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Oral - Response Of The Welsh Assembly Government To The Local Government And Public Services Committee’s Scrutiny Project – Electoral Arrangements In Wales

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Sue Essex, Minister For Finance, Local Government And Public Services
I welcome the publication of this report by the Local Government and Public Services Committee, which has once again shown itself to be capable of producing a thorough and thought-provoking analysis of one of its policy areas.

Over the last few years, there has been considerable discussion and change in what is called electoral modernisation. We have seen the formation of the Electoral Commission, the introduction of postal voting on demand, pilot schemes in local government elections—although sadly hardly any in Wales yet—all-postal-voting experiments, the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which has lowered the age of candidacy and introduced the need for personal identifiers for postal and proxy voters. Unfortunately, during this period we have also witnessed a general decline in turnout, something which we all hope is reversed at our elections in May.

The Assembly has relatively few powers over elections. We finance our own elections and appoint the returning officers, but we have no powers over the conduct of elections. However, we have set up the elections planning group, which brings together all the players in electoral matters in Wales. Through this group we are able to facilitate the promotion of best practice. This has formed the background to what has been a lengthy scrutiny review involving evidence-gathering from many sources, including from overseas, and also the use of expert advice in the form of Roger Morris, one of the principal experts in electoral matters in the UK.

I have little difficulty in accepting and supporting almost all of the recommendations. My one caveat is in relation to individual registration. I do not think that the case is yet proven for this. Many of us are concerned that a move in this direction, although supportable in principle, might lead to declines in levels of registration once everyone has to return their own form on an annual basis, particularly in urban areas with young and shifting populations. Its introduction in Northern Ireland led initially to a dramatic decline in registration levels. I am aware that ground has been made up by allowing people to remain on the register for some time, even if their forms are not returned each year. However, Northern Ireland has a particular history, in electoral terms, which may not make it the best test bed for this process. I think that we should leave this recommendation for now, until and unless it becomes clear that the UK Government is moving in this direction.

I am pleased that the report places so much emphasis on the work of the electoral planning group that we set up. The group is well placed to co-ordinate responses on many of these matters and will consider the report at its next meeting in June.

I am also pleased that the report echoes the principles of the Beecham report, and calls for an examination of costs, resources and efficiency in the fields of registration and electoral administration. Although each county needs its own returning officer and electoral registration officer, who are usually the same person and are not to be confused with the electoral administrators, I am sure that there are ways in which registration and electoral services could benefit from sharing expertise.

This report also comes out in the wake of the Government of Wales Act 2006, which provides to the Assembly the power to promote its own elections. The recommendations concerning this power are for the National Assembly and not for me.

A number of the recommendations relate to what happens in school in terms of political education and democratic involvement. They are, therefore, matters for the Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills as much as they are for me. The responses to those recommendations, which are numbered from 21 to 29 in the report, show that much is already being done in this area and that more is planned to address the issue of including democratic processes within the curriculum.

I am sure that we would all agree that we need to do much more if young people are to see the relevance of voting and participating in the democratic process. Although a lower turnout among young voters has always been the case, the number of non-participants is now dangerously high; there are probably some young people whose parents have never voted, so they have no example to follow. We must acknowledge that there is a real threat to democratic institutions if the majority of young people do not think it worth their while to vote. We need to work on this continuously, and I am pleased that the committee has pointed us in this direction.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the intensive work that I know is under way to prepare for the Assembly elections. Once they are over, the electoral community will begin preparations for the county and community elections in Wales in May 2008. That should provide the first real opportunity for electoral pilot schemes to be held in Wales, and I am hopeful that, in line with the committee’s recommendations, we will see examples of electronic counting and voting, voting in places other than polling stations, and perhaps voting on days other than polling day. I welcome this report.