Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)|
WEDNESDAY 10 JULY 2002
60. You might have a view as to whether you
prefer it to be a private occasion or whether you would like it
to be a public occasion.
(Mr Younger) I would have no problem about it being
a public occasion, because there is nothing that I would wish
to say to the Speaker's Committee which is not something I would
be perfectly content to see in the public domain. Nevertheless,
even if that were true, I would still appreciate and think it
right that we should be interrogated by Select Committees of the
House. I hope with the way it is, there are not going to be too
many different Select Committees. The principle is absolutely
61. Is there any one Minister of any one focal
point you feel you are responsible to or where you feel you could
(Mr Younger) Part of the way we are set up is not
to be responsible to any given Minister and it is part of the
policy of the way it has been set up. The thing which has been
of value in the way the set-up was after the last election, was
having one ministerial team which was responsible across the range
of electoral issues. If there was something which we wanted to
put forward, there was a very clear address to go to. That is
what slightly concerns me now, that there are possibly two addresses
to go to on a given issue. I find that is just creating extra
layers of thought which we have to give to how we are going to
do it. I give the example of the local election pilots. We report
on those local election pilots at the end of this month. That
report goes to the Deputy Prime Minister whose Department is retaining
responsibility for that area. Having had all those discussions
with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, if it then gets
to the point where as a consequence of these pilots there are
changes in the electoral law under consideration, then the danger
is that we have to go and start the debate all over again with
the Lord Chancellor's Department and that is the problem.
62. May I take the concern about electoral fraud
in postal voting and in the e-voting experiments? Is that an issue
you are concerned about because you think it matters, or has that
been drawn to your attention by a Minister or by the public?
(Mr Younger) No, it has not been brought to our attention
by Ministers. The concern about fraud is what has been brought
to our attention by the experience of the pilots, by the experience
of postal voting on demand at the last election and what has come
in from parties and administrators of the process, not specifically
from Ministers. It is something which I take very seriously. We
have two levels of looking at the issues of fraud, in postal voting
and electronic voting In particular with postal voting it is both
looking at fraud in relation to those all-postal pilots at the
last local elections, but we also have one of our major reviews,
which is a review of absent voting, as it is called rather than
postal voting because it includes proxy voting, where issues of
security are absolutely at the heart of it. The view we have taken
in relation to postal voting is that in terms of demonstrable
convenience to the voter, we should not be thinking of moving
back from the ability to have a postal vote on demand. We do not
have the security measures round it necessarily right at the moment
and that is borne out not so much by any substantial actual evidence
of fraud, because there has been very little actual evidence coming
forward, but there is a very strong perception of the potential
for fraud being there and that is something we have to deal with
because in the electoral system as a whole, the credibility of
the system is all important and therefore we have to deal with
perception as much as with reality. One of the things this absent
voting review will be looking at is what realistic security measures
can be developed. There is a sense which has been strengthened
in us by the local election pilots that, for example, the existing
declaration of identity as a deterrent to fraud is not a particularly
effective instrument. In fact not only is it not a particularly
effective instrument, its consequence at the moment is more often
to disenfranchise perfectly legitimate voters because they happen
not to have filled it in right. Indeed, if you look for example
at the mayoral referendums in the course of last year, in two
of them when they were all-postal, the majority in favour or against
was smaller than the number of votes disallowed because the declaration
of identity had not been filled in correctly because the numbers
were substantial. That is an issue we need to take seriously.
With electronic voting, we are much less far down the road. Certainly
the preliminary evidence from the pilots we have had, and they
were much, much more extensive as pilots than they were in the
2000 elections, something like 25 pilots involving electronic
voting of one kind or another as opposed to only four in the year
2000, is that the signs are quite good in terms of the security
measures which are built into those systems. We do need to do
a lot more piloting and experimenting before we get to a point
where we think this could have the kind of credibility with voters
and the public to allow us to roll it out in any wider way. We
are very much in favour of extending those pilots.
63. Have you discussed any of these issues with
(Mr Younger) Yes; discussed them with Ministers certainly
on an ongoing basis.
64. Which set of Ministers?
(Mr Younger) Up to now it has been with the Secretary
of State for DTLR, but more particularly with Nick Raynsford who
has been the Minister in charge of most of these things. That
again is changing now and we need to make sure that we talk to
more than one Minister.
65. Who would it be? Which Minister do you think
it will be now.
(Mr Younger) I understand the Minister in the Lord
Chancellor's Department who has been given responsibility for
this area is Yvette Cooper.
66. Have you been told that? You say you "understand".
Has anyone told you which Minister it is?
(Mr Younger) It has been indicated to me, though I
would not say I have had anything formal and I have not yet had
Mrs Ellman: Has anyone told you? Just indicated.
67. Is there any way the Committee could see
some of the evidence of the experiments which you carried out
in the last election? I do not mean the word "experiment"
in a derogatory sense.
(Mr Younger) Certainly. It is our statutory requirement
to report on each of the 30 pilots. Those will be formally published
by the local authorities rather than by us, even though we have
done the assessment. Those will be published on 1 August; there
is a statutory three-month period for completing these reports.
They will also be on our website at the same time once the local
authorities have put them out. We have also put together an overarching
report and shall be publishing it, again at the beginning of August,
not a statutory requirement but something which we needed to do
for ourselves and for everybody, looking at the evidence from
these pilots, the lessons, what they say about how we should go
about developing these areas in the future. I would be more than
happy to send the Committee copies of that overarching report
when it emerges and should be extremely happy to come back and
talk to the Committee about those issues if you wished.
68. What work have you done in looking at the
trend in the popularity of postal voting, not just in the pilots
but more generally? For example, is there any research or a survey
on the retention rate of votes from the General Election in 2001
and the local elections this year?
(Mr Younger) Yes, in the pilot areas; we have not
done work across the country.
69. I mean across the board.
(Mr Younger) No.
70. Informally there appears to have been a
much higher retention rate of those votes than in comparison with
the people who went to the polling station.
(Mr Younger) We have not done a nationwide survey.
We did a nationwide survey coming out of the General Election
about postal voting and the take-up of postal voting, in fact
across the country it was broadly speaking double what it had
been at the previous election. It was also clear from what the
electoral administrators across the country told us that the overwhelming
majority of those people who asked for a postal vote in 2001 asked
for it in perpetuity for all elections. That would explain a retention
rate, because people will automatically be getting a postal vote.
The evidence from the all-postal pilots is overall pretty persuasive
that generally speaking wide knowledge about postal voting or
all-posting voting does have an effect on turnout, but it is not
71. Would you agree with the common response
of electors that the big advantage of postal voting is that it
is spread over a number of days so that if polling day for example
is inconvenient for work purposes or any other purposes, the elector
is not disenfranchised?
(Mr Younger) Yes, that is a very important element.
One thing you said there is very important to keep in mind, particularly
while these methods are still relatively speaking unfamiliar,
and that is that it is important to retain the ability of voters
to vote on what is named as election day. It was very interesting
that in one of the pilots, they got themselves into a position
where there was no opportunity to vote on election day and the
experiment was taking place in two wards of the local authority.
There was quite a lot of confusion of voters who did not think
about it effectively until election day and then found they were
unable to vote. That is something one needs to be careful about,
but in all these experiments retaining the options and seeing
these things in terms of added ways of being able to vote rather
than cutting off ways as we experiment is actually an important
thing to bear in mind. It is clear that the postal vote is appreciated,
but these issues of security remain important. The other thing
we all need to recognise, whether it is in terms of postal voting
or electronic voting is that the one thing you do have in a polling
station which you cannot absolutely guarantee as soon as you move
out of the polling station is the individual secrecy in casting
the vote. You cannot guarantee it and you have to recognise that.
You are more prey to pressure from friends, family or anyone else
when you are outside a polling station.
72. In general we should like to know whether
you are coping with this business of having to establish a relationship
with all devolved administrations.
(Mr Younger) Yes. The responsibilities we have in
relation to the devolved administrations in particular and why
it is particularly important to us now is that we have a responsibility
to report on the conduct of the elections to the devolved legislatures.
We have established small offices in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast
which are now pretty closely in touch with the returning officer
administrator communities with the political parties and indeed
in all three we have set up the equivalent of the Parliamentary
Parties' Panel to try to make sure we maintain that dialogue at
a Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland level. That is actually
going pretty well, indeed the relationships have been very positive.
For example, in Scotland, where pilots of local elections are
a devolved matter, we have nevertheless been asked to consult
on their pilots that they are thinking of doing at by-elections
and report on those by-election pilots. Indeed there is one which
took place in Stirling in April which we are doing a report on.
In Wales the Assembly has a problem about wanting to have a protocol
in terms of what use if any Assembly members are allowed to make
of the facilities of the Assembly during an election period. In
Wales, they remain members of the Assembly, unlike Members of
Parliament. The interesting thing to me is that there are several
areas in which the existence of a Commission provides a useful
focus at those levels. It has been welcomed in Scotland and in
Wales. Northern Ireland is a slightly different situation in so
far as there is a Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland,
not the set-up that there is in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Still, we are actually considerably involved there in particular
in working with the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland
in terms of the implementation of what has come out of the Electoral
Fraud Bill because the conditions now surrounding registration
and voting in Northern Ireland for next year's election is different
from the rest of the UK.
73. On the e-voting in the by-elections, one
of the pilot areas was in Sheffield, not my constituency but there
were three wards in the city. I noted what you said before about
making sure that the new systems work speedily and we get them
right. One of the problems I became aware of was that because
people could also go to the polling station, when they got there
a check had to be made as to whether they had voted beforehand.
That checking process was slowing the whole thing down to the
point where people were having very long waits at the polling
station. It is right that we have both systems and the choice,
but that choice slowed the process down. Is that a problem you
are aware of and are you looking at how it can be addressed?
(Mr Younger) Yes; very much. I suspect it is featured
as a problem in the report on Sheffield; it certainly is in one
or two other places. It is not a problem which leads us to say
that we ought not to do it, but we need to try to find ways around
it or at least ways of speeding up the way that process happens.
One of the general conclusions we have is that while we are experimenting
in these areas, people need to retain their existing means of
voting. It is a circle we are going to have to try to square but
it is certainly a problem we are aware of.
74. I want to ask you about young people. We
are obviously all very concerned for the health of our democracy
and that the one group of people who are not turning out to vote
are the youngsters. I accept you are not publishing your report
from the pilots for another month but from the information you
have received already did e-voting turn them on any more? Did
it inspire them to go or perhaps a change in the venue of polling
stations from libraries and church halls to the local chip shop
and supermarket, which I know was tried in some areas? Just the
(Mr Younger) I have to say, particularly in terms
of e-voting, that there is precious little evidence of increases
in turnout anywhere coming through at the moment. I hasten to
add that does not necessarily imply that the experiments were
unsuccessful, because the focus in most cases was on whether it
worked and whether it would be trusted, as opposed to whether
it increased turnout, at least for the time being. No, we should
not be too depressed by that. I do not think there is anything
in the pilots that gives us much evidence that young people are
voting more yet. However, all the other research evidence does
indicate that young people, to a marginally greater extent but
not overwhelmingly greater extent, welcome the notion of being
able to vote in other ways, by the internet, through their mobile
telephone. What we do not have is the evidence that they are actually
doing so yet. It is early days in this area. After all the pilots
were the first ever pilots of any other remote voting other than
postal that we have had.
75. One of my major concerns about e-voting
or any sort of electronic voting is not that people can do it
remotelythey could go to a polling station and vote electronically
and then we would have a speedier process of finding out the resultsbut
on the subject of fraud and, whether it is pencil and paper or
whether it is electronic, the speed at which the Electoral Commission
then pursue it. Because of the delays, between three and six months,
the laws are fairly draconian, the punishments are very serious
and they do not get followed through. Everybody has experienced
some sort of misbehaviour during an election and we do not seem
to get any enforcement. I am wondering what you are doing about
(Mr Younger) I recognise it as a problem and it is
a gap. It is not something which our current responsibilities
really give us enforcement power on. We have enforcement responsibilities
under statute on party funding issues but not on behaviour at
elections and anyway these would still go through the police.
Funnily enough it is not something we have started a lot of work
on; there have been too many other things. I am very conscious
of the fact and it is absolutely as you say; I have come across
local authorities where the Chief Executive has had more or less
incontrovertible evidence of some kind of malpractice from the
parties, has referred it to the police who have said it is not
a high priority for them to take any further, not in the public
interest to take it further. I do think, but it is very much a
twinkle in the eye at the moment because I have not discussed
it with anybody much, that there is a case for two things in relation
to elections to be looked at in the longer term. One is that in
terms of uncovering electoral malpractice, at the moment it is
only done in the context of an election petition if there is one
and the criteria by which an election petition will be entertained
by the courts are pretty limited. There is a very strong case
in elections for having a system where you have some form of detailed
random audit of a small number of constituencies, a percentage
of constituencies, in order to ascertain whether this is going
on. I do think that would potentially provide quite a significant
deterrent. I have not gone into how one would do it or what the
pitfalls would be.
76. You are throwing up all these different
ideas and I understand that is an idea for the long term, but
how do you prioritise if you are doing something like 18 different
projects? How do you decide which is the most important?
(Mr Younger) We have decided which are the most important
in terms of the ones we have which are coming through for the
early part of next year, potentially moving into legislation.
At the election last year we identified: the funding of the administration
of elections, absent voting, the registration process and, the
other major priority for us, good practice in electoral administration,
which is not necessarily an issue of legislative change. Those
are the absolutely key ones. Coming in behind them are several
smaller ones which we hope there is an opportunity for legislation
to knock off, things which are an irritant in legislation, which
need to change. There are things such as making sure, looking
at timetables for elections and whether there could be better
consistency between timetables for local elections and Westminster
elections, nomination process, the form of ballot paper, all things
which if we are to change them need legislation so we want to
get those through so there is a potential for legislative change
if those are areas where we want to go. Things which come up in
that discussion are things which we are going to have to wait
to do until we have that through.
77. If you have a split responsibility between
two Departments, if you are in effect a schizophrenic department,
how are you going to ensure that you get legislation onto the
statute book or into the timetable?
(Mr Younger) I hope we will not be schizophrenic;
I hope that if there is any schizophrenia it is elsewhere. What
we have to do, and this is what I worry about, is to make sure
that we keep the relevant Departments fully informed on all of
the things we are talking about. On most of these issues one is
probably not going to move without the other. I think there is
little alternative for us but to have steering groups for certain
things which have representatives both from the Office of the
Deputy Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor's Department. I
would not disguise from you that it is a concern which I have
78. May I take you back to the Euro referendum?
Are we right in thinking that you are writing the question?
(Mr Younger) No; no. May I clarify that? In relation
to the question, it is one which Government will come forward
with in the legislation as I understand it to set up a referendum
and in the end the form of the question is a matter for Parliament
not for us. We have the statutory obligation to comment on and
Government has the obligation to publish our comment onin
fact we are allowed to publish it in any way we wishwhat
is said in the legislation to be the "intelligibility"
of the question. The view I have always taken is that whatever
referendum it is, commenting purely on intelligibility does not
make much sense. You have to put it wider and talk about the wider
fairness. We make a comment on it but the question is written
by Government. It is open to us, though we have not made a decision
on whether we would do this and I do not think would do so until
the time, potentially to suggest an alternative wording, but what
we are actually required to do is comment on the wording which
is presented to us.
79. There is nothing to stop the Government
effectively rigging the question. Whilst you can say as the Electoral
Commission that you do not like this, there is nothing to stop
a Government with a majority posing a question of its choice.
(Mr Younger) That is right. There is certainly no
power the Electoral Commission has in relation to a question which
is in any sense a veto power on the question, it is simply a power