Thursday 25th March 2021

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Written Statements

Read Hansard Text
Cabinet Office
Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am updating Parliament today on the progress being made to support delivery of the local polls on 6 May 2021 and to outline our expectations for the respective verification and count process. I have also today separately laid before Parliament the indemnity the Government are providing to returning officers and counting officers, in relation to covid-19, for the local elections and referendums in England taking place between 6 May 2021 and 4 May 2022 inclusively.

Safe and secure elections are the cornerstone of our democracy. On 5 February, the Government published a delivery plan outlining how these polls will be delivered in a covid-secure way. The Government have been working closely with Public Health England, the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Local Government Association, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), political parties and independents to support the delivery of these polls.

On 26 February, the Government published guidance on covid-secure campaigning for the May polls, supporting a level playing field for candidates and ensuring that voters can make a well-informed choice while continuing to protect the NHS and save lives.

Parliament has made changes to the nomination process to reduce the amount of movement and person-to-person contact that might otherwise be necessary, but ensuring there remains a democratic check and balance for candidates.

Legislation has also been made to change the rules for proxy voting, enabling those who need to self-isolate close to polling day to request an emergency proxy vote at very short notice, right up to 5pm on polling day itself.

Building on these changes to legislation and guidance, the Government are also continuing to provide practical support to returning officers where appropriate, including the sourcing of over 2,000 additional volunteer staff for the polls to date.

This work supports the significant preparations already being undertaken by local authorities and is backed up by Government funding. The Government are directly providing around £95 million for the running of the polls, which includes an additional allocation of around £32 million to specifically cover additional covid-19 related costs.

As outlined in my written statement of 9 March 2021, the Government are also committed to tackling intimidation in public life. Further to this, we are today publishing security guidance for returning officers and candidates to support the May 2021 polls.

Of course, polling day is not the end of the electoral process and I am aware that many returning officers are considering carefully how they can conduct the verification and count, which are often large and complex events, in a covid-secure way. It is vital for free and fair elections that polls are transparent and effectively scrutinised. However, minimising the transmission of covid-19 and protecting public health is a priority during these elections. A strong set of measures will therefore be in place to ensure every aspect of the polls are covid-secure for voters, staff and observers.

It is the responsibility of returning officers to manage the conduct of the count and to ensure that appropriate reasonable measures are taken to comply with covid-19 regulations and to allow fair scrutiny of the count. Returning officers will want to put in place arrangements to allow the effective scrutiny of their counts while ensuring the count is covid-secure for everyone present. To support returning officers with this, the Government have been working with the Electoral Commission to update their guidance on the verification and count process in the context of the pandemic, in line with prevailing covid-19 restrictions. I have also written today to election administrators to provide guidance on there being no public health need to quarantine ballot papers or postal votes.

The announcement of results will, as usual, be made as soon as is practicable after the close of the polls. However, it is important to be clear that counts, like other aspects of these polls, may look and feel different to previous occasions. Due to covid-secure measures, each stage of the count may take longer than in previous years. It is essential that all involved recognise the need to work together to support them taking place effectively and safely.

Democracy should not be cancelled because of covid-19, and the Government have every confidence in the ability of the returning officers and their teams to run these polls in a way that meets the highest standards of both public safety and democratic integrity. The Government are committed to supporting the sector to achieve this. I would like once again to express gratitude for the tireless efforts and exceptional dedication of all those involved.

The associated documents have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

[HCWS900]