Clause 36 - Tendered votes in certain circumstances

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 1:30 pm ar 17 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) 1:30, 17 Tachwedd 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 9, in clause 36, page 44, line 38, at end insert—

'''(1ZF) If a person applies for a ballot paper and it seems to the presiding officer or a clerk that he is entitled to a tendered ballot paper under this rule, the presiding officer or clerk shall inform him of the circumstances under which he can cast a tendered ballot paper.''.'.

My amendment would simply put a duty on the presiding officer, or a clerk, to ensure that someone who is not entitled to vote in a normal way is made aware that they are entitled to a tendered vote. It is not an onerous duty, but it seems to be appropriate; more so than a situation in which someone turns up at a polling station expecting to vote but finds out that they cannot, for reasons set out in the clause, and walks away although they are entitled to a tendered vote. If such a person made an application, the presiding officer would be obliged, under the clause, to make the necessary arrangements for them to do so. That is the purpose of the amendment, which I hope the Minister will agree is appropriate.

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

The amendment seems to be a helpful one that would add clarity to an area that might not be clear to electors.

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

The clause, which we will no doubt discuss in the stand part debate, extends the   circumstances under which a tendered vote may be issued. There are two new circumstances in which that may happen, the first of which is when an elector attends a polling station to vote and discovers that they are included on the list of postal voters and so are not entitled to vote in person at the polling station, but denies having applied for a postal vote.

The other new circumstance is when a postal voter has lost or has not received their ballot papers and it is too late for them to apply for a replacement set. Under the proposed package of secondary legislation, the deadline for applying for a new set of papers in that situation will be extended to 5 pm on polling day. An elector who has lost their original papers and misses the deadline for obtaining a new set, may present themselves at their polling station in their constituency before the close of poll and apply for a tendered vote.

The purpose of the amendment is to insert a new paragraph into rule 40 to provide that where a person applies for a ballot paper and it seems to the presiding officer that he is entitled to a tendered ballot paper under that rule, the presiding officer shall inform him of the circumstances under which he can cast a tendered vote.

I appreciate that electors might find the question whether they are entitled to a tendered vote confusing, on the face of it, but we are empowering the presiding officers to ask voters certain statutory questions, some of which are designed to ascertain whether a person is entitled to a tendered vote. A person who satisfactorily answers certain questions put by the presiding officer may indeed, as the hon. Gentleman said, be entitled to a tendered vote.

Under paragraph 7 of schedule 1 to the Bill, we are extending the questions that the presiding officer may put to cover the new circumstances, under the clause, in which a tendered vote may be issued. The questions permitted vary depending on the circumstances of the person applying for a tendered vote and will now include ''Did you apply to vote by post?'' and ''Why have you not voted by post?'' Furthermore, there is nothing to prevent polling station staff from offering information to electors if that is thought appropriate. They will, if it is deemed necessary, be able to explain to voters the rules governing tendered votes.

That is a long way of saying that we entirely sympathise with the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, and are in fact extending the circumstances in which a person is entitled to a tendered vote. It would be odd, therefore, if we did not want to make the relevant people's entitlement known. However, there are statutory questions that should be asked of the individual to establish their entitlement. It is important that that procedure should be uniform. Thereafter, the question of Electoral Commission guidance will probably kick in.

We are with the hon. Gentleman in spirit, but do not see a need for the amendment, because we are trying to enhance the availability of tendered ballot papers to people in the circumstances that I have   outlined. In the light of that I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 1:45, 17 Tachwedd 2005

That was a helpful response. We share the wish to maximise the number of people who could take advantage of the relevant paragraph. It is still slightly odd, given that the questions that a presiding officer can ask of a voter are so carefully prescribed—they are laid down, and the list is precise, not permissive—that the first question is not ''Do you realise that you can apply for a tendered vote?'' That is not one of the questions that can be asked; it can be asked only when an application has been made by the voter.

I accept that in practice most presiding officers will probably do as I have suggested; they will not look in the rule book and think ''Gosh, I am not sure whether I can ask whether this person knows the electoral law, and whether they have read schedule 1 to the 1983 Act recently, to inform themselves that they have a tendered vote.'' They will take it as read that they are doing their duty if they make the person concerned aware of the situation. However, that is not explicit in the Bill; in fact, the reverse is almost explicit. Because prescribed questions are to be asked, there is an inference that other questions are not to be asked as part of the process.

Will the Minister reconsider the matter to see whether clarification can be included in the code of guidance? If so, and provided that everyone is clear that what I have described should happen, there is no purpose to my amendment. Nevertheless, it would not unduly hurt the Bill if it were accepted, so that the Minister's intention would be made clear. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.