HL Deb 26 January 2004 vol 656 cc1-66GC

(First Day)

Monday, 26 January 2004.

The Committee met at half past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux)

Before I put the Question that the Title be postponed, perhaps I may remind your Lordships of two points of procedure. Noble Lords will speak standing; and the House has agreed that there will be no Divisions in Grand Committee. Unless, therefore, an amendment is likely to be agreed to, it should be withdrawn. If there is a Division in the Chamber, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and will resume after 10 minutes.

Title postponed.

Clause 1 [Piloting conduct at European and local elections]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 8, at end insert— ( ) The Secretary of State must not make an order under this section unless a three-quarters majority of the local authorities in the areas covered by the pilot agree.

The noble Baroness said: Before I speak to Amendment No. 1, I thank the Minister for the very detailed letter that he sent to us. That was very kind. It raised a number of points, not all of which will be satisfied. We shall certainly want some of the information that he has given in Hansard. I do not believe that such information has been put in the Library, so I hope that, as the amendments arise—I have not withdrawn any of them—we shall be able to acquire detailed information.

Turning to Amendment No. 1, Clause 1 provides that the Secretary of State may make an order requiring that, the European Parliamentary general election of 2004 in a region specified", be conducted in a manner differing from the normal procedure, as was made clear at Second Reading and now in the Government's amendment, by all-postal elections. Other pilots have now been ruled out. Any such order would also apply to any local elections taking place in the selected regions on the same day. We understand that that does not include all local authorities in the region.

The Secretary of State has consulted with the Electoral Commission and, unlike the House of Commons, we have the benefit of the results of the Electoral Commission's report. It recommends that only the North East and the East Midlands regions are ready to hold pilots. We shall deal with the issue of how obliged the Secretary of State should be to adhere to that recommendation, and the reasons that inform it, when we come to debate Amendment No. 4 and presumably government Amendment No. 5.

At this stage I want to deal with the state of readiness of the local authorities that are specified in an order under Clause 1 and their willingness and ability to participate in carrying out all-postal votes in their areas of responsibility; that is at local elections in the pilot regions. For argument's sake, let us assume that the Secretary of State followed the recommendations of the Electoral Commission and selected the North East and the East Midlands in his order under Clause 1. That is all well and good in the case of the North East. From the Electoral Commission's report, we learn that its previous experience of piloting has led to a great deal of enthusiasm for pilots in this region. The report comments: There is overwhelming support from an all-postal vote in 2004 among authorities in the region, underpinned by concerns that voter confusion would be high if electors were required to access conventional polling stations in June 2004. The region has a small number of authorities, a small proportion of whom are holding local elections in 2004".

That is a direct quote from page 25, paragraph 3.2. That suggests that at least a majority of the local authorities are extremely keen to undertake pilot elections in their regions. However, that is not necessarily the case for the East Midlands. In paragraph 3.4 on the same page, the Electoral Commission comments: Returning officers have expressed a willingness to undertake an all-postal pilot scheme",

yet in the following paragraph we have the comments of the regional returning officer for the East Midlands, who states that he has "personal misgivings" about choosing the East Midlands as a region for the proposed pilot scheme. He mentions, the considerable uncertainties that still surround the late date for binding decisions and the very significant unresolved questions around scaling the requisite technology up from individual authorities to the full regional electorate".

If we refer back to the Electoral Commission report, the Committee will recall that he said that in order for these pilots to be satisfactory the regions and the local authorities involved should have detailed decisions by the middle of December—December of last year—on how they were going to take the matter forward.

It is clear to me that many local authorities—in fact those which have not been involved in pilot schemes before—are uneasy about the lack of detail on the practical administration of these new postal elections. That is compounded by the fact that we are given no further details in Clause 2 about what will actually be in the pilot order—although we will be under some future amendments—and how the elections will work in practice. The Electoral Commission, in summing up the situation as regards the East Midlands, commented: We reiterate that potential pilot regions should receive sufficient and reliable detail on the form of the pilot … and in addition, the Government should give potential pilot regions clear undertakings on the level of central support that will be provided in the same timeframe".

The point is that not all local authorities in the East Midlands are comfortable with trialing pilot schemes. Their fears stem from the short timescale and the administrative and financial burden that they are concerned they will have to bear. There is a risk that they will either have insufficient resources or will botch the job because they do not have enough time to prepare the necessary infrastructure before the elections in June. The lack of detail with which they have been provided thus far has spurred on their misgivings.

If we project this matter to the other two regions that the Government are now proposing to add—the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside—the situation is much worse, with a lack of enthusiasm experienced by returning officers, in particular in the local authorities of the North West where 33 elections are due to take place.

Our amendment attempts to add an extra safeguard. Despite the misgivings of the East Midlands' returning officer, the Electoral Commission has classified that region as suitable. Our amendment does not state that every single local authority has to agree to the pilot. We would not want an overly cautious local authority to be able to exercise a veto to stop a pilot going ahead. All we ask is that the Secretary of State should consult local authorities in the region that he intends to specify and to proceed with an order under Clause 1 only if three-quarters of them agree to the pilot scheme.

We do not believe that this will scupper the Government's plans. If the Electoral Commission's report is correct—as I have no doubt it is—those regions that the report has recommended will fulfil the requirement of a three-quarters majority in favour. There should, therefore, be no problem in accepting our amendment.

However, if one-quarter of local authorities in the area are uneasy about holding a pilot scheme, for whatever reason—be it a question of costs, resources, infrastructure, timing or anything else—we do not believe that an order should be made for that region. It is, after all, the local authorities that will be responsible for running a successful election following the pilot scheme and if 25 per cent of local authorities would rather not risk the trial, we do not see why it should be imposed on them from above by the Secretary of State. Our amendment would allow a degree of discretion for local authorities in a region chosen for the pilot scheme, which we believe is only right and fair. I beg to move.

Lord Greaves moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, Amendment No. 2:

Line 3, after first "the" insert "principal".

The noble Lord said: I rise in general support of the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. In moving Amendment No. 2, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 3, which stands in my name in this group. Before doing so, I want to respond to the general point put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham.

Until now, all pilot schemes for running local elections have been implemented with the agreement of, or at the request of, the local authorities concerned. They may have been run by different means— electronic, postal or whatever—perhaps using more modern methods than the old system. I forget how many pilot schemes took place last May. There may have been 20 or 30. The Government wrote to local authorities saying, "Do you want to put yourselves forward to be a pilot?". Those chosen were taken from the authorities that expressed a wish to carry out a pilot.

Equally, as I understand it, where authorities have piloted by-elections in the past couple of years, essentially the local authority concerned has decided that it wants to pilot a by-election, or, in some cases, several by-elections, in its patch. This is the first time that local authorities are being told, "You will have a pilot whether you like it or not". Under the Government's new proposals for all regions, a number of local authorities which will carry out pilot schemes are not only expressing disquiet but are strongly opposed to them for various reasons, including that of fraud. Therefore, this is the first time that an element of compulsion will be used on local authorities.

I consider that to be a bad principle. The noble Baroness's amendment goes some way towards addressing that as at least a clear majority or overwhelming number—that is, three-quarters—of the authorities in the region must agree that they want to take part in a pilot. I make that general point in support of the noble Baroness's amendment.

Amendment No. 2 is a pernickety, pedantic point made by a lifelong councillor, although I am not a councillor at present. Nevertheless, if we are talking about "principal authorities", we should say "principal authorities". We are not talking about parish councils. At least, I assume that the noble Baroness is not talking about parish councils. She is talking about authorities that are involved in the scheme.

Amendment No. 3 provides an alternative point of view. It returns to the question of consent among authorities whose own local elections will be affected—not through any choice of their own and not because they would otherwise have been chosen as a pilot but because they happen to be in a region which, in their wisdom, the Government have decided should have all-postal vote elections.

I believe that the noble Baroness's argument was based on running elections and returning officers, and so on. An alternative point of view—I am not sure which is right but I thought it worth debating—is that a three-quarters majority of councils whose own elections will be affected by the provision should be in favour of the scheme, and that is what that amendment seeks to ensure. It is clearly a probing amendment or one for discussion, but I believe that it raises an important point which should be made at this stage. I beg to move.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

I understand the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that, whichever region is chosen to carry out a pilot, it must have the capacity to carry out the election successfully and, ultimately, everyone must feel that it has been efficient and that peoples rights have been met. However, I am a little worried about the amendment and I want to pose one or two brief questions to the noble Baroness.

Why has the figure of three-quarters been chosen for the majority? The House of Commons had a long debate on whether it should be a two-thirds majority, but now the figure is three-quarters. I want to know the basis or the argument for choosing the figure of three-quarters as opposed to two-thirds. I could almost understand it if the figure were two-thirds because one would then be saying that a majority was in favour. However, I am not certain where the figure of three-quarters comes in.

I also want to make the point that if one were arguing imposition, even with a three-quarters majority, one could still argue that the local authorities making up the other quarter were having the pilot imposed upon them. Therefore, I believe that the argument falls a little flat there.

The question of what is a local authority also arises. That is not defined in the amendment. How would one weigh local authorities of different sizes with different populations and different geographies within an area? Or are we saying that, in fact, a local authority with a very small area in terms of population and geography could raise objections when it is just a quarter of the region? That would then be very unfair in terms of the mass of the population of that region. Therefore, I am not certain how one arrives at the figure suggested by the noble Baroness and what are the criteria and the basis behind it.

3.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Lord Filkin)

I am glad to have the opportunity to start our deliberations in Committee on these interesting amendments spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.

Amendment No. 1, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, would require the Secretary of State to gain the support of three-quarters of the local authorities in a region before that region could be selected for piloting.

Amendments Nos. 2 and 3, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, seek to narrow the meaning of Amendment No. 1 to principal local authorities. We shall discuss later today the Government's proposal that we place the chosen regions on the face of the Bill. There are a number of reasons for that, which, although they may be self-evident, I shall no doubt labour when we come to that point. Clearly, if that is supported, these amendments would no longer be needed.

The first point is that local authorities have been consulted. Two consultations have taken place about pilots at the June 2004 elections—one by the Government and one by the Electoral Commission— through which local authorities were able to make their views known. Therefore, there has been no lack of opportunity for local authorities to express their views as is right and proper, and for the Government to receive their representations, both written and oral.

The willingness and capacity of local authorities was a factor in taking the relevant decision. The willingness of returning officers and regional returning officers was considered by the Electoral Commission in making its recommendations on the regions. It has also been a factor that we have borne in mind in making our final decision. However, that was not the primary consideration. That has to be focused on the operational capacity or capability to deliver successful elections, and this is what we have taken—I believe rightly—as our main criterion. Capacity, not willingness, is the key factor. However, surely it is capacity for success, rather than just willingness or enthusiasm, that matters.

As I believe has already been implied, it is not appropriate—for reasons I shall discuss at greater length in a moment—for local authorities, or a group of them, to be given a power of veto over whether there is to be a pilot of the kind we are discussing at the European parliamentary elections. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, shares some heritage with me in terms of a deep interest in, commitment to and passion for local government. She will know better than I that on many occasions local authorities have not always been enthusiastic about what they have had to do but good local authority officers know that they have to get on and do it. The clearest and strongest example of that is rate capping—not that there is any parallel between what is proposed here and rate capping.

I was slightly surprised to hear the argument advanced regarding the East Midlands. We were interested to note the move from a two-thirds majority to a three-quarters majority. We noted the debate in the Commons regarding the two-thirds majority but we also noted that the Electoral Commission signalled that 74 per cent of the local authorities in the East Midlands supported the pilots. Lo and behold, the figure of 75 per cent pops out as the critical threshold. I am sure that as ever I have a suspicious mind and should wash my mouth out.

We may talk about the choice of regions many times today but the Committee will also be aware that the Government did not decide—I believe against the expectation as expressed on Second Reading—to go ahead with the scheme in Scotland. The reason we did not go ahead in Scotland was not because the electoral returning officers were either enthusiastic or not about doing that, but they did not believe that they could deliver a successful process. It would be a bold government to force electoral returning officers to carry out that process in the face of clear statements from them that they do not think that they can do so for a variety of reasons, particularly when they could advance evidence for that. But that has not been the situation in the four areas that we mentioned. There would have been varying degrees of enthusiasm by regional returning officers or local authority returning officers as to whether at a particular point in time they wanted to carry out such a pilot process. That is a different issue from whether they believed, if they were chosen, that they could actually deliver a successful election. It is on that distinction that we have made the judgments.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is right that previous local authorities were in a position where they could volunteer. If they did not volunteer, they did not have to do a pilot process of this sort. There were good reasons for having that as the process up to now, because the local authority was making its own decision in its own area, and there were no other wider issues. However, if—as we do—we believe that there is benefit in a progressive, cautious, evaluated and researched process to see whether postal voting can be taken on a wider scale, while addressing some of the proper concerns that have been raised, it is self-evident to us that we should pilot at a regional as well as on an individual local authority level. Of course, if it required every local authority to volunteer—or even three-quarters of them—there would not be many regions in which one could pilot.

The final reason on which we should reflect is that a lot is learnt from piloting such experiments in areas where there has been enthusiasm and willingness, as has been done to date. Most parties have an interest in seeing whether postal voting can be moved forward on a wider scale, albeit with security, safety and all the other issues that we marked at Second Reading. Therefore, one has to pilot not only on the willing and enthusiastic, but on those who may not be passionate about taking part, because that would clearly be the case if one were to carry out such a process on a national scale in years to come—perhaps in many years to come. By definition, a postal vote would be carried out across the willing and unwilling alike.

Therefore, there is good reason, not bad reason, for doing pilots for areas where there is not a unanimity or even massively strong support for being in the vanguard of experimentation in such a way. In other words, one has to test in the difficult circumstances when people are less than enthusiastic, as well as the easier ones when people are piloting or postal junkies. There is also a good argument for not simply testing postal voting on simple situations when there is a single election, but testing on the more complex cases when multiple elections are happening at the same time. That is why we are doing that this time. There will be occasions in future when that takes place.

For those reasons, while I very much understand the defence of the interests of local authorities in this respect, there are wider public policy reasons why it is desirable that we take forward cautious evaluated experimentation of this type, even when local authorities are not enthusiastic for it, subject to the Government and returning officers having confidence that they can deliver a sound election process.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for his reply. I shall address the matters raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, although I was not sure whether to pop up after she had finished or to leave it to the end. I believed that Members of the Committee might welcome just one contribution, as they will be hearing a lot of my voice today. I also apologise for the fact that my noble friend Lord Atlee is not with us at the moment. Poor man, he is running two things at the same time, as he is also dealing with the Patents Bill, so he will probably come later on if he has time.

First, I wish to address the question of the local authorities' willingness or capacity to deal with the pilots. We shall return time and time again to the Electoral Commission report. After all, the Government set up the Electoral Commission to advise them. While I know that any advice can have a boot put on it, it is probably sensible at least to follow a little of what has been said.

Paragraph 2.40 on page 13 of the Electoral Commission report says: With the regional pilots, it is perhaps inevitable that not all Returning Officers or their staff will be equally enthusiastic. This could be crucial in determining the likely success of a pilot scheme". For regional pilots, one could also read into that "local authorities".

It is quite important that people want to do the pilots. We shall discuss later whether half the national voting strength is a pilot. When we are trying to work out whether something will work or whether it has flaws, it is sensible at least to do so in areas where there is a vision or large-scale support for it. Whether a two-thirds or three-quarters majority is required is only a matter for probing. The principle, to which we can return later if necessary, should surely be that there should be a significant majority of local authorities in favour, so that there is a real possibility that it will get off to a reasonable start.

I know that there have been previous pilots, but they have been limited and, as far as I am aware, have never involved running two different elections at the same time on a pilot basis. So there are differences here and reasons why, if the Government want to find out whether it works, it should be done with a reasonable degree of co-operation and help. Whether the majority is two-thirds or 75 per cent, it must be clear that everyone wants to do it.

That is why there should be another canvassing effort. I appreciate that the Electoral Commission has done its work, but it points out that not every local authority wants to hold a pilot or believes that it has the capacity to do so. Therefore, before we embark on the pilots, it seems sensible to have another skirmish. The reason why the Government will not be keen to do so is that the timescale is now very tight. The Bill has been bobbling around for a while, and even if all instructions on how to run the pilots were issued tomorrow, considerable effort will have to be made to get them off the ground for June.

I will think carefully about what the Minister has said, but I am still of the view that there should be wholehearted support for what is to be done in a local authority area, or in local authority areas that make up a region.

Lord Greaves

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 2, as an amendment to Amendment No. 1, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

Baroness Hanham

I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 1.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4 p.m.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 1, line 19, leave out subsection (5) and insert— (5) An order under this section may only specify—

  1. (a) the North East;
  2. (b) the East Midlands; and
  3. (c) any local authorities within those electoral regions which are due to hold elections on the same date."

The noble Baroness said: This amendment continues the debate that we have just had on the regions selected to run pilots. Again, we have the independent and impartial assessment of the Electoral Commission, after wide consultation with local authorities in all regions under consideration.

As the Government especially sought its advice, we see no reason for them to choose to ignore what it said and elect to propose two additional regions: the North West and Yorkshire and Humberside. The Electoral Commission specifically said that it believes that only two regions are suitable for all-postal votes at this stage. It emphasised that it can make no positive recommendations on the suitability of any other region.

On Second Reading, many of those who spoke asked the Government whether they intended to follow that recommendation. The Minister's response left me feeling concerned. He said that the Government were, currently considering in more detail each of those further potential candidates",

with the hope of announcing, shortly whether or not we intend to proceed with any other region".—[Official Report, 8/1/04; col. 302.]

We now know that it was not just one more region the Government were considering, but two.

I believe that it would be irresponsible for the Government to specify any other region which has been rejected by the Electoral Commission. Why are they so insistent on the two additional recommended regions? If the Government had no intention of accepting the commission's views, why did they ask it to put forward its recommendation?

We have been told time and again, when the Government have been trying to advocate piloting any innovative methods at all, that the exercise is designed to generate evidence in order that decisions on the wider use of these systems can be proportionate and soundly based. Whether this is justifiable in terms of the risk to security and concerns about secrecy and accessibility is an argument we will have on later amendments.

What I would have thought would be obvious was that the whole piloting scheme, intended to "generate evidence" on new methods, would be jeopardised if it were trialled in regions which are considered to be unsuitable either by being unwilling, unprepared, or both. The result of the election will generate evidence which will not be a fair representation of how innovative methods would work in practice.

An area unsuited to a pilot scheme would be more likely to have negative results from the pilot scheme and even more damaging in that the elections themselves could be botched, as we discussed. In the latter case, the results of the elections might even be called into question.

Since the Government set up the Electoral Commission to make an independent view of these matters, we believe they should stick to its recommendations. I can tell the Minister now that we do not agree to the additional two regions he is proposing. Neither are recommended by the commission and neither appear to be prepared or enthusiastic to blaze a trail. The addition of the two regions means that the pilot turns from being a limited one into a full-frontal assault on the normal election process. Just under half of all the local authority elections due in England would be conducted on an all-postal basis. And out of the eight English European electoral regions, four would be subject to the same.

We believe that this makes a mockery of the word "pilot"; that the subsequent necessary charge will be impossible to manage and obtain sufficiently detailed results; and that the Government should stick to the recommendations of the Electoral Commission. I beg to move.

Lord Rennard

At Second Reading, I expressed a considerable number of reservations about the principle of postal voting and I shall not repeat them today. I mention that because, notwithstanding all of those reservations, I accepted the principle of experimentation to some degree. It seems that our debate should now be about how far that experimentation should go.

However, not long ago, the Government appeared to be wholly against the idea of all-postal voting in the European elections. The only experiment to be held this June is the combining of the local elections and the European elections. We have received no answer— either at Second Reading or at any other point—about why there is a sudden Government change of heart. They say, first, that we will have no postal voting in the European elections; then they ask the Electoral Commission to come forward with three regions where that might be suitable; then the Electoral Commission said that two regions were suitable; and now the Government say that four regions should be subject to their experimentation. We have had no proper explanation of that rapid sequence of change.

As was noted in our debate on Amendment No. 1, one of the problems is the speed with which elections can be organised by the returning officers and their staff and how the campaigns can be conducted by the parties. The uncertainty is unhelpful for those conducting the elections and those competing in them.

It seems strange that when the Government fail to get a positive endorsement for three regions from the commission, they should come back and propose four. Why has there been a U-turn on the principle of all-postal voting in European elections; and why are the Government acting so strongly against the Electoral Commission's advice on suitability against their own criteria?

No doubt we shall dwell carefully on the Electoral Commission's words on the issue, but the key phrase was when it stated that it, concluded that there are two regions which best meet the criteria and are suitable for piloting all-postal voting in 2004". I accept that, as the Minister said on Second Reading, it also stated that a number of other regions could potentially be suitable, but it also stated that it did not, feel able to make a positive recommendation on their suitability following our assessment of them against the criteria". We should consider the matter in detail. Three or four years ago, we debated at some length the principles of the Electoral Commission: how it should guide parliamentarians and government in an independent and objective manner, as far as possible. I accept that the commission's advice is not binding on any party or on the Government, but we should listen carefully to what it has to say, as the Government asked it to make recommendations on the issue. On page 27, in section 3.9, the report states: The Commission is not able to make a positive recommendation that Yorkshire and Humber is suitable to undertake a pilot scheme in 2004". It notes great divisions within the region on the issue and the distinct preference among returning officers and their staff for running the election on conventional lines. I do not for a moment accept that the staff should have a veto, but what is the point of the Government asking the Electoral Commission which regions' staff say that they can and would want to run a pilot, and to find the staff who are unwilling or think that there would be problems, and then saying that the commission should simply be overruled?

Similarly, in the North West, the commission state that it is, not able to make a positive recommendation that the North West region is suitable to undertake a pilot scheme in 2004". It noted some willingness but some opposition to the scheme. Some practicalities may be difficult to address in the short period between now and the elections if, having expected there to be no all-postal elections in Yorkshire and Humber or the North West, we now try to introduce them.

In a spirit of compromise and willingness to accept experimentation, I noted carefully the argument made for experimentation and said that, despite reservations, we may be able to go along with two pilot experiments. It would be a good thing and healthy for democracy to see how they would work, subject to other reservations and tightening up as far as possible some of the procedures I discussed. But I have not heard any case for there to be four pilots rather than two.

In particular, why should the whole of the north of England and half of the Midlands be subject to all-postal voting experimentation, but nowhere in the south? That seems strange. Perhaps this is a point for those of us who have been described as political anoraks, but we think that that will distort the results across Great Britain in the European elections.

Inevitably, the European elections are used as a sort of mid-term popularity poll about the Government. People look at the share that each party gets in each election. If all-postal voting results in increased turnout in all those areas that are traditionally stronger for Labour and weak for the Conservatives, that opens the Government to accusations that they have distorted the results of the 10 June European elections in their favour and against the Conservatives.

If there were a Liberal Democrat Government, we would insist that all-postal voting should take place early in the South West, it being our strongest region, to inflate our share of the national vote. I do not suggest that that will happen soon, but the point is that it is not good for governments to introduce experiments that may favour their party in elections. By proposing that the whole of the north of England and half of the Midlands should have all-postal voting—resulting, we hope, in a higher turnout—while the south of England should not, the Government are open to suggestions that they are operating for partisan advantage. That is especially so when they appear to be over-ruling the Electoral Commission.

If an experiment were to be made, it should have been for weekend voting. I cannot see the case for having four all-postal pilots. Given that the commission states that it cannot possibly recommend the North West or Yorkshire, the Government have not made the case for extending the pilots to four. On that basis, we support Amendment No. 4.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Greaves

I too support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. I apologise to the noble Baroness that I had to nip along the corridor during part of her speech. Therefore, I did not hear it all but I am sure that I agreed with everything that I did not hear as well as I agree with the basics of the amendment that she is moving and I support my noble friend.

I live in the North West and vote in the North West in those elections where I am allowed a vote. The Government's decision to put the North West forward has resulted in a great deal of dismay on the part of many people in the North West—but certainly not everyone. The next disclaimer I want to make is that, regarding one or two comments I am about to make, I am not making any party political points at all about any particular party that has been involved in attempting to rig elections by postal votes. I point out that of the recent court cases in the past two or three years that have resulted in convictions—there have been precious few of them—for councillors and candidates, in two cases at least, in Hackney and Havant, Liberal Democrats were convicted. Therefore, I am not making any political points at all in what I am going to say.

In addition to the points that my noble friend made, the Electoral Commission report on electoral pilots at the June 2004 elections discussed the question of fraud. I want to address the issue that all-postal vote elections will be wide open to fraud. Paragraph 2. states regarding the North West: There have been several allegations of electoral fraud in the North West in recent years. These have centred around interference with postal votes or intimidatory procurement of proxy votes … Some of these investigations could proceed to court in early 2004; this will be likely to produce unfavourable publicity about the security of postal voting". It is not just a case of unfavourable publicity. In the context of fiddling elections the actual results get changed from time to time. The report also points out that in the view of the Electoral Commission widespread or universal all-postal voting should not be brought in until there is individual registration. I submit that four regions, which is virtually half England, is getting fairly close to universal postal voting.

One of the reasons that Government Ministers have put forward for all-postal voting is to increase the turnout in order to change the election results. That was stated quite overtly by Nick Raynsford, who was quoted in the Observer on 4 May last year in relation to the election successes of the British National Party in Burnley, where I live. The Observer quotes Nick Raynsford as stating: The BNP thrives in areas of low turnout. If you increase turnout there is a better chance that they won't get through". He went on to say: I also think they tend to thrive on that rather old-fashioned atmosphere of a traditional poll". One can question Nick Raynsford's thought processes regarding traditional polls and old-fashioned atmospheres, but nevertheless what he was saying there was very clear—increase the turnout and you will "dish" the BNP, and the way to increase the turnout is to have all-postal vote elections. I have to say that I think his basic thinking in relation to the North West and, indeed, in relation to Yorkshire is wrong. I do not believe that the BNP will do worse if the turnout goes up, but that will have to be seen. The one place where the BNP did really well—the only place that it has really broken through the 30 per cent barrier—was in Burnley last May when it polled in the high 30 per cent or in the low 40 per cent pretty well everywhere it stood. The evidence there is interesting. My figures relate to the wards where the BNP stood for election. The one ward in which it did not stand is not included in the figures. I refer to the 13 wards where the BNP stood in Burnley last May. In the seven wards that it won—where it had councillors elected—the average turnout was 44.2 per cent. In the six wards that it did not win—where the BNP failed to gain a seat—the average turnout was 39.1 per cent.

There was a 5 per cent difference between the wards it won where the turnout was higher. I would not argue that we should therefore look to have a lower turnout to "dish" the BNP, but in a particular authority where one is comparing more or less like with like the evidence is that BNP's success puts the turnout up. I fear that that could be the case in the North West next year where its lead candidate, Nick Griffin, needs only about 8 per cent to be in with a chance of winning a seat.

It is even more surprising that the Government have chosen to include Yorkshire. As I understand it, the clear view of returning officers and local authorities there was that they did not want it. I know most about the authority in Bradford, where during the past few years there has been a large number of claims that people have engaged in electoral malpractice in relation to the postal vote. One of the first came from Terry Rooney, MP for Bradford North. He commented in relation to his own election results at the last general election and I quote from the BBC News website of 16 June 2001: Mr Rooney said he believed abuses of the system meant it was impossible to say the poll was free and fair". It was all about people going round after the postal ballot forms had arrived and intimidating people into voting a particular way.

It is interesting that all the political parties on Bradford Council, of which there are four including the Greens, appear to be united against the idea of an all-postal vote in Bradford. There is a substantial fear of electoral malpractice. I quote from the Bradford Telegraph & Argus published on Friday 23 January: Bradford politician, Mohammed Riaz, a prospective Conservative European Parliamentary candidate for Yorkshire and Humberside said 30 per cent of Asian people in parts of Bradford would return votes for candidates they did not really want in a postal system. He said they would come under pressure from friends and family to vote in certain ways". The fact of the matter is that all of us who were involved in grass-roots politics in areas with large Asian populations know that postal-vote rigging and postal-vote malpractices take place on a horrendous scale. Some have spend a lot of time trying to stamp it out.

As regards Bradford, the leader of the council, Margaret Eaton, who is a Conservative, said that she was "angry and disappointed" by the decision. The Labour leader, Dave Green, said that he was "concerned about abuse". David Ford, the Green councillor, said that it was "disastrous". Jeanette Sunderland, who is a good friend of mine, said she was afraid that it would allow cheats to win. Particularly significantly, the Bradford Telegraph &Argus, which has always been one of the more civically concerned and sensible evening papers in this country, had an editorial headed "All-postal ballot is a bad idea". It stated: The Government ruling that Bradford voters should have an all-postal ballot imposed on them for the Council and European Parliament elections in June is a very bad idea indeed". It continues: It is a flawed case which fails to take into account the cheats who will seek to make political capital out of this system … It is far too easy for ballot papers to be 'harvested' to enable votes to be fraudulently assigned to one candidate or another". I would not claim that it was restricted to one party in Bradford by any means.

In the North West, I have been sent some interesting information by the Blackburn Conservative Association, which has been looking into fraudulent postal vote activities in Blackburn. Much was alleged in the 2001 election and before the 2002 elections it stated its concerns to the returning officer. It asked him to compare signatures and so on between postal-vote application forms and declarations of identity. That request was refused and the Blackburn Conservatives therefore carried out its own survey in Bastwell ward.

I do not want to say too much about this because police investigations may be taking place. However, I want to read—anonymously, for fairly obvious reasons—a couple of the letters of which I have copies. One is from Mr D of Blackburn. He writes: The post arrived at my home and was behind the door. Two men knocked at my door and asked, 'Have you got postal vote?'. They said, 'Then give it to us'. Mrs D handed the unopened envelope to them. The forms were not signed or promised to the man". That is a husband describing what happened to his wife's vote when he discovered that it had been given away.

There is another from a young girl student, who writes: While I was at university the postal vote arrived, but as I was in a rush I left the envelope unopened and obviously unsigned. Once I returned home I had been told from my father that some individual claiming to be from the Labour party insisted on taking the envelope regardless of the fact it wasn't signed. My father described him to be from an Asian background with a small white beard. The person took away my postal vote without my authority". Anyone involved in politics in such areas knows that this kind of activity goes on all the time.

It happens not only in Bradford. A Conservative councillor in Guildford had to resign—there was a by-election which we won—because he had been caught on a CCTV camera in the town hall—foolish man— filling in a ballot paper for a postal voter. There are many examples of fiddling postal votes. I am passing over a number in Pendle because I have spoken for a long time, but I shall return to some of them when we discuss later amendments in my name.

In Oldham, the whole culture of managing the postal vote and carrying out many practices which ought not to be carried out is probably at a high level of competence in a number of parties—and I say that advisedly. The Ritchie report into the situation in Oldham between the communities after the disturbances two years ago had much to say about the political relationships and politics in the town and the way in which community leaders and groups seek to use elections and representation on the council to promote their own interests in addition to the interests of the parties for which they stand. The report produced for the Liberal Democrats, indicates that the prevalence of ballot fraud in Oldham stems from two main factors: the importance attached to having representatives on the local council; and the presence of a large block of voters among whom there is a culture of obedience and deference to community leaders. Sections 11.42 and 11.50 talk about the intricate nature of politics in the Asian communities in Oldham, with individual groupings or clans within the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities attempting to get greater influence by having elected representatives.

People tell me that I should not talk about this because it is damaging and so forth. I believe that there are scandals going on which do no good whatever either to the communities who are being manipulated by certain unscrupulous people seeking political power or to community relations in general. They certainly do no good at all to the general democratic process. In the North West there is fear and trepidation that if we have all-postal ballot elections in June in places such as Oldham, parts of Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne, Bury, Rochdale, Blackburn, Burnley, Pendle and certain other places too, many of those elections will be rigged. I am not particularly talking about the European election here, although it may well be that in the North West, because of the particular circumstances of some of the candidates, there will be intense pressure for what I am discussing to take place there too. However, so far as the local elections are concerned, where there are all-up elections in many places—in Blackburn and in all the metropolitan authorities—there will be huge pressures and all-postal ballots will leave the door open to people hoovering up votes on an enormous scale. Many votes will be cast in people's names either by people who are intimated and suffering undue influence when the votes take place, or by people who are not even the electors to whom the votes have been sent.

The Minister will no doubt ask, "Where are the complaints to the police? Where are the prosecutions?". It does not take more than a moment's thought to realise that people who are being subjected to this kind of intimidation and undue influence will not stand up in a court of law and subject themselves to the community pressures that that would produce for all kinds of reasons. I regret to say that in some cases there will be nods and winks between members of the different parties that that will be the case.

I have two final comments. I realise that I have spoken for a long time but this is an absolutely crucial reason why there should not be all-postal ballots at this stage in these two regions of Yorkshire and the North West. Two things go on in Oldham that are very common. One is that tenants of privately rented accommodation very often believe—they certainly accept it if they do not believe that it is right—that their vote belongs to their landlord. Time and again people knock on doors and are told, "My landlord does the votes here. It is my landlord's vote. It is part of what he gets for letting the house to me. I give him my vote as well". That practice is quite common. It occurs without postal votes being in place. People hand over their polling cards and personation takes place. However, postal votes make the whole operation so much easier and enable it to take place on so much larger a scale.

The second thing that happens is vote trading between families. Any politicians who have been involved in politics in Oldham for any length of time will tell you that they have probably witnessed this or known about it. One family in one ward will cast their votes for a particular candidate in their ward in return for other families in another ward casting their votes for a different candidate in that other ward. This occurs irrespective of normal political allegiances and takes place across parties. It takes place quite formally. Often the actual postal votes themselves—when postal votes are involved—are handed over. People say, "Here are our postal votes for your man in our ward and you can give us those postal votes for your man in the other ward". It is astonishing that this takes place but it does take place. A huge amount of education is needed. I believe that a huge amount of policing of the system is taking place. What we should not be doing under any circumstances at this time in places such as Bradford, Oldham, Blackburn and, indeed, in my own patch in Pendle, is to introduce a system that will inevitably mean that such practices will take place on a far greater scale.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Filkin

Let me start with the aspect on which I believe we agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. Through her amendment, she has sought to specify in the Bill where the pilot regions will be. In other words, she wants to make it clear from the parliamentary process, in the Bill, that the elections should take place in those regions and no others. Although I do not agree with her on the regions that she nominates, as will be clear from the later amendments that we shall come to, I agree with her on the desirability of the primary legislative process defining these issues.

I do so for two reasons. Parliament will decide in any event, either through primary legislation or through an affirmative order. For reasons that we are all alive to, the sooner Parliament decides where the pilots are to take place, the better in practice for the regional and local returning officers to make their preparations. It would enable them to do so in a way that gives them clarity about what is going to happen and gives them legal authority to incur expenditure, as they will need to. It is clear that the sooner Parliament takes such a decision, the sooner the preparations can begin and the greater the prospects of success for the pilot processes.

In that respect, I detect no significant difference between the parties who have spoken. We may differ on how far or how fast we should go, but Front Bench spokespersons have not signalled in principle that we should not pilot. The issue is about where and how we should pilot and how we should address reducing the risks that may or may not come about through all-ostal voting.

For those two reasons—to give the earliest date for Parliament to decide and for the regional or local returning officer to know where the pilots will be—I believe that the noble Baroness is right to put the regions in the Bill. We shall come to why we believe that there is a better mechanism to do that than the specific one that she advanced. The mechanism that we set out does not only give certainty; it also removes the need for a general order. By doing that, as far as one can put a time to it, we probably save a month on the process, which is very much in the interest of all concerned.

I agree with the noble Baroness. Let us through Parliament and primary legislation name the regions. We shall have a good debate today and perhaps return on Report to discuss which regions they should be. Let us do that in a manner that avoids uncertainty and maximises the decision for the returning officers through the mechanism that we have set out in the Bill and our subsequent amendments.

I shall address the points made by the noble Baroness before coming to those made by the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Greaves. We have not ignored the Electoral Commission's advice. The Electoral Commission, as is often the way of Government, has been asked, as a body that has independent stature, a relevant locus and experience, to consider the issues and give advice. It has given us advice. We have not asked it to make the decision but to investigate the issues and give its analysis and reasons, and what underpinned its reasons. We have asked it to investigate, appraise and advise, not to decide.

The Electoral Commission did so in a way that we found helpful. It set three categories. There were two regions for which there was a positive recommendation, a clutch at the bottom for which the commission could not recommend and a group of four in the middle for which it could not positively recommend at this point, but left open the question of whether the process could be suitable. Since the statement that we would go for the first two regions but were considering whether to go for three or, as it turned out, more regions, we have worked our way down the list to see whether, through a process of investigation and inspection, we could find reasons that satisfied us that we could carry out pilots in more than just two without there being a risk.

I have explained why, with some sorrow from some people, we rejected the idea of Scotland, because the returning officers were clear that they did not believe that they could carry out a successful election. We also considered Yorkshire and Humberside and the North West. In the process, both at official level and through my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, we met the regional returning officers, who are very senior local government officials, to get their views and advice on the issues. That was done to go into why they were in favour or might have cautions and what lay behind that and, above all, to focus on what was the central question for us. They were asked whether they believed that they could carry out the election successfully, if the Government decided to nominate their region for a pilot.

It is clear that the returning officers for the North West and Yorkshire and Humberside would express different levels of enthusiasm. That is what one would expect from the Electoral Commission report. When it came to it, both regional returning officers said that if they were asked to do the job they could do it technically. The difference between the two was that the regional returning officer and most of the local officers in the North West were very positive and enthusiastic, whereas the ones for Yorkshire and Humberside would prefer not to be asked but believed that they could do it technically. That is why they have been included. We did not involve the West Midlands because, after the first two meetings, there seemed to be good reasons for involving the two other regions. Therefore, there was no reason to go further and involve the West Midlands as well.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, suggested that all the local authorities were strong for Labour. From a partisan and improper point of view, I wish that were so, and that all the local authorities in those regions were for Labour, but that is not the case. There is a mixed pattern in some of those areas.

As for why we have moved on from combination, the existing parliamentary rates, as we discussed in detail on Second Reading, in both local and European elections, show us clearly that we have a problem. The turnout level is unacceptable, which is why we put in place arrangements to combine European and local elections, as the process is more convenient for voters. There is no difference between us on that; the evidence for that is clear. The combination would prevent us from piloting. We are also building on the positive report from the Electoral Commission on our 2003 pilots, which said that it felt that the pilots had been successful. Therefore, we felt that there was a strong case for moving forward. Because of the need to increase turnout, and to give strength and legitimacy, it is sensible for us to advance piloting in this way.

I shall not comment on all the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, except to say that some of the points that he read into the record are challenges to local authorities and police forces in the areas that he mentioned. They are also points that I shall mark and consider, and we shall discuss them with officials, as they are serious points made by a serious politician, who I believe has a genuine interest in making elections open, candid and fair. I am sure that he is also in favour of higher rather than lower turnout. I shall not respond to his points in detail, but I shall consider them subsequent to investigations today. The issues should also be put before the police, who should consider them if they have not already done so.

In passing, I agree with the noble Lord about the Bradford Telegraph & Argus. It is an impressive local paper for the way in which it has dealt with some of the challenging issues in Bradford, and I have enjoyed discussions with its editor, although that is by the by. I also noted what Ken Ritchie said about Oldham.

I do not want to lean too heavily on what has been said, but it is inconceivable that, because there may or may not be risks of malpractice, which may or may not be connected with certain socio-economic or cultural groupings in towns, we should write those places out of the story. We have to find ways in which to pilot successfully measures that are likely to raise turnout in areas where there may be particular issues. Therefore, while I respect the noble Lord's concerns, if anything those concerns are good reasons to see whether one can carry out pilots by postal voting. That would address those concerns. We must find ways in which to do that at some stage; otherwise, we are saying that we shall never have postal voting on a wider scale than in those areas where people are interested. That is not the Government's position, for good reason.

At risk of wearying the Committee, I shall say a few words, as I am not sure whether in our complex procedures today I shall miss the chance if I do not speak now. With the leave of the Committee, I shall give a little of the justification for the amendments that we have tabled, which turn on Amendment No. 4. With the regions and the nature of the elections on the face of the Bill, there will be no need for an affirmative order. That will save time in the overall process of the legislation—and quite substantial time which could make a lot of difference to returning officers. They will be able to enter formal contracts and incur expenditure immediately following Royal Assent, rather than waiting another month.

The clause continues to provide for a pilot order to detail the mechanics of the pilots. Those will be the nitty-gritty of the operational aspects, and work is under way on that, including input from the stakeholders, such as the Electoral Commission, electoral administrators for the regions, those representing disabilities and others. Having raised these issues in discussions between the Second Reading and Report stages, certainly with the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Goodhart, I shall seek with opposition Front Benches and opposition parties generally to share the policy behind the pilot order before we get to Report stage. In that way, noble Lords will be able to see what is intended for the pilot and the details of the administration of the pilot order at the earliest possible opportunity.

A number of consequential amendments would flow from the amendment that the Government have tabled, which we may or may not reach later. Those amendments flow from putting the greater detail into the Bill. In Clause 2, the amendments are to meet the changes; for example, to replace, each region specified in the main order", with "the region". There are a string of others.

It might weary the Committee less if I sent a fairly fast letter to set out that detail, rather than give it all now. If noble Lords will take it on trust that they will receive such a letter within days, they will see the fuller argumentation as to how the subordinate amendments tie back to the thrust of the central one, for the sake of clarity.

We agree that it is right to clarify through primary legislation which regions are involved. I suspect that we disagree on which regions they should be, but believe that there is a very strong case for the four regions that we have identified. The further testing that we have done, subsequent to the Electoral Commission report, gives the Lord Chancellor and the officials who have looked at it the confidence that the electoral officers in those areas can carry out a successful pilot. If we are confident that they can do that, it is desirable to have a wider and fuller pilot rather than a smaller and narrower one. That is why we have gone to four. I hope, as we shall test later, that I have totally convinced the Committee of the merits of the case, but time will tell.

Baroness Hanham

I am not sure why the Minister was moving Amendment No. 5, which encompasses a whole raft of stuff.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

He was speaking to it, not moving it.

Baroness Hanham

Well, he should not have been speaking to it, because we are debating Amendment No. 4.

Lord Filkin

As ever, I was seeking to be helpful to the Committee while trying to avoid a procedural lacuna. I wanted to explain why we felt that the route down which the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, had gone with her amendment was not the best one, and that there was a better one. It may be that the clause stand part Question is carried, that we do not get support for our amendment and that I do not have another opportunity to speak on that subject. I was seeking to be helpful.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for his explanation, although it will not surprise him if I say that I do not agree with many of his comments. It would clearly be helpful to have the regions that are finally agreed in the Bill, and I accept his reasons for saying so. However, I believe that we shall disagree over the number of regions involved, and why.

The Minister said that we were all in agreement with the principle of piloting—to which I say, "Yes, but with reservations". We have made it clear from the start that, while we see some logic in piloting further the principle of all-postal voting and believe that it is perfectly sensible to do that in conjunction with another election, we do not accept that virtually half the nation polling on the European elections—and, consequently, on their local elections—represents a pilot. In fact, one may well find out that the turnout across the country is just about equal to the turnout that one would get in a fully national election. I do not believe that that is a pilot.

A pilot ought to be done over a small area. I appreciate that the process has been done in local elections on a small scale, but it has not been done on anything like a regional scale. Of course, it could not have been done on a regional scale, except for the European elections, because there are not regional elections. With something as big as a region, it seems absurd to make that happen on a much wider basis rather than with a small number, so that one could really test out what the result of the pilot would be.

I am not sure, either, that we are all totally signed up to the fact that all-postal elections will increase turnout. It is true that there was evidence of increase in turnout when it was used for local elections—for which there was, probably, good publicity. That may be the situation with these pilots. It certainly was not true of the one-off election that took place in Lewisham last year, where there was an absolutely infinitesimal rise, with the turnout rising from 22 per cent to 24 per cent. That does not make the process worthwhile.

There is not total agreement about the advisability of large-scale pilots, which is what we are dealing with. The Minister is suggesting that there should be four regions. We have briefly touched on the number of local authorities that will be involved within those regions. In the North West, a vast number of local authorities will be electing at the same time. They are not tiddly local authorities, either; as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, pointed out, major cities and areas will be piloted at the same time. They will have different make ups—they are not at all the same as each other. There will be vast discrepancies in turnout, particularly in the North West. In fact, the North West would probably justify a pilot on its own, without any competition, if that was what the Government wanted to see.

Instead, the Government have chosen two regions that are perhaps easier, and two which are very much more complicated. I am not certain whether that will demonstrate anything helpful. Indeed, the results may take so long to come out that they will not affect well, or not have any basis for affecting, the referendums that will take place subsequently in the autumn for the regions, which I gather will also be done on a postal vote basis.

The Government set up the Electoral Commission for the very purpose of providing them with advice as to what they should do and how they should do it on all matters relating to elections. While it is clear that the North West was not at the bottom of the pile, it certainly was not one of the regions that the Electoral Commission came down in favour of using as a pilot. The Minister said that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and he had meetings with regional electoral officers. However, those discussions should not have taken place on the basis that the recommendation that everyone expected was that at the most three regions would be used. We have ended up with four, which is virtually half the electorate that would be involved in all elections.

I am not happy about the situation. I noted the very long speech by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, which touched on a number of matters that we shall want to discuss, but dealt specifically with the North West and Yorkshire regions. The Government should take what he said extremely seriously. He raised very major questions about this area. We would all acknowledge that those two areas are quite difficult.

Lord Filkin

Before the noble Baroness finishes, can I ask her a question? She said that pilots should be on a small scale and that one should not pilot at a regional level. Correct me if I am wrong, but the implication of that is that if this or any government felt that there was a good case for postal voting on a wider scale, either at a regional election or at national level—and I have signalled that we are a way from that position—one would have to do it without ever having tested whether it was practicable. Is that what she wants?

The second implication of her comments is that, if a government took the view that there was good reason and tested experience for conducting local authority elections on an all-postal basis with or without other areas, we could never have tested that beforehand on any regions other than the willing. I find it hard to believe that that is really what she is saying, but that is the logical implication.

Baroness Hanham

I must have been listening to myself differently from the way in which the Minister listened to me. I certainly was not saying that there should not be a regional pilot—I did not say that. I was saying that there should not be more than the two regional pilots, which would encompass the local elections. I fully accept the package, but I do not accept it on four regions. My argument against that proposal is that it would be a pilot involving half the national electorate. I do not call that a pilot; I call that virtually a full election.

The Government will be making a mistake if they move the pilot out from the two regions that were originally identified, with the local authorities in them, and have a combined election. I was not arguing the point that the Minister has just made; I am sorry if I led him astray. I hope that it is now clear that I would support, even with some misgivings, a pilot of the two regions and the local authorities encompassed within them, as was agreed. However, I am not happy about the additional two, which opens up a whole can of worms. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause I shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Filkin

Because of my earlier improper helpfulness, there is not a great need for me to speak at great length on this matter, which will be an enormous relief to the Committee. We have set out two things. We have said why we believe that we should put in the Bill, so that it is beyond doubt, a process that allows there to be the earliest certainty. While that is now not possible because, I suspect, the amendment in which we propose that contains the proposal of four regions—and I detect that there is no unanimity on that proposal—I at least detect open minds on the process that we have advanced.

At this point in time, we shall not be in a position to get a consensus in the Committee on both those issues at the same time—that the pilot should involve the four regions that we propose and that this is a better way of making progress to give early certainty. Therefore, I shall not be moving the government amendments, and we must support Clause 1 standing part now while giving clear notice that we shall return to these issues on Report.

Clause 1 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 5 not moved.]

Clause 2 [Pilot order]:

[Amendment No. 6 not moved.]

Lord Rennard moved Amendment No. 7:

Page 2, line 6, at end insert— ( ) The pilot order must provide that—

  1. (a) all postal ballot papers must be accompanied by a declaration of identity, signed by the elector and by a witness, and containing in legible form the name and address of the witness;
  2. (b) each elector who has returned a postal ballot paper is sent an acknowledgment by the returning officer."

The noble Lord said: My noble friend Lord Greaves outlined some serious concerns about the practice of postal voting, which would obviously be exacerbated in a move to all-postal voting. In the Second Reading debate, I indicated that, while we have many reservations about all-postal voting, if there are to be pilots, we regard it as absolutely essential that there are necessary and proper safeguards, as far as they can be introduced, to deal with some of the abuses.

Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 are helpful in that regard. My noble friend Lord Greaves will no doubt talk about his amendment in due course. They address some of the significant problems, particularly in relation to personation. I note that the Electoral Commission has not said that it considers the measures particularly necessary to deal with postal voting problems. Many of my arguments in relation to the Bill are based on what the Electoral Commission has said. However, let me say in relation to that apparent contradiction that the Electoral Commission has obviously seen pilots in many areas where there were very few of the problems to which my noble friend Lord Greaves referred.

Those of us who have occasionally had to deal at first hand with some very real problems with our electoral process are rather more sceptical about the problems that will occur if postal voting on a compulsory basis, or all-postal voting, is rolled out in future. Postal votes need to have a witness to say that the person receiving the postal vote is the person for whom the postal vote was intended. That would be a helpful measure, which I would not regard as a great burden. It would be an effective deterrent against fraud.

I myself have voted by post in national elections for 20 years or so, as the nature of my job has invariably meant that I have not been in the area where I am registered to vote on polling day. Before one had an automatic entitlement to vote by post, I applied to vote by post on the grounds that my occupation often took me away from that area on election day. I never found it difficult to get someone to sign to say that I was the person who was entitled to that postal vote. I do not believe that it is any real barrier to someone casting their vote that they have to say, on a separate piece of paper to their postal vote, that they are the person for whom the vote was intended, with somebody witnessing that.

In relation to the problems that we considered in some detail at Second Reading relating to houses with multiple occupancy, that would be a significant deterrent for the sort of abuse that might occur. Houses were mentioned where perhaps 10 postal votes were put through a communal letterbox and left in the hallway. Even if we have the sort of measure that the Government say they are considering—of asking returning officers to ensure that delivery is undertaken by hand and supervised by the returning officer rather than the Royal Mail—it will not address the problem of 10 postal votes being left in a hallway. The first person who picks up those 10 postal votes will be able to fill them in and send them back. It would be a significant deterrent if those votes were not counted unless there were 10 separate declarations of identity, filled in by the person by whom it was intended that the postal vote should be received and witnessed by another person. Indeed, if there were 10 people in the property, that should not be very hard to do.

Such a measure would make the intimidation and fraud to which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred very much harder. It would be one thing if one could simply go to someone's house and say, "I have come for your postal vote—take it away and fill it in in your own good time, and there is no record of identity". It will be very much harder for someone to go to your doorstep and say, "I have to take away your postal vote. By the way, I also need you to sign this piece of paper that confirms you are the person to whom the postal vote was sent; that I know who you are and that you have filled it in yourself. The declaration of identity is essential for us to agree with this principle of all-postal pilot experiments. Without it, we would not have sufficient confidence, even for the North East and for the East Midlands to go ahead with the experiments.

I also think that the receipt is a very helpful device in that it states that the person received his postal vote and that it has been sent back. It gives the person some assurance about how the process works, which he would not otherwise have, compared to when he goes to a polling station and physically puts the vote in the box. It means that if someone does not receive a postal vote—perhaps it has been collected by someone else or he lives in a multi-occupational property and someone has collected in all 10 postal votes or someone else has taken it—and he receives the receipt from the returning officer to say that his postal vote has been taken and accounted for, he will know that there has been an element of fraud.

One of the problems that we have had with all-postal voting pilots is that we have not really been able to find out what evidence of fraud there may be. Many people will never know that their postal votes have been stolen. I think the receipt will be helpful in determining the scale of the problem and is necessary in the two pilots, which I hope we will have before consideration is given to rolling the matter out any further. I beg to move.

5 p.m.

Lord Greaves moved, as an Amendment to No. 7, Amendment No. 8: Line 7, at end insert—

  1. "(c) the envelopes containing ballot papers and declarations of identity shall be opened on each working day between the day of issue of the ballot papers and the day appointed for the poll (or, where more than one day has been appointed, the last of such days);
  2. (d) each candidate and each agent may attend the opening of the envelopes containing postal votes and may appoint agents to attend on their behalf;
  3. (e) the returning officer shall issue on each working day between the day of issue of the ballot papers and the day appointed for the poll (or, where more than one day has been appointed, the last of such days) a marked register indicating which votes have been returned;
  4. (f) each candidates and each agent may during normal working hours between the day of issue of the ballot papers and the day appointed for the poll (or, where more than one day has been appointed, the last of such days) inspect the declarations of identity that have been returned and may appoint agents to do so on their behalf;
  5. (g) as soon as practicable following the declaration of the result, the returning officer shall issue a marked register of ballot papers that have been returned and counted;
  6. (h) any person may inspect the declarations of identity during a period of six months following the declaration of the result."

The noble Lord said: I strongly support both points put forward in my noble friend's amendment, particularly the requirement for a witness with his address; in other words, an identifiable person on the declaration of identity. Without that, the declaration of identity is worthless. I speak from some experience. At the local elections in Pendle two years ago in May 2002, there was a great deal of argument about postal votes. Before I say anything about this matter, let me say that I have no wish whatever to hide behind parliamentary privilege in anything I am going to say either now or later on. Anything I say in Committee I have said in public and in some cases I have published in leaflets.

The only way we could really get to grips with what had happened was to go into the town hall after the election and inspect the declarations of identity. Those declarations of identity meant that we could prove— to our own satisfaction anyway—that elections in four wards had been substantially rigged and that in three of those wards at least six candidates had been elected who would not have been if these practices had not taken place. Those candidates all happened to be Labour candidates and the candidates who would have been elected in their place were Conservatives and three or four Liberal Democrats. I do not make any political points at all; I merely say what happened.

I shall explain exactly what happened when I move a later amendment which seeks to prevent what happened in Pendle from happening again. We were able to get key information from the declarations of identity and the presence of the names and addresses of witnesses. That led us on to further investigations. We were able to discover that, in three wards in Nelson, Councillor Iqbal—who was a candidate in this all-out election—witnessed 146 declarations, Councillor Azhar Ali witnessed 141 and Councillor Nasim witnessed 59 in his own ward. Those three people had witnessed no fewer than 200 declarations of identity in those wards. It is no secret locally that we believe—and we have stated publicly—that many of those votes were never seen by the people in whose names they were issued and, in many cases, the signatures of the voters were forged on the declarations of identity.

One may say, "Well, why has all this not been investigated by the police?". I asked that question. I personally made more than 100 individual complaints about votes that we believed had been misused in this way. Unfortunately, it appears that the police found it impossible to make adequate investigations for whatever reasons. One excuse given was that there was a murder in Rochdale and that that was more important. It is very important indeed if people want to be able to get to the bottom of postal votes being misused, that there is a declaration and a witness— someone who can be followed up and interviewed and asked about the matter.

Having said that, the additional amendments that I have put forward are probing amendments. I am not sure that I actually agree with all the proposals set down, but they are all things that have happened in some of the pilots which have taken place so far. They are absolutely crucial in the running of pilots, so far as the openness of the procedure and the information people will have during the process.

Some of the pilots that have taken place have done what is asked for in Amendment No. 7 and some have not. The reason for putting them down is to probe the Government's thinking on the basis of experience. Paragraph (c) deals with whether postal votes will be opened progressively day-by-day as the election goes on or whether they will be kept together and opened at the end, as would normally happen.

Paragraph (d) deals with whether candidates and their agents will be able to witness the opening of those votes and what they will witness. Paragraph (e) is whether a marked register will be produced on a day-to-day basis during the campaign. That has happened in some of the elections; for example, it occurred in the Blackpool pilot. The political parties knew exactly who had voted at each stage of the campaign, and, indeed, because they were able to watch the envelopes being opened, they also knew who was winning each ward and on which marginal wards they then had to concentrate. There are major questions on whether that is a desirable practice in postal voting. It is a matter on which I should like to hear the Minister's views.

Paragraph (f) deals with whether we can inspect the declarations, hopefully with a witness, and join the election campaign itself. Therefore, if there are allegations—I have to say that if this goes ahead in our part of the world, it will be "when"—of malpractice during the campaign, will it be possible for people to check them while the trail is still hot? One of the reasons the police find it very difficult to investigate election offences of this kind is that the trail very often has gone cold by the time they get around to it six or nine months later. People have actually forgotten what has happened because voting for them is not a tremendously important event that is stamped on their memory forever. So, will we be able to inspect the declarations? I say, "we", as someone who will be involved in these elections. Will people, candidates and their agents, be able to inspect?

Paragraph (g) deals with whether there will be a final marked register on who has returned postal votes. There is no such register in current postal vote legislation. One knows who has been issued a ballot paper in the polling stations because there is a marked register of that. All one gets on a marked register is who has been sent a postal vote, not when the postal vote was returned—although one can find that out by inspecting very labouriously these declarations of identity and compiling one's own marked register, which in our case for these four wards took us two days. So it is a laborious process.

Finally—paragraph (h)—will we continue to be able to inspect the declarations of identity in the six months, or whatever period it might be, following the declaration of the result, in terms of the probity, the openness and helping politicians involved locally to try and clamp down on fraud by the other side? I hope that it is a mutual process. It is important that we know what the Government think on these matters. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham

We support these sensible amendments put forward by the Liberal Democrats, which attempt to bring two key security and anti-fraud measures onto the face of the Bill. We fully agree that the removal of the counter-witness signature is a serious measure, the implications of which are all the more damaging because they may be almost impossible to quantify, as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.

How does one go about checking up on whether the person who has completed and returned the postal ballot was actually the person to whom the ballot was sent? Perhaps the Minister could let us know what checks are intended to be put in place to deal with that matter.

We already know that senior police officers have raised concerns over greater use of postal voting leading to vote rigging. In The Times on 19 April 2003, a detective chief inspector of the West Midlands fraud squad remarked that, the current election system is based on trust and that trust is being eroded. That is why some form of identity is needed from voters, both at polling stations and for those who vote by post. The new postal voting system provides an opportunity for malpractice. The Bill proposes increased powers of arrest for personation, but that is not sufficient in itself. We are concerned about the removal of the counter-signature of a witness from postal ballots in many previous pilot schemes. The Electoral Commission supports this removal. I recognise that. Yet, we still believe that it could encourage fraud, especially in areas with a large number of houses in multiple occupation. Although it is not a foolproof method of ensuring the identity of the person completing the ballot paper, it is an extra safeguard that would increase confidence. A counter-signature requirement remains the norm for postal voting at normal elections. We see no reason why it should not be included for all-postal pilot schemes. We have included this provision in our new clause about the administration of elections, which we will discuss later.

In terms of a form of receipt, I believe, again, that that is a matter of confidence. I am sure all of us feel some anxiety when we commit any envelope of importance to the post box. It is not unknown for post to be lost in transit. I am told that an average of 1,500 items of mail are lost every week across every parliamentary constituency. I think that must be by day.

We fully support the inclusion in this amendment of a duty for a receipt to be provided. It will increase voter confidence and will also be an additional safeguard for everyone wanting to exercise his right to vote. We believe that it would justify the extra burden in terms of administration and cost which the provision of a receipt would necessitate.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Filkin

I rise to respond to these five amendments. I was deeply shocked to hear the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, say that he was not necessarily 100 per cent committed to one of the amendments to which he was speaking. Such a position has never been held by any government Minister, as I am sure noble Lords are aware.

I turn first to Amendment No. 7, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Goodhart, and Amendment No. 8, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. At present, it is our intention to mandate within the pilot order that in order for a ballot paper to be considered valid it must be returned with a security statement signed by the elector.

We do not intend to, as these amendments suggest we should, additionally require electors to obtain the signature of a witness. I shall explain why, as I sought to do in part in the letter I wrote. Following the Electoral Commission's advice we have essentially taken our lead on this issue. The commission has evaluated all electoral pilots since 2002, both those which featured a security statement, such as we intend to use, and those that used the model as set out in the amendment. Through that process the commission reached the clear conclusion that a security statement, requiring the elector's signature but not that of a witness, is the best model.

The Electoral Commission in its report The Shape of Elections to Come made the following points about the system proposed in the amendments: first, it stated that it, discourages some electors from voting as it can be inconvenient to find a witness, or there is a perception that the witness will see their vote. Secondly, that although, the declaration of identity is intended to act as a safeguard against fraud, the very fact that another person has to be involved in the voting process creates the potential for a breach of securify". My final point on the issue is that I do not see that the declaration of identity model would be a more effective bar against fraud than that which we propose. It must surely be the case that if someone were prepared to risk the consequences of forging an elector's signature on a security statement, little would hold him back from also forging the signature of a witness on a declaration of identity. It would be perfectly possible and likely that such a person would seek to forge both.

Therefore, while I fully accept the laudable intentions of these amendments, I do not think that they are necessarily the best way to address the issues that lie behind them.

On Amendment No. 7, voters must be sent acknowledgements. That would require returning officers to send an acknowledgement to every voter stating that his vote had been received.

Acknowledgements are not sent out for postal votes under traditional arrangements. For an all-postal vote it would be extremely costly and burdensome to provide. We cannot see a sufficient reason for doing so. I recognise that a system of acknowledgements might help to cut fraud in that the receipt of one might raise the alarm for someone whose vote had been used without his permission, although it would not necessarily address all the issues spoken about by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for reasons that are self-evident.

However, we would argue that a more sensible approach is to ensure that postal ballots are delivered correctly to electors initially—avoiding the likelihood of this situation occurring. We shall come to that issue in later amendments today or later on in our process.

Additionally, local authorities will have a record of ballots received and electors may be able to contact the electoral administrators to get confirmation of receipt. So it is possible for them to check. We will discuss that issue with administrators in order to identify the practicalities of it, as I think the Committee would wish.

Amendment No. 8 deals with the marked register arrangements. The amendment, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, would make provisions to require that envelopes containing returned ballot papers are opened each day during the course of the poll, and that candidates and party agents can attend these opening sessions and inspect the declarations of identity for the ballot papers—both during and after the period—and that a marked register should be produced daily with a final one as soon as possible after the end of the election.

While again we appreciate that these amendments seek to provide some detail around the process of opening and checking of envelopes containing postal ballot papers, they unfortunately impose a number of restrictions upon the administrators. Some could result in outcomes that would not be helpful to those they seek to benefit.

We fully support the view that candidates and agents should be able to observe the opening and processing of the returned ballots, but do not want to be prescriptive by mandating a daily opening. That would limit the flexibility for electoral administrators to make the best use of their resources for opening and verifying the ballot papers.

We will make provision in the pilot order for the attendance of the candidates and political party agents and other authorised observers, such as Electoral Commission officials, but we take the view that the RRO's and LROs are best placed to decide when and how to undertake the opening process, ensuring secrecy provisions are given the utmost priority when they do so.

Some administrators may wish to open the returned ballot envelopes daily, but others may prefer to do it every second day to take account of resources and planning for activities. That will need to fit in with other requirements they have to meet—such as providing polling progress information—but within those requirements provide flexibility for them to manage it to best effect.

Polling progress information will need to be provided within the parameters of what is wanted by the parties and candidates and what it is possible for administrators to supply. Officials in my department have spoken with representatives of the major political parties and there is a variety of timings at which the parties would like to receive the information. One party representative said that his party workers would not wish, in general, to have the information daily as they would not have the resources to process it on a daily basis. What is wanted within a party may also vary from area to area, depending upon the party's resources.

There is a variety of ways in which the information can be provided both electronically and on paper. Again, this is something we should allow flexibility on to meet the needs and capabilities of parties and administrators. The Bill is specifically drafted to achieve this by using the term "polling progress information".

To mandate the provision of a "marked register", which most people interpret as a copy of the full register marked to show who has and who has not returned a ballot paper, could result in a serious waste of resources, producing something that cannot be effectively utilised. Again, some party representatives specifically said that they would not want the information in that form.

Therefore, we suggest that it is sensible to leave the detail of these matters to the pilot orders to make provisions that give guidance around regularity and format rather than mandating something that could be, in some areas, both onerous to produce on a daily basis and unwanted by the recipients.

Baroness Hanham

We are deeply into administration now, but we do not seem to be too worried about the voters. If a marked register is not produced—if not on a daily basis on an every other day basis—the voters will be knocked up, called, telephoned, doorstepped or garden-stepped by campaigners who do not know that they have voted. The huge difference that will take place in these all-postal elections, particularly with something as important as the European elections, is that campaigning will be prescribed to a limited amount of time. People are going to vote willy-nilly all the way through, from the moment they receive their polling card or vote until the actual day of the election. There will be a great many upset people if there is no indication that people will not worry them again.

Lord Filkin

That is an interesting point. I think it was adverted to in one of the national papers about the end of a quiet Sunday afternoon, or something to that effect.

Baroness Hanham

I thought it up myself.

Lord Filkin

I was not meaning other than it is an interesting point. I shall reflect on it. In essence, I think that we have to strike a balance between centrally prescribing exactly what must be done and leaving a discretion at local level for people to make a register on a daily basis, if they wish to do so, but not feeling that they have to do it on that basis, either because parties do not want it or because the practicalities make it difficult. Nevertheless, if there is anything further I can reflect on that will be even more persuasive, I shall seek to do so between now and Report.

In essence, we think it is sensible to leave the detail of these matters to the pilot order. We envisage there being fully marked registers produced following the elections and made available for inspection on the same basis that they are made available in traditional elections. It is intended to provide for this in the pilot order and we believe that it would be unnecessary detail on the face of the Bill.

The proposed amendment to allow candidates and agents to view the signed declaration of identity during the course of the poll does not take into account that we propose to use security statements for these elections in line with the Electoral Commission's recommendations.

In any event, it is the returning officer's duty to ensure that any concerns about fraud are dealt with. Specific provisions will be made within the pilot order to allow electoral administrators to check signatures and to ascertain whether a ballot was completed by the elector to whom it was allocated.

We believe that adding a further burden for electoral administrators to make the security statements received at any stage available for inspection would further impact on their ability to manage resources and to plan.

Following the election, the security statements have to be sealed up, provided to and retained by specified officers or offices, depending on which election they pertain to—for example, in local government elections by the proper officer of the authority to which councillors are to be elected. Existing rules govern the inspection of such documents and we do not seek to amend those for the purposes of these pilots.

Amendment No. 65 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, would remove a specific reference to how the votes cast at the election are to be counted. In the present draft of the Bill we believe this needs to be retained in order that we have—

Lord Greaves

Perhaps I may help the Minister. Amendment No. 65 appears in the grouping by mistake. It is actually on its own down in the groupings list.

Lord Filkin

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for saving his and my time on that issue. We will no doubt come to that amendment later.

Amendment No. 29 deals with reasons that must be given for redirected postal votes. I do not want to incite premature optimism on this—

Lord Rennard

I believe that the Minister is working from a previously issued groupings list. There have been a number of points this afternoon where we have gone on to amendments that have not been dealt with. Amendment No. 29 is further down the list. On my groupings list we are merely dealing with Amendments Nos. 7 and 8.

Lord Filkin

I apologise to the Committee. I will seek to get an amended running order so that I do not go over matters prematurely.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, spoke about how we will find evidence of fraud. I shall repeat what I said at an earlier stage of our proceedings. I think that that is a good point. We cannot just rely on complaints as an identifier of fraud. We must go further. I take that issue seriously. No doubt we shall find a subsequent opportunity for doing so.

In response to one of the points about fraud made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the Electoral Commission is looking to set up a call centre for electoral matters, possibly in March. We are discussing how this should be used for people to report instances of fraud, coercion and so on, thereby providing another strand of reporting and potential investigation.

The checking of signatures by local authority officials is not as implausible as it may sound. I am advised that in the May 2003 local elections in Newcastle, the authorities scanned in voter registration signatures, held on about 50,000 signatures. They checked more than 1,000 signatures on returned ballot papers' declarations. They found no fraud. So there is evidence that a local authority has already begun to identify ways to try to validate declaration signatures. We will be watching such experimentation with interest to see what can be learned from it.

I have not, I fear, spoken to every point made on the group of amendments. But I hope that I have put on record the Government's position on the matters, at least for now.

Lord Greaves

I thank the Minister for much of that information. I accept that many of the details have to be in regulations, not on the Bill. I actually wanted to know the principles behind how the Government intent to implement it. There are two points that I am not sure the Minister has answered clearly—if he has, it did not get through to me.

First, is he saying that—regardless of whether it is on a daily basis—as the ballot paper envelopes come in, in whatever format, they will be opened progressively and continuously during the fortnight or whatever period there is between the date they are sent out and 10 June? Is he saying that they will not all be kept to the end, or will that be left to local discretion?

Secondly, did the Minister say that in principle—at whatever intervals and in whatever ways—a list of who has already sent back a ballot paper or a list of the ballot papers that have already been received by the authority will be available for inspection? Will political parties get a list of everyone, so they will know who not to chase—if that is thought to be a good thing—and individuals can ring up and say, "Has my ballot paper come back yet?" Will that information be available—again progressively and continuously— during the campaign? I have two more points to make, but I want to have an answer to those two first.

Lord Filkin

On the noble Lord's second point, it is clearly our intent, for reasons we discussed at Second Reading, that the local authority throughout the period will give the political parties, in an appropriate and useful form, information about who has voted and who has not, to allow for canvassing to be focussed, as we discussed. So, the answer to the noble Lord's second point is yes.

On the first point about the process of receiving the returned ballot papers, it partly depends on which envelope system is used. Essentially, in many cases they will be reading the identifier on the envelope and identifying who therefore has voted to date, but not opening the envelope. In other cases, where the return shows for whom one is voting on one side but the identity of the voter is on the other, they will just be looking at them with the voting record face downwards. So they will simply be able to record who has voted to date, without inspecting how they voted.

Lord Greaves

I hope the Minister is not saying that it would be possible to identify who has voted from information on the back of the ballot paper, other than by the number—which of course is not an immediate identifier, one has to cross-check it against a list of ballot papers issued. I assume that that was a slip.

Lord Filkin

The noble Lord is quite correct. One obtains the number that allows the administrators to identify the elector, but not directly from the form. I think it would be best for me to send a nice clear letter to the noble Lord on the issue.

Lord Greaves

Perhaps I can help the Minister. I would hope that the information about to whom the ballot paper belonged comes from the identity slip, not from anything on the piece of paper that is the ballot paper.

Lord Filkin

That is absolutely correct.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Greaves

I thought that that was another matter on which I should have a go at the Minister, but it seems that it is all right.

The Minister said that signatures would be checked. Perhaps, as the Committee progresses or via some other means, he can tell us how that will happen. As the Electoral Commission pointed out, the problem is that, if individual registration does not take place, we shall not have individual signatures against which the ballot papers can be checked. The only signatures that we shall have are those of the people who, during the annual canvass, are likely to fill in the household form showing who is entitled to be registered as an elector. In many households, the person who fills in the form will be precisely the one who intimidates everyone else and perhaps conspires to fix the information. I do not think that is very satisfactory. It will be only a small and very skewed sample. The signatures that we should check are those of people such as students who are away and old people who might not otherwise get round to voting. Clearly that will not happen. Therefore, we want more information on that.

The Minister said that after the election the declarations of identity—the "security statements" seems to be the new jargon—are sealed up and placed in envelopes along with the rest of the material. However, unlike some material, such as ballot papers, at present they are accessible for six months to anyone who wants to inspect them. Will that accessibility continue? Clearly that must be established.

Finally, the Minister said that it is the duty of returning officers to ensure that any fraud is dealt with. However, the constant refrain of returning officers I have dealt with is that they have no means of dealing with fraud. If they believe that something untoward has taken place, they can only refer it to the local police. Quite frankly, when it comes to electoral matters, the local police very often do not have a clue. At present, in many cases, returning officers simply do not have the powers to ensure that fraud is dealt with. If the Minister is to put such powers in his regulations, I shall be very interested to see what those regulations say. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 8, as an amendment to Amendment No. 7, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Rennard

I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 7.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 9:

Page 2, line 10, at end insert— ( ) Any pilot order made under this section must comply with section (Administration of postal voting).

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 9, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 24, to which the substance of what I shall say relates. I apologise for the fact that what I have to say will take rather a long time—almost as long as the Minister took in his reply. However, the issues raised are all very relevant and, again, they cover the points concerning administration.

Ultimately, the way in which the system is administered will affect, first, how voters view postal voting and, secondly, how the reputation of postal voting stacks up. Therefore, it seems to me that it is extremely important that we get this matter right. I hope that Members of the Committee will forgive me if I am a little long-winded in speaking on this issue but I believe that all the amendments that we have tabled are relevant. Subsection (4) will cover the question raised in relation to the previous amendment concerning the counter-signature and the marked register. Therefore, I shall skip over that issue somewhat because I believe that most of it has been said.

It may be helpful if I explain briefly our thinking behind the proposed new clause in Amendment No. 24 on the administration of elections. When I looked through the Second Reading debate, I was struck by the fact that the majority of concerns voiced from all over the House focused on the practical details of the elections, specifically—we have heard much about this today—on the issues of fraud, security and accessibility. The latter was not mentioned so much but we are raising it now. All those matters are currently absent from the face of the Bill.

The Explanatory Notes state that an order made under Clause 1 would, set out the region or regions in which piloting is to occur and, in broad terms, the manner in which the election is to be conducted in each region".

Presumably, then, there will be something along the lines of: There will be an all-postal ballot in East Midlands".

Clause 2 provides for a, supplementary order to implement and give effect to any order under clause I above. This order would contain the details of the manner in which the elections may differ from the way in which they would normally be run".

I take that to mean the practical details for the local authority and, in particular, for the returning officer about the administration of the election.

I have serious concerns about leaving those details off the face of the Bill. Orders under Clause 1 are allowed some degree of scrutiny—that is, they will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. However, orders under Clause 2 are not only absent from the face of the Bill; as I understand it, they will not even be subject to any parliamentary scrutiny. Therefore, we have no idea what the regulations will look like.

We have tabled these two amendments to try to remedy that position. It would advance the confidence of the Committee in the merit of pilot all-postal voting if some guarantees were on the face of the Bill regarding the issues covered by our new clause. They are specifically: the provision of information to electors about the voting process—in particular, the provision of accessible information to the elderly and disabled and information which will make people aware that they can return their vote by post or in person at a polling station or however it is to be identified; the provision of a ballot box at a polling station in every ward on the main polling day with facilities to ensure that the disabled can vote independently and in secret, if that is where they wish to do it; a compulsory counter-signature requirement—we have discussed this and so I shall touch only briefly on the fact that it is there as part of our amendment—for all postal votes returned by post or, if delivered in person, a registration process to mark receipt; the need for a different person to mark off receipt of postal votes and to check counter-signatures from anyone else who will open and process the sealed envelope; and special provisions for houses in multiple occupation or anywhere where more than one family lives.

I appreciate that the proposed new clause is not the most elegantly drafted amendment. However, I also realise that it raises five or more key issues about the practical running of a pilot scheme which merit individual debate in themselves. However, this is Grand Committee stage, where we cannot vote on amendments. Therefore, I felt that it might be more productive if we had a general debate on these issues of administration rather than individual debates on separate amendments.

However, perhaps I may deal, first, with the important issue of the provision of information. This is perhaps the most central issue in any democratic election, especially when we find ourselves in a situation, as we currently do, where a worrying downfall in voter participation has taken place, particularly in local and European elections. The Electoral Commission is aware of the dangers of misinformation. In commenting on the individual regions, its report states that the North East is, well suited to a discrete information campaign", whereas, in comparison, electors in the eastern region are mostly accustomed to conventional voting methods and would be hard to reach through local media".

It is clear that the information campaign is therefore a vital part of the pilot scheme and we need to be sure that the message gets across to the electors as efficiently as possible.

On Second Reading here and throughout proceedings in the other place, many questions were asked about whether voters would still be able to post their postal ballot forms in a box at a polling station in person or whether they would be able to vote only by returning the form by post. Currently, the details of how the elections will work in practical terms are completely unclear. The problem with trialing a pilot scheme is that the voters themselves may be similarly confused.

Our amendment would ensure that there was a concerted effort to explain to voters how the election would work in practice and what alternative methods would be available for registering one's vote. If that does not happen, some members of society—perhaps, in particular, the elderly or the disabled—may become confused about the new system and they may not vote at all.

Voting in combined elections is confusing ai the best of times, but the situation is far more bewildering when the method of voting is being changed. Therefore, can the Minister give some details about the steps that will be taken to make every voter aware of the alternative procedure which will be trialled? This is an important matter and we believe that it warrants inclusion on the face of the Bill. I recognise that the Minister may not be able to answer that point today. If he cannot do so and a letter is required, I shall be grateful if Members of the Committee can be sent copies of it.

The second point on which I want to focus is accessibility. The Minister has assured us that electors will have the opportunity to place their vote in a ballot box at a polling station, or whatever it is called. I am using the words "polling station" as a shorthand. This is only of limited comfort, however, as it comes with the proviso that: It is likely that we shall require at least one staffed delivery point to be provided in each principal local authority area, and that in each area at least one of these points will remain open until the close of poll".—[Official Report, 8/1/04; col. 302.]

I do not believe that that is satisfactory. Does it mean that there will be one staffed delivery point in each ward? If it does, that will be satisfactory. Will it be in the location where the polling station is usually situated? Will facilities be available to fill out the postal form in secrecy? On what days will such a place be open—on the main polling day or on other days also? What security will be in place at these staffed delivery points and what information will be available? What facilities will there be to assist those who have disabilities when they come to fill out their form? How will the voters be registered and what identification, if any, will be necessary because there will be no polling cards?

We on these Benches are adamant that there should be a staffed delivery point in each ward, and our amendment would guarantee that. It does not state in "each local authority area", as it would be extremely difficult if there were only one for many people to access. A delivery point in each local ward by the local authority would act as a measure of last resort. Moreover, in the event of industrial action it would also reassure voters who did not trust the postal service, thus increasing turnout. Very large rural areas may need to have more than one delivery point per ward. Greater clarification for voters of their opening times would also be essential.

Our third point follows on from here and was debated substantially when we addressed the Liberal Democrat amendment. We are also certain that there should be a counter-signature for all ballots returned by post. We have discussed that point and I do not propose to say anything more about it because I have already supported that amendment.

In the case of voter confidentiality, it is important to maintain the traditional secrecy of the ballot, although we would not go so far as some and argue that home voting is incompatible with the ECHR's requirements for a secret ballot. Concerns have been raised that voter secrecy in all-postal pilots will be compromised. In some past pilot schemes, the declaration of identity was even attached to the ballot paper and detached only at the count. We believe it would be better to retain the traditional method of placing the ballot paper in a sealed envelope, separate from the declaration of identity. It would help to reassure voters that their ballot would remain confidential during the delivery, handling and counting processes. Our amendment would ensure that that was the case and would also ensure that the personnel who handled the two were kept separate.

The final component of our new clause would make special provision for the delivery of postal votes to houses in multiple occupancy. On Second Reading, many noble Lords commented on the problems which houses in multiple occupancy present. This is, perhaps, a problem without an obvious solution. However, I feel that if we are moving to a system in which elections will be all-postal, we need to try to find at least some additional safeguard to deal with multiple occupancies. It is not only houses that we recognise under the Housing Act, but also student hostels and other places of multiple occupancy.

The Bill attempts to try out new, innovative ways of approaching voting. Why do we not try to include some additional provision to ensure that ballot papers delivered to multiple occupancy households are delivered only to those in current occupation? I appreciate that part of the problem lies with those whose responsibility it is to keep an up-to-date electoral register and also with those, such as students, who move house and fail to register themselves at their new address.

Perhaps this should also partly be an information campaign, which might run in tandem with the new provisions for hand-delivered ballots for houses of multiple occupancy. I note from the Minister's letter that that is, indeed, being considered. I presume that the Minister will answer by telling me that some of these provisions would be time-consuming. However, I believe that it is worth airing the subject because it is a real problem. Unless anyone has a better idea, I see no difficulty in attempting to include a provision to redress the abuse. It is better to do that than try nothing.

I shall briefly conclude. My new clause is based on the principle that some of the details of how the elections will be administered must be put on the face of the Bill; otherwise, we shall have no idea about the practicalities of what we are debating. I hope that the Minister will be able to allay some of my fears about potential problems and that he will offer some guarantee of the type which my amendments seek to put on the face of the Bill. I beg to move.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Greaves

I rise to speak to my Amendments Nos. 25, 26 and 27, which are amendments to Amendment No. 24 tabled by the noble Baroness. In doing so, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, on putting forward the extremely important issues set out in Amendment No. 24. It may be helpful to the Committee if I speak also to Amendment No. 10, which effectively covers the same ground as that dealt with in Amendment No. 26. That will avoid my having to speak to that amendment again when we reach the next grouping, and the next group can then be withdrawn.

Three issues are involved here. Amendment No. 25 addresses what I consider to be a great misconception among many people. Judging by government press releases, I believe it to be a misconception of the Government and perhaps even of the Electoral Commission that secrecy relating to the ballot is a voluntary matter and that, if people wish their votes not to be secret, that is up to them. However, that is not the case. Under existing legislation, ever since the famous Ballot Act 1872, the secrecy of the ballot has not been a voluntary matter; it has been compulsory.

In effect, the Ballot Act was based on three principles. The first, which had been a principle long before the introduction of the secret ballot, was that, if one had a vote and wished to cast it, one would do so in person; in other words, the person exercising the vote was the person to whom the ballot paper was issued. That principle existed in the old days before the introduction of the Ballot Act and it was carried through into the new legislation. That is why, for example, impersonation is an offence.

The second principle, introduced by the Ballot Act, revolutionised democracy in this country. It did away with a huge amount of graft, corruption and bribery at one fell swoop. The second principle is that the vote is cast in secret. That is why we have those funny little rickety polling booths, which Nick Raynsford considers to be traditional and a little out of date. However, it is a vital principle that the vote is cast in secret. That means that people have an opportunity to vote without anyone else knowing how they have voted.

The third principle is that that secrecy is compulsory. Unless it is compulsory, one cannot prevent people responding to offers of bribery and showing other people how they have voted. The fact that people are not allowed to show others how they vote means that they cannot be bribed, although they can say that they have voted for whatever person. If the Minister wanted to try to bribe me to vote in a particular way—not that he ever would and not that I would accept it—I could give him all the blarney in the world and tell him that that is how I voted. But I cannot prove it, and it is the fact that the voter cannot prove how he or she voted that guarantees against bribery and that kind of graft. It is generally believed that secrecy is voluntary. It is not voluntary and it should not be, even if one is casting a postal vote.

I remember that I received a ballot paper for the last European elections and, by accident, I voted for the wrong party. There were several columns and one had to place one's cross somewhere in a box at the top. For various historic reasons, purely by accident, I voted for someone in the Liberal Party. My daughter saw me do that and, in allowing her to see me do it, I broke the law. There should have been something on the ballot paper to say that I was breaking the law. I was fortuitous in that case because I crossed out my mark, voted for the correct party and helped Chris Davies to become elected. However, when people have postal ballot papers, it is easy for the papers to be passed and shown around. They should carry a statement saying that one is not allowed to do that. You must not let anyone else see how you vote, even if you want to do so.

My second intention in the amendment—a point also covered by Amendment No. 10—is to probe what the Government mean by "staffed delivery points". I am not sure that I am entirely enamoured of the initials that that phrase will provide when the Government start to talk about "SDPs". I am not sure whether or not that is a good omen. Perhaps I should not go into that with my noble friend Lord Goodhart sitting beside me. However, I merely want to find out the difference between a staffed delivery point, where a council official will no doubt assist people and ensure that no funny business takes place, and a polling station. I do not understand the difference, and it will help us later if the Minister can explain that clearly.

Finally, in my Amendment No. 27, I merely take up the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham—that is, that Section 345 of the Housing Act does not relate only to homes in multiple occupation; it covers a whole range of establishments where many people live in bedsits or rooms, or perhaps communally in common lodging houses, if they ever manage to become registered to vote. There are all kinds of institutions, and the question is: even if someone delivers the ballot papers by hand, what difference will that make? What will people do with them when they get there? Are they to interview the people there to ensure that the ballot papers are handed over to the correct individuals? That would no doubt deprive of a vote many people who returned just before polling day because they would not have a ballot paper. I do not consider it at all easy to solve the problems that can arise in such places, and I believe that the Government will have to think very hard about exactly how they will deal with them.

Clearly, the electors in such establishments must not be disadvantaged and the process must not be made more difficult for them than for everyone else. But, equally, if piles of ballot papers are left lying around on tables in hallways or in people's pigeon holes, or wherever, that will allow unscrupulous people to hoover up votes. If no more than a signature is required—those people will never have signed a registration form for the council—it will be impossible to police and impossible to prevent such abuse.

Lord Filkin

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, was true to her word when she threatened to speak fully on this amendment. She did so, and I look forward to scrutinising all that she said because I do not guarantee to have caught every single one of her interesting points. However, I hope that we shall cover at least some of them.

I shall speak, first, to Amendments Nos. 24 and 27, which concern houses in multiple occupation. These amendments seek to address the issue of delivering postal votes to houses in multiple occupation. Amendment No. 27, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is an amendment to Amendment No. 24, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee.

Subsection (6) of Amendment No. 24 would require all postal votes for electors in houses in multiple occupation to be hand delivered. Although we understand the concern surrounding HMOs, we do not feel that it is appropriate to be prescriptive in that way. There are a whole variety of circumstances in which a house can be in multiple occupation, some of which might be a cause for potential risk and some of which might not be. I would need to check my exact recollection of the definition of a house in multiple occupation, but I believe that a fair amount of Pimlico and Belgravia would meet that test and would nevertheless have some stability of its occupants.

However, the central point is that regional and local registration officers should have discretion as to how they address the issue. I want to ensure that we clearly mark for them the importance of recognising the potential for a higher level of risk in some houses in multiple occupation, and that they therefore give the issue very serious consideration as part of their preparation for all-postal ballots of this form.

Moreover, the Electoral Commission is currently working on guidance on this issue. The Royal Mail is to talk to local returning officers to identify ways and means of addressing the special circumstances in their local areas. One option might be to deliver ballot papers to students at universities via a specified person or office. If that were done, it might avoid them being open to misuse in an unsecured pigeonhole mail system. However, we believe that that should be dealt with at local level because circumstances will vary locally. There is a limit to how much can be sensibly done by central direction in those circumstances.

While not wanting to regulate or specify the means, it is important that the Government give a clear signal on what ends we believe are to be achieved. Therefore, between now and Report stage, I shall consider what the Government should say further, either in the progress of the Bill or in the more detailed order, on which I have already signalled we shall consult and share some of our policy thinking. In that way, we can give the strongest possible signals to regional and local returning officers in that respect.

Amendments Nos. 24 and 26 relate to supported delivery points. Amendment No. 24 would provide that a polling station was made available at every local authority ward, was accessible to those with disabilities, and that those who voted in such a place were excluded from the declaration of identity element of the amendment that I have already discussed.

Amendment No. 26 would provide that polling stations were provided in every place where they are provided in a conventional election—but this is an all-postal election, so there will be no polling stations. The thrust of the amendment is essentially to negate the purpose of the pilot experiment. We are seeking to test, albeit in a progressive, measured, researched and evaluated way, how all-postal balloting can take place in wider circumstances than has been done so far in the volunteer local authority pilots. We want to see whether it can be done in a way that still delivers the potential significant increase in turnout that has been generally if not universally identified to date. We also want to see whether it can be done in a secure way, meeting the other objectives that we would wish to see met.

Therefore, to specify as the amendment does that as well as postal ballots there should be local polling effectively takes us back to where we are now, in broad terms. In conventional elections, there is local balloting with the option of postal ballots as well. In that way, we would learn nothing and be back to where we started from. However, there will be supported delivery points that will perform a similar but not an identical function to conventional ballot points.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I outlined our policy in relation to supported delivery points, particularly given the nature of the probing by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in that respect. The current intentions include the following key features. Electoral administrators will be required to provide at least one supported delivery point in each principal local government area. I shall not use the shorthand term, SDP, which is in my notes, as that may cause even more confusion. Electoral administrators may make provision for more than one supported delivery point at their discretion if, for example, the principal local authority area covers a large geographical area with poor transport links. Supported delivery points must provide a space in which electors can complete their ballot papers in secret. It will be possible for electors to receive assistance at a supported delivery point. At least one supported delivery point will be open in each principal local authority area on the day of the poll, until the close of the poll. Such points must provide access for people with disabilities.

Amendment No. 24 suggests that there should be one supported delivery point in each local authority ward. I have already signalled that we believe that that is effectively dual running and would not therefore test what we wish to test—how to carry out an all-postal election on a wider scale than has been done to date. We feel that providing at least one point in each principal local authority area is enough for this purpose, with the proviso that more may be supplied if there are special circumstances, such as a dispersed population or poor transport links.

Our recollection is that the research carried out by the Electoral Commission on the use of such facilities at previous all-postal ballots found a very low use of such facilities. That is not an argument for saying that one should have none of them, but we believe that it is an argument of proportionality which signals that to go to the extent being talked about, to mandate one in every ward, is clearly disproportionate and unnecessary. I have in mind a figure of 3 per cent or so. I am advised that over 2.15 per cent of the electorate voted using delivery points. I was slightly over when I said 3 per cent.

Delivery points do not operate in the same way as polling stations. Amendment No. 24 would exclude voters in a polling station from the requirements of the declaration of identity, on which I have already stated our position. Subsection (4)(b) would require that for votes delivered at a supported delivery point there would be no witness requirement, but an elector would be marked off on the register when he or she went in to cast his or her ballot. This is perhaps based on a misconception. Supported delivery points are not polling stations.

An elector using such a point can either use it to drop off an already completed ballot paper or to fill in a postal vote at the point and then put it into the box. An elector could, if he or she wished, complete a ballot paper inside an SDP and then post it in a Royal Mail post-box. That may happen, for example, where someone is seeking information before completing the ballot paper. All voters will therefore use the same type of postal voting ballot paper, whether voting by post or delivering their ballots to a delivery point. All will therefore need to sign the security statement described earlier in debate.

On Amendments Nos. 24 and 25, on information that must be provided to electors, subsection (1) of Amendment No. 24 would compel local authorities to provide the maximum amount of information to electors on how postal voting works. That must be in a format accessible to the elderly and to those with disabilities. It must also include information as to the fact that voters may vote in a polling station, which I assume refers to a supported delivery point. Again, we believe that we understand the objectives, but we believe that they are over-prescriptive. The key point to make is that we do not wish to be over-prescriptive in that way. While the format of the ballot paper and other key material such as the instructions and security statement are prescribed, we rely on the professionalism and experience of returning officers to be aware of the needs of their local areas and to act accordingly.

The right balance on all those issues is for the Government and, where appropriate, the Electoral Commission to set out the broad principles and objectives, recognising that there are signs of intelligent life in local authorities and in returning officers and to leave them to use their skill and experience according to the varying local circumstances that will pertain. The Electoral Commission recently produced guidance on that issue called Equal access to electoral procedures. We are comfortable that electoral administrators will utilise that guidance and their own experience and local knowledge to good effect. There is a danger in over-prescribing, which could have adverse consequences.

I also make the point that we are piloting all-postal voting as a means of making voting easier and more convenient, and making instructions unclear or inaccessible goes completely against the thrust of what all parties want to do in this process. Therefore, we and the Electoral Commission will be working alongside returning officers in order to make clear and accessible information available. That will include information such as the location and opening times of supported delivery points.

Amendment No. 25, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has the laudable intention of trying to ensure that people are aware that they should vote in secret, as they would in a conventional poll. The Electoral Commission recommended in its report on the 2003 electoral pilots, The Shape of Elections to Come, that secrecy warnings should be included on postal and proxy voting literature. We have accepted that recommendation and propose to mandate it in the pilot form. We believe that this is an important but practical detail, which sits best in the pilot order. I have already given a commitment to consult early on the principles behind the pilot order so that opposition parties can see what we are seeking to do before we go to the next level of really serious detail.

On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, through Amendment No. 25, it is an offence for someone to induce a voter to display his ballot paper after he has marked it. Additionally, people must be made aware that they should vote secretly, hence the secrecy warnings that we shall provide. However, we must be flexible and provide for those who need assistance from a companion or electoral staff. Clearly, that assistance may include another person seeing a voter's completed ballot paper and we would not want to prevent that in circumstances where the voter actively wished that to happen.

On the secrecy of the count, the amendment suggests that it be made the duty of returning officers to ensure that, once the postal vote has been registered and the counter-signature checked, the content of the sealed envelope be processed by another person. The process of verifying that the vote is valid and the counting are separate activities. A security statement is checked against a ballot paper or envelope while the paper is still sealed or it is dealt with face down so that the way the elector has marked the ballot paper cannot be seen. The counting is then undertaken subsequently with those conducting the count not able to identify by whom the ballot paper was completed as, by that stage, the security statement has been detached. During the verification and counting stages, political parties may have people present to observe the processes and to ensure that the integrity of the ballot is maintained.

I have given a long explanation, if not a total one. At least I have set out the broad thrust of the Government's view on the issues. Members of the Committee will have noted that we are concerned to allow electoral administrators to play their part and to use local knowledge. I recognise and commend the wish of the Committee to play its part in ensuring that the Bill is rigorously considered and improved. We need to strike a balance between clearly specifying what should be achieved and not over-specifying or over-regulating the means to achieve it. That should be done for good reasons: respecting varying local circumstances and the expertise that exists in regional returning officers and local returning officers.

6 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

Delivery stations are likely to be much used, particularly as people may not realise until they arrive at polling day that they have to return the ballot paper by post. As the Bill now stands—although there is an amendment dealing with this point— anything posted on polling day will not be counted. So people will need to go to a delivery point to hand over the ballot paper.

The Government propose that there should be one delivery point per local government area. Admittedly there is a power to create more, but it is not very likely that local authorities will incur the expense of doing that. At the moment we are in the local government area of the City of Westminster, which I know is not one of the pilot areas. It stretches from Vauxhall Bridge to Maida Vale. However, it would be impracticable to find a single point in the City of Westminster that would be remotely convenient for a considerable proportion of the population. Perhaps the Government should insist that the number of delivery points provided should be regarded by the local authority as being sufficient in number to enable people to deliver their votes conveniently, rather than simply having a minimum of one.

Lord Filkin

I shall reflect on what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has said and on what has been said to date. Essentially, this is about striking a balance, by which I mean that we seek to pilot and to evaluate all-postal ballots. Therefore, it is obvious that if we provide places, although not conventional polling booths, where one can vote on the same level as we do currently, we would have no basis for evaluating all-postal ballots. The clear intent of the Government is to ensure that there is, for the kind of circumstances that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, instanced, the opportunity for people, if they wish, to go somewhere to deliver the ballot paper in person. That may be because they are late, or they want the security of doing so themselves, or they may want to receive advice from an official.

My broad intent is still to recognise that local authorities are not foolish in that respect. If we articulate that that is the intention, it will be the job of local authorities to reflect that. If, for example, one were in a very large low-density rural area with, for the sake of argument, just two market towns with very poor communications between them, but good ones into them, one would expect the local authority to consider having two delivery points to achieve the objective.

In Government we cannot set down mathematical rules, saying that in such a density of population or in such a geographical area the local authority should proceed in a certain way. Local authorities should consider those issues when deciding whether they have a sufficiency of delivery points for the objectives that we have set out.

Conditioned by what I signalled earlier, we are not doing this with no previous experience. This is not the first time that, as a society, we have piloted postal ballots in a local authority area. We have much experience of that. To date that experience has been that such delivery points have a very low level of usage for the obvious reason that most people know that they can put their ballot paper in a letterbox and in that way send in their vote.

A further point that avoids or reduces the risk mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, with which I agree, is that it is important that there is maximum publicity to the people in an area so that they know that they have until such a date to put their ballot papers in the letterbox and so ensure that their votes count. That is the better way of addressing the issue, so that people know they have to get on with it.

The evidence tends to be that a very high proportion of people vote relatively early when given a postal ballot. It is not as though we are starting from the position in which most people appear to leave it until the last minute. Like many of us, if they have a piece of paper to deal with, they process it. Part of the point is that we have to ensure that publicity makes the matter clear.

The final point that I would make is that people who post their ballot papers on the day before balloting will have every reason to expect that the Royal Mail will do its job and get it there in time. The Royal Mail has given us an assurance that it will have a late sweep of sorting offices to ensure that all such ballot papers are picked up so there will be no risk of inefficiency on its part that will lead to people being disenfranchised as a consequence. As with other noble Lords, I shall read and reflect on what has been said.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Greaves

I apologise for having to leave the Committee briefly. The evidence is that most people vote within two or three days following receipt of the vote and a few postal votes trickle along afterwards. That has a dramatic effect on an election campaign. If postal votes are sent out a fortnight before polling day in the European elections—such elections rely far more on a national campaign than do local elections— is it the Government's intention that aspects of the national campaign, such as party political broadcasts and so on, will be geared to that fact? How can the Minister square that when whole regions will have an all-postal election and effectively will be voting 10 to 14 days before everyone else? How will that relate to national campaigns and tie in with party political broadcasts, propaganda and so on? Have the Government thought about that and, if not, will they?

I was concerned by what the Minister said about Amendment No. 25. He said that the Government would not want to stop anyone showing his or her vote to someone if he or she wanted to do so. If a couple living together receive postal votes, and one is incapacitated but is capable of saying how he or she wants to vote, it would be normal for the wife or the husband to fill in the ballot paper and return it. I think that is strictly illegal but it is not something on which one would want to clamp down. Equally, if someone is disabled he or she may want a close relative or a carer to sort out the vote according to his or her instructions.

Is the Minister really saying that anyone can show his or her ballot paper to anyone else willy-nilly and that that is not something that the Government would want to discourage or to stop? If he is saying that, all the provisions of the Ballot Act relating to fraud will be thrown out of the window.

Lord Filkin

I take the point. Although I did not speak at length, as perhaps I should have done, I specifically sought to imply the situation that the noble Lord mentions, whereby people in exactly those circumstances are clear how they want to vote, but they may have a physical impediment to doing so themselves. They can get a relative or a friend to assist them in that process. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, says, that happens; there are good reasons for why it needs to happen but that does not mean for a second that one is encouraging anything more than that.

Lord Greaves

I would have mentioned this earlier, but I could not put my finger on where it happened— I believe it was in Bradford: it was widely understood that votes in the recent election were being sold at 10 a piece. We need to stop that.

Local returning officers have discretion to do things differently in different places and that sounds fine. If we were talking about a series of local elections, I would agree with that entirely, but the Minister says that local returning officers will have discretion. Will they have discretion within a region? Will people voting within the same region—in Carlisle, Burnley, Chester, or wherever—find that the arrangements for voting differ in those different places? That appears to raise a matter of principle. I understand that the Minister is saying that within the same regional constituency—a big constituency—the situation might be different; say in Yorkshire and in the North West. But if he is saying that the situation might be different within the North West, the potential for having systems that perhaps could benefit one party or one set of candidates as opposed to another would make it easier to vote in places where one party is stronger. That matter should be considered.

Lord Filkin

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for giving way. The last thing we want is anything that leads to a presentational suspicion of the kind of impropriety of which he has spoken. The objective is to seek to be clear in terms of what we believe should be the principles, the policy and the good practice. We have to recognise that within a region, how one gives life to a principle, which is a common principle, may vary in different localities. I struggle with my geography of local authorities, but I can think of some rural shire districts in parts of Yorkshire that perhaps have more sheep than electors. The geographical distances are very different indeed compared with what may be the situation in an urban area.

Because of that difference of social geography, one cannot set sanely from the centre of government a rule saying that there must be X facility in exactly X form in every area. Basically, one has to set the objective and leave the returning officers to consider how best to meet it. The principles should be common throughout a region. We may need to rely on the judgment of the returning officers in different social and geographical areas as to how those principles are given life.

Lord Greaves

I am grateful to the Minister. I can see controversial times ahead.

Baroness Hanham

The more I listen to the Minister, the more I am utterly convinced that the process should be piloted in a limited number of areas, and particularly in regions. We are embarking on an unusual system. As the Minister rightly said, such a system has never been piloted in an area that is bigger than a local authority. I appreciate that some local authorities where pilots have taken place are very large, but the regions are vast. We are not talking about hundreds of thousands of people but about millions of people who will have to be encouraged to follow the system. I think there are 3 million—a substantial figure—in the North West. Many people need to be persuaded that this is a good idea. I am totally reinforced in my view that our earlier amendment was correct.

Of course, rules cannot be over-prescriptive, but I am not sure that anyone is saying that in terms of elections at the moment. The rules are fairly prescriptive as to what one can and cannot do and as to what must and must not be placed where and what information must be available. Because there is to be all-postal voting, I do not believe that the procedure should be treated differently. It seems to me that the rules and regulations for all-postal voting must be as tight as they possibly can be so that there is not too much room for entrepreneurialism among regional electoral officers who may have a flight of fancy about something.

I believe that it is necessary to have somewhere for people to hand in their votes, if they wish to do so. One has only to look at somewhere such as Cumbria and the North West, and at the vast areas that there are within that regional authority—not within the local authority but within the regional authority—to know that one SDP in a local authority area will be insufficient. The distances are too great. We have to accept that that could be a disincentive to some people to vote. Some people do not want to use a postal vote. If they had wanted to use a postal vote, they would have applied for one, and they have been fairly liberal until now.

Such people have to be catered for as well. Some may have a completely rooted objection to committing their vote to the Royal Mail—a view with which I have some sympathy. We have to ensure that those people, if they wish, can go somewhere that will receive their votes and not somewhere that will offer them a Royal Mail box to put it in. They want a place where their votes will be received and marked off as being received and then be placed in a box that will be sealed so that people can see that their votes have gone. The younger generation may be happy and comfortable with all that is proposed, but I believe that many people will not be at all comfortable.

There is much detail in what we have discussed. We probably need to see what the Minister is proposing and where we have difficulties about lack of prescription. I return to one point. The Minister said— I know that he has reassured the Committee but I believe that we have to get the matter out of the equation—that a ballot paper will be checked face down. The signature has either to be attached with the sealed part on top, so that the vote cannot be seen and part of it can be torn off, or it has to be in another envelope. Part of the process cannot be to turn over a ballot paper; no one is supposed to look at it. I am sure there are other ways of dealing with that. I believe that we should make it abundantly clear that that will not be satisfactory; there must be no question that anyone receiving a vote can know what the vote is. The secrecy element is of great importance.

I shall read what the Minister has said. We shall be grateful for discussions in the future if he is proposing that. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 10 not moved.]

Lord Phillips of Sudbury moved Amendment No. 10A:

Page 2, line 14, at end insert "; or ( ) by different methods

The noble Lord said: I cannot resist reflecting on what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said earlier about the particular slowness of the East Anglians. I recollect that in one election I was told that there was a better candidate than me and that was Rab Butler, who had died a good decade earlier. The point of Amendment No. 10A is to give life to the preamble to the Bill which talks about different methods of voting. There is a very restricted sense in which that is true under Clause 2, which talks about the days on which voting can take place and the places where voting can take place. The amendment would allow an experiment to be made of the method of voting; for example, it would bring in STV or a system where the voter had as many votes as there were places available in the region. If there were seven or eight MEPs, the voter would have seven or eight votes. However, the obvious experiment is to utilise an STV system in one of the regions. It is used in Northern Ireland and has been since the beginning of European elections.

I suggest that it would be extremely informative and enlightening to look at turnout in a region where there was an STV system; first, against the turnout in the same region at the previous European elections and, secondly, by comparison with comparable regions at the forthcoming European elections. I do not mean to labour the point, but last time the turnout was catastrophic, less than one in four. The number of voters under the age of 25 is fewer than one in six, not forgetting that over 1 million young voters are not even registered to vote.

The point about running pilots in different methods of voting is that noble Lords may remember that when the original Bill went through the House before the previous European elections, there was a battle royal and the House rejected the method of voting that was ultimately agreed to; namely, closed party lists. It rejected it three times and it was only by using the Parliament Act—I believe for the third time in history—that the present system of voting was adopted. It is a mystery to me why the Government have not made a virtue of trying out an STV or a multi-vote system as part of the pilots, given the massive opposition to the present system.

I suggest to the Minister that the defects in the present system are generally acknowledged. First, the voter is allowed to vote only for a party, unless an independent candidate stands. That is alien to our tradition of voting, as we vote for individuals. Secondly, and more to the point, the present system prevents an elector selecting between the candidates on a party list. It is pre-determined as to how the vote will go if one perseveres with the present system. Thirdly, it prevents voters discriminating to their taste between candidates on different party lists.

Most people would say that that is the least democratic electoral system that has been or could be devised. It places a grotesque power in the hands of the parties in assembling their lists. Even if we adopt the Liberal Democrat system, which, if I may say so, is the most democratic, of giving all party members the opportunity to vote for the candidates to be included on the list and to decide their order, there are still only a few hundred votes cast per region, in which there may be 2 or 3 million voters. In our case, it is often pretty certain that the first person on the Liberal Democrat list will be elected in several regions. The number of people deciding that election are a few hundred: a tiny fraction of 1 per cent of the voters.

I should like to think that no one was interested in persevering with such a profoundly undemocratic system when there are two obvious and infinitely more sensitive and democratic systems available that could be used in a pilot. It was to give the Government a chance to do that under the Bill—there is time for it to be done; we might choose one rural and one metropolitan region—that I tabled the amendment. I commend it to the Committee. I beg to move.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Filkin

I commend the adventurism of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. Not in our wildest reflections had we spotted that the amendment was an attempt to introduce STV.

First, we had an interesting debate on the issue, which I enjoyed reading in Hansard, on the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and I had an exchange on related issues on a Parliamentary Question last week.

The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, will be amazed to hear me say that the Government are not going to introduce STV on a pilot basis through the Bill, for reasons that I am sure he will understand of both principle and practicality. There is enough for returning officers to do without changing the voting system now—were that our intention, which it is not.

We had understood the amendment to mean that the noble Lord wanted it put beyond peradventure that we were proposing postal voting rather than any other form of voting in the pilots. We intend to state the method of voting to be used in the pilots—postal voting—in the Bill, as I said earlier. We have taken into account the clear guidance from the independent Electoral Commission in its report recommending regions and types of voting that no region includes electronic voting as part of a pilot. So we will rule that out in amendments that we intend to table on Report. So, with great sorrow, I fear that I shall disappoint the noble Lord, if not surprise him.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

I do not know why the Minister thinks that I am not surprised, especially as he did not advance a single reason of merit why the proposal should not be pursued.

Lord Filkin

With all courtesy, it is not the place or the time to do so.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

As this is a pilot Bill about different methods of voting, I can hardly see why it is not precisely the Bill to give STV the opportunity to be assessed against other systems. I do not follow the Minister's reasoning. I take the Minister to be as much of a democrat as anyone else, so I do not understand why he does not see how that would vastly encourage voters to take an interest in elections, because they would have the chance to express a preference between candidates. At present, they are dead elections. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Goodhart moved Amendment No. 11:

Page 2, line 14, at end insert— ( ) The pilot order must make provision for including in the count of votes any postal ballot paper received by the returning officer through the post on the day following the day appointed for the poll (or, where more than one day has been appointed, the last of such days).

The noble Lord said: I move the amendment to raise a small point. It is important that as many voters as possible should be able to vote on polling day. That has been the custom in this country for many years. It is true that if we go back to the early part of the 20th century or earlier, there were different polling days in different constituencies, but the idea of a national polling day has lasted for nearly a century.

People should certainly have the right to vote on polling day and to do so without difficulty. In all-postal elections, it will be possible to vote on polling day only by taking the ballot paper to the delivery point. I shall not reopen our previous debate about the difficulty that may arise even in relatively compact urban areas in finding somewhere at which one can deliver a completed ballot paper. That is a major change in voting practice.

Under a conventional system, a great majority of the votes are cast on polling day. It is only those who have applied for a postal vote—who have taken a positive decision to vote by post—who vote before polling day. Where the all-postal vote is used, the overwhelming majority of votes will be cast before polling day. It is plainly undesirable that people should be actively discouraged from voting on polling day. It is surely desirable that people should be able to take into account factors—which may be external or something to do with how the campaign has been handled— before they vote.

The answer is to allow postal votes to be counted if received through the post on the day following polling day. That will enable voters to complete their ballot on polling day and post it before the last collection time. There is a small risk of delay in validating the votes, but as the Minister said, it is unlikely to be serious, because the Royal Mail has undertaken to give priority to the delivery of ballot papers and to take all possible steps to ensure that those posted in due time get there. If we allow people to vote on polling day, we will eliminate the risk of a substantial number of voters not realising that they need to vote before then.

The consequence of that is that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to start counting for an election conducted on a Thursday until the post is received on Friday. The answer to that is: why not? What is the problem there? In European Parliament elections, under the present rules, although votes are cast on Thursday, they are not counted until the following Sunday, so that the count coincides with that in most other European countries, which conduct their elections on Sundays.

So there is no problem of delay for European parliamentary votes. For local authority elections, I can see no real problem in delaying the count from Thursday evening until, say, midday on Friday. That may increase the tension for candidates awaiting their results, but I cannot think of many other drawbacks. If that is the only drawback, that is too bad for the candidates. It also has the advantage of being cheaper, because the staff doing the counting will be counting in normal hours instead of being paid late night overtime.

I should add that my amendment has nothing to do with the problems of security that we debated earlier. It is intended simply to ensure that people can vote by post on polling day. I can see no serious argument against that and several serious arguments in favour. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham

I did not think that I was going to have much sympathy with the amendment, because I thought that it was about the late posting of ballot papers. Now that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, has explained that it is all about ensuring that people can vote on polling day, that opens another question. Will there be a polling day, or will there simply be a last day by which votes will be received. That is important, because if there is to be a Thursday that we recognise as polling day, by which you must get your vote in, there will have to be some method of dealing with the problem.

The second point raised is the uncounted postal votes that were stacked up in Florida. After the unhappy experience with the hanging chads, it was discovered that mountains of postal votes had never been counted because everyone had thought that they would not make the slightest difference. Even if the amendment is not accepted, we will need to ask the Electoral Commission in its follow-up report to state how many votes in regions were not counted because they were received late.

That will be an extremely important issue—to which I had not woken up until the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, started me thinking about it. If people are confused or if the Royal Mail does not do as it says it will and deliver on time, votes will not be counted. If we cannot deal with that point now, we must return to it when we discuss the Electoral Commission's subsequent duties. So I support the amendment.

Lord Greaves

In a letter that he wrote to my noble friend Lord Rennard and kindly copied to us all, the Minister attempted to give us some guarantees about how the Royal Mail will deal with the election. As he admits, the Government rely, heavily on the expertise and reliability of the postal authorities". We are told that there will be a best practice guide and that the Royal Mail has, put in place a central team for ensuring successful delivery… At a regional level, there will be dedicated teams which will work closely with electoral administrators … the Royal Mail already has plans for management teams to act to process electoral mail in the event of industrial action". Then, in total Civil Service gobbledy-gook, the letter states that the Royal Mail will, introduce local timing contingencies to cover late posting and deliveries". I do not have a clue what that means, and I do not believe much of the rest of it. No one whose mail regularly passes through the sorting office at Preston in Lancashire or who has ever dealt with election mail in the past will have much confidence that the Post Office will be terribly on the ball. I hope that I am wrong, but we cannot have confidence about that in advance. Classically, every year there are problems with the delivery of polling cards and intermittent problems with the delivery of postal votes.

It will be interesting to know if party election material will be included in the new super-duper efficient Post Office system for the election. Every year a large number of electors do not receive Freepost items sent to them—especially if they are not addressed as Freepost items; but even when they are so addressed, they go to the wrong places, get delivered in the wrong constituencies, and all the rest of it.

The Minister will also be aware of a recent election petition in the High Court in Dudley concerning the Belle Vale and Hasbury ward. The judgment issued on 19 December made it clear that if ballot papers are not delivered to voters by the Royal Mail in time to enable them to cast their vote by post—the Local Election (Principal Areas) Rules 1986 do not impose strict liability on the returning officer. In other words, if people do not receive their postal votes, that is just too bad and nothing can be done about it.

In that ward, where the margin between the top two candidates was only 40 votes—given that it was in Dudley, I cannot imagine that either of them was a Liberal Democrat—a significant number of postal votes did not arrive in time. On the Tuesday before Thursday polling day, the returning officer was notified that 44 electors had not received their ballot papers and special arrangements were made to issue replacements. On the day after, the eve of poll, another 65 were notified to the returning officer, and again replacements were issued.

In view of the local disquiet, the local authority conducted a survey of the 278 electors who did not return a postal vote in time. It found that 47 were returned but arrived after polling day and so could not be counted; 52 postal votes arrived on polling day; and 58 had not arrived by polling day—if they arrived at all, it was afterwards.

With one local election and one ward with only a few postal votes, the system can cope. But we are discussing a vast scale: a huge number of elections to be run by postal votes. Unless there is some slack in the system to allow for where the Post Office does not deliver the postal ballot papers when it is meant to, there is the scope for a major problem. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Filkin

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and others who have spoken to the amendment.

First, in all-postal ballots, the electors have adequate opportunity to vote. In practice, they have more opportunity to vote than in a conventional election. They will have at least six days to vote—we have yet to finalise the figure but it will be at least six days; it could well be significantly more. So there is plenty of opportunity to vote in good time, before the final day. If someone leaves it late to vote—for whatever reason; the usual reasons why we have difficulty voting clearly do not apply; if one is going away, one can vote from further away—one can use a supported delivery point, as we discussed previously. In an all-postal ballot, people will have the opportunity to bring the ballot paper to a supported delivery point to be sure to exercise their vote on the last day of the poll.

As we have previously stated, the Royal Mail will put in place procedures to ensure that late arriving votes will be detected. It will conduct sweeps to ensure that ballot papers are not missed if they arrive on the last day of the poll. Although the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, thought that there were not, there are practical reasons as well some of principle, although I shall not seek to lean overmuch on them, because the situation is clear in principle. People in all-postal ballots have many days on which to post. The literature will clearly indicate which is the last day of voting. There will therefore be ample opportunity for people to vote in time and to know what is the last day for them to do so.

Turning to some of the practical issues, the European parliamentary election regulations allow returning officers the discretion to count the votes before the close of the poll in the last European member state to vote, although they cannot announce any result until that time, for obvious reasons. That allows returning officers to count at the time that most suits their ability to secure the necessary people to conduct the count. That might be Thursday night or Friday morning, when staff are more available than on Saturday or Sunday.

The regulations for local elections state that the count must be conducted as soon as practicable after the close of poll. The amendment would mean that the count could not begin until 10 p.m. on Friday at the earliest, which would delay any local election result and involve staff counting on Saturday, which would have considerable resource implications in higher staff costs. It is doubtful whether it would be easy to obtain as many staff of suitable quality over a weekend.

Given the opportunities available to people to vote over an extended period that postal balloting allows, and the safeguard of supported delivery points, we should not inhibit the returning officers as would the amendment.

Furthermore, no postal ballots to date have allowed votes to be counted if they come in the day after the close of poll, so there is no experience on which to draw. Although we are experimenting through the pilots, we do not want to put at risk the efficiency of the count when there is no substantial problem that needs to be addressed.

It is clear from the Electoral Commission's report and the research to date that campaigning will need to be different in all-postal elections. The purpose of piloting is to see how elections can be conducted effectively in the differing circumstances of an all-postal ballot. Political campaigns will need to be spread over a different period and conducted at local level, not geared towards the end of the campaign. So voters do not necessarily need to wait until the end of the campaign before they exercise their vote.

That is clearly a challenge for political parties and candidates and one reason why we have agreed to the so-called marked registers before the close of poll, so that parties know how many votes are being received by returning officers as the campaign progresses. The Electoral Commission will evaluate the impact of all-postal voting on political party and candidate campaigns as part of the research that will underpin the pilot process, so we will discover how campaigns were adapted to voting over an extended period.

The commission's evaluation of the 2003 pilots included an assessment of the impact on campaigning in all-postal ballots. Its findings included that candidates and agents needed to started canvassing earlier—even before postal votes were dispatched. Many ballots were returned soon after receipt. In Gateshead, for example, where an all-postal ballot took place in 2002, 40 per cent of ballot papers were returned within five working days. Because candidates had experience from 2002, they adapted their approach in 2003. The use of a pre-poll marked register would help parties to time campaigning effectively.

However, the commission found that few candidates and agents expressed concern about the all-postal process in general. The majority thought that it was an innovation that improved turnout and was therefore a good thing. I emphasise that the last day of posting will be made clear in election literature. I already mentioned the late sweep to which the Royal Mail is committed to try to ensure that any ballots posted in good time—the appropriate time—will be picked up and counted. For those reasons of principle and practice, I cannot support the amendment.

Baroness Hanham

Will the Electoral Commission be asked to find out how many votes were not counted—those that arrived subsequent to the poll? If people elect to have a postal vote, it is up to them whether they get it back in time; but for people with a compulsory postal vote, it will be important to know how many votes were not counted because they were received too late.

It ought to be part of the Electoral Commission's remit to pester. That is another reason why the pilots would be so much easier to do in two regions.

Lord Filkin

How kind of the noble Baroness to make that final point to advance her cause. All I will say for now is that we will reflect on that point and, no doubt, drop her a note before Report.

Lord Greaves

I am sure that the Minister did not, but I thought I heard him say that a ballot paper that is posted in good time but arrives after polling day but before the European votes are counted would be included. He did not say that, did he?

Lord Filkin

I will check Hansard, but basically I said that the Royal Mail will put in place arrangements such that, for example, a ballot paper posted the day before the final day will be picked up from the sorting office to ensure that it counts. If a ballot paper is delivered later than the final date for casting a vote, it will not be counted.

Lord Greaves

If the ballot paper is posted before the final date for delivery—the final date for posting of which people are advised—but, despite its efforts, the Royal Mail does not get it to the returning officer, the authorities at the town hall, or wherever, until after 10 o'clock on polling day and it arrives the next day, when the count will not take place until two days later, what will happen to it?

Lord Filkin

That is an interesting question. I shall say no more, aware that the court case to which the noble Lord referred is under way—it is being appealed. I should like to consider the issue in the round rather than respond off the cuff.

Lord Greaves

I am grateful for that, because it must be absolutely clear. Can the Minister tell me what is meant by, local timing contingencies to cover late posting and deliveries"?

Lord Filkin

That is the Royal Mail making a commitment that it can honour in practice, as I said, to ensure that it does all that it can to scour its sorting offices to ensure that nothing is lurking in the corner and that ballots that have been cast and posted in sufficient time are delivered to the returning officer in time for them to be counted.

Lord Goodhart

The Minister gave a number of reasons why refusing to allow people to vote by post on polling day might not cause a great deal of hardship. That is not very much either here nor there. In my view, people should have the right to wait until the last possible moment, if they want to—they may have good reasons for doing so.

The Minister did not explain the disadvantages of that. The only obvious disadvantage that he mentioned was that it would be impossible for a returning officer to start counting the votes until after 10 o'clock on the Friday night, if votes received through the post on Friday were to be counted. That is not necessarily the case.

In ordinary elections now, it is convenient and so written into the rules that postal votes must be received by 10 o'clock on polling day because that is when the polls close. In practice, if postal votes are to be received that day, they will be received much earlier. It is unnecessary to state that votes must be receivable until 10 p.m. Surely the Royal Mail could notify the returning officer when it expected to make the last or only delivery—nowadays, there is almost always only one delivery a day—on the Friday, and counting could start as soon as that was made. In practice, the Post Office delivers in the mornings; it would be perfectly possible to say that counting could start at midday or one o'clock on Friday afternoon.

The amendment is probably worth another run, so I may well bring it back for discussion on Report but, for today, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7 p.m.

Earl Attlee moved Amendment No. 12:

Page 2, line 14, at end insert— (3A) Before including in a pilot order provisions for voting at places other than polling stations, the Secretary of State must consult all affected local authorities, and must not make such an order about a place in a local authority area if the local authority affected objects to it.

The noble Earl said: We heard much talk about voting places other than polling stations when discussing our new clause earlier. The Minister keeps mentioning "staffed delivery points". These are important because voters may have more confidence in them than in the Post Office.

Local authorities will know best where polling stations have previously been situated. Any staffed delivery points that provide an alternative location for placing one's ballot must be situated at the discretion of the relevant local authority. I would not be content with the Secretary of State imposing in a pilot order a system that is unworkable for the local authority that will have the job of running the election. We need to know that it has been consulted and approves.

That is a matter of accessibility to ensure that everyone in the area can exercise their democratic right. It is not good enough to leave those things out of the Bill and subject them to the whim of the Secretary of State against local authority experience and judgment. After all, in responding to a previous amendment, the Minister extolled the virtues of local authorities. I beg to move.

Lord Filkin

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is absolutely right. It would not be right for the Secretary of State to impose on local authorities a specific form or number of supported delivery points. We discussed that matter earlier. We intend to provide supported delivery points as part of the all-postal pilots for the reasons instanced previously.

The key point is that the pilot order will not include details of the locations of supported delivery points. The implication is that the Government would select the number of such delivery points and tell the local authority in the area that that is what it must provide. That will not be the situation. Rather, the order will require that the regional returning officer provides a specified number of supported delivery points.

We intend that that will be a minimum of one per principal local authority area, with a discretion locally to provide more depending on local circumstances, as I said earlier. The location of those supported delivery points will be decided by the regional returning officer—no doubt, as should be the case—in consultation with the relevant local authorities. I can therefore give the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, the assurance that he seeks.

Earl Attlee

Will there be any limit on the maximum number of supported delivery points that the returning officer can decide to have? Can he go mad and have hundreds of them, or will there be a limit? Will there be guidance on what considerations he needs to take into account regarding geography; that is, whether it is a densely populated or rural area?

Lord Filkin

We discussed those issues earlier. The broad thrust is that we shall set out our objectives in having supported delivery points. As we have previously stated, all the evidence to date from all-postal pilots is that those points are used by a very small proportion of voters. As I said, a balance must be struck, taking account of differences in geography and social geography. There will be no limit on the numbers. On the other hand, returning officers will have to consider what is necessary and appropriate. Clearly, they will not—to the sorrow of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham—go as far as she implied that they should when discussing an earlier amendment. We do not believe that that is necessary.

Earl Attlee

I apologise to the Committee for the fact that I was not present earlier, as I was speaking in the Second Reading debate on the Patents Bill. I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Subject to the usual caveats, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Goodhart moved Amendment No. 13:

Page 2, line 14, at end insert— ( ) The pilot order must make provision to ensure that those with disabilities are able to exercise their vote independently and in secret.

The noble Lord said: It is obvious that an all-postal vote makes it easier for some disabled people to vote. That applies to people who have mobility problems. They can, of course, vote by post now. They have to apply for a postal vote, although one application can cover future elections as well as the one for which they are applying. People with visual impairment may also benefit. For example, they will not need assistance to get to the polling station. But—this is an important "but"—once they get to the polling station, the presiding officer can assist visually impaired people.

The presiding officer is a public servant. He is forbidden, of course, to disclose any information that he obtains about the way in which a voter he or she has assisted has voted. If a visually impaired person completes a postal vote at home and no other help is available, the voter is likely to have to get help from a member of his or her family or someone from the same household. They will be in practice unable to keep their vote secret from them. Those helpers may have strong views on the election and the voter may be unwilling to offend them. That may result in a vote that does not represent the real wish or intention of the voter.

The Disability Rights Commission and the RNIB are very concerned about this issue and in their briefing for the Second Reading put forward proposals to deal with the problem. I remind the Committee what those numerous proposals were. The proposals state: All electoral information must comply with RNIB's clear print guidelines. Standard pre-polling information and voter instructions must be in a minimum of 14 point in Plain English… Pre-polling information and voting instructions must be made available to disabled voters in accessible formats … on request. Returning officers must be in a position to provide the following range of formats: large print, tape, Easy Read, Braille, disc and e-mail. The ballot paper MUST be compatible with the tactile voting device. Tactile voting templates and notices of the ballot paper in large print, Braille, on disk and on tape must be made available to disabled voters on request—and must be available at every staffed delivery point. A home visit and one-to-one assistance to be provided to any disabled voter who requests it unless there are exceptional circumstances. Staffed delivery points must be accessible to disabled voters. Signature guides or other aids are to be provided to assist voters to sign the declaration of identity".

As I say, that is a long list, but it is an important list if visually impaired voters are to have the same rights as other voters to vote and keep their vote secret. The Government should say which of the items on that list they are prepared to implement and explain why they are not prepared to implement the other items. I beg to move.

Earl Attlee

We fully support the Liberal Democrat amendment, which stems from consultation with the Disability Rights Commission. Although all-postal voting can facilitate voting for those who are less mobile, it is important that pilot schemes recognise the special needs of those with more severe disabilities or impairments. That should include accessible copies of the ballot paper, envelope and accessible voter information. It should also mean that assistance will be provided for those who need help in filling out their postal ballot form when they return it to the polling station.

I shall not repeat many of the excellent points made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, but we consider that there is a real need to make sure that the Bill states these provisions upfront. A great many people will need special provision. Our Amendment No. 43 gives them added protection. Under the terms of Clause 4, the report that the Electoral Commission must draw up after any pilot elections have been held must include, an assessment of the extent to which the manner in which the elections were conducted and the different provision", achieved various objectives. Amendment No. 43 seeks to include the objective of having, facilitated voting for those with disabilities, having consulted such organisations or individuals representing disabled people as the Commission considers appropriate". We are considering trialling voting methods. It must be explicit that the Electoral Commission's report will make an assessment of the effect of pilot trials on those with disabilities.

Lord Filkin

These are important issues that have formed part of the evaluation and research that the Electoral Commission has supported and funded on earlier all-postal ballots. I shall comment briefly on the broader picture. In essence, that will carry the story that the Committee would expect. There is much evidence that many disabled people have welcomed all-postal balloting.

I do not seek to imply that that means that everything is perfect; what I seek to get on the record is the point about proportionality. There is much evidence that disabled people have found those methods to work well. I refer in particular to the research funded by the Electoral Commission through Scope that sought to include people with disabilities in the process of evaluating how disabled people voted at elections.

Disabled people were asked how easy and convenient postal voting was for them. An overwhelming number found it very easy or easy—77 per cent and 18 per cent respectively. About 2 per cent found it difficult. When asked how convenient it was to vote in that way, 84 per cent found it very convenient, 12 per cent found it convenient and 2 per cent found it either not convenient or very inconvenient. When asked whether it was easy to vote in secret, 76 per cent said that it was very easy, 15 per cent that it was easy and 3 and 6 per cent respectively that it was not easy or difficult. When asked whether they would choose to vote in that way again and whether they would say overall that postal ballots made the experience of voting better or worse, 75 per cent said that it was better, 21 per cent that there was no difference and 4 per cent that it was worse. Of those who were asked whether they would vote in that way again if given a choice, 82 per cent said yes, 10 per cent said no.

I shall not bore the Committee with any further figures. I seek to demonstrate that, as one would expect, a universal postal ballot system appeared to have many attractions for many disabled people. That does not, of course, negate the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. As he would be the first to point out to me, the needs of disabled people vary; they are not homogeneous and therefore we must consider those issues carefully and recognise that there may be a case for particular arrangements. Ensuring that all-postal ballots remain accessible to those with disabilities is important to the Government. As far as possible, we must ensure that disabled people are facilitated in casting a vote.

I turn to Amendment No. 13. After Second Reading, I wrote to Members of the Committee setting out various policy details, including those for providing disabled access. As I stated then, we already intend to include adequate provision in the pilot order to meet the objective, which I believe is common between the Front Benches. As for providing assistance to those with a visual impairment, we specifically intend to ensure that supported delivery points must have a tactile voting device available for blind and partially sighted users to enable them to vote in private. Supported delivery points must have a large-scale version of the ballot paper available for voters to refer to. Electoral administrators will make arrangements to deliver a tactile voting device to a blind or partially sighted elector who requests it. We believe that that course of action provides a better solution than providing a ballot paper in Braille, for example.

We will also provide for those with other disabilities. Specifically, we intend to ensure that supported delivery points provide access for people with disabilities, as is required for polling stations. Electors will be able to receive assistance at a supported delivery point. Electoral administrators may mark a ballot paper for a disabled person at a supported delivery point if they request such help. Electors will also be able to request assistance with voting at an agreed place and time if they are disabled and unable to attend a supported delivery point. That is a further significant point.

My final point is that we want to be able to allow someone who is unable physically to mark a paper to be assisted by someone who will be permitted to make a mark on that voter's behalf. We spoke about that earlier. That is the current system under the regulations, but it could be considered as not allowing a disabled voter to vote independently and in secret and so be barred under the terms of the amendment.

Having said all that, with the caveat about proportionality, noble Lords are free to consider whether we could introduce other measures. I shall not respond here and now to all the various tests, but shall do so shortly. We shall reflect whether other measures could be introduced bearing in mind the caveat regarding proportionality.

I turn to Amendment No. 43, the purpose of which is to require the Electoral Commission to report on the extent to which the pilots facilitate voting for those with disabilities. I should like to consider the amendment carefully before Report. It clearly provides what we expect the Electoral Commission to do, but I should like a little space and time to consider whether we can be more positive, rather than just saying no out of hand. I should be grateful for a little time to reflect on whether we can be a little more helpful within the terms of what I have said so far.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Is he able to give me in writing a more detailed reply on the specific points raised by the two organisations that provided the briefing? That would enable me to consult with them to see how strongly they feel about these matters. I would need to do that before we decide whether to bring the matter back on Report.

Lord Filkin

Before the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, sits down, I am pleased to commit to do so.

Lord Goodhart

I am most grateful. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 14 and 15 not moved.]

Earl Attlee moved Amendment No. 16:

Page 2, line 25, at end insert— ( ) The pilot order must make provision for any additional costs incurred by local authorities resulting from holding the elections on a pilot basis (over and above the costs incurred if the elections had been held on the traditional basis) to be covered by funding from central Government.

The noble Earl said: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 16 which focuses on costs. It is intended to reflect the guarantee from the Minister in Hansard where he commented: The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, asked whether extra money will be available. The short answer is "Yes". The Government will cover the additional costs that result from holding the elections on a pilot basis. As one would expect, however, local authorities will be expected to pay the costs that they would have incurred if the elections had been held on the traditional basis. That is the normal agreement with local authorities on new burdens, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, knows better than I do".— [Official Report, 8/1/04; col. 349.]

Our amendment would reflect that commitment. I am curious about how it will work in practice. How does the Minister envisage computing how much extra cost is incurred by an all-postal election? For instance, when we are considering the provision of voting information, this would be a requirement under the traditional method of electoral voting. By what method would it be possible to decide how much the greater provision of information that the new type of voting made necessary increased the overall cost spent on providing information?

The extra resources needed for a large regional postal vote could be hard to quantify. Would the provision of staffed delivery points rather than polling stations be a cost saving that would be weighed up against the costs in terms of postage? What about unseen costs such as the training of returning officers and electoral staff to man the delivery points and fully get to grips with the new system? These officers will have their normal duties in the local authorities. They will not be able to spend all their time training with regard to the postal vote.

I fear that the Government might compensate local authorities less than they deserve simply by using the formula, "We will not pay for that. You would have had to finance that under a normal election anyway". How much have they budgeted for in terms of covering the extra cost? In other words, what is the total extra cost of all-postal votes to central government. I beg to move.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, deconstructs his amendment into a number of very detailed questions. I shall respond to the main thrust of what he is asking but if there are further details on which he wishes an answer, I shall have to write to him.

The Government in the form of my colleague Christopher Leslie in the other place have already given an absolutely unambiguous commitment that additional funding will be made available to local authorities to cover the extra costs rightly and reasonably incurred as a result of the pilots. I am very happy to put that macro commitment on the record once more. Funds will be made available from central government funds to cover the additional costs of these pilots.

I shall try to answer the more detailed question with another general reply. It is generally the case that electoral administrators are given 70 per cent of the estimated cost of elections in advance and then they make a claim for any additional moneys (or repay any excess) after the specific costs and expenditure have been calculated. We do not propose to change this arrangement for the purpose of the pilots. At the moment we do not have the total estimated cost figure for which the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked. I hope that that assurance will satisfy the noble Earl and that he will withdraw the amendment.

Earl Attlee

I am a little alarmed that the Minister does not know what the cost of such elections will be as the elections will occur very shortly in a few months' time. One of my concerns at Second Reading was that we needed to make progress with this matter. Has the Minister no idea what the total cost will be? There are only two regions. The cost will have to be split between two local authorities. I think that the local authorities would be more comforted if they knew roughly what kind of budget they ought to be operating to.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I think the first point to make is that we have not yet decided how many regions will take part in the pilot. Of course very detailed work has started on costings but it would be quite wrong for me to give a "work in progress" figure at the moment rather than an accurate figure. Certainly a great deal of detailed work has started on the cost but we do not know—the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, was not present when we had this discussion as he was detained in the Chamber—how many regions will take part in the pilot.

Earl Attlee

I thank the Minister for that reply. I am a little anxious that he still does not know what the cost will be as that leads on to other matters. However, subject to the usual caveats, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Filkin

This seems a convenient moment for the Committee to adjourn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gould of Potternewton)

The Committee stands adjourned until Thursday, 29 January at 3.15 p.m.

The Committee adjourned at twenty-two minutes past seven o'clock.