Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 13 January.
“Safe and secure elections are the cornerstone of any democracy, and Parliament’s decision, as set out in primary legislation, is that these polls should go ahead in May. Due to the pandemic, many of these elections have already been delayed by a year, but voters have a right to be heard and to decide who governs them. During the pandemic, local authorities will have taken many serious decisions impacting directly on residents, on matters from council tax to road closures, and those are important issues on which elected representatives should be held to account.
Given the situation, however, we are, as the Prime Minister set out last week, keeping this position under review. Any change would require very careful consideration, including by this House, and would need to be based on robust evidence. There should be a high bar for any delay.
I remind the House that we have already seen polls go ahead despite coronavirus, in this country—for example, council elections in Edinburgh and Aberdeen—and internationally, with other countries holding general elections. Since the announcement of the postponement of the 2020 elections, we have been working towards holding them in a Covid-secure manner, and we will put in place a strong set of measures to support this. Voters have a choice as to how they participate in elections—at the polling station, by proxy or by post. We want to maintain that choice, but we recognise that the pandemic may change people’s needs and preferences. We actively encourage anybody who is shielding or who would prefer not to attend a polling station to apply for an absent vote instead of going in person. We will bring forward additional measures to support absent voting, including extending the ability to appoint a proxy, so that anybody who might be affected by Covid-19 in the days before the poll is still able to make their voice heard. The Government this week set out our plan to roll out vaccines at pace, which will ensure that the most vulnerable are protected and provide a route map towards relaxing the restrictions when safe to do so.
We have worked closely with the Electoral Commission on the production of guidance to aid all involved. This guidance is based on the latest public health advice and will be updated as necessary ahead of the polls. We have been working across government to ensure that any activity required for participation in and the delivery of the polls is technically allowed under Covid regulations. I thank local government officials, who have stepped up to the mark enormously in dealing with new and challenging issues, in many cases since last March. That should be recognised. We are grateful to them for all the work they have done, and we will continue to work closely with them and all involved in elections to support them in delivering the elections successfully.
Finally, honourable and right honourable Members will know very well the importance of campaigning and providing information to voters. As well as the technical aspects of elections, voters rightly expect that campaigning activity should only be carried out safely. I can confirm that the Government have also worked with the parliamentary parties panel to ensure that we are aware of the views from political parties, and we will continue to do that. We recognise the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of this area. We will continue to keep the House updated on the preparations for the safe holding of these elections, which are an important upcoming moment in our shared civic life.”
My Lords, this May has a record number of polls, involving every elector in the country. If America can organise its massive ballot, surely we can also vote, especially since some of these elections are now a year overdue. I therefore ask the Government to assure the House that they will not run away from these votes. Will they also ensure that we use all the normal polling stations and not reduce their number, as I hear is happening in some places? That would not only produce dangerous crowds but would also disfranchise those who could not travel further to polling stations, particularly, of course, people with a disability.
My Lords, I certainly assure the noble Baroness that the Government believe that safe and secure elections are the cornerstone of any democracy. The law is that these elections should go ahead on this date. The Prime Minister said that all matters are always under review, as they are in a pandemic. People then seemed to ride away and say that that was an indication that they would be postponed, but, as the Minister for the Constitution said in the other place yesterday, a very high bar would have to be set to not proceed with these elections. As far as her comments about returning officers, they obviously look at polling stations, but I will take note of the points the noble Baroness made. Certainly, voting should be easy.
I hope I can get the Minister to add that local democracy is absolutely part of the foundation to any effective constitutional democracy, which is one of the reasons why we have to be very careful about postponing these elections further. I thank the Minister for the Statement and I thank Bradford Council for the very extensive briefing it gave me this morning on the difficulties. Can the Minister assure us that, since elections are so fundamental to democracy, as such, any decision will be taken not by the Government alone but in full consultation with all other parties contesting the elections? Given the difficulty of campaigning under current circumstances, will the Government be prepared to consider providing, for example, two pieces of free post to every nominated candidate, to make sure that parties which have more easy access to funds do not get disproportionate benefits from being able to pay for post?
As the noble Lord knew I would, I thoroughly endorse the first remark he made. I believe local democracy is the cornerstone, and I wish that were more widely recognised. The Government will continue to engage with political parties to ensure that people are able to campaign safely and securely and to secure information. As far as his specific proposal is concerned, I will certainly make sure that that is fed into consideration.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s response to the Urgent Question yesterday—both the commitment to having elections on 6 May and to minimising unnecessary face-to-face campaigning. In that spirit, may I ask a question similar to one asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in a Written Question, a few weeks ago? Will the Government urgently introduce changes to the requirement for registered parties to seek large numbers of nomination signatures for each campaign? We already have election campaigns where signatures are not necessary, and I request that similar procedures are introduced for all elections on 6 May.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his remarks. There are no plans to change the number of signatures required for nomination in May 2021, or to allow nominations to be accepted by email. Although returning officers may allow parts of the nominations process to be carried out online, such as the arrangement of necessary documents, final nomination papers have to be delivered in person. The Government have considered these issues with the electoral sector and Public Health England, and they are of the view that the current process can be carried out in a Covid-secure way.
My Lords, I suspect that we have another definite maybe from the Prime Minister, who says “We will go ahead”. And yet, if the Government proceed with the elections in May in the normal fashion, in the midst of a pandemic, with half the electorate not yet vaccinated, unlike what the Minister said yesterday—
“the very idea that somebody would be forced to choose between their health and their vote is simply not an issue”—[Official Report, Commons, 13/1/21; col. 314.]
there will be precisely that issue. Can the Government give us a definite answer—for once—and get ahead of the curve and make a definite decision now whether they are to proceed or to put alternative arrangements in place in good time? Another late U-turn will cause great anger and great confusion.
I certainly agree with the noble Lord that clarity is important. The planning assumption in the law is that we are proceeding with these elections. I take the point that he makes about people who are shielding or unable to go to the polling station. That is why, under the current considerations, we are looking at, for example, enhanced arrangements for proxy voting for those affected by Covid. We believe, in concert with those authorities involved, that it would be possible to proceed safely.
Further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Reid, it must be right to encourage as many people as possible to vote by post, as Covid will still be with us and many people will not have been vaccinated. When local authorities send out the council tax demand at the beginning of March, should they not include details of how to register for postal votes, and perhaps even include a form?
My Lords, characteristically, my noble friend makes an interesting and novel suggestion, which I will certainly ensure is passed on to those involved. But I repeat: we must have a high bar for even a short postponement of democracy, and any such decision would certainly never be taken lightly or rushed into. The Government will continue to work with the electoral community on the matter.
My Lords, since health conditions are likely to be similar throughout the whole of the United Kingdom in May, and there are parliamentary elections planned for Wales and Scotland, what discussions are Her Majesty’s Government having with the devolved Administrations to make sure that there is a uniform decision throughout the United Kingdom as far as elections are concerned?
As the noble Lord knows, there have been by-elections in Scotland. But it is for the Scottish and Welsh Governments to take decisions around polls which are within their competence. I can assure him that, in line with our approach elsewhere, all three Governments will try to co-ordinate our work, where possible. The UK Government continue to have regular discussions with counterparts in Scotland and Wales on delivering the polls in May.
My Lords, following on from the last question, in the interests of public health, what consideration has been given to holding the elections in May this year in England and Wales over a period of days, as opposed to on a single day, as is being proposed in Scotland?
My local GP surgery is not allowed to give the Covid vaccine under NHS England guidelines because it has only one door in and the same door out. The building next to it is the local polling station, with exactly the same entrance and exit situation. Why have returning officers not been given the same guidance that GP practices have about which buildings are safe for polling using the NHS criteria?
My Lords, the electoral authorities are in contact with those in local government who are involved in delivering places for the vote, which ultimately is returning officers. They will take a number of factors into account in considering the safety of premises, and I am sure that they will secure safety.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that returning officers and political parties need the maximum notice to prepare for elections? The Minister used the expression “the planning assumption”. That seems to be bureaucratic gobbledegook for saying “We have not quite made up our minds”. Does the Minister agree that it is essential that we have a clear indication for local authorities and political parties as soon as possible, so we all know where we are in preparation for the campaign?
My Lords, I apologise for being guilty of bureaucratic gobbledegook. At the risk of repeating an earlier answer, the most unprecedented pandemic for generations is raging in this country. Occasionally, the Government are taken to task for not being cautious and advisory, but—I repeat—the Government’s position is that the elections can go ahead in a safe and secure way; there would have to be a very high bar for that not to happen. But I accept the noble Lord’s point that total clarity is always the ideal.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.