Lords Amendment 1B — Lords Disagreement and Reason

European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:17 pm on 16th March 2004.

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The Lords disagree to Commons Amendment 1A to Lords Amendment 1 for the following Reason—

Because it is appropriate to make provision for no more than two pilot regions, as recommended by the Electoral Commission.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 7:33 pm, 16th March 2004

I beg to move, That this House
does not insist on its amendment No. 1A to Lords Amendment No. 1.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 1.

Lords amendment No. 3B—Lords Insistence and Reason—

The Lords insist on their Amendment 3 to which the Commons have disagreed, for the following Reason—

Because it is appropriate to impose the requirements set out in the Lords amendment.

Government motion to insist on its disagreement to the said amendment.

Government amendment (a) in lieu thereof.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Earlier today, their lordships considered again the views of the Commons expressed last Monday evening. The package of measures that we propose includes a concession to their lordships: whereas the Government and the Electoral Commission had hoped to dispense with the requirement for a second person to witness the signature of each voter with a declaration of identity, we are prepared to acquiesce to their Lordships on that particular point, and allow the witnessed signature arrangement to occur in this June's all-postal elections. I realise that that will disappoint the Electoral Commission and many hon. Members, because of worries about the efficacy of a witness signature process, but on balance—and in view of the insistence by the Lords on that point—we feel that on that matter we can compromise without overriding harm coming to the overall policy of all-postal voting. However, we remain opposed to sending expensive and wasteful receipt acknowledgements to every elector who returns a ballot paper, so we wish to delete the measure that would provide for that.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett Labour, Denton and Reddish

It is a shame that we are making that concession to the Lords. What will happen to ballot papers that are returned without the declaration completed correctly? Will the returning officer give people the opportunity to correct their mistake, or will the mistake invalidate their papers?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Owing to the insistence of their lordships, we felt that we needed to try to find consensus on the matter. I tend to agree with my hon. Friend that we would ideally have moved to a single signature arrangement, such as that which we initially set out, but their lordships clearly do not feel that we are yet ready to do that. I suspect that we will return to the matter at another time. The declaration of identity will require a witness signature, which happens under normal postal voting arrangements for postal voting on demand. In that respect, the provision is in line with existing legislation, but I think that further reform will undoubtedly be necessary.

More significantly, their lordships overturned the will of the House of Commons on the Government's intention for four regions—the east midlands, the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire—to undertake all-postal voting. They did that despite hon. Members' vote last Monday to support the measure. I listened closely to the debate in their lordships' House, and they gave no more substantive reasons for overturning the proposal for four regions than they gave previously. The House of Commons has made its decisions on four regions before in full view of the facts, which is why I urge it to do so again.

Four regions will make up a good pilot. It will cover a minority of the country—31 per cent.—but it will be on a large enough scale to test out new procedures effectively. Postal voting is worth trying out on that larger scale. It makes democracy easier for the public because people's opportunities to express their views are brought to their doorsteps, so electors are not expected to overcome obstacles and travel to a polling station. I understand that several noble Lords and Conservative Members occasionally say that we should not make voting more convenient, but that is a ludicrous position to take.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The Minister is belittling the arguments against including the north-west, for example, in the pilot. Does he accept that the Electoral Commission did not feel able to recommend the north-west as a pilot area? Why do the Government think that they can override the Electoral Commission?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman should study closely what the Electoral Commission says. It is true that its definition of what forms a pilot differs from the Government's as regards the issue of scale, but it is certainly not the case that it said no to Yorkshire and the north-west. Indeed, it said that those regions in themselves were "potentially suitable"—it gave them that designation. [Interruption.] It is true that the regions were not on the Electoral Commission's top two list, which is what Mr. Heath implies from a sedentary position, but nevertheless I hope that hon. Members will acknowledge that it recognised north-west and Yorkshire as potentially suitable and that they remain as such.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Will the Minister confirm that the Electoral Commission thought that the third region—if there was to be a third—was going to be Scotland, rather than either of the other two regions?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

It is certainly not the case that neither of the other two regions was considered. The Electoral Commission produced a grouping of regions that it deemed to be potentially suitable. As we have said many times throughout the passage of the Bill, Scotland and Scottish returning officers did not want to proceed with the process, which is why we moved down the list. Yorkshire and the north-west came next on the list, so we followed the Electoral Commission's ranking in the light of the views of experts, administrators and regional returning officers. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that as a relatively logical process.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The experts at the Electoral Commission said, on 4 March, that they

"felt unable to make a positive recommendation in respect of those regions"— that includes the north-west—

"having assessed their suitability against the guidelines we have applied."

Why is the Minister overriding them?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

If the hon. Gentleman reads further the letter sent to me by the commission's chairman, he will see the sentence:

"We named a further four regions that were potentially suitable as pilots."

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Yes, potentially suitable, as I said to the hon. Gentleman. He cannot in any way suggest that the Electoral Commission had not said that Yorkshire and the north-west were somehow not potentially suitable.

Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Labour, Ipswich

Does the Minister accept that the evidence given by the regional returning officer for Yorkshire and Humberside to the Select Committee's current inquiry asserted that the worst that could happen now would be for the Government to change their mind about the pre-planning for the elections, because the local authorities are not a position to return to a traditional approach to voting in this election?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

It is indeed the case that, increasingly, returning officers in the north-west, Yorkshire, the east midlands and the north-east are saying that they want to proceed with all-postal voting. That is the view of the administrators on the ground, and they not only want the Government to sustain that position; they want Parliament to sustain it. That is what I am asking the Commons to agree to tonight.

We know for a fact that more people will participate in all-postal voting. What can be wrong with that? Surely it is right and proper that we take steps to encourage wider participation. That is the responsible path to take if we are to reinvigorate our democratic process.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

I just want to clarify something because I may have got the wrong end of the stick—it would not be the first time. When my hon. Friend was speaking to the motion on the amendment and announcing the change regarding witnesses which my hon. Friend Andrew Bennett deplored, did he say that the matter on which the Government were now giving way to the Lords was something that the Electoral Commission wanted?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. The commission advised Parliament and the Government that it would prefer to move away from the process of the declaration-of-identity witness signature towards a single-signature arrangement. It is a pity that the Opposition parties, in collusion in the other place, have been determined to push that point, but we do not feel that it is at the core of the Bill, and we have reluctantly decided to concede on it.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

Having given that explanation, which confirms what I thought I heard, will my hon. Friend explain how even the heights of hypocrisy which both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats can reach—they are heights with no ceiling—allow them to reconcile their demand that we abandon something that the Electoral Commission wanted with them giving as their reason for insisting on the amendment the fact that the commission wanted something? Just what kind of creeps are these people?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I am not sure that I can answer that last question in parliamentary terms, but I agree that even the sky is not the limit when it comes to the double standards and inconsistency in the arguments pursued by other parties. When the commission's advice suits them, they will uphold it; when it does not suit them, they will not uphold it.

If the Opposition parties recognise the arrangements that are in place, they will see that the Electoral Commission is there to advise, but ultimately Government and Parliament have to make the final decisions. We make decisions in full cognisance of the advice that is available to us but also with an eye to the fact that we are accountable to those who elect us, unlike, of course, those in the other Chamber.

On the issue of scale, which concerned Members in the other place, it would be perverse to ignore the plans for October's all-postal referendum on elected regional assemblies—indeed, the Electoral Commission supports all-postal voting—so proceeding in the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire clearly makes good sense. We have answered questions and made proposals to placate worries about fraud, and the Electoral Commission, the returning officers and the police are all keen to work together to make all-postal voting a success. Extensions of the offence of personation have been included in the Bill, and election officials have other new powers to crack down on any hint of malpractice. It is extremely odd that Opposition parties in the Lords should say in the same breath that they are prepared to see all-postal voting in two regions, but not in a further two. All the queries raised have been about the system and nature of postal voting, including specious worries about fraud, which can be answered and ameliorated satisfactorily. That is entirely different from suggesting that a greater problem is presented by having four regions as opposed to two. If their lordships thought that the arrangements for all-postal voting were unsafe, why are they happy with two regions but not three or four? Scale presents few issues or problems, yet their lordships failed to address that question.

All-postal voting in only two regions could result in fewer people voting by post than was the case in the last round of local election pilots in 2003—a backward step which would be inexplicable to the many members of the public who are keen on all-postal voting. There is little more to be said about the matter, as the House of Commons has expressed its view, and should do so again tonight. By delaying the Bill, their lordships are jeopardising the crucial preparation period before elections. Returning officers need time to prepare, contract and put their plans in place, and they have asked Parliament to make a decision now on which regions will go ahead. By supporting the proposals, the House of Commons can reiterate its strong view that four regions need to proceed. I therefore commend the proposals to the House.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 7:45 pm, 16th March 2004

Cracks in the Government edifice have started to appear with the first Government concession. Although it is welcome, it does not go nearly far enough, and the Minister, as usual, has tried to skate over the Electoral Commission's true view. Only a few days ago, in the Chamber, we referred to a letter to him from Sam Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, who, I remind him, said that

"it does not follow that the Commission would be unconcerned about the number of pilot regions. As I have mentioned, we expected the Government to nominate three regions and were surprised to learn that the Bill was to be amended to name four regions."

That is about as strongly worded as letters to Ministers get—[Interruption.] The Deputy Prime Minister is chuntering. Throughout our debates we have mentioned the unseen hand of the Deputy Prime Minister, who was determined to get his own way about Yorkshire and Humber. He has been working by remote control to try to persuade the Electoral Commission of the Government's case. Finally, he is here in person tonight, and is openly blustering about wanting to get his way, as he always tries to do. Fortunately, we have a bicameral legislature. The upper House is entitled to express its view, and we want to support its sensible warnings about fraud and the dangers of involving half the country in postal pilots. It will come as no surprise to the House that the Opposition remain entirely unconvinced by the arguments the Minister has expressed again tonight for piloting in four regions.

There are two fundamental reasons why we and the other place must stand firm. First, it is irresponsible to operate a so-called pilot scheme in nearly half of England. Almost half the regions will hold combined European parliamentary and local elections in June, when pilot schemes should be designed to generate evidence on a system of voting that is new, innovative and by no means guaranteed secure. The independent Electoral Reform Society has said, as the Minister is well aware, that for the first time in 130 years there is an opportunity, sadly, for large-scale electoral fraud.

Photo of Ronnie Campbell Ronnie Campbell Labour, Blyth Valley

There was a pilot scheme during the last local elections in my constituency, Blyth Valley. When I asked the returning officer afterwards how it went, he said he was amazed at how correct the ballot was and at the fact that there was little, if any, fraud.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

That is not the experience of many who spoke in the previous debates on this—[Interruption.] The Deputy Prime Minister continues to shout from a sedentary position. I refer him to the detailed speeches of the noble Lord Greaves in several debates about wholesale fraud in various areas—

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

—particularly the north-west—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman was not giving way at that point. He clearly is now.

Photo of Dave Watts Dave Watts Labour, St Helens North

I am grateful to Mr. Hawkins. Will he refer to the commission's report on the pilot schemes that were conducted both in my own constituency and in that of my hon. Friend Mr. Campbell, and acknowledge that the report indicated that there was no evidence whatever that fraud had been committed? Will he deal with that specific point? I cannot see that he is providing any evidence to justify his claims.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I can certainly respond to the hon. Gentleman. The Electoral Commission's own report on the matter raises concerns about fraud, specifically in relation to the north-west. The commission points out that there may well be criminal trials arising from some of the pending allegations, and some of those trials might coincide with the forthcoming elections. That was one of the reasons why the commission was so concerned about the north-west.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

I heard the Deputy Prime Minister shouting across the Floor of the House, "Where's the evidence?" I am sure he is acquainted with the Alden committee report relating to Birmingham, which has a Labour council. I shall refer to that later, if I catch Madam Deputy Speaker's eye. I should be very surprised if the Deputy Prime Minister does not know about that report, in which Mr. Alden stated that matters had become so bad that the rules that exist in Northern Ireland had to be applied, and the police went on to say that the postal voting system had few major checks or controls. The situation in Birmingham at the time was a scandal, and I am surprised that the Deputy Prime Minister does not seem to be aware of it.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, I would prefer this short debate to be conducted in an orderly manner, without Members on either side shouting from sedentary positions.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I am grateful for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Government are showing that they wish to ignore the advice of their own creation, the Electoral Commission, which was able to recommend unequivocally only two pilot areas. It has done the research. During the debates in another place, Lord Greaves highlighted specific problems in the two regions that the Government are seeking to insist on, where there are serious concerns about fraud, electoral malpractice and intimidation. I refer hon. Members to columns 12 to 18 of 26 January in another place. I also refer hon. Members to what Lord Greaves said in the debate this afternoon, when he repeated his concerns.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett Labour, Denton and Reddish

Will the hon. Gentleman separate two issues? There has been some evidence of fraud under the existing postal vote system, but that will apply whatever we decide tonight. However, there is no evidence of fraud in the pilot. There is a strong argument that if there is a high turnout, which we could get as a result of postal ballots, any fraud will become much less significant.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

That point simply does not deal with the fact that on this issue, in relation to these pilots, the Electoral Commission is recommending against the two extra areas that the Government want to include. One of the concerns that the commission raises specifically is fraud in relation to the north-west.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman says that the Electoral Commission recommended against the north-west and Yorkshire. Is he absolutely sure that that is a correct representation of the Electoral Commission's view?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

As the Minister knows full well, we have said that the Electoral Commission was able unequivocally to recommend only two regions. The Government are ignoring their own Electoral Commission's recommendations. The Government are insisting on these four pilot regions for their own reasons. The Minister in another place, Lord Filkin, made it perfectly clear that he does not believe that the clearly-evidenced lack of enthusiasm of regional returning officers or the possibility of malpractice should be any impediment to piloting the all-postal schemes in the two additional areas. The Electoral Commission clearly begs to differ, as Sam Younger's recent letter to the Minister makes absolutely clear. We remain absolutely adamant that only the two regions unequivocally recommended by the Electoral Commission—the north-east and the east midlands—should be pilots.

Photo of Dave Watts Dave Watts Labour, St Helens North

May I point out that the overwhelming view of people in the north-west, as received in representations, is support for the idea of all-postal ballots? Will the hon. Gentleman deal with my original point? Can he give us any evidence of fraud and tell us whether any prosecutions are going ahead as a result of the pilot schemes that were launched in the north-west and in other areas?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I dealt with that point in my earlier answer to the hon. Gentleman. If he reads the Electoral Commission's report, he will find that it deals specifically with the concerns about possible fraud that were so adequately set out by Lord Greaves, who has extensive experience of elections in the north-west. That is further evidence of why the Electoral Commission is right.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

Does my hon. Friend accept that the real issue often turns on the electoral roll? A serious problem has arisen in that context. Far too many people are going on to the electoral roll, which appears to have some connection with the latest immigration problems.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I very much agree with my hon. Friend.

Given that these are pilots—experimental trial schemes—it seems sensible to have them only in the two regions where the Government's own Electoral Commission is confident about using the all-postal scheme, and where all the regional returning officers support it and there are no fears about fraud. If the pilots are successful, next time round more enthusiasm and confidence might be expressed by regional returning officers in areas where they have not been confident in the past; then, perhaps, the all-postal system could be widened.

I welcome the Government's concessions on houses in multiple occupation. They have not gone far enough, but they are at least recognising some of the arguments that were advanced by Opposition Members here and in another place.

We feel that the Government are taking an unjustifiable risk by insisting on four pilot regions against the recommendation of the Electoral Commission, which, as Sam Younger's letter makes clear, is still concerned about that. It is vital to balance any plans that the Government have for innovation against the security and safety of our democratic process. We welcome the Government's small concession, but they have not gone far enough. We shall continue to maintain our position and to vote against their continuing attempts to impose this measure.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

I elicited from my hon. Friend the Minister the fact that the House of Lords is insisting on excluding these two regions because, in the contention of the Opposition, the Government are going against the wishes of the Electoral Commission; but there were cheers from the Liberal Democrat Benches when my hon. Friend said that he was going to make a concession that went against the wishes of the Electoral Commission. What we get from that rabble opposite—or those several rabbles opposite—is not honest, open, clear reasons for opposing the measure, but adventitious excuses to avoid something that they do not want to happen. They do not want to give more people more opportunities to vote in elections that they are scared of losing. They want as few people as possible to vote—[Interruption.] Mr. Osborne jeers, but it would be very difficult for the Conservative vote in my constituency to get any lower than it is. It has almost disappeared there, although there is still just a little scope for further reduction.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

I shall give way in a moment.

Let us be clear about this. My hon. Friend the Minister is right when he says that the pilot scheme is wanted overwhelmingly in the north-west. That has been made absolutely clear by my constituents and those of many other hon. Members.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the Liberal Democrat Euro MPs in his region, Mr. Chris Davies, has stated his reason for opposing the all-postal ballot? It is:

"Automatic postal voting is designed solely for those too lazy to make the effort."

Does not that reveal the Liberal Democrats' true colours?

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

One never knows what the Liberal Democrats' true colours are, because they vary from street to street. If they could get away with it, they would vary from house to house. The fact is that this Chris Davies—who was, happily, booted out of this place and found a haven in the European Parliament—has said that postal voting is for lazy voters. My constituents will be told, whether they get the pilot scheme or not, that the Liberal Democrats believe that if they want postal votes they are lazy voters. But let me tell the House something else. If the pilot scheme goes ahead in the north-west, the Liberal Democrats—certainly those in Manchester—will claim that they fought for it all along and really wanted it. They will tell everyone what a marvellous privilege it is for the voters to get what the Liberal Democrats have been seeking to get for them.

Mr. Hawkins talked about fraud. We in the Gorton constituency are well accustomed to what fraud is. We are well accustomed to the Liberal Democrats claiming that they got £120,000 for the Anson Cabin project, when in fact I got it with the assistance of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. In Gorton, we are accustomed to lies, cheating, hypocrisy and misrepresentation at that level, from that rabble. As I have said, if we prevail tonight and get the pilot scheme, the Liberal Democrats will say that they wanted it, that they love it and that it is the best possible way of proceeding in our local and European elections on 10 June.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

Does my right hon. Friend agree that my constituents will find it difficult to understand why money should be invested in running a postal ballot for the referendum on a regional parliament in the autumn of this year, if a similar investment cannot be made in June for the European elections? It would seem sensible to my constituents that one lot of investment should be used for two elections.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

Let us be clear about this. What we are seeing from the two Opposition parties is not a consistent, honourable approach to elections. They want as few people as possible to vote, because the only way that they win council elections is on very low polls.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Conservative MPs in the north-west—and probably the Liberal Democrat MPs as well—had the highest turnouts in their constituencies at the general election, and that the Labour MPs had the lowest? Mrs. Ellman had the lowest in the country. I dare say that the turnout in Gorton was pretty low, too.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

But it is quality. When I was first elected to the House of Commons in 1970, the Conservatives got 10,000 votes from an electorate of 43,000. In 2001, they got 2,700 votes from an electorate of 67,000. In the local elections in Manchester, the Conservatives are hard put to it in my six wards to get into four figures. They are afraid, just as the Liberal Democrats are afraid, that they will be found out if people get the opportunity to vote in large numbers. Well, they are being found out tonight.

I recommend that my right hon. and hon. Friends insist on this. I quite understand why my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister believes that Yorkshire and Humberside should be included and I say this to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath: if he believes that there are huge opportunities for fraud in these postal ballots, he should not be saying that we can have two rather than four. He should be saying that there should be none, but he dare not say that. I will acquit him of inconsistency in one matter—namely, he possibly believes what he is saying. I do not give that to the other party.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

One of the misfortunes of these occasions is that it is almost impossible to put any new arguments on such matters once they have been debated at length in the House and in another place. We have heard no new arguments from Mr. Kaufman, who seems to have taken a bitter pill before arriving in the Chamber. He showed no evidence whatever of having read the Electoral Commission's report before commenting on it, which is a cause of great sadness.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will be aware, as will Mrs. Browning, that I am a member of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission sends me all its documents for careful perusal.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Chairman of Ways and Means

The right hon. Gentleman is experienced enough to know that that is not point of order and, equally, experienced enough to know that he has got it on the record.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

As I said, there is no evidence that the right hon. Gentleman has read the Electoral Commission's report, which is perhaps worth repeating. Let me get away from that to say that I welcome the Government's move in incorporating at least some of the changes recommended in another place in terms of declaration of identity. That is helpful. It means that we do not have two different systems applying in terms of postal votes, whether in respect of these pilots or every other election happening on the same day, at the same time and in the same way. That seems to me to be sensible, up to the point where we have the improvement recommended by the Electoral Commission, which I wholeheartedly support and which involves a pre-signature system.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I shall give way to the Minister in a moment. The pre-signature system will provide for better voter identification, but it clearly cannot be in place for these elections. We hope, however, that it will be for future elections.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that the Government are reluctantly conceding on the declaration of identity, but will he also acknowledge that we are conceding that—something he has been pressing for—in the face of the advice from the Electoral Commission? Does he think it right that we can take advice from the Electoral Commission but perhaps not necessarily act on every single piece of advice from it?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister has the difficulty of arguing two contrary positions—apparently accepting what he says is the Electoral Commission's advice on the one hand while, on the other, rejecting it entirely.

I take what is, I hope, a more pragmatic and sensible view: I agree with the Electoral Commission's intention, which is clearly stated in its important document as to where it wants to get to. We do not think that we are there yet; the Minister knows perfectly well that we are not there yet. We have a holding position until the next election, when, I hope, we will have a proper system for pre-registration of voters, which will eliminate the potential for fraud in that area without our having the rather cumbersome system that none of us wants.

Photo of Dave Watts Dave Watts Labour, St Helens North

The hon. Gentleman seems concerned not to cause confusion among the electorate. Voters in St. Helens have already used a postal ballot. They will be asked to participate in a traditional ballot twice, then go back to a postal ballot. If that is not confusing, I do not know what is—and it is exactly what the commission's report said should be avoided.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman makes his intervention at entirely the wrong point, on a matter that I have not yet addressed. Nevertheless, I will answer his point. Exactly the same argument could just as easily be made by me, in pursuit of my constituents' interests. They had an all-postal ballot for South Somerset district council but will be prohibited by the legislation that the hon. Gentleman is supporting this evening from an all-postal ballot in the European elections.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Let the hon. Gentleman listen. I have said all along that one should either have a pilot scheme that enables one to address some of the outstanding issues or a UK-wide postal ballot—in which I personally can see some merit.

The Government propose neither. They say, "We will not have a proper pilot scheme because we will not have the two regions that the commission proposed. We will poll the whole north of England. Anybody north of the Trent will have an all-postal ballot. Anybody south of the Trent will be prohibited." Where is the logic for the constituents whom many of us seek to represent?

If the Government had said they wanted a UK-wide, all-postal ballot, we would have raised exactly the same concerns about the potential for personation and fraud but at least there would have been some logic. There is no logic in the Government having a pilot scheme that is not a pilot scheme and determining a region that constitutes half the local authorities in England—saying that an all-postal ballot is not available for the other half. Neither will one be available to Scotland, despite the fact that it was the runner-up in the Electoral Commission report, or Wales. It was not even considered for south-west England because of the addition of Gibraltar—which apparently is a prohibitive factor in an all-postal ballot.

Every argument advanced by the Government has been turned on its head in the next breath—they have been arguing in two directions at once. They know that this development is in the interests of political expediency and nothing else; otherwise, they would look for a pilot scheme or a UK-wide election. After all, we are talking about a single national campaign in which half the electorate will go the polls two or three weeks before the rest of the country. They will watch the same television programmes and see the same campaign unfolding.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Falkirk East

The hon. Gentleman prays in aid the situation in Scotland. He obviously does not take into account the fact that electoral registration officers in Scotland said that they could not cope. Although Scotland was possibly recommended, the electoral officers were the barrier more than anything else. That was not a matter of political choice but dictated by the logistics of the exercise.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman adduces an argument which in other debates was hotly contested by his right hon. and hon. Friends, who said that that claim was absolute nonsense and that the particular returning officer who gave that indication did not represent the advice of returning officers across Scotland. They said that Scotland had come third and was entitled to the opportunity to engage in this great experiment.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman. The Government plucked two English regions out of the air—

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

They were not positively recommended by the Electoral Commission. I accept that they were listed as having potential, which was not realised. I have potential to open the batting for England, which has not been realised yet and is unlikely to be realised in the immediate future. Nevertheless, the Government have chosen to take that line.

There were arguments of the Government's own devising for not including those regions in the pilot scheme: the number of local authority elections on that day, the complexity of the region, and the potential difficulties—they are no more than potential difficulties—of fraud. Andrew Bennett made the point that the potential for fraud is diluted because it is such a large area. Of course, he is absolutely right in terms of the European parliamentary elections. At the same time, however, every single person voting in European parliamentary elections also votes in wards in local authority elections. That is where the potential mischief applies and where we must tread carefully if we are to maintain the integrity of the voting system.

I believe that the Government have made an important concession this evening, and it is the first of two concessions that they will make before the end of this week—[Interruption.] I hear the comment from the Labour Benches that that is not so. We shall see. I believe that they will be forced to recognise that the Electoral Commission's advice on determining what areas should be available is not to be swept aside for political convenience, and not to be arbitrarily ignored. I believe that we will come to a satisfactory conclusion. We are only halfway there this evening. I suspect that we will conclude the business when this matter has been debated one more time in another place, and we shall all return believing that we have done a good job in improving this legislation.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston 8:15 pm, 16th March 2004

I will be brief, as I understand that other Members wish to speak.

I want to develop the point that was first raised by my right hon. Friend Mr. Kaufman. Undoubtedly, there is a contradiction in the position being adopted by the collective Opposition. On the one hand, it is all right to overturn the advice of the Electoral Commission on the issue of signatures, but on the other, it is not all right on the issue of postal votes. The only aspect of my right hon. Friend's contribution with which I disagreed was that he minced his words so much in his criticism of the Opposition, and particularly of the way in which the Liberal Democrats have two stances. That was revealed in response to the intervention of my hon. Friend Shona McIsaac in which she referred to quotes from a Member of the European Parliament, Mr. Chris Davies, who purports to represent my constituency, too. That particular individual argues against postal ballots on the basis that it is a provision for lazy voters—he does not consider elderly people, shift workers, including many of my constituents, elderly people, people with families and so on.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

Does my hon. Friend accept that the reason why the Opposition parties welcome the fact that the other place has thought that the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber should not be included in the pilots is that the high turnout will mean that Labour votes are expressed and recorded, and Labour local authorities and Labour Governments elected? That is manipulation coming directly from the other place.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

My hon. Friend makes a point a behalf of her constituents, whom she represents extremely well.

I want to return to my point about the quotes from that Member of the European Parliament. At least he has some legitimacy, albeit under the bizarre list system, in my constituency. Unlike those at the other end of the Corridor, I was elected to represent Ellesmere Port and Neston. I suppose Chris Davies has some legitimacy in that respect as an MEP, but not a single vote is cast for anyone at the other end of the Corridor. Yet I understand that, by a vote of 174 to 130 dominated by the hereditaries, the will of this House—the will of the people who sent me here to represent Ellesmere Port and Neston—has been overturned.

Photo of Dave Watts Dave Watts Labour, St Helens North

Does my hon. Friend agree that what is missing from the debate is the issue of what the voters want? It has been shown that when a postal vote is held, double the number of people—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Gentleman should be addressing the Chair, not his hon. Friend.

Photo of Dave Watts Dave Watts Labour, St Helens North

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is my hon. Friend aware that the turnout is doubled when a postal vote takes place? When a Liberal Democrat Member says that this is about lazy voters, he is actually accusing half the voters of being lazy.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

My hon. Friend makes his point eloquently. His constituency has been subject to one of the pilots, as has Chorley in the north-west. I have examined the statistics carefully, because I am interested in alternative ways of voting. I have investigated other systems such as electronic voting. Although that system benefited the Conservative party in Vale Royal, I am in favour of it. I think it would be very short-sighted of us not to look for new opportunities to enfranchise people in all our communities.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the remarkable result in Chorley, where a postal ballot system increased the turnout from 31 per cent. in 1998 to 61 per cent. How does he explain the fact that the turnout dropped by 0.4 per cent. in Greenwich and by 3 per cent. in Hackney under the same system?

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I think there are special circumstances that we should examine in all the pilots we undertake, but I also think the Greenwich pilot was far too small for us to make any statistical sense out of the data. I should be happy to debate the point with the hon. Gentleman elsewhere.

My constituents in the north-west undoubtedly want more opportunities to vote. People who work difficult shifts in the chemical and vehicle-building industries in particular often find that that they must either rush to the ballot box after a 12-hour shift or miss their opportunities. Tremendous strides have been made in the recent past in removing some of the constraints preventing people from having postal ballots. I think we should agree, in the interests of those people and the other sections of society that I mentioned earlier, that it is utterly irresponsible of the Lords not to allow the will of the people of my constituency and of this House to prevail.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

One of the biggest problems involved in the whole question of postal voting is the background to the reasons why people want the turnout to increase. According to a recent opinion poll connected with the approaching European elections, it was stated that no more than 19 per cent. of the people of this country would participate. We know that in the last European elections the turnout was only 24 per cent., and I believe that in one part of the north-west—Liverpool, I think—it was only 9 per cent.

There is a serious problem. This is a democratic question, and it is also about whether or not politics and politicians in general inspire confidence. We have discovered that, as a result of what has happened in the last few years, confidence in the electoral system has fallen further and further. Indeed, the average turnout in general elections between 1945 and 1997 was approximately 73 per cent., but between 1997 and 2001 there was an astonishing drop of 12 per cent. People in this country certainly need to take account of the fact that this is not just a question of the technicalities that can be applied by increasing the number of people who vote by post. There is a much deeper crisis about our democracy as a whole, which is clearly demonstrated by the figures that I gave for the period 1997 to 2001. It is clear that it is directly connected to the atmosphere of dishonesty, to which the Government have contributed by the way in which they have gone about what they have done.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett Labour, Denton and Reddish

Will the hon. Gentleman go back over those figures and relate them to how close the public perceived the election to be? Turnout almost every time went up when people thought that it was going to be a close contest.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

I am not against the idea of postal votes. That is something on which we ought to agree on both sides of the House; I am sure we do. I am speaking for myself here. I am deeply encouraged by the fact that in Chorley, as I said, there was an increase in turnout from 31 per cent. in 1998 to 61 per cent. in 2002. That cannot be anything but a good thing because it is people participating in the democratic process, but the problem is that that is not mirrored throughout the country.

I have to take the point that Mr. Heath made, which is simple but none the less valid. We are going to have elections that will affect the outcome in the European Parliament and thereby, because of the power of co-decision, have a vast impact not only on this House but on our electorate, because the power of co-decision is a power equivalent to that of voting in the Council of Ministers. Therefore, we should be taking the matter extremely seriously, and I am sure we are. The point that the hon. Gentleman made that there should be consistency throughout the country is important. In the areas that are disputed in the amendment and in the northern part of the country in broad terms, why should a system be put in place that differentiates sharply from the position in the south? I am afraid that I cannot—

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

I will certainly give way. I cannot conceive of any reason for that. I am happy to give way to Shona McIsaac, not Mr. Kaufman.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

Does not the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, in the Yorkshire and Humber region, there is to be a referendum in October that returning officers are preparing for? Many parts of that region had postal vote elections last year. To go back to the traditional way of voting in June will be a backward step, because the majority of people who have had postal votes already assume that they can vote in that way in June. In fact, his own party in my area is already promoting that fact on its website.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

That is a perfectly fair debating point. I think that we should be taking the whole question—

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

Wait a minute. I am not saying that I necessarily agree with that point but it is a perfectly fair point to make. What I am saying is that we should be taking the matter extremely seriously. This may be a truncated debate and our time may run out—my time in particular may run out very soon—but in terms of what is at stake this is a central question for the future of democracy in this country. We had better get this right.

The Deputy Prime Minister was ranting on and asking for the evidence, so I quoted the Alden committee report, which is really very instructive. The Labour council had the good sense to appoint a Conservative city councillor whom they greatly trusted to lead the investigation. The Birmingham Post quoted John Alden as saying that until he had completed his investigation, he had not realised how serious the perversion of democracy had become. That is in relation to postal voting, personation and intimidation at polling stations in Birmingham.

Photo of Dave Watts Dave Watts Labour, St Helens North

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that what he is referring to is in relation not to all-postal voting but to traditional voting? He seems to be advocating doing away with all postal voting in any circumstances.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

I am not advocating that. The hon. Gentleman heard me just now saying that I could see advantages in postal voting systems, provided that they are free of the perversion of democracy that John Alden identified. I am glad to see the Minister nodding at that. We have been round this track before, and I feel strongly about the need to ensure that we have a proper voting system. The more people who participate, the better. Indeed, the issue of the European elections will become increasingly important because, to my great concern, more and more power in law making is being transferred upwards, in what I believe is an undemocratic way. If we are to have a European Parliament, let us for heaven's sake have a system that cannot be perverted as in the case identified in the Alden committee report.

The Electoral Commission recommended that all-postal voting should become the norm for local elections, but there are concerns about ballot security. It said that investigations into previous postal voting had been both piecemeal and inadequate. What reliable evidence there is suggests that the scope for abuse is wider than the Government might care to admit.

In addition to the problem of fraud, there are concerns about voter confidentiality—

It being one hour after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [8 March].

Question agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker then proceeded to put the Question necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that hour.

Question put, That amendment (a) in lieu of Commons Amendment No. 1A, be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 274, Noes 152.

Division number 95

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment 3B—Lords Insistence and Reason

Amendment proposed: (a) in lieu thereof:—

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 312, Noes 115.

Division number 96

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Message to the Lords, with the Bill and Amendments.