Darling tells city to find the missing toll poll voters

BRITAIN’S Transport Secretary today demanded the city council resolve the problems which risk leaving tens of thousands of residents without a vote in the Capital’s road tolls referendum.

Alistair Darling said it was "absolutely essential" that everyone entitled to a vote in February’s poll was able to take part.

Tens of thousands of residents have failed to respond to a publicity blitz mounted by the local authority aimed at ensuring voters who asked for their details to be left off an edited version of the electoral register can take part in the referendum.

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Edinburgh Central MP Mr Darling stopped short of calling for the council to delay the referendum until it ensured maximum take-up from voters currently due to lose their vote, but said it was clear the local authority still had a major problem to resolve.

Mr Darling said: "It is absolutely right that there should be a referendum on this issue, but it is absolutely essential that the council makes sure everybody that is entitled to vote does get a vote.

"There is clearly a problem here and it is very important that the council finds out what it is and sorts it out."

It emerged earlier this week that more than 59,000 people have failed to register to vote in the poll, amid claims that publicity material for the Don’t Lose Your Vote campaign has flopped.

Around 17 per cent of the city’s voters face missing out, compared to 26 per cent when the problem was first uncovered in January. The council is unable to use the full electoral register as its poll is a non-statutory referendum. Voters who have asked to be left off an edited version of the register so as to avoid receiving "junk mail" have been left unable to vote.

Mr Darling added: "This decision is going to have an impact on Edinburgh for the next 20-30 years, whichever way the referendum goes, and it is vital that nobody misses out on the chance to vote.

"It is just as important as ensuring that everyone in Edinburgh is treated equally by the scheme, which the council has ensured through its decision on the west Edinburgh exemption."

But he said he was happy with the proposed question set by the council, which has been branded "biased" by critics.

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He also backed the controversial decision to include an information leaflet with the ballot paper, saying he felt there was still a lot of ignorance about the proposed congestion charging scheme.

He added: "I’ve been quite surprised by the number of people who have asked me in the last few weeks or so how the scheme will work and I think the council is quite right to be providing information with the ballot paper. They'd have been open to criticism if they hadn’t.

"I’ve always been sceptical about people who say that the wording of a question can turn the result of a referendum. Basically, people are being asked ‘are you prepared to support congestion charging or are you not?’"

Mr Darling entered the debate on Edinburgh’s road tolls scheme two months ago when he told the council to reject key findings from the road tolls public inquiry. He said councillors had to press ahead with plans to exempt people in rural west Edinburgh from paying the 2 congestion charge at the outer cordon - despite the idea being rejected at the hearing - and called on the council to ditch plans to make buses and taxis pay the charge.

The council agreed to retain the exemptions when it voted through its proposals last week.

Residents only have until January 14 to ensure they are entitled to vote in the referendum, the result of which is due to be announced on February 22.