10 February 2009
Justice Minister Michael Wills has given a speech on public confidence and transparency in the democratic process to the Association of Electoral Administrators Conference in Brighton.
[Check against delivery: this is the prepared text of the speech, and may differ from the delivered version.]
Minister of State Michael Wills MP:
When I first attended an Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) event in Coventry in September 2007, it was in the middle of speculation about an imminent general election.
Although I know you are all preparing for elections in June, this time, the media is rather calmer. However the core messages I want to talk about are much the same.
A healthy democracy is fundamental to a healthy society. The health of any democracy depends on its legitimacy - of the processes that manage elections and their conduct, legitimacy of the outcomes and the representatives appointed.
That quest for legitimacy drives all the work the Ministry of Justice does in its role as the department responsible for electoral policy. It drives the measures we have taken to increase participation. Persistently low turnouts would clearly threaten the legitimacy of governments. The quest for legitimacy drove the review of voting systems. It drives our continuing measures to tackle fraud, improve levels of registration, render party funding more transparent and accountable and strengthen the Electoral Commission.
And your role in delivering this legitimacy is crucial. We value it, we will support it and we want to work with you in the months ahead to build on it.
In doing so, we recognise the constraints within which you often have to work and I hope we have shown you that we are sensitive to them. Last year, in response to your concerns about the speed of change, I said that we recognised the need for a period of stability and that we would seek to avoid bringing forward further changes in electoral administration in the short term - except where it was regarded as necessary to address serious concerns.
I believe that we have delivered on that, introducing minimal changes during the year and providing stability for Returning Officers, Electoral Registration Officers and electoral administrators to bring in the provisions of the Act.
This appears to be paying dividends - electoral registration figures are increasing and I am aware that there were fewer difficulties encountered with postal votes and allegations of fraud at the May 2008 local elections.
Of course, not all of that improvement is down to the Act or the stable environment in itself. There are other factors in play.
The elections in May 2008 were not in all local authorities - which will have reduced the pressures on the management of elections overall, providing space for some local authorities without elections to assist others and not pressing supply of materials and electronic systems support too hard.
And the greater involvement and coordination of police activity in preventing and investigating allegations of impropriety allied to judges giving substantial sentences to those convicted of electoral fraud will have played a part in tackling the problems caused by those who seek to subvert the electoral process for their own ends.
We are grateful to all of you for all you have done to deliver these improvements.
Now I recognise that in looking ahead, it will be important for government to produce a clear strategic framework for future developments. And I intend to do so once the demands of current legislation have been met.
In the meantime, I'd like to set out some pointers towards that strategy. First, it is perhaps inevitable that much attention is focused on fraud. Fraud corrodes democracy and we must do everything we can to tackle it. However, we need to keep this in perspective. The evidence suggests that fraud is not systemic and not widespread. Research by the Electoral Commission has found 23 convictions for offences set out in the Representation of the People Act between 2000 and 2006, with the figures peaking in 2001. Of course, we cannot be complacent about even a single instance of such fraud and tackling it will remain a cornerstone of our policy but it is not the only serious issue we need to tackle.
Participation must also remain a central concern. And democracy is undermined when significant numbers are not able to participate in elections because they are not registered to do so. Again, the figures can be disputed, but it is commonly agreed that about three million people are not able to vote because they are not registered, although they are otherwise entitled to do so.
It will also be fundamental to our approach that the electoral system itself must be beyond partisan dispute. While elections will always be vigorously contested, and rightly so, the foundations of the electoral system itself should not be the subject of controversy. Securing consensus on change to the electoral system can be challenging and we all recognise why that is. Political parties inevitably draw support from different parts of society and different parts of the country. That is inevitable - axiomatic, almost. However, it inevitably produces an asymmetry of interest from time to time in pursuing particular solutions to problems, and we have to recognise that that is the case.
Therefore, however justifiable any proposal may be in its own terms, we must always be wary of seeking to implement solutions to any given problem and implementing any given principle if, in doing so, it creates, however inadvertently, a biased outcome in the electoral system as a whole.
So I'd argue that any changes to improve the electoral system should be subject to four basic tests: that of the level playing field, being open, being fair and being transparent.
Anything that undermines the principle of a level playing field for all democratic political parties is axiomatically partisan and risks illegitimacy. If the securing of one principle or another, no matter how desirable in its own right, tilts the playing field in one direction or another, without any countervailing action, it must, inevitably, risk that perception of illegitimacy.
Any changes should clearly aim to make the system as open as possible so that all voters entitled to vote should be able to do so.
And any changes should aim to make the system as fair as possible, so that all opportunities for systemic corruption and fraud are rooted out, and they should aim to make the system as transparent as possible so that everyone can see that it is open and fair. Such transparency is the best guarantor of openness and fairness. Whatever changes are made should therefore be made in the interest of the legitimacy of the system as a whole and not be subject to claims that partisan advantage is being pursued.
Now, in more detail, what might the months ahead hold?
A significant number of recommendations flowing from the helpful post-election and policy reports produced by the Electoral Commission since 2001 have already been brought into effect through legislation over recent years, and the Electoral Administration Act in particular. Many of these will have been recommendations that followed discussions to which AEA members contributed.
However, there are others outstanding and it will be useful to hear from the Commission on which of these it still thinks should be taken forward so that we can incorporate those into our thinking. There will be some recommendations that have no doubt been overtaken by events or other change and we need to discount those too in order to get a complete picture of what the way forward looks like now.
Last year the Commission came forward with some further recommendations following their review of the administration of elections, including recommendations about management boards and other potential structural change, and we will need to consider those alongside previous proposals.
The AEA, its branches and members may also have recommendations and suggestions of their own and views on existing recommendations that we need to consider and, obviously, we are keen for your input into the development of this strategy.
One specific issue where we will take careful account of your views is on individual registration. I believe that there is now a general acceptance among all parties that we need to move away from the traditional system of household registration towards a system of individual voter registration. The process of moving to individual registration will be complex - it is radical and unprecedented in this country. It must meet those four fundamental tests: a level playing field, and be open, fair and transparent.
There are lessons we must learn from the Northern Ireland experience, and concerns about the electoral register in the rest of the UK which need to be addressed in order to facilitate the transition to a new system. As Christopher Kelly, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has acknowledged, in moving forward on this, as everybody wants to, we must take every step we can to improve the register.
As I have said in Parliament, I am looking to bring forward proposals to tackle the issues that give rise to the concerns on registration. I am clear that the Electoral Commission, Electoral Administrators and you, as electoral administrators, have a critical role to play.
The Commission's performance standards are an important tool and we will see how they develop - Electral Registration Officers have recently completed their first assessment against these standards and we look forward to seeing the results in spring.
And we will be consulting soon on the position of the edited register following the recommendations of the Walport/Thomas review - and making a decision on it. The session on this issue at the end of this conference is sure to be lively and I look forward to hearing what comes out of that.
We expect to complete the remaining Commons stages of the Political Parties and Elections Bill by the middle of next month, after which it will be considered by the Lords. We are hopeful that the Bill will receive Royal Assent in the early summer.
I know that there are elements in the Bill that will interest you particularly as they affect the management of the electoral process. There's provision for canvass forms received back to be treated as rolling registration forms where an election is called during the canvass period. This responds to issues raised by speculation of a general election in autumn 2007 when it was questioned what would happen if people thought they had changed their registration details by returning a canvass form. Clearly that would be unhelpful and confusing for electors and potentially cause more work at a time when your teams can least accommodate it. This provision would go towards addressing that and avoiding any need to send out rolling registration forms where a canvass form reflected changes – as is the guidance from the Commission under current legislation.
The move to a local counting area basis for the management of European elections responds to requests from the AEA and SOLACE as well as your colleagues in Scotland to move away from using Parliamentary constituencies as the basis for administering European elections. With the use of postal vote identifiers this becomes more difficult as neighbouring authorities may use differing suppliers and so the leading authority may have difficulty checking postal votes from another authority. That issue is removed if local authorities are the basis for checking of postal votes in June.
While the Bill is unlikely to be in place in sufficient time for the June elections (and conscious of what the Gould report said), for the purpose of the European elections this year, we have dealt with the issue for England and Scotland in other legislation.
Of course, constituencies will have to be the basis for the next general election - whenever that is - and Ministry of Justice officials are working to reduce the risk of postal vote checking issues where it cannot be avoided.
Alongside this work we also have two consultations that have recently finished: a consultation on candidates' addresses on nomination forms and ballot papers and the Youth Citizenship Commission's consultation on voting age.
The 'Election Day: Weekend Voting' consultation closed last September but attracted nearly 1,000 responses (in full or in part) from a broad cross-section of those with an interest in electoral matters (members of the public, local authorities, councillors, electoral administrators, faith and political groups and civil society groups). I am grateful to all of you who responded and we will publish the findings from this as soon as practicable.
This year brings further challenges. In the European elections on 4 June, some areas, counties, will have local elections combined with those. These will be the first elections at which Postal Vote Identifier checking will be operating throughout Great Britain.
I know there are issues around that checking, that some authorities and the major agencies working in elections would like to see 100% which would have funding implications, and my officials are in dialogue with the Regional Returning Officers and your AEA Executive representatives on this and other issues on the funding of the elections.
In any event these elections will give us important information about the capacity for delivery of these and any issues about use of PVIs on a global basis in Great Britain.
We have worked to complete regulations as early as possible with an aim to meet the six-month deadline - we have narrowly missed that but the main regulations have now been be debated and became law at the end of last month. As with other electoral legislation over recent years, they have benefited from the input of administrators as we have developed them.
Many of you will also be aware that we are looking to a new system for the funding of elections, where they are funded from the consolidated fund. The aim of this is to gain a more effective view of the cost of elections and to ensure that you are provided with the flexibility to manage the budget appropriately.
This is a significant change, I know and such change can bring uncertainty - particularly where the previous system has been in place for some time. I know you are engaging with Ministry of Justice officials on this and I am hopeful that you will work with us to make that system work with a view to making it a better one for all in future funding and management of elections.
The European elections in June won't be the only thing you are thinking about for the future - we do not know when the Prime Minister may choose to call a general election and that is another challenge for which we need to prepare. As you know, all elections require significant planning and preparation. As those in local authorities who very much make elections happen, I call on you to make sure that such planning work is a primary consideration for you to ensure their effective conduct. At the SOLACE conference I called on Returning Officers and Registration Officers as senior local authority executives to support your work and make sure you have access to the necessary tools and resources and I am happy to repeat that call now.
This is a formidable body of challenges - as ever - but I am sure that you will all rise to meet those challenges as you have in the past. Both Jack Straw and I, alongside other government ministers, and I'm sure all politicians at whatever level, recognise the invaluable work that you and your teams do to underpin the democracy of this country.