The May 2021 elections look set to go ahead after the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution told MPs this week there should be “a high bar for any delay”.
Answering an urgent question on the elections, Chloe Smith said: “Safe and secure elections are the cornerstone of any democracy, and Parliament’s decision, as set out in primary legislation, is that these polls should go ahead in May.
“Due to the pandemic, many of these elections have already been delayed by a year, but voters have a right to be heard and to decide who governs them. During the pandemic, local authorities will have taken many serious decisions impacting directly on residents, on matters from council tax to road closures, and those are important issues on which elected representatives should be held to account.
“Given the situation, however, we are, as the Prime Minister set out last week, keeping this position under review. Any change would require very careful consideration, including by this House, and would need to be based on robust evidence. There should be a high bar for any delay.”
The Minister said that polls had already gone ahead despite coronavirus, “in this country—for example, council elections in Edinburgh and Aberdeen—and internationally, with other countries holding general elections”
Ms Smith added that since the announcement of the postponement of the 2020 elections, the Government had been working towards holding them in a Covid-secure manner, and would put in place “a strong set of measures to support this”.
The Minister said: “Voters have a choice as to how they participate in elections—at the polling station, by proxy or by post. We want to maintain that choice, but we recognise that the pandemic may change people’s needs and preferences. We actively encourage anybody who is shielding or who would prefer not to attend a polling station to apply for an absent vote instead of going in person.
“We will bring forward additional measures to support absent voting, including extending the ability to appoint a proxy, so that anybody who might be affected by covid-19 in the days before the poll is still able to make their voice heard.”
Ms Smith added that the Government had worked closely with the Electoral Commission on the production of guidance to aid all involved. “This guidance is based on the latest public health advice and will be updated as necessary ahead of the polls.”
She said: “We have been working across Government to ensure that any activity required for participation in and the delivery of the polls is technically allowed under Covid regulations. I thank local government officials, who have stepped up to the mark enormously in dealing with new and challenging issues, in many cases since last March. That should be recognised. We are grateful to them for all the work they have done, and we will continue to work closely with them and all involved in elections to support them in delivering the elections successfully.”
The Minister added that voters "rightly" expected that campaigning activity should only be carried out safely. “I can confirm that the Government have also worked with the parliamentary parties panel to ensure that we are aware of the views from political parties, and we will continue to do that. We recognise the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of this area. We will continue to keep the House updated on the preparations for the safe holding of these elections, which are an important upcoming moment in our shared civic life.”
Cat Smith MP, Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) (Young People and Voter Engagement), said: “As the Minister set out, elections have been suspended for more than a year, and a record number of polls are now set to take place on the same day, with every elector able to cast a ballot in one election or another. It is deeply disappointing that the Government have failed to provide clarity on how these polls will be covid-secure.
“Clarity is urgently needed by local councils, electoral staff, candidates, campaigners and, of course, the public. This is yet another example of the Conservative Government being too slow to act. Ministers have had many months to make the necessary changes to protect our democratic process. Instead, they are treating these elections like business as usual.”
The Shadow Minister added: “Unless councils are informed of changes in good time, unnecessary expenditure will be wasted on the printing of poll cards and other preparatory work. Given the crippling Government cuts, councils simply cannot afford to be caught on the hoof here.”
She also warned that electoral staff had expressed “deep anxiety” about running the elections safely without additional funding, and pointed out that high numbers of electoral staff were volunteers, “with many in the high-risk category under Covid-19 guidance”.