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Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2015

Volume 759: debated on Thursday 26 February 2015

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft regulations laid before the House on 15 January be approved.

Relevant document: 21st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, after that short interlude we come to what is clearly the most fascinating business of the day. I assure the Opposition that, as far as I am aware, these are the last SIs concerning electoral administration to be laid before the election, so the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and I will cease to have this opportunity for such regular meetings.

These measures are not part of the transition to individual electoral registration. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has a Question tabled on that in some 10 days’ time. I look forward to discussing it further. The transition is still going well, although not as well as we would like. As I announced to the House in an Answer to another Question some weeks ago, we are still putting further resources into it. I anticipate, particularly as far as young people are concerned, that the surge in registration will come in the last week before it becomes impossible to do so. Sadly, that is the way that things go.

For today, in addition to the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, I will also speak to the Representation of the People (Ballot Paper) Regulations 2015 and the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections Order 2015. These are being brought forward for the general election, which, as noble Lords may have noticed, will be on 7 May this year. The Police and Crime Commissioner Elections Order 2015 is being made as a consequence of the combination of polls regulations, to which I now turn.

The regulations remove the restriction that prevents returning officers commencing the count of UK parliamentary ballot papers at combined elections—as we will have in many parts of the country in May—before verification has been completed for all ballot papers for all the polls taking place. They do this by amending provisions in the Representation of the People (Combination of Polls) (England and Wales) Regulations 2004, which modify the parliamentary elections rules where the parliamentary election is combined with other elections—most commonly, of course, local elections, as is the case this year. The order applies the provisions in the regulations to police and crime commissioner elections where they are combined with UK parliamentary elections. If approved by Parliament, the instruments would come into effect on 7 May, the day of the general election, and would therefore apply to the counts for the general election and the May local elections, which will then be taking place.

The provisions allow counting of parliamentary ballot papers from a ballot box to take place once they have been verified and mixed with parliamentary ballot papers from another ballot box for which the ballot paper accounts have also been verified. They allow counting of postal ballot papers to take place once they have been mixed with ballot papers from at least one ballot box, for which the ballot paper accounts have been verified. By allowing the count of UK parliamentary ballot papers to proceed in this way and by allowing the count to commence before the verification process has been completed, the count of UK parliamentary ballot papers can commence sooner where there may be delays in the delivery of some ballot boxes from polling stations to the returning officer. Returning officers can thus more easily meet the requirement in the Representation of the People Act 1983 to take reasonable steps to begin counting the votes given on parliamentary ballot papers within four hours of the close of poll.

Importantly, verification for all the polls for the combined election must have been completed before the result of the UK parliamentary poll can be declared. This will ensure that any UK parliamentary ballot papers that have been wrongly placed into ballot boxes for other polls are detected and included in the count. By allowing the returning officer to get ahead with the count of the UK parliamentary ballot papers, the time between the completion of the verification stage and the end of the count of UK parliamentary ballot papers will be reduced, and an earlier announcement of the UK parliamentary election result thus encouraged.

These provisions were developed in discussion with regional returning officers and are supported by them. The Electoral Commission has been consulted on the instruments and is satisfied that they will allow more flexibility in verifying and counting in a combined election. The Association of Electoral Administrators and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives have confirmed that they also welcome the changes.

I now turn to the remaining instrument before the House, which is the Representation of the People (Ballot Paper) Regulations 2015. These regulations make changes to the form of the ballot paper used at UK parliamentary elections by amending provisions in the parliamentary elections rules set out in Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. The instrument is intended to come into effect the day after it is made, so that the provisions are in place for the general election on 7 May.

A similar draft instrument that provided for the changes was debated and passed by both Houses of Parliament last year. However, it was not moved for approval on the floor of the House of Commons by the date it was due to come into force—6 April 2014—so unfortunately it was not possible to proceed with making it. We are therefore laying a new instrument based on the previous one. As before, the instrument amends the ballot paper: to remove numbering against candidates’ names; to provide for the left-alignment of candidates’ details; to require the title of the election to be displayed; and to replace the traditional grid pattern with horizontal rules.

The Electoral Commission found that numbering on ballot papers can confuse voters who do not know what the numbers mean or what they are for. Usability testing carried out for the commission found that some individuals—especially new voters—were unsure whether to circle the number next to the party or candidate, or to use the box. The commission’s guidance on design of voting materials states:

“As some elections require people to vote using numbers, it is better not to print any numbers on the ballot paper itself to avoid any confusion”.

All the changes in the revised ballot paper have been subject to additional user testing carried out on behalf of the Government, followed by stakeholder consultation, to make the ballot paper as clear and easy to use as possible. The regulations amend the directions for the printing of the ballot paper to support the changes. The new instrument is identical to the previous version, except for some very minor changes, which include a new provision at Regulation 1(1) to change the commencement date and a new transitional provision to mandate that the changes to the ballot paper do not apply where the notice of election has been issued before the regulations come into force.

Again, we have consulted the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives on the instrument. The Electoral Commission confirmed that it welcomes the Government’s acceptance of its recommendation to legislate for the removal of numbers from UK parliamentary ballot papers. The AEA and SOLACE raised no objections to any of the changes. The disability charity Scope supports the changes. The Royal National Institute of Blind People, while not actively supportive of the removal of numbering from UK parliamentary ballot papers, does not object to it. The RNIB considers that the regulations do not significantly affect the ease with which the tactile voting device can be used by blind and visually impaired voters.

Changes to the UK parliamentary ballot paper form part of a wider exercise to update forms and notices used by voters for the full range of elections in the UK, including poll cards, postal voting statements and the ballot paper. The changes are intended to make the voting process more accessible for voters, and to encourage voter engagement. The three instruments are being made to facilitate a successful general election—towards which, I trust, we are all working—and I commend them to the House.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear explanation of the two sets of regulations and one order before your Lordships’ House. I have no issues as such with the matters in question; I am happy to support them. It is good that the Government are making sure that the required measures are in place, that we have well designed, easily understood ballot papers and other stationery in connection with the election, that proper provision is being made for the combination of polls that will be taking place at the same time, and that how and when the counting of votes will take place, after the completion of the verification process, has been made clear.

However, on a day when there is little business for your Lordships’ House—these instruments were moved from the Moses Room to pad out the Order Paper because there was a real risk that the business in the Chamber would have closed before the Grand Committee was due to sit—I find it staggering that there is not a government Motion before the House expressing the Government’s concern about the crisis in electoral registration, and explaining what they are going to do to sort it out, and get the millions of people who are eligible but are not registered on to the electoral register.

We are light on business, and we have a crisis. On Tuesday, the Electoral Commission published a report of its analysis of the number of people who were on the electoral register on 1 December. It found that there were 2%—that is, 920,000—fewer people on the register than in the previous February and March. Who are the people most likely not to be on the register? They are people who are moving home, students and attainers—young people who are not 18 yet but will be 18 by polling day. That figure of 920,000 fewer people on the register is scandalous. This is a crisis, and rather than debate it here in your Lordships’ House on a government Motion so that we could hear what urgent action the Government were taking, we hear nothing about it, and it falls to the Opposition, on the back of regulations about election stationery, the combination of polls and how are we going to count the votes after verification, to raise these serious matters.

That is a dreadful state of affairs. I have an Oral Question down for 19 March asking the Government what action they will take to get people on the register before 20 April, and I am giving the Minister another chance to set out his plans today. We need urgent action, and we want to be reassured. It looks to me as if the Government are coasting on these matters. That is a truly dreadful state of affairs.

My Lords, that is slightly specious, if I may say so—but it does help me, because I wanted to raise one question with my noble friend. My experience is that there is no regulation relating to the right of a person who is unable to enter a particular polling booth to have the ballot paper brought out to them. I understand that it is open to the particular officer in that place to give that service.

I raise this matter because of the Assembly of Bethel. This is an organisation, rather small in its numbers, that has a particular view about what buildings its members may enter without impurity. It is an unusual view, and not one which I share, but holding it should not deny people the right to vote. In my former constituency I had a member of the Assembly of Bethel, and she was unable to enter the building because on top of it was a cross with a circle round it, and the organisation believes this to refer to the sun god rather than the Son of God. I discovered, in this very curious circumstance, that it is not even for the returning officer to insist that the ballot paper be brought out. He has to rely on the personal decision of the officer in charge of that particular polling station.

I am therefore taking this opportunity to raise what I know is an esoteric example, although it is none the worse for that—I am a believer in a bit of esotericism from time to time. People should have the right to deal with the ballot paper outside for all kinds of reasons, not necessarily just because they are in a wheelchair. Have the Government considered whether it might be an appropriate principle to say that such decisions should be governed by the local returning officer overall, rather than being left to whoever happens to be on duty as an assistant officer in a particular polling station? I do not expect my noble friend to have an immediate answer to the problems of the Assembly of Bethel, but he may be prepared to look again at whether we need to change the regulations in this regard.

My Lords, may I, too, raise a small point? I was not in my seat for the whole of the Minister’s speech but I was standing at the other end of the Chamber, so I hope I may be allowed to intervene briefly. My noble friend referred to the voting provisions for blind persons, and the ballot papers that are available for them. Is it not possible to have available in polling stations a small number of voting papers in Braille, which blind persons can have access to, so that they are more fully informed about the choices that they are making?

My Lords, I first met the noble Lord, Lord Deben, rather a long time ago, but I did not realise until many years later that he was such an expert on esotericism. I shall now always think of him as an esotericist of the highest order. All I can say is that I will take his point back—it is extremely esoteric—and ask the officials to reply.

The answer to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne—I think that I did mention this in passing—is that devices are provided in polling stations for the visually impaired, to guide them round the ballot paper. These devices have adhesive elements that stick them in the right place on the back of the ballot paper. I have not actually seen them myself, but that is what I understand to be the case. My understanding—I shall write to the noble Lord if I am wrong—is that what is necessary is provided.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that we all recognise that electoral registration in Britain is a voluntary activity, with mild penalties for those who do not do it. It is not a necessary obligation as part of citizenship. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, would like us to have identity cards and registration would be part of that, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, would like registration—and, I think, voting too—to be compulsory. But we must recognise that part of the reason why, over the past 20 years, people have not registered—I stress that we have faced this problem for some considerable time—is the fact that they are disengaged from politics. In campaigning over the past few weekends I have found, in some areas more than in others, that we come up against a wall of, “You’re all the same”, “Politics is nothing to do with us”, “There’s no point in voting in this constituency”, and so on. I regret to say that some recent events in Westminster are likely to feed into that.

I repeat that we all, political parties as well as the Government and others, have to work extremely hard to enthuse the electorate. The Government have not yet completed all their efforts. In the week of National Voter Registration Day we managed to register nearly half a million extra people, and we will be continuing to maintain these efforts right up to the last day that people can register for voting. We have provided extra money for a number of agencies, as well as for electoral administrators in the areas of greatest need. As I said in opening the debate, we are not satisfied with the current position but we are maintaining our efforts, and we hope that by 20 April we will have as accurate and as full an electoral register as possible.

I understand that one of the phenomena we are facing at present is that the December figures do not include a number of new students who registered during the late autumn. I am also told that a large number of 18 year-olds are registered at their home parental addresses and not yet at their university or college addresses. We do not know whether they will register at the latter addresses. That may be one of the reasons for this situation.

We are, of course, actively engaged in pursuing the maximum number of registrations as well as making sure that the register that we have by 20 April is as accurate as possible. As I said, we will return to this issue in some 10 days’ time when we discuss the Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I trust that we will all maintain our efforts inside and outside Westminster all the way through to the election as we need to have not only the maximum number of registrations but the maximum number of voters. I think we all recognise that we face a tide of disillusionment and disengagement with conventional party politics among many voters, against which we have to do our best to struggle.

I accept that the noble Lord is as concerned about this matter as I am, and we regularly raise it, particularly in the Moses Room. However, as I said, the House is not exactly pushed for business and the election is fast coming down the track. Will the noble Lord talk to his colleagues as I do not see why the Government could not table a Motion to enable us to discuss this one evening so that he can set out the Government’s plans in full? This is a crisis and it is really serious now. I am very worried about the 20 April deadline. I do not understand why that is in force. A lot of people will not register in time. We will hear lots of dreadful stories during the election and on polling day about people who have lost their right to vote. We should do everything we possibly can to avoid that. I hope that the noble Lord will take that point back and initiate a debate on this issue before the Dissolution.

My Lords, I thought that I and others were keeping the House as regularly informed on this as possible. I have long since lost count of the number of Questions I have answered on individual electoral registration over the last 12 months. However, I will take the noble Lord’s suggestion back to the usual channels and we will see what we can do. I think that I have answered all the points that were raised.

Motion agreed.