HC Deb 07 September 2004 vol 424 cc1176-7W
Peter Bottomley

To ask the Deputy Prime Minister how he assessed the(a) support for and (b) problems of all postal voting in (i) the North East, (ii) the North West and (iii) Yorkshire and the Humber. [186997]

Mr. Raynsford

The Government listened to the concerns raised in the Commons debates on 19 and 21 July about whether we should go ahead with referendums in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber. In light of these, the Government decided to proceed with the referendum in the North East, subject to the Electoral Commission's report. The Government also decided to reschedule referendums in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber once we had considered the report prepared by the Electoral Commission. This report was published on 27 August.

Peter Bottomley

To ask the Deputy Prime Minister what steps he is taking to prevent the postal vote problems in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber from appearing in the North East. [186998]

Mr. Raynsford

The rules for the North East referendum were approved by Parliament in July. The administration of the North East referendum is for the Chief Counting Officer, Ged Fitzgerald, Chief Executive of Sunderland city council and for the local counting officers.

The Electoral Commission published their report into the June electoral pilots on 27 August and has said: The Commission has therefore considered carefully, in the light of our conclusions in relation to postal voting more generally, whether it is appropriate for the referendum in the North East to continue as planned…our conclusion is that the referendum should proceed as an all-postal ballot without major changes to the process.

In reaching this conclusion the Electoral Commission highlighted the desirability of avoiding late changes in a process already approved by Parliament, and a number of additional factors specific to the North East referendum, as follows: The form of all postal-voting defined in law for the regional referendum is a significant improvement over that piloted in June, in part as a result of changes advocated by the Commission earlier in the year. For example there is no requirement for a witness to sign the security statement and more assistance and delivery points are provided for and discretion given to counting officers to provide additional points as they see fit. There is presently no evidence on which to conclude that an all-postal referendum in the North East would be unsafe in terms of fraud or malpractice To the Commission's knowledge, no allegations of electoral fraud made in the North East in relation to the June all-postal pilot scheme have led to formal prosecutions.

Voters and election professionals in the North East have substantial previous experience of all-postal ballots.

The public is more positive about all-postal voting, and its future use, in the North East than in any other pilot region; and The capacity of commercial printers and the Royal Mail to manage an all-postal ballot of the scale required in the North East (with approximately 1.9 million electors) was evidenced in June and their capacity will be further enhanced by the lack of competing pressures from other all-postal ballots taking place simultaneously. Additionally, planning between printers, local authorities and other key suppliers is already well under way.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is considering the Electoral Commission's report and will make a statement to Parliament about the implications for the regional referendums soon.

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