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Elections: Postal Voting

Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will increase the time between close of nominations and polling day for parliamentary elections in order to allow for the return of postal votes.

My Lords, increasing the time between close of nominations and polling day would require considerable consultation followed by primary legislation. We have no plans to make such a change at this stage. In any event, it would not resolve the issue raised by the noble Lord. Postal voting has been successful and is popular with electors. The turnout of postal voters across Britain at the 2005 UK parliamentary election was 76.6 per cent compared to 59.4 per cent in polling stations.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his answer to this Question and others on postal voting. However, he does not seem to be aware of the massive increase in the number of postal voters. It was 11 days between nominations and polling when we had fewer than 1 million postal voters; in the European election we had 6,300,000; and in a May general election we could have 8 million. Surely we need a new timetable. The Electoral Commission is urging this. As for primary legislation, last night the Video Recordings Bill went through this House; it was introduced into Parliament on 6 January and will receive Royal Assent this week. Were the Government really determined, would it not be possible to get the necessary legislation through?

My Lords, what really matters is the registration and postal vote deadline; that is key for all elections. Whether general or local elections, the deadline for registration and for new or changed postal vote applications is 11 working days—it is important that they are working days—before polling day. Returning officers send out ballot papers only once this deadline has passed because, until the deadline, electors may change their address or cancel their postal vote. Clearly we do not want a large number of duplicate ballot papers distributed. If a close of nominations for parliamentary elections were moved to 19 working days before polling day—the same as for local elections—postal ballot papers would not be sent out any earlier because of the 11 working days registration deadline.

My Lords, what is the point of having 76.6 per cent turnout if a vast proportion of that percentage is fraudulently voting?

My Lords, I am slightly gobsmacked by the noble Lord. Is he really suggesting that a large proportion of those who vote by post are voting fraudulently? If that is the official view of the Opposition, I am deeply shocked. Of course there are examples of fraud in postal voting, just as there is sometimes personation at polling stations. We are going to be dealing with that in a few minutes. We are delighted that turnout is increased by the fact that postal voting is now much easier than it was when the noble Lord’s Government were in power.

My Lords, this system only works if noble Lords are prepared to give way. Shall we hear first from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler?

My Lords, at Questions in your Lordships’ House on 9 December 2009, the Minister was kind enough to agree to a suggestion from me that he should look again at the 2003 report by the Electoral Commission on election timetables to try to get more consistency in all elections. Has he had time to review that report? What is the Government’s reaction to its recommendations?

I am afraid that I have not had time to review that report but we are now so close to the general election of this year—

I have in my briefing examples of various dates and how long it will be before nominations close. As we are so close, it is frankly not realistic, using common sense, to suggest that we can change the law before then.

My Lords, a special section of the electorate, namely our Armed Forces personnel serving overseas, is in many cases disfranchised by the short time between nomination and polling day. Will the Government at least consider some special arrangement whereby these personnel will no longer be disfranchised by their postal votes?

I am grateful to the noble Lord. A lot of work has been going on and there have been debates in this House. We are still actively attempting to make sure that our soldiers and personnel from other services who are serving in Afghanistan have the chance to vote by post. Each of them can vote by proxy if they want to, but it is thought that many would rather vote by post. There is a scheme which will work within the existing electoral timetable and legislative framework, subject of course to operational priorities, because of the time saved by using the regular military supply flights to Afghanistan. A great deal of work is going on to make sure that our troops in Afghanistan will be able to vote.