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If he will make a further statement on his Department's work on preparing for the referendum on regional government in the north-east.
We are very conscious of the importance of providing information to the public on the implications of our regional government proposals. To that end, we are holding hearings throughout the three northern regions, including the north-east, to explain the role and responsibilities of elected regional assemblies and to listen to views from the public about the powers of the assemblies. We are committed to providing further information, including an explanatory leaflet that will be sent to every household before the referendums in the autumn.
Our current plans, which are dependent on receipt of reports from the boundary committee, are to lay orders before Parliament before the summer recess to enable referendums to be held this autumn. We also aim to publish a draft regional assemblies Bill this July.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's remarks about the public hearings that are taking place. He will have seen surveys by the BBC and others that show increased public awareness of regional government, and, indeed, increased support for it. Following my right hon. Friend's meetings with representatives of the business community, can he tell us which of the issues they raised most need to be addressed in order to reassure them that regional government will be good for business and for regional economies?
I am conscious that, as my right hon. Friend says, there is growing awareness of the issue. In particular, I have noticed the considerable coverage in The Journal in her region. That rightly highlights the importance of this historic decision, which will be vital to the future of the north-east. Last week, I attended a successful hearing in Berwick-upon-Tweed, which was attended by Mr. Beith; my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister held a similar hearing in Blackburn on the same evening.
For business, it is essential that regional assemblies provide an effective means of enhancing economic development by improving the joining up of services to link economic development with housing and transport planning, and that they do so in the most cost-effective way without creating new bureaucracy. That is exactly what the Government's plans provide for.
In the draft Bill that the Minister just mentioned, will he consider including the functions of the Highways Agency among those to be devolved to a future north-east regional assembly? Does he realise that that would massively increase the chance of a strong turnout and a yes vote in a referendum in the north-east?
The issues that will influence turnout are more important than just the role of the Highways Agency. However, the way in which the work of the Highways Agency would relate to the work of elected regional assemblies was debated in the hearing that I held in Berwick, where there is particular interest in the dualling of the A1. That is one relevant issue, but there are many others. People will come out to vote and decide on the basis of whether they believe that decisions are better taken in their region or in London.
I have already made it clear that the referendums are dependent on receipt of the reports from the boundary committee for England, which has been invited to come forward with proposals for the best form of unitary local government. We will consider those reports when we receive them and, providing that we receive them in time, orders will be laid before Parliament to allow referendums to be held in October. That, however, is conditional on those earlier steps being taken in that time scale.
May I make it clear to the Minister that we have no objection in principle to the use of all-postal ballots for the referendums, although we would have no objection to conventional ballot-box voting if it seemed that postal voting would not be a sound election system? Why the rush to postal voting, unless it is to avoid the embarrassment—the result of apathy towards the Government's proposals—of what the Minister has called a derisory turnout? He has admitted that such a turnout would invalidate the results. What can have provoked the extraordinary letter from the Electoral Commission of
The hon. Gentleman is wrong on every single count. There has been no rush to all-postal voting. We have conducted pilots during the past four years that have led the Electoral Commission to conclude and recommend that all-postal voting should in future be the norm for all local authority elections. That is the background, and we have taken into account the commission's advice, which is clearly that all-postal voting hugely increases turnout. If the hon. Gentleman were more concerned about turnout than scoring party political points, he would welcome the move. There is no substance whatever to his entirely unworthy allegation of pressure being exercised on the Electoral Commission.
Is the Minister aware that my party has grave reservations about the wisdom of all-postal ballots in a referendum or in any other election? Bearing in mind that there is to be an all-postal ballot, will the Minister tell the House what he regards as a satisfactory turnout?
Turnout at the local authority elections that had all-postal ballots last May was almost 50 per cent., compared with an average turnout of just over 30 per cent. in local authority elections that use conventional voting, which is a huge difference. If it is possible in practice to achieve a huge increase in turnout and voter participation with no evidence—the Electoral Commission has made this point—of any increase in fraud or personation problems, there is a convincing case for making greater use of all-postal voting.