New Clause 4 Extra provision for collection of postal votes

Electoral Administration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:30 pm ar 22 Tachwedd 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

‘There shall be available in each constituency until, and including, polling day, a ballot box at which postal votes may be cast in person.’. —[Mrs. Laing.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause relates to the collection of postal votes. There has been great concern since the last general election about the opportunities available for fraud in connection with postal voting. We all see the point of postal voting—not universal postal voting but postal voting in certain circumstances—as it allows people who would not otherwise be able to do so to cast their vote. Therefore we want it to work properly. However, there have been many instances that ring alarm bells about the delivery of postal votes, and of postal votes going missing.

If the new clause were accepted, people who had a postal vote could go in person and deliver their postal vote, thereby ensuring that it was in the right box. The vote would not have to be cast on polling day but could be done before polling day, and the voter would not be in any doubt that it had arrived at the right place, by the right time.

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

The amendment would insert a clause into the Bill that would oblige electoral registration officers to provide a ballot box for postal voters to deposit their ballot papers in advance of, or on, polling day.

I appreciate that the hon. Lady’s intention is to provide a safeguard against electoral fraud or to reassure people who are worried about it, even when that is not the reality. The concerns in the media about electoral fraud have undermined some people’s confidence and many postal voters deliver their ballot papers by hand to the relevant electoral registration officer or to the polling station on polling day. However, some attempt to do so when electoral staff are not in the office, which can result in completed ballot papers being handed to staff members who are not trained to deal with them. That creates an opportunity for electoral fraud or for the completed votes to be mislaid and not passed on to the electoral registration officer, causing the elector to be disfranchised.

However, secure systems have been established between the postal service and the electoral services officer to enable postal ballots to be returned through the postal service. It is still best for somebody who has a postal vote to post it.

I acknowledge the concerns of the hon. Member for Epping Forest, but I do not believe that legislation is necessary in this instance. Electoral registration officers and returning officers are responsible for the organisation and running of elections, and it is clearly best practice to provide the service that she has described. I am informed that the measure advocated in the amendment is already adopted by many EROs, and regulations already enable voters to hand in their completed postal ballot papers at their polling stations on polling day.

The idea of having a central place where they could put their postal vote in a ballot box might—I hesitate to say this—have to be subject to good practice guidelines from the Electoral Commission. First, we should see how many people want to do that, how big the problem is and whether the matter can be dealt with by light-touch encouragement rather than the full force of good practice guidance. The hon. Lady is right that the point should be drawn to the attention of the Committee, the EROs and the Electoral Commission.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I am pleased that the Minister shares my concern about this aspect of preventing electoral fraud. Let us hope that the Electoral Commission will also take note of what she has said at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way. In the hope that that will happen, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn

‘(1)Section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (c. 41) is amended as follows.

(2)In section 125 (restriction on publication etc. of promotional material by central and local government etc.), for paragraph (4)(b), substitute—

“(b)‘the relevant period’, in relation to a referendum, means the period commencing with the beginning of the referendum campaign and ending with the date of the poll.”.’.—[Mrs. Laing.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 5 concerns referendum campaign funding. It would amend section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Electoral Commission recently published a report into last year’s north-east regional assembly referendum. That strongly criticises the controversial information campaign of the Deputy Prime Minister, on which some £3 million of taxpayers’ money was spent on one side of the campaign. The Electoral Commission recommends that the Government should be banned from funding any information campaign, not just 28 days before polling day, as at present, but from the start of the referendum period.

Section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 sets out the restrictions on publications at referendums. No material of a specified type may be published during the relevant period by or on behalf of any Minister of the Crown, Government Department or local authority, or any other person or body whose expenses are defrayed wholly or mainly out of public funds or by any local authority. Material relating to a referendum may be published only during the referendum period if it complies with specified requirements.

The effect of new clause 5 would be to alter the relevant period from 28 days before polling day to a period commencing when the campaign begins and ending with the date of poll. That would effectively ban the Government from funding any information campaign with taxpayers’ money.

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

We do not, but I will do the hon. Lady the courtesy of explaining why.

We have to strike a balance. Clearly, it would be inappropriate in the four weeks or so leading up to a major decision such as a referendum if the Government or any public body that had access to lots of funds were to spend money to promote one side of the argument. That is why the 28-day period is specified.

Referendums do not fall, fully formed, from heaven. They are the political acts of Governments in pursuance of political objectives. It would seem perverse in relation to a major decision by the   Government—such as having arranged, with the agreement of Parliament, to hold a referendum—not to allow them to explain the impact of the proposal.

We are talking about an elongated period that could last up to 10 weeks with the various steps that are needed to set up the referendum. We do not think that saying that the Government should effectively go into purdah for the entire length of the referendum period strikes the right balance, but we accept that a balance needs to be struck. The 28 days—that is when most people will begin to pay attention to the referendum—is there to ensure that there is a clearly laid-out set of guidance about who is speaking for the yes campaign, who is speaking for the no campaign, how they are funded and to whom they are accountable. The Government will observe purdah and will step back from that. We think that that strikes that balance. That is why we not minded to accept the new clause.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I hope that not all of the Government will go into purdah, as I understand that it applies only to women.

The reality is that the Government abuse the whole referendum system. The experience of the 1998 referendum in Northern Ireland on the Belfast agreement will not leave me for as long as I live. The Government threw tens of millions of pounds into a campaign in support of that agreement, whereas the opponents had £70,000. That made it a fairly unequal contest in terms of the distribution of documentation and other campaigning. We need to tie the Government down so that people can assess in a more balanced way what the arguments are on any issue. The new clause goes some way to doing that.

I welcomed the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, even though it came after the event, but there are other elements of campaigning that the Government still get up to that fall outside the remit of publications. In the case of Northern Ireland they even brought in the great and the good from far and wide. They involved pop groups and others and did anything that would persuade people to vote in one direction. The new clause is a good step and is welcome. If people are to take a fair decision we need a level playing field, rather than one that is seriously skewed in the Government’s favour.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) makes a good point which I am sure Ministers will heed. But the Opposition would be surprised if the Government accepted the new clause or his arguments because there is currently no level playing field when a Government bring forward a referendum. We appreciate that and perhaps it is asking too much of a Government who want to continue winning to accept a level playing field. It must be said that the use of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was completely in vain, as the Deputy Prime Minister was overwhelmingly defeated by the sensible people of the north-east.

I can see that the Minister is unwilling to accept new clause 5 but I will not insist on pressing it to a vote. On looking around the Room, and considering the way that hon. Members might vote—[Interruption.] I   assure the Minister that this is simple arithmetic. There are more people sitting behind him than behind me. I will therefore resist the temptation to press the new clause to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.