HL Deb 01 July 2004 vol 663 cc357-60
Lord Dubs

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many spoilt ballot papers, expressed as a percentage of total votes cast, there were in the recent elections in London for the Mayor, the London Assembly and for the European Parliament respectively; and what assessment they have made of this.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, in the London mayoral elections, 2.96 per cent of the mayoral election ballots did not contain a valid first preference vote. For the second choice vote this figure was 17.14 per cent. In the London Assembly elections, 6.17 per cent of the constituency member votes and 2.53 per cent of the London-wide member votes were not exercised validly by voters. In the European elections the figure was 0.94 per cent. The Greater London Returning Officer will be carrying out a review of the London elections.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Does he agree that those of us who were knocking on doors in the run-up to polling day and on polling day had to spend more of our time explaining the voting system to voters than trying to persuade them to vote for the party of our choice, and that there is something not quite right with having three different voting systems on one election day? Can the Government consider this matter and see whether there is a way of making life easier next time?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Dubs for his Question. Canvassing for my noble friend in the past, I never found it difficult to persuade people to vote for him. However, that is not the issue before us today. As I explained to your Lordships' House a couple of days ago, there will be a review and analysis of the elections and the process. The Greater London Returning Officer is undertaking a quick review and evaluation of the 2004 elections. It is likely that the London Assembly will conduct a similar scrutiny of the conduct of the elections.

As I said to your Lordships' House the other day, the number of spoilt or incomplete Greater London Authority ballot papers fell by over 10 per cent compared to the 2000 elections, while turnout rose by 2.5 per cent. So clearly the information blitz in the run-up to the elections had a fair measure of success and we should celebrate that fact. It was a complex election and, by and large, people managed to understand the different ballot papers with which they had to deal and to cast their votes accurately.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, how many votes were spoilt in the London mayoral election as a result of voters who had been instructed that they had to vote twice but did not want to vote for a second person voting for the same person in both column 1 and 2 of the ballot paper?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am unable to help the noble Lord with that question. If he will bear with me I shall carefully go through the figures. London voters had, effectively, five votes that they could use in the election. So in essence there were some 9.6 million possible votes; 1.92 million voters each having five possible votes. More than 570,000 were not validly used. Of that figure—this is an important statistic—329,000 were rejected second preference votes where the voter had chosen not to mark a second choice candidate. So, those who did not choose to use their second vote have been entered into the category of voter who did not chose to use their vote validly, which slightly distorts the figure. That is perhaps difficult for the noble Lord to follow, but it does make sense.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, the Minister referred to a blitz of information, which included the booklets sent out by the Greater London Returning Officer in the form of freepost leaflets. There was no other freepost for the mayoral candidates. Do the Government accept that there was a problem with timing? Many postal ballot papers were issued in London, even though it was not an all-postal ballot. Many voters received ballot papers before they received the freepost leaflet. Will the Government raise with the Electoral Commission the timing of nominations and the sending out of such information so that voters may be informed before they receive their ballot papers?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a helpful and useful point. We will do all we can to ensure that the elections run as smoothly as possible. However, the picture I am trying to paint is that although there was much concern in the run-up to these elections, voters did extremely well in dealing with what I think would be commonly accepted as a complex set of elections. Yes, we should do more. The Greater London Returning Officer will conduct his own review and no doubt the noble Baroness, using her position on the Greater London Authority, will ensure that it carries out a thorough scrutiny exercise. There has been a lot [LORD BASSAM OF BRIGHTON] of myth, but the reality is that turnout increased. By and large voters managed to opt for their choice and seemed clearly to understand the electoral system.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is it not true that if the returning officer carries out a full and proper review, this difficulty will not arise in future?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I should like to think that when the Greater London Returning Officer conducts his review, and does it properly, the electoral system will be plainer and simpler for people to understand. That should be everybody's shared objective.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister for clarification. I am sure that I misheard what he said. Was it that some 300,000 voters in the mayoral election cast only one vote; in other words, they did not have a second preference? I understood from what the Minister said that those 300,000 or so votes would be null and void. Is that right?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, that is not the case. The fact that 329,000 people chose not to exercise their second preference votes did not nullify their first preference votes. What I explained to your Lordships' House was that that category of non-voter was counted in the 590,000 that I referred to as being rejected votes.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, will the Minister take the opportunity to correct a statement made by his noble friend Lord Filkin yesterday in answer to my noble friend Lord Greaves? He said that the Asian lady who was being discussed, had to get her cross on her ballot witnessed, most probably by a member of her family.—[Official Report, 30/6/04; col. 263.] It is not true that the cross had to be witnessed, merely the identification of the person. It would be helpful if the Government would correct that statement.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I was not present during that discussion but I think that I probably agree that the noble Lord is right on that point.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, does this Question not illustrate that these elections were far too complicated? Do the Government not agree that it would be unwise to run so many elections together under so many systems? Perhaps they would like to consider going back to the well tried and tested method of first-past-the-post elections, which everyone understands, however many elections there are?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Baroness. As I said, one accepts that there was a degree of complexity and we have to give the electorate credit for dealing with that. Electors understand exactly how to use the ballot box and where to put their cross, and if it is carefully explained to them, that is made much easier.

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