Reforming Electoral Arrangements in Local Government
Gareth Bennett AM
Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)
Thanks to the Minister for today’s statement. There are a few sensible points in that statement that we would broadly support, and some more contentious ones. To start off with the good stuff: the role of the council chief executive as the returning officer in local government elections. We would agree with you that it should now be a statutory role for the council chief executive, and the excessive remuneration for that role of returning officer should be ended, particularly in these times of cash-strapped local councils. So, we fully agree with you on that. We spent a little time talking about STV. I think that’s an interesting issue—interesting because we now have a Minister who has publicly supported that system, which is a good development. The question is: will your presence as the Minister be able to have any meaningful effect on local council elections and the way in which they are held?
Now, David Melding is sat over there, and he will probably, with his memory of things that have been enacted in this Chamber, or not enacted, remember that this was an issue in the first Assembly term, when Rhodri Morgan was broadly in favour of changing the voting system but nothing happened. And here we are, 15 or 16 years later. Now, we have moved to a position where you are going to say that councils will be allowed to move to a system of STV, but it’s not going to be mandatory. Okay, you could make the point that you need to consult and you can’t force councils into doing something, and you need to uphold the principle of localism. You could come up with various arguments, but the problem is that you are going to end up, probably, with many Labour-run councils, which are simply going to stick with first-past-the-post. I mean, that’s blindingly obvious. So, we will look with interest as to what happens as a result of you enabling local councils to move to the new system, but I do share Siân Gwenllian’s scepticism as to what will actually ensue.
Now, the other points—many were raised by Janet Finch-Saunders in her rather comprehensive look at what you were doing. I tend to agree with lots of the points she made. I won’t rehash them, of course, but just to reiterate the points she was making about potential voter fraud. I agree, e-voting—it’s interesting. You could enhance the engagement of more voters—that’s a laudable aim. You cite the fact that in Scotland, where there’s been a pilot, there hasn’t been much evidence of fraud. Well, please keep an eye on this, because we don’t want to hear in four or five years’ time that there is lots of fraud going on.
We’ve already had the issue of the massive increase in postal voting, which has led to instances of electoral fraud—as Janet cited, the example of Tower Hamlets. So, I would also ask if you could include in your review a review of this massive increase of postal voting. And do you agree that postal votes should only be available to those that genuinely need them? So, that would be one question. Another question is: what particular safeguards are you going to bring in regarding e-voting?
The issue of 16- and 17-year-olds—well, you had a little pop at Janet when she talked about the education system, but it’s actually many of the young campaigners who want votes at 16 and 17 that have raised the issue of what they call ‘unbiased political education’. So, they do seem to feel that that is lacking in the system. So, I would ask again, as others have asked today: is some change to the education curriculum required? But, of course, there’s also the problem of how on earth you actually provide unbiased political education. So, it is rather a double-edged sword, that issue. So, that is going to be difficult as you proceed.
Lastly, prisoner votes—this does seem rather a perverse move, as it seems to be completely unsupported by the general population. The most recent opinion polls seem to indicate that 70 per cent of the population are against giving votes to prisoners. If you are going to try to give prisoners the vote, will any effort be made to increase the vote among serving armed forces personnel? Thank you.