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Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2006

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2006

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2006. First Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.

The noble Lord said: These regulations make a number of minor technical but necessary changes to the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) Regulations 2004—the 2004 regulations. This is as a result of the changes introduced by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. When approved, these regulations will provide for the effective combination of a parliamentary election with another election or referendum.

These regulations revoke the provisions from the 2004 regulations that applied specifically to combined elections in June 2004 as they are no longer needed. They also revoke the prescribed form H from the 2004 regulations as a new form H—the postal voting statement to be used when there is joint issue and receipt of postal ballots—which has now been prescribed in the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, as amended by the Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations 2006. They provides for three further functions to be combined when there is joint issue and receipt of postal ballots, as a result of the changes introduced by the Electoral Administration Act 2006.

The returning officer in charge of the combined functions will also have responsibility for the creation of a corresponding number list prescribed under Rule 19A of the parliamentary elections rules; the creation of a marked postal voters list and proxy postal voters list under Rule 31A; and verification of personal identifiers on postal voting statements under Rule 45(1B)(d). It makes a number of modifications to the 2004 regulations to reflect changes made to the parliamentary elections rules by the Electoral Administration Act. It amends the form of directions for guidance of voters at combined polls to provide improved clarity for voters; removes the specific reference to European parliamentary elections from the form of declaration to be made by the companion of a voter with disabilities; and replaces the reference to “incapacity” with a reference to “disability” to reflect the change of terminology introduced by the Electoral Administration Act 2006.

The Government consulted the Electoral Commission on the draft of these regulations. The commission’s detailed response is available on its website. The Government have taken on board the commission’s comments in developing the draft. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2006. First Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)

I have very little to say about these regulations because they implement discussions that we had during the passage of the Electoral Administration Act. However, I would like to clarify two matters. I do not think the Minister mentioned the part of the regulations that relates to the abandonment of one of the two polls. Paragraphs 27A and 27B refer to the death of a candidate, but paragraph 27 refers to the abandonment of part of a poll. I want to be clear that that is right.

I am not clear where the regulations refer to the requirement for identifiers for postal votes. If there is more than one election, people are presumably expected to have postal votes for each of them, but I not sure where these regulations make clear where and by whom those identifiers—a signature and date of birth—have to be checked. Apart from that, I am happy with these regulations.

I apologise for missing much of the Minister’s speech. I was caught napping by the previous business happening rather quicker than forecast. Like the noble Baroness, we do not find anything to quibble about in these regulations. They are sensible and technical and carry through decisions that have been made about personal identifiers and other matters. We are looking forward to seeing how well the new security rules work.

These regulations repeal the rules that were made for the 2004 all-postal elections. We had some long debates on them. The debates were not bitter but were argumentative, and we marched through the lobbies a few times before the Government were able to hold those all-postal elections. We now seem to be in an era when all-postal elections have been abandoned. I hope that is the case, and it is welcome that the Government are nothing like as enthusiastic as they were about them.

I wish to make one or two detailed points, the first of which is on the issue of the ballot papers in a combined election. As I understand it, those of us who will not be allowed to have one type of ballot paper at a parliamentary election but can have a paper for a local election or referendum will be dealt with by having a strange squiggle or alternative mark put down on the corresponding number list and the marked register to show that we have had one type of ballot paper and not another. There are various categories like that. However, I presume that an elector who is entitled to two or three ballot papers at an election is entitled to refuse to accept one or more of them and to have simply the one he wants to vote on. Can the Minister tell us exactly what happens under those circumstances? The only time I have seen someone not want one, he ran out of the polling station, waving the ballot paper over his head and shouting a certain amount of abuse about it.

The last time we discussed this matter, under the Representation of the People (Amendment) Regulations, the Minister told us about the system for signing in the polling station. There will be a machine to prevent people seeing the signatures of other people, which might potentially breach the secrecy of the ballot. What progress has been made in designing that apparatus and are the Government in a position to tell us how it will work? Clearly, the people involved in elections will need to be able to tell electors what to expect.

As far as the return of postal votes is concerned—the regulations cover the situation in a combined election—there will be sample security checks of at least 20 per cent of them. Will that include checks being done throughout the period in which votes are coming back, or will a returning officer be able to fulfil their 20 per cent quota by, for example, taking the first 20 per cent that come in and not taking the late ones? There might well be problems of delaying the count if there are lots of late postal votes. Some people might see an opportunity there for getting round the regulations and getting round the security and not having particular postal votes checked by putting them all in late at the last minute. Will that be possible?

Finally, one thing I picked up from reading the regulations is that where there are pilots for electronic counts, the voters will be asked not to fold their ballot paper. Normally if you go to a polling station, you are asked to fold the ballot paper in two, so that when you put it into the box no one can see the top side of it and therefore they cannot see how you have voted. If you do not fold it, how do you get it into the ballot box without people being able to see how you voted? There seems to be a problem with secrecy there. With those detailed questions, I am happy to support the regulations.

I am grateful to the two noble Lords for their comments on the regulations. I will answer the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, first. She asked about what happens in the event of the abandonment of a poll. Where the poll at a parliamentary election is abandoned due to the death of a candidate, the regulations provide that the poll—at an election that is combined with that election; for example, a local government election—will continue. Secondly, do people have to have identifiers for both elections, and where and by whom are they checked? On the issue of receipt of postal ballots at a parliamentary election that is combined with another election, the returning officer for the parliamentary election will be responsible for checking identifiers. The noble Baroness asked about the marked postal voters list. The postal voters list will be marked when the postal voting statement has been received. The elector will be informed that it has been either received or provisionally rejected.

I have answers coming through on the detailed questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. On postal voter identifiers, the answer is yes. That is nice and short. He also asked about pilots for electronic counts and voters being asked not to fold the ballot paper. That provision will be in a pilot order that is accurate, and an e-count result can be achieved. I think that the noble Lord asked a few more questions, and I will write to him if that is all right.

The Minister has been good enough to answer about folding the ballot paper. I understand the reason for that, which I assume is to make it easier for it to be counted electronically. The point I made is that, as I understand it, they will not be voting electronically, they will be voting in the normal way on a piece of paper, and those pieces of paper will then be counted electronically. If you do not fold your ballot paper, someone on one side or other of the person putting it in the ballot box will be able to see how you have voted. How will that be prevented?

I am advised that the ballot papers will be placed face down unfolded in a ballot box designed for e-count. However, I have to tell the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that his question has nothing to do with this order. We will write a full letter of explanation later.

I am grateful to the Minister. It is set out on page 5 in paragraph (28).

On Question, Motion agreed to.