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Covid-19: May Elections

Volume 810: debated on Thursday 25 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements they (1) have, and (2) plan to, put in place to ensure that all eligible electors who are prevented from voting in person by (a) medical advice relating to, and (b) the restrictions in place to address, the COVID-19 pandemic are able to participate in the elections due to take place on 6 May.

My Lords, I cannot resist a quick personal tribute to the Lord Speaker. I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, likewise: it was only 40 years ago that the Lord Speaker and I first worked together and I should like to express my sadness at the notice, and my appreciation of all that he has done for party, country and, indeed, the world, and we look forward to his independent career.

I can use a little bit of the time available because I can give the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, a positive Answer that we are changing proxy rules to enable those who need to self-isolate to request an emergency proxy vote at short notice, right up to 5 pm on polling day. This week we have laid a statutory instrument to make this change.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. We all appreciate that the Government have been able to take advantage of expert advice since I tabled this Question and have published some good guidance and some very useful changes, especially addressing the problems faced by shielding and self-isolating electors in arranging proxy votes, a matter to which I drew attention. In the meantime, can he clear up the mystery of the scientific or health advice on which the Cabinet Office unilaterally declared that a leaflet delivered by a volunteer was a serious Covid health hazard but that one delivered by a commercial company was not?

My Lords, guidance has been issued on aspects of election campaigning and further guidance will be issued. Campaigning is an essential part of democracy. The current national lockdown restrictions in England say that one must not leave or be outside one’s home unnecessarily, and those restrictions do not support door-to-door campaigning or leafleting. However, I take advice from the noble Lord’s question and, as I have said, there will be further guidance on top of the guidance that has already been issued.

My Lords, frail elderly people, people with disabilities and their carers have traditionally relied on transport services provided by the voluntary sector to access polling stations. Since many of those services are now in short supply, or even non-existent because of a shortage of money, volunteers or Covid restrictions, how does the Minister suggest that this should be addressed so that those less able citizens are not denied their democratic right to participate?

My Lords, like most people in this House, I have driven electors to polls and I anticipate a future when I myself might be driven. I can assure the noble Baroness that the arrangements that we are putting in place for emergency proxies right up to 5 pm on the day should ensure that anyone who is self- isolating or has tested positive for Covid-19 can still have their say in the elections without having to leave their residence. That will be the Government’s policy and is the assurance that I give the House.

My Lords, will the Minister clarify who is responsible for this round of elections in Wales? As he knows, the running of the Senedd elections is devolved, while the election of police commissioners in Wales has not yet been devolved, although the Silk commission set up by the Cameron Government recommended that the police service should be devolved in Wales, as in Scotland. Will he clarify whether the police commissioner elections could go ahead in Wales while not doing so in England, if Senedd elections go ahead as planned, or will we face unnecessary duplication of the cost of holding two separate rounds of elections in Wales?

My Lords, I sincerely hope not. The noble Lord, in a sense, answered the first part of his question. The position is obviously that Senedd elections are the responsibility of the Welsh Government and police commissioner elections of the UK Government. We are working closely with the Welsh Government on planning for polls. The UK Government have confirmed that local, mayoral and police commissioner elections scheduled for 6 May will go ahead in England and Wales. A decision to postpone the Senedd elections would be for the Welsh Government but our understanding is that they have no plans to do so at this time. So I hope that all can go together.

Lord Speaker, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and myself, I say thank you very much.

Moving on to my supplementary question, first, I record my thanks and those of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for the Government’s willingness to change the procedure in relation to signatories for nomination forms, which has greatly benefited everybody in these circumstances. I also take this opportunity on behalf of everyone involved to welcome the extreme efforts that all members of electoral services organisations are making to deliver free and efficient elections in difficult circumstances.

My Lords, I strongly agree with my noble friend’s final comments about electoral services officers. I am also grateful for the interventions he and others made. The Government are always willing to engage with noble Lords on these and other matters. There is a collective will across the House to make sure that elections can go ahead safely.

My Lords, the easing of lockdown restrictions in general is obviously welcome in the run-up to the scheduled elections but does the Minister accept that if, for any reason, the easing has to be halted or reversed, there may be a case for seeking all-party agreement for the postponement of the elections? In the meantime, in relation to the advice about what is appropriate for campaigning in those elections, does he accept that the only way in which to reassure people that the decision is based on scientific, health and medical advice, not simply the interests of his party, is to publish that advice?

My Lords, the Government have published a delivery plan. I am sorry that the noble Lord suggested that there was a party advantage here. Our hope is to assist all people of all parties and none to fight an election and record their democratic wishes. The Government believe that these elections can be delivered safely. We co-operate with, and will talk to, other political parties, and I can assure the House that the medical officers have advised Ministers in drawing up the delivery plan.

My Lords, when we discussed this last month, my noble friend described my contribution as “novel” and “interesting”. This was the proposition that, when council tax bills are issued next month, included should be details of how to vote by post or by proxy in order to minimise voting at polling stations. What happened to this novel suggestion?

Well, I think I called it something like “ingenious”, although “novel” is a good word. It was a good suggestion. It has been passed on and I am aware that a number of local authorities have chosen various ways to promote postal voting to their electorate, for example through the canvass communications earlier this year. I hope that my noble friend’s suggestion and others will be considered positively; indeed, I always consider his suggestions positively.

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, in paying tribute to hard-working electoral services staff across the United Kingdom. Can the Minister speak to his officials and satisfy himself that everything possible has been done to ensure that voters who are shielding or ill are fully aware of the options for postal and proxy votes—and emergency postal and proxy votes—so that no one will lose their ability to cast their vote in these important elections and, in the days after the poll, we avoid those embarrassing media stories where citizens who have always voted were denied the opportunity to do so purely because they did not realise what voting options were available to them at the time?

My Lords, I strongly agree with the noble Lord. We have given local authorities additional extra resources, and we will support and encourage them to do everything that the noble Lord so wisely suggests.

I pay tribute to the way in which local government is swinging behind these elections and getting them done. I want to hone down on the count. ROs and election officers in Hertfordshire have written to the Cabinet Office and are very concerned about the count process, which, as we both know, can be intense and very long. Certainly there is a fine balance to be struck between safety and scrutiny; indeed, when I am a scrutineer, I am definitely closer to people than I am to, say, my noble friend. So how can we ensure that social distancing is maintained during the verification and counting of votes, and when will we get that guidance?

My Lords, I hope that it will very soon. Yes, I have felt sharp elbows at counts and hope that I have not used too many. Further guidance on this important matter will be given very shortly.

My noble friend the Minister confirmed, I think, that attestation will not be required to access a proxy vote under the new rules. My noble friend Lord Young of Cookham asked how information on proxy voting would be disseminated. Can he say again how this will be done?

My Lords, it will be done through every mechanism and through both national and local means. Obviously, as the noble Baroness who just spoke said, local authorities bear a major burden here. We have tried to simplify the system. We recognise not only that some people will not be able to provide proof of Covid symptoms but that doing so would place unnecessary pressure on the health service, so we will not ask for attestation. However, all other security measures will remain in place to ensure electoral integrity.