Lords Amendment

– in the House of Lords at 4:13 pm on 16 March 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Votes in this debate

3 Clause 2, page 2, line 14, 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."

The Commons disagree to this Amendment for the following Reason—

3A Because it is not appropriate to make the requirements to which the Lords amendment relates.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 3 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 3A.

In seeking to set out clearly why this is so, I can best encapsulate it by saying that if there was any evidence whatever that this measure—the first paragraph, to which I am speaking specifically—were of help, we would be open-minded about it. But all the evidence, and there is plenty of it, makes it quite clear that it does not help. In fact it goes the other way.

The evidence shows that requiring a witness to sign that an elector's signature is valid has been shown to be a barrier to voting, and it does not offer protection against fraud. I do not expect the noble Baroness to take my word for it in this respect, but I do expect her to listen seriously to the evidence that the pilot process has advanced so far. In 2003 every local authority which had also held pilots in 2002 chose to dispense with a witness requirement. They did so because experience showed that a witness requirement increased the number of rejected ballot papers, excluding those who may have difficulty finding a witness. Thus it impacts negatively on turnout.

The evidence for that is not simply from those individual elections, but also from the report of the Electoral Commission, The shape of elections to come. It gave the example of Trafford, where five times the number of ballot papers had to be rejected when a witness requirement was included compared with when only the elector's signature was required. The Electoral Commission carefully evaluated all the evidence and has concluded that a security statement requiring the signature of an elector but not a witness is the best model. The disability charity Scope agrees with that.

One would have expected that requiring a witness signature to an elector's signature would increase confidence in the safety and security of the ballot. That is what you would expect to happen. But the evidence from MORI, which undertook an evaluation survey of people's perceptions, found that:

"Perhaps surprisingly, people who were in postal voting areas where a declaration of identity, witnessed or non-witnessed, was needed were far less likely to rate the process as safe than those in areas where no signed declaration was required".

The organisation went on to say:

"The normal declaration particularly affects perceptions of 'ease of use', with 20% fewer rating postal voting as good in areas where this is in place".

For those reasons, there is strong evidence that this is a barrier to voting and does not help those who are disabled. As I have said, the charity for the disabled, Scope, has spoken out strongly against this proposal. Scope is concerned that paragraph (a) of the amendment would create significant barriers for many voters, particularly disabled and older voters, along with those with low literacy, and will negatively affect voter participation in the June elections. Scope, which has undertaken substantial research on postal balloting, went on to say:

"Evidence suggests that requiring a declaration of identity and a witness signature does not make the ballot significantly more secure, but it does have a dramatic impact on turnout".

In other words, it has a downward impact.

For these reasons, the Government are clear that this proposal does not make sense, and the Electoral Commission supports that view. In short, if one wants a measure that will reduce turnout, that will increase the number of spoilt ballot papers, and that will reduce confidence in the security of the ballot, vote for the amendment because that is what it will do.

I turn to the second issue of asking returning officers to provide acknowledgments that they have received a postal ballot. On the face of it, this may appear sensible, but what has been clearly signalled both by the Electoral Commission and by returning officers is that this would be an administrative nightmare. As well as organising the election, returning officers would have to enter a paper chase in which they would be required to send back acknowledgments as soon as they received the postal ballots, or as soon as they could manage to do so. That in itself is not simple.

As the Electoral Commission has said,

"the requirement to send individual acknowledgements will place a considerable burden on Returning Officers and their staff at an extremely busy time, and it would be difficult to guarantee a swift acknowledgement. Any delay in acknowledgement could generate unfounded anxiety on the part of voters; and generate further work for the Returning Officer in dealing with queries".

Rather than creating a virtuous circle, we would have a vicious circle of complexity.

My final point is that our initial estimate of the costs of carrying out such an acknowledgment process for little benefit that we can see would be between £2 million and £2.5 million. We cannot see that money as justified, particularly because we cannot see any benefit here.

It is important that we have had a further chance to reflect on these issues. The Commons and the Government have done so, but the evidence could not be clearer: neither of the proposals would help the process in any way. Therefore, for the reasons I have set out, I hope that the amendment will not be pressed.

Moved, That the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 3 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 3A.—(Lord Filkin.)

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

rose to move Amendment No. 3B, as an amendment to the Motion that this House do not insist on its amendment 3 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 3A, leave out "not".

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, with great respect to the noble Lord the Minister, there is one very fundamental and major flaw in his argument about the declaration of identity. Just five days ago, your Lordships' House agreed without a murmur of protest to the Government's proposed regulations for the conduct of elections in June. Indeed, I understand there was no objection whatever in another place. Five days ago we considered the regulations for the combined elections on 10 June. Within those regulations, three pages set out, in some detail, the requirement for all postal votes that are to be applied for to be returned with an accompanying declaration of identity, signed by a witness, to confirm that the person returning the postal vote is the person who should be returning that vote. That is the rule the Government have proposed—we have agreed and the Commons have agreed—should apply in eight, nine or 10 of the 12 regions across the United Kingdom in these elections. There was not a murmur of protest anywhere that this should continue to be the system for checking against postal vote fraud.

The first part of my amendment therefore simply insists that the same safeguards should apply where is it even more necessary—where postal votes are delivered to every voter irrespective of whether they have requested one. Without it, it would be all too easy to scoop up the votes delivered to places such as homes in multiple occupation, where you can sign that you are the voter and then return those votes. The declaration of identity with a witness signature means that you must get somebody else with different handwriting who must sign and confirm their address to certify that you are the person entitled to return that vote. Without the system of individual voter registration I referred to earlier, I believe that this process remains an essential safeguard everywhere, not just where postal ballots have to be applied for. It is for the sake of consistency rather than for changing the rules that I advocate this system.

It has of course been suggested that it may be harder for disabled people to get a witness signature than for non-disabled people. I do not believe that argument to have any real basis in logic. Even a disabled person living alone will surely see some other person—perhaps a carer—in the fortnight that they have to vote. If, very sadly, they do not, one wonders quite how the postal vote without a witness signature could be returned in any event.

I have also heard it suggested that the witness signature may be another measure that undermines the secrecy of the ballot, a point about which we are generally concerned with all postal voting. Those of us familiar with the process of voting by post—indeed, I always vote by post—will know that the ballot paper itself is enclosed in a separate envelope so that nobody witnessing the voter's signature on a separate declaration of identity should actually see the ballot paper itself.

I accept that the second part of the amendment is rather more experimental, but I find rather strange the argument in another place that we should not do this because it is experimental when the whole purpose of piloting voting systems is to experiment. Throughout all these debates there has been much speculation about the level of fraud. One way of assessing the scale of the problem is by trying to alert people when their ballot paper has been received by the returning officer. This may help to allay fears that their vote has actually been received in time. It will also arouse suspicion if someone knows that a ballot paper that they did not in fact receive and complete has been returned without their knowledge. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do not insist on its Amendment No. 3, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 3A, leave out "not".—(Lord Rennard.)

Photo of Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Labour

My Lords, I am speaking today on behalf of my noble friend Lord Carter, who is unable to be in the Chamber at this time. Scope has conducted research into accessible voting systems for the past 12 years, including evaluating the accessibility of 2002 and 2003 election pilot schemes on behalf of the Electoral Commission. It found that requiring voters to have their ballots witnessed by another person not only increased the likelihood of people spoiling their ballot or returning them uncompleted, but also put many disabled and older voters, who are more likely to be isolated or live alone, at a substantial disadvantage.

Scope wishes to point out that requiring a declaration of identity and a witness signature does not make the ballot significantly more secure but does have a dramatic impact on turnout. Last year, St Edmundsbury, the only postal pilot to retain the need for a witness, had the lowest turnout of any voting pilot in England and Wales. Literally millions of voters would be adversely affected by such a requirement, including 2 million people in Britain who have visual impairments, 1.5 million people who have a learning impairment, and 24 per cent of adults who have low, lower or very low literacy levels.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendment and to challenge, mildly, the previous speech. We are not talking here about elections across the country where an enormous number of people would be involved. We are talking about the experimentation in what we hope will be two regions but which the Government hope will be four. While I absolutely accept that there will be a significant number of people who will need help with the ballot paper, it does not by any means fall into the number that was being quoted.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made a very justifiable point. We are in danger here of running two sorts of elections from two different departments. Last week, we went through the regulations from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. As the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, a witness signature is required. We come to the matter today. A different department is involved and there is a great hue and cry about it.

One of the aspects of the experiment ought to be to ensure we get the most secure vote. Having a witness signature to the postal vote—which, after all, is now the only method whereby these people can vote—is not beyond the bounds of possibility or credibility, and will possibly give more credibility to the vote. I therefore beg to support the amendment.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I held myself firmly down during the debate on the previous amendment. I had difficulty in doing so when the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, claimed to be speaking on behalf of the north-west. However, like him I should declare a potential interest. In my case, depending on various selection processes, I may be on a ballot paper on 10 June—or whenever they are sent out if we have an all-postal vote.

The Minister said that the witness statement was thought to be a barrier to voting and doing away with it increased ease of use. I would put it in a different way. It may be a barrier to fiddling and it may reduce the ease of fiddling. It would be interesting to know, in the pilots that have already taken place, who sent back the ballots papers that had been rejected because they did not have a witness statement accompanying them. As far as I am aware, nobody has actually done that research. It is all very well using MORI or anybody else to carry out vague opinion polls asking people general questions such as: "Did you like it?"; "Did you have a nice tea the day you voted?"; or whatever it is. However, what we actually need from these pilots is hard investigation and evidence concerning the following points. If there is a difference between the number of rejected papers without the witness and the number of rejected papers that had the witness, who were those people? Has anybody chased them up to find out why they did not send the witness statement back? This is the kind of hard research we want. It just has not been done at all. I hope that it will be done in the pilots that take place in the European and local elections this year.

I explained in considerable detail in Grand Committee having the witness statements was extremely helpful when we felt it necessary to investigate some local elections in my own borough in Pendle. It may be that you suspect people of going around hoovering up votes and then sending them all in. If you have a witness statement accompanying them, you know by inspecting afterwards who has witnessed those votes. There is a line of inquiry. When you discover that some people have each witnessed more than 100 votes, this should lead to further lines of inquiry and to suspicions about what has happened.

We are being asked to agree to the proposition that the necessity for a witness statement will make it more difficult for disabled people, visually impaired people and people impaired through low levels of learning or high levels of learning difficulty to complete their ballot papers. I do not buy that. If a person is capable, through whatever means, of understanding the ballot paper and the instructions that accompany it, signing the separate piece of paper, putting the ballot paper in one envelope and then putting all the paperwork in another envelope and sending it back, should we be asked to believe that that person is not capable of getting someone else to sign a separate piece of paper confirming that he or she is the person sending the ballot paper back? I respect what Scope says, but I think it is wrong.

We all know that the demand for postal votes at the moment is heavily biased towards old people and disabled people. We have never had any serious complaints over the years that it causes them difficulties. As my noble friend said, the idea that some people are such recluses that they never see anyone in a fortnight—although, no doubt, there are one or two people in society nowadays in that sad position—and cannot ask one person to sign a form saying that they are who they are meant to be is, quite frankly, not a serious argument.

As to the second part of my noble friend's amendment, even if the wildest dreams of the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, who is not in his place, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, come true and there are huge turnouts in the elections as a result of the postal votes, and the turnout across the north-west is more than 50 per cent, that will still mean that almost half the ballot papers sent out will be lying around somewhere during the fortnight in which they can be sent back. They will be piled up in lobbies and in hallways; they will be put on one side; they will be put out in bags for the local waste-paper collection; and they will be lying around in all kinds of other ways. It will be so easy for people to wander around, pick up ballot papers and send them back.

The ballot papers will be a great temptation to political canvassers when they are going around, knocking on doors and talking to people. If the waste-paper collection is next to the door and the ballot papers are lying on top of it, I cannot put my hand on my heart and claim that no members of any party would ever be subject to temptation. If I could do so, I would, but I do not believe it, quite frankly.

Photo of Lord Smith of Leigh Lord Smith of Leigh Labour 4:30, 16 March 2004

My Lords, we have seen it in Oldham.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, we have indeed seen it in Oldham. Again, it is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, is now interjecting from a sedentary position because we have missed his great experience over the years. It was a great pity that he could not take part in the Grand Committee, in particular, and in the other stages of the Bill. His experience would have been extremely valuable, whether it be from Oldham, Wigan or anywhere else.

I should say to the noble Lord that there are many reports of landlords voting on behalf of tenants in Oldham. They go round, collect the rent, collect the ballot papers and send them back. The noble Lord is nodding. I would not like to say whether it is limited to one party or to two parties. I would like to say that it is perhaps a cultural issue but, whatever it is, it is highly undesirable.

On the other hand, if votes are being stolen without the knowledge of the elector and the elector gets a letter from the town hall stating, "Your vote has been sent in", surely that is a fundamental safeguard against fraud. We are all concerned about fraud and I therefore support my noble friend's amendment.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I shall be brief. As to the good question of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, about why last week that and this week this, the answer is that the declaration of identity with witness requirement is the norm for postal ballots in traditional elections. This is different because it is a pilot and we are testing out a different system in this respect. The reason that we have done so in the way proposed initially in the House, which the Commons now insist on, is because the evidence points that way.

I would be the first to agree with the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Greaves, that if these measures—perhaps with some caution about the second one, which is expensive—appeared to address the problem, we should look at them. When I first engaged with the Bill, on first flush it appeared to be the case that a witness signature would increase security and would be beneficial. But the evidence from the Electoral Commission in that respect is that that is not so, and the evidence from Scope—a charity for the disabled which has done more research on this than anyone—is that there are significant disadvantages as a consequence. So there is no measure of hostility on this; it is merely that the evidence does not support the fact that these changes will work.

I also agree with the noble Lord that we should be serious about the assessment of the scale of fraud, in both postal and other elections. I am four square with him on that. But I do not think that an acknowledgement is the way to achieve it. I have sought, in a condensed form, to set out the ways in which I believe that assessment should be carried out as part of the evaluation of these pilots. For those reasons, not through any sense of hostility, I do not think we would be wise to support these measures because there is no evidence that they will work.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I agree with the Minister that in due course it will probably be unnecessary to have these declarations of identity accompanied by a witness signature. But, until we have individual voter registration, as my noble friend Lord Greaves explained so persuasively and powerfully, the system is seen to be open to abuse and has been abused in a number of areas.

We are experimenting now with voting mechanisms and, when we have safeguards in the vast majority of the country for everyone who applies to vote by post, it is wholly inappropriate that we should eliminate those safeguards and simply send out ballot papers, almost willy-nilly, through every letter box. That seems totally wrong.

The arguments put forward by Scope, much as I respect it and disabled people, have effectively been countered during the debate. In my long experience of elections, these people are used to voting by post rather than going to a polling station. They seem to have no problem with the system at the moment and I do not see why they should have a problem with the system in the future. For those reasons, I should like to test the opinion of the House.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 3B) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 174; Not-Contents, 126.

Division number 2 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Lords Amendment

Aye: 172 Members of the House of Lords

No: 124 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.

Motion, as amended, agreed to.

Bill returned to the Commons with reasons.