HL Deb 03 November 2004 vol 666 cc309-11

3.9 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many voting packs for the North-East Regional Assembly referendum contained the wrong envelope.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)


Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. We are aware of at least one individual who has received four ballot papers. In view of the Minister's statement in the House on 7 September, I think, that the region was the most risk-free in the country for all-postal ballots, I hope that he will assure us that he does not envisage any more problems in the next 24 hours. Does not the fact that the House has consistently opposed all-postal ballots suggest that we might have been right all along?

We are concerned that the envelopes that were sent out apparently for a charity might have been returned with money inside. If so, can he assure us that that will not be used for the retirement present for the Deputy Prime Minister?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, 1,899,742 ballot packs were sent out between 18 and 20 October. It has transpired that approximately 80 packs delivered in the Darlington area contained a prepaid window-return envelope overprinted with the logo of a cancer charity. It was a window envelope. Therefore, when a ballot paper was put into the envelope, it was sent back to the correct returning officer. I cannot see an issue regarding money being put in the envelopes. We have had no other complaints. So far, as of last night, 41.5 per cent of electors who were sent a ballot pack had returned a ballot paper.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is probably the only charitable part of the all-postal voting scheme? Will he also, please, comment on the fact that a number of ballot papers have been sent to 17 year-olds; that is, people who are not entitled to vote? How many of those ballot papers have there been? Have those votes been counted? Have they been found in the course of the scrutiny?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, with all due respect to the noble Baroness, I have no idea. It is just not relevant to the Question, which dealt with the wrong envelopes.

Baroness Hanham

It is, my Lords.

Lord Rooker

No, my Lords; the Question was about the wrong envelope, not the wrong ballot paper. All the ballot papers are bar-coded, in case others have to be issued, and the returning officers have been checking in areas to ensure that there has been feedback. In the Darlington area, in fact, one or two ballots were discovered although people claimed that they had not been sent a ballot pack. They have had replacements, but the bar-coding has ensured that there has not been duplication or double counting.

Obviously, the ballot packs are sent to those on the electoral register. People put themselves on the electoral register or their parents do it for them. If there are errors, it is for the election officers to find out about them.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that, at some stage tomorrow, it would be a wonderful idea to have a count, and then ultimately a declaration, and that that is a rather better idea than a polling organisation calling Northumbria?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I think that that is an excellent idea. At 10 o'clock tomorrow night, the count will start, and by midnight the results will be out.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, can the Minister tell me why that question was any more relevant than my question about 17 year-olds who have been put on the register and may or may not have voted? That question seems to be squarely within the Minister's remit to respond on the election process of all-postal voting. It is a great deal more relevant than noble Lord's following question.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, it is easy: I knew the answer to the noble Lord's question but not the answer to the noble Baroness's question. So I hid behind the fact that the Question was about the wrong envelopes rather than the ballot papers.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, to encourage public confidence in the system on which we are now embarked, could the Electoral Commission consider setting up a prize award for the first election that actually goes right?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the Electoral Commission and the local authorities are running the election. No one is complaining about that. As I said, nearly 2 million ballot packs have been issued. As of last night—or half-past eleven this morning—41.5 per cent had been returned. The lowest turnout by district and local authority was 37.3 per cent, and the highest was 49.4 per cent. So I do not think that there is any complaint about how the referendum is being run in that respect.

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