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May 2021 Local Elections: Covid-19

Volume 686: debated on Thursday 17 December 2020

What plans the Government have to ensure that the May 2021 local elections are covid-19 secure. (910439)

The UK Government are working with local returning officers, the Electoral Commission and public health bodies to identify and resolve the challenges involved in delivering the elections next May.

The May 2021 elections will see a record number of different elections with various different voting systems all taking place on the same day. In normal times this would pose an immense logistical challenge, without the added complications brought about by the pandemic. Will the Minister outline why the Government have ruled out an all-postal ballot and refused to make any legislative changes to consider any new forms of voting, as we have seen across the globe?

I thank the hon. Lady for pointing out the extreme challenges that exist to ensure that the elections can take place in a covid-secure environment. They are considerable, but they cannot compromise the security and integrity of the ballot, and we feel that by moving to an all-postal system, that may be the case. We want people to be able to vote in person or by post, and we want them to do that in a covid-secure way, and that is what we and our partners are working towards.

I know from my own experience that a large proportion of electoral staff and volunteers is made up from the demographic that would be considered vulnerable, with many retired and older people volunteering. If the Government have refused to provide any more funding for the running of the May 2021 elections, what steps are they taking to ensure that there is not a huge shortage of electoral staff?

One of the partners we are working with is public health organisations and authorities, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we want to ensure that everyone, whether they are officers or volunteers, is safe. We also anticipate, for example, that we will have extra demands on postal votes and so forth, and we are determined to ensure that we have the supply to meet that demand, but the issues that he raises are at the forefront of our minds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) set out the scale of these elections very clearly. With less than five months to go until these major polls right across the United Kingdom, I hope the Minister will be able to respond to some questions that are on the minds of electoral administrators, campaigners and, most importantly, voters. Will voters be required to wear face coverings in polling stations? If so, will polling clerks be expected to enforce that, and what resources will they get to do that? If they are not required to wear face coverings, what protections will be put in place to protect staff in polling stations? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that we have adequate staffing at polling stations? As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) set out—and I do not think the Minister adequately answered his question—so many of our volunteers are from an older demographic, and if the vaccine programme is not sufficiently rolled out, we face a shortage of staff.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising those issues. Hopefully, we will be in a happier place when the elections arrive because of the vaccination programme, but she raises some important issues. Just as retailers, healthcare settings and so forth have put in place measures to make them covid-secure, whether those are public health-related measures or the enforcement and policing of them, we will do the same at polling stations and at counts. We will ensure that there will still be the transparency that people want through scrutineers and so forth. We will also introduce some slight legislative changes to enable, for example, somebody who has to isolate very close to the election to still be able to cast their vote. We are working through all these issues with those organisations methodically, and we will have those elections. They will be safe, and they will still have integrity.