Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Special Report



Published 1 October 1998. Government responses received 21 January 1999 (published as HC 137, 1998-99) and 22 October 1999 (published as HC 856, 1998-99)


  (1)  We regard it as important for the health of the democratic and political system that participation in the electoral process be as high as possible. We consider that there is a need to examine all aspects of the British electoral process, including therefore the election procedures, to establish what practical steps can be taken to increase participation (paragraph 8).

  The Representation of the People Act 2000, which aimed to implement the recommendations of the Working Party on Electoral Procedures, contains various measures aimed at increasing participation in the electoral system. These include:

    —  the introduction of "rolling registration";

    —  making postal votes available on demand;

    —  allowing for the piloting of innovative electoral procedures at local elections;

    —  giving homeless people, mental patients and remand prisoners the right to register to vote; and

    —  providing assistance for disabled voters.

  The Act received Royal Assent in March 2000. Regulations implementing its provisions will come into effect over the next year.

  In addition, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill provides for the establishment of an independent Electoral Commission which will have a remit to keep under review and report to Ministers on the law relating to electoral matters. The Commission will also be under a duty to promote public awareness of electoral matters as well as having a role to play in the preparation and evaluation of proposals for electoral innovations under section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000.

  (2)  We conclude that there is a need to bring election administration up to date so as to maximise its effectiveness and its relevance to modern needs (paragraph 10).

  The Representation of the People Act 2000 aims to begin this process (see response to (1) above).

  Under clause 4 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill the Electoral Commission will have the function of reporting on the administration of Westminster and European parliamentary elections and elections to the devolved legislatures. The Commission will similarly report on the administration of any national and regional referendums. In discharging this function, the Commission will be in a position to identify areas for improvement in the administration of such elections and referendums.

  The Electoral Commission will not have a direct supervisory role in relation to electoral administrators. However, clause 9 of the Bill provides for the Commission to provide advice and assistance to registration and returning officers. It is intended that the Commission should become a focal point for the provision of guidance to electoral administrators and the promotion of best practice in the discharge of their duties.


  (7)  We recommend that resources are found to fund a programme of voter education whenever a new electoral system is introduced (paragraph 24).

  Clause 12 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill will place the Electoral Commission under a duty to promote public understanding of both current electoral systems in the United Kingdom and any new electoral systems for which statutory provision has been made. In discharging this function, the Commission will have responsibility for voter education campaigns previously undertaken by Government departments when new electoral systems have been introduced. The Commission's voter education function will extend beyond simply explaining the mechanics of voting under the various electoral systems in use in the United Kingdom, to promoting greater understanding of the role of the institutions elected under these arrangements. In doing so it is intended that the Commission should promote awareness of the value and importance of voting and contribute to increased voter participation.

  In advance of this, Home Office resources have been allocated to a publicity campaign to let the public know about the changes which will be introduced under the Representation of the People Act 2000.

  (8)  We would support initiatives to make greater use of the polling card as an instrument for encouraging turnout (paragraph 25).

  This is still under consideration. One of the pilot projects testing innovative electoral procedures in last May's local elections used the poll card as the application form for postal votes on demand. The results were inconclusive, however, as turnout decreased.


  (9)  Our view is that while it may not be desirable to have any form of compulsory voting we nevertheless consider that there should be a public debate over this, bearing in mind the much higher rate of voting in democracies where such a system exists (paragraph 29).

  The Government's position is set out in the original response given in October 1999. The Home Secretary continues to welcome public debate on this matter. Responses from the public to the recommendation revealed a slight majority opposing compulsory voting.


  (10)  We recommend that consideration be given to giving registration officers further legal rights to access to specified relevant records held by [public authorities or utilities] (paragraph 34).

  Paragraph 24(4) of Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 2000 makes provision for this. We intend it to come into force from February 2001.

  (11)  We conclude that the time has come whereby consideration should be given to the devising and imposition of national minimum standards for the work of registration officers (paragraph 35).

  The Working Party on Electoral Procedures considered that further work on national minimum standards was necessary. The time to develop such standards is, however, when the new arrangements for registration provided for in the Representation of the People Act 2000 have been fully implemented. The Electoral Commission will have a role to play in promoting best practice in relation to the discharge of registration officers' functions (see response to paragraph (2) above).


  (13)  We support the introduction of a rolling register, and we therefore welcome the decision of the Home Secretary's Working Party to recommend its introduction (paragraph 40).

  The Representation of the People Act 2000 provides for the introduction of "rolling registration". Regulations implementing the provisions are being drafted and we intend them to take effect from the publication of the new registers in February 2001.

  (15)  We would be unhappy about allowing electors to be placed on a register because of an entitlement which arose only after an election has been called (paragraph 42).

  Paragraph 6 of Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 2000 amends section 13 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to limit the circumstances in which alterations to the registers pending elections may be made.


  (16)  We consider that registration officers should not be put in a position where they have to risk breaking the rules as a consequence of being more flexible in defining a "residence", since it is important that homeless people are not effectively disenfranchised; we recommend that, while incorporating appropriate safeguards, the Representation of the People Acts be amended accordingly (paragraph 45).

  Section 6 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 provides for registration by homeless people by means of a declaration of local connection. We intend that the provisions should come into force in February 2001.

  (17)  We recommend that the restrictions on using psychiatric hospitals as residences for the purpose of electoral registration be removed; alternative kinds of restriction, not based on residence grounds, should be devised if it were thought necessary to bar from voting certain patients whose condition made it inappropriate for them to have a vote (paragraph 46).

  Section 4 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 provides for the registration of patients in mental hospitals, other than those detained as offenders. There will be three avenues open to them. They can either be registered in respect of their home address; or in respect of the address of the hospital; or by means of a declaration of local connection.


  (20)  We . . . do not think it is necessary or desirable for the state to be heavy handed in pursuing non-registration through the courts. . . .The Home Office should gather reliable statistics from local authorities about the numbers of prosecutions and levels of fines (paragraph 52).

  The power to prosecute is a useful last resort to obtain compliance with the registration process. Indications are that electoral administrators use discretion in applying it. Rolling registration may have an effect on its operation, however, and the Electoral Commission may wish to examine that when it is established.


  (21)  We conclude that the time is right to consider a range of possible reforms to the physical process of casting a vote (paragraph 56).

  Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 enables local authorities to apply to the Home Secretary to pilot different ways of voting at local elections. If the Home Secretary is satisfied with a proposed scheme, he will make an order enabling the authority to proceed. At the May 2000 local government elections, 32 local authorities ran 38 pilot schemes including early voting, all-postal ballots and electronic voting. The Act requires each authority to evaluate its scheme within three months of the election and submit a report to the Home Secretary. In the light of these evaluation reports, Section 11 of the Act enables the Home Secretary to apply any scheme nationally (to local government elections only) by statutory instrument.

  The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill, will give the task of evaluating pilot schemes to the proposed Electoral Commission. It will also require a recommendation by the Commission before any pilot scheme can be applied nationally.


  (23)  We recommend that harmonised voting hours of 7am to 9pm be brought in for local and national elections (paragraph 59).

  At the May 2000 local elections two authorities, Leeds City Council and Mole Valley District Council, piloted the use of Parliamentary election polling hours (7am to 10pm) instead of local election polling hours (8am to 9pm). In each case more voters cast their vote between 9pm and 10pm than between 7am and 8am. More pilots might provide better evidence for change, and again the Electoral Commission may want to look at this issue.


  (24)  We see sufficient potential advantage in weekend voting for it to be worth experimenting to see if it would actually generate the increased turnout hoped for (paragraph 64).

  This was considered a suitable area for a pilot scheme. To receive approval however, applications were required to show that concerns about religious observance had been met. In the event, at the May 2000 local elections only one authority (Watford) experimented with weekend voting. It opened its polling stations on the weekend of the 6 and 7 May instead of Thursday 4 May. Overall turnout in Watford fell from 36 per cent in 1999 to 27 per cent in 2000. Although it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from these figures, voters may have thought that the elections were over, as results in the rest of the country were announced on Friday 5 May, before Watford's first polling day (Saturday 6). Watford also piloted early voting as well as two other schemes, making it difficult to isolate the effect of each. Voters who were unable to vote at the weekend appreciated the availability of the early polling station. There is scope for weekend voting to be piloted more extensively before any conclusions about its future can be reached.


  (25)  We recommend that the Home Office discuss with electoral administrators how much further the deadline for (a) postal vote applications and (b) proxy vote applications could be reduced, and take the necessary steps to implement the agreed new timetables (paragraph 70).

  Section 12 and Schedule 4 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 amends the provisions relating to absent votes including the time limits for postal vote applications. The time limit for the receipt of postal vote applications will no longer be the 11th day before polling day, but the sixth day. The Working Party on Electoral Procedures recommended no change to the proxy vote provisions whilst legal action involving alleged proxy vote fraud was outstanding.


  (26)  We recommend that the various grounds for entitlement to an absent vote be abolished and that electors be allowed to apply for an absent vote on demand (paragraph 70).

  Section 12 and Schedule 4 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 amends the provisions relating to absent votes to allow for postal votes on demand. There has been no change to the provisions for proxy voting (see response to recommendation 25 above).

  (27)  We recommend in the meantime that the government take steps to remind all GPs that they are obliged to deal with applications for absent voting free of charge (paragraph 71).

  Paragraph 37 and schedule 9 of the NHS (General Medical Services) Regulations 1992 prohibit charging for attestations to applications for postal voting. GPs who do so are in breach of their terms of service. Attestations for postal votes will not be required at the next and all subsequent elections. The publicity accompanying these changes will make it plain that attestations required for proxy voting should not be subject to a charge.

  (28)  We support the idea that registration officers should more actively promote take up of absent voting entitlements, particularly those for indefinite entitlements; we suggest also that appropriate methods for doing this should be included in any mandatory minimum standards for registration introduced under our recommendation at paragraph 35 above (paragraph 72).

  The publicity planned for the introduction of postal voting on demand (which we intend to come into force in February 2001) is expected to produce increased take-up. We have noted the recommendation in respect of guidance for electoral administrators; the Electoral Commission will no doubt wish to take account of this when they take on their advisory role.


  (29)  We consider that early voting facilities at convenient locations, specially adapted to assist those with disabilities but nevertheless open to all, should be introduced (paragraph 78).

  Early voting was piloted by 15 local authorities at the May 2000 elections. Although the schemes had only a marginal effect on turnout, the evaluation reports show that the convenience and improved disabled access of the early polling stations was greatly welcomed by voters. Consideration will be given to extending this facility more generally.

  (30)  We consider that early voting stations should not open until the week in which the main polling day falls—ie the Monday before the main polling day. In order to prevent any effect on the rest of the election, exit polling of early voters should be prohibited (paragraph 79).

  The Home Office took no prior view as to how many days in advance of 4 May 2000 an early polling station could operate. Consequently, each application to pilot early voting was considered on its own merits and as a result a variety of schemes went ahead. The earliest polling stations opened in Chester and Redditch on Tuesday 25 April. The effect on turnout in all these experiments was marginal but it might have increased convenience of access for those who vote.

  Schedule 6 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 prohibits the publication of any exit poll or forecast as to the result of the election prior to the close of the poll.


  (31)  We recommend that the increased computerisation of the work of registration officers should progress in such a way as to allow registers to be available and marked up at polling stations throughout the constituency on a common basis. When reliable technology is in place and tested and proven, but not before, we recommend that voters should be able to vote at any polling station in the constituency (paragraph 83).

  Pilot schemes provide an ideal opportunity to test such technology. At the May 2000 local elections some authorities ran early voting schemes using a number of polling stations at which any registered elector could cast his or her vote. In order to prevent double voting, registers were available and marked electronically. Thus, each early polling station had a constantly updated record of those who had voted anywhere in the local authority's area. Further work is needed on this if it is to be extended to cover all polling stations in a polling district, not least because of the difficulty and cost of networking remote polling stations. The Electoral Commission will be interested in investigating increased computerisation of electoral registers.


  (32)  We do not therefore recommend experimentation with electronic voting, though we accept that in the longer term this may require re-examination (paragraph 84).

  Three authorities piloted electronic voting in last May's elections whilst two others, as well as London, piloted electronic counting only. Some technological problems occurred but all the schemes demonstrated the potential for efficiency and a fast, less labour-intensive count procedure. These are early days however and we would welcome more pilot scheme applications in this area in the future.


  (33)  We conclude that the Home Office guidance to returning officers should recommend improved training of presiding officers in relation to the difficulties faced by disabled people, including a briefing prior to each election, so as to encourage them to allow maximum flexibility within the current rules (paragraph 86).

  (34)  We recommend that the Home Office guidance to returning officers on the conduct of accessibility audits makes use of national standards and suggest that the audits be carried out, wherever possible, in close co-operation with local disability groups. In particular, we recommend the establishment of local telephone "hot-lines" to ensure that access problems can be acted upon immediately (paragraph 88).

  Work continues on producing the consolidated advice to electoral administrators as recommended by the Working Party on Electoral Procedures. Meetings between groups representing disabled people, ministers and officials have taken place. We shall continue to give careful consideration to these recommendations.

  (35)  We concur with [the view that compulsory standards should not be imposed at national level] (paragraph 89).

  The Government's position is set out in the response given in October 1999. We agree with the conclusion of the Committee, and of the Working Party on Electoral Procedures, that mandatory standards are not appropriate.

  (36)  We believe that in this important area of the exercise of democratic rights the cost of providing 100 per cent grants is justified. In particular, full grants should be available for the cost of equipping all polling stations with polling booths accessible to the disabled. We also urge the Home Office to improve its advice to returning officers on the availability of grants and the deployment of the equipment (paragraph 90).

  Electoral administrators continue to be encouraged to apply for grants to ensure that polling stations and voting compartments are accessible to disabled voters. Since October 1999 over £35,000 has been provided in grants from the Consolidated Fund for the provision of temporary ramps and £168,816 in grants for the purchase of adapted polling screens. It is recognised that the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 will encourage the provision of more permanent access to buildings used by disabled people other than once a year to vote in a polling station. This will eventually lead to a reduction in applications for temporary ramps. There are no plans at this time to change the current level of grant available to local authorities to obtain temporary ramps and adapted polling compartments, which the Government considers to be equitable.

  (37)  We therefore recommend that the Home Office take any necessary steps to ensure that assistance by polling station staff and companions may be provided to all blind and partially-sighted persons who require it and that the companion providing assistance may be registered in any constituency (paragraph 91).

  Section 13 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 extends the current provisions for assistance to blind voters to anyone with a physical incapacity and to those who are unable to read. Under present provisions the companion must be a person who is entitled to vote as an elector in the election (but not necessarily in the constituency) concerned.

  (38)  We believe, however, that as a minimum the size and clarity of all ballot papers, including the type size for the candidate's description, should be improved with a large print reference copy displayed in each polling station. The Home Office should also pilot the use of Braille and large print templates. We therefore welcome the announcement that, subject to legislative opportunity, the Government now intend to make possible the introduction of polling aids for disabled people generally (paragraph 92).

  Section 13 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 requires the provision and display of a large sized version of the ballot paper in each polling station. It also requires the provision, in each polling station, of a voting device to allow blind voters to vote unaided. Discussions are continuing with electoral stationery manufacturers about the design and production of such a device. We intend that these provisions should be in force in time for the next local elections in May 2001.

  (39)  We believe that every practical option should be explored to enable disabled people and others with mobility problems to vote in person and recommend that a pilot exercise to assess the feasibility and cost of mobile polling be undertaken (paragraph 93).

  At last May's local elections, three authorities (Norwich, Watford and Sunderland) operated pilot schemes where a mobile polling station was taken by electoral staff to a number of residential homes on pre-arranged days. The evaluation reports show that those who used the scheme greatly appreciated the ability to vote in person. The additional expenditure was regarded as reasonable by those authorities which ran the schemes, given that a social as well as an electoral service was being provided.


  (40)  We have no firm evidence to suggest that abuse of the absent voting system by people fraudulently influencing how such votes are obtained and cast is widespread . . . We recommend that the Home Office and returning officers conduct research, on a sample basis, into whether absent voters at a recent (or a forthcoming) election were satisfied that they were able to cast their vote free from any improper outside influence, and also the question of delivery of ballot papers once completed (paragraph 98).

  Investigations into alleged proxy voting infringements are continuing, though those which have concluded have revealed insufficient evidence to proceed to a prosecution. There is no evidence to support concerns about postal voting, though increasing availability of postal votes may have an impact. No systematic research has been undertaken by the Home Office to date. The Electoral Commission may wish to examine this issue.


  (42)  We concur with Liberty's view that [the system of marking counterfoils to allow vote tracing should be abandoned] (paragraph 107).

  The Government's position is set out in the response given in October 1999. Whilst we recognise that this is an area of electoral procedure which requires re-assessment, we have reservations about ceasing the present system.


  (43)  We consider that there should continue to be some form of mark or identifier on ballot papers to enable a false paper to be readily identified. However, we regard the physical application of a mark to each such paper at the polling station as unsatisfactory, given how easily it can be accidentally omitted, leading to the effective deprivation of a valid vote. We therefore recommend that the Home Office and the electoral administrators identify and introduce a more up-to-date and simpler method than the present official mark (paragraph 110).

  The ballot papers for the Greater London Authority elections last May were printed with an individual bar-code in place of the official mark to allow them to be counted electronically. This marking method proved to be effective and trouble-free and it may provide a way forward.


  (44)  We take the view that the twenty year maximum period within which a British citizen may retain the right to vote is excessive and that the earlier limit—five years—should be restored (paragraph 116).

  The Government agrees with the Committee's conclusion that the existing qualifying period for registration as an overseas voter is excessive and should be reduced. In considering what should be the appropriate qualifying period for overseas voters, the Government has taken into account the position of those British citizens (for example, the employees of international organisations) whose employment overseas may require them to reside overseas for more than five years, but who are likely to return to the United Kingdom permanently thereafter. The Government has therefore decided that it would be more appropriate to reduce the qualifying period to ten years. Clause 134 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill will make the change. The Home Secretary has undertaken not to commence this provision until after the next General Election.


  (48)  We therefore recommend that, with one exception, all restrictions on ministers of religion standing for and serving as, Members of Parliament be removed; the exception would be in respect of all serving bishops of the Church of England who, for as long as places are reserved for the senior bishops in the House of Lords, should remain ineligible to serve as Members of the Commons

  The agreement of the churches to this change has now been obtained and the Government intends to legislate to achieve it when a suitable opportunity arises.


  (49)  We agree that people who are putting forward genuine political views and policies should in a democratic society be able to stand as candidates without undue difficulty, even if their views are unlikely to secure the support of any more than a small minority of voters. At the same time, we do not believe the political process is enhanced or democracy well served by a proliferation of candidates who are standing purely for the sake of personal publicity, whether for the purposes of humour or of commerce. We therefore agree that it is right and proper for there to be some basic threshold candidates must pass if they are to be allowed to stand (paragraph 131); [and]

  (50)  We do not favour a major increase in the threshold for becoming a parliamentary candidate but we do think some further rise would be appropriate in current circumstances. We recommend that:

    (a)  there should be a modest increase in the deposit to £700 for the next general election, and that the deposit should thereafter be indexed;

    (b)  the number of assentors required should be raised to 50, though returning officers should have a clear power of discretion to accept nomination forms containing only minor errors in the names and details of assentors; and

    (c)  before signatures of assentors are collected the nomination form must be authorised by the returning officer confirming that the candidate's name and description are accurate (paragraph 134).

  (51)  We accept that the position with respect to the prevention of the use of deliberately misleading names by candidates may be adequate in theory. In practice, however there are still difficulties. We recommend that candidates should be nominated under a name by which they can show that they have been known for a given period before the election (such as the name by which they are listed in the electoral register) (paragraph 138).

  The Government's position is set out in the response given in October 1999. We accept that the proposals in recommendation 50 are all worthy of consideration, but consider that this may best be done by means of consultation with the political parties represented at Westminster and in the European Parliament.


  (52)  We welcome the provisions covering candidates' descriptions in the Registration of Political Parties Bill so far as they go . . . We believe, however, that returning officers will need stronger guidance than is provided in the bill as to whether particular descriptions should be allowed. There may also be a need to establish a mechanism to ensure consistency between returning officer's decisions. We conclude that the Government, electoral administrators and political parties should monitor developments closely, and that the Government should be ready to introduce further proposals if necessary

  At present, candidates may use a description of up to six words in length irrespective of whether they are standing in the name of a party registered under the 1998 Act. As a consequence, the returning officer may be required to determine whether a particular description chosen by an independent candidate is likely to lead voters to associate the candidate with a registered political party. However, clause 20 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill will require that a candidate may only use a description other than the word "Independent" if they are authorised to do so by the nominating officer of a registered political party. The purpose of this change is to bring political parties wishing to field candidates at elections within the ambit of the controls on donations and expenditure set out in the Bill, but it should also further reduce the possibility of electors being misled by confusing candidates' descriptions. The Electoral Commission can be expected to monitor the operation of these new provisions closely and issue any necessary guidance to returning officers.


  (54)  An electoral commission should be established, whether or not one is recommended by the Neill Committee. The responsibilities of the Home Office would correspondingly be reduced. One of the tasks of the Commission would be to ensure that the electoral process is continuously monitored and discussed and kept up to date

  The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill will implement the recommendations of the Neill Committee and provide for the setting up of an independent Electoral Commission. The Bill provides for the Commission to be established on Royal Assent. In addition to being responsible for administering and ensuring compliance with the controls on parties' income and expenditure, the Commission will have a number of broader functions in relation to monitoring electoral law and practice. These will include:

    —  reporting on the administration of elections and referendums;

    —  the review of electoral matters, including electoral law;

    —  participation in the preparation of, and the evaluation of the success of pilot schemes under section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000;

    —  the giving of advice and assistance to electoral administrators and other bodies;

    —  input into the drawing up by broadcasting authorities of rules governing party political broadcasts;

    —  administering the provision of policy development grants to political parties; and

    —  the promotion of public awareness of electoral matters.

  In the longer term (by 2005) the Commission will also take over the functions of the four Parliamentary Boundary Commissions and Local Government Commission for England in relation to the review of electoral and administrative boundaries. The Commission may also take over the functions of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland and the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales if the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales so determine.

6 October 2000

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 26 February 2001