There should be a “high bar” for postponing local elections in England this year, a minister has told MPs.
Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith said the position would be kept “under review”.
She said work was under way to ensure people could cast their ballots in a “COVID-secure” way – but Labour has raised concerns a “lack of preparation” could force people to “choose between their health and their right to vote”.
Ms Smith made the comments as she responded to an urgent question in the House of Commons.
“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,” she said.
Ms Smith said voters “have a right to be heard and to decide who governs them”, noting that councils will have taken “many serious decisions impacting directly on those residents, from council tax to road closures”.
She added: “Given the position, 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 need to be based on robust evidence.
“There should be a high bar for any delay.”
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A raft of local elections were postponed last year at the height of the pandemic, including the London mayoral contest.
Ms Smith said the government was working towards holding the elections in a “COVID-secure manner”.
“Voters have a choice as to how they participate in elections,” she told the Commons.
“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 would actively encourage anybody who is shielding or who would prefer not to attend the polling station to apply for an absent vote instead of going in person.
“We will be bringing 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.”
Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Cat Smith said the lack of clarity was “another example” of ministers being slow to act.
“It is deeply disappointing that the government have failed to provide clarity on how these polls will be COVID-secure,” she said.
“Clarity is urgently needed by local councils, electoral staff, candidates, campaigners and, of course, the public, and it’s 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 Labour MP called for there to be “clear guidance and training” for councils about how to make polling stations and the count itself COVID-secure.
“High numbers of electoral staff are volunteers, many in the high-risk category under COVID-19 guidance, so does the minister expect at-risk people to risk their health to support the safe running of these elections?,” she asked.
“Does the minister share my concern that the government’s lack of preparation will force many people to choose between their health and their right to vote?”
The minister responded: “It is simply not the case that there has been no action. If she had listened to my opening statement she would have heard it loud and clear.”
She added: “She asks specifically whether there will be clear guidance, as I said in my opening statement, yes, there will be.”
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