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Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Functions of Returning Officers) Regulations 2012

Volume 738: debated on Thursday 12 July 2012

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections (Functions of Returning Officers) Regulations 2012.

Relevant documents: 2nd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 3rd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.

My Lords, these instruments will ensure that all necessary preparations are in place for 15 November 2012 when the public go to the polls to elect their first police and crime commissioner. I know that the House has always taken a keen interest in shaping electoral law and we have drawn from that existing body of tried and tested law wherever possible.

The Committee will recognise the provisions in respect of electoral registers, the timetable for nominations and the ability to vote by post or by a proxy. It will also recognise the provisions for elections offences and for the combination of PCC elections with others held on the same day, such as the mayoral elections in Bristol. Your Lordships will recall the processes for counting the supplementary vote from mayoral elections. PCC elections will be part of the framework under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—with which, again, I think the Committee will be familiar. Your Lordships will also see that our police area returning officers, or PAROs, are similar to regional returning officers in European parliamentary elections.

However, there are some notable differences from existing practice. For example, while candidates’ campaign spending limits will be based on the existing rules for mayoral candidates, these limits will be set out numerically for each area rather than requiring each candidate to calculate the formula themselves. We are grateful to the Electoral Commission for its advice on this.

PCC candidates will need to obtain 100 nominations and tender a deposit of £5,000, which is more than most elections but less than London mayoral elections. We have worked closely with the Electoral Commission and others to design ballots and forms that are more user-friendly, with a special focus on those who may find it more difficult to read, or to read English.

Rather than a paid-for mailing, the Government will offer every PCC candidate the chance to have a page on a new website and will offer a freephone line for the public to order a free hard copy. This will be the best approach in the circumstances. Both the web address and phone number will appear in all Home Office and Electoral Commission literature, in all advertising on PCC elections, and on poll cards delivered to every elector. Electors will know where to go to find information on candidates.

This policy is primarily driven by cost, but there are other advantages. The fact that hard copies will be provided on request means that they can be tailored to the needs of the individual. For example, we can provide copies in formats such as Braille, and under our plans electors will be able to choose the address to which the information should be sent. They might find that a work address is more convenient, or an address where they are staying temporarily.

This is very different from the position in 2000, when your Lordships’ House considered the rules for the London mayoral elections. The then Government proposed offering no candidate information, whereas we are confident that everybody who wants candidate information will be able to access it under our proposals. The order and the regulations before the Committee are the culmination of months of work and close consultation with expert planners, including the Electoral Commission, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Association of Electoral Administrators. I will echo the thanks to them of the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice in another place. They are the foundation of an entirely new model of policing that will connect the police directly with the public they serve. I commend the order and regulations to the Committee.

My Lords, I am a member of the Electoral Commission and have been for nearly two years. Will the noble Lord tell the Grand Committee why the Home Office has been involved in this? It is as if we have tried to reinvent the wheel and ended up back where we started. There is expertise in the Cabinet Office. We may have National Park Authority elections in future and there is another unit in Defra. There seems to be complete duplication, with different units doing the same thing. Would it not be more sensible if all these things were contained in one unit which had expertise in the nuts and bolts of elections?

My Lords, we welcome the chance to debate the order and regulations, which address a number of matters related to the running of elections for police and crime commissioners. We strongly opposed the move to elected police and crime commissioners for a number of reasons, including the amount of money needed to conduct the elections. It could and should have been used to support front-line policing, which is being adversely affected by the cuts, contrary to government assertions that this would not be the case. However, the Government’s Bill passed through both Houses of Parliament, so elections for police and crime commissioners are a reality, and we are putting up candidates since we do not intend to let the coalition partners—I think they are still partners, just about—have a free run.

Of course, the Government originally wanted to rush through the elections in May of this year. However, eventually and grudgingly they put them back to November. The Government’s bright idea was that they could be run on the same date as a number of mayoral elections in our major cities, which would enable some of the costs of the police and crime commissioner elections to be shared. Unfortunately, that bright idea made an assumption that proved somewhat wide of the mark—namely, that the citizens of our major cities would in droves endorse and vote for elected mayors. Apart from in Bristol, they did not. Therefore, we have almost exclusively stand-alone elections for police and crime commissioners. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what will be the cost of these elections in November compared with the cost of holding them at the same time as local elections, which was clearly the Government’s intention but which has now been dropped.

Holding elections in November is not designed to maximise turnout—but to this Government, the only thing that appears to matter is getting elected police and crime commissioners in place. Other considerations that one might think were important when holding countrywide elections for these new posts for the first time seem to take a back seat.

One of the orders in front of us proposes that each candidate can have,

“an election address included on a website”,

but that there will not be any publicly funded mailing or locally distributed booklets. We know that, despite being short of money, the Government have other priorities—such as reducing government income through a 5p in the pound reduction in tax for millionaires—but trying to make up this self-inflicted shortfall by not publicly funding mailings from candidates or locally distributed booklets in what are countrywide elections for new elected posts with responsibilities over wide geographical areas, which the Government regard as of great importance and significance, is a kick in the teeth for the democratic process.

As has already been said, we will presumably have the situation in Bristol where there will be a publicly funded mailshot or locally distributed booklet for the mayoral election but no such provision for the election on the same day for the police and crime commissioner, who will have responsibilities over a much wider geographical area and bigger population than the elected mayor.

In its original submission as part of the consultation, the Electoral Commission said that the Government’s proposal was,

“a significant departure from what is provided for UK Parliamentary, European Parliament and Mayoral elections”.

The commission went on to say:

“Delivering information primarily via a website will exclude the still significant number of adults in England and Wales who do not have easy access to the internet: as many as 7 million adults in England (excluding London) and Wales are estimated not to have used the internet at all in the last 12 months”.

The commission also commented:

“Candidates for PCC elections will also need to communicate with a much larger number of voters across their ‘constituencies’ than usual; and there may be significant numbers of independent candidates who do not have the support of a party behind them to promote their campaign”.

The Office for National Statistics has said that well over 8 million people have never used the internet, of whom 5.5 million are over the age of 65, with the majority being women. The gross income figures also show that the better-off members of the community use the internet the most and it is the least well-off who do not have access to the internet. There are also regional disparities: internet usage is lower in other parts of the country than in the south-east and south-west of England.

So we have disparities of income, gender, age and region—but if you ignore all those considerations of course we have a level playing field, which is no doubt what the Government will claim. Perhaps the Minister can tell us the outcome of the equality assessment that one presumes the Government have done on the order, or will he tell us that, for obvious reasons, they have not dared to do such an exercise?

A website alone will not be enough for individual candidates, many of whom are likely to be not well known, to get their message across; leaflets to every household are also important. Only wealthy candidates will be able to afford to produce their own leaflets and then pay for their distribution, and only parties with significant numbers of volunteer supporters will be able to undertake a leaflet distribution throughout what in most cases will be constituencies of considerable geographical size and population.

The cross-party Association of Police Authorities has asked for the proposals for voter information and awareness-raising for PCC elections to be strengthened so that they are at least equal to those for mayoral elections, in order to help raise voter turnout on 15 November and address its concerns about the potential impact of a low turnout. I am not sure whether or not these concerns have been ignored. No doubt this is something the Minister will be able to tell us about.

Recent newspaper articles have claimed that the Home Secretary has asked the Treasury for money to fund an advertising campaign to encourage stronger candidates to come forward. One newspaper quoted a Whitehall source as admitting:

“The policy is in disarray. There is a chance it will be a damp squib”.

Perhaps the Minister can do a little bit more than his colleague in the House of Commons in answer to a straight question and tell us: is it true that the Secretary of State for the Home Department is seeking or has sought additional money from the Treasury to fund a publicity campaign to attract more people to stand for office?

Perhaps the Minister can also tell us what level of turnout the Government are expecting under their proposed arrangements, and what level of turnout they would deem had shown the new arrangements to be a success. Maybe I will be surprised, but I suspect that the last thing the Minister will do is give a specific answer to that question. Perhaps the Minister will tell us that there is no problem because the millions of people who rarely or never use the internet will of course be able to make a free telephone call to ask for written information about and from the candidates to be sent to them. If he is going to come out with that one, I hope that he can manage to keep a straight face when he says it.

The Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office said on 18 June that the Government may consider a similar procedure for a general election, with an eye to overseas voters. Perhaps the Minister could clarify whether that meant that the Government were considering a similar procedure for overseas voters in a general election or all voters in a general election.

What the Government are proposing will do nothing to promote a high turnout. Indeed, it appears designed to do the exact opposite. That is the effect of this order. The Government are only interested in seeing elected police and crime commissioners in place and they are quite prepared to introduce a new and flawed election process, on top of holding the election in the month of November, to achieve that objective.

My Lords, before I respond to the rant of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, I will answer some questions from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, who is rather worried about why it was not the Cabinet Office that was dealing with this matter, particularly in light of the fact that there were other elections coming along in due course which Defra, my former department, and DCLG might have an interest in. I would very much welcome the Cabinet Office dealing with all of these things, in which case I would be able to deal with the Statement on home affairs business that is taking place in the Chamber at the moment and which my noble friend Lady Stowell has to do on my behalf. It is for the Home Office to develop policy on elections for PCCs, so I am dealing with this, and that is why I am here. I can assure the noble Lord that the Cabinet Office, DCLG and all the other interested parties have been involved in all these matters from the beginning. Obviously we will continue to consult them as and when appropriate.

As I said, I listened to the rant of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, if I can put it like that. I think that we know what his party’s views on PCCs are. We have had yet again, as we had in another place, this rather confusing message saying, “We oppose PCCs on the grounds of cost. But having opposed them on the grounds of cost, we now think that we should spend yet more money on providing more information to the public than is necessary”. I find that a confusing line to put forward.

I say to the noble Lord that the only significant cost of PCCs is the cost of the elections. I appreciate that the cost is £75 million. However, I again give an assurance—which I and my colleagues have given on other occasions—that it will not come from funds that would have gone to forces. We believe that democracy is a justifiable cost, making the police more accountable to the public.

I can also assure the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that we are not making information on these matters available solely by the website, as he said. Although we are making it available on the website, there will also be other ways of accessing that information—by means of a telephone call or having the information sent to any address that people particularly want to have it sent to. The noble Lord and his party are really coming on a bit rich by demanding yet further expenditure on these grounds—sending out leaflets to all electors—particularly when, as he will remember, his party refused to provide any such information on candidates for the London mayoral elections until there was opposition pressure on them to do so.

The noble Lord also asked what we would consider a successful turnout level. Obviously I will not give any estimate of what the turnout is likely to be—it would be a very foolish Minister who did so. However, we expect that the public will be enthusiastic about having their first elected PCCs. We hope that that enthusiasm will build over the years and that we will see more commissioners elected. Some might be from the noble Lord’s party and some might be from others. Certainly the hits on the website seem to demonstrate an interest in this. It certainly demonstrates that the interest in PCCs is much greater than the interest in the current system of police authorities.

I am not sure that I have dealt with every question put by the noble Lord but I think that I have dealt with the vast majority of them. I hope that he will accept that. My final point concerns his remarks about regional variations and the access of the less well-off to the website. That point was dealt with earlier. There will be other means of accessing information—I hope that the noble Lord will accept that. The Electoral Commission, of which the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, is a member, also agreed that all the information it will make available, such as poll cards, will go to all households. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that the appropriate information will go out and that everyone will have access to information regardless of whether they can access the website.

Apart from saying that the Home Office is doing it, the Minister has not answered my point. The Home Office will look at the regulations. I suspect that there will be very little difference between these regulations and what the Cabinet Office would have produced. Perhaps the Minister can come back to me and point out what is different. I suspect that it will be next to nothing. If that is so, why has it not been done by the Cabinet Office? It is nonsense that we have different units in different departments doing this. It is a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.

My Lords, I am more than happy to write to the noble Lord on the matter of whether the Cabinet Office should do this or whether, if the Home Office does it, it will merely replicate what happens in other elections. I will look very carefully at what the noble Lord said.

I think that the Minister claimed that he had answered the questions that had been asked—and of course he did nothing of the sort. I asked him whether an equality assessment had been done and what the outcome was, or whether the Government had dared not do such an exercise. I got no answer to that question. I also asked him whether he would clarify what the Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office meant when he said on 18 June that the Government,

“may consider a similar procedure for a general election, with an eye on overseas voters”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/6/12; col. 652.]

I asked the Minister if he could clarify whether that meant that the Government were considering a similar procedure for overseas voters in a general election, or for all voters in a general election.

I also asked the Minister what the cost would be of holding elections in November, compared to the cost of holding them at the same time as local elections. As I recall, I received no response. I also asked him if it was true that the Home Secretary, as was reported in the newspapers, had asked the Treasury for money to fund an advertising campaign to encourage stronger candidates to come forward. I do not think that I got an answer to that question either. I am not surprised. I always know when I am on to a good thing because the Minister stands up and announces that what I said was a “rant”. One always knows that this means one will get no answers to the questions one has asked or the points one has raised.

The Minister sought to argue that somehow we had opposed the police and crime commissioner elections on the grounds of cost. That is true; that was our ground for opposing it. However, the game has changed now. The Government have got their Bill through and we are going to hold the elections. What we are saying is that now that the decision has been made to hold the elections, we should do it properly—in the same way, for example, as the Bristol mayoral election. Doing it in this way, with its emphasis on a website, will make it much harder for many people to find out about the candidates and what they are saying. I do not share the Minister’s apparently complacent view that they will all phone the free telephone number to ask for a copy of the information on candidates to be sent to them.

Oh dear. Possibly I described the noble Lord’s speech as a rant because most of his speeches are a rant, but let me answer just one or two of the points that he has made. We have already published the equality assessment and it is available on our website. I invite the noble Lord to have a look at it there. I also have a copy here. On the cost of having the elections in November rather than May, that figure has been out in the public domain for some time, as the noble Lord well knows, but I will repeat it: it is going to cost some £25 million more—so £75 million rather than £50 million—than if we could have had the election in May. I think that the noble Lord has some understanding of the reasons why it was delayed, because he may have been part of the opposition Home Office team that was dealing with the matters that caused some delays to the relevant Bill. He also asked about tailoring the website for overseas voters. Let us just get through the PCC elections; we are not considering general elections at the moment but we can look at that in the future.

I hope that I have now answered the noble Lord’s points, but if I have not, I will no doubt write to him in due course.

I asked whether it was true, as was claimed in the newspapers, that the Secretary of State had asked the Treasury for money to fund an advertising campaign to encourage stronger candidates to come forward.

My Lords, I do not comment on what I read in the press; I leave it to the noble Lord to look at these matters.

Motion agreed.