FactCheck: Clegg, Huhne and the £250m question. Who’s right on AV?
“The change to AV will cost up to an additional £250 million” - No to AV
Cathy Newman checks it out
The coalition partners are having their first serious marital row – and the din is enough to wake the neighbours. The cause of the spat is something as prosaic as the cost of changing the voting system.
Senior Conservatives have claimed it could cost £250m to switch to the Alternative Vote (AV). That prompted the Liberal Democrats in the Cabinet to start throwing the crockery – as FactCheck first reported here.
Since that post, relations have deteriorated, with Nick Clegg accusing David Cameron of allying himself with the BNP, and Chris Huhne fuming that George Osborne has been quoting ‘fiddled figures’.
The cost of saying yes to AV will be a cool £250m and more than half of that – £130m – will be spent on electronic vote counting machines, No to AV claims. FactCheck scrutinised these claims in February and found them murky. So what’s changed?
Senior Lib Dems insist that electronic machines aren’t necessary for an AV system, but they have been relentlessly scorned by the No camp. Today the former chief executive of Greater London Authority, Anthony Mayer, wrote a letter to The Times arguing that “with AV there is no choice but electronic counting”.
The No to AV campaigners have admitted to FactCheck: “Yes we know there are no official plans (to bring in electronic machines) but it’s almost a given. The Yes campaigners are getting off on a technicality”.
But are electronic voting machines a given? The Political Studies Association (PSA) doesn’t think so. It points out that most elections held under AV – and under the more demanding STV system – in Australia, Ireland and Scotland are all, in general, conducted using traditional paper ballots.
Meanwhile, the independent elections watchdog The Electoral Commission hasn’t even considered if electronic voting machines are necessary – let alone looked at how much they’d cost.
A spokesman told FactCheck: “The Commission hasn’t considered whether electric machines are necessary or value for money. Cost benefit analysis hasn’t been done yet, but we have called on the Government to do it.”
Has the Government done it? Not according to the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander – who said the Treasury doesn’t believe AV would cost any more than a normal election.
Last month, a leaked letter from Mr Alexander’s private office revealed that the Treasury “has not received any advice on the assumptions behind the cost of the next General Election should it be an AV election.”
Today, a Treasury spokesman stuck by what they told FactCheck in February: “The Government has no plans to re-open departmental Spending Review settlements as a consequence of either outcome of the referendum on AV.”
Mr Alexander’s letter revealed that the Cabinet Office has set aside £120m for the next General Election; £10m more than the 2010 election (which cost £82m to run and £30m to deliver candidates’ election leaflets).
The Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, seized again on this over the weekend, threatening Chancellor George Osborne with legal action.
“A rigged referendum result based on fiddled figures would be deeply damaging to our government as a whole. If you do not withdraw these false numbers rubbished by your own department, your credibility as Chancellor will be on the line,” he wrote in a letter to Mr Osborne.
The No to AV’s estimated sum of £250m includes the £81m cost of the referendum itself – a cost which will be incurred whatever the outcome.
Strip that out and there’s the £130m they claim would be incurred by the installation of electronic voting machines, and £39m left over for voter education.
The Yes to Fairer Votes campaign told FactCheck: ”The only equipment you need with AV is a pencil.”
But, as the PSA says, it’s reasonable that in introducing AV there will be some costs. Aside from educating voters, it’s true that counting the votes would take longer than under FPTP. However, there are no estimates on how much this might cost.
A spokesman for the Cabinet Office told FactCheck: “The basic difference between the costs of an election under AV and the current system would be related to the count. The exact cost is not known: it would depend on turnout, voting patterns and how many rounds of counting were necessary.”
There’s no set pay for vote counters, The Electoral Commission explained to FactCheck. “They must be paid, but there’s no maximum or minimum. It’s up to the Local Authority,” a spokesman said. The money is distributed to Local Authorities from the government’s ringfenced election pot.
The PSA meanwhile, took a punt on the overall cost; “Even if we suppose (unrealistically) that the current cost of running an election (up to £90m) would be doubled by the introduction of AV, that implies an annual cost across a five-year electoral cycle of only around 30p per person. Clearly, this is a very small sum.”
Cathy Newman’s verdict
No wonder the Liberal Democrats are threatening everything from legal action to resignation: they clearly have right on their side.
But anyone expecting the divorce lawyers to be called in should think again.
With local elections in the offing the Liberal Democrats want to generate some heat and noise to show the activists they’re not putting up with any nonsense from their partners.
So much of the anger is synthetic. That said, marital harmony is unlikely to be what it was after May 5.
People are no longer betting with quite such certainty that the coalition will reach its five-year anniversary.
The analyis by Emma Thelwell