Lancashire election chiefs call for polls to be postponed again - or done by post

The officials responsible for overseeing elections in Lancashire have called on the government to postpone the local polls planned for May until at least the autumn.

Friday, 15th January 2021, 12:03 pm
Updated Friday, 15th January 2021, 12:06 pm

The county’s returning officers - who ensure the smooth running of the vote in each council area - have written a joint letter to cabinet office minister Michael Gove requesting that the upcoming elections be pushed back because of the challenge of conducting them safely during the pandemic.

However, they say that if the government does press ahead with the planned date of 6th May, then the safest option would be for the polls to be carried out entirely by post.

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Multiple elections are due to take place in May - to Lancashire County Council, for the county's Police and Crime Commissioner and to city and district councils like Preston and Chorley

Ministers pulled the plug on local elections last spring when it became obvious that they would have come during the first wave of the pandemic.

In Lancashire, that resulted in the cancellation of polls which were due to take place to elect members to eight of the area’s 14 district and unitary councils - as well as parish and town council elections and the election of the county’s Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC).

The delay has caused a backlog in the democratic process, which means that the rescheduled votes will now clash with elections to Lancashire County Council. These take place once every four years - at a point when there would usually be no district or PCC polls - and involve the election of 84 members to the county authority across all areas except Blackpool and Blackburn.

The returning officers’ letter, seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), warns of the demands of ensuring that such a complex set of elections is held safely while also being certain that “no voter is disenfranchised in any way”.

“Nevertheless....election teams have started making necessary preparations to deliver the elections in May 2021,” wrote Denise Park, returning officer for Blackburn with Darwen Council and the Lancashire police force area, on behalf of her counterparts across the county.

“This includes risk assessments of all polling stations and count venues, recruitment of additional polling station staff and procuring PPE.

“However, whilst preparations can be made to deliver the elections safely, we also feel that in view of the current national position in relation to the pandemic, the safest way to hold the elections in May 2021 would be by all postal voting.”

The letter goes on to describe how election planning risks diverting local authorities’ “limited resources” away from the Covid response - including supporting the vaccination programme - and suggests that the Cabinet Office considers “postponing the elections scheduled in May to early autumn at the soonest”.

However, the LDRS understands that local government secretary Robert Jenrick told local leaders during a call earlier this week that officers and election candidates should plan on the basis of the traditional May vote going ahead.

In the Commons on Wednesday, minister for constitution and devolution Chloe Smith said the bar for changing the date “would have to be quite high”, because of the need for primary legislation to enact it.

“There is a very full record of preparation to make sure these elections will be a success," Ms. Smith said, adding that plans were being put in place to extend proxy voting applications, to ensure anybody affected by Covid-19 in the days before the poll could still "make their voice heard".

Lancashire’s returning officers have asked the government for early confirmation of whether the elections will be postponed in order to “avoid abortive work and costs and [so that] resources could be utilised for the pandemic response and the delivery of other vital services”.

The eight district and unitary councils in Lancashire which had their polls cancelled last year were Blackburn, Burnley, Chorley, Hyndburn, Pendle, Preston, Rossendale and West Lancashire.

In Chorley and Pendle, the boroughs were due to hold 'all-out' elections for every member of the authority, after recent boundary changes and a reduction in the number of councillors.

In a statement to the LDRS, Denise Park said: “If the elections do go ahead in May, we are preparing thoroughly to ensure they are conducted safely for candidates, staff and voters. Postal voting is the safest way in terms of minimising person to person interactions.

“Any change to the voting system would require significant time to prepare. Councils work closely with police on any type of election-related fraud and that would remain the same.

“Registering to vote in the way you prefer is something we actively encourage.”

WHAT THE POLITICIANS SAY

Lancashire County Council’s Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali said that any delay to local elections should be short - and be used to put alternative arrangements in place.

“It's important that voting is made Covid-secure. We have seen elections take place from New Zealand to the USA, but once again, this government is behind the curve.

“Elections could take place over several days or we could even look at electronic and postal voting. However, the safety of all staff is crucial in moving forward and the government needs to give cash strapped council monies to put in place all the measures needed,” County Cllr Ali said.

Liberal Democrat group leader David Whipp warned that any poll would be a distraction from dealing with the pandemic - and urged the government not to leave any change until “the last minute”.

“Council staff need to be putting every ounce of effort into fighting the virus - not wasting time on abortive election planning. It's nowhere near safe for people to be campaigning, even with an all postal ballot.

“The sensible and safe thing is to defer elections until later in the year. It's too dangerous to run them now,” County Clr Whipp said.

The sole Green Party member on the authority, Gina Dowding, also urged the government not to “dither”.

"It’s important that everyone can safely exercise their right to vote - and the worst possible scenario would be more indecisiveness by the government.

“It would be unforgivable to press on now with the May date, then postpone later, which would be wasting valuable council staff and resources that could be used to support vaccination and testing,” she added.

The Tory candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), Andrew Snowden - himself a county councillor and part of the ruling Conservative group on the authority - said public safety should “always come first and foremost”.

“I think we should all be guided by the experts on what we can or can't do at different points in this pandemic.

“Given that local elections, which have already been delayed by a year in some cases, are already on a rolling review based on Covid numbers, let's just keep all our efforts in Lancashire on fighting the virus and getting our economy, public services and local businesses reopened as soon as is safely possible,” County Cllr Snowden said.

The current PCC, Labour’s Clive Grunshaw, said that he had written his own letter to the government in support of the county's returning officers calling for a postponement of the vote.

“Whilst I am looking forward to the election and the opportunity to put my record and future plans to the people of Lancashire, I recognise that now isn't the time and that the health and well-being of the public and council staff should not be compromised for the sake of a short delay - until we are on the right side of Covid.

“The focus of the government and local authorities should be on public health at this time. If the elections were to go ahead, the election period would commence in March, a time that we expect to still be in lockdown,” Mr. Grunshaw warned.