Clause 32 - Ballot paper design

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 1:00 pm ar 17 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General 1:00, 17 Tachwedd 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 59, in clause 32, page 40, line 17, at end insert:

', following consultation with and agreement from all registered political parties (as defined in Schedule 1 (6A) of the Representation of the People Act 1983)'.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Ceidwadwyr, Old Bexley and Sidcup

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 30, in clause 32, page 40, line 25, at end insert—

'(5) The Secretary of State shall by order prescribe a minimum size or sizes of typeface to be used on ballot papers.'.

No. 60, in clause 32, page 40, line 25, at end insert—

'(d) No regulations are to be made under the provisions of this clause unless a draft of the regulation has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House.'.

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

I shall discuss amendments Nos. 59 and 60 together, as they combine to produce our intended result. The style and content of ballot papers is prescribed by statute. The current design of ballot papers for first-past-the-post elections is widely accepted as being easy to understand. There are long-standing issues about the use of the official mark, which has to be applied by hand to each ballot paper at the polling station under rule 37 of the parliamentary election rules.

The procedure dates from the Ballot Act 1872. On occasion, votes have been invalid because of human error in failing to apply the official mark. That was a feature of the election petition at Winchester after the 1997 general election. For some years, there has been disquiet about the policy of numbering ballot papers and counterfoils, in case the two are combined to facilitate vote tracing other than in the context of an election petition or criminal investigation, although counterfoils can be used to trace electoral offences.  

That issue was explored in 1997 by the Home Affairs Committee, which supported a limited view that the system played little part in the prevention of personation, and that concerns about possible abuse of the system by state agencies outweighed other considerations. The Electoral Reform Society evidence considered that the existing system should be maintained because of its use in local government elections on a number of occasions to uncover fraud. The issue was raised again by the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe report on the 2005 election, which recommended the abolition of serial numbers on ballot papers. The Government response to that report set out the justifications for the current approach.

The Electoral Commission made proposals to improve the security aspects of ballot papers in its policy report ''Equal access to democracy'', summarised in ''Voting for change—An electoral law modernisation programme''. It recommended the use of bar codes in place of serial numbers on ballot papers for detection of fraud, and watermarks in place of the official mark to reduce the scope for human error to invalidate the vote cast. The Government response accepted both proposals. The Department for Constitutional Affairs paper of May 2005 announced proposals to change the design of ballot papers in order to improve security. The proposed changes were to improve security markings on ballot papers through watermarks or security printing and to replace serial numbers on ballot papers with bar codes, allowing fraudulent votes to be more easily identified and removed.

The paper noted that bar coding had been used in a number of recent electoral pilots, notably in the European parliamentary elections of June 2004, local elections and the north-east assembly referendum in November 2004. Bar coding would also allow electors to check with the returning officer whether their postal votes had been received before the close of voting. It would also assist returning officers who are asked to issue replacement ballot papers to electors who had not received them. At present, that is possible only up to 5 pm on polling day.

The May 2005 policy paper also announced proposals to allow the automated production of postal vote documents that did not look identical to the ballot paper. That has been the subject of a number of pilots. At present, statutory requirements ensure that postal ballots are identical to those cast at polling stations. The policy paper says:

''The law as it stands was originally designed to ensure that the rare postal vote did not stand out against the ones cast at the polling station which would potentially allow people to identify how someone voted''.

Clause 32 amends the provisions on the design of ballot papers to allow for two columns of named candidates in elections with several candidates. It allows the Secretary of State to make regulations on ballot paper design so that primary legislation is no longer required to make changes. I see that the   Minister of State is busily preparing herself for her response to the debate.

We accept many of the suggested security improvements to ballot papers. Our amendments seek to avoid giving the Secretary of State such a wide power to decide on the nature and design of ballot papers without parliamentary approval. Amendment No. 59 would require consultation with all registered political parties before the Secretary of State could prescribe a different form of ballot paper. Amendment No. 60 would require regulations made under these provisions to be laid before Parliament and approved by the resolution of each House.

Photo of Jim McGovern Jim McGovern Llafur, Dundee West 1:15, 17 Tachwedd 2005

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is a tad excessive that both Houses should have to approve the size and shape of a ballot paper? Further, as ballot papers have no effect on the House of Lords, should their lordships have a say at all?

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

That point may or may not be important; it depends how radically the Government wanted to change the ballot paper. We believe that such changes should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Given the importance of ballot papers, and the Government's poor record on electoral matters in recent times—

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

The Government may be good at winning elections, but they do not organise them so well. It is important that Parliament does not lose control.

I shall speak briefly to amendment No. 30, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), which seeks to give the Secretary of State further powers to prescribe a minimum size of font to be used on ballot papers. Our amendments, saying that Parliament should have control, supersede what my hon. Friend suggests.

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

This interesting group of amendments deals with Ministers' intentions. It is clearly a de minimis issue; it would be nonsense for both Houses to debate changes in the size and design of ballot papers, but it would be entirely proper for radical changes to be debated. We ought to have the opportunity to discuss the basic rules of design.

Generally speaking, our ballot papers are well designed. However, problems for those with disabilities must be properly dealt with; the Minister knows of those concerns, and that she needs to talk to the representatives of the various disability organisations to ensure that we do our best to ensure that people can vote independently.

Amendment No. 30, tabled by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, is about font size. Speaking as a registered optician, I entirely agree that there should be a minimum size. I find it odd that we could have a ballot paper that people with poor eyesight were be unable to read with confidence. The point is rapidly reached when it becomes difficult to ascertain exactly what is written on the ballot paper.  

There are also design issues about which we are all confused. The only ballot paper issued to me in recent years that caused me some concern was for the mayoral elections in London—I see the Minister nodding. The folding instructions were clearly harder for many people to understand than one might have expected. I cast my vote in the Brick lane polling station, and I know that the ballot paper seriously confused a number of people. That is an example of a ballot paper that was not well designed.

There are, therefore, some basic standards and guidelines that the House should consider. There are also issues about people with disabilities, on which the Minister must have further discussions. I suspect that the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) will not press the amendments to a Division, but I hope that his points are listened to seriously.

Photo of Derek Conway Derek Conway Ceidwadwyr, Old Bexley and Sidcup

Before I call the Minister to reply, I note that the bits of paper before her suggest that she may be about to demonstrate some things visually to the Committee. Although I enjoy ''Show and Tell'' as much as the sandpit at playtime, it is important for her to bear mind the fact that her words must be intelligible to those who follow our proceedings in Hansard—so with that in mind, I am sure that she will describe whatever it is she has in front of her .

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I shall, Mr. Conway.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned the importance of clear print, and the performance standards, which we shall discuss later, will feature guidance to returning officers to adhere to the Royal National Institute of the Blind clear print guidelines. The issue was raised on the Floor of the House, and there will clearly need to be discussions between the Electoral Commission and organisations such as the RNIB, just as there are discussions about how those with physical disabilities are to get into the polling station.

Design is important, and the hon. Member for Huntingdon raised the issue of replacing counterfoils, which is dealt with in clause 33. Amendment No. 59 to clause 32 would specify that the Secretary of State may prescribe in regulations a different form of ballot paper from that in the parliamentary election rules only

''following consultation with and agreement from all registered political parties''.

Any change could therefore be effected only after agreement from all registered political parties. However, there are between 300 and 500 such parties, and some are very—

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Yes, some are not what one would call mainstream, and it would not be right if we were unable to make the proposed alterations without first getting the agreement of all registered parties.

The clause helps us to achieve one of the important aims behind the Bill: modernising the arrangements for printing and producing ballot papers and for their design. We want to allow more automated procedures to be used in producing ballot papers, and that will be of particular help with the printing and dispatch of   postal ballot papers. We also want to be able to take advantage of technological developments to enhance the security of ballot papers and the electoral process.

We want to ensure that the design of ballot papers meets voters' needs and that ballot papers are clear and easy to complete. The form of the ballot paper is set out in the parliamentary election rules in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. The clause amends those provisions. Currently, if we want to make any change to the form of the ballot paper, we must amend the 1983 Act through primary legislation. We want to provide for greater flexibility in making changes to ballot papers and, where appropriate, to enable changes to be made more quickly.

A key concern is that ballot papers should be clear and easily understood by voters. Clause 32 gives the Secretary of State the power to prescribe in regulations a different form of ballot paper from the one that is currently depicted in the election rules, to amend directions to printers of ballot papers on such matters as the size and type of detail on the ballot paper, and to amend the directions on the guidance for voters voting as a result of any changes to the form of ballot paper or the directions on printing the ballot paper.

The clause does not specify who should be consulted on any regulations made, but in practice, of course, there will be widespread consultation, and the political parties will be involved. As I said, however, the amendment is too prescriptive. The purpose of the clause is to allow changes to be made quickly to the ballot paper where they are deemed to be necessary, possibly in the run-up to an election. We do not believe that it is right to have to seek the agreement of all registered parties, and I hope that the hon. Member for Huntingdon will withdraw his amendment.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has said how marvellous our ballot papers are, but they could be more marvellous still. I have taken the opportunity to review a whole lot of ballot papers. We have somehow got it into our minds that they are very simple, that they are all first past the post, and that they all have Labour, Lib Dem and Tory candidates on them. Ballot papers are not like that any more. There is a great deal of complexity. I, too, met people trying to vote in the mayoral elections, the Greater London authority elections and the European elections all at the same time. All those elections had different voting systems with different ballot papers. It was very confusing indeed.

In an election with many candidates, the ballot paper becomes longer and longer because of the rule that it must be printed in one long sheet. It cannot be printed with the items placed side by side, because that is against the rules. That needs to be changed. My personal view—I am not regulating in this instance—is that ballot papers should eventually be printed with our photographs on them so that people know who we are and that we are prepared to put ourselves forward. That would give greater flexibility.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon mentioned counterfoils. I do not know whether it would be helpful at this point to explain that under clause 33, we   plan to replace counterfoils. No amendments have been tabled to that clause, but as the hon. Gentleman mentioned it, perhaps I may be permitted to explain that to the Committee now.

At present, electors are given a ballot paper, their name is looked up on the electoral register, the number that corresponds to their name is taken from the register and written on the back of the counterfoil, and the counterfoil is torn off. The process is very manual and must be used for postal voting, so it not what one would call automated.

The suggestion instead is that there should be bar codes. Many of the ballot papers in my hand clearly state that there has been postal voting; they also have bar codes. We want to ensure that we have an automated process, particularly for sending out postal votes, that does not involve someone sitting at a desk sending out postal votes and tearing off the counterfoil.

Fraud is another important consideration. At the moment, if fraud is suspected, the police must go through all the counterfoils trying to match up individual numbers. There is no automation. If ballot papers have bar codes, however, the police can just whizz the bar codes through the machine and find the corresponding voter. There is no worry about invasion of privacy or the secrecy of the ballot, because as now, a bar code will be matched with an elector only in the case of a criminal investigation or a problem with the vote.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister (Justice), Shadow Solicitor General 1:30, 17 Tachwedd 2005

Will the right hon. and learned Lady tell us the time scale? Is the software in place and the bar codes ready to be introduced?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Minister of State (Department of Constitutional Affairs), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I believe that the software is being developed and that bar codes are starting to appear. This will also allow counting to be automated.

That is what clauses 32 and 33 do, although ballot papers still have a long way to go. I commend the clauses to the Committee.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

I thank the Minister for her explanation. There is sense in moving to a more automated system, not least with regard to an election appeal, as she mentioned. However, we must be certain that in such circumstances there is an audit trail that takes us back to the very ballot paper that we might be discussing. We are not talking only about where the cross is on a ballot paper. Many registration officers used to love arguing about that years ago, and I am pleased that we have moved on a little in that respect. There is also the question of personation and double voting, in respect of which an audit trail is vital.

The Committee needs to be totally assured of the efficacy of the process right across the political spectrum, because that is an important part of ensuring that we have free and proper ballots and that we do not have the corruption that some of us fear. I am reminded of the problems in Florida with chads, chaps, chips or whatever they are called. That   situation underlined the fact that automated voting, which seems to us to be an answer to a particular problem, sometimes turns out to be less efficient than we might hope or think. I am not arguing against what the Minister proposes, but we need to be totally reassured about the purpose of the counterfoil and its use in a later election appeal.

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

I support what the hon. Gentleman has said. One difficulty with any electronic form of audit is that the audit trail is in the hands of those who designed the software and who perhaps own the rights to it. The Minister will know that that is an issue in America, where particular companies own or control systems for the voting process. Given the controversy that has occurred in some states of the United States, that has become a live political issue, because there is no way to counter-check by manual means if that is necessary in an investigation what has been done electronically. That is a serious issue of which we need to be aware.

I will need some persuasion about having mugshots on ballot papers.

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

I hope that if we ever moved to such a system, there would be extremely rigorous checks to ensure that the picture was a true likeness and, more importantly, a recent likeness. I occasionally look through reference books to the House and I notice that some people seem to have aged remarkably little since the late 1950s. It would be quite inappropriate to have an out-of-date or—dare I say it?—a retouched photo.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Ceidwadwyr, Northampton South

''Touching up'' is the correct term.

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

The hon. Gentleman says that ''touching up'' is the term. I am not sure that it is, but we need to be extremely careful that the image of candidates standing for election is not enhanced to allure voters in the polling booth.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Llafur, Worsley

I would like to comment on the design and use of bar codes. It is not as though there is not a problem with the old method of physically stamping ballot papers. The council of which I used to be a member had some very close elections, which people won by two or three votes. In one election, a batch of 50 papers were not stamped with the perforation. In fact, that was in relation to the ward that I came to represent. The polling station staff were so terrified of making the same mistake again and of being accused of changing an election result that they would solemnly hold up the ballot paper and say to the voter, ''This is the official mark.'' We then discovered that people thought that the polling station officers were saying, ''This is where you must put your cross.'' There are problems with the old systems just as with bar codes.

I have two comments on what my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister said. All the places that trialled all-postal voting—I was involved with several of those trials—have found bar-coded ballot papers to be very efficient. They have been used in Trafford on a couple of occasions, and in Gateshead and Chorley. People now have experience of using bar-coded ballot   papers, and counting staff have found that the technology has improved.

Photos were not put on ballot papers in Trafford, although a newspaper was distributed. It contained photos of all the candidates, their names and the name of the party for which they were standing. There was a tendency for candidates to prefer to use older photos. Many of the male candidates had more hair in theirs. The Minister may wish to prescribe the date of the photos.

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

I am pleased to have prompted such a wide-ranging and amusing debate on ballot papers. Some important points have come out of our discussion. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said that the print that is used on ballot papers must be clear. We must look at that further.

A member of the RNIB explained to me that there are levels of blindness. We often think of people who are blind as those who cannot see, but there are a thousand levels in between. The size of print that is used is therefore important. I can see that the ballot paper on the other side of the Committee Room has a great deal of small writing on it.

I accept the right hon. and learned Lady's point that it would be a slightly over-the-top requirement if all registered political parties had to sign up to any changes to the ballot paper's design. I think that she accepts my point that changes should be made only after consultation. We want to have the consent of the mainstream parties. I wish to put on the record my party's concern that we are moving away from primary legislation being the basis for approval.

I thank the Minister for speaking about plans to replace counterfoils. It seems from hon. Members' comments that bar-coding technology is fairly well developed and is there to be used.

I asked the Minister when we would be introducing bar-coded ballot papers throughout the country, but I am not sure that she entirely answered my question. Perhaps she could get back to me and other hon. Members on that point. An answer would be helpful, because the technology should clearly be used nationwide, although we must bear in mind the caveat given by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley). He wisely said that all electronic processes have their problems, so we should keep an eye on that. That is perhaps a project for the Electoral Commission. On the basis of what the Minister has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 32 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 33 and 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.