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Electoral Administration Reform

Volume 511: debated on Wednesday 16 June 2010

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair today, Dr McCrea. I am delighted to have secured an Adjournment debate this afternoon on the reform of electoral administration. Before I start, I wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) on his new role in the Government and wish him well in his post. I hope he will be able to respond to my concerns and lay out the Government’s proposals for the reform of this important part of our democratic system.

Electoral administration sparked much discussion following incidents that arose during the recent general election. In total, many hundreds of people were denied their vote—something we should take seriously and should ensure cannot happen again. In my constituency on election day, a number of people were unable to fulfil their democratic right to vote. At one polling station in Woodseats, people who were queuing to vote in the general and local elections were turned away at 10 pm and the doors were locked, not because they had turned up late or were not on the electoral register, but because of administrative blunders. That polling station was responsible for 2,772 electors, but it had been allocated only one presiding officer and two poll clerks to officiate. The acting returning officer later disclosed that there had been queues throughout the day and that extra assistance had been provided, but obviously not enough. The problem of queues and people being turned away was repeated at three polling stations in the neighbouring constituency of Sheffield, Hallam, as well as in Chester, Hackney, Leeds, Lewisham, Manchester, Newcastle and Islington. Similar problems were seen across the country, which points to a problem in administration greater than that found in just one location.

Both the Electoral Commission and Sheffield city council undertook reviews into what happened on 6 May to find out why those problems were not anticipated. Each review investigated the processes that led to the deplorable challenge to the democratic system, and indicated possible changes for the future. The Electoral Commission review concluded that the substantial queues at a number of polling stations on 6 May came about for a wide variety of reasons. The most common factor was poor planning and an inadequate system, specifically

“unrealistic, inappropriate or unreliable assumptions; inadequate risk management and contingency planning”.

In addition, a number of reports suggested that many polling stations were not adequate venues for a continuous flow of voters.

Some polling stations where voters had difficulty were responsible for more than 3,000 people, while others had as many as 4,500 possible voters. That is contrary to the guidance issued, which indicates that numbers should not exceed 2,500. Guidance also recommends that, in addition to the presiding officer, there must be a poll clerk for the first 1,000 electors and one further poll clerk for the next 750, with an extra necessary for the maximum of 2,500 electors. Across constituencies, the Electoral Commission found that there were various levels of staffing. Some provision was effective; other provision, of course, was not.

The Electoral Commission heard that almost all the areas that reported problems with queuing had higher levels of turnout than expected. Some advised that polling staff were simply unable to cope with the demand. A contributing factor, certainly in Sheffield and a number of other areas, was the combination of local and general elections, which of course slowed the whole operation. Even where extra staff were deployed, the problems were not always resolved, even when several hours’ notice was given. A common problem was that polling station staff were not always clear regarding when they should contact the acting returning officer to ask for help; and when they did ask for help, it did not always result in prompt, decisive action. The Electoral Commission was made aware that in some areas, after the close of poll at 10 pm, presiding officers continued to issue ballot papers to people who were queuing within the polling stations. Legislation is clear that no ballot papers should be issued after the close of poll.

The Electoral Commission review concluded that there are a number of areas where change is needed. The time allowed for voting is generous—15 hours in general elections—but the rules for close of poll are restrictive and leave no leeway to allow people who have made the effort to vote to do so. The commission found that there would be benefits if the rules were revised, and that those within the polling station at its closing should be able to vote. That, I understand, requires primary legislation, and I urge the Government to ensure that that happens as soon as possible.

I am interested to hear my hon. Friend’s account of the problems that arose, and the role of the Electoral Commission in putting right a number of those and wider problems. On the question of the close of poll, does she accept that a one-clause Bill is perhaps required to amend the Representation of the People Act 2000 and thereby put things right? That should not be confused with wider reform of electoral administration, such as constituency management and individual electoral registration. Will she urge the Minister to say whether he will consider the early introduction of a one-clause Bill to put that right—perhaps in this Session—ahead of any wider review of the administration of the Electoral Commission that might take place?

My understanding is that it is a relatively simple, straightforward matter, but that it does require primary legislation. Perhaps the Minister can give us more information. It seems that it could be resolved relatively easily, so that the problem of people waiting to vote at 10 o’clock should no longer arise.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. The problem in my constituency was not so much voting on the day, but the issuing of polling cards telling people when to apply for a postal vote, which appeared way after the deadline actually printed on the cards. People in my constituency were disfranchised in a different way. I agree with everything the hon. Lady has said, but such legislation should include a provision that polling cards must be sent out before the deadline for postal votes.

I am very interested to hear that, as I was not aware of that issue. Later, I will address a different way that that issue could be resolved.

Local authorities and acting returning officers should review their planning to ensure adequate numbers of polling stations and adequate staffing, and address the question of their location. Those local reviews should obviously reflect on the individual problems identified during the May elections, including the one just raised by the hon. Gentleman. I understand that the Electoral Commission will give more prescriptive guidance on those issues.

We should take the opportunity to modernise comprehensively this country’s electoral administration. We should ensure that we obtain a professional electoral administration that takes into account the recommendations made in the commission’s August 2008 review of administration. The Government could consider changes, such as advanced voting in a suitable location—for example, the town hall—for up to five days before election day, and perhaps a trial of weekend voting.

When I was a councillor in Swindon, I was elected in all-postal elections and in elections involving internet and telephone voting—a form of advanced voting. Those very successful pilots took place over two years, and I would like to see that system introduced, as it would reduce the numbers coming through on the day.

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. Clearly, we should learn from those processes. I know there have been concerns about fraud, but I think all approaches should be examined. I am suggesting that people could vote perhaps just in one central place in the days before the election, in order to give another option and reduce the number of people turning out on election day.

Compiling the electoral register must be a higher priority, and acting returning officers must receive the resources necessary for that to be done. We know that many people—perhaps as many as 3 million—are missing from the register. It is time for greater effort to be put into producing accurate records. Local councils must use all available data banks to get electoral registers up to date, such as council tax lists and information from other local services—Sure Start, for example—that offer services to people who are otherwise hard to reach.

I also propose that the Electoral Commission be given a power of direction. At the moment, it can advise but cannot direct local authorities. There is no way to intervene if there is poor decision making at the local level, and a power of direction might be able to deal with the issues raised by the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole. The commission could look at what happened, make recommendations and direct so that it did not happen again.

Wider issues need to be addressed. I found on the campaign trail—I am sure this was also true for other Members—that many young people did not know how to vote, where to go, or how to find out about that basic democratic right. We should use advertising much more to reach out and inform people about the basics of voting. A 20-second advert could be sufficient to encourage more first-time and new voters to get out and vote. Too many people are afraid of looking silly by having to ask how to vote at a polling station; a quick advert could resolve that.

The Electoral Commission ran a successful campaign aimed at young people and students, using brands such as Kiss, Heat and Closer magazines, and 4Music. The message was, “Don’t be part of the silent generation,” and it encouraged young people to register to vote. The campaign resulted in some 540,000 registration forms being downloaded or posted, 2.3 million visits to the About My Vote website and 53,000 calls to the commission’s call centre.

We should also look at the design of ballot papers and how candidates are presented on them, an issue I have raised before in the House. In its 2003 report, the Electoral Commission stated that a randomised system for the names of candidates was the most attractive option, rather than an alphabetical system that provides an advantage to candidates with surnames beginning with A or B. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) agrees with that. When testing that approach, the commission also recommended that grouping party candidates together could assist both the electors and counting clerks.

As a Labour and Co-operative candidate, I faced an entirely unexpected issue during the general election. It became clear, just as nomination papers were due to be filed, that candidates standing for two parties could not use a party symbol. I had to choose whether to use one symbol and describe myself as standing for only one party, or to not use a symbol and use the names of both parties. That has not previously been an issue, and I have never had a problem before in describing myself as a Labour and Co-operative candidate. Indeed, I have been a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament throughout my time in the House. Legislation needs to be amended to ensure that Labour and Co-operative candidates can present themselves to the electorate in a clear way.

The method of challenging an election result—fortunately, I have never had to follow that path—is complicated, expensive and antiquated. Although I do not want to encourage frivolous attempts to frustrate the democratic process, I want the laws governing the electoral system to be understandable and easy to follow if the need to challenge arises.

We need an election administration system fit for the 21st century. The current system was designed when fewer than 5 million people had the vote; now, we have more than 44 million electors. Being able to vote is a fundamental part of our democracy. I understand—as I am sure the Minister does—the frustration and anger of those who were unable to exercise the most basic democratic right of giving their vote to the candidate of their choice. We cannot rewrite the past, but we can use this opportunity to ensure that the administration of our democratic system is brought up to date, and that we not only enable all our citizens to register and vote, but encourage them to do so.

I am grateful, Dr McCrea, for my third Westminster Hall debate this week and the second under your chairmanship today. It is, however, slightly less popular than this morning’s debate, when almost 50 Members of Parliament turned up to talk about something completely different.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) for securing the debate, which gives us the opportunity to discuss some important issues, and for her kind and generous words at the beginning. She raises some important issues, and she will know that the issues in her constituency at the close of poll also affected the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who has taken a close personal interest in the matter. Indeed, we discussed it when he and I met the chair of the Electoral Commission earlier this month. The hon. Lady can therefore rest assured that close attention will be paid to what we need to do as a result of the commission’s recommendations.

It is worth reminding hon. Members of the need to be clear about the role of the Government versus that of returning officers and the Electoral Commission, for a sensible reason. Clearly, the Government have no role in the administration of elections on the ground, which is what independent returning officers are for; we need to remember that there are good reasons for that. The Electoral Commission is also not responsible for running elections on the ground, but as the hon. Lady correctly says, it has a role in providing guidance for the people who run them.

It is worth setting out for clarity what the law says about the end of polling. The law is clear: ballot papers cannot be issued after the close of poll at 10 o’clock. Courts have considered the situation where people have turned up just before the deadline but were not able to cast their vote. It is clear that once someone has been issued with a ballot paper, they are allowed the time to cast it, even after 10 o’clock. After that time, no one should be issued with a ballot paper, even if they are inside the polling station. That is clear; the law has not changed. The guidance was also clear, and apart from a change in the close of poll from 9 pm to 10 pm, the law on when voting ends has not changed since 1949. It is therefore surprising that returning officers were not clear about what to do in those circumstances.

The Electoral Commission has issued an interim report on the matter, and one of its recommendations, which the Government are considering, is to look at whether the law should be changed so that electors in a queue before 10 o’clock should be issued with a ballot paper. That raises a range of issues regarding how the queue is managed and what resources will need to be put in place. There are constituencies, such as my own, where there could be nearly 90 polling stations, so clearly there are some issues with resources if we had to put in place provision for queue management at all the stations. There are a number of concerns, but the Government are considering them carefully, and we will decide whether to include the recommendations in our parliamentary reform Bill, which is scheduled for later this Session.

The hon. Lady mentioned the case of Woodseats library in her constituency. What happened in a range of situations in her constituency, that of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and elsewhere seemed to have been driven largely by poor planning. Returning officers either had too many voters in one polling district or did not staff the districts properly.

The hon. Lady highlighted an issue of the combination of polls for local and general elections, which seemed to take people by surprise, and where there was a underestimate of the turnout.

I welcome the Minister to his position on the Government Bench.

The Electoral Commission’s report highlighted one of the causes of the queues, which was that explanations had to be given to a number of people on why they were eligible to vote in the local elections but not in the general election. Early-day motion 1, which stands in my name, suggests a practical step to ensure that queues are kept to an absolute minimum on election day: we can make sure that a general election does not take place on the same day as another election. That would solve many of the problems related to the difficulty of explaining to people who do not realise that they can vote only in one election and not the other.

The hon. Gentleman makes half a good point in that he puts his finger on what caused some of the delays, but allowing that to drive whether we have combined elections would be letting the tail wag the dog.

Returning officers would need to consider the problem of combined elections, which happen in many parts of the country perfectly successfully. In my constituency, the two previous general elections coincided with county council elections, and there were no problems. It is necessary for acting returning officers to think about these issues. They know from the register those areas where many voters might be entitled to vote in one set of elections but not the other—perhaps a general election but not local or European elections. It will be for them to consider whether there are many people with different franchises in their area, and to estimate how much time that will take and plan accordingly. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that not taking that into account led to some of the issues highlighted by the Electoral Commission. However, saying that we should not have two elections on the same day is not the solution.

I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. The reality is that in Manchester, Withington the turnout was about 62%. That is still low by some standards, and significantly lower than in the Minister’s constituency. If for some reason the turnout had been as high as 70% or 80%, as it was in some constituencies, literally thousands of people would not have been able to vote. That cannot be allowed. One practical way to prevent it from happening again would be to ensure that the general election was held on its own, as a single election.

The Minister will try to ensure that his answer is shorter than the intervention.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; it should be heard not only by his returning officer but by returning officers across the country. However, most parts of the country have local elections almost every year. Another factor is that splitting up the two sets of elections would hugely increase the cost of holding them. As I said, the better solution is to ensure that returning officers think about such matters and plan accordingly, ensuring that they staff the elections properly and have properly sized polling districts. Those are all matters within their control. That is a more sensible solution.

On the specific point about evenly sized polling stations, we must also take account of the demographics of polling stations. In my constituency of North Swindon, the problems occurred in areas where there were predominantly younger families and working professionals, who voted in particularly high concentrations between 5 pm and 10 pm.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. He spoke earlier about internet and phone voting. I am familiar with some of the e-voting processes that took place in Swindon. We shall consider the evidence, to discover the extent to which they drove up turnout.

I pick up on the other points made by the hon. Lady. She highlighted the problem of jointly nominated candidates not being able to use their emblem. That affected my party in Northern Ireland, where we had candidates standing jointly for the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists, and the hon. Lady and other Labour and Co-operative colleagues. We are considering that; it should be relatively straightforward to correct the problem, and we are looking for an opportunity to do so. That point was drawn to our attention after the election.

Before concluding, I shall touch briefly on a couple of other issues mentioned today. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) spoke about polling cards. He is right that they should be issued in good time, and returning officers should ensure that that happens. In most cases they do so, but in the case that my hon. Friend highlights that obviously did not happen. Constituents were therefore not adequately warned about some of the key dates in the process. Again, that will be a learning curve for those returning officers.

I was asked about venues, a problem for a number of candidates. The choice of venue is a matter for the local authority and the returning officer. They need to consider the nature of the area, its demographics and the likely voting patterns, and to choose venues that are accessible and able to cope with the throughput of voters. If they need to create extra polling places in those areas because of the size of the ward or polling district, they are empowered to do so. It is also worth saying that for general elections, it is not a problem for local authority funding because the properly incurred and documented costs of a general election are funded from the centre—from central Government—so there is no excuse for returning officers to have any concern about such funding if things are done properly.

Returning to the issue with which we began, which both the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend have mentioned, there clearly were problems, and if nobody is able to cast their vote that should be taken very seriously. It is, however, worth putting that in context. There were problems at 27 polling stations out of 40,000, and the Electoral Commission has estimated that about 1,200 voters out of 29.6 million were affected. Although we take the issue of electors being unable to vote very seriously, given that most of the 40,000 polling stations worked well, we perhaps need to consider solutions for those stations where there were problems and, as my hon. Friend said, for areas where there might well have been problems if circumstances had been different, but without making a wholesale change.

The hon. Lady made a number of wider points about individual voter registration and the extent to which electoral registration officers are getting voters who are entitled to vote on the register. The hon. Lady knows that the coalition Government have made a commitment to speed up individual voter registration and, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister set out in the Chamber in his speech on the Loyal Address, we want to ensure not just that the register is accurate and that no one is on it who should not be, but that electoral registration officers do a better job of getting people who are entitled to vote on the register, so that they have the opportunity, come polling day, to cast their vote.

In that context, I wonder whether the Government would also look at when the registers are compiled. There usually is a considerable time lapse between when they are compiled and when elections take place. They are also compiled at a time when the nights are getting darker and people might not want to answer the door.

In considering individual voter registration and our commitment to speeding that up, Ministers are looking at exactly some of those issues: how the registers are complied; the other data sources to which local authorities have access to check accuracy; the extent to which rolling registration is used; and how the annual canvass is used. They are looking at all the options, to see which is the most effective way of ensuring that registers are both accurate and as complete as possible. That work is under way.

Does the Minister agree that there is also a case for ensuring that the data are stored in the same way by different councils? From our experience of compiling registers for mailings on three different district councils, councils very often store data in completely different ways, which make them astonishingly difficult to use effectively.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, but at the moment the election registration process is very localised and that has a lot of strengths, but also a number of weaknesses. I am somewhat reluctant to suggest that an all-singing national database is the right answer, since Governments of both parties are historically not terribly successful at implementing them. He is quite right, however, that we should look at how the data are stored. Another issue is ensuring that when voters move around the country, between registration areas, the data move with them. There are many issues there, which Ministers are considering.

The hon. Lady also made some wider points about the timing of voting and options for advance voting. Ministers are looking at those matters. The hon. Lady will know that the Government have set out a comprehensive programme of political and constitutional reform, of which electoral administration and the delivery of elections are part. Ministers are considering all those issues as part of our commitment in this area. At this stage, I cannot make any particular commitments. I have listened very carefully to what she and other Members have said, particularly as the events of the last general election are still fresh in our minds. Ministers will have further meetings and receive further advice from the Electoral Commission as we consider how to take matters forward. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate; it has been very helpful for the House to consider these matters.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.