Eleanor calls for a change in the law to allow voters in the queue outside a polling station at closing time to vote
Speaking in a debate on the Electoral Registration Bill, Eleanor Laing moves an amendment that would allow for ballot papers to be issued to any registered voter who is in the polling station or in a queue immediately outside at the time the poll closes. This would prevent a repeat of the situation at the last general election when more than 1,000 voters waiting in the queue at 10pm were denied the right to vote.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring new clause 4 before the Committee. As is explained on the amendment paper, the clause would allow for ballot papers to be issued to any registered voter who is in the polling station or in a queue immediately outside the polling station at 10 pm or whatever time the poll closes, in order that they may then cast their vote. The Committee will recall what happened at the last general election, when more than 1,000 voters in 16 constituencies were denied the right to vote.
As the law stands, voters who are in a queue at a polling station at 10 pm but who have not yet been issued with their ballot paper are unable to cast their vote. Both the Electoral Commission and the House of Lords Constitution Committee have called on the Government to change the law to ensure that voters are not disfranchised as some were at the last election. There is precedence for such a provision because the Scottish Government recently changed the law for local elections in Scotland to allow for voters in queues at polling stations at 10 pm on the close of poll to cast their ballots.
I take the findings of the Electoral Commission very seriously in this respect, and the main factors that the commission identified as having contributed to the problems in 2010 were that there was evidence of poor planning assumptions in some areas; that there was use of unsuitable buildings and inadequate staffing arrangements at some polling stations; that contingency arrangements were sometimes not properly triggered or were unable to cope with demand at the close of poll; and also that current restrictive legislation, and therefore the presiding officer having no ability to apply discretion, meant that those who were present in queues at polling stations at the close of poll, were not able to be issued with a ballot paper.
The main conclusions of the Electoral Commission published in May 2010 recommended that the law must be changed to allow people queuing at polling stations at 10 pm to be able to vote. The commission also noted that local authorities and acting returning officers must take steps to improve their planning—we all agree with that—and must review their schemes for polling districts and polling stations to make sure that they allocate the right numbers of staff and electors to each polling station. All of these practical measures should be taken, and I hope now will be taken as a result of the fact that we saw 1,000 people at the last general election being deprived of their votes. In addition, the structure for delivering elections must be reformed to ensure better co-ordination and consistency, and, as we have debated during the last few days in other parts of this important Bill, returning officers should be more accountable for the way they manage elections. Nevertheless, I want to give the House the opportunity to consider whether we here in Parliament ought to add this clause to the Bill in order to give not just the clear direction but the power to a presiding officer to act in the way I describe in new clause 4, which will ensure that everybody who is present at the right time at close of poll should be allowed to cast their vote.
We do not want to discourage people from voting. We are in the business of getting as many people to vote as possible. We should not have artificial restrictions that stop people voting when they turn up to do so. At the same time, if an unforeseen incident occurs, which means that some people are at the polling station but do not have their ballot paper in their hand, the presiding officer should have a certain amount of discretion, within very strict parameters that I am setting out here, to allow people to cast their votes. It cannot be right that we in Parliament should take action that stops people voting when they have a legitimate right to do so. It goes against everything that we are trying to do in expanding democracy and encouraging people to vote and have a say in the government of our country.
At present a ballot paper must be correctly issued to a voter who applies for one before 10 pm. Issuing a ballot paper, as colleagues will know—we do pay attention to what happens in polling stations—is not instantaneous. There is a strict process that must be followed. It includes: calling out the number and name of the elector, as stated in the copy of the electoral register; marking the number on the corresponding number list of ballot papers issued; and placing a mark in the register against the elector’s number to indicate that a ballot paper has been received. All those steps have to be taken carefully and the presiding officer must ensure that they are all taken properly.
Therefore, it takes a minute or two to issue a ballot paper, but if there are several people in the queue, those minutes can mount up, and if there is a problem in the run-up to 10 o’clock it might take more than the few minutes to issue the necessary ballot papers. The steps that must be carried out when issuing a ballot paper necessarily affect the speed with which a polling station can deal with voters, and these practical matters must be taken into account when the House considers this legislation.
At present there is no provision for extending the polling time or issuing ballot papers beyond 10 pm, except of course in the case of riot or open violence, when polling would be adjourned to the following day. I am not talking about exceptional circumstances when there are riots or open violence at polling stations; I am talking about circumstances, such as those that occurred at the last general election, when people are genuinely present at the polling station, perhaps at 10 minutes to 10, yet there were so many that the ballot papers could not be issued.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): What happens under the current arrangements if there is suddenly a medical incident, such as a car accident, outside a polling station at a quarter to 10 and the police have to secure the area while the ambulance men deal with anyone who is hurt? Would the polling station close at 10 regardless, because that seems a bit silly?
Mrs Laing: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. That is exactly the sort of contingency that I am asking the House to consider in new clause 4. At present, if an incident occurs that prevents a potential voter entering a polling station or slows down their progress there from the car park, the tube or train station, the bus stop or the zebra crossing, nothing can be done about it.
Bob Stewart: That is wrong.
Mrs Laing: I agree. If the presiding officer is standing at the door of the polling station and sees that there are people just about to come in at 10 minutes to 10 but they are being prevented from doing so by some very good and unforeseen reason, and if he knows that when they come in it might be two minutes to 10 and there is no way 10 or 15 ballot papers can be issued in two minutes, under the current arrangements he can do nothing about it. He has to say, “Too bad. That happened and you lose your vote.” That seems entirely undemocratic and simply wrong.
This matter has been considered by the courts, which have held that
“where a ballot paper has been duly issued to an elector that elector should be allowed to complete it and put it in the ballot box provided this is done without undue delay. However”—
and this is the crux of the matter—
“no ballot papers should be issued after the time of close of poll.”
So if a person is standing in a queue of five or six people—it does not have to be a crowd—at five minutes to 10, and in front of them someone is having difficulty identifying their name, or is perhaps suffering from a disability that makes it difficult for them to give their name quickly to the polling clerk—
Bob Stewart: Or collapses.
Mrs Laing: Yes. My hon. Friend once again comes up with an interesting contingency. Supposing someone at the front of the queue collapses or becomes ill and attention is thus diverted, the five or six people who are legitimately standing there at 10 or five minutes to 10, expecting without any problem to be given their ballot paper, cannot be given one if the clock strikes 10. That just cannot be right.
The courts—this is a statement of the law at present—have ruled:
“We are of the opinion that the true dividing line is the delivery of the ballot paper to the voter. If he has had a ballot paper delivered to him before”—
I say “he”, because I think that the judgment was delivered before the female of the species was entitled to vote. Let us therefore bring this judgment of the courts up to date: when I say “he”, I mean “he” or “she”.
The judgment continues, finding that
“he is entitled in our judgment to mark that ballot paper and deposit it in the ballot box before the ballot box is closed and sealed. This interpretation of the enactment…appears to us to give a simple, definite, and just rule of procedure… As the polling commences at”—
by the officials, and the machinery being ready then to supply ballot papers to voters who apply for them, so in our view the poll must be no longer ‘kept open’ beyond”—
“the officials then ceasing to supply ballot papers to applicants.”
That position, as stated in court, was confirmed most recently by an election court in Northern Ireland, which in 2001 stated:
“It was the duty of the presiding officer to close the poll at 10pm by ceasing to issue any more voting papers. So long as
voting papers were issued by 10pm, however, if electors marked them and deposited them in the boxes without delay the votes were valid.”
The Electoral Commission, in guidance published for the Scottish elections in May this year, issued strict directions to presiding officers on what exactly should happen. Some people have argued that it would not be possible to determine where a queue ends and where exactly the cut-off point should be for people who are entitled to vote, but that criticism has to be nonsense. The presiding officer—surely, in a position of responsibility—will be able either to close the door or to usher people inside the polling station, and to say exactly where the cut-off point should be.
The guidance states:
“If there is a queue shortly before 10 pm”—
the presiding officer should—
“find out if anyone waiting is delivering a postal vote so that they can hand in the postal vote before the 10pm deadline; Make sure that nobody joins the queue after 10pm; If there is a queue at 10pm and if the polling station can accommodate all the electors in the queue, ask electors to move inside the polling station and close the doors behind the last elector in the queue”.
That is so simple. The guidance continues:
“If the polling station is too small to accommodate all the electors in the queue, a member of the polling station team should mark the end of the queue by positioning themselves behind the last elector in the queue”—
again, terribly simple and straightforward. The presiding officer, the guidance notes, should also:
“Explain to anyone who arrives after 10 pm and tries to join the queue that the poll has closed and that, by law, they cannot now join the queue to be issued with a ballot paper.”
All that is terribly simple and straightforward.
Mr Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Lady agree that under the Bill a police officer, or a local community support officer acting with the same powers as the police, could be in attendance so that if there were any dispute they could ensure that people knew exactly where the end of the queue was?
Mrs Laing: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. However, as I am sure the Committee will appreciate, this is not about an outbreak of violence, a riot, a demonstration, or unruly electors behaving in a somehow inappropriate fashion; it is about decent, law-abiding potential voters who turn up at a polling station before 10 o’clock, or whenever the close of poll might be, and find that because of some unforeseen contingency they do not get as far as having their ballot paper issued by that time.
Let me explain the difference that new clause 4 would make. At the moment, most people think that if they are in the polling station at 10 o’clock, they will get their ballot paper and be able to vote. That is a reasonable position, and the new clause would make it law. It is an unreasonable position to say that someone who has arrived at a polling station ahead of 10 o’clock, and for some unforeseen reason does not have a ballot paper issued, cannot still have one issued for a few minutes after that time. Nothing in the new clause would mean that the poll stayed open beyond 10 past or quarter past 10. We are talking about a very small amount of time for the sake of fairness. In the 2010 general election, 1,000 people were denied the opportunity to cast their vote when they had every right to do so. I am simply asking the House to bring the law up to date in order to give everybody who has the right to vote the chance to cast that vote.
Later in the same debate
Mrs Laing: I listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s description of the incident that might occur. I should make it clear to the Committee that new clause 4 is not intended to help someone who runs into a polling station at one minute to 10. Each individual has a responsibility to leave enough time in which to find the polling station. The new clause is intended to help people who arrive at the polling station at 10 minutes to 10 thinking that they have plenty of time, but, as a result of some incident that then occurs—there may, for instance, be too many people or bad organisation—the ballot paper is not issued at 10 minutes to 10. I think my hon. Friend would agree that that is quite an important distinction.
Bob Blackman: I agree. The most important thing is that people who have arrived at the polling station well before the time deadline and have formed a queue and are waiting for their ballot papers to be issued should be allowed to register their vote.
Mrs Laing: The Minister is right to read out that part of the Committee’s report, but since then the Electoral Commission has looked at this matter in greater detail, has taken further evidence and has recommended very strongly that new clause 4 should become part of the Bill. I have listened to the Electoral Commission and that is why I have brought this new clause before the House.
Mr Heath: I do not think the Electoral Commission has changed its position. [ Interruption. ] I do not think it has. It took evidence but it took no further evidence after the hon. Lady’s Committee took its evidence and came to a conclusion. I am grateful to her Committee for supporting the view that the Minister took.
Any changes that we introduce create more potential for problems. For example, this is not what the hon. Lady has proposed but if we were to introduce discretion on the part of returning officers they would be open to challenge because of the way in which they applied that discretion. I am glad that she has not gone down that road.
She says, “No one suggested it,” but that was suggested by one of her colleagues. That is why I am responding to that point in the context of this debate.
There is a suggestion that the problem could be addressed by reference to the limits of the curtilage of the polling station, but that would be extremely difficult because it varies enormously among polling stations. The hon. Lady’s proposal is probably the least bad option, but the queue itself presents problems with definition and management, which is why it is extremely difficult to accede to such a measure. The situation did not happen widely before 2010 and has not happened widely since, but we must ensure that it is not allowed to arise, and the key to that is proper management.