HL Deb 07 June 2004 vol 662 cc9-11

3 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that all the arrangements are in place for the European parliamentary and local elections on 10 June.

Lord Filkin

Yes, my Lords, we are satisfied that all the arrangements are in place and that we are on course for successfully run elections on 10 June.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but is he not aware that we are still receiving reports that ballot papers have not been received by electors? In fact, in the ward of Aspull in Wigan, people were informed on Friday that they will have to go to the town hall to vote. In the light of all the assurances that were given during the passage of the elections Bill and the fact that his right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister appeared to pioneer the process, would the Minister agree that if any evidence emerged showing that anyone was unable to vote in the election or that people had been disfranchised it might be a resigning matter?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I shall not go into specifics about the detailed situation in the local authority to which the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, refers. I shall outline the overall position and try to give the House a little more detail about why we are confident that the process is on course. We had a debate about that following a Statement that I repeated to the House just before the Whitsun Recess, when we signalled that we were confident that returning officers would comply with their legal obligation to issue ballot papers by the deadline of 1 June. They achieved that: 99.24 per cent of ballot papers were issued by that date and the 0.76 per cent were late were late by five hours and the Post Office incorporated them into the delivery. Therefore, there was no disadvantage to the public.

I am further advised by the Royal Mail that ballot papers had, to the best of its knowledge, been delivered to everyone and that 99.9 per cent were delivered by Thursday last week. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, is right that there are isolated examples, as is true in most elections, where there appears to be a glitch in local areas. But there is ample opportunity and time for electors in those areas or the returning officers, if they are aware of an issue, to ensure that replacement ballot papers are provided or that alternative or additional electoral arrangements are put in place.

Baroness David

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, in Cambridge, my postal vote had not arrived by this morning? I have had a postal vote for a long time. I have been in touch with the Electoral Commission in Cambridge. It told me that it will send me a postal vote here. That may not arrive in time, but I have to take that vote to the polling station or to the Guild Hall myself. I do not think that that is satisfactory; does the Minister?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I share my noble friend's concern about the inconvenience. We would not want to lose her from the House by her having personally to deliver the ballot paper to Cambridge during the next few days. I am sure that her words will have been marked in Cambridge and that the authorities will ensure that they fulfil the promise that they have given her, so that she is adequately enfranchised.

Lord Renton

My Lords, the elections to the European Parliament are due to take place within three days. Will the Government make an immediate statement to the electorate in this country that there are now so many members of the European Community and their legal systems and other circumstances differ so much that the European Parliament will be unable to make laws of universal application within the Community?

Lord Filkin

No, my Lords, we will not issue such a statement for two reasons. First, the question is wide of the mark of the Question on the Order Paper. Secondly, the Government do not share the view that that is an accurate description of the position of the European member states.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, does the Minister accept that most of us think that his statement is remarkably complacent and that there have indeed been some disastrous reports of what has been going on in the four areas in the north where there is all-postal voting? Will the Minister today give an unreserved assurance that for all future elections, especially the regional referenda that are coming up, voters will again be given the opportunity to cast their vote in the ballot box in the traditional manner?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, to come to the last point first: we have always been clear that these are pilots. They are pilots for a good reason, as we discussed at length during the passage of the Bill. Therefore, it is right and proper that the experience of the pilots is evaluated, reported on and discussed before we move forward on all-postal balloting. The right of an individual elector to opt for a postal ballot is already enshrined in law and we have no intention of retreating from that position.

Before we get overexcited about prematurely celebrating a disaster, we should make a distinction. Several things are going on at once. We have combined elections, which in itself is slightly more complicated for electors than a single election—although it is not the first time that that has happened. Moreover, we have all-postal ballots, which is bound itself to be a novelty to some people. It would be surprising if it were not. But that does not mean that one has a failed or a flawed electoral system.

Irrespective of that, we will receive a report from the Electoral Commission in mid-September, as it is statutorily obliged to report on its evaluation of postal ballots. That will give us an opportunity to discuss the issues again.

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