the pilot regions between four o'clock and six o'clock on the day of posting. It seems perfectly sensible for the Royal Mail to do that—to try to maximise the likelihood that votes will count in cases where there has been a failure to collect a vote from a box if someone has voted the day before, or where someone has inadvertently and unadvisedly voted on the day itself. However, that will not change the clear advice that one should vote on the day before or, preferably, several weeks before. That is an opportunity that the postal voting system seeks to allow.
That is the Government's position and I hope that the House will agree that it is reasonable. We have seen an impressive commitment by the Royal Mail to the process of trying to ensure that we reduce the risk of not admitting votes that have been cast.
My Lords, will the Minister say whether the election literature will refer to the fact that a sweep will be made between 4 o'clock and 6 o'clock on polling day? It is surely essential that potential voters should be told the position. If, for example, someone wakes up and realises on polling day that he has not put his ballot into the postbox, he should know of the option of posting it that morning rather than having to go to what may be a highly inconvenient supported delivery point, which he may decide not to do.
My Lords, I do not wish to be abrupt, but that information would cloud and confuse the issue in a way that would increase risk. The best advice is to vote early if not often. Clearly, the advice is to get the vote in at the earliest possible opportunity. One may want to leave it until the last minute, and vote the day before, but why so? I do not wish to be pig headed about it, but while the Royal Mail will seek to reduce the risk of lost votes, one cannot be confident that it will always in all circumstances be able to sweep every post-box in such a limited time on the day. That may be difficult in some rural areas, for example, although it intends to try to do so.
The policy guidance made it clear that we were talking about post-boxes within the regions themselves. If someone puts a vote in a postbox outside the region on the day before, it should be included and counted. But there is no possibility that the Post Office could scan all the post-boxes in London on the day of polling. Therefore, to put out advice that voters might get away with it if they vote on the day and if they make sure that they do so in a certain region would lead to a risky situation and confuse the public.
My Lords, I wish to clarify my remark about votes following polling day. I understand from the policy paper—and welcome the fact—that the Electoral Commission will be asked to do a random selection test of the voting papers following the election to test for personation and fraud. Is that what page 15 of the policy paper means when it states that,
"the Electoral Commission will look at the number of votes received after close of poll so it will be important for electoral administrators to keep records"?
My Lords, with great sorrow, I regret that we may be taking a compliment that we do not deserve. I shall have to get a copy of the policy paper, but my recollection on this issue is that we shall want to track the number of ballot papers that did not count because they came after the time of closing. That is the point to which we are referring now. It is for a good reason; we want to see who did not get their votes in on time.
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord is right.
My Lords, in the circumstances it is apparent that my Amendment No. 7 is based on the false assumption that the delivery of votes posted on Thursday would be handled by the normal postal delivery system and would therefore not arrive until Friday morning. As that assumption now appears to be false, I do not intend to press the amendment.
I accept that this does not apply to ballots posted outside the pilot regions, but it is deeply unsatisfactory that people will not be told that a ballot posted within a pilot region before last post—before 4 o'clock in the afternoon—on polling day is likely to be delivered through the post on the day, and therefore will be included in the count. We do not seem to be giving voters full information that they can use to make up their minds about deferring posting their ballot paper until polling day.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. It is not about being unreasonable to the public, but about avoiding taking them into risk. The likelihood of a ballot failing to arrive on time would be substantially greater if we were to put out such advice. Therefore, we would be irresponsible to do so. At the same time, we need to try to ensure that if someone is misguided, mistaken or confused, his ballot will still count, if possible. There is nothing contradictory in those two positions.
My Lords, I still think that that does not solve the problem. Of course it is right that people should be told that there is a risk and that their vote may not be delivered if they leave it until polling day. But someone may have been away from home; he may arrive back late on Wednesday evening, having missed the last collection on Wednesday, and would be prepared to take that risk. He may not be prepared to go to a supported delivery point.
Having said that, there is nothing further that I can do. However, I regard it as highly undesirable that people should not be given the whole picture, including the risk of non-delivery if they leave it until the last possible day. As I said, it is clear from the policy paper that the amendment is based on a false assumption, so I beg leave to withdraw it.
moved Amendment No. 8:
Page 2, line 14, at end insert—
"( ) The pilot order must make provision to ensure—
(a) that all information provided is in a simple form, easily accessible to the elderly and disabled, and
(b) that those with disabilities are able to exercise their vote independently and in secret."
In moving Amendment No. 8, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 32. Both amendments focus on ensuring that provisions are in place to allow disabled people to participate easily in an all-postal election.
First, we still think it imperative to have an assurance on the face of the Bill that the details of the pilot order will state that information on voting will be in simple form and easily accessible to those with disabilities. The pilot order should also make it clear that those with disabilities can exercise their vote independently and in secret.
Secondly, it is equally important that in Clause 4, which covers the report produced by the Electoral Commission, there is a specific duty on the commission to assess the extent to which the manner of elections facilitated voting for those with disabilities, having consulted such organisations or individuals representing disabled people as the commission considers appropriate.
There was much discussion on those issues in Committee, and I was encouraged by the Minister's commitment to ensure that all necessary provisions would be made to allow those with disabilities to vote in an all-postal ballot. It is clear that there has been extensive consultation between the Government, the Disability Rights Commission and the RNIB. Both organisations set out a detailed briefing specifying their minimum requirements for providing for those with disabilities.
They proposed that all electoral information must comply with RNIB's clear print guidelines. Information and instructions should be in a minimum of 14 point in plain English with clear information about access arrangements. Returning officers must be in a position to provide formats in large print, tape, Easy Read, Braille, disc and e-mail. The ballot paper must be compatible with the tactile voting device. Home visits or one-to-one assistance must be provided to disabled voters on request. Signature guides and other aids are to be provided to assist voters to sign the declaration of identity, and staffed delivery points must be accessible to disabled voters.
There are many detailed requirements, and I thank the Minister for his letter of
We know that all-postal voting is an evolutionary process. It is designed to generate evidence and to test the waters to see if the method works. We therefore fully believe that our amendment, which specifies that the Electoral Commission must have regard to the accessibility of the election for those with disabilities, is vital in promoting best practice and gathering feedback from groups who represent disabled voters. I am sure that the Minister will assure us that this will go without saying. However, I prefer that it should be specified on the face of the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Rennard and I have added our names to Amendments Nos. 8 and 32 which we fully support.
We welcome the fact that the Government have gone some considerable way to meeting the requirements of the Disability Rights Commission and the RNIB. However, a number of outstanding questions remain. Certainly, the Disability Rights Commission considers that it is necessary to have clarity regarding the requirements for accessible information. It is imperative to get effective publicity arrangements in place.
I refer to a number of specific points. The Disability Rights Commission is very concerned about the minimum of one supported delivery point per local authority area. That is not good enough given the mobility and transport barriers for many disabled people. It is good that SDP staff will be trained, but will they be adequately trained in disability access? Will there be a single helpline number with text phone and e-mail options? There is concern about the colour of the ballot forms. The Disability Rights Commission contends that the ballot forms should not only be coloured but should have the words, "white, lilac, grey" printed on them. It is also very concerned that one of the colours involved is grey, which as I understand it is a particularly difficult colour for people with some degree of visual impairment.
The Government have said that election information will be made available in alternative formats which will definitely include tape and e-mail, and Braille on request. The Disability Rights Commission says that large print must also be available, that the expense of providing information in Braille on request is not great and should not be subject to an expense limit, and that clarification is needed on whether ballot papers will be available in anything other than large print. As I understand it, a number of unanswered questions still remain. I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with some of them, if not today at any rate before Third Reading.
My Lords, I shall do my best but I suspect that I shall need to take advantage of the latter suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I thank both Front Benches for acknowledging that we have worked with disability groups representing the interests of the disabled.
Clearly, ensuring that an all-postal ballot is accessible to those with disabilities is of real importance to the Government and to the House. There is reasonable evidence that many if not all disabled people find postal balloting advantageous. I shall not discuss that point at length but the Polls Apart survey showed that 96 per cent thought that postal balloting was either convenient or very convenient—however, the survey covered a relatively small number of people—that some 91 per cent thought that it was either easy or very easy to use, that 75 per cent thought that it was a better system and that 82 per cent, given a choice, would prefer to vote by that method in the future.
However, the fact that postal balloting appeals to many disabled people does not detract from the fact that one must work hard to make it as right as one can. The information has to be in a simple format. We spoke about that at some length in Committee. The pilots are concerned with making voting easier and therefore the information must be comprehensible to disabled people. Where we differ concerns the degree to which we specify exactly how to fulfil that objective. We believe that we must look to returning officers to follow good principles and good advice on how they do that. The Electoral Commission recently produced guidance on that issue entitled Equal access to electoral procedures. We believe that electoral administrators will utilise that guidance and we shall re-emphasise the importance of their doing so.
As has been signalled, we distributed our policy paper, if not universally, which referred to disability issues. I wish to read into the record some of the relevant points in the policy paper which set out our position. Supported delivery points must be accessible for the disabled. It would be a nonsense for a building with the traditional 15 flights of town hall steps to be used as a supported delivery point. That would clearly discriminate against disabled people. Therefore, I want to put it beyond doubt that such buildings must meet adequately and fully the requirements of legislation on access for the disabled, or they should not be used.
Electors will be able to request assistance with voting at an agreed place. For example, if a disabled person wants assistance, he or she can set up an appointment for that. Electoral administrators will make arrangements to deliver a tactile voting device to a blind or partially sighted elector to enable them to vote in private. Electoral administrators may, if requested, provide assistance, including marking ballot papers, for a disabled person at a supported delivery point. I shall consider whether the word "may" should be slightly stronger as it seems to me that it should be possible to assist disabled people in that way at an SDP. However, I make no commitment in that regard without reflecting on the matter. SDPs must have a large-scale version of the ballot paper available for voters to refer to.
We are working hard to try to ensure that these measures are accessible for disabled people. We met representatives of SCOPE and the RNIB last week and we are certainly happy to continue an active discussion with disability groups. I shall write to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, on the points that I have not covered.
Amendment No. 32 would require the Electoral Commission to report on the extent to which pilots facilitated voting for those with disabilities. I totally agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that that should be done. However, both we and the Electoral Commission believe that that is already captured by Clause 4(6)(a) of the Bill which requires the commission to report on the extent to which the pilots facilitated voting at elections. The Electoral Commission has made it clear that it interprets that provision as it should do; namely, that it includes reporting on accessibility and convenience for those with disabilities, and that it will so report. Therefore, it is already charged with a statutory duty that addresses this issue and it has furthermore confirmed that it understands and interprets the measure as it should do.
Although we do not agree with the letter of the amendment moved by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, we totally agree with the spirit of it and we believe that we shall give effect to it through the means that I specified. For those reasons I hope that the noble Earl will feel minded to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for his support. He asked a number of pertinent questions on which the Minister agreed to write to him. I hope that I and my noble friend Lady Hanham will receive a copy of the letter.
The Minister said that postal voting has advantages for disabled people. By inference that comment applies to those with mobility challenges but we are concerned at the moment with those with sensory disabilities. The Minister appears to have taken on board our concerns for which I am grateful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 9:
Page 2, line 14, at end insert—
"( ) The pilot order must make provision for postal ballot papers relating to houses of multiple occupation (as defined in section 345 of the Housing Act 1985 (c. 68) (meaning of "multiple occupation")) to be hand-delivered by an officer of the local authority who must make reasonable efforts to ensure that those to whom the votes are delivered are still in occupation on the premises."
My Lords, Amendment No. 9 focuses on the problem of delivering ballot papers to houses in multiple occupation (HIMO), a matter on which we dwelt at length in Committee and which has already been touched on today. Several examples have been given, especially by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, of abusers of votes that have been delivered to houses in multiple occupation. Since Committee stage I have had a number of representations made to me on the same basis, that it is an easy, open door to fraud.
I emphasise that when we talk about houses in multiple occupation, we use the description defined in Section 345 of the Housing Act 1985 which covers a large range of communal living establishments: homes, residential homes, student halls and so on. We are very concerned about the possibility in such places of a number of ballot papers being posted through the door, collected up by one person and filled out, either without the knowledge of those to whom the postal ballot was sent, or for people who no longer reside in the house in multiple occupation. If there is one place where the population turns over quickly, it is in a house in multiple occupation. There are many examples of a 50 per cent change over between the electoral register being created and the election taking place. It is not a simple problem but a significant one.
In care homes for the sick or elderly or in student accommodation, people may be completely unaware that any elections are taking place in which they have a right to vote. If their voting papers vanish in the interim, they will be more unaware and the papers will be of no use to them. I was pleased to hear the Minister say in Committee that he would consider the matter further before Report and that he understood the concern surrounding it. However, the noble Lord said that our approach was too much of a burden administratively, it gave no assurance that fraud would not take place and it was too prescriptive. Instead, he advocated leaving the issue up to the discretion of the local regional returning officers.
Nevertheless, despite such caveats, on page 17 of the policy paper some encouraging comments appear. Having said that, as I mentioned when speaking to the Liberal Democrat amendment, we are grateful to the Government for picking up some of our suggestions and putting them in the policy paper. However, here the matter is to be left to the discretion of the regional returning officers and it will not be a mandatory provision that they provide a hand-delivered service.
The Government have clearly conceded in principle that hand delivery would be one way of tightening up the procedures. We would like that to be compulsory for all the reasons that I have given. If left to the discretion of the regional returning officers, the worry is that they will try to justify the risk as not very great, and therefore not put in place provisions to implement the suggestion. The timescale is short and we know that the returning officers will be rushed to put in place all the necessary provisions for the election, but one or two examples of voting going wrong in HIMOs will be enough to put a question mark over the whole postal voting system. Therefore, I believe that it would be appropriate for there to be a mandatory requirement that the papers had to be hand-delivered to the premises and at least some check made that they were delivered to people who still lived there. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness and corroborate what she said about the practicalities of houses in multiple occupation. Unlike a house with one family in residence, if 10 or 15 people live in a house in multiple occupation, the turnover is very great. Electoral registers are regularly out of date before they have even been printed because people move on. Many itinerants and drifters tend to migrate in and out of houses in multiple occupation.
The danger of the theft of mail in such properties is one that was regularly drawn to my attention when I represented an inner-city area. Theft of mail was a regular occurrence. Mail would just be pushed through the door of a house in multiple occupation or there could be lots of pigeon holes and boxes inside where letters could be left so that anyone would be free to walk into those properties and simply take away all the correspondence that had been placed there. Sometimes if money were sent through the post, that could lead to people being financially much worse off.
I believe that there is a real danger that the situation could be open to abuse by those who want to manipulate or to distort the outcome of an election. They could simply raid the communal boxes or take the mail that may be strewn across the doorstep, which is regularly the case when one walks into a house in multiple occupation, walk off with the ballot papers and commit the kind of fraud to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has referred.
The amendment is very reasonable and I wish that it went slightly further. The noble Baroness has framed it in a moderate way. She is asking for the ballot papers to be hand delivered and the amendment refers to,
"reasonable efforts to ensure that those to whom the votes are delivered", actually receive them. One could go further than that. I believe that there should be a way of verifying, such as signing a form, that people have received the ballot, so that it is known that ballot papers have arrived in the hands of those for whom they are intended. I hope that between now and Third Reading the Minister will reflect on the matter. It is a very proper concern and one that the Government should take seriously.
My Lords, I agree that, like previous issues with which we have dealt today, this is important. It goes to the heart of ensuring that there is confidence in the postal balloting system on which we are conducting the pilots. Before noble Lords get too excited that I am about to make some major concession, I shall explain why we think that what the Electoral Commission has advised, with which we agree, is right.
Essentially the commission has advised that the returning officers should be charged, in their local situations, with the responsibility of seeing how best to manage the potential for risk in houses in multiple occupation. That is for a good reason rather than being just a "they say it's all right, leave it to them" type of approach. Two sets of issues intersect at the same time on this matter. We are talking about situations in which common mail is delivered through a front door and it sits in a common place until people pick it up. I was reflecting that my London residence has just such a system. That may or may not be a HIMO. There can be some HIMOs—if I can use that slang—as defined in the Act mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. In some situations, flats are in HIMOs and yet the postal delivery is secure.
A further point is that not all houses in multiple occupation automatically have high turnovers, but many do, such as the kind about which we are talking, the classic lodging house situations mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, or where there is a large churning of people and therefore the risk of a large amount of voting literature being around. In other HIMOs there can be a stable population; for example, long-term homes for the elderly where facilities are shared.
There are a number of different situations. As I do not believe that it makes sense for the Government or even the Electoral Commission to specify a rule that would apply across those different situations, the proper approach is to look clearly at the guidance that we and the Electoral Commission are putting out, make clear the potential of risk, and make clear the responsibility to try to manage risk by thinking about the issue. If anything, I shall look at the guidance to see whether that is clear or not in what it says about the management of risk in local situations. I believe that is what we are talking about.
Further, as we signalled previously, this will highlight what the post-election research must consider and whether there are problems of abuse that have not been trapped. I suggest, with respect, that that is the proper way to try to manage the risks, without in any sense implying that we are not treating the issue seriously.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. I remain concerned about his reply, but I shall not take the matter any further at this stage. However, because the Electoral Commission is beginning to develop its guidance, it would be helpful to see at least some of it before we progress to a later stage. There are two matters that will be fundamental to the consequences of the Bill: first, the contents of the pilot order; and, secondly, the Electoral Commission's guidance.
Both now and in Committee we have raised real and practical concerns, based on other peoples'—and partly our own—knowledge of what can cause an election to be flawed. I would be grateful to see what is proposed and to have an opportunity to comment. I accept that making a returning officer deliver ballot papers by hand may be too onerous, but I shall look at the matter again before the next stage. For now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, the amendment is about how many supported delivery points there are in a region holding a pilot election. The Government will be pleased to see that we have dropped our original amendment incorporated in our new clause in Committee on the administration of the pilot election. There we endeavoured to specify that there should be an obligation on local authorities and returning officers to ensure that any elector who wished to do so could vote in the traditional way in a ballot box at a polling station on
We are happy in principle with the current proposals. We have been told by the Government that,
"at a supported delivery point it will be possible to return a completed ballot paper; complete a ballot paper in a private area—with some form of assistance if required; and view the explanatory literature about the elections".
Our concerns focus on how many SDPs will be provided. In Committee we specified in an amendment that every local government ward in each region piloting the elections should have a facility for posting a ballot form in person on the main day of polling. We have had a rethink after reading the Minister's response to that amendment and the subsequent comments of other noble Lords during the debate. Somehow we wish to channel the discretion of the electoral administrators in the number of delivery points that there should be in each local government area.
We know that at least one SDP will be provided in each principal local government area, but with the ability for electoral administrators to provide more at their discretion. That is intended to cover those local government areas where transport links are poor or the area is particularly large. As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, pointed out perceptively in Committee,
"it is not very likely that local authorities will incur the expense of doing that".—[Official Report, 26/1/04; col. GC46.]
It is further emphasised by the comments in the policy paper on page 13:
"In considering the number and opening hours of delivery points, electoral administrators will need to take into account that delivery points in the local government all-postal pilots were only used by a very small minority of the electorate . . . and that a strong case will need to be made before the costs of additional delivery points are paid".
I fear that it is unlikely that such a "strong case" will be made and that there may be failure by local authorities to exercise that discretion to provide extra delivery points.
Will the Minister comment on that discretion? Is there any recourse to demand more than one delivery point in particular local government areas? Can the Minister clarify the idea behind the comment in the policy paper that, at least,
"one SDP will be open in each local authority area on the day of the poll"?
If a number of SDPs were made available after ballot papers were sent out, would not confusion be caused if only one was available on polling day?
The amendment would place an obligation on electoral administrators to make sure that all voters in the pilot elections had "easy access" to a delivery point. That may be a subjective turn of phrase, but it makes the point that electoral administrators have a responsibility to ensure that there are sufficient points. It would then be possible under Clause 4 for the Electoral Commission to examine whether that was the case and if not, why not. That would focus the efforts of the electoral administrators in each local government area to examine properly the convenience of the location of the delivery points—and thereby the convenience for the electorate. I beg to move.
My Lords, the supported delivery points are important and will be of assistance to a number of voters. Lack of privacy is among the concerns that we have had about people voting by post. In some cases people might prefer to enjoy the spirit of going along to the polling station and perhaps feeling that they can vote in privacy without other members of the household seeing how they are casting their vote. The problem with the amendment is over how one defines "easy access".
I have already made my own representations about the order, with some suggestions that may be helpful. Providing one supported delivery point in each council area may not be nearly sufficient. For example, that would mean that if there was a pilot in Manchester there would be only one supported delivery point in the whole city. Perhaps in Newcastle, where we now think that the proposals will happen, the appropriate number of SDPs may be one per local government ward. In a principal local authority the order could say that there should be one special delivery point per local government ward. Beyond that we might leave the decision to the returning officer's discretion, but at least it would provide more guidance on the number of points that would be appropriate.
My Lords, this is again one of those classic debates that we have, whichever party is in government, about the degree to which one specifies the means as well as the ends. The House will be aware of our broad position on the matter—that a balance has to be struck between ensuring that at least one supported delivery point is provided in each principal local government area and giving discretion to electoral administrators to provide more when they believe that that is sensible and desirable.
Clearly we are talking about all-postal ballots, not dual running. We are not talking about having both, but at what level we need to have a facility for those who wish physically to cast a vote in person, for any reason, or to vote late on the last day—or for any other reason. It is germane that extremely limited use has been made of supported delivery points in previous pilots. Our evidence from the survey has been that the average was that about 2 per cent of electors used a supported delivery point. The highest case was in Darlington, where 3.7 per cent of electors chose to use the SDP. It is particularly interesting that there has been no correlation between the number of SDPs provided and the number of people who used them, which is slightly counter-intuitive.
In Guildford, four delivery points were provided in a previous local government pilot postal election and 2.2 per cent of electors chose to use them. By comparison, in Gateshead 16 delivery points were provided, yet the number of electors who chose to use them remained at just 2.2 per cent. In Doncaster, 21 delivery points were used by only 1.93 per cent. That is a variation which shows that while we are right to say that such a facilities must be provided, it is hardly the most persuasive case for the Government to prescribe how many should be set up.
I shall take on board the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, concerning point 10.4 of the guidance. I believe that we need to reflect on whether confusion arises as a result of some SDPs being open on the day and some not. I do not wish to raise excitement on that point but, if a local authority has more than one SDP, we may need to reflect on the level of burden involved in keeping it open on the day rather than shutting it beforehand. However, perhaps I may reflect on that matter without giving a commitment.
At heart, we feel that responsibility for deciding on the level of additional SDPs to be provided should be placed on returning officers. I do not believe that we can easily specify that with a rule from government. Certainly, as I believe I signalled at earlier stages to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, it would be very burdensome to specify that there should be one for every electoral ward. For those reasons, I hope that, at least for now, the noble Baroness will be minded to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister very much. I want to question one figure. With regard to the pilot that has already taken place, did he refer to no more than 2 or 3 per cent of the electorate or 2 or 3 per cent of those voting? We really need to know the answer to that.
My Lords, the noble Baroness's hearing was as acute as ever. I referred to the electorate entitled to vote. Therefore, the proportion of those who voted would obviously be higher.
My Lords, I believe that that is slightly more significant. If there is a 30 per cent turnout and one or two in 30 voters use the delivery point, that amounts to many more people than I believe was being suggested or than the figure which was sliding under the radar as the Minister was talking.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that it makes a difference but it is not a massive difference. We are talking about 2 per cent of the electorate who use the SDPs and about 4 per cent of those casting votes. Therefore, it makes a difference but we are still talking about very small proportions.
My Lords, I shall not trade mathematics with the Minister across the Table. However, I calculate that, with a turnout of 30 per cent, about 6 per cent of voters would use the SDPs. I believe that shows that there is probably sufficient demand to ensure more than one SDP in any given local government area.
I also believe that one should be careful about where the supported delivery points are placed. In some areas, people will have to travel a long way to use them. They need to be as local as they can be to a substantial part of the electorate—I say "electorate" and not necessarily those voting.
I shall not push this matter further but I believe that the point must be understood. We must stop using the word "electorate" in terms of these percentages and revert to talking about the percentage of those who vote because that presents an entirely different picture. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, this amendment stems from the discussion in Committee on clause stand part. On that occasion I raised the issue of whether or not providing polling progress information to political parties, as required under subsection (4), was compatible with the European convention.
The Minister will be aware that the Electoral Commission sought counsel's opinion on the provision to the parties of a marked register. The advice was that disclosing information in the way intended altered the balance between the party and the elector to the extent that it might constitute an invasion of privacy. The provision may thus amount to a disproportionate infringement of Article 8 and/or Article 3 of Protocol I of the convention.
I appreciate that the Government have taken advice. The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, included some details in his letter to my noble friend Lady Hanham on
The nub of the problem can be put very briefly. Under the traditional method of voting—voting in person at a polling booth—a voter can refuse to disclose his or her identity to party tellers standing outside the polling booth. Under the provisions of this clause, the voters have no right to withhold their identity. The information is disclosed by virtue of subsection (4). Electors could, of course, opt to cast a ballot in person at an SDP on polling day, but that does not solve the problem: it will already have been disclosed to the parties that they have not voted.
At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, suggested that voting is a public act. I appreciate that point. However, as I pointed out in Committee, if postal voting is a public act, then so, too, is voting in person at a polling booth. The rights exercised by voters must be the same in both situations.
There is therefore a problem. I fully appreciate why this provision was introduced. I recognise the convenience to political parties of acquiring such information in fulfilling their vital role in the electoral process. We should be doing what we can to assist political parties as essential actors in the political process. However, doing so in this way may fall foul of the provisions of the convention.
The solution, as the advice given to the Electoral Commission indicates, is either to prohibit access to the marked register before the close of poll or to introduce safeguards. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, wondered why the register was marked in advance of polling day. I think it would be helpful to know why this practice has been introduced. Prohibiting access would be one solution; not recording who has voted prior to polling day would, of course, ensure that such access was impossible. In terms of safeguards, one option is to provide for an opt-out for those who do not wish to be solicited by political parties.
I tend to go for the clean option, as I did when we discussed the sale of the electoral register to commercial concerns. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, may have many recollections of our debates on that topic. I favoured banning its sale. Instead, we ended up with the somewhat messy option of an opt-out. If we are to go down the route of providing polling progress information, I fear we shall end up with another opt-out provision.
However, providing for such an opt-out will be difficult in relation to the June elections. It is too late for electors to indicate an opt-out preference on the electoral registration form. I suppose that it might just be possible to have an opt-out provision for those elections by giving electors the right to inform the electoral registration officer that their names are to be annotated in the register to show that whether or not they have voted is not to be disclosed to the parties, although the annotation would be. That might just meet the point but it would require amendments to the Bill.
In short, the provision for providing polling progress information is potentially flawed. I believe that the safest course of action, which would not undermine the purpose of the Bill, would be to remove this particular provision. As I say, I appreciate why it was introduced but I think that, having been put in, the wisest course may be to take it out. I beg to move.
My Lords, a number of our debates have dwelt on the issue of turnout and have brought up the controversy about whether or not to have more postal voting in order to improve turnout. Here, we are dealing with a measure which may or may not assist political parties in encouraging turnout in the elections. There is something of an irony in that. If we are trying to encourage participation in the democratic process, on balance I feel that the parties must have that information if they are to encourage people to participate and send back their votes.
I note the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, in relation to privacy. However, it seems to me that many people are unaware that the list of those who have voted in a normal public election at a polling station is made available to the parties afterwards. That may not be commonly known, but if that list is available to the parties some time after the election, I do not see why there should be a problem in making available to the parties, before postal voting takes place in a pilot, the list of the people who have voted thus far so that they can chase up those who have not voted.
Compared with information on polling day, the noble Lord, Lord Norton, refers to how people may not choose to give to a party teller at the polling station their voting number or their address. But short of wearing a disguise, many people are actually recognised at the polling station when they go to vote. If they walk into a polling station in the normal election it is known whether they have voted and therefore someone has noted that they have not been so far in the day and they may get a call from the party at a later stage on polling day asking them to vote.
A number of safeguards may be necessary. I am concerned about how we might protect privacy. It seems very important that the parties provided with this information treat it with the same degree of confidentiality as they do the electoral register. Three or four years ago we added safeguards to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act to prevent commercial organisations acquiring the electoral register. A coach and horses would be driven through those provisions if anybody was able to get hold of a list of who has voted by post so far, who has not, and make use of those lists. Safeguards must be built in. It is generally assumed that the parties will not pass this information on: that is a safeguard that voters probably generally need to have.
My Lords, I should like to add a point to what my noble friend has just said. The marked register in a normal polling station election is not available to political parties. It is available to anybody who wants to avail themselves of that facility. They may be representing political parties on 99 per cent of occasions, but anybody can inspect the marked register and obtain copies of it; not all candidates belong to political parties.
There is a crucial issue of principle here as to whether the act of voting is and should be a private act. I argue that it is not a private act; it should not be a private act, and if it ever became a private act that would be another blow to the integrity of the ballot.
Before the Ballot Act 1872, you had to turn up in person to vote and declare how you were voting. Either you declared it on the hustings or it was written in a register, which was then published. The ballot was not secret. But the second part of the integrity of the ballot, in addition to secrecy, is that the person voting is the person to whom the vote is allocated, who appears on the electoral register and who is entitled to cast that vote. Unless a list is available, at least after the election, of who actually voted, it is impossible to check whether fraud or personation took place, whether somebody tried to rig the election, or whether an individual tried to cast a vote, for whatever reason, which he was not entitled to cast.
All the talk of the Human Rights Act and so on interfering with the process is potentially disastrous. It is absolutely essential once the election has taken place that we can find out who purported to vote. If you cannot do that there is no way you can start making complaints and no way that you can really investigate close elections that might have been rigged in some way.
The issue here is that on a normal polling day, at a polling station, a political party is perfectly entitled to appoint polling agents who are entitled to keep their own marked register while they sit inside the polling station. So the political party itself, or rather the representative of a candidate at the election, is entitled at the close of poll at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. to walk out with a marked register. What they are not entitled to do—and what is an election offence—is to tell people who has and has not voted during the hours of poll. That is why I am concerned that what is proposed for postal elections and what has happened in some of the postal elections so far is different from the practice in a polling station.
I am not saying which is right or wrong, although we have to think what we will all be doing during those two weeks after the postal votes are posted out and received by people. When I say "what we are all doing", perhaps I am not speaking for everybody in your Lordships' House, but I am certainly speaking for myself and I am sure for some of my noble friends. We will be chasing up those electors whom we believe were voting for us, and whom we believe have not returned their ballot papers. That is what we will spend a fortnight doing. It may be a foolish way to spend a fortnight but the Government want the polling day to be a fortnight and not a day, so what we do normally during the hours of polling on polling day we will do over two weeks—if we get all-postal elections in our areas. It is in that context that this issue has to be looked at.
On balance the Government are probably right to want to issue a list of who has voted at a particular stage, simply because if they do not a lot of people will be bothered by frantic politicians, not just for two or three hours in the evening of polling day, but for a fortnight, which is not good. There is a real problem here. The Government in the longer term—if all-postal ballots become more frequent and the marked register during the campaign becomes an accepted fact—must look at polling day legislation and see whether the rules on polling day ought to be changed and whether there is any good reason why who has voted during the day on polling day should continue to remain secret.
My Lords, I was not going to intervene but this has stirred up my recollection of what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said earlier. He gave a very graphic description of what would happen if all-postal votes became a generality. He said that there would be a disconnection between the candidates and the electorate. It is one of the reasons why, although we see some of the difficulties, we do think that it is important to have access to the list of people who have voted. It is absolutely clear that that does not mean a description of how they voted—they may have spoilt their ballot paper within the envelope—but the mere fact that they have voted means that candidates can concentrate on those who have not voted.
It may be that all electors will be thrilled to bits that nobody calls on them ever again—neither rings them up nor has a go at them, but it is not what our system allows for. As long as we have a party political system where candidates are trying to present their manifestos and themselves to the electorate then it seems perfectly proper that there is some way of knowing when and at what time people return their ballot papers, or whether they have returned them at a given stage. I see that the policy paper allows for that—it suggests that the political parties within each area should come to a conclusion with the electoral officer as to how they want that information to be presented. That seems fair and reasonable.
My Lords, there has been an extremely interesting debate on this amendment. We know why it is an issue. Strong representations were made by political parties in the other place that a marked register should be distributed during the period of the election campaign. That was in part for a party political reason but also for a good reason, that reason being that by so doing it was more likely that more people would be encouraged, assisted and persuaded to vote. The problem for the political parties is the fact that you can lobby and take someone to the polling station, but that does not necessarily mean that they will vote for you as a consequence. Nevertheless, there is a good intent which goes beyond party politics that sits beneath this and since this issue is above all about trying to increase the electorate's participation in elections it is in alignment with that central thrust.
What is interesting in what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, advanced is the question of ECHR compliance. I want to reflect on that point; I do not want to busk at the Dispatch Box on it. But if it were thought that the right to privacy might be infringed, one could well see that what was given as the advice on all-postal balloting would apply also; in other words, that it was balanced by the wider benefit of increasing the electoral turnover. Perhaps I may reflect on that and send a letter to the noble Lord before Third Reading, with a copy, as usual, to the Opposition Front Benches. Clearly, if we think that it is compliant I shall just set out in the letter why we consider it to be so.
The second issue raised by the noble Lord is whether, if there is a risk of infringement of privacy, there is a way around that which does not frustrate the legitimate ambition of the political parties to have a marked register. Essentially he asked whether it would be possible to have an opt-out at the time of the register which would replicate that which takes place outside a polling station; that is, when someone is asked "What is your name and have you voted?", for the person to be able to say, "No, I shan't tell you".
The noble Lord is right that it would be impossible to do that in time for the June election. However, perhaps we should reflect on that without implying that we shall concede the point. I believe that was the nub of the point raised; namely, whether there is a way which does not frustrate the ability of political parties to affect turn-out but which allows an elector to have privacy.For the reasons I have given, apart from promising to send the noble Lord a letter before Third Reading, I do not believe that we should accept the amendment. As stated by the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Greaves, there is a good reason for the marked register being issued to political parties. I believe that that outweighs the other interests advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. With that explanation, I hope that he will be minded to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, perhaps I may begin by agreeing with the Minister that this has been an interesting albeit short debate which raised relevant points. I shall make three brief points in response. First, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, is right; at the heart of this matter is the question of getting the balance right. The Minister recognised that in agreeing to reflect on this in the light of the convention. I very much welcome his comments in that regard.
Secondly, the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Greaves, raised important issues concerning access to the marked register, including the present arrangements, which take us beyond what is at the heart of my amendment. There is a much wider issue on which we should reflect in respect of that which is independent of the Bill.
Thirdly, nothing which was said undermines the provision of a safeguard, for example in the form of an opt-out. I appreciate that the Minister cannot make any commitment on that. As he said, in effect one is looking to the future, although I suspect very much that we shall end up at that point. However, I am grateful for what the Minister said and for what he has promised to do. In the light of that I have no hesitation in begging leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendments Nos. 12 to 19 en bloc:
Page 2, line 15, leave out first "The" and insert "A"
Page 2, line 16, leave out "the election" and insert "a pilot election"
Page 2, line 26, leave out second "the" and insert "a"
Page 2, line 26, after "order" insert "relating to a pilot region"
Page 2, line 27, leave out "a region specified in the main order" and insert "the region"
Page 2, line 30, leave out "each region specified in the main order" and insert "the region"
Page 2, line 32, leave out first "the" and insert "a"
Page 2, line 34, leave out subsection (10) and insert—
"( ) The Secretary of State must not make a pilot order unless he first consults the Electoral Commission.
( ) It is immaterial whether such consultation occurs before or after the passing of this Act."
moved Amendment No. 20:
After Clause 2, insert the following new clause—
(1) The Secretary of State may not make any order under section 2 unless the chief executive of each of the postal authorities involved has made a written statement that he has made alternative arrangements for the delivery and return of postal ballots in the event of a postal service being suspended for whatever reason.
My Lords, we return to the technicalities of postal voting in terms of the role of the Royal Mail. We tabled this amendment in Committee to try to provide an assurance from the Royal Mail that all necessary provisions had been undertaken in relation to all-postal ballots.
At Second Reading a lot of scepticism was voiced by noble Lords from all sides of the House and in another place about the ability of the Royal Mail to handle an all-postal vote on such a large scale. Subsequently, we have seen the policy paper which I understand was the result of talks between the Royal Mail and the Electoral Commission. I was heartened initially by the amount of detail in the policy paper on the formatting of envelopes containing ballots and how the return process will work with special envelopes, barcodes and postcodes to assist the Royal Mail for easy identification during the sorting process. That helped to alleviate some of my concern over the possibility of ballot papers getting lost in the post.
However, I still have considerable unease about the contingency plans were there to be a strike or some other disruption to the Royal Mail service. As I understand the policy paper, the process would be to find any electoral post within the system and return that to the electoral administrators and then to seal up post boxes and provide instead ordinary delivery points. It is that second stage on which I wish to probe the Minister. We hear that the returning officers may use their discretion to employ ordinary delivery points (ODPs); that such ODPs must provide a delivery/drop off/ballot box that is securely stored and monitored but without an area to complete ballot papers in private or staff to provide assistance. Moreover, the way in which these ODPs are to be publicised is unclear as are the staffing provisions. Can the Minister shed any more light on those provisions? I am concerned primarily about the vagueness of whether an ODP is to be a delivery or drop-off point or a ballot box. Which is it to be? Also, where will they be located? Will there be the same amount as conventional post-boxes? How will they be advertised?
I am afraid to say that the contingency plans are not sufficient to assure me at present that the Royal Mail can guarantee delivery of votes in the case of a strike or other disruption. I have just seen the letter which was sent to the Minister by the Royal Mail and I am bound to say that it is about as woolly as I would not have wished. It is not at all clear. It simply states that the Post Office has contingency arrangements and that it will endeavour to try to deliver all the postal ballots to the returning officer.
Trying and endeavouring to deliver ballot papers simply is not good enough. If people vote—unless they vote late and that is their fault—they expect their ballot papers to be with the returning officer. We all know that from time to time there are localised skirmish strikes. That happens in all kinds of industries. It is crucial that the Royal Mail has a robust provision for dealing with that. I can see that it may not want particularly to say what that is because that would give the hand away. However, we have to move the Royal Mail from a spirit of "endeavour" to a spirit of guarantee. The letter which I saw was completely insufficient in that regard. What is even more salient is that it was originally sent to the Government in December and could have been made available to us at a far earlier stage so that we could discuss it in detail.
I remain extremely concerned about the contingency provisions of the Royal Mail to deliver in the face of a crisis. We have amended the Bill to cover two circumstances so we are probably reducing the area of concern and impact. However, this must not go wrong. If the Royal Mail is to do this job, it must be in a position to ensure that every ballot paper posted on time is returned to the returning officer. After all, that is what happens when people put their votes into a ballot box; they are guaranteed to arrive. We should not expect any less from a postal ballot. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am happy to return to this issue which we discussed in Committee. First, one should mark that we are talking about low risk. That does not mean that there is no risk, but we are talking about a low-risk situation of industrial action either nationwide or in some of the returning areas concerned in the June pilot. Clearly, there is currently a risk—it does not happen that often but it is perfectly conceivable—that local authority staff could strike. That, in itself, could cause problems for an election. Such things have happened.
We have sought to ensure that, for what are low risks, contingency plans are put in place which are as robust as possible. In Grand Committee we passed on a commitment by Adam Crozier, the chief executive of the Royal Mail, to write giving his assurance that robust contingency plans are being put in place for postal arrangements. That letter, as has been signalled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has now been copied, I trust, to the Front Benches.
This issue is clearly one of credibility for the Royal Mail. One could not have an issue more damaging to its reputation if it fails to deliver the election in these regions. That consequence would be such a contradiction of our democratic process. The Royal Mail is well seized of the importance of fulfilling the expectations. We are confident that it has treated the issue with the level of management and chief executive and chairman attention that one would expect in the situation.
Local plans will be drawn up for every local authority area. The plans will include the local returning officer, the local Royal Mail management and Royal Mail customer operations managers to address how they would deal with risk in those situations.
All such plans, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, will not be publicised—for reasons I think she respects—but they will be quality assured by the central Royal Mail team to see whether they look robust. There will be a further oversight of the process by a project board, which includes senior DCA and ODPM officials and other senior stakeholders. So I believe that we, the Royal Mail and the returning officers are going a long way to try to ensure that there are very strong contingency plans in the event of industrial action.
The noble Baroness raised a number of points about ordinary delivery points, on which I may have to write to her. But I would expect that the ordinary delivery points would be mostly dropping-off points where one can post one's ballot paper rather than being like SDPs where, in the usual case, one could go and vote. I am sure that that would be the likelihood, but I should like to give the noble Baroness more information on that point and will do so via a letter.
We have sought, both by the processes that we have put in place prior to Committee and the Bill and by giving a fairly public commitment from the chief executive of Royal Mail about how seriously this issue is being taken, to demonstrate that there is some very serious contingency planning, albeit for a small risk. While I may not have totally satisfied the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, on this issue, I hope that she recognises that it is treated extremely seriously by returning officers and the Royal Mail.
I thank the Minister for that reply. There is not much point in taking the matter any further at this stage. I shall obviously want to re-read the letter from the Royal Mail, which I saw very briefly. I am still slightly concerned that the facilities are not robust enough, but we shall have to look at that further. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment No. 21 is another consequential amendment. We spoke to it previously. I beg to move.
Government Amendment No. 22 is essentially an alternative drafting of Amendment No. 23, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee and the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. It would ensure that, when producing its report, the Electoral Commission had a duty to consult all district or county councils in a pilot region. The discretion with regard to other tiers of local government would remain in place, although this will now be implicit rather than explicitly stated.
An amendment was tabled in Grand Committee that would have compelled the Electoral Commission to consult all local authorities in a pilot region. That was resisted on the basis that in some areas it would involve consulting perhaps hundreds and hundreds of parish councils. I am sure that that was not the intent behind it. Therefore, we have tabled this amendment to address the issue and to put it beyond doubt that the obligation will be to consult principal authorities. I beg to move.
My Lords, I merely thank the Minister for the amendment. It takes account almost entirely of the amendment that we moved in Grand Committee and, indeed, that which we have put down today as Amendment No. 23. It is a sensible outcome. Many of the other relevant authorities of course are within the local pilot areas, but I am satisfied that sufficient account will be taken of everyone who has taken part in the pilot to ensure that we get a report that matches up to what we would expect and that gives us an opportunity to see for the future how things have worked. Having said that, I clearly will not take Amendment No. 23 any further because I will not be allowed to.
In moving Amendment No. 25, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 33. We decided to return to this amendment, which we debated during Grand Committee. At that stage we received some positive answers from the Minister, but nothing that we believed was sufficient to set our minds at ease concerning the issues of fraud and malpractice.
The greater potential for electoral fraud and malpractice which all-postal voting creates is evident to noble Lords. We have conceded that, despite these potential abuses, it is worthwhile trying out a system of all-postal voting in European parliamentary and local government elections.
However, it would be irresponsible to do so without trying to set out as many safeguards as possible on the face of the Bill and in the pilot order to try to minimise such abuses. That is one issue that the Government are indeed taking seriously. We can see from the policy paper that they have put forward a number of suggestions about how fraud can be countered. These include extending the penalties for personation, providing security at SDPs and in the processing of ballots and so on.
Our question, however, is how we know whether this is successful in stopping electoral malpractice. What of the coercion, intimidation or selling of votes that we know occasionally happens? What of the shared households where ballot papers could simply be scooped up and returned by one person? We need not only to guard against that sort of behaviour, but also to know how prevalent it was in the election.
Our amendment picks up that point. It focuses on Clause 4—the report that the Electoral Commission draws up on how the pilot went. There are a number of criteria, which explain who must be consulted and what kind of things should be contained in the report. Subsection (3) obliges the local authorities in the region to assist the commission in preparing its report. Subsection (4) explains that this assistance may include asking the electors their views on the administration of the elections. Paragraph (b) refers to,
"reporting to the Commission allegations of personation and of other electoral offences or malpractice".
Our amendment would insert a further manner of assistance as paragraph (c):
"making arrangements for the inspection of a sample of ballot papers to ascertain whether there is evidence (even where no allegation has been made to that effect) of personation or other electoral offences or malpractice".
The basis for our amendment is straightforward. We do not think that the local authority should merely report allegations which it has received about personation, but it should be obliged to do spot checks to ascertain whether malpractice has taken place.
The process should be proactive, not merely a case of reacting to allegations. That is clearly a vital part in collating evidence to see whether the all-postal voting system works on balance. It is designed to encourage voter participation. But if that is at the expense of a far greater increase in malpractice, either more protections need to be put in place or we need to think again about using it as a system for elections.
Research has to be done into whether the type of electoral malpractice that I mentioned earlier—the bullying, intimidation, vote buying or vote usurpation in houses in multiple occupation—is taking place. Anyone who is a victim of such malpractice is probably unlikely to report it. We need a duty on the local electoral administrators to go out into the community and ask a random sample of those who have voted whether they were party to any malpractice.
The policy paper which the Government have put out accepts the rationale behind our amendments. Paragraph 14.3 on page 16 mentions further provisions to tackle fraud which, we learn,
"may be included within a pilot order or may be provided in the discretion of the RROs".
One of those, paragraph 14.3.4, mentions,
"checks with a sample of people marked as having returned a ballot paper to check that they did send in the papers and were not coerced in the process of completing and returning them".
It appears that the Government can see the sense in our proposed amendment. Many of our concerns are covered by their Amendment No. 34. Our only difference is that we make it an explicit duty of every local authority that co-operates with the Electoral Commission in gathering the evidence on the success or otherwise of the election.
Spot checks or random sampling is the only means by which it is possible to get any representative idea of how common electoral malpractice is, or is not.
Amendment No. 33 deals with the issue of secrecy. We have had several discussions during the debate today and in Grand Committee on the problems of secrecy in all-postal voting. I will not rehearse them all again now, but will outline where our thinking has got to since our discussions in Grand Committee. As a newcomer to this area of policy, the contribution during Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was very helpful to me in understanding how important secrecy in the ballot is.
We know that the Government are taking this issue very seriously. I was gladdened to see several references to secrecy in paragraph 14 of the policy paper. Paragraph 14.3.5 mentions the,
"inclusion of secrecy warnings on voting and proxy voting literature".
Paragraph 14.3.7 proposes,
"extending the scope of secrecy rules to cover all postal provisions to require those serving in a delivery place, and those providing assistance, and observers to abide by the secrecy rules".
We are pleased to see that these are both intended to be mandatory provisions.
While these proposals on secrecy are a positive step forward, we still believe that there is a need for something more specific in the Bill. We are therefore grateful for the last line of government Amendment No. 34, which will require the Electoral Commission to include in its report an assessment of whether the piloted system undermined,
"the secrecy of the ballot".
Given the many ECHR concerns in relation to secrecy which were discussed in Committee and today, it is vital that secrecy is included as a separate point for consideration.
Liberal Democrat Amendment No. 35 lies within this group. That would require the Electoral Commission to carry out something like a market research exercise after the elections to research whether personation or electoral offences had taken place. It may be necessary because some might feel that such research techniques might contravene the principle of secrecy without legislative authority.
From the Minister's comments at cols. GC208–09 of Hansard for
We support the amendment entirely. I beg to move.
My Lords, may I start by returning the compliment to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, in saying that while he supports our Amendment No. 35, we equally support his Amendments Nos. 25 and 33.
It is important that the Electoral Commission should look carefully—and in as much detail as possible—into the question of possible personation and electoral fraud in all-postal voting regions. As we have made clear—particularly my noble friend Lord Greaves—this is potentially a very serious problem indeed. So far, the Electoral Commission has relied to a large extent on the evidence of complaints about fraud in the course of postal voting which have been submitted to the authorities. The Electoral Commission should be more proactive than that, and not only ask electors about their attitudes to the use of postal voting—which they have already done—but ask questions designed to extract their views and knowledge about the incidence of fraud. They also need to take into account any complaints and investigations by the police. It is essential that the Electoral Commission should do that.
I recognise that the second subsection that is to be introduced by Amendment No.34 goes a long way to meeting the issues raised by Amendment No. 35. I hope that the Government expect and will request the commission to use a sampling by polling a representative group of electors as one of the methods by which they will aim to achieve that objective. I appreciate that they cannot give orders to the Electoral Commission as it is an independent public body.
My Lords, I find merit in every amendment in the grouping.
I suspect that the Minister will argue that Amendment No. 34 subsumes the other amendments that are being discussed. I see merit in it and welcome its provisions. There is a distinction to be drawn between the government amendment and Amendments Nos. 25 and 35. As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, was indicating, they impose a requirement on the Electoral Commission to be proactive. That was the point developed by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in Committee when he moved an amendment to that effect. Today, he has brought forward an amendment that meets points that were raised in Committee, both by myself and by the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.
The thrust of Amendment No. 35 is very important in requiring the commission to be proactive, and I welcome the changes that have been made to it. I support them. If the matter is left too much to discretion, there is a danger that not enough work will be undertaken to find out if there has been any fraud or any undermining the secrecy of the ballot. In the context of these pilots that is extraordinarily important.
My Lords, that is an important issue that we have referred to a number of times, and have come back to several times during our consideration in Grand Committee.
In Grand Committee I signalled that I was sympathetic to the view that as one moves from smaller-scale piloting to larger-scale—if there were the potential for all other tests to be met—then that issue is of considerable importance. I signalled my sympathy. It is not just a matter of looking at reports of malpractice, as that would, by definition, identify only what had been reported and would not identify malpractices that had taken place, but for whatever malign reason had not been reported because they were not known, or for any other reason.
I said that it was important that the Electoral Commission should find an appropriate mechanism for identifying what was happening, as well as what was reported. The Bill does that. It provides that the Electoral Commission must assess the extent to which the pilots affected personation and other offences and malpractices. In order to fulfil its duties without us telling it how to go about its job, the commission will have to collect information from returning officers, local authorities and electors. It will have to talk to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, without in any way impinging on the responsibilities of the police to investigate malpractice under the Act.
The issue of spot checks of ballot papers was raised. Such checks do not take place in traditional arrangements, for the important reason that the secrecy of the ballot must be maintained. It is right and proper that documents such as security statements may be inspected, but the ballot papers are sealed after an election and are inspected only on the order of a court, if the court has found that there is good reason to do so.
As we said in Committee, the Electoral Commission can attend the verification of ballot papers, the counting of votes and proceedings on opening of postal ballot papers. Such provisions will remain in the pilots. In addition, the commission will report on specific issues of fraud, if it identifies causes to do so. The Bill obliges it to assess the extent to which postal voting affects the incidence of personation or other electoral offences. That is exactly what is being requested.
The commission would not wish to be put in the position of looking at ballot papers after the close of the poll, and I do not think that local authorities would either. Currently, all such investigations are done under the supervision of the court. On a related issue, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, asked in Grand Committee whether the time for which electoral materials were kept would be extended to match the extension of time for prosecutions under Clause 7. He was right to do so. I can confirm that that is the case and will be provided for in the pilot order.
Government Amendments Nos. 34 and 38 are a response to Amendment No. 35, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Goodhart, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. They seek to address some of the concerns expressed during our discussion of Amendment No. 7. As part of a wider assessment of whether pilots increase fraud or other offences, the amendments will ensure that the commission assesses whether electors feel that the pilot was secure from fraud and offered proper security. In that sense, we are looking at the perception of fraud. The amendments specifically allow the commission some discretion about how it proceeds. In 2003, MORI was commissioned. The government amendments will allow that to happen again and allow electors to be asked about their experiences and perceptions of all-postal voting in the pilots.
We tabled Amendment No. 34 after reflecting on what was said in Committee. It has been suggested that the commission should do more than simply consider complaints, and I have signalled my sympathy for that view. However, we should leave details of how it will go about it to the commission. The other part of the amendment is a response to Amendment No. 7. We do not accept the case for Amendment No. 7, but the first part of Amendment No. 34 is on a related issue, and I hope that that will be recognised. The amendment is intended to ensure that the Electoral Commission reports on the number of ballot envelopes received after the close of poll.
Amendment No. 33, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, would require the commission to report on the extent to which the manner in which the elections were conducted undermined the secrecy of the ballot. As my noble friend Lord Evans of Temple Guiting said in Committee, the commission is already required by Clause 4(6)(c) to report on how the pilots affected the incidence of electoral offences or malpractices. That covers all electoral malpractices and offences. If there are breaches of secrecy even though no offence is committed or if there is no breach of secrecy but there is a perception that postal voting makes it more difficult to vote in privacy, it will be picked up by the opinion polling provided for by Amendments Nos. 34 and 38.
We think that we have struck the right balance by setting out a clear expectation that not only should the commission investigate reported malpractice or the perception of malpractice but it should also identify the reality of malpractice that might not have come to the surface. We would not want to go any further in telling the commission how to do its job.
The commission will set up a call centre to receive complaints and will refer to administrators any allegations of fraud. The CPS will provide channels for reporting matters of concern. The list of provisions and options open to administrators is included in the policy paper that was referred to earlier.
I hope that Amendments No. 25 will be withdrawn and the others not moved and that Amendments Nos. 34 and 38 will be supported.
My Lords, once again, I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart.
Amendment No. 34 meets nearly all our concerns. Certainly, it has its attractions, as outlined by the Minister. I repeat that I am attracted to Amendment No. 35, which would give legal authority to market research, but the Government have moved a long way towards meeting our concerns, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, these amendments are consequential to the previous amendment that we debated. I beg to move.
moved Amendments Nos. 27 to 31:
Page 3, line 20, leave out from "which" to end of line 21 and insert "postal voting and provision made by the pilot order—"
Page 3, line 22, leave out "elections" and insert "election"
Page 3, line 23, leave out "elections" and insert "election"
Page 3, line 26, leave out "elections" and insert "election"
Page 3, line 28, leave out "elections" and insert "election"
On Question, amendments agreed to.
[Amendments Nos. 32 and 33 not moved.]
moved Amendment No. 34:
Page 3, line 28, at end insert—
"( ) For the purposes of subsection (6)(a) the report must include a statement of the number of ballot papers which appear to the returning officer to have been delivered to him during the period of one week starting with the day after the date on which the poll closed.
( ) For the purposes of subsection (6)(c) the Commission must ascertain by such means as it thinks appropriate and report on the views of electors as to whether postal voting and provision made by the pilot order—
(a) provided sufficient safeguards against fraud;
(b) provided appropriate protection for the secrecy of the ballot."
My Lords, the amendment is consequential. I beg to move.
moved Amendments Nos. 40 to 43:
Page 4, line 23, leave out "order under section 2" and insert "a pilot order"
Page 4, line 28, leave out subsection (2).
Page 4, line 33, leave out "Subsections (1) and (2) do" and insert "Subsection (1) does"
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 7 [Time limit for prosecution of offences]:
moved Amendments Nos. 44 to 49:
Page 4, line 38, leave out "order under section 2" and insert "a pilot order"
Page 4, line 39, leave out "or (in Scotland) the sheriff"
Page 4, line 40, leave out "or he (as the case may be)"
Page 4, line 40, leave out "appropriate application" and insert "application by a constable or Crown Prosecutor"
Page 5, line 3, leave out "or the sheriff (as the case may be)"
Page 5, line 8, leave out subsection (4).
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 8 [Other elections, etc]:
moved Amendments Nos. 51 to 55:
Page 5, line 26, leave out subsection (3) and insert—
"( ) A pilot order is an order made under section (Piloting conduct at European and local elections).
( ) Pilot region must be construed in accordance with section (Piloting conduct at European and local elections)(3)." Page 5, line 33, leave out "in relation to England,"
Page 5, line 33, leave out "the Council of the Isles of Scilly"
Page 5, line 36, leave out paragraphs (b) and (c).
Page 5, line 40, at end insert—
"( ) Postal voting must be construed in accordance with section (Piloting conduct at European and local elections)(4)."
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 10 [Orders]:
My Lords, Amendment No. 56 will withdraw Clause 10 in its entirety. Clause 10 gives details about the laying of the orders before both Houses of Parliament. Noble Lords will forgive me if I am wrong, but I have not noticed that commitment being maintained by any other amendment.
I appreciate that we are now down to one order, but that order will contain the nuts and bolts of what is being proposed, and it seems inescapable that it must come for affirmative agreement by both Houses. The removal of Clause 10 will remove the possibility of an order coming to the House, or have I missed that somewhere?
My Lords, the noble Baroness gave me a Gypsy's warning, if I can use that expression respectfully, that she wanted to make that point. I shall write to her and to the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Goodhart, but my recollection is that our position is that there is no need for the resolution process that she talks about. The order will be such an administrative and technical one that we cannot see that it will require parliamentary scrutiny. That is part of the reason why we were keen to share the policy paper with the Front Benches. It has helped to inform scrutiny of the Bill, and it gives a clear signal of the direction in which we are moving.
The hour is late, however, so I shall write to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, setting out our argument. It will not give her an opportunity to come back on it, I realise, but I recollect that we felt that the second order had always been of such a technical nature that we could see no issues that required parliamentary scrutiny. I am busking on this, but I do not think that the statutory instrument committee marked it as requiring such scrutiny. That is correct.
My Lords, is it not correct that the Delegated Powers Committee took the view that, in that case, it would not insist on a form of parliamentary procedure for the pilots order, not because it was unimportant but because it was assumed at that point that it applied only to two regions of the United Kingdom and only for one election? That order was to cease to have effect after
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, is correct that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee did not think there was a need for parliamentary scrutiny, partly, I think, because the Bill is a one-off event. That is the normal situation. This Bill, despite the effort we have put into it, ceases to have effect after the June elections. It falls away, so what happens subsequently is open.
Given that point, buttressed by what the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee said, we do not think there is a need for parliamentary scrutiny of these issues. Whether anything like that should happen in the future—whether there should be parliamentary scrutiny of future orders, were there to be further pilot orders—is an issue that will come back to the House. Therefore, I do not think we are at risk in not having parliamentary scrutiny on this.
I hope that we have demonstrated by the way in which we have taken the Bill forward that there has been a wish to try to share as much as we can with Opposition Front Benches. I will give a commitment that we will seek to continue to do that. Although there will not be a parliamentary process, I will seek to ensure that we try to share information with Opposition Front Benches so that they are aware of what is happening on these issues as we move forward on the electoral pilot. It is not simply an issue of the confidence of Parliament about the Bill; it is also important that political parties understand what is happening on the implementation of the pilots. Therefore, I give that commitment.
My Lords, I have a vague recollection of the noble Lord, Lord Evans, waving a pile of papers at us in Committee and asking whether we really wanted to have all this for all the pilot areas. I am bound to say now that I do not, but an example of what the pilot order will look like would be extremely helpful.
In order for us to be able to make any progress on that if we think something in it has not been adequately dealt with, it would, at the very least, be sensible to suggest that at Third Reading we move an amendment to put it in for a negative order. As the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, says, that gives us a chance then to ask for the House to see it if there are omissions or additions about which we have concerns.
moved Amendment No. 58:
Page 7, line 7, leave out from third "a" to "must" in line 8 and insert "pilot region"
On Question, amendment agreed to.
My Lords, I remind your Lordships that if Amendment No. 59 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 60 or 61 because of pre-emption.
moved Amendment No. 59:
Page 7, line 11, leave out from "2004" to end of line 13.
My Lords, I will seek to keep this relatively succinct. Included in the schedule to the Bill is a provision preventing Westminster by-elections as well as other elections, by-elections and referendums taking place within a window of time around the European parliamentary election in pilot regions. The Bill states that no Westminster by-election is to take place either on the same day as the European parliamentary elections or at any time within three weeks before or after that date. The intention is that undue complexity and confusion is avoided for electoral administrators and the electorate.
The provision was raised as a concern by the Select Committee on the Constitution in its consideration of the Bill. It stated that it was aware of no direct precedent for the imposition of such restriction which would cause the electorate in the affected constituency to be without a representative in Parliament for longer than would otherwise be the case. This may be perceived as setting a precedent, with constitutional implications.
The Government tabled an identical amendment to Amendment No. 59 in Committee, but we could not reach unanimity, so it was withdrawn. This amendment would keep the current exclusion, but amend it, so that the excluded period is reduced to just the date of the European parliamentary election. We felt that that took on board the Constitution Committee's clear advice in this respect. The amendment, therefore, still prevents the by-election on the same day as the European parliamentary election and since elections are conventionally held on a Thursday, it would actually prevent by-elections during the entire week surrounding the European election. I hope that that is some, if not sufficient, comfort for the noble Lord, Lord Rennard.
The noble Lord argued forcefully in Committee that a longer period was necessary; Amendments Nos. 60 and 61 name a period of two weeks either side. I have set out why we think it is wise to keep the absolute prohibition at a minimum. However, at least for parliamentary by-elections, the relevant party Whip has the power, within limits, to determine when the election is called. One would expect all parties, without there being a statutory prohibition, apart from one day, to be aware of the issues around the election in June. I say no more than that, but what we have said gives a window that is wider than one day. No doubt any Chief Whip of a party so affected would think long and hard about whether it was wise to test the comprehension of electoral administrators and the electorate by bringing them too proximate together.
I hope we have responded strongly and clearly to what the Select Committee on the Constitution said, while still making a nod in the direction of the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall also be very succinct, as I was rather less so in Committee. The Minister has been kind enough to reply to various points I made then. He has picked up the point that the timing of the parliamentary by-election lies, by convention, with the Chief Whip of the party whose member has died or resigned. I hope the noble Lord will take note of some of the points I made in Committee about whether a by-election should arise during that time.
I still foresee a degree of chaos in overlapping between a parliamentary by-election and a pilot with all-postal voting. The postal voting regulations will be so different between the two elections that people who might want to vote by post in a parliamentary by-election a week or two before or after the pilots for the European and local elections may be rather confused. I fear they may think they will be sent a postal vote automatically. I think it would be much more satisfactory to have a two-week gap on either side, rather than one week. It is only by convention that our elections are held on a Thursday—elections are occasionally held on a Wednesday or Friday.
I note the Minister's remark that these points should be considered by Chief Whips at the appropriate time. At least we will not have the complete confusion of two elections under two systems on the same day.
My Lords, I rise to add my support, because I attached my name to government Amendment No. 59, and I welcome the fact that the Government have brought it forward. I support fully what the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, said.
As the noble Lord said, the Constitution Committee, in its report on the Bill, drew attention to this provision. The committee did not offer a judgment on the provision. The purpose of the report was to call it to the attention of the House because it raised an important issue of principle affecting a principal part of the constitution. We must be extremely wary about any provision that has the effect of limiting the rights of electors. There is the danger of a range of disparate provisions being introduced over time that have the effect of limiting the capacity of electors to choose a representative. I raised that matter recently in a different context—that of the prohibition of the dual mandate for members of the European Parliament, which constitutes a limitation on the freedom of choice of electors. Any provision that affects the rights of electors must be subject to the most rigorous scrutiny and it must prove not simply desirable or convenient but essential. The case has to be compelling.
I do not think that the case for banning parliamentary by-elections for a number of weeks either side of the June elections is compelling. Holding a parliamentary by-election within a week or so of the elections held by postal ballot may prove, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, indicated, an administrative nightmare. It may induce voter fatigue. I appreciate that. That recognition was at the heart of what the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said in Committee. However, in practice, as is generally recognised—and the Minister has referred to it—the situation is not likely to arise. It would not be the end of the world were it to happen, but the chances of a seat becoming vacant between now and June—in a seat falling within the territory of the European Parliamentary constituencies chosen for postal elections— and the party holding the seat opting for a Thursday just before or after the June elections are slim to say the least, as the Minister said.
However, I would rather run the risk of it happening than set a legislative precedent. I appreciate the point made in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that there are problems with the existing provisions for holding by-elections. That, though, is an argument for addressing those problems. It is not an argument for retaining this particular provision.
The Government are absolutely right to move this amendment. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, put it forward in Grand Committee and I am very pleased that the Government are persisting with it today. It has my full support.
moved Amendments Nos. 62 to 67:
Page 7, line 15, leave out paragraph 2.
Page 7, line 33, leave out from "a" to end of line 34 and insert "pilot region"
Page 8, line 10, leave out "an order under this Act" and insert "a pilot order"
Page 8, line 19, leave out from "a" to end of line 20 and insert "pilot region"
Page 8, line 35, leave out paragraph 5.
Page 8, line 43, leave out "an order under section 2" and insert "a pilot order"
On Question, amendments agreed to.