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Electoral System: Alternative Vote Referendum

Volume 727: debated on Wednesday 11 May 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what was the involvement of the Electoral Reform Society or of Electoral Reform Services in the procedure used to send out postal ballot papers in the alternative vote referendum in the Glasgow division.

My Lords, the Electoral Commission will be reporting on the administration of the May 2011 referendum and elections, as required under Section 5 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, and will be considering the role of suppliers and other delivery partners as part of its review process.

I thank the Minister for his useful Answer. Glasgow City Council sent out the AV ballot paper to postal voters separately from the other ballot papers. The council did that on the advice of a company called Electoral Services Limited, which the council uses to run its elections. That company in the recent past gave its parent company, the Electoral Reform Society, £1 million in advance, which was promptly handed over to the yes campaign for the referendum. Will the Minister bring forward legislation to ensure that that organisation, or any organisation involved in the running of elections, is not allowed to participate when clearly there is a vested interest?

My goodness. What is that saying—in victory magnanimity? The decision to engage that company was the decision of Glasgow council. The chief counting officer, Jenny Watson, said:

“We have put in place detailed and comprehensive arrangements for monitoring the performance of Counting Officers and their suppliers, and I have no reason to believe that there is any risk to the integrity of the administration of the postal voting process”.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that issues such as the supply of envelopes for postal vote mailings should be made on an entirely commercial basis, based on value for money and reliability of service, and that if there were ever any issues of either impropriety in the ballot or failure to deliver, it would be a matter for the Electoral Commission to report which, as he said, will happen shortly?

My Lords, I can well understand the reason for this Question. It was probably to do with the inquest that went on in the Glasgow Labour Party about the reason that Glasgow Kelvin voted so overwhelmingly yes. As we know, what Kelvin does today, the world does tomorrow. My noble friend’s point is absolutely right.

My Lords, this is a serious matter. The Minister, like me, is a football supporter. How would he feel if the manager of the other team was also appointed as the referee—because that is effectively what happened? Will he ensure that neither the Electoral Reform Society nor any of its subsidiaries are involved in monitoring such elections in future?

It is a serious matter, and the systems for monitoring whether those elections have gone through properly are in place. As I said in my reply, we will be getting a full report and I have every confidence that the election will have been carried out with the utmost integrity. One interesting thing about the recent elections is the lack of criticisms about conduct compared with the many criticisms that came about during the general election. Therefore, we are making progress and I really do not think that the issue that the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, has raised is sustainable.

My Lords, does not my noble friend miss the point? He was asked specifically about the conflict of interest, not misconduct. Can he now address the question that the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, asked about conflict of interest?

My Lords, I do not believe that there is a conflict of interest. It is a separate organisation. The Electoral Reform Society has over many years had a reputation for integrity, which has resulted in it being used by trade unions, non-governmental organisations and a wide range of other bodies, including the House of Lords, and it is pretty cheap to try to make this linkage. We have machinery that the party opposite put in place. Let us see what the electoral body says in its report and we will then look into the matter further. However, I do not believe that there is a conflict of interest and I have great confidence in the integrity of the Electoral Reform Society and its separate subsidiaries.

The Clock was showing 29 minutes when I stood up. Does the Minister agree that there is a world of difference between looking after the election of office-bearers in a trade union or any other organisation and being involved in a referendum which is about the electoral system and being connected with something called the Electoral Reform Society? Does that not strike the Minister as something different from the norm?

No, it does not. I know that the noble Baroness comes from Kelvin and so must be particularly bitter about the election but such a suggestion really does not stand up. Even by the standards of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, this is unworthy of the party opposite.