HC Deb 03 July 1987 vol 118 cc807-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dorrell.]

2.30 pm
Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

The theme of tourism will re-emerge in the brief debate that I have the pleasure of introducing. I welcome the opportunity to discuss, while the memories of the last election are still fresh in our minds, the arrangements for postal and proxy votes. Following the Representation of the People Act 1985 and the subsequent regulations, new arrangements were enforced for the first time last month and they were, quite frankly, a shambles. We must use the time between now and the next election to get things right.

A vigorous democracy such as that which we enjoy depends on people exercising their right to vote. Traditionally, this is done by people placing their ballot papers in the box at their local polling station on election day. However, Parliament has recognised that, as society changes, voting procedures must also change if the citizen is to retain and exercise his democratic right. We live longer, but in our later years many of us cannot physically get to the polling station. We move house more often, and cannot easily get back to the constituency where we are registered. People's work takes them more frequently away from their homes and, crucially, more people go away on holiday. I have seen an estimate of 1.2 million people away on 11 June.

Parliament has responded to the social changes by allowing people to vote by post or proxy, but, in seeking to interpret the will of Parliament, the Home Office has been restrictive and incompetent. Far from strengthening the democratic system by making it easier for the citizen to vote, it has weakened it by making it so complicated and bureaucratic that thousands gave up or failed to clear the high hurdles placed in their path.

Let me start with our old friend RPF8. This was the form that we used to fill in when we moved house. It was simple. One said that one was entitled to vote at one's old address, one gave one's new address and one sent it off to one's old town hall. That covered one for the parliamentary and European elections, and for the lifetime of that register. One did not have to get the form attested, and one did not have to wait for the election to be called to send it off. One did not have to re-apply if there were a second election. Sadly, RPF8 is no more. Instead, we have RPF9.

The RPF9 cannot be completed until the date of the election is known. Furthermore, it has to be attested— a new word for many of us— by someone who knows that the facts as stated are true and, crucially, by someone who has not attested on another form. One has to wait for the date, complete the form, find someone in the area, to which one may have moved quite recently, who is prepared to certify that one used to live at one's old address and then get it back to the old town hall in a period that could be as short as five days. If one has a wife and grown-up children with one, one has to get separate attestors for each of them.

Furthermore, there are problems for the town hall. In the old days, it could process the forms for those who moved before the election was called. Now, it cannot, and the forms have to be processed along with the other proxy and postal vote forms that cannot be completed until the date is known. What is more, the important parts of the form are highlighted in boxes, except for the most important, the signature of the applicant at the end, which thousands of people missed because of the faulty design of the form. Come back RPF8, all is forgiven.

Form 7B is for people who cannot get to the polling station because of physical disability. It is, to put it mildly, not "user friendly". An elderly person wanting to vote under the heading of physical incapacity must decide whether the home in which he or she lives is registered under section 1 of the Registered Homes Act 1984 or section 21 (1) of the National Assistance Act 1948 or whether he or she lives in premises forming one of a group of premises which are provided for persons of pensionable age or physically disabled persons and for which there is a resident warden, or they have to dig out the reference number on their mobility allowance booklet. Previously such people simply had to affirm that they could not vote because of physical incapaciity and they had to get a doctor, nurse, justice of the peace or councillor to countersign the form.

On the new form, the crucial space for the final signature is not in a box and thousands of people missed it. In many cases the new form requires a doctor's or nurse's signature whereas previously the necessary declaration could be given by a justice of the peace or a councillor. Many doctors were too busy to sign those forms and many elderly people, knowing the pressure on GPs, were very reluctant to trouble the GP over a matter which did not concern their health. Also, no information is given on the form about how quickly it must be returned to the town hall if a voter is to qualify.

I want to consider now those people who wanted a postal or proxy vote because they were on holiday, and I refer to form RPF9. I want to quote from two of the many letters that I have received on this matter. Dear Sir George, May we first of all say how pleased we were to return from holiday to find you are still our MP and with an increased majority. After two visits to Ealing Town Hall, visits and phone calls to the Conservative Branch … (in search of someone to vote proxy for us, as our holiday abroad started on May 30th so we couldn't have a postal vote) we were fortunate enough to secure the services of Mrs. Mander. However, we feel that this facility is only for very loyal supporters of a party, and wondered if, before the next election, this could all be made simpler, as we know from conservations with people on our coach tour, that many did not proceed with their opportunity to vote because of the time involved (as well as the expense from living a distance from their Town Hall.) Another letter I received was sent by Mr. Battleday. He wrote Dear Sir George, Many congratulations on your re-election. More power to you in you campaign to iron out the inequalities in the poll-tax argument"— That is a separate debate upon which I will not now embark. Unfortunately my wife and I were unable to cast our votes for you owing to the fact that we were abroad from June 2nd until after the election. We made our applications for postal votes, and clearly state when we would be leaving the country, but did not receive voting papers in time. Of course we found them when we returned but they were not posted in time to have reached us, so we cannot blame the Post Office. It would be advantageous to all parties if the new system of postal voting could be, in some way, revised to cover such a contingency. Once again, we are very pleased by your re-election. I have seen a press release dated 9 June following a survey taken by SunMed holidays which stated that some 650,000 votes were lost as a result of British holidaymakers being overseas on election day. The survey also states: Whilst 20 per cent. had appointed a proxy vote and 9 per cent. had applied for a postal vote, amongst this latter group only 4 per cent. had actually voted with their postal vote before leaving on holiday. In other words, more than half of those who applied for a postal vote did not receive one in time.

Although applications for a postal vote must be made by a certain date, there are no rules about when the town hall has to send them out. Although the Home Office has powers to prescribe the date, it has not used those powers. Many people applied believing that the forms would be sent promptly, but they were not. Some electoral registration officers were sending them out seven days before polling day, although nominations had closed and postal vote applications had to he in much earlier.

Those on holiday had an additional hurdle to clear. For the first time non-medical applications had to be attested. A family of four going on holiday had to find four different attestors who were not relatives and who had not done any other attesting it being an offence to be a multiple attestor, although for the life of me I cannot see why.

Not only did the votes not have to be posted out by a certain date, but the list of absent voters does not have to be issued by a certain date, either. In the London borough of Ealing, many of those lists were issued on a Sunday, the day before the ballot papers were issued on the Monday, making it difficult to send out an election address if one belongs to a party which likes to have Sunday as a rest day.

The 1985 Act introduced for the first time the right to make a late application for an absent vote in the event of a medical emergency. Distress has been caused because the Home Office has supported electoral registration officers in their refusal to accept some applications that have been made by those entering hospital. These are people who have been on waiting lists for non-urgent operations and who have been unforeseably called into hospital after the 13th day. The wording of the rules is such that they are disqualified.

Those whose jobs take them away on business used to complete an RPF7. They had to affirm that by reason of the general nature of their occupation, for example, they were unlikely to be able to vote in person. The new RPF7 makes it necessary for such people to obtain their employer's signature, and if they are self-employed they must obtain the signature of an attestor. Why do we need that additional requirement?

It is hardly surprising that 80 per cent. of the forms that were returned to my office were incorrect. I had the help of a full-time volunteer, Sylvia Hewitt, to whom I pay tribute, as well as the hard work of my agent, Julia Kernick, to return the forms and to ensure that they were completed correctly and submitted in sufficient time to enable electors to exercise their democratic right.

Thousands of voters were disfranchised. A form that should replicate as closely as possible the simplicity of voting in person came to resemble a qualifying round of "Mastermind". I have a four-page letter from the Wandsworth electoral registration officer, which was sent to the Home Office. It is dated 23 June. One passage of the letter reads: the number of problems that arose regarding absent voting seriously affected the workload and efficiency of the electoral registration office, and a tremendous amount of time was wasted in dealing with application forms which were not completed correctly by the applicants. The letter refers to advertisements and states: those forms which came in as a result of advertisements in the national press and which were not completed correctly amounted to a very high percentage. The adverts did not appear to get the message across about absent voting inasmuch as explaining about postal votes not being sent out of the United Kingdom (or Isle of Man and Channel Islands). and when the ballot papers were likely to be despatched. Some members of the public were under the illusion that ballot papers would be despatched by return of post. It is estimated that in Dorset, North—I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) is in his place —50 per cent. of original applications sent to the town hall had to be rejected. Happily, this did not significantly reduce the enormous majority with which my hon. Friend was returned on 11 June, but the loss of these votes could have been crucial. A similar estimate was made in Wyre, Lancashire.

I have two matters to put to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. The political parties, which are at the sharp end of these procedures, were not invited to comment on the design of the relevant form. That was a departure from long-established custom. My first request to my hon. Friend is to open a constructive dialogue with representatives of political parties to secure their views. I am indebted to David Smith of Central Office for his help in the constructive comments that I have made.

My second request is that a conference should be convened of the electoral registration officers to obtain their views. Having done that, I urge my hon. Friend to lay the necessary regulations before the House well before the next general election so that citizens can exercise with greater ease their precious rights. I know that my hon. Friend has the necessary energy and diligence to discharge these tasks. If he does so, the House and the electorate will have cause to be grateful to him.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)


Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)


Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)


Mr. Deputy Speaker Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I see that three hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Does each of them have the consent of the Minister (and the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) to intervene? I understand that they do. I call Sir Geoffrey Finsberg.

2.43 pm
Sir Geoffrey Finsberg

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) for allowing me to make a brief intervention in this Adjournment debate. I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State not to put on his usual courteous attitude and defend his civil servants. To put it bluntly, they are the people who should be blamed for the nonsense that we saw during the general election this year. Mr. David Mitchell of Conservative Central Office, who has been looking after electoral registration for more years than 1 care to remember, said that he had' never seen such a shambles at the Home Office hitherto.

It is clear that whoever designed the current forms has never worked in an election and does not understand the intricacies and the problems that arise. Civil servants are behaving in a most stubborn and bureaucratic manner. I seldom criticise civil servants, but on this occasion I do because they are interfering with the rights of the citizen. Will my hon. Friend consider returning to the old system and to the use of the good, old-fashioned English word "witness"? Will he also consider doing away with the need for the witnessing of removals? That was never needed before. Will he also consider giving back to justices of the peace the right to witness more than one document? It is as simple as that.

I know that my hon. Friend has the will and the power to do it. He knows that he has the support of the two major political parties and the support of the electoral registration officers. I hope that he will take urgent action on these points.

2.45 pm
Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) for raising this subject. He has performed an important public service. In this mobile age, it is right to extend the franchise to as many people as possible. However, the arrangements have been introduced too hastily. At the last general election they did not work as they should have done.

About 50 per cent. of the applicants for postal votes in Dorset, North did not complete their forms correctly. The returning officer was as helpful as he could be, but many electors in Dorset, North and in the rest of the country were disfranchised.

Would it be possible for form No. 9 to extend the time limit, by allowing people to make an application for a postal vote at the next election, whenever that may be? Each form should be of a different colour. A great deal of confusion was caused to the wretched, would-be applicants because of the number of different forms. They should also be marked much more clearly and distinctly. Furthermore, some students in my constituency do not know into which category they come. The forms should also be of a standard size. That would make it easier for the returning officer and his staff.

My next point regarding attestation was made both by my hon. Friend the Member for Acton and by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg). The clause is not clear. There is no reason why a person should be restricted to attesting only one form. It is difficult for the returning officer and his staff to check a large number of attestations in the number of days granted. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider extending the time during which postal and proxy applications can be gathered. One of the forms refers to the signature, but it does not refer to the signature of the applicant.

The forms have not been carefully drawn. Therefore I congratulate my hon. Friend for Acton on bicycling through this important issue and on picking up many of these points. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to do something about them.

2.48 pm
Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) on being so quick off the mark on this important subject so soon after the election. I endorse all that he said about the complication of the procedure. Many people allege that a degree in either politics or law is required to succeed in leaping these hurdles. I hope that the rumour that there are too many lawyers in the Home Office is no part of the problem and that they will apply their minds to making it easier for ordinary people to fill in these forms.

Other factors complicate this question. I refer in particular to the Post Office. I was told by the acting returning officer in my constituency that nearly 200 letters were posted on the day before, or earlier, but failed to reach his office in time to meet the deadline that had been laid down by law. That is unsatisfactory. The Post Office was entirely inadequate. Whether privatisation would improve the matter remains to be seen, but this certainly must not be allowed to continue in the future.

I have had from constituents many letters complaining about the inadequacy of the present arrangements. I will not burden the House by reading any of them now. However, I make one suggestion which is that we should consider seriously the possibility of allowing electors to vote on the previous Thursday if they so wish at the Town hall of the district in which the constituency is situated. In that way they can register their vote in person seven days beforehand on proof of identity. That would reduce considerably the amount of effort required by staff and the Post Office in dealing with the considerable number of extra people who are now eligible to apply for postal votes, and it might simplify the matter in the future. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look carefully at this matter because we expect some major improvements long before the next election.

2.51 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

I hope that we shall have major improvements. I am grateful to my four hon. Friends who have raised this important subject and I entirely agree with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young). He said that it is essential that the forms be as simple as possible so as to ensure that the maximum number of peope are able to vote and that the complexity of the forms is not such as to deter or frustrate those wishes.

The Home Office has no monopoly of wisdom on this matter and I am more than ready to accept that there are aspects of the law, procedure and the forms we have adopted that will demand improvement. The first step I have taken through the Home Office it to invite electoral registration officers to inform us of their views regarding the forms and the substantive law. I am not contemplating coiling a conference. I have no particular objection to conferences and if it seems necessary we will have a conference. However, the first step is to invite written representations and I have already done that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Acton said that we should involve the political parties. I agree with that. I have instructed the officials at the Home Office to invite the political parties to inform us of their views as to shortcomings in law, procedure and forms. The fact that four of my hon. Friends have taken this opportunity to raise the matter emphasises the fact that hon. Members have many reservations about what happened. I am grateful to my hon. Friends and each of the points they have made will be carefully considered. If they would like to add to them that would be extremely welcome and I hope that other hon. Members not present today but who have views on the subject will communicate them to the Home Office.

In broad terms, as I have said, we have no monopoly of wisdom and we do not pretend that we have. We will look again at substantive law, the procedure and the forms with a view to simplifying them, removing anomalies and trying to get them into a better state. I approach this matter in a wholly open-minded way. I have no preconceptions except for the desire to ensure simplicity.

Several points were raised and hon. Members will appreciate that I cannot give any commitments at this stage because we are only starting a process of consultation. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg), associated in this matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Acton, talked about removals. My hon. Friends are wholly right on that point. It is clear that the requirements as they presently stand make it extremely difficult for people who have changed address to vote at all. That is highly undesirabl and I shall look at the matter carefully.

My hon. Friends the Members for Acton, Hampstead and Highgate and others such as my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) talked about attestation. That is important. I, too, had never heard the word before. It is an interesting word. I am not sure exactly what it means but clearly we have to see whether it can be replaced by a more readily comprehensible word. Indeed, the question arises whether the requirements as to attestation as they stand at present are right. Should there be an extended range of people who are excluded from the right to attest? Should there be a restriction on the number of attestations that one person makes? Do we need attestation at all? My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said that this did not happen to be the case in the past regarding removals. Those are the types of questions that we must confront and I propose to do just that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate suggested that a justice of the peace should be entitled to attest more than once. He may well be right and I shall certainly consider that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North made several points, many of which were of a fairly detailed character. Plainly, the documents should be numbered on the face of them clearly and comprehensively. He also spoke about their colours. They are coloured, but the problem is tht one does not want the papers to have a colour that connotes a political party. Therefore, we have the rather drab colours that he knows about. Nevertheless, we shall certainly have another look at colours.

There is a difficulty with form No. 9 and unlimited time. I do not want to close my mind to anything, but the entitlement at a particular election to vote by post or proxy because one is going on holiday does not arise until the date of the election has been fixed. Therefore, there are difficulties in having an unlimited time application form for some of the form No. 9 cases to which my hon. Friend referred. Again, we can discuss that.

I shall consider my hon. Friend's point on standard size. I thought that the forms were in standard size. If that is not the case, I shall look at the matter again.

The plain fact is that we may well have made mistakes in this matter. My officials did their best, it is an extremelly complicated matter and they consulted the political parties, but we shall look at it again. I approach the matter with a thoroughly open mind. I wish to ensure that the documents are as clear and easy to use as possible. It is important that people should be able to vote. l shall consider in a wholly open-minded manner all the representations that we receive, and I hope that we shall come to the House with proposals which will commend themselves to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to hon. Mernbers and to my hon. Friends.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three 'ninnies to Three o'clock.