Clause 19 - Review of polling places

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:00 pm ar 15 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:00, 15 Tachwedd 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in clause 19, page 18, line 36, at end insert

', except that such a notice may not be made in the period of three months before an eletion the date of which is prescribed.'.

Following this morning's correction, and to avoid any confusion, the word in the second line, which reads ''eletion'', is not supposed to be ''deletion'', ''delectation'' or ''electrification'' but ''election''. That is what was intended.

I have some general points to make about clause 19, which deals with the review of polling places, and a precise point, which is made by amendment No. 3, that it is not only inconvenient but inconsiderate to the electorate to make alterations to polling districts in the weeks immediately preceding an election whose date we know.

We generally have our suspicions about when a general election is likely to be called, but it can be called at any time, so no statutory protection can be given before it is held. We do, however, know perfectly well when municipal elections, European elections and mayoral elections will be, as they are on a fixed term. The confusion inherent in a change to the polling district, and therefore to the polling station at which the electorate are required to attend to cast their votes, is not in interests of the electorate. The change might also affect the candidate, such as a sitting councillor seeking re-election whom they want to support in that election. All those confusions are inevitable if there is a change, but they are avoidable in the immediate run-up to an election. I hope that I have made a sensible suggestion that simply offers protection against such confusion and ensures that our elections are administered well.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I have nothing to add to what the hon. Gentleman has just said, other than to say that what he said was thoroughly sensible.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

In his preamble, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) to some extent answered my objection to amendment No. 3, which is that part 4 relates to parliamentary   elections whose dates are not known. The amendment seeks to prevent the electoral registration officer from changing polling districts in the three months before an election, the date of which is known in advance. Clause 19, however, relates to parliamentary elections, the dates of which are generally not known three months in advance, so the amendment would not work.

I am sure, however, that we all have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman said. It would be very confusing to candidates, to party workers and others, but most of all to the electorate, if polling districts were changed willy nilly very close to an election.

The alteration to the polling district will take effect only once the electoral registration officer has published a notice stating that he or she has made all the necessary adaptations. In practice, a registration officer would be bound to use his or her discretion in publishing such a notice when he or she knew that an election was pending. I have an enormous amount of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. He is very obviously sounding a common-sense note when he talks about making such changes too late. Unfortunately, as I said, the amendment would not have the intended effect in part 4. With my assurance, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I do not entirely agree that the amendment would not have the effect that the Under-Secretary suggests, because the polling districts are used not only for the parliamentary elections but for other elections. [Interruption.] They are not necessarily used for other elections, but they frequently are. There is coterminosity between the polling districts and the district council wards in England, for instance, so an amendment to one will produce a consequent amendment to the other. Although we are considering polling districts at parliamentary elections, there is a contingent consideration in relation to the fixed-term elections that take place within the same polling districts.

That can be dealt with by guidance to electoral registration officers. If the Minister would accept that principle—he is nodding from a sedentary position, so I believe that he does—perhaps he could issue clear guidance to electoral registration officers, in which case we do not need to pursue the amendment, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I wish to raise two points. First, I want to be clear what proposed new section 18B(5) means, because I have looked at it and construed it in various ways, and I still do not understand it, although I am not particularly stupid in such matters. Perhaps the Minister can help me.

''If no polling place is designated for a polling district the polling district is to be taken to be the polling place.''

What does it mean? Will we have one big polling station that covers the whole district? Can one cast a vote wherever one happens to be, in the street? I   honestly do not understand it, but I am sure that it means something, and the Minister will be able to help me, but at the moment I am struggling.

The second point is more general. There is a degree of confusion in the terms. The word ''area'' means different things in different parts of the clause. That is not particularly helpful. On some occasions it is used to mean an electoral district, and on others it means something wider. In other instances, it appears to mean the building in which the polling takes place. If others are to construe what is proposed, it is not helpful for terms to change their meaning within a single section. I have not proposed an amendment at this stage; I simply put it to the Minister that he might like to consider whether the wording can be tightened a little, so that we are clear whether we are talking about a polling district, a building in which a polling station is situated or some other area. At present, the drafting looks slightly sloppy.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I would like to draw attention to one aspect of polling districts that has not been addressed in the Bill, and in respect of which the Conservative Opposition proposed an amendment that was not selected—for all the right reasons, I am sure, Mr. O'Hara. We believe that fairness in the electoral system would be appropriately addressed at parliamentary polling district level. Votes in different parts of the UK have significantly divergent values because of the enormous variation in the sizes of constituencies. The current boundary commission review proposes constituencies of widely differing sizes—from Hackney, South at 57,000-odd to Banbury at 78,000 and the Isle of Wight at 103,000, with a general over-representation of urban areas. In the 2005 general election, across England the average electorate in seats that elected Labour MPs was 67,592, compared with 73,004 in Conservative seats. The average number of votes cast for the winning party in England was 18,833 in Labour, seats compared with 22,763 in Conservative seats.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the disparity between the size of seats. The Isle of Wight is a perennial problem, and I do not think that there is an easy answer. However, will he accept that Members of Parliament represent not only numbers of electors but numbers of citizens—souls—within their constituency, and that under-registration in many urban areas is a factor that has to be taken into account, as well as the number on the roll?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but if under-representation has to be taken into account, the disparity is arguably much greater than the figures that I give.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

The figures that we have been given by the Electoral Commission suggest that under-representation involves between 3.5 million and 4 million people nationally, which equates to about 5,000 or 6,000 per constituency. Their backgrounds are low-paid, unemployed, in social housing, black and ethnic. There are far more of them in Labour seats than in Conservative seats. If the Bill is successful and we get those people back on the register, the skew will be ironed out.  

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

I am in no way arguing about the financial backgrounds of people who are entitled to vote; I am talking just about the numbers. As far as I know, everybody in the country has the right to vote, whatever their background. I will push on.

We believe that there is a strong case for ending the wide disparities in the size of parliamentary constituencies by introducing a fixed electoral quota, which would be devised, broadly, by dividing the electorate by the number of seats. That would allow for only a small margin of difference, to avoid splitting local government wards. Correspondingly, boundary commission regulations should be amended to ensure that maintaining an equal quota has the rule of priority over other considerations. The boundary commission chooses not to cross county boundaries, but it will cross London and unitary boundaries. That creates an urban bias in the system that makes rural constituencies much larger.

There could also be a more up-to-date review of the size of electorates towards the end of the boundary review process, to avoid determining the size of constituencies on the basis of electoral data from the start of the review, which would subsequently become heavily out of date.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane PPS (Rt Hon Peter Hain, Secretary of State), Wales Office

How will the new system affect seats in Wales that are traditionally and historically smaller, going back 300 or 400 years?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

The size of the seat, not the traditional boundary, would become the predominant factor, as is the case in London.

We believe that a fixed quota would be a fairer system, as it would ensure that each elector had the same level of parliamentary representation. Although there is a separate argument for reducing the number of MPs in the House of Commons, a fixed quota can be introduced while maintaining the existing size of the Commons. If there were a wish to provide additional representation for constituent parts of the UK, such as Wales and Scotland, that could be done transparently and explicitly by setting a lower electoral quota for constituencies in those designated parts of the United Kingdom.

I raise this issue now with a view to returning to it on Report, because we believe that it deserves full and proper attention. Will the Minister comment on what progress is being made, and what proposals he may have to correct the inequalities?

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South 4:15, 15 Tachwedd 2005

I support my hon. Friend's point about the size of the electorate. I represent the largest electorate in mainland Britain, I think—although the Isle of Wight, with more than 90,000 electors is bigger. It is a difficult task to service those electorates in terms of the social aspects of our work.

My concern is specifically about proposed new section 18B. Electoral registration officers sometimes do not get around to establishing some polling places until a general election is called, or they use an old list and find that it is redundant and they need to make replacements. That often happens. As a former agent,   I was often involved in discussions with electoral registration officers on the siting of polling places in such circumstances. The guidance notes that the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs referred to this morning may cover that point, but it would be helpful to discuss the matter with the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who seems to be responsible for the Committee at present. Electoral registration officers used to hold negotiations and discussions with local parliamentary parties and political organisations on the siting of new polling stations. I wonder whether such guidance could be given, as the siting of polling places is a vital part of our democratic process.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Transport)

I apologise in an even more grovelling fashion for arriving late, Mr. O'Hara. [Hon. Members: ''Again!''] You could say, ''Don't make a habit of it,'' but clearly I have.

In passing, may I comment on the previous comments about establishing constituencies strictly on the basis of arithmetical accuracy? That is an important criterion, but it should not be the sole criterion, as we would end up with some oddly shaped constituencies. For example, to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) to represent an even bigger area in order to incorporate the relevant population numbers might be asking a little too much. However, that was not really what I wanted to bring to the attention of the Committee.

New section 18D will allow for reviews of polling districts to take place by petition of 30 electors. They can go to the Electoral Commission and demand or appeal for that to be done. I am not clear about the criteria upon which such an appeal can be lodged. The presumption always seems to be that a petition, or some kind of appeal, can be made if it is transparently the case that polling places are inadequately distributed around the constituency because of, for example, a poorly functioning local authority. That is a fair understanding, but I also want to raise another issue about which I have some knowledge: inequity of access.

Sefton borough, in which I live, is made up of an amalgam of different boroughs with different histories. In the Bootle constituency, which is in the southern part of the borough, there are almost twice as many polling stations as there are in my own constituency of Southport. The reasons for that are entirely historical; that is how it has always been. Perhaps there is some sociological argument to the effect that people in Southport could be expected to have cars and therefore to travel further, whereas in the past people in Bootle might not be expected to have their own transport. But things have moved on a little. For example, pensioners without their own transport in the northern part of the borough would be in exactly the same position as pensioners without their own transport in the southern part of the borough, but statistically, they always have to go further.

If there is that kind of inequity in the provision of polling places and stations in constituencies served by the same electoral officer, are there grounds for   making a plea to the Electoral Commission? If there are, I would like to do that.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South

Before I call the Minister, may I point out that some discussion in that short debate referred to amendment No. 44, on numbers of electors, which is outwith the scope of the clause? The Minister might wish to bear that in mind when responding.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

I am very happy to bear that in mind, Mr. O'Hara. I had a well-prepared brief on the amendment of the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly). His amendment was not selected, but he made a speech anyway, and I admire his ingenuity in so doing. His case was effectively demolished in interventions by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, so I need not stray down that line. We have not yet discussed access for people with disabilities, which is a big issue. I shall deal with it shortly.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome—which I now know rhymes with ''doom'', so I can pronounce it properly—asked a couple of questions about the wording, one of which was about the apparent dual use of the word ''area''. In proposed new section 18B(4)(a) it is, I think, reasonably clear that the area in question is the local authority area, because the provision sets out a duty of the authority. However, I undertake to scan the provisions thoroughly to make sure that they contain nothing confusing. I take the hon. Gentleman's point.

As to the Delphic wording of proposed new section 18B(5), I double checked in my notes, which tell me:

''New subsection (5) specifies that if there is no polling place allocated, then the polling district is to be the polling place.''

That sheds a huge amount of light on the matter. I must be even thicker than the hon. Gentleman. I have sought inspiration subsequently, but with each new wave of inspiration my comprehension has receded. I think that this will be the first occasion—I am pleased that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State is not here to see it—on which I shall have to undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman. I cannot undertake that he will understand my letter, but rather than attempt an explanation that would take us further into the realms of ignorance, it would be better to clarify the matter in that way.

From what I understand from my notes, I think that the provision is about common-sense arrangements, to deal with peculiar circumstances in very rural and sparsely populated areas, or places where there are blocks of flats that might be whole polling districts—but I said that I would not go down that path.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon spoke about entitlement to vote. Of course everyone is entitled to vote, but not everyone is registered to vote. That is in large part the point of the Bill. We want to ensure that a person who is entitled to vote is also registered. If, in some of the discussions on themes to which I shall not return, the hon. Gentleman bore that distinction in mind, it might have clarified for him why I would have recommended that the Committee reject his amendment.  

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General

Of course it is important to get people registered. However, is not it also important that once they are registered, their votes should not be worth less than other people's?

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Llafur, Knowsley South

Order. I must give a ruling: amendment No. 44 was not selected, because it was outwith the scope of the clause.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

Thank you, Mr. O'Hara. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), one will not, under the Bill, need 30 electors to bring a formal complaint. Anyone can bring a complaint and raise the relevant issues. If there is inequity of access, as the hon. Gentleman says, the solution must be decided locally, by those with local knowledge. The clause allows for a much more open discussion and dialogue between individuals with a point to make and the returning officers who make the decisions.

We want to make the process more transparent, so that it is easier for people to intervene on the issue that I shall now discuss—access to polling stations—and on the broader access issue of where people live. Clearly, if many people once lived in a certain part of town in high-rise flats, but those were later knocked down and no one lives there now, it is daft to persevere with having a polling station there. A systematic review of such matters, to which anyone could contribute, would be an improvement.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Transport)

Hypothetically, if the issue were discussed at local level but the outcome was seen as inappropriate or contestable by a community that felt badly treated because it did not have the right number of polling stations for its population—if those facts were stated plainly, but there was no agreement—could an appeal be made to the Electoral Commission?

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

The straightforward answer is that I do not know. I hope to return to the subject later.

We are trying to ensure that people have the chance to put their case and have their questions are answered. Paragraph 7 of proposed new schedule 1A to the 1983 Act states:

''On completion of a review the authority must . . . give reasons for its decisions in the review''.

It also has to

''publish such other information as is prescribed.''

I hope that that will go some way towards alleviating or ameliorating the situation.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

Will the Minister respond to a point that I raised earlier? When organising elections, there is often no time to review election law, as such considerations arise too late in the process. I asked whether the Minister would use the guidance notes to allow electoral registration officers to do what they used to do, and have urgent discussions with local political parties over the siting of polling stations if necessary immediately prior to an election.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

Paragraph 6 of proposed new schedule 1A states:

''Representations made by any person in connection with a review of polling places may include proposals for specified alternative polling places.''

It is clear that ''any person'' will include political parties. We are opening up the process beyond political parties. We do not use the words ''political parties''. I hope that I have given the hon. Gentleman some reassurance.

Mr. Binley rose—

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

We are making heavy weather of what I think is a fairly straightforward point.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

I thank the Minister for giving way, but this is not a point of little interest. What I described happens regularly. I was an election agent for 12 years—I was proud of the fact—and I remember that we often needed to find a polling station in a rush. In a good area, the electoral registration officer would do that in consultation with the political parties, but it did not happen in areas where practice was not as good as it ought to be. I seek guidance for electoral registration officers, so that they can pursue such a policy. Good geographical access to a polling station is a vital part of the democratic process.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

I can do no more than draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the Bill says that individuals are allowed to make representations. He is talking about emergencies, so I assume that he is talking about by-elections.

Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Scotland Office

I cannot understand why an election should be treated as an emergency. Perhaps that is why we disagree. There is a clear, transparent process. We set out in detail how consultation should take place. Representations can be made by ''any person''; we do not have to rely on the artificial trigger of 30 people complaining about something before it is taken seriously. The results of such reviews have to be published.

Another issue that came up on Second Reading was access for disabled persons. We are allowing representations to be made by anyone who has sufficient interest in the accessibility of polling places in the area to disabled persons, or has particular expertise in relation to access to premises or facilities for disabled persons, including disability groups. The disability group does not have to be in the local authority area or polling district in order to make representations. It could make representations from a central standpoint.

All polling places and stations should be accessible to all voters. However, the service providers, including public authorities such as councils, do not think that the duties under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which from 1 October 2004 imposed a duty to make reasonable adjustments to the physical features of buildings if disabled people would otherwise find it impossible or unreasonably difficult to make use of services, apply to electoral services. That revision of current legislation reinforces the duty of local authorities to consider people with disabilities. The Bill sets it out in clear English.  

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 19 ordered to stand part of the Bill.