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General Election: Voting Deadline

Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 7 July 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their estimate of the number of citizens denied the opportunity to vote at the general election on 6 May because of the 10 pm deadline or other administrative difficulties; and what steps they propose to take to prevent those problems in future.

My Lords I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I have to declare an interest: I preside over certain premises in Surrey which hosted one of the voting stations at the last general election.

My Lords, the Electoral Commission’s report of 20 May suggested that just over 1,200 people were affected by problems with queues at the close of poll on 6 May. We are considering the report carefully and will take any appropriate steps necessary to prevent this situation happening again.

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader for that reply. Were the problems to which he has referred about the same in Scotland and Wales as they were in England?

I am not aware of problems in Scotland or Wales—perhaps I shall be informed of some within a very short time—but the Electoral Commission did not mince its words about the problems where they did occur. It said that they were down to inadequate planning processes and contingency arrangements. However, I point out that 27 polling stations out of 40,000 and 1,200 voters out of more than 29 million were affected.

My Lords, following the electoral abuses experienced in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 2001, changes to electoral rules and methodology—such as reducing the number of voters per ballot box from 900 to 500—were introduced in Northern Ireland. All those changes were much stricter than in the rest of the kingdom. Will the Government take cognizance of the vast experience of electoral practices that we have in Northern Ireland and consider introducing in the rest of the kingdom these higher standards that we have for Northern Ireland constituencies?

Yes, we should study very carefully the lessons that have been learnt in Northern Ireland in this area.

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that thousands of votes were disqualified in the Scottish elections of 2007, due in large part to the confusion caused by holding two ballots on the same day? Will the Minister commit this Government to consult widely before going ahead with their plans to hold a referendum on the same day as the elections for the Scottish Parliament?

I think that my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has already given the assurance that he will consult widely.

My Lords, do the Government realise that there has been no progress on disability access to polling stations since 2005, according to the Scope research that has just been published? What steps will the Government take to make sure that disabled people can vote in the next election and vote for reform in 2011?

My Lords, I have not seen the Scope research, but I will certainly study it. It is very important that all sections of our community, with any measure of disability, should be able to vote. One thing that I know is being considered is electronic voting, which might be an alternative for people with disabilities. But I take the noble Baroness’s point: disabled people, just like anyone else, want to exercise their vote personally at a polling station. We will look into that.

Is my noble friend aware that I asked a similar Question on 14 June? Since that date, it has transpired that bonuses have been paid to the returning officers for a number of those polling districts. Is that not an extraordinary situation and one that should be reversed?

The matter of payment for returning officers in the last election is for the local authorities concerned. The Electoral Commission, in its report, called for it to be given greater control to make sure that returning officers do their jobs properly.

My Lords, is there not evidence that some local authorities are skimping on the funding that they are making available for the conduct of elections? In particular, polling officers in the individual stations are not being given sufficient training. That is causing real problems in the way that they then deal with issues that arise on election day.

We will learn lessons from this and there are some hard lessons to learn. For example, some local authorities looked at the three previous elections for which they had responsibility, which all had much lower turnouts. As the Electoral Commission said, that was not proper contingency planning. There is no doubt that the photographs and television pictures that went round the world were very bad public relations for British democracy. We will do all in our power to make sure that it never happens again.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the timing of polling days should be based on the convenience of the voters rather than that of returning officers, many of whom are paid large bonuses for their work in general elections? Is he aware of the most recent survey of public opinion on this issue, conducted by ICM earlier this year, which showed by a margin of almost 3:1 that voters would prefer to be able to cast their votes at the weekend rather than on a weekday? Will he therefore begin a proper consultation on shifting polling day from the traditional Thursday to the weekend, when many more people could vote more conveniently?

It is very interesting. When I was first briefed on this, I was told that the consultation showed a very balanced response on the question of weekend voting. Then I probed a little further and found, as my noble friend surmises, that most of the people against polling at weekends were returning officers and most of those wanting voting at weekends were voters. As part of the review that I am talking about, I want us to look again at weekend voting.

Is the Minister aware that a number of authorities cut down on the officials working in the polling stations for reasons of economy, thus preventing many electors from voting because the queues got longer and longer and moved more and more slowly? Will the Government ensure that this sort of petty economy is not used to deprive people of their vote?

My Lords, the expenditure on the general election in 2010 was £73.2 million compared with £47 million in 2005. Any local authority that claims that it was not funded enough to do its job is simply misleading the public. There was ample funding to do this job but in a very few places there was some very poor planning.