The government has rejected some applications to run pilot voting schemes because it was thought they discriminated against particular religious groups, peers learned during the continuing committee stage of the Representation of the People Bill.
And the government was warned that its faces a challenge at report stage over its refusal to accept independent assessment of the pilot schemes.
Home office minister Lord Bassam said government required assurances from councils seeking to pilot electoral innovations that no voter would be disadvantaged by the experiment. 'A number of local authorities which have applied to run pilot schemes at the coming May's local elections have had their applications turned down simply on the grounds that a particular religious group might have been put at a disadvantage...A number of schemes involving both Saturday and Sunday voting have been turned down because the polling hours were longer on the Saturday than the Sunday - or vice versa - and the home secretary rightly took the view that that could have a discriminatory effect', said the minister.
His colleague Lord Jopling pointed out that 44 local authorities had proposed a total of 64 pilot schemes, but only four related to where one voted. All covered the siting of mobile ballot boxes; none covered the siting of polling stations in supermarkets. There were 27 applications about when people should vote. Almost all were concerned with early voting and only six were concerned with weekend voting.
Lord Bassam said there were some interesting innovations; for example, electronic counting and voting. Applications for mobile voting had been received from very different authorities: Windsor, Watford, Sunderland and Nowrwich. Brighton and Hove already had a first: last year is used an Asda supermarket and he had voted in last year's European elections in a pub, screened off from the rest of the premises.
Lord Mackay said he was concerned that some councils wanted more than one pilot. North Hertfordshire DC would have Saturday voting, early voting and change to absent voting arrangements. If turnout increased, how would it be possible to assess the effect of each of the changes, he asked.
Lord Bassam said 11 authorities wanted to carry out more than one pilot. But there were some 60 different schemes so it would be possible see how the 'multiple effect' might affect turnout compared to another area with only one pilot. 'We can compare andcontrast. That may well provide us with some clues as to the best way to encourage the electorate generally to participate in local democracy or, at some future stage, in national elections', he added.
Lord Jopling said once a pilot scheme had been carried out there must be independent assessment of it. A report on the scheme produced locally would have to be approved by the local council and 'would be biased in favour of what the majority party on that council wanted to see, for electoral reasons, coming out of the pilot'. For that reason, a report by the local authority alone would be utterly inadequate in assessing the benefit of the pilot schemes.
Lord Bassam said local authorities would carry out their evaluations in line with clear guidance issued by the home office. He explained: 'The reports will have to provide factual information on turnout and they will have to consider the take up of particular measures and the cost. The reviews will also involve structured interviews; they will seek the views of voters and, as importantly, non-voters, electoral staff, candidates and parties on the effects of the change being piloted and sampled. I do not believe that there is a risk that a report of this sort will be unduly coloured by the subjective views of local authorities. After all, they will be compiled by professional officers, and there will be limited scope, in a sense, for members to become directly involved, which might add that extra element of subjectivity'.
In future the pilots could only be rolled out on the recommendation of the proposed Electoral Commission.
Lord Jopling said he was disappointed by the minister's answer, and would raise the matter again.
He added: 'The Local Government Association has proposed that there should be three reports: one from the local authority; one by an independent assessment; and one from the Electoral Commission. I am not sure that we need as many as that, but if the minister could undertake that the legislation dealing with the creation of the Electoral Commission will include a duty to provide independent assessments of the pilot schemes, that would go a long way to satisfying us'.
Lord Bassam said he had considerable sympathy with the points made, 'but we believe that we should try to make best use of the Electoral Commission when it is place'.