European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill
3:06 pm

Report received.

Clause 1 [Piloting conduct at European and local elections]:

3:10 pm
Photo of Baroness Hanham

Baroness Hanham (Conservative)

moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 19, leave out subsection (5) and insert—

"(5) An order under this section may only specify—

(a) the North East;

(b) the East Midlands; and

(c) any local authorities within those electoral regions which are due to hold elections on the same date."

Photo of Baroness Hanham

Baroness Hanham (Conservative)

My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall also speak to Amendment No. 3. Those amendments are included in a very large group of amendments that are being introduced by the Government. We have been backwards and forwards over this issue in Committee. Subsequently, I had a meeting with the Minister and I thank him for giving us the opportunity for further discussion. However, I do not think it will come as any great surprise to him that we are not convinced by the arguments that he has advocated for piloting in four regions.

We believe that there are fundamental reasons why we should stand firm on this point. First, we think that it is irresponsible to hold a pilot scheme in nearly half of all the regions that will be holding combined European parliamentary and local elections in June. They form a substantial part of the electorate of England and therefore it can only tendentiously be described as a "pilot". Pilot schemes are designed to generate evidence on a system of voting that is new and that is by no means guaranteed as secure. We have conceded that there may be merit in trialling all-postal voting on a regional basis in the combined regions. It has already been trialled on a local basis in other schemes. However, we draw the line at a trial in four regions.

Secondly, the Government are disregarding the evidence contained in the Electoral Commission's report. Its conclusion was that only two regions—the north-east and the east Midlands—could be recommended as ready and able to undertake these schemes. I asked why the Government intend to ignore the advice of the Electoral Commission and have received no satisfactory answer from the Minister. Extensive research has been carried out. The Electoral Commission is impartial. It is an independent body set up by the Government to advise them and it is now deemed to be expert in electoral matters. I am sure that other noble Lords will have received a letter from the Electoral Commission from which it is interesting to note that it says that it has been involved in no further discussions with the two extra regions proposed by the Government:

"The Commission was unable to make a positive recommendation in respect of those regions having assessed their suitability against the criteria we applied . . . We have not ourselves been involved in further discussions".

Then how have the Government assessed the suitability of the two extra regions?

Does the Minister, or his Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, believe that they know better than the commission? I think that the answer must be that they clearly do. In Committee, in relation to the Electoral Commission's advice, the Minister said:

"It has given us advice. We have not asked it to make the decision but to investigate the issues and give its analysis and reasons, and what underpinned its reasons. We have asked it to investigate, appraise and advise, not to decide".—[Official Report, 26/01/04; col. GC 18.]

I find this baffling. We have moved from a situation where the Government asked the Electoral Commission to put forward up to three best regions for piloting. The Electoral Commission said that it could only positively recommend two regions. Now there are four regions. The two additional regions are Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west where there were issues with the unwillingness of the returning officers and the complex nature of some of the elections. They still remain. I know that from information that I have received since Committee. The strongest possible objections remain to all-postal pilots in these regions. That view has been made extremely clear to the Government, including by a motion passed by Bradford City Council in October of last year saying that it was opposed to the idea of piloting in these combined elections.

There is deep concern about fraud and security issues. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, drew our attention to the problems experienced in previous piloting. It is against this background that the Government are proposing to bludgeon two unwilling regions, and many unwilling local authority chief executives, into running a pilot vote.

The Minister made it clear that he does not believe that the lack of enthusiasm of returning officers, or the possibility of malpractice, should be impediments to piloting the all-postal scheme. The Electoral Commission clearly thought that they should. Our faith rests in the experts and we remain adamant that only the two original regions should pilot the election: the north-east and the east Midlands.

In response to our intention to limit the pilot to only these two regions, the Minister commented:

"Otherwise we are saying that we shall never have postal voting on a wider scale than in those areas where people are interested".—[Official Report, 26/1/04; col. GC 20.]

We do not believe this to be the case. These are pilot elections, trial schemes and experimentation. It seems sensible to have them in regions that are confident about using the all-postal system and that want to give it a try. If these prove successful, as I hope that they will, next time round it is likely that there will be more enthusiasm and confidence from other returning officers and the all-postal system can be widened to include more regions. Of course, that is unless the Government are going to try to bounce all-postal elections on other elections.

Despite what the Minister may feel about this, we are not trying to cause trouble. We feel that the Government are taking a big risk that is not justifiable in terms of a possible increase in turnout. We need to balance innovation against security and the safety of our democratic process.

Finally, I shall say a brief word about the detail of the two amendments that we have tabled. After our welcome meeting with the Minister, we thought that it was important to signal immediately our continued opposition to any more than two regions being on the face of the Bill and to do so by tabling the old amendment that we put down to Clause 1 in Committee. This is Amendment No. 1. However, we are willing to accept the Minister's argument that, if we decide to move on Amendment No. 1, it would mean that it would fall outside the scope of the restructuring of the Bill that the Minister is trying to do, which is to enable just one order to be laid, rather than two. Therefore, we have now put forward Amendment No. 3. If, having heard what the Minister has to say, I believe it to be necessary, that will be the amendment that we shall pursue. I beg to move.

3:15 pm
Photo of Lord Rennard

Lord Rennard (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I rise in support of Amendment No. 3. A number of your Lordships have expressed considerable reservations about all-postal voting—or compulsory voting by post, as I prefer to call it. I shall not dwell in detail on all those reservations but they fall into three broad areas. First, there are concerns about lack of secrecy and privacy in voting, which some people believe undermine the basic principles of the Secret Ballot Act of 1872. Secondly, there are considerable concerns about potential fraud with all-postal voting, particularly in relation to homes in multi-occupation where people are not at all sure who will receive the ballot papers that are put through the letter box and who will return them.

There are also concerns about the timing of all-postal voting mechanisms. We now understand that in these all-postal voting pilots in June, the ballot papers will be delivered between 25 and 29 May, some two weeks before the official polling day and two weeks before many people have made up their minds, considered the arguments put by the parties, seen the television news, and so on. I am concerned about people voting so far ahead of proper examination of the issues.

Notwithstanding all those reservations about some of the problems associated with postal voting, it seems to me right to consider that there should be an element of pilot experiments to see whether the concerns are valid. So perhaps the idea of having the two pilots in the north-east region and the east Midlands should be supported. However, I believe that no case whatever has been made for having more than two experiments. If there is a case for experimentation, why should it occur in more than two regions?

The Government have given us no explanation for their fundamental change of heart on the issue. Only a few months ago, their view was that there should be no all-postal pilot experiments and that the only experiment this June should be the combining of the local and the European elections. The Government's position then changed from no all-postal pilots to three all-postal pilots. They had to ask the independent Electoral Commission, given its expertise and various criteria, to recommend three regions for such experimentation. The Electoral Commission said that it could positively support only a proposal for two regions and that only that would be suitable. We therefore assumed that only two pilots would go forward. Now, however, the Government seem to be opting for four pilots. I believe that operating four pilots—effectively four of the eight regions in England, and almost half the local authorities that will vote in June—amounts to rolling out all-postal voting rather than "experimenting" with it. It is a fundamental change to voting mechanisms.

Of course, there is time for progress in deciding how voting mechanisms should be changed. However, if changes are to be made, they should not be made unilaterally by one party which imposes change on all the other parties without the support of the independent Electoral Commission—which itself was established to avoid accusations that parties were changing voting systems for purely partisan advantage.

The idea of four pilot regions plainly does not have the support of the Electoral Commission. I believe that the problems are such that it would be wrong to subject half of England and nearly half of local authorities to all-postal voting methods. A few hundred votes may not seem terribly important in European elections in which millions of votes are cast. However, a few hundred votes may make a great difference in many local authorities and in many wards. The problems associated with all-postal voting often occur in inner-city areas and houses in multiple occupation. I believe that a too widespread use of all-postal voting could cause a false result and make the difference in many areas.

There is a strong feeling that this is not just about legitimate experimentation; two pilots would have been sufficient to accomplish that. There is a strong suspicion that such widespread all-postal voting has been proposed to ensure that the overall national result is more palatable to the Government. The Government are rolling out compulsory postal voting and not explaining the necessity for four postal pilots, all of which are concentrated in areas where the Labour Party is fearful about turnout among its traditional supporters. They seem to be interfering in the mechanism as they should not be doing, in a way which the Electoral Commission was set up to avoid.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool

Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench)

My Lords, I support the amendments in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. In their speeches at earlier stages of the Bill, they trenchantly set out—as they have done again today—the arguments why we should be cautious in proceeding to "roll out"—as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, described it—these arrangements in many parts of the country.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was given his first political appointment in 1983 when he acted as my agent in the general election of that year. Since then I have watched with considerable pleasure as he has honed his formidable skills and won just acclaim as one of the country's most knowledgeable commentators on electoral practice. I think that the House would do well to listen to the caution he urged in his remarks today. Those remarks are based on real practical experience of how elections are run.

Over the 25 years that I represented people in Liverpool both as a city councillor and as a Member of Parliament—and it is a city that the Minister knows very well—the election statistic that always interested me most after the size of the majority was the election turnout. In often keenly fought contests, the turnout in that constituency was always the highest in Liverpool and among the highest on Merseyside. Over the past decade, however, it has depressed and disturbed me to see declining turnouts and large-scale absenteeism at the polls. In one ward by-election in Liverpool, turnout was a paltry 6 per cent. When 94 per cent of the electorate decide to absent themselves from voting, grave doubt is cast on the legitimacy of the election and on our institutions as well. Where here is an electoral mandate? Where here is a commitment to civil society?

Nor was that an aberration. City-wide turnout in local elections in recent years has rarely seen more than one in five voting, and in the most recent general election the Liverpool Riverside constituency achieved one of the lowest turnouts in the UK, with a turnout of just 34.8 per cent. Voter alienation manifests itself in other ways as well—through, for instance, support for groups such as the British Movement in the Lancashire town of Burnley.

The answer to this alienation is to re-engage with the voters. The absence of direct political contact on a regular face-to-face, person-to-person basis is one of the reasons why voters have switched off. Instead of re-engagement, however, we tend to try to dream up ever more novel ways to enable a shrinking group of people to cast their votes. While I am not intrinsically opposed to the extension of postal voting, I am seriously concerned that this debate is simply a distraction from the more fundamental question of why people are disengaging from politics and from their civic duty to vote. I am also extremely worried that the way in which this measure has been promoted will create more cynicism, rather than abate it.

I shall divide my remaining remarks into two questions on the principles and the practicalities.

The Electoral Commission has been right to argue for a guarded and cautious approach to postal voting. As we have heard, the commission recommended a pilot scheme to be conducted in areas geared up to dealing with potential abuse and fraud and then for an assessment and evaluation to be carried out before deciding whether to extend the scope of postal voting. The commission says that that could be a useful contribution in increasing participation, and certainly evidence from boroughs such as St Helens, where postal votes were used last year, would tend to bear that out. However, from an empirical point of view, what would be really useful is to know whether that is just a passing fancy—an aberration—or a long-term, solid achievement. Clearly such an evaluation would need to take place over several elections for that to become clear.

What we lose by the extension of that principle is the physical presence that voting at a polling station requires of each citizen. It takes only a few minutes each year to vote at a polling station. Noble Lords who have served in local authorities or in both Houses may not think it an enormous burden to give up a few minutes each year in order to be personally present to vote. It is part of living in a country with the privileges of freedom and liberty that we enjoy.

GK Chesterton's Edwardian poem "The Secret People" contains a famous admonition to politicians and a reminder of the electoral day of reckoning. He said:

"we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.

Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget".

If the voters are not to be seen asserting their rights and liberties through the ballot box, we will lose something special from our democracy, and perhaps the politicians will be more inclined to forget. It was Gladstone's first administration who provided for the secret ballot so that landowners could no longer evict their tenants and employers could no longer discriminate against their workers when voters exercised their franchise against their master's wishes. The safeguards in postal voting are nowhere near as great as those offered by being physically present to vote.

Another principle at stake is the contamination of the impartial process of elections themselves. When the two major opposition parties object to the arbitrary overturning of the Electoral Commission's recommendations, it breaks the consensus that should always be at the heart of how we organise elections. Charges of manipulation, partisan advantage, gerrymandering and the rest, damage the whole process and can be completely avoided by proceeding only when there is inter-party agreement. It is a very bad principle to ride roughshod over the safeguards. It casts a shadow over the process and risks undermining the legitimacy of the process itself.

So much for the principles, but what about the practicalities? The Electoral Commission said that it was not able to make a positive recommendation that the north-west region was suitable to undertake a pilot scheme in 2004. If the commission cannot offer such a recommendation, how can the Government be in a position to do so?

I was looking at a table of comparative experience in organising postal voting. The number of authorities in the north-west is 43, and only 14 per cent—six of them—have any experience of all-postal pilots. By comparison, in the north-east, 65.2 per cent of authorities have that experience. Clearly, the north-east region is in a much better position to carry it out, which is why the Electoral Commission said what it did.

I have also been in correspondence with the leader of Liverpool City Council—Councillor Mike Storey. I put to him several questions about electoral fraud and multi-occupancy of properties, and his remarks bear out the need to proceed with caution. His letter referred to comments made by the Electoral Commission, which stated:

"There have been several allegations of electoral fraud in the North West in recent years. These have centred around interference with postal votes, or intimidatory procurement of proxy votes in conventional elections. Some of these investigations could proceed to court in early 2004. This would be likely to produce unfavourable publicity about the security of postal voting".

Again that will lead to the contamination and the undermining of the process. I also asked about the complexity of running such an election, and he said:

"An all out council election for the whole city, on new ward boundaries, which do not fit existing constituency boundaries, plus the Euro election at the same time, fills me with great concern about the effective organisation of such an exercise. This is especially so as time is short, and planning started later because the North West was specifically recommended not to be included in the pilot in the Commission's report of 8th December.

He continued:

"Given the Freepost for the Euro, as well as an all postal, I estimate that we are looking at 40–50 million additional items for the Post Office to deliver. I suspect it will be chaotic if this pilot goes ahead".

In cities such as Liverpool and Manchester there is the other issue of multi-occupancy. I well recall from my days as a Member of Parliament that multi-occupancy and vacant properties were frequently where fraudulent votes came from. I remember vividly a group of members of the Militant Tendency who had written on the back of their hands the names of voters whom they had come to the polling station to personate. I saw that with my own eyes and complained about it at the time, and the police were called. How much easier it will be to carry out such abuses using this measure.

There are principled and practical reasons why we should proceed with great caution before messing around with the electoral process. I commend the amendments to the House.

3:30 pm
Photo of Lord Greaves

Lord Greaves (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, referred to some of the information that I provided in the Grand Committee about the allegation of widespread fraud involving postal voting in towns in the north of England. I shall not repeat it today as it is set out in Hansard and is available for people to read, but towns such as Bradford, Oldham, Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, Blackburn, Burnley and my own district of Pendle have all been involved.

Although there have been only a few prosecutions, some police investigations are still going on, and it is widely accepted among politicians of all parties that fraud has taken place, and that it is likely to happen if there is all-postal voting. I chaired a meeting last week, which was attended by many members of the Asian communities from the towns throughout the north-west. They expressed great concern that all-postal voting will lead to fraudulent activity and put a great deal of pressure on the Asian communities. It will be difficult for the political parties to stamp out fraud completely, although we shall do our best.

Secondly, I agree almost entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who made an excellent speech. Unlike the noble Lord, I am still active in party politics in the region. Since the Grand Committee, I have talked to election staff in the different authorities who have expressed great concern. I am referring not only to those authorities which will have all-out elections in new boundaries, where the whole process itself will be difficult, but to authorities such as Pendle, where we shall have ordinary local elections using the old boundaries. There is great concern that the region as a whole is not ready for such an experiment either administratively or in a practical way.

Thirdly, I reinforce what my noble friend Lord Rennard said. In the past fortnight, I have talked to people in the north-west from across the parties. They believe that the change is being made for two reasons: first, because it will improve the prospects of the Labour Party in these elections. I think that they are wrong and that the Government are wrong if that is their motivation behind it, but there is no doubt that that is widely believed within the Labour Party in the region. Secondly, it is believed that the measure will help to stop the BNP winning seats. As I said in the Grand Committee, I believe that they are wrong about that too. If it is possible to rig elections, there is no doubt that all-postal voting will make it much easier for unscrupulous people to rig elections. I would not put the BNP at the top of the list of the most scrupulous political parties in the country.

Photo of Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Lord Stoddart of Swindon (Independent Labour)

My Lords, I have taken part in more elections either as a candidate or an election agent than I care to remember. I am concerned that the Government and many others are blaming the electorate for apathy and alienation, whereas the fault lies with the political practitioners.

The fault does not lie with those who vote. If we want people to vote, we must give them something to vote on and enthuse and encourage them to do so. If people do not turn out to vote, it is the fault of political parties and governments. The quarrel that I have with the proposition to have all-postal voting is that the electorate will lose touch with those who govern.

Going to the polling station, particularly for parliamentary elections, used to be a great occasion. People would get together; they discussed the issues; they voted at the polling station and felt that they had done their duty. They had done their duty collectively and felt good about it. I felt good the first time I voted. I do not know whether first-time voters feel as good as I did then. There is something about going to the polling station to take part in a collective act of duty to elect your government whom you will hold eventually to account.

Further, any candidate worth his salt will first of all want to identify his supporters. If he is to identify his supporters, he will have to go out and find them. He must talk to them on the doorstep, convince them that he is the man they should support and that he has the policies with which they agree that will make their life better. Door-to-door canvassing is one of the essences of real democracy—to meet the people who will be governed, to see how they want to be governed and to persuade them that you are the chap or the lady to do just that.

Having identified the relevant people, you get them to the polling station. But there is one problem with postal voting—this has already been identified—because the postal vote is sent out 10 days or a fortnight before the election. Anyone who has done any canvassing knows that, when well done, canvassing continues until midnight of the day of the election. What happens in that interregnum? Even if you canvass people on the postal voting system, you go to the door and they say, "We have voted. We have already done it a fortnight beforehand". Therefore, political parties have no chance to convince those people between the time that they receive their postal vote and the election. Elections are often won or lost in the last few days. I remember that well in 1970 when I was first elected to the House of Commons. It was expected then that the Wilson government would survive but there was a turning point on the Monday before the election and they lost. Big issues are involved here.

Moreover, having identified your voters, you then get them to the poll. There is great excitement. Many people are working together—the parties are also working together—to get the highest possible turnout. There is contact with the people to persuade them that it is not only their duty but also a pleasure to vote at the polling station. So far as I can see, that will all be completely sacrificed. The measure will make political parties become lazy. Indeed, having four-year elections instead of annual elections has already proved the point that in the interregnum period political parties become lazy and therefore lose contact with the people they are supposed to represent.

Enlarging the pilot scheme at this stage to cover nearly half the country seems to me completely absurd because the issue is not proven. I believe that it will be bad for our democratic system and bad for government as a whole.

3:45 pm
Photo of Baroness Park of Monmouth

Baroness Park of Monmouth (Conservative)

My Lords, I hope that I may add one very brief point to the admirable speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I feel very strongly that this measure threatens the secret ballot. Secrecy seems to me to be a most valuable and important thing that must be preserved. We know, alas, from Northern Ireland that there are infinite ways of rigging a postal ballot. The IRA was found to have a printing press in a cellar on which it turned out papers. That can happen. In many communities people will be required to vote in a certain way by certain people. We must preserve the secrecy of the ballot.

Photo of Lord Beaumont of Whitley

Lord Beaumont of Whitley (Green)

My Lords, I do not apologise for intervening in this Bill at this late stage. Until the Government see fit to give me a colleague, I am not necessarily able to take part in the earlier stages of every Bill. However, I have been lobbied fairly heavily both by members of the Green Party and by my old friends in the Liberal Party to support this amendment. They all say that, so far as they are concerned, the measure is not only open to abuse but also almost impossible to organise in one or two of the areas which are now thought likely to be included.

I believe that we should stick to the original recommendations. I take very strong account of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. As someone who was responsible for the organisation of the Liberal effort in two by-elections, both of which returned Liberal Members of Parliament to the House of Commons, I remember distinctly that about five days before polling day you suddenly felt that you had won. Others who have taken part in by-elections will have felt exactly the same. You suddenly know that there is a feeling in the air and your canvassing suddenly surges way ahead. People should be given the opportunity to register their votes right up to polling day. It is not a good thing to expand the postal votes. I sincerely hope that this amendment will be passed.

Photo of Lord Filkin

Lord Filkin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs; Labour)

My Lords, I wish to speak to the Government's Amendment No. 2 and to respond to the discussion on Amendment No. 1, and, by association, Amendment No. 3. I agreed strongly with one point that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, made; namely, that no mechanism for voting will by itself solve the problem of disengagement from politics and one's concern about that issue. The noble Lord is right in that respect.

Without maintaining the tradition of making this a Second Reading debate, it is right that I mark why we are where we are. We are where we are because there has been such a reduction in turnout in local, European and national elections that any neutral political commentator has to be concerned about that issue. The noble Lord was right to say that postal voting by itself cannot constitute a total answer. However, turnout in elections where postal voting has been piloted has increased by some 15 per cent on average. When that 15 per cent is added to a turnout of some 30 per cent, many local authorities have found that the number of the electorate who have voted has increased by 50 per cent. We would be foolish not to consider in a proportionate and thoughtful manner whether the sensible development of postal voting led to a permanent increase in engagement by our electorate, without pretending that it was a total or sufficient measure by itself.

I turn to the amendments before us today. As is apparent, the Government's amendment names our choice of regions on the face of the Bill and by so doing seeks to negate the need for a main order. I very much appreciate the discussion that I have had with both Opposition Front Benches in that respect. I also appreciate the recognition that although we are not at one regarding the relevant regions, there is a sensible and, I think, healthy consensus that in terms of efficient electoral administration the fact that Parliament itself designates the relevant regions in primary legislation provides certainty and allows the maximum time for preparation on the part of returning officers. I believe that we all consider that that is to the good. I thank noble Lords warmly for that.

Why four pilot regions? Piloting is about learning lessons. Within reason, the more data that we have, the more accurate the conclusions that we shall be able derive. So far, pilots have been small scale—we have always said that the Bill is about scaling up. The combined electorate of the four regions is more than 14 million people. The evidence that we shall gain from making pilots available on that scale will enormously help the Government and all parties that have a legitimate interest in the issues, including the Electoral Commission, in informing future decisions about whether to go further with postal voting.

In Committee I explained how we took the Electoral Commission's recommendations which were split broadly into three categories. I believe that in the debate there has been selective quoting from the Electoral Commission report. The Electoral Commission made three points. It had a first category of two regions which were definitely suitable for postal ballots; another four regions which the commission thought were clearly not suitable for a variety of reasons; and a middle category which was marked "potentially suitable", about which the commission was aware there were concerns.

In December the Government accepted those regions described as suitable and said so. We then worked through those described as "potentially suitable", in the order of ranking as set out by the commission. We considered Scotland, but we decided that Scotland was not a practical possibility because the returning officers in Scotland did not believe that they could deliver a safe election. Therefore, we would have been foolish to have gone ahead in that situation.

We took operational capability as our key criterion. As a consequence, we had discussions. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton and Chris Leslie in another place met the regional returning officers from both the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside and discussed with them their perspective on whether they could deliver successful pilots in their situations. To cut short the matter—I shall perhaps refer to it later—both said that if they were chosen they could deliver successful pilots. It is true to say that the degree of enthusiasm differed between the north-west, which was very keen, and Yorkshire and Humberside, which was much less keen. Nevertheless, a key test from Yorkshire and Humberside's point of view was whether a successful pilot could be delivered.

As part of the process of testing we also discussed the issues of security and safety, which are proper issues of concern in this debate. I shall make it absolutely clear that in doing so, we have been operating completely within the terms of the Electoral Commission. It did not say that the four middle category of potentially suitable regions could not go ahead. It said that there were issues. To put that beyond doubt, the commission said, in the letter that it has distributed to the House for consideration on these amendments, that four regions were unsuitable, but named four regions as potentially suitable for an all-postal pilot. The commission believed that it was open to the Government to have further discussions with these four regions if they were minded to designate additional pilots. We had those discussions, which led us to believe that it was safe and sound for there to be a wider scale of piloting, which we believed to be desirable. To add emphasis to that, Sir Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester City Council and regional returning officer for the north-west, a region that was quite rightly the focus of much of our discussions in Committee, said that,

"we convened a meeting of all LROs towards the end of last year to discuss the principle of a pilot, and everyone present (42 and 43 local authority areas) committed themselves to work to ensure a successful outcome".

That was not the Government bludgeoning local authorities into the situation. Similarly those in Yorkshire and Humberside made it clear that while it was not their preference, if they were asked to do it, they believed that they could deliver a successful pilot.

One further reason for having four rather than two pilot regions is the diversity in those areas. If one pilots the willing, one will always receive a slightly biased result, but life is not made up totally of the willing. Therefore, a significant advantage could be obtained in having pilots that are carried out in areas where people are not necessarily massively enthusiastic about them, or massively experienced in undertaking them. That would be real life. Diversity will help to maximise our experience.

Why the pilots should take place only in the north was touched on. Clearly London and the south-west were excluded. Additionally Wales, the eastern region and the south-east were all deemed not suitable by the commission and we did not feel that it was appropriate to go against its clear, direct advice nor did we wish to do so.

On the 50 per cent figure, a more accurate figure is that the pilot regions would see a turnout of about 31 per cent of the electorate. In 2003 the pilot regions saw a 22 per cent turnout of the local electorate; so, as a consequence, we are not talking about such a large scale increase.

Agreeing to the four pilot regions will give the matter certainty and will be enormously helpful to regional returning officers and to local authorities which, as a consequence, will be able to plan forward. This year marks the last chance for pilots on this scale until 2009. Therefore, I believe that we would be wise to learn from the ability to have a wider-scale pilot by having four rather than two.

I shall briefly refer to one or two points raised in the debate. I have signalled why this is not the arbitrary overturning of the Electoral Commission's report. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about staff concerns. I would always expect that there would be staff concerns on something of this kind. I have also noted the many important points that he made in Committee on that point.

On the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, clearly the problem is that the electorate is already partly out of touch with politics, which is one reason for trying to increase turn-out. Door-to-door canvassing will continue but in a different form, as we have seen.

I shall not weary the House longer, as we shall shortly have a Statement to deal with. We believe that there are good reasons for conducting four pilots. We believe that we shall learn more by having four pilot regions; that four pilots can be carried out successfully; and that the House should allow for four pilots to proceed on this basis so that, as a consequence, we can have early certainty and closure. I hope that the government amendments will be supported and that the opposition amendments will not be.

Photo of Lord Ampthill

Lord Ampthill (Crossbench)

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he said that he was speaking only to Amendment No. 2. However, there are 47 amendments in this group, of which 42 are government amendments. Perhaps he could clarify that for the House.

Photo of Lord Filkin

Lord Filkin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs; Labour)

My Lords, that is kind. A large number of consequential amendments follow on from the main government amendment, Amendment No. 2. I apologise. In an attempt to keep short what I said, I abbreviated my notes, which is always a mistake. All the other amendments are consequential amendments on Amendment No. 2, which enables one to remove the need for a general order so that there is only one order subsequent to Royal Assent rather than two.

Photo of Baroness Hanham

Baroness Hanham (Conservative)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I also thank very much those who took part in the debate—in particular, the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lady Park. Their contributions underlined the concerns that we have had since the Bill began its passage. We made those concerns abundantly clear during the Committee stage but I am afraid that the Minister will probably know that they have not been allayed, even by what he said this afternoon.

It is true that piloting is all about learning lessons, but sometimes it is easier to learn lessons in small doses than in great swadges. While I accept the Minister's assertion that the electorate in the four pilot regions would account for 31 per cent of the total electorate, that is still a very high proportion when one is working on a regional basis. Therefore, I believe that it would be better to carry out the test on a smaller scale. We know that regions, even if they are European electoral regions, have a habit of transmogrifying themselves into regions in general. Therefore, it would be better to carry out the pilot in a selected, small number of regions.

I believe that the Minister accused me of quoting selectively from the Electoral Commission. Perhaps I may return the compliment. It is true that, when I put forward my view, I cut out a little of what was said here and there. However, I did not cut out the part at the end, which I do not believe the Minister referred to, where the commission states:

"We have not ourselves been involved in further discussions";

namely, the discussions with the two additional regions, which the commission had already said it did not believe were ready or willing to take part in the pilot. Therefore, I do not accept that I misled the House. I believe that I was fairly clear and it is set out in the letter if anyone wants to check it.

I heard what the Minister said. I do not consider that we have discussed the government amendments in any depth. We shall deal with one or two of them later because other amendments relate to them. However, I may need to put on the record that I expect, or hope, that the order relating to the pilot will be an order of this House and that it will be debated in this House as well as in the other place so that, ultimately, we can see what it says. We carried out an enormous amount of work on this matter in Committee in order to put the practical aspects of the elections into place. We want to ensure that they are all in place before we go forward because, apart from nuances, there has been a little disagreement about them. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Lord Filkin

Lord Filkin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs; Labour)

moved Amendment No. 2:

Leave out Clause 1 and insert the following new clause—

"PILOTING CONDUCT AT EUROPEAN AND LOCAL ELECTIONS

(1) An election to which this section applies (a pilot election) must be held—

(a) only by postal voting, and (for that purpose)

(b) in accordance with provision made by the Secretary of State by order (a pilot order).

(2) These are the elections to which this section applies—

(a) the European Parliamentary general election of 2004 in a pilot region;

(b) a local government election in England and Wales if the poll at such an election is combined with the poll at an election mentioned in paragraph (a).

(3) These are the pilot regions—

(a) North East;

(b) East Midlands;

(c) Yorkshire and the Humber;

(d) North West.

(4) Postal voting is voting where no polling station is used and a person entitled to vote in person or by proxy must deliver the ballot paper by post or by such other means as is specified in a pilot order.

(5) A pilot order—

(a) may modify or disapply any provision made by or under a relevant enactment;

(b) may contain such consequential, incidental, supplementary or transitional provision or savings (including provision amending, replacing, suspending or revoking provision made by or under any enactment) as the Secretary of State thinks appropriate;

(c) may make different provision for different purposes."

Photo of Lord Filkin

Lord Filkin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs; Labour)

My Lords, I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Hanham

Baroness Hanham (Conservative)

moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 2, Amendment No. 3:

Leave out lines 16 and 17.

Photo of Baroness Hanham

Baroness Hanham (Conservative)

My Lords, I have heard what the Minister said, but I am not satisfied. Therefore, as I indicated earlier, I wish to test the opinion of the House.

On Question, Whether Amendment No. 3, as an amendment to Amendment No. 2, shall be agreed to?

*Their Lordships divided: Contents, 169; Not-Contents, 110.

Division number 1

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Resolved in the affirmative, and Amendment No. 3, as an amendment to Amendment No. 2, agreed to accordingly.

On Question, Amendment No. 2, as amended, agreed to.