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Voting watchdog calls for May’s elections to be delayed until autumn

PUBLISHED: 11:49 13 March 2020 | UPDATED: 16:09 13 March 2020

MP Tom Hunt and Conservative campaigners were in the Rushmere ward in Ipswich last weekend, and continue to campaign until they are advised otherwise. Picture: PAUL GEATER

MP Tom Hunt and Conservative campaigners were in the Rushmere ward in Ipswich last weekend, and continue to campaign until they are advised otherwise. Picture: PAUL GEATER

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Elections planned for May 7 seem almost certain to be delayed until the autumn after the Electoral Commission – the independent body which regulates voting in this country – wrote to ministers calling for them to be postponed.

There are elections for Police and Crime Commissioners planned across the country on May 7, along with some local council elections. A third of the seats on Ipswich and Colchester councils are due to be contested.

Planning for these elections is still continuing - but officials accept it is a matter of when, not if, they are postponed.

The coronavirus crisis has led Ipswich Labour Party to suspend canvassing this weekend. It has some leaflets that will still be delivered, but no canvassers will be knocking on doors to prevent potentially vulnerable voters coming into contact with them.

However Conservative campaigners plan to continue as normal until there is different advice from the government or their party officials.

East Suffolk Council chief executive Stephen Baker is returning officer for the Suffolk PCC election. He said: 'We will do whatever the government tells us - but I hope that if the decision is taken to delay the election, it is taken quickly. We publish the initial Notice of Poll before the end of this month and the documents have to go to the printers' next week.'

Ipswich Labour agent John Cook said: 'We have taken the decision not to knock on doors this weekend. It seems a sensible precaution. We will see how things develop over the next week to see what we do in the future - but we don't want to come into contact with people who might be at greater risk.'

Conservative organisers Eddy Phillips said his party volunteers would continue canvassing until they were given different advice.

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The Electoral Commission said there are 'real risks' to holding votes in May.

The independent body has recommended to ministers that the votes should be postponed until the autumn due to the 'unprecedented times' surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

In a letter to Chloe Smith, Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, the commission said a decision would be needed before local authorities carry out any further preparations.

'Clearly any decisions to delay elections which are due is significant and would not normally be desirable; however, we are in unprecedented times,' wrote the commission's chief executive Bob Posner.

'The risks to delivery that have been identified are such that we cannot be confident that voters will be able to participate in the polls safely and confidently, nor that campaigners and parties will be able to put their case to the electorate.

'We therefore call on the Government to take steps to provide early clarity to all those with an interest in the electoral process; and on the available information and position we recommend the Government now delay the 7 May polls until the autumn.'

Ms Smith, in response to a written parliamentary question released on Thursday about the Government's election contingency plans, said: 'The Government continues to assess the impact of Covid-19 and is reviewing any implications for the delivery of public services on an ongoing basis.

'Our approach has been, and will continue to be, guided by the evidence and latest advice from medical experts, including the chief medical officer. We are currently working to facilitate the local, mayoral, and police and crime commissioner elections on May 7 going ahead as planned. We will of course continue to monitor the situation, and we are developing our responses and contingency plans as necessary.'

If the elections are postponed, emergency legislation would have to be tabled before MPs to extend the terms of office of existing councillors, mayors, and until the date of the new poll.

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