I beg to move,
That the draft Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums Order 2004, which was laid before this House on 24th June, be approved.
I understand that with this it will be convenient to discuss the following motions:
That the draft Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums (Counting Officers' Charges) Order 2004, which was laid before this House on 24th June, be approved.
That the draft Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums (Expenses Limits for Permitted Participants) Order 2004, which was laid before this House on 24th June, be approved.
Together with the three orders already considered Upstairs, confirming the dates for referendums and the options for local government reorganisation, these orders represent the package of secondary legislation necessary to provide for the proper conduct of this autumn's regional and local referendums.
The orders set out, first, the rules and procedures for the referendums, including the postal ballot; secondly, the amounts counting officers can receive for their fees and expenses in connection with the referendums; and, thirdly, the spending limits for those campaigning in the referendums. I shall deal with each in turn.
The Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums Order 2004 details the procedures for the conduct of the referendums by all-postal ballot. During the passage of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003, which enables the referendums to be held, concerns were voiced about the level of turnout. Indeed, some hon. Members were so concerned about the legitimacy of any result that they called for a threshold to be set. However, we considered that a threshold other than a simple majority vote would be arbitrary and unfair. Why should non-voters be able to veto a yes vote by those who bother to turn out?
Oh dear. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman has not done his homework or he would know that I have frequently said both in Committee and in the House that if turnout was derisory we should not feel obliged to proceed with the outcome, if that involved setting up an elected regional assembly. I have also explained, repeatedly—most hon. Members know this by now—that to give a figure automatically sets a threshold. That threshold then automatically provides an incentive for people not to vote. There would be the most perverse and absurd consequence: rather than voting to express their point of view, people would use the device of not voting to try to frustrate something. That is a perversion of democracy and I have explained on many occasions why it is not appropriate.
No, the hon. Gentleman must do his homework more thoroughly in future if he wants to be taken seriously in this place.
Secondly, let me remind Members of what happened in Scotland in the 1970s. There was a threshold and the people of Scotland voted substantially—by a significant majority—to have a form of devolved government, but they did not vote in sufficient numbers to meet the threshold. The net result was that for almost 20 years the people of Scotland were denied the opportunity for devolution that they wanted and for which they had voted. They were denied it—they were frustrated—and the Conservatives would do well to reflect that their persistent opposition to Scottish devolution has cost them dearly in that country. The absence of Scottish Conservative representation in recent years has been a simple reflection of the response of the Scottish people to the way in which the Conservatives treated their legitimate aspirations for devolution with contempt.
No, I have already indicated to the hon. Gentleman that I do not intend to give way to him again.
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall deal specifically with that question later. He raises a legitimate point about concerns as to the safety of the ballot. We have given the matter careful consideration and I shall set out our response in a moment. However, I was talking about turnout and I should like to focus on that.
I said at the time, and I am happy to repeat it, that if the turnout for the referendums were so low as to be derisory, the Government would not be bound to implement their proposals. None the less, we consider it our duty to do everything in our power to maximise public participation in the debate over the governance of our regions. That is why, last October, we announced our intention to hold the referendums by all-postal ballot, against the backdrop both of successful pilots at local government elections in 2000, 2002 and 2003 and of the Electoral Commission evaluation of the 2003 pilots, which recommended that, subject to certain safeguards, all-postal voting should become the norm for future local government elections—[Interruption.] I understand why Mr. Duncan is showing such derision from a sedentary position; he indicated in the previous debate on this subject that he did not care a fig for the view of the Electoral Commission, which carried out the evaluation. It is an indication of the cavalier approach of those on the Conservative Front Bench that they show such contempt for the considered views of the Electoral Commission.
The Electoral Commission's conclusion reflected the evidence from the pilots, which had demonstrated the ability of all-postal voting dramatically to increase turnout—sometimes more than doubling it. The announcement was made early to give electoral administrators certainty in their planning and was welcomed by the Electoral Commission.
A month later, in November, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I launched the Government's information campaign to raise awareness of the forthcoming referendums and the issues involved. Since then, debates have been held in each of the regions focusing on the main arguments for and against regional assemblies, and we have conducted a number of hearings to give local people the opportunity to feedback their views on the powers to be contained in the draft Regional Assemblies Bill.
As a result, individuals and groups have already begun to organise their campaigns on what they see as the key issues, with yes and no groups established in each of the regions. Their expectation is quite properly that the issue will be decided at the referendums this autumn, so it is important that the House confirms the arrangements set out in these orders. To avoid administrative and voter confusion, the provisions drafted in the Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums Order 2004 are broadly similar to those for June's European and local elections.
At the European elections, the average turnout was 42.6 per cent. in the pilot regions compared with 20.2 per cent. in 1999—an increase of more than 100 per cent. In the non-pilot regions, turnout also increased, largely because the European and local government elections were held at the same time, but by only 50 per cent. compared with 1999. There is absolutely clear and incontrovertible evidence that all-postal voting substantially increased the number of people voting, and we have seen that evidence repeatedly, in 2000, 2002 and 2003. The evidence does not come simply from a single election but has been repeated, time and again, and I can quote example after example of local authorities that have conducted all-postal local elections and achieved a doubling, or near doubling, in participation rates compared with previous elections.
The hon. Gentleman raises an absolutely valid issue, and we have made provision, to which I will refer in due course, for electoral officers to visit individuals who have difficulty in filling out all-postal voting forms for reasons of visual impairment. Provision is specifically made for that in these orders, and I am sure that he will welcome that.
The evidence is clear that all-postal voting can substantially increase turnout. Despite that success, we recognise that media coverage of the pilots this June highlighted various concerns. The first group of concerns relates to the administration of the process, which generally worked well, albeit to a very tight timetable. Similar concerns will not apply to regional referendums, which have a much longer lead-in time and no constraints, such as are created by nomination dates for candidates, which prevented the advance printing of ballot papers.
The second group of concerns relates to allegations of possible fraud and malpractice associated with postal voting. Many of the concerns raised at the time and subsequently in debates in the House relate to postal voting outside the all-postal pilot areas. Indeed, Mr. Taylor mentioned the west midlands a moment ago. That was not one of the all-postal pilot areas, but concerns were expressed, as he said, about the use of postal balloting.
There were, of course, problems with postal voting outside the pilot areas. Does the Minister think that those problems apply to the pilot areas? Anyone looking at this dispassionately would think that the problems apply to postal voting, whether voluntary or compulsory, full stop, and that they must be addressed before we go down the route of all-postal voting.
The hon. Gentleman, as he looks into the subject, will establish that problems are associated with any form of balloting. Electoral administrators will advise that difficulties are associated with all types of voting, so it is necessary to have in place proper safeguards and measures to guard against possible abuse to the greatest extent possible. That is essential—it is our commitment—but the fact that, this year and in previous years, allegations of problems and malpractice associated with postal voting have been made does not in itself raise specific problems in relation to all-postal pilots. [Hon. Members: "Yes, it does."] It does not; it raises an issue to do with postal voting generally, not with the intention of holding—
The problems with postal voting have arisen as postal voting has increased in importance in our electoral system. If we vastly increase postal voting, the scale of those problems will vastly increase. We have a well-developed body of law for voting at ballot boxes and polling stations; we do not have a well-developed body of law and practice for large-scale postal voting. That is the problem.
The hon. Gentleman's hypothesis is simply not supported by the evidence. He should listen to the views of the returning officer for the north-west region, where probably the largest number of problems were reported. The chief executive of Manchester city council, Howard Bernstein, said that, if anything, the number of problems with fraud was probably less this year than in previous years. So I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's argument about scaling up the extent of all-postal voting is simply not substantiated.
I have heard my right hon. Friend and other Ministers use that quote from Sir Howard Bernstein a number of times. It is accurate, but partial—the rest of the quote goes on to say that there has been an increase in the number of cases of intimidation. That is a joint statement from the regional returning officer and Greater Manchester police. What weight does my right hon. Friend put on the fact that intimidation apparently increased in the north-west?
Clearly, we must wait for the report from the Electoral Commission, which is carrying out an evaluation, and we will give very considerable attention to that report when it becomes available. However, my hon. Friend will be conscious of the fact that a number of the complaints were associated with actions seeking to ensure the success of individual candidates in elections where candidates were seeking office, which can attract substantial allowances, and there may be something of a financial incentive. Most commentators who consider the referendums, where no such incentive applies, would recognise that the kind of instances that he alludes to are much less likely to occur in the context of a simple referendum question, where no individual stands to gain election as a result.
I agree with the Minister: the case for an all-postal ballot in a referendum is much stronger because the incentive for fraud is much less. Given that logic, is he saying therefore that the case for all-postal ballots in local elections is much weaker?
No, what I was saying—[Laughter]—as the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members, whose mirth indicates their reluctance to listen, should be aware, is that we will await the Electoral Commission's response, because it is the body charged by the House—[Interruption.] Frankly, for the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, from a sedentary position, to talk about ignoring the Electoral Commission's views when he said, from the Conservative Front Bench, that that was exactly what he did shows a degree of inconsistency that I find quite astonishing—but, sadly, we are all too used to that from the Conservative party.
In the light of that media coverage, the Electoral Commission suggested that we delay laying the referendum orders until after it had published its evaluation of the pilots in September. However, as we pointed out to the commission, if we are to hold referendums this autumn, as is widely expected, and allow an adequate campaigning period and public information in line with the commitments that we have given, Parliament needs to approve the necessary referendum orders before the summer recess. For that reason, I repeat the undertaking that I have given to Parliament
"not to proceed with the all-postal referendums as planned if" the Electoral Commission's evaluation of the 2004 pilots
"produces convincing evidence leading to the conclusion that it would be unsafe to do so."—[Hansard, 22 June 2004; Vol. 422, c. 1260.]
What will be the nature of the advice given by the Electoral Commission? Does the right hon. Gentleman expect it to say, "We do not therefore believe that the Government should proceed with this", or does he expect it to propose a series of factors that the Government should evaluate to decide whether they add up to a significant barrier?
My understanding from the Electoral Commission is that it will, in its report, specifically address the issue of the all-postal referendums proposed for this autumn and report, which it is required to do by statute, on the experience of the all-postal pilots that took place in June. It is entirely up to the commission to decide how it wishes to address the issue, but it is conscious of the significance of what it says. As I have said, if the evidence is convincing that it would be unsafe to proceed, we shall certainly react positively and be prepared not to proceed with an all-postal referendum. However, we must obviously wait to see the evidence.
The Minister has been very generous in giving way. I hope that the Government have no intention of hiding behind the statement made by the Electoral Commission. I hope that he will recognise that its report is advisory, as the Government have reminded the House on many other occasions, and that the decision about whether to go ahead with a referendum lies with Ministers and not with the Electoral Commission.
I entirely accept that; we have always accepted that. However, we take the advice of the Electoral Commission seriously and we have, on occasions, disagreed with it. When we do so, that is not because we simply state arrogantly that we do not care a fig for its views. We set out objective and fair reasons why we take a different view. There have been few such occasions. Overwhelmingly, we have gone along with the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, and we intend to give proper and serious consideration to whatever it says.
Will my right hon. Friend clarify the matter? If the Electoral Commission finds that there are problems with postal ballots in a region, will that rule out postal ballots in all three regions or only the region that has the problem?
My hon. Friend asks a very pertinent question. As he will know, his region—the north-east region—probably has the greatest experience of all-postal balloting. Most authorities have adopted it and his authority of Gateshead has been a pioneer in showing in one of the earliest pilots the capability of doubling participation. It has sustained high levels of participation in subsequent pilots. Therefore, experience in the north-east is generally overwhelmingly positive, and I have received very few indications of anxieties from north-east authorities about potential problems. If there are concerns, it is right to address them wherever they are rather than adopting a blanket approach that would not be appropriate in the circumstances.
I seek reassurance from my right hon. Friend that he is not losing confidence in postal ballots. I am bound to remind him that we in the north-east and my constituency of Stockton, South voted in significantly greater numbers because of the use of postal ballots, even with the witness statement, which was an absolute nuisance. The Electoral Commission said that there was no cause for concern, no evidence of improper behaviour and no evidence of fraud. I seek reassurance that my right hon. Friend is not losing confidence in postal ballots as an important way of supporting our electorate.
My hon. Friend will have heard the remarks that I made earlier in which I made it clear that I believe that there are considerable advantages with all-postal ballots. We certainly want to maximise participation. However, we take seriously all genuine and substantial allegations of fraud or malpractice, and we want to ensure that there are proper safeguards in place to ensure that public confidence in the voting system can be maintained. That is the proper balance to maintain, and it is the position that we have adopted.
Does the right hon. Gentleman envisage circumstances in which postal ballots might take place in fewer than three regions—in other words, in one or two—and that the entire ballot might be deferred in one or two or take place at a later date by traditional methods of voting? That is really the question that Mr. Clelland posed.
The Government brought forward all three orders and the three separate orders that were debated Upstairs two days ago on the basis that we propose that the referendums should all be held on the same date this autumn. It is implicit in what I have said about our response to the evidence and, in particular, to the views of the Electoral Commission that if it were suggested that it were unsafe to proceed in one region but not in others, we would by the nature of our response be prepared to proceed in one region on the basis already proposed while deferring or adopting a different approach in another one. That has to be the way forward. I shall not speculate on that; the issue is purely speculative. Implicit in the approach that we have adopted is an indication of our commitment to proceed according to the timetable that we have set out and our willingness to listen carefully to the evidence brought to the House as well as that of the Electoral Commission. We shall reach a considered view in the light of that evidence.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to deferring or using a different approach. Is it therefore conceivable that, let us say, the north-east and Yorkshire and Humber will vote by postal ballot on 4 November as anticipated—I understand that it would not be possible to arrange a manual ballot by that date—but that the north-west might vote on a subsequent date but still within this Parliament?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Were one of the orders not to be passed tonight or tomorrow when the other place considers the matter, there would need to be alternative orders because it would not be possible for a simple shift in the method of voting to take place without that being approved by the House. There clearly would be a need for additional parliamentary consideration if that course of action were pursued.
I appreciate the Government's desire to raise turnout, and the Minister has concentrated his comments on administration and fraud, about which Conservative Members have concerns. However, he has not concentrated on—the Electoral Commission has not made great play of this—the credibility of an election or a referendum. A campaign takes place that culminates in one day with the public at large collectively making its decision. The great power of an election or a referendum depends on that. Does he not see that that notion of an election or referendum is entirely undermined if the system of postal voting is made compulsory?
No, I do not. I accept entirely the hon. Gentleman's premise that there should be a formal period for campaigning. However, we have accepted as part of our democratic arrangements for decades that some people can vote either by proxy or by post. There were provisions—most spectacularly in the 1945 election, which did not help his party—for the forces to vote at a different time to other people. Arrangements can be made for voting at different points during the campaign period, and that does not undermine the validity of a ballot. The important things are for arguments to be presented and for the public to have a full opportunity to hear the arguments debated, after which they form a judgment. That is one of the reasons why we have insisted that there should a proper period throughout the referendum to allow people to hear and consider the arguments of the yes and no campaigns, which will be registered by the Electoral Commission and given access to funds to promote their points of view. It is right for that to be in place before people receive their ballot papers. People may vote at different times, but there will be a proper campaign so that they may form a judgment based on the arguments to which they are exposed.
We are confident that problems highlighted in the media coverage of the pilots would not apply to the referendums. I have already said that there will be no candidates seeking election, so the risk of fraud prompted by self-interest on the part of candidates would be eliminated. Secondly, there would be a much longer lead-in time for the printing and dispatch of ballot papers in the referendums—six weeks instead of a week—because that need not be done over such a concentrated period to allow for the nomination date for candidates. In June, there were reports that votes could not be counted because witnessed declarations of identity were incomplete, so the Government intend, in line with the advice of the Electoral Commission, to use security statements that do not require witness signatures for this autumn's referendums. The Electoral Commission's view was that
"the traditional form of declaration adds nothing to the security of the process but introduces significant risks".
My hon. Friend Ms Taylor highlighted the fact that evidence shows that people were deterred from voting in the June pilots because they found the requirement of a witness statement complex and possibly intimidating.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend says about not continuing with witness statements in the unhelpful form that they took in June. Does he agree that the experience of authorities such as Gateshead, which had three years of successful postal ballots without the witness declaration, is in accord with the policy change that he is announcing?
I entirely concur with the views expressed by my right hon. Friend, who has a lot of experience of the matter and has watched the process over those years. As I said in response to our hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South, who shares the same local authority as my right hon. Friend, there is considerable evidence of successful all-postal voting in Gateshead. The evidence from this summer's pilots suggests that the witness statement might have adversely affected the turnout compared with that in previous pilots, but we will wait for the measured and considered response of the Electoral Commission before reaching a firm decision. However, we do not intend to use witness statements during the course of the referendums.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows that Liberal Democrats are worried by the Government's current attitude to witness statements. We have heard from his colleagues about some of the problems with them, but postal votes have traditionally had witness statements, so the Government are moving away from the way in which postal voting has operated in this country. I hope that he will give due weight to people's concerns that the danger of electoral fraud will remain until we get individual voter registration. The Government need to be careful if they really are to discard the witness statement.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We have considered the matter carefully and acted in line with the Electoral Commission's advice. As I said, its view is that
"the traditional form of declaration adds nothing to the security of the process but introduces significant risks".
One problem is that individuals are nervous that the existence of a witness statement compromises the secrecy of the ballot—it does not, but people are fearful that it might. People who live alone face a problem because they may not find it easy to have someone available to witness their declarations at a convenient time. Those and other factors are probably some of the reasons behind the situation in June when turnout fell in some areas that had experienced high levels of participation in previous all-postal pilots.
May I come back to the Minister on two points? First, the Electoral Commission favours individual elector registration as a long-term goal—I think that there is cross-party consensus on that point—but how do we insure against fraud in the meantime? Secondly, if there is misperception among the electorate that the secrecy of a ballot could be jeopardised, surely we should tackle that by proving through clearer information that that is not the case.
I shall take the hon. Gentleman's second point first. It is absolutely right that good information should be available to everyone who votes, whatever method is used. There is evidence that the authorities that have explained the all-postal voting process most thoughtfully have achieved the highest levels of participation because they have allayed fears and ensured that people were on side. Several authorities that have done that over three years or more—Gateshead has done it for four years—have demonstrated that it is possible to achieve sustained high levels of participation. We should pay close heed to the experience of those authorities, many of which are in the north-east, that have operated the system successfully without problems on separate occasions.
After I have responded to the second point raised by Mr. Davey.
The Electoral Commission's recommendation on individual registration is important and we are giving it serious consideration. We intend to move forward on the basis of its proposals. However, that cannot be done without legislation and quite complex administration, which will not be in place before this autumn's referendums. The Electoral Commission was aware of that when it welcomed our decision to proceed with an all-postal referendum. They knew that it would not be possible to accompany that with individual registration and took its decision in the light of that evidence.
Chester-le-Street in my constituency has had postal voting for the past three years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the confusion in the European election was caused by the need for people to sign a witness statement, and turnout went down whereas in previous elections it had been going up? For example, last September we had a record turnout in a council by-election of 64 per cent. Surely the fact of the matter is that the witness statement causes more confusion.
My hon. Friend also speaks from considerable experience. Most hon. Members will be highly impressed with that figure. Sadly, we are not used to a 64 per cent. turnout in a council by-election. It reflects the remarkable success of all-postal voting in achieving higher turnouts.
My hon. Friend also makes a fair and considered point about the problems associated with the witness statement. I think that I dealt with that thoroughly and I gave the undertaking that we do not intend to use witness statements. We propose instead to use security statements in the referendums, in line with the Electoral Commission's recommendation.
I want to make some progress first.
Another difference between the pilots held in June and the referendums this autumn is that we have made provision for more assistance and delivery points of at least one per 50,000 electors, to be open on the date of the referendum and the preceding seven working days, during normal working hours, to enable those people who want to vote in person to do so.
Mr. Curry asked in a previous debate whether that provision would be adequate in rural areas. We have reflected on that and I am pleased to tell him that electoral administrators will be empowered to make additional arrangements in areas where they think that the 50,000 figure is inadequate, so there can be greater provision if they think that it is justified. In addition, as I said in my reply to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, there will be provision for electoral administrators to visit individuals who are not able to vote because of a disability, in particular visual impairment, and who might need assistance.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that common-sense provision. The Craven area barely has 50,000 inhabitants, let alone 50,000 electors, and they are spread over the north Pennines, so it is an obvious difficulty. For people who are visually impaired or who have difficulty getting to a poll or filling in a ballot paper, will there be a mechanism by which they notify the returning officer of that disability or problem so that they can be visited? What will be put in place to enable them to take advantage of that facility?
The chairman of the Electoral Commission, who is overseeing the process, and the returning officers who will be responsible within each region, must give thought to that matter. We will encourage them to publicise the availability of assistance from electoral administrators for those people who will find it difficult to vote without the presence of an administrator in their own home to help them through the process.
On the figure of 50,000, if a returning officer decided that there should be a collection point for every 10,000 or 5,000 inhabitants, would the Government reimburse the local authority for the additional cost incurred?
My hon. Friend raises a question that clearly will have to be considered by the electoral administrators. We would certainly want to make certain that there was proper provision to ensure that people were able to vote in person where they wished to do so. I do not want, at this stage, to speculate about any particular ratio of assistance and delivery points to electors because circumstances will vary enormously from one place to another.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I have one or two problems with the whole idea of the referendum. However, if we proceed, we must encourage the greatest number of people to participate, so will he ensure that the instructions are in plain English so that people can understand them? That is an important point. In June, the instructions issued in Yorkshire and Humber were virtually incomprehensible and caused many people to make a complete mess of voting. In London, despite the complexity of the elections, the instructions were a lot clearer.
I can assure my hon. Friend that the orders that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Phil Hope, dealt with in Committee on Monday specifically set out the referendum question, the dates and other necessary information as well as matters relating to local government reorganisation, so those issues have already been the subject of considerable scrutiny and of consideration by the Electoral Commission.
There is no justification for the Opposition's claims that we are compelling people to vote by post. Electors would have the choice as to whether to return their vote by post, to deliver it by hand or to vote at a place supervised by electoral officials at the forthcoming referendums. The count would commence after close of poll on
Having just congratulated the right hon. Gentleman on doing something sensible, I now find that he has said something that he is far too intelligent to believe. He knows very well that in a normal, physical election there are polling stations in every village—in the village hall, in the school or perhaps in a caravan. Even by the wildest imagination he is not proposing that, certainly not with the doubts over who would finance it. There is no analogy between the facility that he has just announced and a normal, physical ballot, and he is far too intelligent to pretend that there is.
I was not suggesting that there was an analogy; I was suggesting that arrangements had been put in place to ensure that those people who want to vote in person will be able to do so. The assistance and delivery points to which I referred will be open for a whole week before the close of ballot, and most people, even in rural areas, would find it possible in the course of a week to visit such a location. I have also referred to our intention to allow electoral administrators to make individual visits. There might be mobile polling stations to call in certain areas at specified times. It is our intention that everything possible should be done to encourage participation. This is all about making it easier for people to vote. We know that all-postal ballots are very welcome to many people, who find that the most convenient way to vote. We want to extend that, but we also want to ensure that there is provision for those people who would prefer to vote by other means. I have to say that we are not going to have any electronic voting in this particular election; that is not an option on this occasion. We have had pilots elsewhere and we will come back to those in future years, but not on this occasion.
The Minister has been generous in giving way, particularly to me. He has given reassurances that people with visual impairment will be assisted by the electoral administrators who will visit them. How will the cost of that provision be met? That is important, and I hope that he is not leaving the question to the Electoral Commission to work out in due course. One can imagine a large number of electoral administrators having to be recruited specifically for that purpose.
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with us, we will come on to the cost issues in the subsequent orders. It is our intention to reimburse reasonable costs, but they must be reasonable—we do not want unjustified expenditure. We want to take these measures in a way that gives real benefits and makes it easy for people to vote, but in the most cost-effective way.
To enable local people to identify how their particular area has voted, each counting officer would certify for his area the number of ballot papers counted and the number of votes cast for each referendum answer. The chief counting officer would do the same for the whole of the referendum area. To ensure that there is confidence in the final result, the order makes provision for recounts, both in a particular voting area and the whole referendum area.
The Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums Order also seeks to establish a fair and transparent framework for regulating campaigners. The purpose of the framework is to level the playing field between different permitted participants—registered campaigners—by placing limits on their spending. Those limits are set out in the Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums (Expenses Limits for Permitted Participants) Order.
Political parties would be subject to a sliding scale of limits, determined by their vote share at the last European elections. Parties receiving more than 30 per cent. of the vote at June's European elections would be entitled to spend up to a maximum limit of £940,000 in the north-west, £820,000 in Yorkshire and Humber and £665,000 in the north-east. The figures obviously relate to population differences between the regions. Those maximums also apply to the lead yes/ no campaigns, as appointed by the Electoral Commission. Parties receiving less than 5 per cent. of the vote would be able to spend no more than £100,000, the same limit as applies to permitted participants that are not political parties. There is a sliding scale determining maximum limits for political parties between these extremes. The framework also provides for the lead yes/no campaigns in each of the regions to receive a grant from the Electoral Commission, a free mail shot to either households or individual voters, free TV broadcasts and free use of rooms for public meetings.
As the explanatory memorandum to the Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums (Counting Officers' Charges) Order makes clear, the cost of holding the referendums will be approximately £1.52 per elector on a 100 per cent. turnout. That gives a total cost of £16.6 million, which would fall with turnout.
What are the rules regarding expenditure by the Government during the referendum period? Clearly, the Minister has already spent money informing people, as he would put it, or trying to influence the vote, as I would put it. What are the rules during the referendum campaign? Can the Government spend any money "informing" people?
No. The rules are spelled out clearly in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which sets the overall framework. That places an absolute prohibition on the Government spending any money at all in the 28 days prior to the close of poll. Because this is an all-postal election and the ballot papers will be sent out approximately three weeks before that, we have agreed in our discussions with the Electoral Commission that we will apply the 28-day cut-off to mean 28 days from the date at which the voting papers are likely to be sent out, so it is more likely to be 28 days plus three weeks from the final date of the poll.
There is provision, as I said, for the Electoral Commission to provide funds for both the yes and no campaigns, and we would envisage them to be incurring expenditure supporting the arguments—yes and no—during that period of approximately a month from the end of the Government's information campaign until the point at which the ballot papers are sent out and after that, if they choose to do so. It will be up to them how they spend the money. However, the Government will play no role at all in publicity during that period, other than answering factual questions that are put to us.
How would the expenditure incurred by Ministers be handled? I would expect the Minister to go around trying to campaign for a yes vote. Would he be doing so as a Minister, with transport and so on paid for by the Government, or as a representative of the yes campaign in whichever region he was, with the expenditure incurred by the yes campaign?
Individuals Ministers, as individual Members of Parliament and as advocates of a particular cause, would be free to speak on behalf of the yes or no cause, but they would not be performing a function as Ministers during that time. They would be acting as individuals, not as Ministers.
It is important that that should be seen to be fair. For example, if the right hon. Gentleman were to travel to the north of England during the referendum period to make a speech in favour of a regional assembly, the funding for that trip could not come out of public funds, otherwise it would not be fair, would it?
If I visited the north-east, the north-west or any other region solely and specifically to promote a particular position—in my case, it would be the yes position on elected regional assemblies—I would pay for my travel. [Interruption.] It happened when the Conservative party was in government. In the normal course of events, one conducts official ministerial visits and one also involves oneself in political campaigning. Because of our other responsibilities, Ministers do not have the freedom to travel around the country that Mr. Jenkin might expect. The provisions properly cover the position, and we shall observe them scrupulously.
I cannot imagine that any Minister in this Government wants to do that because the Government are committed to extending devolution. Our position is clear on supporting the opportunity to have elected regional assemblies, and the Deputy Prime Minister and I will strongly advocate a yes vote in our personal capacities during the campaign.
I am grateful to the Minister, who has been extremely generous in giving way. I have two further questions about expenditure. First, when the 28-day period, which will be advanced by three weeks, cuts in, what obligation is there to ensure that advertisements on hoardings and buses are removed and are not left to linger? Secondly, will the Minister ask the Electoral Commission if it will consult the yes and no campaigns, so that both sides are satisfied that the information that it puts out during the campaign is impartial, which is not the feeling about the Government's campaign?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. All the information that the Government have put out and will continue to put out has been cleared through all the normal channels, including vigorous legal checks, to ensure that it complies with the obligations imposed on us to be fair and impartial. We have observed that principle and shall continue to do so.
The process will end the Government's provision of information before the yes and no campaigns publicity campaigns begin to kick in. The Government will not issue paid advertisements when the yes and no campaigns have been approved by the Electoral Commission and are campaigning. The hon. Member for North Essex knows that in the normal course of events I cannot guarantee that no hoardings will be left over, but we intend to end all publicity and advertising well before the yes and no campaigns are launched.
Will my right hon. Friend assure me that during the time in which the Government are allowed to give objective information to people about this extremely important constitutional occasion, they will use that opportunity to give a great deal of information to everyone who can vote?
I am happy to provide that assurance. Last week, I attended a hearing in Blackpool, which is not far from the constituency of my hon. Friend, where the debate was intelligent and sensible. The no campaign fielded an expert on local government, whom I respect greatly, and the yes campaign fielded a councillor with considerable experience of a local authority. I presented the factual basis and the yes and no campaigns argued their cases, which is right and proper. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Essex laughs, but he would be surprised if I went into the detail of what the advocate for the no campaign said, which did not accord with the views expressed by Conservative Front Benchers—I have more respect for that particular spokesman and his expertise than I do for them. [Interruption.] I will take one more intervention, but then I must end my speech because other hon. Members want to speak.
Sub-paragraph (c) of "Limits on referendum expenses by participants in the North West region" refers to
"£100,000 in the case of an individual or body falling within" a certain Act. What provision is there to prevent a very rich person from setting up a number of bodies and putting the £100,000 into the fund, thus skewing the debate one way or the other?
My hon. Friend has put his finger on a difficulty with the existing regulations. Having examined them carefully, we believe that there is scope for individuals to support different organisations, all of which could register separately. It will be for the Electoral Commission to decide whether, in its opinion, there is an abuse of the system in such circumstances. I trust the judgment of the commission, which is of course empowered to register participants. Without its endorsement, those participants are not entitled to spend more than £10,000.
The orders are essential to enable referendums on elected regional assemblies to be held this autumn. I believe that they provide a proper basis for the achievement of our objectives. Those objectives are to give the people in the northern regions an opportunity to express their views either for or against elected regional assemblies, to do so on the basis of the highest possible participation, and to be well informed of the outcome. I commend the orders to the House.
I think the whole House is extremely grateful to the Minister for the time he has given us and the number of interventions he has taken. He is an extremely nice man, and also an extremely honourable man; but sometimes, as he puts his head on the pillow at night, he must wonder what on earth the mess is that he has got himself into.
Even if Parliament approves the orders this week, everyone will be left wondering whether the referendums in the north of England will take place at all. It is difficult to imagine how the Government could have created more of a mess for themselves. Here we are with the date of the referendums set, with the Government spending millions of pounds of public money on their own propaganda campaign, and with the yes and no campaigns up and running in three northern regions not yet recognised by the Electoral Commission or the Government, facing the fact that the referendums may never be held.
The problem is that the Government have become obsessed with conducting the referendums by means of all-postal ballots. We must ask ourselves why. The conventional ballot box was good enough for the Scottish referendum, good enough for Wales and good enough for the London mayoralty and the London Assembly. Why does it not do for referendums on regional assemblies? Why does the Deputy Prime Minister—against all the advice of the Electoral Commission, after the chaos of the all-postal pilots in the June elections and after the collapse of public confidence in all-postal voting—still insist on all-postal referendums? He is effectively putting the whole policy at risk, because the Government may yet have to call them off.
The real danger with the referendums is the massive opportunity for vote-harvesting. I use that phrase advisedly. Unscrupulous individuals or organisations collecting unwanted ballot papers from doorsteps, from the doormats of multiple-occupancy residences or even from people's rubbish sacks and bins could forge signatures and post the papers off, and no one would be the wiser. There is no way of checking whether the votes are genuine.
I hear what the Minister and Mr. Davey say about the self-interest of candidates not being a factor in a referendum, but reduced motive does not improve the security of a system that is fundamentally unsound.
Is it not easier to impersonate someone under the present ballot-box system than under the postal-vote system? I could turn up at the hon. Gentleman's polling station, give his name and address, receive a ballot paper and walk out. There would be no audit trail to establish that I had been there. Surely what the hon. Gentleman is saying is nonsense.
Logistically, it is much more difficult to organise large-scale impersonation in a polling station than behind a closed door with stacks of ballot papers. In order to impersonate me, another voter and another voter several times, the hon. Gentleman would have to go into separate polling stations to avoid being identified voting more than once. That is not necessary if he is voting behind a closed door using ballot papers with forged signatures. It is possible to vote hundreds and hundreds of times under the system that is being promulgated in these orders. It would not be possible to do that with the conventional ballot box.
Would the hon. Gentleman be more relaxed if there were a declaration of identity, as there was in the all-postal ballot pilots? It is important for him to say that. If he can join our party in making that point, perhaps we can persuade the Government that, until we get individual elector registration, that is the way to go to prevent the fraud that he has expressed concern about.
A witness statement is an additional safeguard. None the less, it is unsatisfactory because it can be forged, too, and there is no way to check that. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would be preferable to have a witness statement.
I still think that it would be preferable to have conventional ballot box voting. That would be a more secure way of conducting the referendums. How could anyone check whether the signatures on the ballot packs were real or fake?
The House is well aware that evidence was produced that fraud took place in parts of the midlands. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could tell us whether there was any evidence of similar fraud, on any scale, in the northern region.
If the system is unsound in the midlands, it is unsound in any other region. I will come to what the leader of Birmingham city council said in a moment, but the other place insisted on a witness statement in the postal pilots because of the need for some check on all-postal balloting. I agree with Joyce Quin, who is longing to be the new Miss North-east in the regional assembly: it probably would reduce the turnout because it would complicate the system, but it would make it safer. We must accept that.
That is why the Electoral Commission wanted the Government to delay these referendum orders. It is all very well to say that my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan, who is no longer here unfortunately, would not listen to the Electoral Commission. When it does not suit the Minister for Local and Regional Government, even though his Government set up the Electoral Commission, he does not listen to it—well, he listens to it and ignores it. That is what he has done in this case.
It is widely known that the Electoral Commission would have preferred the Government to delay the orders until it reported on the pilots. I am sure that the Minister will not be disingenuous enough to insist that that is not true. What it wants ideally is to implement individual voter registration, so that a record of every voter's signature is held centrally on file and signatures on ballot papers can be cross-checked if there is any doubt or any need. Indeed, they could be spot cross-checked to discourage anyone from forging a signature on a ballot paper.
In these referendums, apathy will be rife. The majority in all three regions probably do not care, or hardly know, about the Deputy Prime Minister's precious regional assembly proposals. Few people will care what happens to the ballot papers that they never asked for. Again, despite the chaos last time, live, validated ballot papers will pour out across the north of England and, from that point on, no one will know where individual ballot papers have been, who has completed them and whether any fraud has taken place. That is what the postal pilots clearly proved last month.
The other problem is the state of electoral law. As Sir Albert Bore, Labour leader of Birmingham city council, said last month:
"At present, in relation to postal ballot papers, the law is so general that almost anything is legal."
That is why the Electoral Commission is pushing for an increase in the number and type of offences with regard to postal voting to protect the integrity of the ballot.
I put it to the Minister that there is no consensus on this matter. He has the support of neither the Liberal Democrats nor the Conservative party on the question. Why are the Government galloping ahead with their own way of conducting ballots without any party consensus? This has hardly ever been done before with such a cavalier attitude. The only conclusion that one can reach is that it is being done because it is in this miserable, rotten Government's interests; they see political advantage in it. An all-postal ballot is the only hope of avoiding the humiliation of a totally derisory turnout. That is not an excuse for hijacking the voting system.
The other advantage that the Government now have is a convenient exit strategy. I can well imagine that the right hon. Gentleman has been detailed by the Prime Minister to try to extricate the Government from the mess that the Deputy Prime Minister has made. If the Government really do face humiliation in all three regions, they can use the Electoral Commission's report as a pretext to call the whole thing off.
Last month, the House was told that the referendums would not proceed if the Electoral Commission were to conclude that it was "unsafe" to proceed with all-postal voting. Rather like "derisory", what does "unsafe" mean? The Minister told us in the same debate that not to proceed the Electoral Commission would only have to produce
"evidence leading to the conclusion that it would be unsafe".—[Hansard, 22 June 2004; Vol. 422, c. 1260]
He has also said that only
"a suggestion that new regulations were required" would be enough to postpone the referendums. There is plenty of wiggle room there; we know that the commission already wants additional regulations to protect the integrity of the ballot. It will be possible for the right hon. Gentleman and the Government to interpret the Electoral Commission's report however they so choose.
I should make it clear that the hon. Gentleman is quoting my remarks in the previous debate out of context. When I talked about possible changes to regulations, I was asked about the impact on the timetable of any recommendations that the Electoral Commission might make. I tried to draw a distinction between recommendations that would involve legislation, which clearly would involve a long delay; recommendations that might involve a change in regulations, which would involve a delay; and recommendations that might involve administrative changes, which might not involve a delay if those could be done expeditiously. I was simply trying to illustrate the fact that we had to take account of a range of possible circumstances. The hon. Gentleman should not imply that a suggestion that there might be a modest change to administrative procedures is a justification for not taking action. That was certainly not what I implied.
I fully accept what the right hon. Gentleman says, but it does not alter the substance of the point I am making, which concerns what the real test of "unsafe" is. In the end, it that will be a decision for Ministers; we cannot expect the Electoral Commission to make the decision about whether the referendums should go ahead, any more than we could expect Hans Blix to decide whether we should invade Iraq. It is a question for Ministers, and not something that the Minister will be able to define today. It leaves him all the room for manoeuvre that he wants.
The real test of the word "unsafe" will be a political judgment, not a legal or technical one. If it looks likely that Labour will lose one or more of the referendums, that may well be what the Government conclude to be "unsafe". It will be the Prime Minister who makes the ultimate decision, not his hapless deputy.
The Minister refuses to define "unsafe" and "derisory". This kind of confusion, chaos and deceit has characterised the Government's proposals for elected regional assembles from the start. I ask for one simple reassurance that the right hon. Gentleman failed to give Mr. Clelland or my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry. Either all the referendums go ahead, or not. Does the Minister agree that there can be no conceivable excuse for cancelling one or two of the referendums? Either he will consider postal voting to be an unsafe system, or a safe one.
How can the system be safe in some places and not in others? That is the answer to the question from Ms Taylor. Do we think people behave differently in Bradford than in York? [Hon. Members: "Yes."] That is an interesting comment. All citizens in this country should be treated as equals. To cast aspersions on one part of the population but not another is a very nasty thing to do; yet that is the implication of the Government's position. Either the system is sound or it is not, and if not, none of the referendums should proceed on this basis.
I should make it clear that there is no question of casting aspersions on any section of the community or individual area. However, the fact is that the complaints made about the problems associated with all-postal voting—or, indeed, with postal voting—tended to be concentrated in certain areas. That factor clearly has to be taken into account, and it would be quite wrong to draw general conclusions from what might be localised problems associated with particular candidates in individual elections. I drew a clear distinction between circumstances that might prove an incentive to commit fraud—in which a candidate has an incentive to get elected—and the very different circumstances that apply in a referendum. The hon. Gentleman should accept that in that regard it is possible to draw distinctions between different areas of the country without implying the kind of slur that he suggested might lie behind our position.
I do not accept that that should be the determining factor. I repeat: if the system is unsound, it is unsound anywhere. The right hon. Gentleman's argument is that because we do not have competing candidates, no vested interests are involved in this process, but of course that is not true. Huge vested interests are involved. The reputation of the Deputy Prime Minister is on the line; the careers of the "jobs for the boys" Labour councillors who want to be members of the regional assemblies are on the line; the career of the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West is on the line. Lots of people have a vested interest in the outcome of the regional assemblies referendum.
In any case, what about some of the organisations that might be involved in the yes campaign or the no campaign? I certainly do not want to have anything to do with the British National party. However, it is on the record as saying that it will apply for designation as a permitted participant. Does the right hon. Gentleman expect the BNP to behave as well as any other political party behaves? I certainly do not.
My hon. Friend has asked a question of the Minister and in order to avoid ambiguity, I want to explain to my hon. Friend my understanding of the Minister's reply to my earlier intervention. I do not understand why we are being so squeamish about saying what we believe, which is that there appear to have been problems with the conduct of the ballot in certain ethnic minority areas. That is what we are talking about; we are simply trying to avoid using that expression. As I understood it, the Minister said that it is not impossible that there could be three ballots, two ballots or one ballot, and that they could all take place through postal voting or through a combination of postal and manual voting. In the latter case, manual voting would take place at a later date than postal voting because it would not be possible to make the necessary arrangements in time, given the need first to pass the relevant legislation through this House. That is my understanding of what the Minister said.
If the Minister will confirm that that is so—[Interruption.] He nods, but I have to say that that was not my understanding of his response to the intervention of my right hon. Friend. The point is that, as my right hon. Friend will agree, we are faced with an extraordinary mess. There is a very high likelihood that what we are debating—and possibly approving—is what will not happen. This is a mess of the Government's own making, and one made over a remarkably short period.
The hon. Gentleman has said several times that the all-postal ballot is an unsound system. On what does he base that judgment, given that all-postal ballots have operated in the north-east for some three to four years without the problems that he describes?
My point is that if a system is unsound in one place it is unsound, full stop. If it can be defrauded in one part of the country, it can be defrauded anywhere.
I note from what the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West says that she has absolute confidence that the BNP, for example, will not try to interfere with the system. Her faith is very touching.
We have had an outbreak of honesty in other quarters, from the chairman of the yes for Yorkshire campaign, Lord Haskins. Just over two weeks ago, he labelled Ministers in the Departments for Education and Skills and for Transport "Stalinists" because they did not want to let go of some of their powers. Perhaps the Minister will tell us who some of these Stalinists are. Lord Haskins was also reported to have said that he thinks the referendum is unwinnable. Helpfully, he later clarified his remarks, saying that he is merely concerned about the tight timetable being laid down by the Government. In other words, he thinks the Government are in a horrible mess and he thinks he is going to lose.
That reminds us that the Labour party is hopelessly split. On Monday, it was reported that 27 north-west Labour Members, including three Ministers, have written to the Deputy Prime Minister asking for the regional referendum to be scrapped. The truth is that Labour Members are queueing up to tell him to ditch the project. Just two days ago, Mr. Grogan called for the Yorkshire referendum to be scrapped, and added:
"I have no doubt that the views I have expressed are the views of the majority of Yorkshire Labour MPs."
We may as well be honest about these things, as Mr. Curry said, and it is also true that my hon. Friend Mr. Betts expressed reservations about the referendum. Of course there is a division of opinion in some areas of the north-west, and in Yorkshire, as we have heard today. However, let me make it crystal clear that no such divisions are apparent in the north-east, where we are only too keen to pass the orders and get on with authorising the yes and no campaigns, setting them in motion and holding the referendum.
If the referendum in the north-east goes ahead, we shall see how the people vote there, what the turnout is and whether people really want an elected regional assembly.
It is worth reminding the House that when some related orders were debated on Monday, one was carried by only nine votes to seven, and indeed would have been lost by the Government without the support of the Liberal Democrats, because of the number of Labour Members put on that Committee by the Whips who voted against the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Phil Hope.
It is little wonder that even pro-assembly Members are running for cover when The Journal, the pro-assembly Newcastle paper, runs headlines such as "Bosses line up to urge 'no' vote". The fact is that the proposals are losing support by the day. No wonder the Prime Minister has asked his man in the ODPM to sort out an exit strategy.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that only today in the north-west, the business leadership team, representing the top businesses in the region, is urging a yes vote?
May I point out that the business leadership team is a little team appointed entirely by the Deputy Prime Minister? Its members are well-known supporters of the yes campaign, but I promise hon. Members that if we took a poll of business men in the north-west, there would be no doubt about the sentiments they would express, and it is the same in the north-east and in Yorkshire.
We still do not know what powers an elected assembly would have. Throughout the past 12 months, we have had ministerial claim and counter-claim about what the powers are to be. Why have the Government not simply published the draft Bill as they originally promised? What do they have to hide? Even staunch advocates of elected assemblies, such as the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, pressed them to publish it before the orders were debated. One can only conclude that Ministers are deliberately withholding information that would serve to inform both this debate and the public, because they fear telling the truth.
This is the last occasion on which the House will debate these issues before the people themselves consider the question as set out on the referendum ballot paper, as contained in the orders.
The preamble on the ballot paper, which every voter will read before voting, says that
"the elected assembly would be responsible for a range of activities currently carried out mainly by central government bodies".
That is what the Minister believes to be correct, but we have not seen the draft Bill, so we have no idea whether it is, in fact, correct. Will it contain new policies that the Deputy Prime Minister has hinted at—on learning and skills councils, police authorities and perhaps even a Barnett formula for the north-east, which was promulgated with the north-west business leadership team at a meeting in December last year? Will it contain those new powers or, as the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Phil Hope told my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman in a letter, will it simply reflect what was set out in the White Paper? In that case, we certainly dispute the fact that the functions are mainly carried out by central Government bodies.
I have to tell the Minister that that statement is, at the very least, a subject of political dispute and controversy. It is not undisputed fact. The Government could perhaps have settled the matter by publishing the draft Bill, but instead they have put something on the ballot paper that is obviously designed to skew the debate in their favour.
We have always committed ourselves to publishing the draft Bill as soon as the House approves the orders, because it is important to provide information to the public. That is the purpose. If there were not going to be a referendum because the orders were not passed, there would clearly be no purpose in publishing the Bill for information. That is why we are committed to publishing the Bill as soon as the orders are passed.
I referred a short while ago to the representative of the no campaign at my hearing in Blackpool. Robin Wendt, a very distinguished person with previous experience of local government, made it clear that he wholly agreed with our view that the powers that we proposed for regional assemblies came overwhelmingly from central Government and agencies. In other words, the view of the Opposition that powers were being taken from local government was simply wrong.
I have not met the gentleman concerned, so I have no way of assessing the veracity of that statement. The fact remains that there is a long list of powers in the White Paper—including powers to deal with waste, transport and housing—that are currently carried out at local government level, but will subsequently be interfered with by regional assemblies. That is not what local government wants: it is not decentralisation, but fake devolution.
The hon. Gentleman will know that in the spending review the Chancellor talked about options for transport powers being devolved and that in a statement last week the Secretary of State for Transport talked about the devolution of such powers. If that were the case, would the Conservatives welcome it?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going to be suckered by what is in the White Paper. Let us consider what it actually says. Under the heading "Where we want to be", paragraph 9.4 states:
"We will improve the current arrangements for making decisions on transport. Central to this will be giving regional and local bodies more influence".
But what is "influence"? Influence means not having the final decision. These new organisations will be empowered with strategies, consultation and influence, but virtually no executive powers whatever. Even such executive powers as they will have, such as the appointment of directors to the regional development agencies—something that those agencies do not want—will be subject to the Minister's veto. That is not devolution; it is more centralisation.
If the hon. Gentleman is right about that, it would be worrying and we will not be suckered if that is what happens. However, the Chancellor said very clearly in the spending review that the Government would publish indicative budgets for transport early next year. We will hold the Government to that, because we believe that financial power is the key to the regional assemblies having real power.
But we know how the Government treat local authorities. They allocate transport spending to them, but say that they cannot spend it on one thing and have to spend it on another—otherwise they will not get it. Does the hon. Gentleman really think that the Government will treat regional government any differently? His faith is touching, but perhaps he should talk to his Liberal colleagues in the north-west who have decided to oppose elected regional assemblies in the referendums—[Interruption.] Many of them have. My hon. Friend Mr. Osborne will confirm that they are supporting the no campaign in the north-west and that campaign can expect to recruit a lot more Liberals as time goes on.
My understanding is that Liberal Democrats in the north-west have not decided to support the no campaign, but to wait until the September meeting before they make up their minds. That is not unusual for Liberal Democrats, but it is wrong of the hon. Gentleman to say that they support the no campaign. They do not.
I think that we should leave the Liberal Democrats to their private grief on that matter.
The preamble makes a claim that cannot be substantiated, and the Government refuse to publish the Bill before we vote on these orders, which would enable us to evaluate the claim for ourselves. We have to take the matter on trust. The Government do not intend to publish the Bill until after the orders have been approved, which means it will be available tomorrow. I put it to the House that they have effectively broken the substance of the promise that they made to publish the draft Bill in good time.
Why do Ministers consistently slink away from any proper debate on the powers that elected assemblies will have? It is because their only chance of winning any of the referendums is by hiding the truth, running their propaganda campaign at the public expense, twisting the question on the ballot paper, issuing hundreds of thousands more ballot papers than can possibly be used legitimately, and then refusing to say how they will assess the result.
The whole process stinks of manipulation, propaganda, spin and deceit. Labour does not trust the people, as we have seen time and again. Labour does not tell the truth about hospital waiting lists, class sizes, rising crime, the real crisis in asylum or about intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
We Conservatives do trust the people. The people of the north will see through Labour's cheap and despicable attempt to manipulate the result of these referendums. If the Government let the referendums go ahead on
I strongly support the orders, because they will enact the will of the House. The people of the northern regions should have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether they want directly elected regional assemblies.
The choice will be between the new assemblies and maintaining the current system and all its inequalities. A child born today in the north-west is likely to live 10 years less than one born in the south-east. Overwhelmingly, the country's deprived wards and local authorities are concentrated in the north-west, and funding for scientific research continues to be concentrated in four higher education institutions—the Oxbridge colleges, and two colleges in London.
We often hear about the life expectancy disparity between north and south. It is possible to find wide disparities in life expectancy between people born in leafy Surrey, say, and the worst ward in Newcastle, but the greatest disparities exist between the good and bad areas of individual regions. The average disparity in life expectancy between regions is actually quite small, so can we have truth in this matter? I have checked the figures, and I challenge the hon. Lady to produce region-wide figures that bear out her assertion, because it is not true.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that I am being untruthful. If he is, I ask him to withdraw the suggestion. The figure that I quoted is correct, and is borne out by numerous statistics put forward by other people. It is clear that there is a concentration of deprivation in the north-west—in terms of wards, special areas, local authorities and life expectancy, and in many other ways.
I certainly do agree and we are attempting to change the situation in which deprivation and inequality continue. Those people who oppose the proposals—the orders that will give effect to the choice that we want to offer the people of the north, to decide whether they want to change the system—want to maintain the status quo, with all its inequalities.
The hon. Lady mentioned science moving from the north-west to Oxbridge and she will know that the Government took the decision to move the synchrotron from Daresbury to Oxfordshire. That was a damaging decision for the north-west, but does she really think that a regional assembly would have been able to stop a decision taken by the Minister for Science and Innovation in Whitehall to move the facility? Even if the referendum were to be won, such decisions would continue to be made by the Minister and the Cabinet.
The decision to which the hon. Gentleman refers was one instance, although it was a serious instance that outraged the north-west and started to bring the region together. One of the consequences was the formation of the North West Science Council, with people from the academic and scientific sector working together with Members of Parliament and local authority representatives. We realised that unless we worked together, the system—of which that decision was only one example—would continue. It would have been inconceivable for that decision to have been taken for the areas represented by the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament. It is essential to have an organisation to represent the region as a whole, to deal with those issues that are regional—not local—and to give clout to the north-west and the other northern regions, and to argue for change and a better allocation of resources.
The hon. Gentleman refers to a decision taken by a Minister, but it was taken after concentrated lobbying and threats from the Wellcome Trust as to what it would do if the decision were not taken in its favour. The real decision was taken by that magic inner circle—the people who know one another and who are convinced that the only centres of excellence are to be found in London and the south-east. That is one of the very strong reasons why it is so important that we have an elected regional body to speak out for the needs of the region and to work with people in our centres of excellence. By mentioning that example, the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to one of the strongest reasons for going forward with an elected regional assembly.
Reference has been made in the debate to the postal vote. From experience, it gives people the maximum opportunity to vote. Indeed, in the recent elections in my area, turnout was almost doubled in some areas by the postal vote. My right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the caveats about the postal vote in terms of any comments that the Electoral Commission might make. The hon. Member for North Essex said that he believed that people in the regions did not know about the opportunity that they will have to vote for a directly elected Assembly. If that is the case, that is all the more reason to pass the orders. The yes and no campaigns can be officially organised, with sufficient resources to argue their cases.
I find that people in the north-west are most interested and concerned about how the region has been treated in terms of transport, jobs, planning, housing and public health. Those are all areas in which the elected regional assembly will have specific responsibilities and powers. Reference was made earlier in the debate to housing. The housing powers that would go to the elected regional assembly under the White Paper are currently exercised by quangos at a regional level, which report to a Minister. They are not powers for local authorities; they relate to the allocation of housing investment within and between local authorities and housing associations. An elected body should decide such extremely important matters. I suspect that few people in the regions know that such decision making is taking place, let alone the names of the individuals and organisations taking those decisions. It is thus essential that the powers promised in the White Paper go to the elected body.
Jobs and skills are extremely important. Under the White Paper, regional development agencies would be accountable to the region and not solely to Ministers, as is currently the case—although of course Ministers discuss various issues with the regional chambers.
The north-west has had a bad deal on transport. The rate of progress on the west coast main line leaves much to be desired. If we had an elected assembly, much more would have happened in that regard. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has made several statements recently about devolving transport matters locally to passenger transport authorities and to regional bodies, but unless such bodies are directly elected, those powers would be devolved to quangos—to unknown people who are not accountable in the region.
Proposals have been made about setting up transport boards, especially in regions where there are directly elected assemblies. That, too, will give power to people in the regions and to people who are elected and thus accountable.
From my dealings with the hon. Lady, I have no doubt about her sincerity and I know why she speaks with such strength on these issues. I ask her to consider the M6 toll road—probably one of the most important issues facing the north-west, which we both represent. Does she really think that decisions such as whether to proceed with the M6 toll road will have anything to do with a north-west regional assembly? That decision will be taken by the Secretary of State for Transport, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and, possibly, the Cabinet. Those vital decisions for the north-west will continue to be taken in London.
Some decisions will be taken locally, some regionally and some nationally, but a directly elected body would have the clout and legitimacy to ensure that decisions such as the one the hon. Gentleman mentioned would be dealt with much more seriously and quickly. Without such a body, things would lapse and decisions would increasingly suit the south and the south-east where strength already lies, with no need for direct elections—although it will not have escaped the hon. Gentleman's notice that the existence of the Mayor and the London assembly have brought increased strength to London and its power to attract more and more resources. Unless there is an equivalent body in the north-west, we shall find that power and resources are increasingly sucked to London and the south-east. The north-west and the other northern regions will continue to be left behind.
The hon. Lady is right. Furthermore, if the powers of the Highways Agency were devolved to the north-west regional assembly, the assembly would have powers over trunk roads, such as those devolved to the Greater London authority. That would be especially welcomed by county councils in the north-west, as they are annoyed when investment decisions on trunk roads are made in London and by the Highways Agency, rather than by the people of the north-west. Devolution of powers for trunk roads would be a substantial improvement on the current situation.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's observations. Regional assemblies should be involved with such important matters.
Another important issue in the north-west is the second Mersey crossing at Halton, which the Government are considering at present. Again, an elected north-west assembly would ensure that the arguments were put to Ministers and when they took their decisions, the whole strength of the north-west would be behind them, supported by its elected assembly.
There is often much dissention in such debates about whether the people of the north-west or, indeed, the other northern regions want an elected regional assembly, but there is considerable evidence that they want them. Only very recently, the ICM poll carried out in the north-west showed increasingly strong support for a directly elected north-west assembly and the business leadership team—derided, unfortunately, by the hon. Member for North Essex—has come out in strong support. I found his suggestion that the business leadership team was some kind of organisation set up by the Deputy Prime Minister pretty amazing. In fact, the business leadership team, with which I have worked very closely since its inception, was set up in 1982, and I do not recall that it was set up by the then Deputy Prime Minister.
In 1982, I was leader of Lancashire county council, and I recall bringing together people in the north-west to argue the case for an elected north-west regional body. The businesses of the north-west responded by getting together themselves and saying that they did not believe that the current system served business or the people of the north-west well. Among those businesses currently represented in the business leadership team at senior level, usually chief executive, are Pilkington, BAE Systems, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., Manchester Airport, McAlpine and Littlewoods—hardly a little group set up by the Deputy Prime Minister, but an extremely powerful body. Indeed, it advocates that it is time that the north-west had a stronger voice with clout and the ability to get things done, which is supported in votes taken across the north-west at the moment by various chambers of commerce.
I strongly support the case that my hon. Friend is making with great force. Does she welcome, as I did earlier today, the statement made by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about increased devolution in rural development policy to the regions? Does she agree that that is a way to help regional development agencies and regional assemblies, if established, to work effectively?
I very much welcome the point that my right hon. Friend makes. Indeed, in doing so, she draws attention to the importance of regional assemblies not only representing interests that are regional in their essence—such as, for example, science research and transport issues that affect the whole region—but being able to consider the differing needs of various parts of the region, including those of rural as well as urban areas. All that diversity of interest can be represented by elected regional assemblies, working with local authorities—I hope that they will continue to be strengthened—and central Government, where appropriate.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for generously giving way to me a third time. She keeps saying that chambers of commerce support regional government. Let me read what the Wirral, Warrington and North Cheshire chamber of commerce says. It asks the Government
"to abandon this project before it wastes a great deal of money on a level of government that few people want and even less people need."
That is what chambers of commerce actually say about the proposal.
That quote does not represent the view of all chambers of commerce—certainly not that of those in my area. Clearly, there is continuing debate about whether people want elected regional assemblies. There is only one way to find out: to go ahead with the referendums with the easiest possible way for people to register their vote. That is why I hope that the orders will be passed. I hope that both Houses will continue to support the important issue of giving the people of the north a choice on whether they continue with the current system, which has not served them well and increasingly results in inequality.
Given that devolution is a dynamic process, not a single event, does my hon. Friend share my anxiety that, if the people of the north-west choose not to go for an elected regional assembly and other regions, such as Yorkshire and Humber and the north-east, choose to do so, the north-west could find itself swiftly losing out in comparison not only to the south-east, but to those other northern regions?
I share my hon. Friend's concerns. Devolution has already started to happen in the United Kingdom. Scotland has its Parliament; Wales has its Assembly; and London has its assembly and a directly elected Mayor. If other parts of the United Kingdom start to gain more powers, the northern regions will increasingly lose out.
That is why it is important that the people of the northern regions have the earliest possible opportunity—on
Mrs. Ellman has made a powerful and passionate speech. She has put the argument for elected regional assemblies exceedingly well by talking about the voice for the north-west, about the need to get businesses behind the economic development needed to reduce the inequalities that she mentioned and, above all, about the need to democratise the many quangos. She made a point early in her remarks with which I very much agree—we have regional government already; this is about regional democracy. That is why I find the Conservatives' position so bizarre. We hear time and time again from Mr. Jenkin that we should trust the people and let them speak. The referendums are all about that; that is the whole point.
The last time we debated the issue, we had a change of position from those on the Conservative Front Bench. My right hon. Friend Mr. Beith, being his usual perceptive self, noticed that shift of position and intervened on the hon. Member for North Essex and got him to accept that the Conservatives' position had changed and say:
"I say let the people speak."—[Hansard, 30 June 2004; Vol. 423, c. 317.]
We are in an interesting position.
I shall let the hon. Gentleman intervene, but I hope that he will be able to answer the following point as well. This issue is rather like Iraq for the Conservatives. They are now in favour of the campaign, but they are not prepared to vote for the motion to let that campaign happen. This is about democracy and we should let people have the choice. I would have thought that those on the Conservative Front Bench would be behind all the measures that will make that happen.
I explained the position to the hon. Gentleman in the Tea Room before we came into the Chamber. The Government have promised the referendums and we should hold them to that promise. I am a politician who likes keeping other politicians to their promises. However, the referendums should be conducted according to a verifiable and safe electoral system. The Government are putting the process at risk by insisting on all-postal balloting instead of having the conventional ballot boxes that would provide the certainty that the referendums would actually go ahead.
I think we understand the Conservatives' position, but it could change later in the debate. We seem to be clear that they would support the referendums if they did not involve all-postal ballots. I think that that is their position, but we shall wait to see whether it is clarified.
The Liberal Democrats certainly support the referendums. We support the orders, but not without some concerns and caveats. The proposals are generally right. Indeed, we took the same position on the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003. We supported the principle behind it and its direction, but we voiced our concerns and the Government reacted to them constructively.
I have three concerns with the all-postal voting aspects of the first order, but they have largely been dealt with. The first related to blind and partially sighted people, and I see that, in paragraph 29 to schedule 1, the Government are trying to listen to the views expressed by the Electoral Commission, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government Select Committee and the Royal National Institute of the Blind.
I hope that, when the Minister replies to the debate, he will be able to say a little more about how he expects the administrators of the elections to assist voters. The idea that voting administrators will knock on people's doors and say, "Can we help you?" will be an unusual exercise and an interesting initiative. We need to understand how that will work and we need to be clear that there are no dangers in the process. We also need to be clear about how people will be able to apply for such a visit. How will that be marketed and how do the Government expect the Electoral Commission and administrators in the regions to advertise the availability of that option? That will be critical to answering the concerns of the RNIB and others.
Our second concern, which I have already raised with the Minister on an intervention, relates to whether the Government will try to hide behind Electoral Commission reports on the all-postal pilots in June.
We can always make an exception if there should be a by-election, but the hon. Gentleman is right about what the Electoral Commission said. The Government found that there was no statutory power to ban by-elections, and council by-elections especially, during the relevant period, so his point does not directly relate to the order. He made his political point interestingly.
Will the Government ensure that they will not try to subcontract out the decision on whether the referendums should go ahead? It is vital that a political decision is taken for which the Minister is accountable to the House. The Electoral Commission's judgments and research are important. We have heard that it will make a separate statement on all-postal votes and the referendums, so there will not be a review of only what happened in June. We have also heard that the statement will be brought forward and made before the House returns in September, so I hope that the Minister will confirm that we will have time to debate the Electoral Commission's findings on our return. Although that information is all very well, the decision is fundamentally political. The Minister might decide to go ahead, pull the plug on everything, or go ahead in one or two regions, as Mr. Curry inferred, but the decision will be political.
I argue that the Minister should not pull the referendums—we want them to go ahead—but there is concern in the north-west, especially, that the Government have not taken our advice or that of many other people and made the elected regional assemblies attractive to people who live in the regions. If they are to be more attractive, more powers must be on offer. The White Paper "Your Region, Your Choice" timidly and limply proposed the powers to be devolved, which was why during our negotiations with the Government when the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill was in the other place, we pressurised them to publish a draft powers Bill. The hon. Member for North Essex made an awful lot of that, but the Government agreed to do it due to our negotiations. We did not have draft powers Bills before the referendums in Scotland, Wales or London. We will have such a Bill for the first time—it will be a major improvement to the process—thanks to negotiations between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Government.
In a moment. I know that the right hon. Lady played a part in that process, if I may pre-empt her.
Mr. Dawson said that devolution is a process rather than an event, and the Government have made it clear that they are open-minded about, and keen for, further devolution. We saw that in the spending review and the Secretary of State for Transport's statement last week, and I hope that we will see it when the draft powers Bill is published.
The hon. Gentleman's last words partly pre-empted what I was going to say. Recent announcements such as the transport strategy that he mentioned and the rural strategy that was introduced today represent welcome moves. Does he agree that the Government are pursuing a devolution agenda, which we hope will be reflected further in the draft powers Bill?
I think that the Government are doing that, but as the hon. Member for North Essex rightly pointed out, we do not intend to be suckered. We want not only promises and words, but provisions in the draft powers Bill. That is important not only for us and the right hon. Lady, but for the people who will be given the choice. They will want to know that they are voting not for a talking shop, but for something that will be able to make a difference to their lives.
Hon. Members might be worried about the Government's intentions on the draft powers. Later this afternoon we will debate the Fire and Rescue Services Bill. We had the opportunity to give the elected regional assemblies the same powers that have been given to Wales. The Government declined to go down that path, which implies that they are not as willing as other hon. Members to give powers to the regional assemblies.
My hon. Friend is right to suggest caution. We reserve our judgment on such matters, but are keen to see the colour of the Government's money when the draft powers Bill is published later this week.
My third concern with the all-postal vote process is the security statement, which was raised earlier. It is not a matter of such concern that we will vote against the order because, as I told the Minister in other debates on the subject, a referendum does not have an individual candidate so the incentive for fraud is reduced massively. In that respect, I disagree with the hon. Member for North Essex. However, we would have preferred the Government to retain what happened in the pilots—namely, a declaration of identity in a full witness statement. I regret the backsliding on that and hope that fraud will not increase. I am hopeful that when the Electoral Commission makes its statement in early September or possibly late August it picks up that point having read the debate.
I am concerned about the order on expenditure limits, and the Minister was frank in saying that he shares those concerns. We are not convinced that the legislation that established the framework—the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, not the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003—is tight enough. There is a danger that a loophole will be exploited in the first test of the 2000 Act as it relates to referendums.
A range of organisations could be set up, register themselves as permitted participants and, under the order, spend £100,000 each. One individual, using friends, relatives and other associates, could set up those organisations, which he would fund to get over his attitude and views. That could undermine the democratic process. An individual might try to buy a referendum. The Minister said he would leave it to the Electoral Commission to use its best judgment on that. I hear what he says if we do not have statutory powers to turn to, but it is a concern and both sides of the House are responsible for the mistake of letting a loophole remain in the legislation. I hope that the Minister will say a little more on the Government's thinking because we do not want this important democratic experiment undermined.
Does hon. Friend have in mind an individual in Yorkshire who has said that he wants to spend a large amount of money on fighting regional assemblies in the election? There is a clear and present danger that such abuse will take place. It is not just theoretical.
I do have an individual in mind. Let me make no bones about it: it is Paul Sykes. The United Kingdom Independence party is under the bizarre belief that the proposal for regional assemblies comes from Europe, but the Liberal Democrats have argued for them for decades, even before we went into the European Union. To be fair, many Labour Members also argued for them. The idea that regional assemblies are proposed by Europe is total nonsense.
Paul Sykes is one of my constituents and I have a schizophrenic view of him. I disagree entirely with some of the things on which he wishes to spend his money. In other respects, for all the wrong reasons, he may turn out to do a powerful public good. Is it not a fact, however, that if the matter is left to the discretion of the Electoral Commission, it will become locked into legal proceedings? Someone who sets up an organisation that is challenged or disallowed by the Electoral Commission might decide to go to law to challenge that decision in the absence of clear legislation. That could halt the outcome of the whole procedure.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that had not occurred to me. We face the prospect of confusion and chaos for months after
We believe in real decentralisation to existing layers of local government; that is the alternative to this regional bureaucracy.
The hon. Gentleman is making a serious contribution on the question of expenses, which of course reads across to other referendums, of even greater importance, that may take place in future. Two things need to be said. First, constraints on expenditure work in elections because candidates aspire to be respectable, responsible people and are in danger of being disqualified if we wilfully overspend. However, in referendums we are dealing with one-off organisations, and perhaps even individuals, who care not for their long-term political reputation but only for the issue, and it is difficult to imagine what sort of constraints would limit their activity if they wished to circumvent whatever rules were in place.
Secondly, is it not much more of a concern that the Government still have the panoply of the state at their disposal throughout the referendum period? There may be scrupulous rules in place to try to control what they spend money on directly, but the real problem is the fact that the machinery of government is a superb platform from which to make a political case which will have far more influence than any individual.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that point. I think that the Government have in many ways been scrupulously fair. They have tied themselves in knots on what they can and cannot spend, but they have failed to plug the loophole for the individual whom I mentioned or others like him. That is the concern that I am expressing. I think that the hon. Gentleman has the wrong target in mind. I hope that when the Minister returns to the Dispatch Box, and possibly in discussions with the Electoral Commission, he can use other election law relating to money used in collaboration. Those rules say that an individual, in this case a permitted participant, cannot work with another individual, another permitted participant, to promote a cause. That may be one way to thwart abuse of that loophole. I certainly hope that the Minister can give me that assurance tonight.
I do not want to detain the House further. I made most of my points on interventions. I simply say to the Minister that the draft powers Bill, which we expect to see on Thursday, will be the key test. My colleagues in the north-west will look at that when they decide how to vote. They are waiting to see whether the Bill provides for true devolution. The Liberal Democrats believe in devolved political decision making, and the Liberal Democrats in the north-west, as a regional party, will take the decision on the Bill. They are waiting to see the colour of the Government's money, so if Ministers want to make sure that the Liberal Democrats in the north-west are united behind the Government, they need to make sure that the Bill contains significant powers, particularly, as I have said, with respect to transport, learning and skills councils and the environmental agenda.
More generally, with the people, the Government need to overturn the apathy that was mentioned. There is concern that out there in the regions there is a degree of apathy and a lack of knowledge about these proposals. I know from my own experience that when people are engaged with these ideas they are excited by them, and they see their value. I talked to some sixth-formers on a visit to Durham a few months ago. One could see that they were passionate about regional devolution. They did not see why their lives in the north-east should always be controlled from here in London. They wanted these powers, and more—more than the Government were offering in the White Paper.
It may be late in the day, and it may be that the parliamentary draftsmen need to work late into the night, but if we are to win the yes vote on
I begin by saying to Mr. Davey that I, too, look forward to seeing the Government's draft Bill. I will support the yes campaign in the north-west almost regardless of what the Bill says, because we know that it will be a significant move to devolve power from Westminster to our regions. But I also say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that it will not be enough. Many of us guarantee that, during the referendum campaign, we will spend our time campaigning to create the groundswell for even more devolution to our regions over the months and years to come, until there is a proper constitutional settlement for regions such as the north-west.
Across the north, among even those who are against regional devolution and among those who are passionately for it, there is a passionate belief that now is the time that we should get down to the serious business of letting the people decide. We heard an interesting speech from the Conservative spokesperson, Mr. Jenkin. There was little spirit left in his speech—perhaps that is a tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister—and little from the Opposition today that was serious. There was a lot of posturing and bogus point-scoring, but little of substance. Even the Tories now realise that it is the people, not the Tory party, who will decide in the referendum.
It will certainly not be south-east based politicians on all the Front Benches who will make a decision for the people of the regions of the north, particularly the north-west. I say that with no disrespect to my right hon. Friend the Minister. He has realised that the way to get through the process is to give the decision not to Whitehall or to Westminster, but to the people of our regions. That is a decision that the Conservative party has tried to block for a considerable time.
Is my hon. Friend as curious as I am about why those who are opposed to regional government are so opposed to the referendum? Given that they are so convinced of their case that regional government is not popular in their area, one would have thought that they would welcome the referendum to put the matter to bed once and for all.
I would hope that that is the nature of democracy, but we all know that those who speak the language of democracy but use the procedures of this place to try to prevent the public from having the right to decide are no democrats. They do a great disservice.
Not that many years ago, when I came into Parliament, there were still a significant number of Conservative Members of Parliament in the north-west. The Labour party in my region was berated from the Conservative Front Bench. There are disagreements among members of the north-west parliamentary Labour party, but at least there are enough of us to have agreement and disagreement. There are no longer enough Tories from the north-west even to have agreement on these issues. The Tory party in the north-west was massively distrusted because of the Thatcherite legacy, particularly because the Thatcherite Government were identified as government of the north by the south-east, and it will be many, many years before the Tory party is considered a respectable voice for the north-west.
My hon. Friend mentioned the parliamentary Labour party. Does he agree that the Labour party in the north-west is 100 per cent. behind a campaign for a successful yes vote, as it decided at its annual conference in February this year?
My hon. Friend is right. It was in the 1930s that the north-west regional Labour party first made the decision to support regional government, and I am not aware that it has ever changed its mind since. Within a democratic party there must be room for dissent, and our colleagues on the Government Benches will debate the issue in a proper and acceptable fashion, not using the specious tactics that have sometimes been used by Opposition parties.
This is an important debate about the future of our region. As somebody from the region, I deeply resent the fact that the disparities between the north and the south are so enormous and have been growing during my lifetime. In particular, they grew in the period between 1979 and 1997, when we had that imposed Thatcher Government here in Westminster—a Government who were so uninterested in what took place in the north.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman made the powerful and important point that the life chances of a child born in my constituency today are far less than those of somebody born in the south-east. The matter is not simply about comparing inner-city Manchester with the home counties but about how Governments have swept away any semblance of equality across this nation of ours, which is not acceptable. When Tory Members who represent constituencies in the north-west speak, I expect them to bemoan the fact that people in the region that they represent have such a rotten chance in life, and they should take some responsibility for what previous Tory Governments did.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, some indicators show that regional disparities have grown under this Government. I am not sure whether his point about a child in his constituency having fewer life chances than someone born in the south is statistically correct. I hazard a guess that someone born in Greenwich and Woolwich or Tower Hamlets would have similar life chances to someone born in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, so he should not generalise.
It is not generalisation but reality that a child born in my constituency will die 10 years earlier than a child with the same origins as the hon. Gentleman. The simple truth is that the funding system has favoured certain parts of the country at the expense of others. There are, of course, differences within regions—that has been and always will be the case—but the average difference between the south-east and the north-west is significant and not a statistical quirk. A gulf exists between the south-east and the north-east, which does not suit the south-east because of the problems caused by the overdevelopment at the expense of the life chances and opportunities for people in the northern regions.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend's conclusions, but I agree with much of his analysis. Differences within regions do not obviate the fact that inter-regional differences exist too, and the huge differences in London do not mean that people at similar levels in society are not worse off in the north-west than elsewhere. Public expenditure is the biggest driver in putting those differences right, and, as the noble Lord Rooker said in the other place, what is wrong with the proposals on devolution is that the north-west will not get an extra penny.
My hon. Friend and I agree on the analysis but draw different conclusions. He is right that the disparity in spending is a fundamental driver behind the disparities in regional performance, and we must begin to address that point. He also mentioned regional disparities, which raises the question where London fits into the south-east. Unlike the northern regions, Greater London can vocalise and negotiate with central Government.
My hon. Friend's point is important: how do we get the northern voice in the corridors of power? Over successive generations, we have failed in the north under both Labour and Conservative Governments—the disaster up at Daresbury was referred to earlier. Yesterday, the Government made the interesting announcement that Crossrail will go ahead in London and that the Metro system in Greater Manchester is up for serious discussion. If we had a devolved strategy for transport, it would be easier to make the case for Greater Manchester in the debate in the north-west. It would also be easier if a strong northern voice, speaking together and operating together, had debated the matter with central Government, where London's voice is heard. The voice from the north has been consistently ignored over the years by all kinds of Governments.
We have the opportunity to seize control of some of the system, which is what today's debate is all about. Today's debate means that the starting pistol has gone off and that it is down to the people of the northern regions to take control of their own destinies and make their own decisions. If Conservative Members campaign against us, we will have a debate, which will occur where it matters—in the region. We must ensure that the debate takes place in the north-east, Yorkshire and Humberside and the north-west, and that it is dictated by the needs of those regions rather than by the posturing of the various Opposition parties.
Electoral fraud is central to the debate about our electoral system. The system must be respected. As the Minister recognises, worrying issues arose from the recent local elections. They must be investigated, but I must tell those who use the charge of fraud as a reason for not supporting postal voting that the increased turnout is the best single guarantee that we have that the decisions are being made by the public in general, rather than by factional and sectional interest groups. It is important to convey that message.
In fact, our system is relatively free of fraud. That was the case even in the local elections. We should root out every instance of fraud and, if the Electoral Commission says that we must look at certain issues again, we must do so. I emphasise to the Minister that there must be serious exemplary penalties for fraud: fraudsters must know that they will go to prison and that no tolerance can be shown to those who are caught and convicted. We must make clear that fraud—which is difficult to prove in the case of both the conventional system and universal postal voting—cannot be tolerated. Nevertheless, we should not confuse the issue and use fraud as an argument against increased participation.
The referendums will be desperately important. We can have different opinions, but in the end it must be left to the people of the northern regions to decide whether this form of devolution takes place. I guarantee to the Minister that, after the draft Bill and beyond, I shall continue to say that we want more and greater powers for our regions. We need those powers.
The debate is a continuous one, but let me say this to the Liberal Democrats. Although they respect devolution to their party in the regions, they should explain to people there in simple terms that, if they miss the opportunity to support the yes campaign, they will betray not just the party but the people of the north.
The only point on which I disagreed with my Front Benchers was the claim that apathy was rife. "Rife" suggests a certain enthusiasm and activity. In a sense, apathy is unrife: no one is very interested.
I occupied the Minister's position when we were trying to extricate ourselves from the problems of local government reorganisation and the Banham review. Looking at the Labour Benches, I have a feeling that the regional agenda is rapidly getting this Government into a situation analogous to ours then. They will be very glad when they can bail themselves out of it.
As I learned when I was trying to take an annuities Bill, which depended on calculations of life expectancy, through the House, life expectancy is overwhelmingly a function of income and education. Of course, on aggregate, certain regions will have a shorter life expectancy than others, but within the regions those in similar social circumstances are likely to have similar life expectancies.
Have not various reports, from the 1981 Black report onwards, said the opposite—that when factors such as age and class are excluded, there are still regional disparities?
That does not contradict what I said. It depends on the social and economic composition of the regions involved. I am merely saying that people in similar categories in different regions might well have the same life expectancy.
I feel that the Minister is trying to deliver a wholly undesirable outcome as honourably as possible. Of course, he has had a very busy week. I welcome his efforts to ensure that postal voting does not militate against convenience and equality of opportunity for people in rural areas, but we shall end up with a curious system. There will be peripatetic polling stations and, apparently, peripatetic welfare officers helping people to fill in their forms. Polling stations will open in different places. The outcome will be colourful at least. That does not alter the fact that there will be a denial of choice. Anyone who wants a postal vote can have one under the conventional manual system of voting. People have a free choice under that system. There is no analogy between that and the system that is proposed.
The Minister will be aware that, in other countries where postal voting has become the norm, in free elections, the turnout tends to revert to what it was before. The improvement in turnout tends to be temporary. That was the experience in Australia and New Zealand.
With low turnouts, there is always a danger of dealing with the problem by focusing on the process, whereas often the electorate are trying to tell us that we do not seem to be listening to them and that we are not responding to their needs—the substance of the politics needs to be addressed, rather than the process. Politicians may find that unwelcome. Sometimes, the messages are not congenial to hon. Members on both sides of the House. They just happen to be the truth.
The issue of the allocation of expenditure is serious. We discovered in the European elections that the proportional system of representation allowed the expression of a far more diverse range of views than under our traditional first past the post system. In my constituency, the three conventional parties, if I may describe them like that, performed roughly as one may have expected. However, the Green party had a significant vote, the BNP had a reasonably significant vote, and UKIP had a more significant vote, although not as much as in other parts of the country, such as the south-west. In some constituencies, it led the vote.
That means that the number of people contending for designation and the number of players in the campaign could represent a confused picture—quite a kaleidoscope. Because there is no consistency, views on this issue may cut across the normal alliances that one would expect to find on general issues. Therefore, it is possible that one could find oneself in a difficult situation where individuals or even unions seek to express themselves through a number of front organisations. The Electoral Commission would have to decide whether they could be designated. There could be a legal challenge to that designation. Curiously, the equivalent of hanging chads could arrive in our political system, with a great dislocation. I hope that the commission will be able to set out in advance some general principles or rules that it will apply, so that there can be some scrutiny to try to minimise the chances of being challenged on an ad hoc basis, according to who comes forward.
I have great respect for the Minister's honesty but, when he argues against a threshold, he is being perverse. He is saying that we must not set a negative target. Is he saying that he is unconfident of the vote and frightened that, if we set the target of a threshold, we will all set out not to vote in order not to hit the target?
When they decide not to vote, the British people have a powerful determination not to vote. When one canvasses, one finds people who are more resolute about not voting than some people are about voting. The best way to decide something is to vote on it. I will urge all my constituents to vote. Of course I shall tell them to vote no, because I do not want the reorganisation of local government that would be a consequence of a regional assembly, and I want to return power to traditional representative bodies. The Minister will know that yesterday I expressed again my personal belief that business rates should be returned to local government, so I am willing to take the necessary steps to make that a reality. However, we are not going to have a threshold, so there is no point in banging on about that. I will not go into the arguments for and against the assemblies because we have debated that. I am sure that we will get a chance to debate the powers. During the September session, everyone usually scrambles around to try to find something useful to do; this would be helpful.
Tony Lloyd once again used the wonderful phrase, "take control of their destiny." If he thinks that the assemblies will give anybody a handle on their destiny, he is living in a Harry Potteresque world that is a million miles removed from reality. Some might say that the assemblies will lead to some great destiny; others say that they will lead to precisely nothing. In my view, which is well known and frequently quoted—almost entirely by Members on the other side—they are neither "nowt nor summat", to use the great Yorkshire expression. While they are neither nowt nor summat, I want nothing to do with them and I hope that we will vote no tonight.
I welcome the opportunity to make a short speech. I am very much against the orders. There is huge disquiet on the Labour Benches among my colleagues for the three northern regions.
The issue of turnout has been with us for a long time. The Minister will not give his definition of derisory, but my fear is that turnout in the referendums, if they go ahead, will be modest indeed. In the Scottish devolution referendum in September 1997, turnout was 60 per cent. That was followed by the referendum on Welsh devolution, where the turnout was 50 per cent. We then had a referendum on devolution to the Greater London authority, at which the turnout was 34 per cent. In the northern regions—certainly in the north-west—the turnout could be embarrassing, to be frank.
In the process that triggered this—the famous soundings exercise—there were 10,841,000 electors in the region and 3,069 people called for referendums, representing 0.028 per cent. That persuaded the Deputy Prime Minister that there was sufficient demand in the three northern regions for referendums.
I will speak frankly and bluntly, echoing the words of the Deputy Prime Minister. If the referendums go ahead, Labour will get a good kicking. I will tell the House why. It is a scandal that we still do not have the draft Regional Assemblies Bill. We had a debate in Committee a couple of days ago to discuss a couple of orders and we are having this debate today. There is much speculation. My hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman said that the new assemblies would transform the north-west, but scandalously we do not have a definitive list of their powers. We are pointed to the White Paper that was published ages ago.
If the assemblies are to be talking shops with planning and strategy responsibilities, people will not vote for them. They will not go out and vote for a body with next to no powers. We need to know precisely what the powers will be. It is not good enough for Labour Members to say that the region will be transformed, that housing will be transformed and that there will be new transport interchanges as a consequence of the regional assembles. People will say, rightly, that we have had a Labour Government here in Westminster for seven years and nothing has changed.
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend mentioned the draft legislation. Did he vote for the legislation on Scottish and Welsh devolution, before which there was no draft Bill?
I did vote for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and we have now experienced those bodies. I have very firm views about the unity of the United Kingdom, and a Labour Government at Westminster should ensure fair allocation among the English regions. I do not want to witness the balkanisation of England that is being introduced by my own Government. I stress that we can revisit the Barnett formula and ensure that money is distributed equitably between the various parts—
I must make progress. The wind-ups start in about 10 minutes and I have a number of points to get through.
We are told that this reorganisation will save money—the leaflets distributed to all households in the three northern regions say so—but of course, the Electoral Commission used a Government-devised financial model that excluded transitional costs and the ongoing costs of change, which will be considerable. Whenever we have embarked on local government reorganisation, it has always cost more than people predicted at the outset.
There is another important point. If these regional assemblies are born, the Labour party will not be running them. We are introducing proportional representation, with constituency members and list members, and as sure as night follows day there will be coalition regional government—even, I suspect, in the north-east. In the light of the results of the elections on
As a consequence, there will be a democratic deficit and we will lose hundreds of local councillors. My own local authority, Pendle borough council, will disappear and be subsumed into a "Burpendale" plus Ribble Valley body. Burnley, Pendle Rossendale and Ribble Valley combined have a population of 300,000. There is no way that people in my area will have easy access to local councillors, because their numbers will obviously reduce.
I am also concerned about all-postal ballots. Five election petitions are outstanding and they will go through the courts in the normal way. I believe—others may not—that all-postal ballots make it more likely that the integrity of the ballot will be compromised. I have read some of the debates that took place in 1872. In that year, legislation popularly known as the "Ballot Act" introduced the secret ballot for parliamentary and municipal elections. It was hugely controversial at the time; now, we are casually throwing all that away.
I was also disappointed to learn that there is no guarantee of funds for returning officers who want to establish polling stations in areas with modest populations. I am troubled by the thought that, in those circumstances, returning officers will not get their costs reimbursed.
I hope that these orders will not go through today. I suspect that, if the referendums are held, the Labour party will lose them heavily. In my view, there is no demonstrable demand for regional assemblies. It is doubly unfortunate that the Government have impaled themselves on this particular hook, because they probably have no way of getting off it.
I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with every single sentence of what Mr. Prentice said—and I was looking out for something to disagree with. He spoke with great force and candour, because what he said about the consequences for the Labour party in the north-west was absolutely true: we will end up with coalition Governments in which the Liberal Democrats will no doubt hold the balance of power and decide whether it is a Tory or a Labour Administration between elections.
The hon. Gentleman spoke the great truth that these are unwanted referendums for unwanted regional assemblies. As he said, when the soundings exercise was conducted in the north-west, just 4,000 people responded out of the 7 million who live in the region, and half of them did not want a referendum. There is a growing number of north-west Labour Members—I do not know the proportion of Back Benchers and Ministers, some of whom are not holding to the collective Cabinet line—who have come out against. They include the hon. Members for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), for Pendle, for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), for Stockport (Ms Coffey)—a Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Cabinet Minister, I believe—and for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), and Mr. Field.
Now Labour Members in other regions are starting to speak out, including the hon. Members for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), and to say that this is not what the Labour party membership wants. If that is the public statement of Labour Members—taking a brave position, as it is not easy to stand up and oppose one's party and one's Government—one can only imagine what the private position must be. The other great unspoken truth concerns what Ministers must be saying privately. It is an open secret that the Prime Minister is not especially keen on regional government but has decided to allow the Deputy Prime Minister to pursue his pet project. It is an open secret that the Foreign Secretary, with his Blackburn constituency, is against regional government. It is an open secret that the Minister for Local and Regional Government himself was not a great enthusiast but decided to go along with it. He will probably get up and deny that, but it is true.
The great problem is that the Deputy Prime Minister has succeeded in getting this on the agenda—the orders are a measure of his political success in getting this on the Government's programme, although I agree with everything that has been said about there now being various let-out clauses—but unfortunately he has not been able to match that political success with success in Whitehall in getting any powers for the proposed assemblies.
Again, it is an open secret that there has been a Cabinet battle with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills over learning and skills. Guess what? The Education Secretary has won. It is an open secret that there has been a battle with the Home Secretary over policing powers. Again, the Deputy Prime Minister lost. Lord Haskins, the chairman of the Yorkshire yes campaign, said that "Stalinist" Ministers were stopping the powers being handed over to regional assemblies.
I can see the disappointment of people such as Mrs. Ellman, who takes an entirely principled position in favour of regional government. She must be deeply frustrated that the Deputy Prime Minister has not been successful in seeking many of the powers that she wants to be devolved to the regions.
In fact, I am deeply delighted that after so many years of arguing the case for directly elected regional assemblies, it is the Deputy Prime Minister who has succeeded in enabling the Government to introduce a referendum so that the people can decide.
For a start, they are not directly elected—some will be elected by proportional representation, as the hon. Member for Pendle said. The problem for the Deputy Prime Minister and the various yes campaigns is that the Government have not given people anything worth voting yes for. People will face a simple choice: do they vote in favour of an expensive talking shop that will have the power to produce reports and to consult and be consulted, but no real powers over important decisions affecting the future of the north-west? Such a talking shop will, on the Government's own estimates, cost £25 million to set up and £25 million a year to run—just in the north-west.
My hon. Friend makes a good point in reminding us that that is only for the first year. None of that will produce what the people of the north-west want—more investment in schools, hospitals, the police, roads and so forth. None of that £50 million in the first year will be spent on those things. The costs will be borne by people when they pay their council tax bills.
There is also no real democracy. In Cheshire, there are likely to be two assembly members, each representing 300,000 people—the size of a US Congressman's district. That is not democracy or closeness to the people. [Interruption.] What is being replaced is a system of district councils with much smaller constituencies. Powers will be taken from local government and district or county councils will be abolished to create a new and expensive re-organisation, which is not democratic.
The regional assembly will do nothing to strengthen identity in the north-west. There is a belief in some quarters that by passing these motions, issuing flags and all that sort of thing, a north-west identity will be created. In practice, such an identity does not exist. People are Mancunians or Liverpudlians, or they come from Cheshire, Lancashire or Cumbria. By the way, Cumbria is not even clear whether it should be in the north-west or the north-east. Identity is not really being created and I believe that it is deeply dangerous to create political institutions where no natural identity exists.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the MORI poll showed people's very strong identification with the north-west region, and it need not be a substitute for other identifications with localities?
We are replacing Cheshire or Lancashire identities or local government identities built on established relationships that have existed for a very long time with an entirely artificial north-west identity. It is a huge region. If someone gets in a car at the Scottish border and drives to London, more than half their time would be spent in the north-west region. As the hon. Member for Pendle says, the Government are riding for a kicking—if that is the right way to put it.
I speak as vice-chairman of the no campaign—a position that I share with a Labour MP, Mr. Howarth. Our campaign has involved many Labour and Liberal Democrat party members. We are the only broadly based coalition in the north-west—the yes campaign is not a cross-party coalition in any sense of the term—we have the arguments on our side and we represent the views of people rather than regional quangos and organisations, so I think that, when the referendum comes, we will win it.
I support the orders and I shall campaign with the majority of, if not all, my colleagues in the north-east to support a yes vote in the referendum for a north-east regional assembly.
It is inevitable that many of us speak from a historical perspective. I grew up as a young woman with a young family in the north-east in the 80s. That period more than anything else inspired me to believe that if we cannot trust in our own, we most certainly cannot trust a Westminster Government—especially a Westminster Tory Government. I say that intentionally. I was part of a group in Sunderland that watched ferry boats being built that could not be sold. We had to take them to bits, even though they were there on the Wear, because the Tory Government said that we were outside the regulations.
I saw a Tyneside naval shipyard of considerable value—probably the best in the country—being told, "Sorry, but you are not competent to build naval ships; we are going to take them across to Barrow". They took our work force with them.
Tyneside's Kvaerner shipyard was closed. Shipbuilding and repair went down the pan, thanks to the vindictive regional policy of the Tory Government. I believe that a regional government would never have allowed that to happen. It would have secured the yards, and ensured that they worked well, as they do today.
I understand that I am upsetting Opposition Members, but I remind the House that the Teesside regional development corporation emptied factories and built warehouses in their place. It then had the audacity to decide to place a leisure facility in one of the most beautiful parts of my constituency, even though no one wanted it or could afford it. In the end, we made sure that it was not built, but that is an example of what Conservative Westminster Governments think about the north-east.
It is possible that a Labour Government would have done as badly, but I do not believe that. Even so, I do not wish to have to trust a Westminster Tory Government in future. It is important that local people are able to take robust, focused and principled decisions, because they know best what is needed.
Over 16 years—not 18 years—of a Westminster Tory Government, and after £17 billion had been invested in research and development, product diversity and the local infrastructure, selective regional assistance disappeared from the north-east, to the benefit of the south-east. After that experience, I have every reason to trust a regional government. I never want a Westminster Tory Government to have that influence on my region again. We had a level of unemployment that was second to none, yet we lost manufacturing jobs at an exponential rate.
Our history is bitter, and we will never forget it. We will never trust a Westminster Tory Government again—ever. There is only one Tory Member of Parliament in the northern region. If we had worked a little harder in 1997, it is probable that we would have won that seat as well.
The agenda justifying regional assemblies is not merely negative. Although it is a bitter experience when one sees communities being destroyed before one's very eyes, I believe that there are positive reasons to support the orders. A regional assembly will allow us to develop transport and to spend money on the arts and housing. We will do all that, and those powers will be very valuable for us.
I must tell my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local and Regional Government that, of course, we want to take responsibility for the Learning and Skills Council as well. We want regional assemblies to have more powers, but they must be accountable and visible, so that people in our regions can say what they want and do not want. I make it clear to him that we will want more powers, not fewer.
I shall spend the two minutes that I have left discussing the electoral process, about which there has been much debate this afternoon. Considerable concern has been expressed about electoral fraud, and I respect what hon. Members have said. Of course, it is very important that our electoral system does not allow fraudulent activity.
So far, in the northern region, there has been a little trouble in Newcastle and Gateshead, although there have been few, if any, problems in Stockton and Middlesbrough. Even so, the Electoral Commission has never stated that it considered our voting activity in any of the pilot postal ballots to be a cause for concern. There has been no evidence of improper behaviour or fraud.
Moreover, the participation rate in the pilots was up significantly—staggeringly so. If I were to say anything about fraud in the recent European elections, I would say that it was most evident in the fact that 19,000 voters lost their vote because they put their witness statement in the wrong envelope. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will take that fact on board—we want no more witness statements.
It is my hope that the orders will be approved tonight, and that we have an effective, robust and good campaign for a regional assembly. We have talked today about the values and strengths of our different regions. I have no doubt that after we win the votes tonight—and after the referendums take place in November—we will see for the first time the start of open governance being enjoyed by people from the region, who will deliver the best policy for the people of the region. It is the start of the devolution of real power to the north-east, and I welcome that. I shall support the orders.
I am delighted to wind up the debate. I shall be brief, because I want to give the Minister the maximum time to answer the many points that have been made. As my hon. Friend Mr. Jenkin said, it is remarkable that the Government should have jeopardised the credibility of their albeit incredible policy through their near obsession with postal ballots. I shall deal with that issue at some length, but I shall first say a word about regionalism in general.
The truth is, as my hon. Friend Mr. Osborne said, that regionalism will not deliver for localities. It is local government, rooted in communities, time-honoured and with the respect of communities, that will deliver for local people. Those of us with histories in local government, and who believe in local democracy, also believe in empowering local councils—made up of locally elected people—to take decisions on behalf of the communities. We do not believe in ceding power from them to some remote anonymous region, with which they have little connection and less affinity.
Does anyone in this Chamber really believe that people in my constituency in Lincolnshire would owe any loyalty, feel any affinity or offer any support to a regional government that would inevitably be centred on Nottingham, Derby and Leicester, where the people and the money are? The considerations of rural Lincolnshire would be far from the minds of those elected to that regional body. That local case is replicated across the whole of this kingdom. Members on both sides of the Chamber know that, which is why Members from all parties have criticised the Government's regional agenda. The Government know that their regional policy lacks popular support, which is why they are prevaricating and hesitating on the referendums.
The postal ballots add further chaos to what would anyway be a faulty process because of the lack of support for regional government. Three points were made in the debate that I wish to amplify. First, democratic elections are not just about turnout. Their legitimacy is founded on the integrity of the ballot and the electorate's perception of its fairness and honesty. Voting in person, on a particular day and in the locality in which one resides, combines convenience and openness. Casting a vote in a sealed ballot box inspires faith in the system because it delivers fair, honest and free elections.
Turnout is important, but not at all costs. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry said, blaming declining turnout on the process ignores the fact that elections are about people, policies, ideas—hearts and souls. It is for people in this Chamber, who were democratically elected, and others who aspire to be so to increase turnout by the way they behave, by advocacy and by example. Simply tinkering with the process will be no guarantee of that.
The second point, which was made Mr. Davey and others—indeed, the Minister referred to it earlier—is that all-postal ballots disadvantage particular groups disproportionately. We heard something about people who are partially sighted, but what about people who live alone, who have literacy problems or who, for one reason or another, find it difficult to have a vote witnessed? The Minister's response is, "Ah well, we will get rid of witnessing. We will get rid of one of the safeguards of the fairness of the system in order to increase turnout." The Minister will abandon witnessing because of the very real points that have been made in this debate, and which I have highlighted.
The Minister knows that many people want to continue to vote in person as they have done in the past. I offer the House two examples from my locality. First, a young person, who had just come of age and wanted to vote for the first time, said they felt deeply frustrated that they were unable to go to the polling station and put their voting paper into the ballot box, as their parents and forefathers had done before them. Mr. Prentice is correct. We set aside that right at our peril; it was hard earned and is being treated in a cavalier and careless fashion, as he said. Secondly, an elderly lady told me that she had voted in every election that she could and felt angry that she was not able to cast her vote in person. The idea that mobile voting stations can be set up conveniently for people in remote, far-flung areas is nonsense and the Minister knows it.
My third point is that participation is about active involvement. The Minister knows that there is an aesthetic to democratic elections that should be neither disregarded nor derided—campaigning, the drama of election day, the opening of the ballot box and the count in front of people who have participated in the process. The election is seen to be fair, transparent and open. The balkanisation of Britain that would arise from regional government—in the words of the hon. Member for Pendle—would be exacerbated by a system for electing regional authorities in which local people felt they had no faith.
We have received no assurances about the cost to local government. We have been given no persuasive guarantees about the countering of fraud and impropriety. There has been no draft regional Bill, because there is no popular will for regions and no convincing case for all-postal ballots. There is no good reason to support the orders and I urge the House to vote against them.
The debate has been wide ranging, with some rather curious contributions as well as some valuable contributions and perceptive comments.
Mr. Jenkin was remorselessly negative in his tone. He revealed the position of the Conservative Opposition, who remain utterly hostile to devolution. The tragedy for the Conservative party, which still does not realise why it has been rejected time and again by the electorate, most recently last week in the by-elections, is that it still hankers—[Interruption.] The Conservatives were in third place, rejected in seats where they had previously come second. They have no future and no prospects—as the public recognise—because they are locked in the past and do not realise that the world has moved on.
The hon. Member for North Essex made the preposterous claim that the Conservative party trusts the people. The Conservatives' record shows just how ludicrous that claim is. They did not trust the people of Scotland. They did not want the people of Scotland to have devolution, and agreed only after the people of Scotland had voted decisively for it that it was probably a good idea.
The Conservatives did not want the people of Wales to have a referendum and voted against giving them a choice. Again, after the event, they had to relent and change their mind about that, too. In London, not only did the Conservatives not want to give people the opportunity of a referendum, they even took democratic government away from London when they were in power—without a referendum, giving people no say at all and showing no sympathy with them. It is preposterous to claim that they are in favour of trusting the people.
We gave people the opportunity and they voted in Scotland, Wales and London. We are giving people in the English regions the same option. It is absurd to claim that what is good enough for Scotland, Wales and London is not acceptable for the English regions.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman made a passionate speech in support of regional devolution. I shall not go over the valid points she made, but will simply reinforce her message that a number of decisions that have gone against the interests of the north-west might have been different had there been a powerful voice speaking for the region. Many, many people who care about devolution recognise the importance of that.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton supports the Government position in principle, and we are grateful to him for that. He voiced three caveats. First, he mentioned people who are visually impaired, and he accepts that we are making provision to deal with that issue. Secondly, he wanted us to not give the decision to the Electoral Commission, while listening to its views, and that is exactly our view. We will listen carefully to the Electoral Commission's views, but it is ultimately a decision for Ministers to take. I hope that he accepts that. He also expressed support for the idea of witness statements, but we believe that such statements can reduce participation. There is quite a lot of evidence that the requirement to make those statements deterred people from voting in June. Although we are very clear that there must be safeguards for the proper conduct of all-postal ballots, we accept the Electoral Commission's evidence that witness statements are helpful.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about people who could get assistance at home. Mr. Hayes, who made the Opposition's winding-up speech, has clearly not read the orders or taken any care to do his homework. People who are illiterate will also be eligible for assistance in the same way as people who suffer visual impairment. There will be scope for electoral officers to visit them to assist them in filling out their ballots papers, and I should have thought that the Conservative spokesman welcomed any such measure that helps to encourage participation. His position was remorselessly negative, against a form of voting that has hugely increased participation. He is fundamentally anti-democratic in arguing against giving more people an opportunity to vote.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton also asked about costs—an issue also raised by Mr. Curry—and suggested that the provision of either additional voting points or visits by electoral officers might increase the costs. Obviously, we will give the returning officers in each region a figure to work with for the costs, but there is provision for exceptional claims where good reasons are given for exceeding those figures. We will consider such claims if they are made. As I said earlier, we expect returning officers to operate in the most cost-effective way and to minimise costs, but provision is made for those circumstances.
My hon. Friend Tony Lloyd raised the issue of election fraud and said that, although concerns arise from the local elections, he believes that the increase in turnout is a proper safeguard against a small number of people exercising disproportionate influence in low-turnout elections—a very valid point indeed. That is one of the strong reasons to make all-postal provision.
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon welcomed the steps that we are taking to extend options for people to vote, but he argued that, on international evidence, increases from postal voting are likely to be short lived. The evidence so far is that improved turnouts in those local authorities that have held all-postal ballots have been sustained, but we need to continue to look at that issue. Our objective is to increase turnout.
I am afraid that I do not have the opportunity to cover the many other points that have been made.
Frankly, my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice made a series of allegations that are simply unsubstantiated; there is no evidence for them at all. We have heard speech after speech from hon. Members from the north-east who have made it perfectly clear that they have the greatest experience of all-postal voting and that it has been conducted without problem. He should listen to them, rather than trying to scaremonger in that the way that he did.
We have had a good debate. The orders are necessary to conduct regional referendums and to give people the opportunity to have a say on devolution—