Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, these regulations make updates to the rules for the administration and conduct of European elections. They flow from changes made for UK parliamentary elections in the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 and associated secondary legislation, with which a number of us have been much concerned over the past two years. They also provide for the implementation of an EU directive concerning non-national EU citizens standing as candidates at European parliamentary elections, and make other changes to the administration and conduct of these elections.
These amendments are needed to support the effective administration of the European parliamentary elections that will be held on 22 May 2014. The measures are designed to improve the accessibility and security of the voting process and to implement a number of recommendations which have been made by, among others, the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators since the previous European parliamentary elections in 2009.
The Cabinet Office has consulted on these regulations with the Electoral Commission and with others such as the Association of Electoral Administrators, SOLACE and the territorial offices, and with colleagues in the Government of Gibraltar. We were fully involved in the discussions about the new directive with the European Commission, and have worked to ensure that its implementation is proportionate and workable in the UK context.
While the Electoral Registration and Administration Act made a number of changes to the rules for UK elections, which were set out in primary legislation, noble Lords will be aware that the rules for European elections are set out in secondary legislation. These regulations, therefore, make the corresponding updates for the European parliamentary elections.
I now turn to the key measures in the regulations. They enable postal votes to be despatched further in advance of polling day, which will be of particular help to those at remote locations, particularly overseas, including service voters, as it will give them more time to receive, complete and return their postal vote in time for it to be counted. Providing for postal votes to be issued as soon as practicable at an election will facilitate the early despatch of postal votes soon after the close of nominations, and earlier than the 11th day before the poll, which is the earliest postal votes may be issued to many postal voters at present. As a consequence of the earlier despatch of postal votes, the regulations also ensure that electors can continue to cancel their postal vote and arrange instead to vote in person or by proxy, provided that they do this before the postal vote application deadline—that is, at least 11 working days before the poll—and that the postal ballot papers have not already been completed and returned to the returning officer. This ensures that the current flexibility afforded to electors to change their voting arrangements is maintained.
The regulations also introduce a set of up to date voter-facing forms and notices, including poll cards, postal voting statements and the ballot paper, which are intended to make the voting process more accessible. This reflects moves in recent years to modernise the appearance of voter-facing forms at newly created polls such as the police and crime commissioner elections and the 2011 referendum on the parliamentary voting system. The revised material has been produced following a programme of public user testing and consultation with the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, territorial offices, electoral services suppliers and with Scope.
Noble Lords will recall that, during the passage of the ERA Act, the Government listened to considerable parliamentary concern about the need to ensure that there is a mechanism in place to deal with any queues which might form at polling stations at close of poll, given the isolated but highly publicised instances of queues at polling stations at the 2010 election. These regulations therefore reflect for European parliamentary elections the Act’s provision for UK parliamentary elections, whereby voters waiting in a queue at the close of poll—that is, at 10 pm on polling day—for the purpose of voting, may be issued with a ballot paper and cast their vote. Let me be clear, however, that this provision is not intended as a substitute for proper planning by regional and local returning officers at elections. It is for these returning officers to make sufficient provision in the number of polling stations and staffing levels to manage the volumes of electors likely to vote at polling stations.
On a related note, these regulations contain a key measure to ensure that returning officers are accountable, reflecting as they do for European parliamentary elections the ERA Act’s provision for UK parliamentary elections whereby returning officers’ fees may be reduced or withheld by the Secretary of State following a recommendation by the Electoral Commission.
The regulations put into legislation that all postal votes are to be subject to a key security check, whereby the signature and date of birth on the postal voting statement are checked against records. This improves upon the current requirement to check at least 20% of postal votes. While 100% checking has been funded at previous elections and has been achieved by a large proportion of returning officers, we want to ensure that all postal votes are subject to the same high level of scrutiny.
The regulations also include a related measure which requires EROs to inform electors after a poll where their postal vote has been rejected because the signature or date of birth, which are used as postal vote identifiers, that they have supplied on the postal voting statement failed to match those held on record, or where they had simply been left blank. This is to help ensure that those electors can participate effectively in future elections and not have their ballot papers rejected at successive polls because of a signature degradation or because they are making inadvertent errors. This will help legitimate voters who submit their postal ballot packs in good faith to avoid their vote being rejected at subsequent elections.
It will also provide EROs with the flexibility to challenge postal votes where there is any cause for concern about their validity. Given that EROs will not be obliged to inform individuals where fraud is suspected, there is an opportunity for any such suspicions to be collated and reported to the police, where that is warranted. This measure ensures that particular attention is paid to the way in which mismatches appear and provides an opportunity to identify patterns or anomalies which may indicate that malpractice has been attempted. The regulations also permit those who had planned to vote in person but are called away at very short notice before polling day on business or military service to appoint an “emergency” proxy to vote on their behalf, which builds on the current facility for those taken ill.
The regulations also provide for police community support officers to enter polling stations and counting venues under the same conditions as police constables, in line with the corresponding provisions in the ERA Act. This will allow police forces additional flexibility in deploying their resources on polling day and allow them to provide a greater visible reassurance to the public.
Finally, the regulations implement a European Council directive that amends the existing Council directive, which provides that EU citizens living in a member state of which they are not nationals may vote and stand as a candidate in European parliamentary elections in their state of residence. The position at previous European parliamentary elections was that a candidate who wished to stand for election in the UK and who was an EU citizen, but not a UK, Irish or Commonwealth citizen, had to provide certification from their own member state of citizenship that they were not disqualified from standing in European parliamentary elections in that state when submitting their nomination for candidacy. Under the new directive, from the 2014 polls onwards, that will change and candidates or nominating officers will be able to ask the UK Government to request information from their home member state. This requirement is to be applied across all member states and is intended to remove a perceived barrier to non-nationals standing for election in the member states in which they reside. Furthermore, the existing provision allowing candidates to obtain the declaration themselves will remain in place as an alternative, should candidates and parties choose it. The Government will liaise closely with colleagues and regional returning officers in the process of implementing the directive.
Overall, these provisions make sensible and relevant changes for the conduct and administration of European elections in line with those being made for UK parliamentary elections. They are designed to increase voter participation, further improve the integrity of our electoral system and ensure that the processes underpinning our elections are both more robust and more relevant to the needs of voters. I commend these regulations to the Committee.
My Lords, I welcome these regulations and particularly like the Minister’s optimism about planning for queues at European elections. Let us hope that that problem arises and we can show that this new robust system actually works. Somehow I suspect that it might not be the case but let us hope so. I should perhaps declare an interest in that I am a director of a company that, as a minor part of its business, prints ballot papers, including, probably, for the European elections.
I welcome all the regulations but just wanted to check something around equal treatment. I am particularly pleased that it is now easier for non-nationals of the UK and Ireland to put forward their candidacy, and that there are fewer barriers to that happening. However, I would like to understand whether and how Irish and Gibraltarian—and even UK—citizens are checked for potential disqualification. I can see that we are moving towards national authority where European states other than the UK and Republic of Ireland are concerned, but do we check disqualification for people from Gibraltar, the United Kingdom and Ireland?
The other matter on which I wanted to catch up is the date for the European elections, where a range of dates is set. Have the Government considered moving to a Sunday, like most of the rest of the European Union? That could be an experiment to see whether we could increase voting by holding the election at the weekend. Can the Minister also tell me whether next year’s local elections will go back to June, or the date for the European elections?
Finally, a much more strategic question: when do the Government intend to introduce open lists—as opposed to closed lists—for these elections, so that citizens can make real choices, rather than ones thrust upon them by a clique of political parties—of which, of course, we are all members and should therefore declare an interest.
My Lords, on this side of the House, we welcome the regulations, including the provision for telling those whose postal votes are rejected the reasons for such a rejection so that they can correct the mistake next time. We welcome the checks on postal votes. Along with the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, we also welcome making it easier for people to stand for election in countries other than those where they are citizens.
Before going on to questions about the actual regulations, I draw the Committee’s attention to the fact—which has already been alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and by the Minister—that this election also covers the people of Gibraltar. With this in mind, we were concerned by the quite false suggestion made by the Minister’s colleague in the House on 10 October—whether on behalf of the Government or the Conservative candidates in the European elections we do not know. The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi said that,
“we are incredibly clear about the sovereignty and the sovereign position of the Gibraltarian people. It is nice to hear that the Opposition now share this view”.
My noble friend Lady Royall of Blaisdon remonstrated with this quite outrageous implication, saying,
“the Minister said that the Opposition now support the people of Gibraltar. I would like to make it clear, and have it on the record, that my party has always supported the citizens of Gibraltar and their self-determination”.
One might have thought that sufficient for the former chair of the Conservative Party, but she added insult to injury by saying:
“It is incredibly heartening to hear that. It therefore puts my mind at rest, certainly in relation to the potential sovereignty crisis”.—[Official Report, 10/10/13; cols. 177-78.]
I therefore ask the Minister, as he oversees all the rules and regulations, including these ones governing the European elections in Gibraltar, to ensure that the administration of the vote is carefully overseen by the Electoral Commission, so that it is fair to all candidates in the South West England constituency.
I turn to the question of the close of poll. Contrary to what the Minister’s then colleague, Miss Chloe Smith, said in introducing the regulations in the other House—words repeated today by the Minister—the Government did not listen to what Parliament said about the queue at 10 pm and being able to vote, and had to be forced to do so by a vote in this House. Sadly, the Government continue to fail to listen, including to the Electoral Commission, which has a certain professional expertise in these matters. They did not listen over that issue and they are not listening now over the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, where they failed to consult the Electoral Commission before dreaming up Part 2. They are still resisting a large number of concerns that the Electoral Commission has about it, in particular the demands on the commission to make new sorts of judgments and to register a swathe of new organisations and, in particular, its worry that it will not have the resources to do so satisfactorily.
However, this concerns the current regulations which, again, will require the Electoral Commission to produce guidance, particularly on the matter of the time when postal votes can be handed in. As the Minister knows, the commission continues to raise some important questions over that wording. Can he give us a reassurance that the commission will be able to manage all the new expectations being laid on it by the lobbying Bill, together with its work on these European elections, which are to run concurrently with the local elections?
I have two further minor points to raise. In the debate in the Commons, Mr Graham Stringer MP asked:
“Are the European regulations on personation the same as those that apply in our general elections? Is a record kept of ballot papers, as it is in general elections, if personation occurs?”.—[Official Report, Commons, Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee, 12/9/13; col 6.]
The Minister in another place promised him a written response. Unfortunately, I have not managed to locate it, but perhaps the noble Lord will be able to read the answer into the record today.
Finally, in earlier exchanges on other statutory instruments, I thought that every opportunity was going to be used to forewarn people about the forthcoming move to individual electoral registration. I was therefore very disappointed that in my own area, Camden, absolutely no mention of the move to IER is made on the latest registration form, which has been done in time for the European elections; nor, I am assured, do the forms for Harrow or Lambeth. Does the Minister know what action is being taken more generally to prepare for this somewhat hurried change? As he knows, the commencement order to bring IER into force is due to be made on 8 November. Can he confirm that that is still the date, especially as we have yet to see the details of the outcome of the live data-matching trials using DWP records, which took place over the summer? In some instances, they matched fewer than half of the records. We have not seen a list of the particular areas, but it may be that he has that information to hand. Perhaps he could also clarify how much work is due to be undertaken by electoral registration officers on IER at the same time as they are running the combined European and local elections. Most importantly, is he satisfied that they have the resources for both of these challenging tasks?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for that fighting speech which has enlivened our afternoon. I shall try to answer her questions as well as I can. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, asked me about open lists versus closed lists. It is probably fair to say that there is no common view within the coalition on this, nor is there between the Government and the Opposition, so it is a matter on which we hope there will continue to be some form of debate. It is certainly the case that next year the local elections will be held on the same day as the European elections, on 22 May, but will then return to their otherwise normal date the following year.
He also asked about moving polling to a Sunday. All sorts of suggestions have been made for encouraging people to vote and making it easier for them to do so, including possibly having two days of voting over a Saturday and a Sunday. The problem with many of them is that the additional costs in staffing terms would be quite considerable, and thus these suggestions have not yet gained the degree of traction that I suspect the noble Lord might like.
On the question of how far we are checking the qualifications of voters in Ireland and Gibraltar, I had better write to the noble Lord to make sure that I get the answer entirely right. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, proclaimed the depth of the Labour Party’s commitment to the sovereignty of Gibraltar. Perhaps I might be allowed to repeat something that I said some years ago when this question came up. Under the 30-year rule, papers were released on discussions within the then Conservative Government in 1971-72, when a spat with the Spanish over Gibraltar was in full spate. The Foreign Secretary scribbled on one paper that perhaps one ought to consider possible alternatives. One alternative came up from a relatively junior member of the Foreign Office, who suggested that one might perhaps think of assigning the governance of Gibraltar to the Knights of St John on Malta. A senior official scribbled: “Have you ever met the Knights of Malta? You might as well give the sovereignty of Gibraltar to the Young Liberals”. The reason I use this example is that I once intervened on a Question under the Labour Government and the Minister responsible for negotiating with the Spanish Government had been the national president of the Young Liberals in 1971-72. I pass that on as an anecdote for a pub quiz, if the noble Baroness wishes to take part in one. I was very disappointed that the noble Baroness did not ask me how many postal voters there were on Gibraltar for the most recent European elections. I could have assured her that it was probably fewer than 100. The entire electoral roll is about 20,000.
I take her point about the demands on the Electoral Commission. We will come back to that in the transparency of lobbying Bill, which I am sure we will all enjoy discussing from Second Reading on 22 or 23 October.
On the question of personation, I am assured that the rules for personation in European elections are the same as those that apply to UK parliamentary and other elections. The intention of the regulations is precisely to reconcile as far as possible the regulations for national parliamentary, local and European elections.
I take the noble Baroness’s point that there is no mention on the papers going out at the moment of the move towards individual electoral registration. Perhaps I may take that back and be in touch with her again, because I entirely agree that we need to make people think about the change as soon as possible, and must consider how best to alert people about our move to it. I admit that, as usual, the effective head of my household filled in our Wandsworth and Saltaire election forms again this year, and that I did not check what she did. Therefore, I cannot tell the noble Baroness whether either the Bradford or the Wandsworth electoral forms alerted us to individual electoral registration.
I hope that I have answered all the questions that were raised in the debate, and I commend the regulations to the Committee.