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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  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 right.

Mrs Ellman

  61. Is there any one Minister of any one focal point you feel you are responsible to or where you feel you could get guidance?
  (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 Ministers?
  (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.

Mrs Ellman

  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 a meeting.

  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.

Helen Jackson

  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 universal.

  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.

Mr Betts

  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.

Christine Russell

  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 younger voters.
  (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.

Mr Wiggin

  75. One of my major concerns about e-voting or any sort of electronic voting is not that people can do it remotely—they could go to a polling station and vote electronically and then we would have a speedier process of finding out the results—but 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 that.
  (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 in this.

Chris Grayling

  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 on—in fact we are allowed to publish it in any way we wish—what 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 of comment.

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