Considered in Grand Committee
The Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 amend the Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007, which I will refer to as “the 2007 regulations”, to provide for a revised set of statutory forms and notices to be used by returning officers for the conduct of mayoral elections in England and Wales. The updated forms and notices reflect the Government’s commitment to improving the quality and design of voter-facing materials, with the aim of assisting voters to effectively engage and avoid errors in the completion and casting of their ballots.
The key reason for making the changes now is to ensure that the forms and notices for mayoral elections are consistent with the ones that the Home Office developed for the first elections for police and crime commissioners that will take place on 15 November this year. The voter-facing forms and notices that the Home Office has developed and user-tested for use at these new elections are different in design and content from the forms and notices specified in legislation governing the conduct of other elections, and are intended to be clearer and more accessible to voters.
As a mayoral election is scheduled to be combined with a PCC election in Bristol on 15 November, these regulations will amend the 2007 regulations to ensure that the forms and notices are consistent with those set out in the draft Police and Crime Commissioner Elections Order 2012, which was debated in another place on 26 June. The need for consistency is particularly important here, due to both mayoral and PCC elections being run under the same supplementary vote system.
The Committee may be interested to know that, in common with other legislation governing the conduct of elections, two sets of forms and notices are prescribed in the 2007 regulations: one set to be used when a poll at a mayoral election is taken alone and another to be used when a mayoral election is taken in combination with another poll. Schedule 1 of the regulations before us contains new forms and notices for stand-alone mayoral elections, and Schedule 3 deals with the materials that should be used when a mayoral election is combined with a police and crime commissioner election.
The changes that we have made to the election materials for the mayoral elections are supported by and consistent with recommendations that have been made by the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and Scope. Further, we acknowledge the work undertaken by the commission in producing and undertaking valuable user testing on the statutory voter-facing material for last year’s referendum on the voting system, and we believe that it is important to keep up the momentum in improving standards in this area.
The first steps that we have taken to achieve this have been to develop the electoral materials for the PCC elections and to revise the forms and notices for mayoral elections. We will continue this work by looking at the statutory voter-facing material in respect of other scheduled elections and will continue to work with the Electoral Commission, electoral administrators and other stakeholders, such as those representing disabled people, in taking this work forward.
While the main purpose of the regulations is to amend the mayoral forms, we have taken the opportunity to rectify textual errors which have been identified in the 2007 regulations. Rule 5(3) of Schedule 1 and Rule 5(3) of Schedule 3 to the 2007 regulations are concerned with the deadlines for applications to vote by post and proxy which must be included in the published notice of election. Currently these rules make reference to the returning officer when voting registration is, of course, a matter for the registration officer, so we are amending these rules accordingly.
In conclusion, these regulations represent a small but none the less important step in improving the experience of the elector by providing for forms and notices that are up-to-date, clear and easier to use than those prescribed in current legislation. I commend the draft regulations to the Committee.
I thank the Minister for introducing this draft statutory instrument. Of course, these forms are essentially just for the lucky people of Bristol who on 15 November will have the chance to make themselves more like a US town with a vote for the head of the police and the local town sheriff—sorry, mayor. And apologies to the city of Bristol—and it is the city of Bristol, which I fondly remember from my schooldays there at Downend Infants. However, it will be a first in our country, with an elected mayor and a police commissioner—who we must hope will get on rather better than some other cases closer to my current home—to be selected by the good citizens of Bristol on the same day. Our rather strange UK set-up means that the mayoral elections are the purview of one department, the DCLG, and the police commissioners of another, the Home Office, with the Minister’s department holding the ring and seeking to ensure some consistency. We are delighted that she and her colleagues have done as well as they have in producing this statutory instrument, but I have a few questions and a couple of comments.
First, I note that Scope and the electoral administration officers have quite rightly been consulted and involved in the design of the forms but there is no mention of political parties. Given their extraordinary experience and expertise in this area, why have they not been asked for any input? Like other party activists, I have helped umpteen people fill in forms for proxy and postal voting, guided people into polling stations and chatted endlessly, especially on quiet election days that I rather fear 15 November will be, to both voters and fellow tellers from the other parties about the whole business of voting. As I am sure she knows it is the one day we all get on well together. It seems a real shame if none of us—as the real activists who know the use of these forms really well—has been involved. I am sure that some of these people would have commented on the contrast between the extremely clear ballot papers on pages 3 and 4 and excellent directions for the guidance of voters on page 11 and the horribly confusing postal voting statement on page 8, to say nothing of the type size—which is too small for my 62 year-old eyes, so I am sure that it will beat those of an 82 year-old. So my question is: are party activists and agents at all involved in the design process?
Secondly, why are there two such different systems for getting candidate information out to voters when the aim appears to be, particularly in Bristol, to make this one seamless election day? Information on the police chief candidates will be on the web but information on the mayoral candidates will be in leaflets distributed to the electorate. Does this reflect the Government's lack of interest in the election of police commissioners or their lack of concern about those without access to the internet? Even if people have access to the internet, they often do not have access to a printer to be able to print off such documents to look at them at home or with colleagues or family. For the very first of these elections in particular, have the Government so little interest in ensuring real community engagement? The issue was of such importance to the coalition that it three-line whipped it through Parliament. Given the importance of policing to the elderly, the disadvantaged and the young, is this really the best way of promoting interest?
Thirdly, as well as being a new voting system, it is an election for two new posts. Is the Minister confident that everyone eligible to vote will both know about the elections and what the two new postholders will do and be clear about the choices that will face them as they enter the polling booth?
Those are my three questions. I turn to my comments, to which the Minister may not wish to respond. First, I wonder whether the case for a threshold in these elections should be considered. What if turnout for the police commissioner elections was only 8%, or that for a mayoral election was as low? Is there a level at which the Government should ask whether this is really more representative and accountable than what went before? Secondly—the Minister will be used to my counting by now—I assume that the Minister’s department has now stood down its work on equivalent forms for the election of Senators in May 2015.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for her words in support of the regulations. Like her, I have spent many elections as a teller and in weathers of all sorts. Perhaps I may first put her mind at ease on the question of information on PCC elections being available only on the web. I reassure her that such information will be available and not only on the web. Voters will be able to access hard copies if they so wish by calling a freephone number. People who find using internet services difficult will be able to utilise that.
The noble Baroness asked why booklets would be available for mayoral elections. PCC elections will be nationwide, whereas, in this instance, the mayoral election will be in only one place. The Electoral Commission will make sure that an effective campaign is conducted so that voters are fully informed about elections in their areas.
The noble Baroness raised quite a complex issue in relation to postal voting. If she will allow, I would rather take that question away and perhaps give her a more in-depth response in due course. A number of questions will need to be asked of postal voters which are perhaps better set out in a written response.
The noble Baroness asked about turnout. Of the 1 million people who responded in referendums on mayoral elections, nearly 430,000 said that they wanted a mayor. On the basis of those numbers, I think that there is an appetite. If the people of Bristol have decided that they want a mayor, it is likely that they will turn out to vote. The reason for making the ballot papers similar is to remove confusion, because it will be the first time that supplementary voting takes place. As a Government we have tried to make this task as easy as we can—I know that the noble Baroness accepts and acknowledges that—to ensure that the voter has the information at hand.
The noble Baroness asked about the consultation with political parties. We consulted actively with the Electoral Commission and others on voter-facing forms. I suspect that that would have been undertaken across a lot of people although not aimed specifically at political parties. We note the value of that for the future, in the light of the comment made in the Chamber earlier. Of course it does not prevent us looking at how these elections fulfil the obligations to ensure that we have greater participation by the voter, and there will always be lessons to be learnt.
On that note, I am pleased that the noble Baroness supports the regulations. If I have not answered her questions, I hope that she will allow me the opportunity to write to her.
Perhaps I may ask a question which I should have asked previously. Are these two elections coterminous? Is the election for the PCC in Bristol exactly the same as the one for the mayor? My only other comment is to ask whether she would take back the idea of early engagement with political parties. Sometimes there is a reluctance, even in the Electoral Commission, to understand the role that political parties play in the democratic process. That is more a message for the noble Baroness to take back than a question for her to answer now.