European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 4:28 pm on 29th March 2004.

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Lords message considered [25 March]

Clause 1

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 5:20 pm, 29th March 2004

I beg to move, That this House
disagrees with Lords amendment 1F to Commons amendment 1C.

I can barely believe that, despite the House of Commons reaching a strong view on so many occasions and so frequently expressing its opinion, we are still being told by the Conservative and Liberal majority in the House of Lords that it knows better than the House of Commons when it comes to elections policy. In its latest amendment, the other place suggests that we should not proceed with all-postal voting in four regions, which the Government announced on 21 January. On this occasion, the other place wants to leave out the north-west of England for a variety of inexplicable reasons, and I urge the House to reject that suggestion and to stand firm with our decided view that we want four regions in those pilots.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Will the Minister confirm that a decision to conduct three rather than four pilots would be welcomed by the Electoral Commission, which has made it plain over the past few days that perhaps Yorkshire and Humber should be conceded, but not the north-west?

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

The hon. Gentleman has moved his position from previous occasions. He should know that, in our democracy, it is this House, acting on the advice of Ministers, that makes final decisions when it comes to elections policy. We take advice from the Electoral Commission and hear what it has to say, but at the end of the day that day ended some time ago Parliament has the right to take a firm decision.

Photo of Dave Watts Dave Watts Labour, St Helens North

Does my hon. Friend agree that the potential for fraud is the major reason why Liberal peers oppose the north-west being involved in the postal ballot? Can he explain why Liberal Democrat peers are happy to have a postal vote in a referendum, but are not happy to have one for local and European elections?

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

My hon. Friend looks for logic in the Opposition parties' thinking, but their rationale is not apparent. Hon. Members will be astonished by the history of how we are here today. The Government decided to go with four regions on 21 January, and the House of Commons ratified that decision on 8 March. The House of Commons reconfirmed that decision on 16 March, and reiterated it only last week on 24 March, but here we are again.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

All the time that we still have a second chamber I believe that it is still Government policy to allow us a second chamber its views should be taken seriously and there should be give and take. The second chamber has given up its insistence on two pilots; why can the Minister not give up his insistence on four pilots and reach a sensible compromise?

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

It is true that the other place has powers to revise and amend legislation, and, as we heard last week, noble Lords are experienced and often speak with authority. In this case, however, the other place's powers are being abused by the Opposition parties in their pursuit of overturning the will of the Government and the House of Commons. There comes a point when revision and amendment become obstructive and vexatious. This is not real scrutiny, but a brazen attempt by the Conservatives and the Liberals actively to prevent people in the north-west from having convenient voting mechanisms in the European and local elections.

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

Does the Minister recognise that his case is fatally undermined by the fact that, as recently as 16 December, he said in this House not once, twice or three times, but about six times that the Government intended to have three pilots? The other place has reluctantly conceded three pilots. The Government, under huge pressure from the Deputy Prime Minister, have changed their mind and are seeking to insist on four. His own colleagues have fatally undermined the Minister.

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

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been discussing this since 21 January, when the Government made it absolutely clear that we wanted four regions: the east midlands, the north-east, the north-west, and Yorkshire and Humber. It is important that we proceed with all-postal voting in four regions, and I shall tell him why. We already know about the difficulties with turnout, not least in local and European elections, and it is important to ensure that we can respond with modern electoral mechanisms. We also know that all-postal voting is popular and convenient among the public, which is proved by the fact that it usually results in a rise in turnout of at least 10 per cent. We know that the resources are there for pilots in four regions, and if we can afford to go ahead, there is no reason why we should not do so.

Most importantly, we know that regional returning officers in all four regions are keen that all-postal voting should proceed; indeed, they perceive several risks in not proceeding. In correspondence with me and my Department, they have expressed worry that the delays and uncertainty created by the other place have cast a blight on their planning and preparations, because they find it difficult to proceed while there is no legislative clarity.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that over the past few weeks the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has been taking evidence on all-postal vote elections. When returning officers from Yorkshire gave evidence, they made it clear that any attempt to reverse the all-postal ballot proposals would make it virtually impossible for them to reorganise their arrangements. If that is true for Yorkshire, it must be true for the north-west as well.

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

My hon. Friend makes a salient point. I have heard that many of the suppliers and contractors who normally engage with returning officers are worried that, if this uncertainty continues, via the obstruction by Opposition parties, they may not be able to proceed.

New ward boundaries have been introduced in many metropolitan areas following boundary reviews, and returning officers may well find it difficult to locate local polling stations within them. That could prove particularly difficult if the north-west is forced by the amendment to go back to conventional systems. Those returning officers would have to find the staff to ensure that the polling stations could run efficiently. There are all sorts of reasons why effectively forcing the north-west to go back on what was planned and return to the conventional system would create difficulties. It would be irresponsible for Opposition parties to force that situation.

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

Should not returning officers have to wait until the legislation is on the statute book? If they are behaving as Mr. Betts suggests, they are mistaken. They should wait until the legislation is in its final form, not jump the gun because they are under pressure from party political views expressed by Government Members.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 5:30 pm, 29th March 2004

The hon. Gentleman knows that we have been trying to resolve the matter for far longer than he suggests. If we had been able to resolve it far sooner, returning officers would not be asking questions about uncertainty. We have always been keen to ensure swift enactment of the measure but the Opposition parties' abuse of the powers of the other place has caused uncertainty. I hope that they will stop using the other place improperly to obstruct the Bill, allow its passage to continue and permit resolution so that four regions can be selected.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

Does my hon. Friend believe it reasonable for returning officers in the north-west to assume that, once the House of Commons has said that the region should be one of the postal vote pilots, they can plan on that basis, rather than assuming that the House of Lords will kibosh the whole thing?

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

As my hon. Friend says, an almost unprecedented constitutional situation is developing. There has been a significant amount of ping-pong between the two Houses on previous legislation, but the House of Lords rarely stands in the way of the will of the House of Commons, especially on elections policy. The root cause is clear: Conservative and Liberal peers have been instructed by their respective Front Benchers to use the revising powers of the other place to try to scupper legislation whenever the bandwagon appears and the opportunity arises. That could be their motivation for standing in the way of the north-west, especially, having more convenient voting mechanisms.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

May I take my hon. Friend back to the letter that Sam Younger sent him on 4 March? The nub of the matter appears to be that the Electoral Commission said:

"the rollout of all postal elections needs to be underpinned by a more robust statutory framework."

What can my hon. Friend say to reassure me and others that that robust framework exists so that people who ask about fraud are satisfied that it will not happen under the new system?

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

My hon. Friend is right that we support piloting all-postal arrangements and that, as the Electoral Commission suggested, before we have a wider roll-out for local government elections nationwide, there may need to be changes to individual registration and so on. However, in the interim, it is important to begin to scale up the piloting of all-postal arrangements. There has been considerable piloting of all-postal arrangements in previous local elections. If we were not allowed to proceed with four regions, fewer people would vote on an all-postal basis than in 2003. That would not be scaling up, but scaling back and it would be perceived as a backward step.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

I fear that, in the course of a short speech, the Minister has already contradicted himself. He said that the other place was guilty of a procedural impropriety but went on to refer to its use of revising powers. He knows perfectly well that the other place has those powers and it has simply had the temerity, in his view, to use them. Why does not he admit that the real sin of the other place is to disagree with him?

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

The shadow Secretary of State for International Development is wrong on that point. As I said earlier, it is not simply a matter of a disagreement between the two Houses. The House of Commons made its view known on 8 March, reiterated it on 16 March, did so again on 24 March and here we are again. I hope that my hon. Friends will support the motion to disagree and that we will again reiterate the strong view of the elected House of Commons. If the hon. Gentleman is willing to say that there is no Conservative Whip and no Liberal Democrat Whip in the other place to thwart the will of the House of Commons in our democratic decision about elections policy, I shall be happy to give way to him. However, I suspect that there is a Whip because the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are pursuing a partisan motivation, on which I shall expand shortly. Will he say, on behalf of the shadow Secretaries of States, that there is no Whip?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

The Minister elevates me beyond all reasonable heights of my ambition. He ought to know that whipping is not a matter for me; I am just a humble shadow Secretary of State for International Development.

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

I agree that the hon. Gentleman is indeed a humble shadow Secretary of State.

What are the true reasons behind the Conservative and Liberal opposition, particularly to the north-west? As I have said, their motivation could well be simply scuppering legislation opportunistically. They may well not want a higher turnout in the local and European elections in the north-west of England. There is certainly no evidence that all-postal elections are any more prone to fraud than conventional elections, not least because there have been no convictions for fraud in all-postal elections in the north-west. I know that some noble Lords have referred to certain anecdotes, but they related particularly to the conventional system of election, which suggests that other problems, not associated with all-postal voting, might well be at the root of the issue.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

The Minister does a disservice to the other place, given the Electoral Commission's advice to the Government. Some of us have just come from Committee Room 11, where we have been considering the draft European Parliament orders. In that context, the Government have accepted in full the Electoral Commission's advice on constituency sizes. In one sphere, the Government accept that the commission's judgment is right and proper, but they reject it when it relates to the best way to conduct pilots.

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

If the hon. Gentleman's policy is always to adhere to the advice of the Electoral Commission, why did his colleague agree in an earlier debate to reinstitute the declaration of identity provision the witness signature provision against the advice of the commission? That was the subject of a Liberal Democrat amendment in the other place. It suits the Liberal Democrats to adhere to the commission's advice when they want to, but not when they do not. We have to consider the motivation of the Opposition parties for using the powers of the other place to thwart the decisions of the House of Commons.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

Is not the real impropriety the fact that the House of Lords is engaged in these actions on a time-limited piece of legislation? This is not a Bill that could come in next year or the year after; it is specifically time limited. That means that the Lords are abusing the convention of the House that they will deal with their business in a timely fashion. This could only have been considered timely if it had already been dealt with by now, because returning officers have to make decisions.

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

My hon. Friend could well be right. There are significant risks and dangers involved in the games being played by the Opposition parties. The returning officers in the north-west could face difficulties if those parties force them to go back on what they are already planning, and to return to conventional elections. We know for a fact that returning officers now want to proceed with all-postal voting. I hope that the Opposition parties will not leave the north-west in the lurch by forcing it to go back on its plans. There are significant dangers in going down that route. We know that there are significant benefits associated with all-postal voting, and that there are dangers associated with preventing such voting, particularly in the north-west. It is right for us to proceed with all-postal voting in those four regions, and I urge the House to disagree with the Lords in their amendment.

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

Every time the Minister gets to his feet and speaks in a polite and moderate tone of voice, as he always does, I become more and more convinced that he believes in the elected dictatorship of a one-party state. He speaks about the House of Commons as though there were cross-party agreement here on this issue, but we and the Liberal Democrats in both Houses have always opposed the Government's proposals. Moreover, the Government have changed their mind. Until 16 December last year, they made it clear that they intended to have only three all-postal pilots. They could have three all-postal pilots reluctantly conceded recently by the other place if they wanted them now, but we see in this the heavy hand of the Deputy Prime Minister, who was bellowing at us from the Treasury Bench when we debated these measures the time before last and who is obsessed with having all-postal pilots in all the Labour heartlands for party political advantage to fit in with what he wants for the referendums later in the year.

The game was given away just before what I might describe as round 7 of this heavyweight contest by a written answer in last Thursday's Hansard from the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Phil Hope, at the same time as the other place was about to debate the matter for the umpteenth time. My hon. Friend Mr. Hammond asked:

"To ask the Deputy Prime Minister when he last met members or officials of the Electoral Commission; what the purpose of that meeting was; and what the outcome was."

The junior Minister, who was on the Treasury Bench a little earlier, gave this answer, which I can describe only as containing terminological inexactitude:

"My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister met with members of the Electoral Commission on 3 March to discuss issues relating to the piloting of all-postal voting at the European Parliamentary and combined local elections in June, including how many regions should be involved."

This is where it becomes rather more serious, because it continues:

"Both parties agreed that the regions that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister announced should use all-postal voting this year are each capable of running a successful pilot." [Hansard, 24 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 909W.]

Since that meeting on 3 March, to which that answer refers, we have had not one but two letters to the Government. Despite my challenges last time we debated these measures and the time before, we have not seen the letters from Ministers to the Electoral Commission. I again challenge the Minister to put those letters, as well as minutes of all meetings that he, other Ministers or the Deputy Prime Minister have had with the Electoral Commission, in the Library of the House. Three times at the Dispatch Box I have asked him to do so, but each time his response has been silence.

We know from both the Electoral Commission's replies that that answer from the hon. Member for Corby does not reflect what the Electoral Commission says. As we debated last week, and as has been set out in this place and the other place, the Electoral Commission, as recently as 23 March, said:

"The considerations as set out in our December Report regarding the North West have not changed".

The Electoral Commission sets out in detail in its report why it regards the north-west as unsuitable, and it has not changed its mind. In addition, the Electoral Commission goes on in that letter to say:

"For the reasons set out in my letter of 4 March" that is, the letter sent after that meeting

"we are not persuaded of the merits of piloting in 4 regions."

The Electoral Commission is still saying three regions and not the north-west. It has put compelling reasons why, and noble lords and baronesses in another place have set out convincing reasons why the north-west should not be chosen.

The Government are obsessed with adding the north-west, which they originally intended not to do, and this Minister said not once or twice but about six times that the Government wanted three pilot regions. They want to add the north-west for their party political advantage and because the Deputy Prime Minister is obsessed by it.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Labour, Leigh

I fear that the hon. Gentleman has misrepresented the Electoral Commission's position. It said in its report that the north-west was potentially suitable. May I challenge him on this? Two weeks ago at the Dispatch Box, he made allegations of wholesale fraud that is the phrase that he used in the north-west. He referred specifically to the remarks of Lord Greaves and asked us to look them up, which I did. Is he aware that a report by Lancashire constabulary on those allegations found no evidence whatever of wrongdoing and that the file is closed? Does not his case against the north-west collapse due to that revelation?

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

No, it does not. I heard Lord Greaves giving an interview on national radio after our debates last week, as I was driving back to my constituency. He has not changed his mind at all, and he was debating the issues with Mr. Hoyle. The Electoral Commission is saying that it has not changed its reasons, which were given on 23 March. It has not changed its view on the north-west; the views of Andy Burnham are undermined by the Electoral Commission, which his Government set up.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend may already be aware as a result of the revelation from Sir Robert Smith that a statutory instrument has recently been discussed Upstairs that would reduce the number of MEPs in this country. The Government accepted in its entirety the Electoral Commission's recommendation on that. When we asked the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Mr. Lammy, who is currently on the Treasury Bench, why the Government accepted its recommendation in that respect but not in this one, he said that the two were different. Would my hon. Friend like to speculate on what the difference is?

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 5:45 pm, 29th March 2004

My hon. Friend is right, and I suspect that the difference is accounted for by the obsessions of the Deputy Prime Minister and the party political advantage of the Government party.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

The whole tenor of the hon. Gentleman's argument seems to be that the Deputy Prime Minister is trying to make sure that there is a postal ballot in Labour heartlands, because that will give party advantage to the Labour party. The strongest Labour heartland is Wales, which has not a single Tory representative in this House. If the hon. Gentleman's argument were true, surely Wales would be included in the pilot.

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

The hon. Gentleman has not played much of a part in our many earlier deliberations on the Bill. Had he done so, he would have known that we debated extensively Wales and Scotland, and many of his hon. Friends from Scotland were and, I imagine, still are outraged that Scotland has not been included. They were not included because the Electoral Commission specifically recommended against them, in even stronger terms than it did against the north-west.

Labour Members have this problem: they set up the Electoral Commission, and they are now picking and choosing only those recommendations that suit them. The biggest weakness in the Government's case is that the Government said originally not once, not twice, but many times, through this Minister that they intended only three electoral pilots. They were put out because the Electoral Commission originally recommended only two. They said that they would go ahead with a third. Only recently have they started to become obsessed with a fourth.

The Minister has also been trying to rewrite the history of the battles between the two Chambers of this bicameral legislature. He sought to suggest that there is something unusual about ping-pong, as it is called, between the two Houses. As Mr. Heath and I are well aware, that has happened towards the end of a legislative period pretty well every year since this Government came to power. Only last year, we were debating the Criminal Justice Bill, which was going backwards and forwards between the two Houses until the Government were forced to give way at the last minute, with ill grace, on the last day of the Session. I suspect that that will happen in this case. Just as we come to the Easter recess, the Government will be forced to go back to what the Electoral Commission recommends, and accept that the other place and the Electoral Commission are right. That is why we will stick to our guns, and the other place should stick to its guns.

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Labour, Rother Valley

It is a few weeks since I spoke in any debate in relation to this Bill, although I listened to the last such debate. The last time that I spoke was on 8 March. The Opposition's arguments against including the north-west are those that they used against Yorkshire and Humber. We also found out, of course, that Yorkshire and Humber was included in the Opposition amendment in the other place last week. There is a lot of hypocritical talk in this Chamber about what the intentions of the other place are.

I told the House on 8 March why I support the Bill and why all-postal ballots are good for democracy. They increase participation and I doubt whether they affect the result. They did not affect the result in my constituency last year, but 53 per cent. of people turning out is a lot better than 23 per cent. That example came from my constituency.

Looking at the debate in the other place last week, there can be no doubt that the whole issue relates to party politics. My hon. Friend the Minister passed some comment about the official Opposition. Reading the debate, I do not put a lot of the problem down to the major Opposition party, because it does not seem to know what is taking place most of the time. All that it knows is when to support the amendments tabled by a minor Opposition party, the Liberal Democrats. That is when they all pile into the Division Lobbies, and that is why we have ended up in this position on I think three occasions.

No one reading reports of debates on the Bill, especially debates in the other place, could doubt that this is about Liberal Democrat party politics relating not to Yorkshire and Humberside, the east midlands or the north-east, but to the north-west. I said that on 8 March, and it has been reaffirmed at least twice since then, when Members of the other place have sought to table amendments opposing the Bill.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown Labour, Dumfries

I have looked at some of the figures and tried to draw conclusions from them. Mr. Hawkins spoke of parliamentary ping-pong, and that is what we have seen since the Government came to power in 1997 on, to the best of my knowledge, 13 occasions, involving 13 Bills that this Labour Government have tried to pass. Between 1979 and 1997, the other place tried to frustrate this House on three occasions. That tells its own story. Nor should my hon. Friend forget the role of the Cross Benchers, who have supported the Tories in 80 per cent. of cases.

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Labour, Rother Valley

Perhaps my hon. Friend feels that Cross Benchers in the other place are not so independent of party politics in that respect. I shall keep my view of the other place out of the debate.

This is all about Liberal Democrats and the north-west. I shall now address myself to the only two Liberal Democrats in the Chamber, the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith). I have said this repeatedly. I said it on 8 March, and it has been said before. Last week Lord Rennard said that the issue was,

"I think, a very principled one that no one party should choose different voting mechanisms for different places according to its own interest, based in this case on fears that the electorate will not turn out to support it." [Hansard, House of Lords, 25 March 2004; Vol. 659, c. 851.]

Let me tell both Liberal Democrats that I would think that disgraceful if it came from anyone involved in elective politics, but I can accept such views from people next door who have never been involved in elective politics, or have been involved only in elective politics that have failed. I do not think that they understand the issue: I do not think they understand what our democracy is about. I am not a mechanistic democrat, but I think that those who deny knowingly that they would prefer a 20 per cent. turnout to one of 40 or 50 per cent. do a disservice to local government and the European electorate, and to democracy. I believe that they are doing it on behalf of the Liberal Democrats in the north-west, and that they should be ashamed of themselves.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

It is true that postal ballots increase turnout, so why have the Government not proposed universal postal ballots for this election?

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Labour, Rother Valley

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are talking about a pilot. We have had this debate time and again. On 8 March he intervened on me to say that he was not so sure about postal ballots. He said:

"such a widespread experiment cannot proceed until the real issues of impersonation, pressure and fraud are dealt with." [Hansard, 8 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1308.]

As I said then, most of the arguments against an all-postal ballot for any one, three or four regions could be used to oppose postal ballots in general.

I have seen this in action in a small way. I think that participation is good and healthy, and I do not think that one political party will be affected more than another. In our last debate, I said that if the tide was against a political party, it would drown more quickly. That is especially true if the tide is stronger than usual.

All the ping-pong is wrong. My hon. Friend Mr. Brown said that the other place had challenged this House three times between 1979 and 1997. When I was elected in 1983, it was felt that a big majority was unhealthy and bad for democracy. I cannot remember the other place challenging that Government. It was all about party politics then, and we heard about not frustrating the will of the people. It seems to me that in considering this Bill, we could frustrate the will of the people.

I do not know whether Ministers agree with my analysis, but my answer to the questions "Why today?" and "Why the north-west?" would be this. It is simple and logical to involve the north-west in June, because we all know that in October the north-west will vote in an all-postal ballot on whether to have a regional assembly. One thing that can be said of the logic is that it is consistent with what the Electoral Commission has said many times. Playing the hokey-cokey by having all-postal votes and then returning to the old system will denigrate electoral politics in this country, and be bad for turnouts. That is what Opposition Members and those in the other place propose, and they are wrong.

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

Welcome to Groundhog Day, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are going through all the same arguments in the same way, with no more clarity or logic than before.

Mr. Barron may find this odd, but I agreed with a great deal of what he said. He suggested that encouraging more people to vote was a good thing; I agree. He said that all-postal ballots appeared, on the basis of the evidence so far, to increase the number of votes; I agree. He said that it was right to organise pilot schemes so that we could assess how we might expand the process; I agree. He said that he did not believe that the democratic outcome of the elections would be affected; I agree, on the basis of the evidence that we have seen so far. He said that it was wrong for areas that had already had all-postal ballots to be prevented from having them this year. That is exactly the position in which my constituents will find themselves as a result of the Bill, which he supports. It will make it illegal for them to have an all-postal ballot in the European elections and the local authority elections in June. They had one last time because my Liberal Democrat-controlled authority allowed the Government's interests to be met.

There is much on which the right hon. Gentleman and I agree; where we disagree is on the fundamental issue of who makes the recommendations on which we reach our decisions. We have said all along that we should use the Electoral Commission as an independent arbiter because that is safest in a democratic society.

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

Not yet; the hon. Gentleman can intervene when he has listened to my argument.

The safest option is for us to use the independent arbiter established by the Government, unless there are strong reasons for ignoring its advice. It would have to involve a consensus extending beyond any single party in this House. Our position has been consistent. When the Electoral Commission said that it could positively recommend only two regions, we said, "Fair enough—two regions will be involved." When it reviewed the situation and said that it could accept a third region, Yorkshire and Humberside, we went along with that and, in another place, tabled an amendment to extend the range of the scheme.

Photo of Kevin Barron Kevin Barron Labour, Rother Valley 6:00 pm, 29th March 2004

My simple question is whether, if the Electoral Commission said that the electoral returning officer in the north-west should go ahead with a pilot there, the hon. Gentleman would believe that there should be a pilot in the north-west. That is the opposite argument to that used by his noble Friends in the other place.

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

That is precisely not the case. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that when we last debated this issue the question was that the pilot areas should comprise those that the Electoral Commission could positively recommend, with no stipulation about how many there should be. The Government rejected that option and he voted against it, as he was not prepared to accept it.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Labour, Leigh

Does the fact that the Electoral Commission made a firm recommendation on two regions and said that others were potentially suitable not suggest to the hon. Gentleman that it was inviting the Government to make recommendations on which further regions should be included?

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

I hope that the hon. Gentleman has by now read the most recent letter from the Electoral Commission, which makes it quite clear that that is not what it said. The commission said that it could not positively recommend the other regions, and it placed in third position, as runner up, Scotland, whose merits the Government have not for one moment appeared to consider. Instead, they have chosen two other regions.

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

I shall not give way, because I should like to make a little more progress.

An important constitutional matter is involved in this debate. Much play has been made of the fact that this is an example of the unelected House acting as a block on the settled will of the elected House. Setting aside for the moment the fact that some of us strongly believe that the other place should not be an unelected House and are waiting rather impatiently for the Government to do something about that rather than simply wringing their hands because the Prime Minister will not agree with his party on the subject, do we not have to consider the basic constitutional issue that the almost paramount duty of the other place in a bicameral system is to protect our constitutional arrangements if they are under threat of abuse? If a future Government decided, on their own majority and without the support of any Opposition parties, that they wished to abolish or postpone elections or change the voting system off their own bat, I hope that every single Labour Member would expect the Lords to take an interest in that and to protect the constitution of this country, unwritten though it is.

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

Will the hon. Gentleman think carefully about the problem facing all those who will have to administer the election in the north-west? If his proposals went through, they would have to have a traditional election in which a large number of people would apply for postal votes because they were angry leading to an exceptionally high number of postal votes. To run the two systems together is particularly difficult for electoral officers, so would it not be sensible to accept one system? It will be implemented at the very last minute, and it should be a postal system.

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

We should not be in this position. The Government let the Bill lie on the Table for two months and did nothing with it. They then decided that everything had to be done in a hurry, and their position has become absurd. They jeopardised all the arrangements that returning officers have to make, including the printing of ballot papers. I am concerned about the Government's conduct.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Labour, Rhondda

May I return the hon. Gentleman to the point that he made a few moments ago? He asked what would happen if a Government proposed to suspend elections indefinitely or for a considerable period, but I am sure that he knows, because it is a piece of Liberal legislation, that the Parliament Act 1911 specifically recommends which systems arise if a Government want to change the date of a general election. That is clear. Surely, the point is that we need a new Parliament Act to legislate properly on arrangements between the other place and this Chamber. This ping-pong, which completely flouts the Salisbury convention, brings the whole parliamentary system into disrepute.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. For an intervention, that was an extremely long speech, and it took us further and further away from the narrower point that is at the heart of this matter.

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

I take your advice on that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The other place has not only a perfect right but a duty to lay a constraining hand on this House if a single party in it chooses to ignore the advice of the Electoral Commission and other parties represented in this Chamber. That is an important constitutional issue to which we must return at another stage.

What is so bizarre about the whole situation is that, as the Bill stands, the Government have what they asked for. It is like a toddler in a supermarket who says, "I want three lollies. I want three lollies". The sensible mother says, "No, you can have two lollies—the third would make you sick." The child throws all its toys out the pram and has an almighty tantrum, and eventually the parent reconsiders and says, "All right, all right; you can have three." What is the response of the toddler? He throws all his toys out the pram again and says, "I want four now. I want four. Three isn't good enough."

How can we deal with a Government who behave in that way? The Under-Secretary's embarrassment is palpable, because neither he nor the Lord Chancellor is running this show. How demeaning it is for the Lord Chancellor the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs to have his actions constrained by the Deputy Prime Minister. It is the Deputy Prime Minister who goes along to talk to the Electoral Commission. That is nothing to do with his brief, but he chooses to do so. He is the one who writes letters to the commission nothing to do with him, but he does so. He is the one who sits in on our debates and makes absurd comments from a sedentary position. They are nothing to do with him, but he does so.

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

The Minister is going to say that he is not demeaned by that situation. He will have to give a pretty clear explanation of why not.

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

The Deputy Prime Minister has responsibility for local government. The June elections are for local government seats, so surely it is right for the Deputy Prime Minister to take an interest in them. Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that the Deputy Prime Minister is elected, like all other Members in this House? Does the hon. Gentleman not see any virtue in the fact that we are elected, and should have our will and the decisions that we make in this House of Commons upheld?

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

We are the masters now. The Minister has official responsibility for electoral arrangements, yet another Department interferes in everything that he does and says that he cannot have what he originally asked for. That is not joined-up government; it is bullying by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Labour party for their own objectives. That is what we object to so strongly.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

The hon. Gentleman's characterisation of the Minister's lickspittle conduct is extremely effective. Does he agree that the historical musings of Chris Bryant about the Salisbury convention are wholly inapplicable in this case given the absence of a manifesto commitment? Does he recall that, on any of the three occasions during the Conservative government highlighted by Mr. Brown, the Labour party complained about the behaviour of the upper House? I do not recall that.

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

The hon. Gentleman invites me to do two things. First, he invites me to engage in a discussion with the hon. Member for Rhondda that Mr. Deputy Speaker has said is beyond the scope of this debate, so I shall not do so. Secondly, he invites me to support the view that another place without an elected mandate ought to frustrate the will of this House when it considers matters other than the constitution and the protection of human rights and liberty, which I think are its proper province. I am not prepared to do that, because I want reform of the other place and will not defend its present arrangements.

I will, however, defend the right of another place, as constituted, to look dispassionately at legislation before it and to take a view which is nothing to do with my arranging my troops at the other end. For heaven's sake, I could not even arrange my colleagues behind me. If more than one were here at the moment, I might try to do so.

I am not in a position to tell my colleagues in the other place how to vote; they will reach their own judgment. At the moment, their judgment is that the Government are engaged in a process of bullying and inappropriate action that is against all the tenets of our constitutional settlement, and they are right to take that view. I just wish that the Government would accept that they have the Bill that they asked for in the first place, and that they would please stop throwing their toys out of the pram, and behave like a grown-up Government.

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

I did not intend to speak in this debate, but I am moved to do so by some interesting distortions of the truth. I challenge any Member who served on the Standing Committee considering the Bill that gave birth to the Electoral Commission, or who participated in any of the subsequent stages, to tell me that any Member, at any stage, moved an amendment that sought to give the commission the power to instruct. [Interruption.] Stop chuntering over there! That never happened, and it was never the intention of this House or of the upper House, so far as I can see, that the commission be given a power to instruct. It is there to give advice, and advice it has given to the Government and to this House.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have been present in Committee Room 11, where the Minister said that the Government were taking instructions from the commission in respect of electoral boundaries because they were required to do so by European legislation. So it has already been stated in legislation that the commission should be supreme, and that it should be obeyed when giving advice in this area. We are saying that when such advice is given, it should be taken extremely seriously.

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

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the subject of boundaries, but it has nothing to do with the procedural process.

Mr. Heath said that the Lords have a duty to protect the constitution. There is one fundamental and overriding constitutional point that must take precedence over all else: that only one House is elected. We have yet to have in its entirety the debate on the nature of the second Chamber, what its powers ought ultimately to be, and whether, indeed, it should even exist. A few Members present voted for its abolition [Interruption.] I hear some cheers from behind me. At this point the second Chamber has no ability constitutionally to put aside the powers of this House.

As my right hon. Friend Mr. Barron hinted, the Conservatives are riding on the coat-tails of the Liberal Democrats in this Chamber, in the upper House and, indeed, in the north-west. They have no policy of their own. They are looking for convenient electoral gain, and they seek to achieve it through a mechanism that would minimise turnout.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

Does my hon. Friend find it extraordinary that not a single north-west Liberal Democrat Member is in the Chamber to explain why they are preventing their constituents from voting by post in June?

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

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and what my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley said was spot on. At local government level, Liverpool city council seems terrified of the concept of higher turnout. In what better place could we campaign for higher turnout than in Liverpool, where, regrettably, turnout has been far too low for many years? So far as Liverpool city council is concerned, the Liberal Democrats are frightened of a higher turnout.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Labour, Leigh 6:15 pm, 29th March 2004

We are probably 10 weeks away from the elections. Does my hon. Friend agree that the most important voices now belong not to those in this Chamber or in the one down the Corridor, or to those in the Electoral Commission, but to the returning officers in the north-west and the regional returning officer? According to my information, they are all in favour of postal voting going ahead.

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

My hon. Friend makes a very strong point and any right-thinking person will agree with him, but that does not mean that he will get unanimous support in this Chamber.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome on distancing himself last week from the outrageous statement of the Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament, Mr. Chris Davies, that people who want postal voting are lazy. Why does the hon. Gentleman not demonstrate his anger at that statement by voting with us tonight?

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Before making one or two brief points, I should point out to Andy Burnham that elevating paid officials the electoral registration officers above Members of either House is rather strange parliamentary logic.

The other place has as much right to take the stand that it has taken on this issue as it had to throw out Mrs. Thatcher's War Crimes Bill. One should remind Labour Members that the House of Lords has behaved with a degree of vigour and robustness, no matter which party has been in government. All that it is seeking to do on this occasion is to look properly at what the Electoral Commission is recommending. No matter what sophistry Labour Members indulge in, the fact is that the commission has said that it does not believe that there should be a pilot in the north-west.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Labour, Leigh

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Not yet. The commission's statement is a fact, whatever arguments Labour Members might advance and whatever the Minister might say. Indeed, he has changed his mind, as my hon. Friend Mr. Hawkins pointed out. The Minister took one line in December and is now taking a very different one although, admittedly, he has taken it for the past eight weeks. In taking that very different line, he is flying in the face of the commission's advice. This House is right to listen to that advice, and it would be far better advised to say, "Let us have three pilots," which would constitute a concession on the part of many. Frankly, I would rather have no pilots at all. I do not like the idea of compulsory postal voting, but I recognise the fact that the commission has been asked to make some recommendations, and that the figure of two pilots has been increased to three. However, I recognise I ask the Minister to do likewise that the commission does not believe that the north-west should have a compulsory postal ballot.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Whatever the hon. Gentleman might say, he cannot change that fact. The advice is clear and unequivocal, in letters from the chairman of the commission, Mr. Sam Younger. It is a great pity that Mr. Younger, in whom I have great confidence, has been placed in this extremely difficult and embarrassing position.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

I shall certainly give way to my right hon. Friend.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Does my hon. Friend not think that the Minister should apologise to the commission and to the returning officers who have been left in muddle, owing to this Government's delay and bungling?

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Not for the first time, I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend, whose reputation for incisive sagacity is exceeded by no one. Mr. Sam Younger and his colleagues, who seek to serve this country and the electoral system with objective, impartial advice, should receive an apology. We are now moving, because of the ridiculous timing —

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

The House divided: Ayes 307, Noes 172.

Division number 112 European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

Aye: 307 MPs

No: 172 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment disagreed to.

Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to certain of their amendments to the Bill: Mr. Nick Hawkins, Mr. David Heath, Mr. Christopher Leslie, Laura Moffat and Ms Bridget Prentice; Three to be the quorum of the Committee. [Mr. Heppell.]

To withdraw immediately.

Reasons for disagreeing to certain Lords amendments reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords