"Piloting conduct at European and local elections

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 16th March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 3:30 pm, 16th March 2004

My Lords, I shall be very precise on this issue because I feel with some passion that it is very clear that the Electoral Commission does not support pilots in four regions. Accusations of selective misquotation abound, but three things are clear from the letter published on 4 March by the Electoral Commission. First, its view is that we do not really need further extensive piloting. The commission says that,

"so far as all-postal elections are concerned, most of the lessons have been learned".

Secondly, the commission says that we need more significant safeguards in our electoral process before the rollout of all-postal elections can be justified. It says that,

"the rollout of all-postal elections needs to be underpinned by a more robust statutory framework".

What the commission means by that has been made plain on a number of occasions; in this country, we need individual voter registration so that individuals are registered, a specimen of their signature is provided, and, if they vote by post, we can compare their signature on the witness statement accompanying the postal vote against their signature on the electoral registration, thus enabling us to be assured that there is not widespread fraud. We do not have that system in place at the moment, which is why the commission is opposed to rolling out all-postal voting on too wide a scale at present.

Most explicitly, the commission is saying that there is no justification for all four postal pilots. Having listed some of the problems, the Electoral Commission concludes:

"Nonetheless we welcome their use on a regional basis in order to test issues of scalability. But in our view pilots that cover over a third of the English electorate in June go further than we think necessary in order to address those issues, especially in the absence of the underlying legislative change we consider necessary".

The killer fact is in its conclusion:

"There is also in our view increased risk, with combined elections and in some cases new boundaries, in running on such a large scale and we are not persuaded that the risk is outweighed by what we might learn from four regional pilots as opposed to two".

After so many debates on the subject, we still have no coherent explanation from the Government of why they moved from saying that there should be no all-postal pilots in June to saying, when they had agreed that there should be combined elections, that there should be three. Then, in response to the Electoral Commission's view that only two pilots could be supported, the Government switched to saying that there should be four.

If there were to be extensive rollout of all-postal vote elections this year, it should have been agreed prior to considering the question of combining the local and European elections in June. The combining of the elections and the fact that there may be fraud through all-postal voting, causing the result to be different in certain wards and councils, means that many people will oppose the measures. In that sense, the Government are the author of their own misfortune.

We have heard from the Minister about the views of two of the returning officers most concerned. As he acknowledges, when the same returning officers were asked by the independent Electoral Commission, they expressed misgivings about the pilots on practical grounds, particularly in the north-west, because of widespread accusations of fraud connected with postal voting in certain parts of the region. The Minister now says that things have changed since the Electoral Commission spoke to those returning officers. However, I do not believe that things have changed; what has changed is the people speaking to those returning officers. It has now been the Labour Government speaking to the employees of Labour councils, whose leaders are terrified that, after many decades in office, they cannot persuade their voters to turn out to re-elect them, so the voting systems must be changed to suit those purposes.

Of course, professional staff under pressure will always say that they will do their utmost to deliver in professional circumstances. However, their initial warnings about fraud and such problems, and the Electoral Commission's advice that the Government were going too far by having four postal pilots, should have been heeded. The Electoral Commission says that it was not involved in the discussions between the Government and the returning officers. Why not? Would it not have been better if the Electoral Commission had been involved in further discussions? Would that not have been a good and necessary public safeguard?

Having four postal pilots is nothing to do with piloting and experimentation. The commission says that,

"so far as all-postal elections are concerned, most of the lessons have been learned".

The all-postal pilots in the four regions are to do with the fears of Labour council leaders, who are worried that, without a change in voting mechanisms, they will lose their positions of power. We would be failing in our duty if we did not ensure that proper respect was shown for the integrity of the electoral process and for proper means of advancing change, by consent wherever possible, and certainly not in the face of the Electoral Commission, which we established to help to avoid the perception that governments manipulate voting systems for their own electoral advantage.