Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)|
WEDNESDAY 10 JULY 2002
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
(Mr Creedon) Roger Creedon, Chief Executive of the
2. Would you be kind enough to tell us whether
you have an opening statement or are you prepared to go straight
(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
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.
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.
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
(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
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.
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 casesand I cannot say this yet
for compulsory voting because we have not actually established
the projectpublic 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.
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
(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,
(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
(Mr Younger) It is something we are going to look
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
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 knowand it is connected with the question
of a potential cap on donations and the future of the funding
of political partiesin 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