Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Good morning. You are most warmly welcome. May I ask you first to identify yourselves?
  (Mr Younger) I am Sam Younger, Chair of the Electoral Commission.
  (Mr Creedon) Roger Creedon, Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission.

  2. Would you be kind enough to tell us whether you have an opening statement or are you prepared to go straight to question?
  (Mr Younger) I am prepared to go straight to questions or am happy to give a brief opening statement if you wish.

  3. Do give us a few short words of your own.
  (Mr Younger) Thank you for having us here today, we are delighted to be giving evidence. Just a few things by way of introduction. I should like to emphasise that the Electoral Commission, 18 months' old, is still in many ways a start-up organisation. Our responsibilities are still developing. We are still in a condition where we do not know really fully what the long-term demands on us are going to be. That is by way of backdrop. It is fair to say that we have been on something of a roller-coaster over our first 18 months. We were established by an Act which went through Parliament on 30 November 2000 with a deadline of 16 February 2001 to have in place the donations rules, register for donations and a lot of the guidance on campaign spending for the following election. I would in this pay tribute to the political parties for the co-operation we had from them in trying to make sense of that and make it work. We then of course had a General Election which followed pretty smartly and indeed on 16 February, at that stage, it still looked as though there might be a General Election as early as April. I have to say that probably the Electoral Commission was one of the chief beneficiaries of foot and mouth and the delay in the election because it gave us just that bit more time to get ourselves in order. The election came and then there was the milestone event for us in terms of our report on the conduct of that election, which set a very broad agenda of issues to look at, many of which I am sure we will discuss in the course of this evidence. In July we also took over the responsibility which had been with the Home Office for public awareness, particularly in relation to registration campaigns. Then through the year we had the responsibility of working towards the merger with the Local Government Commission for England, which came under the aegis of the Electoral Commission as of 1 April 2002. The basis of our operations over the 18 months has been the twin foundations of our independence enshrined in the responsibility to the Speaker's Committee rather than to any Government Department, but alongside that a partnership with all the key actors. One of the things which has been most important to us has been the solidity of the relationships established with returning officers and electoral administrators, with the political parties and with Government, although a moving target in terms of which Department we are dealing with. The key themes now are the pursuance and the completion of the review programme arising out of the 2001 election with a view to getting any propositions which might require amendments to electoral law together by the spring of next year in order eventually to have legislation coming in the autumn session, dealing with the local election pilots and new methods in elections, the development of our voter awareness programmes and preparation for referendums.

  4. That is extremely helpful. I have no doubt we shall be wanting to ask you about various aspects of all of those. When do you expect to submit your annual report to Parliament?
  (Mr Younger) The annual report will be published around the end of this month and laid before Parliament, but I think I am right in saying that it will not be before the recess.[1]

  5. How are you going to be able to demonstrate value for money for the £6 million increase which you got for voter awareness for 2002-03?
  (Mr Younger) I have to acknowledge that the value for money in terms of voter awareness is pretty hard to identify. In the early stage of the voter awareness programme we did in the autumn last year and again in the spring this year, which essentially came out of the previous money, what we have been able to do is some research which is fairly standard research in this field about unprompted awareness of the advertising, prompted awareness of the advertising, whether people who are questioned gained the messages which we hoped they would gain from the advertising and how they characterise it. We have been told that the responses we have had from that have been good; above average in industry terms. The difficulty we have is that the bottom line of all of this is people getting themselves on the register and people turning out to vote. Flippantly I would be tempted, but I would be foolish, to try to claim that increases in turnout at the local elections were in some sense because of our voter awareness campaigns. Equally, any future turnout results are going to be a whole mixture of factors of which I hope voter awareness is going to be one. We can make our measures more sophisticated than they are now, but they are not going to be exhaustive under any circumstances because there are too many different factors involved.

Mrs Ellman

  6. Would you say that the Commission has failed in a constituency where the voter turnout reduced significantly at the last General Election?
  (Mr Younger) I certainly would not want to say it in relation to the last General Election because we had only been going for four months at the time; I would not want to take any responsibility for the Commission in that. As we go forward, the Commission would want to share a responsibility; it would be shared with others, because there is a number of different agencies involved, but what we are about is trying to improve credibility of and trust in and participation in the electoral process. In so far as that goes down, we need to take our share of the blame if that does happen over the longer term. I do think the participation issue is a long term process. It is not something I would want to run too scared of in the early stages.

  7. What specifically do you intend to do to increase voter awareness?
  (Mr Younger) There are several strands to it. First of all, there is the regular voter awareness programming, awareness at annual canvass time in the autumn, to make people aware of the need to register and then reinforcement of that broadly in February each year to emphasise rolling registration, to emphasise the availability of postal votes and then looking forward to whatever elections there are in May, because most Mays somewhere in the country there are elections of one sort or another. There is that regular advertising. The thing we are beginning to develop now, though again it is in very early stages, is developing information materials which can be used particularly for young people. One of the things I have paradoxically been quite encouraged by in all of the research we have seen is that it is not so much that young people are disengaged from political issues. They are disengaged from the way politics is done to some degree but also there is a great sense of ignorance about how they go about voting, about what it is they are voting for and, if you go around the country, particularly in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where there are different levels of election, there are different systems for different levels of government, the levels of understanding of what it is those levels of government are responsible for is from all the research very limited. I do think that is an area where we can make a real impact. Clearly, in all of these areas, I have to say that in terms of connecting with voters and getting voters to want to turn up, fundamentally it is an issue for political parties because it is a political issue.

  8. Does that mean you are engaging with political parties?
  (Mr Younger) We are certainly engaging with the political parties in discussing issues surrounding voter awareness. We are obviously not going to do joint campaigns with the political parties: it is important that we are not seen to be in any sense getting involved in party politics. The reason I emphasise knowledge of the systems, knowledge of what different levels of government are responsible for, is that those are areas without in any sense intruding into party politics where we can actually do a body of work which supports and goes alongside what the parties are doing. We are clearly involved with the parties in a lot of discussions. For example, in terms of engagement of young people there is a whole series of events in which we would participate with the parties talking to young people. There was one last week with the Children and Young Peoples Unit launching a report where there were political party representatives. We were there, talking to young people about what they felt we needed to do, what they felt the parties needed to do. We hosted a question session at the National Assembly in Wales yesterday with young people from five schools talking about issues of engagement. Clearly what comes back overwhelmingly from those young people is what it is they want politicians and parties to do, but there is quite a significant element saying educate us, let us know what these systems actually are, let us know how we go about voting. Just one little anecdote which does illustrate for me how big an issue of information there is. Up in Scotland a little while ago, I was being interviewed by a young journalist, 23 to 24, who was priding himself on his knowledge of politics. In the course of the conversation it emerged that he had not realised that he needed to be registered in order to vote and had been surprised that nobody had ever sent him a polling card.

  9. Are you working with local authorities in assessing their effectiveness in compiling the electoral register and dispersing information? Is that part of your role?
  (Mr Younger) Yes. Working with local authorities at all levels. In terms of registration, registration is one of the key theses of our review, the effectiveness of registration and the future of registration and currently there is a research report about to be published in the next few weeks which is looking at local authority practice in publicising the register. One of the things we are very conscious of is that because responsibility for elections has been so decentralised in the UK, historically there has not been very effective sharing of good practice across local authorities. One of the things we are doing at the moment in relation both to the register and in terms of what local authorities do to encourage participation, is a survey looking at where the good practice is and trying to find ways of making local authorities aware of where authorities are doing things which are effective.

Christine Russell

  10. In the light of the General Election results last time, where over the country as a whole turnout was below 60 per cent, have you looked at the arguments for and against compulsory voting? If you have not, do you plan to look at public attitude towards compulsory voting?
  (Mr Younger) It is one of the issues which we identified coming out of the election in our report as something we would need to look at. It is not one of those reviews which we have yet launched. It is to be launched during the autumn. It was not as high a priority as issues such as absent voting or registration or the funding of the administration of elections. We had to prioritise to a degree, but we do think it is well worth opening up the debate.

  11. How are you going to go about that?
  (Mr Younger) As with many things, with all our projects we set up the project with somebody within the Commission to lead it with a reference group of people from a series of areas who have an interest. Then, in each of these cases, we would want to open up to pretty wide consultation, some of it web based, some more specifically directed questionnaires, invitations to give evidence and in some cases—and I cannot say this yet for compulsory voting because we have not actually established the project—public hearings. There are certain major issues where we would want to have public hearings. We are conscious of the need to have a wide debate on this. One of the things we are doing first in the course of the autumn is some further research from the experience in those countries where there is an element of compulsion. The most successful example is probably Australia but as the Chair of the Australian Electoral Commission said to me, it is accepted in Australia because it has been there for nearly 100 years. If it were not there in Australia and you tried to introduce it now, forget it. It is a complex one. By the by, I was mentioning the school children in Wales yesterday, we got them to do a vote at the end of the discussion on whether voting should be made compulsory. There were 45 of them and there was a decisive but not overwhelming majority against it. It was about 30 to 15.


  12. Did they have coherent reasons?
  (Mr Younger) This was simply a vote at the end of the discussion. The children had asked questions. The four National Assembly members had more or less come out against it; three of them feeling that it is against our culture and not wanting to make this sort of thing compulsory and a sense that politicians, political parties, the Electoral Commission would have failed if we had to resort to compelling people to vote. That was probably the overall consensus. We think it is something we do need to look at and there may be elements which are somewhere along a continuum towards compulsion. One needs to look at what might be legitimate incentives to vote which do not go as far as compulsion.

Helen Jackson

  13. What was the impact of the cap on spending in the 2001 General Election?
  (Mr Younger) It is fair to say that the impact of it was not great in the sense that the parties did not seem to have a terrific appetite for butting up against the limit and spending more. All the parties were actually reasonably comfortable with the limit, essentially welcomed it and were happy to work within it.
  (Mr Creedon) Only four parties spent more than £250,000 on the election and the two main parties spent well underneath the £16 million limit.

  14. Did they spend less than in 1997? If so, how much?
  (Mr Younger) Yes; very much.
  (Mr Creedon) Yes, they did. The figures about the spending in 1997 are anecdotal. We have seen figures of roughly £25 to £26 million spending by the main parties, but they are not figures we can verify at all.

  15. Does that indicate to you that the spending cap is still too high and could be put lower and would you favour that?
  (Mr Younger) It is something we are going to look at ultimately.

  16. What is "ultimately"?
  (Mr Younger) I do not have my list in front of me but I think we are going to begin to look at it early next year.

  17. And finish looking at it?
  (Mr Younger) I would guess finish looking at it within next year as well. I am wary of these things because the number of things we are involved in means that if I make too many commitments, then we cannot actually deliver on the main ones, but it is very much on the agenda as one of the 18 areas of review we shall look at.

  18. What about your own views on it? Do you feel that lowering the cap on the spending on elections would be a good thing?
  (Mr Younger) My own personal view is that it is something which is worth looking at very seriously, because the parties did not find it difficult at the last election to live within it. As we all know—and it is connected with the question of a potential cap on donations and the future of the funding of political parties—in so far as it is becoming more and more difficult to raise the money for political parties, there is a degree of welcome for the notion of there being some cap which everybody stays within which is actually lower than it has been in that past. In a way, although I say we have listed looking at lowering the limit on campaign spending for parties as a separate review, I have a feeling it is something which is going to edge its way into the debate over funding of political parties as a whole, which is something where we are launching the review in the next month or two.

  19. Is it not the case at the moment that the cap relates to spending within the electoral period?
  (Mr Younger) Yes.

1   Note by Witness: It was not possible to lay the Report before the House rose, but it will be laid and published when the House returns from recess in early October. Back

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