Clause 1 - Piloting conduct at european and local elections

European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 30th October 2003.

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Amendment moved [this day]: No. 45, in

clause 1, page 1, line 14, leave out from '2004' to end of line 15.—[Mr. Heath.]

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North 2:15 pm, 30th October 2003

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Amendment No. 46, in

clause 1, page 1, line 18, leave out from 'election' to end.

Amendment No. 21, in

clause 1, page 1, line 19, leave out subsection (5).

Amendment No. 47, in

clause 1, page 2, line 1, leave out paragraph (b).

Amendment No. 1, in

clause 1, page 2, line 3, at end add—

'(c) Scotland.'.

Amendment No. 20, in

clause 1, page 2, line 3, at end add—

'(c) any two regions with a common boundary.'.

Amendment No. 48, in

clause 1, page 2, line 3, at end add—

'(c) any region which does not meet the criteria identified by the Electoral Commission for inclusion as a pilot region'.

Amendment No. 39, in

clause 9, page 5, line 6, leave out from '(c.2)' to end of line 7.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

I have some sympathy with the argument of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), which is that the pilot postal ballot should take place over the whole country. His argument, however, that we could then compare turnout with that of five years ago is flawed. Political climates change and the comparison would not be valid. He must recognise that to decide whether postal voting is a success, it would be far more valid to compare turnout in adjacent European regions where one region has a postal ballot and the other has a traditional polling station ballot.

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

As always, the hon. Gentleman's intervention was well worth waiting an hour or two for. I agree that there are two ways of looking at the matter. The combination of the disparity that pilot schemes would bring to a national election and their size—they are extremely large schemes covering a wide area but not the whole country—outweighs the marginal benefits that he describes. That is a matter of judgment, however, and there is no need to stay with the argument.

Amendment No. 47 is a probing amendment that would leave out clause 1(5)(b), which excludes from consideration any region containing Gibraltar. We must assume that that is likely to be the south-west region, because it has been recommended in proposals. Advocating such a move when we first discussed the matter about five years ago, I suggested that Gibraltar might form part of the western approaches. As it had some similarities to Devonport in the south-west, it might be appropriate to put it there. I cannot understand—

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

Can I just say what I cannot understand first? The hon. Gentleman can then intervene and tell me why I should understand it.

I cannot understand why the presence of Gibraltar should be a bar to participation in the system for postal ballots. It is an important place, and it is extremely important that it was finally enfranchised, but it is a relatively small community with an electorate that is smaller than the constituency of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), but about the same size as my town, Frome.

The Minister must explain the force majeure that prevents the south-west region—if that is where Gibraltar appears—from being entertained as a possibility for a pilot postal ballot. The postal services in Gibraltar are just as good, if not better, than our own. Why should it be specifically excluded?

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

I want to make two points. As the hon. Gentleman knows, those on the Opposition Benches have been united in pressing the Government to include Gibraltar in the European elections. The original undertaking by the then Minister was given to me about two years ago when I had a similar shadow role to my current one. The hon. Gentleman will recognise, because a number of his hon. Friends went to Gibraltar for its national day, as I did to represent my party, that the one place where one will be able to guarantee an incredibly high turnout in European elections is Gibraltar. Because of the fact that there is no democratic deficit there and the Gibraltarian people hugely value the opportunity to vote in person, I suspect that the Government believe—rightly in my view—that Gibraltar will have to be an area in which everyone is allowed to vote in person.

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

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I honestly do not believe that that argument washes. There must be a better reason than that. If there is a propensity to vote already, there is nothing in particular to be gained by changing the system, but no one is suggesting that the postal voting system is inherently worse than voting in person. If it is sensible to hold pilots anywhere—the assumption is that if the pilots are successful they will be extended to the whole country, including Gibraltar in due course—there is no specific reason why Gibraltar should be excluded, and with it the whole south-west region. The idea that any particular circumstances that pertain to the 30,000 or so population of Gibraltar should preclude the 5 million or 6 million inhabitants of south-west England from participating in the scheme, if it is a good one, seems slightly odd.

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

If the hon. Gentleman had been to Gibraltar, as I know that a number of his hon. Friends, including the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) have, he would understand the reason. If the people of Gibraltar were told that they were not allowed to vote in person the very first time that they have a say in European elections—for which they have been campaigning for many years and to which in my view they are fully entitled—they would feel cheated. They have a huge tradition of voting in person; the last two referendums in Gibraltar organised by the Chief Minister Peter Caruana have had turnouts of more than 90 per cent., including the last one of 97 per cent. when rejecting the Labour Government's plans to try to do a disreputable deal with Spain. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleagues who went to Gibraltar for its national day know that, and I am sure that he would know that if he had been there, as I have.

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

A number of points need to be made, without us diverging too far from the main thrust of the argument. We have quite a long tradition in mainland UK of voting in person, possibly extending back even further than in Gibraltar, but surely that is not the issue. The hon. Gentleman said that I would be of his view if I had visited Gibraltar, but I have of course visited Gibraltar, although not at the expense of the Gibraltarian government, because I did not want to qualify in any way my support for the Gibraltarians having the franchise that they now enjoy, and for which I have consistently argued.

Postal votes are either a good thing or a bad thing. If they are a good thing, it seems very odd to consider one small part of the total electorate to be absolutely sacrosanct and not to be given the opportunity to participate in that way. That does not make sense. I want the Minister to explain clearly why this paragraph is in the Bill. What is there about the region that happens to include Gibraltar that makes it absolutely impossible to hold postal elections there, when that is clearly possible in every other part of the United Kingdom barring London, where the prohibiting factor is the mayoral election and Northern Ireland, where it is understood that there is a different electoral arrangement?

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman but, before he sits down, will he tell me whether he will be dealing with amendment No. 48? It is an excellent amendment, but it worries me that it says that it relates to clause 2, page 2. I would have thought that that should be clause 1, although I might be wrong. The amendment paper that I have here clearly says specifically that the amendment relates to clause 2. Perhaps it has now been corrected, or separate papers have been given to different Members for different reasons. I cannot understand what has happened. I shall hand my amendment paper to the hon. Gentleman so that he can see it for himself.

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

There is clearly a misprint on the hon. Gentleman's amendment paper. The amendment was intended to refer to clause 1, and that is what appears on the other amendment papers. I cannot explain why it should be misprinted on that particular blue sheet, but that is one of the quirks of the system. I reassure him that the fact that the amendment is misprinted on that amendment paper will not prevent us from having a debate on the subject. Clearly, it is intended that there should be an addition to the qualifications and exclusions under subsection (5) and that it should appear after line 3 on page 2, which is in clause 1, not clause 2. The proposal is that that there should be a paragraph (c) to add a provision to cover

''any region which does not meet the criteria identified by the Electoral Commission for inclusion as a pilot region''.

Let me explain why I tabled that amendment. I hope that we can have a sensible debate, without confusion. The Electoral Commission has already considered some of the issues and has some serious concerns relating to why particular regions should be selected or not. Page 34 of the Electoral Commission document mentions a series of considerations to be taken into account in the region, including the population and electoral size, the geographical size and electoral density, the number of local authorities and the number of local authorities holding local elections. Those things have been included because the Electoral Commission has applied its collective brain to the issues involved in holding a pilot of this kind. For the moment, let us assume that my other amendments are unsuccessful and that we are talking about three pilots rather than a UK-wide election. The Electoral Commission has made observations and will no doubt reflect on them in the light of the Bill and our debates.

One observation is relevant to the point that I made on Second Reading. I talked about the prevalence of local authorities holding elections on the same day and suggested that it might not be the best idea to choose as a pilot a region in which there are many local authorities, a great number of which are holding elections on the same day, because every time such things are multiplied, the opportunity for error or confusion increases.

The Electoral Commission agrees with my view. Paragraph 3.19 on page 27 of its document states:

''On this basis, it might be suggested that electoral regions within which a significant number of local elections are also being held may be less suitable for a pilot scheme.''

That is the point that I made on Second Reading in relation to the north-west. I understand that some people are keen to have the north-west as one of the regions, and I understand why that is so. Were the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) present, he would have mentioned—about 37 times by now—Chorley, and the successes that he feels that there have been with the pilot schemes at local authority level. However, the fact remains that many authorities in the north-west—76.7 per cent.—hold elections on the same day. That criterion should be taken properly into account.

I am not saying that any of the regions should be excluded from consideration. I am simply saying that the Electoral Commission should give its advice, and when it sets down criteria that are not met, it should not be for a Minister to decide, for his own reasons, that, nevertheless, those regions will be selected. Surely my amendment must be in the spirit of what the Minister intends to do: namely, take seriously the advice of the Electoral Commission and not propose in an order a region that it expressly considers to be less suitable. All that I am doing is trying to make plain in the Bill a sentiment that the Minister must share in the exercise of his duties.

If he does not share that view, he must explain why.

Taken as a whole, we have an interesting group of amendments here, and the Minister would do well to explain his thinking on them. Amendments have been tabled by Conservative Members and we look forward to the explanation of those from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). We are at a crucial part of the debate in relation to our understanding of how the Government expect the Bill to work and the matters that they intend to take into consideration in introducing pilot orders. I hope that the Minister will be unstinting in his explanation of their thinking.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 2:30 pm, 30th October 2003

I shall deal with our amendments, but also respond to some of the comments that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made about his amendment and the group in general?

I want to start with the issue of Gibraltar, about which I twice intervened on the hon. Gentleman. He mentioned that he has been to Gibraltar, perfectly properly, in response to my interventions. I am delighted to hear that. He makes it clear that he went at his own expense, not at the expense of the Gibraltar Government. I think that I was right in understanding that he has not been there for its national day. I have had the opportunity to be with the people of Gibraltar on their national day. On one occasion—maybe on both—the Liberal Democrats were represented by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, who has just stepped down from his post as Liberal Democrat spokesman on home affairs.

The people of Gibraltar who heard the hon. Gentleman put forward his party's views will be very disappointed when they read Hansard, as they undoubtedly will. Like so many people in the UK's overseas territories, they take Parliament very seriously when anyone from any party speaks about issues that relate to them. Whenever I make speeches about St. Helena, I get letters from people who live there or have been there. That is also the case when I speak about Gibraltar or Zimbabwe. In any of the countries that have political issues the people read carefully what is said in Hansard. I think that they will be disappointed to hear that the Liberal Democrat official stance is that it does not matter if the Gibraltarian people are denied the opportunity to vote in person. The attitude of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is that it does not matter if the vote is all postal there.

I suspect that that has more to do what the Liberal Democrats want for the south-west now that the decision has been made that Gibraltar should be put in the south-west region, which the hon. Gentleman and I expected. In the Gibraltar referendum that Chief Minister Peter Caruana organised, the turnout was more than 97 per cent. It may have been 99 per cent., with 97 per cent. voting against the Government's disreputable proposals, for which I do not blame the Under-Secretary because I do not think that he was involved. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) says from a sedentary position, the Minister is tarred with the same brush because of the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility. I was merely trying to exculpate him, because he is unlikely to have been involved in any Cabinet discussions at which that shabby, under-the-table deal with Spain was put forward. We shall wait to see whether the Under-Secretary is prepared to defend what the Government tried to do recently in relation to Gibraltar.

Gibraltar is important because some of our amendments relate to it, but I want to start by dealing with the Liberal Democrat amendments Nos. 45 and 46, which would delete the limitations in subsections (4)(a) and (b). Our amendment No. 21 is designed to probe the idea of excluding London. Added to this group is amendment No. 39, which has a similar effect in relation to clause 9. We appreciate that the Government are seeking to rush the Bill through for elections next year. The local elections and the European elections will take place on the same day, and those local elections will not involve London. The Government say that we must exclude London, because the pilots will be next year and next year only. I also understand the slightly different idea—the Minister can confirm or deny this when he responds—that they do not want London to be the region that includes Gibraltar.

In an intervention on the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, I suggested the reason why the Government do not want to make the south-west the region including Gibraltar. This morning, we made the point that the piloting process is being rushed and should have been delayed until the Electoral Commission finished its consultation. Perhaps the piloting process should not be applied to those elections. If we are going to get the legislation right, we should take out the exclusion of London so that future pilots for future elections can include London in future years in which there are local elections in London.

I hope that the Minister will not trivialise the amendments by saying, ''Of course we must exclude London because there are no local elections in London next year.'' I hope that he understands that we think that the Government are rushing the process. Pilots could involve London if the Government wanted them to. It will be interesting to see whether the Government introduce separate legislation on pilots for next year's mayoral election. I do not know whether they will do so, but it is bound to be a matter of huge interest to candidates who are also Members of this House, not least, of course, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, who has been busily saying in the media that the only reason he is no longer the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman—he has apparently been demoted—is to give him freedom to concentrate on being the Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate.

The Minister must clarify whether the Government intend to introduce separate legislation for the mayoral election. Will there be another Bill setting up pilots that is quite separate from this legislation? It would be useful to have such a clarification on the record.

I am also interested in an issue that relates to something that I saw before the last mayoral election. I attended demonstrations in some of the W Rooms off Westminster Hall of how voting papers would be counted. Wonderful, new kinds of—in the memorable phrase of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) on Second Reading—gee whizery for counting the vote were suggested. However, I vividly remember that much of the equipment did not work. In the last mayoral election, we were in danger of experiencing something similar to the hanging chads scandal in the US presidential election in Florida. It would be useful for the Minister to put on record whether in addition to the Bill setting up pilots there are proposals to introduce gee whizery into the counting for either the mayoral election or the European elections. Conservative Members would have grave concerns if there were any such proposals. We would be much happier if all proposals were delayed until future elections.

Liberal Democrat amendment No. 47 would leave out the Gibraltar subsection. I repeat that we know that Gibraltarians want to vote in person. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome responded to my intervention by saying, ''We have had postal voting for a long time. It is just as good as voting in person.'' The Gibraltarians will not accept that. They want to vote, and Gibraltar is a relatively small place, so it is easy for them to get to the polling station and cast their votes in person. If I can arrange it at my own expense, I look forward to going over to Gibraltar on the day of the next European elections to watch the Gibraltarians vote in person.

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

Will the hon. Gentleman take the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome with him?

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

Not at my expense. Despite appearances, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is a good cross-party friend of mind. We share similar interests and I should be delighted to sit next to him on the plane, as long as he is paying for himself and I am paying for myself. We shall see what we can do.

For the people of Gibraltar, there is a big difference between voting in person and voting by post, but given the incredibly high turnout in the Gibraltar referendum, I do not think that Gibraltarians want to vote by post.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) said on Second Reading, once we increase the opportunity for electors on the UK mainland to vote by post whenever they want to, which is a welcome change that has already been introduced, we do not need to run the risk of using unsafe postal votes, as proposed in the legislation. My hon. Friend said that postal votes are easier to obtain than they used to be, and it is now possible for anybody to apply for a permanent postal vote to vote in any election. That is probably as far as most of my colleagues want to go. I have spoken to several of them about it.

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

I am delighted to have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, who is sitting behind me. He will be interested to know that our hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) is also strongly of that view. He is on the Front Bench with me. He is a great man, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate knows.

Amendment No. 1 raises a completely different point, which I know will hugely aggravate real activists on the Government Back Benches such as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson), once he has finished entering next week's engagements on his palm-top diary. We want to exclude Scotland, and seek to add a new subsection (c) to rule it out as a pilot region.

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

Of course, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz), whose constituents would be directly affected by the amendment. However, before I do that, I wish to set out some reasons why Conservatives feel strongly about the matter. I am indebted not only to my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) for what he said in the debates in the House and in Committee, but also to the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait). We believe that it is wrong for different areas of any EU member state to have different methods for electing MEPs. An all-postal ballot in certain regions would increase the turnout in some areas, but not necessarily in all of them, as the Electoral Commission has pointed out. The hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) confirmed that that was the case in the Lewisham Central ward by-election in her constituency only a week ago. Such a ballot may provide an unbalanced election result, and it may not always increase the turnout.

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

I believe that the hon. Lady said that the turnout was higher than it was for the overall council elections, but that it was not higher than it was for previous by-elections.

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

Whichever way round, I recall that the hon. Lady did not dispute the facts set out in the Electoral Reform Society briefing, which we discussed on Tuesday morning. Even if there had been an increase, turnout was still only 24.6 per cent.—not very high, even with an all-postal ballot in a hotly contested ward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham and I feel that Scotland should be left out because it is not practical for an individual to deliver a last-minute postal ballot in person to a returning officer in that region, which has many rural and island communities. To ensure equality of opportunity for last-minute votes, the receptacles for such votes would have to be in the same places as polling stations traditionally have been. That would hugely increase the cost of an all-postal ballot for Scotland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster raised a matter the other day about which the Conservatives are absolutely firm. Even if there were an all-postal ballot in an area, any voter who wanted to take their postal ballot on polling day to a place in their constituency should be able to do so. That is absolutely vital, and it would be more difficult in large, sparsely populated areas such as parts of rural and island Scotland.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I was anxious about my hon. Friend's comment that it is difficult to get postal ballots organised for remote rural areas. What would happen if there were a postal strike in such an area?

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

My hon. Friend raises a point that is particularly germane, given the chaos that we are suffering this very day and week. I have received emergency e-mails from the postmaster for the House. Other hon. Members who open their own post, as I do, will also have noticed that the post for the past two days has been very light. Some of us may say that it is welcome not to have to open umpteen annual reports on subjects that have nothing to do with our constituency. The real problem is that, as well as us not receiving those glossy annual reports, urgent letters from constituents with serious problems will not be delivered. We know that the flood gates will open when the industrial dispute that is plaguing the Post Office in London comes to an end, which I hope will be soon, although militants on the far left of the Communication Workers Union are trying to intimidate ordinary people and prevent them from carrying on working. When it finally comes to an end it will be après strike, le deluge, because we all have a vast backlog of post.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North 2:45 pm, 30th October 2003

Order. I appreciate that the hon. Member may feel the need to make asides in his exposition of great logic, but they should be brief. I ask him to stick to the point.

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

I accept that I was responding at too great a length to my hon. Friend's welcome intervention. The postal strike problem would be a greater problem if a strike were to coincide with a European parliamentary election.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that there will be several advantages in Scotland's being used as a pilot? For example, we have a different party set-up. Surely, Scotland should be considered as a pilot because of such advantages.

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

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says; doubtless, he will speak on this important group of amendments. However, I am explaining my hon. Friends' great concerns. I have to set out my party's position.

My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland pointed out that personation will become ''ever more prevalent'' with an all-postal ballot. She is especially concerned, as am I, about the impact that that may have on results in the large number of university cities in Scotland. I have a huge regard for the high quality of Scottish universities, and a number of my friends and contemporaries went to Scottish universities.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow Anniesland

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

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

Of course I will—and Glasgow is one of those cities with fine universities. One must recognise, however, that the fact that all the major cities in Scotland have a university could lead to the problem of personation.

Mr. Lazarowicz rose—

John Robertson rose—

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

I forgot to give way to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith, but I promised also to give way to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland. Once I have done so, I shall return to the issue of personation, with specific reference to university cities and towns in Scotland.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow Anniesland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is probably due to Scottish education that we have so many universities and that we do so well. However, I find his argument spurious. Are there no universities in cities in England? Did I miss something?

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

I am not sure that that intervention advanced the argument. I want to point out that there can be problems of personation in any university city.

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

Yes, in a second. I want first to finish answering the previous intervention. The fact that a large number of ballot papers would be delivered to halls of residence could lead to electoral fraud. It is a particular problem in Scotland because the size of Scottish universities in relation to the general population of relatively small Scottish towns may be much larger than in many English university cities.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that students are prone to committing electoral fraud? Is he suggesting that those of my constituents at the three universities in my city are likely to engage in some sort of personation or to engage in some misuse of the postal ballot system? What evidence does he have that that would happen in Edinburgh or other Scottish university cities? Will he withdraw his slur upon the student population of Scotland—and of the entire United Kingdom?

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

The hon. Gentleman will realise that I am not seeking to cast a slur on students either individually or collectively. However, attention has been drawn to the problem by the Electoral Reform Society and by the Electoral Commission, which are concerned about the problem of personation. It is not only Opposition Members who have referred to that. Those bodies say that it can be a particular problem with large student halls of residents. If the hon. Gentleman has not yet read the concerns of the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society, he should do so before he makes such an intervention.

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

The hon. Gentleman's arguments about Scotland are becoming increasingly preposterous.

If there is any issue about Scottish universities—I do not believe there is—it would apply only in the case of local elections. However, there will be no local elections in Scotland next year, but a national election based on the whole of Scotland. The preponderance of larger universities in smaller cities is therefore completely irrelevant to the aggregate result.

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

The hon. Gentleman has failed to understand, or perhaps he did not hear me say, that our overarching concern is that one region in a European election—it is not merely a national election—should not have a different way of electing people. I have merely raised in Committee the concerns of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, which I share.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

The last thing I want to do is to cause disruption and dispute in the Conservative party after yesterday's events. However, will my hon. Friend think carefully about the points that he is making about Scotland? First, I came to Scotland 27 years ago, and have since found that we have rural areas too, some of which I can assure him I have visited.

As far as universities are concerned, I have three children, all of whom went to university. One went to a Scottish university called St. Andrews, and was astonished to find that the great majority of its students were English. If any great sin has been committed at Scottish universities, it was probably committed by English students. I hope that my hon. Friend will reconsider his amendment, as he might find that we have great difficulty in maintaining the party's unanimity, which we are anxious to restore.

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

As always, my hon. Friend makes a trenchant defence of his native land. He should know that I am a quarter Scots. I do not know whether my hon. Friend heard me, but I did deny the entirely unwarranted allegation made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith that I was casting a slur on students, whether Scottish or English. My own two sons are at university, and I am sure that they would not become involved in anything. I am simply highlighting the fact that the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society have drawn the attention of all hon. Members, whichever party or part of the UK they represent, to the danger of personation where halls of residence are involved. My comment is therefore not as bizarre as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome suggests.

The final point that my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State asked me to make about the proposals for Scotland is that

''a marked register has not always been available''

in previous all-postal ballots held as part of the smaller pilot elections. Hon. Members on both sides of the House made that point on Second Reading, as the Minister will be well aware, and I suspect that the greatest unanimity might be achieved in relation to marked registers. There have been many calls, even from hon. Members on the Labour Back Benches, for a rolling marked register.

The democratic legitimacy of any election could be undermined if political parties did not have the opportunity to view the full marked register.

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

Of course, but at this stage we are talking about Scotland. As the hon. Gentleman will realise, I must voice the concerns of my hon. Friends who are responsible for Scotland, as my hon. Friend is as shadow Secretary of State for Scotland.

To ensure transparency for the electorate, political parties should be able to monitor all postal ballots throughout the election. All political parties should be furnished with a daily marked register from the first returns of the postal ballot until polling day, which is anticipated to be 10 June. That would ensure a proper democratic check on the progress of the election. We will return to some of these issues later, but I hope that the Minister can give us an undertaking today that the Government will table amendments to guarantee a daily marked register, not only for Scotland but for any other region that might be chosen. We might then be able to take a different view of some of these issues when we come to them.

These are the concerns of my hon. Friends with a particular responsibility for Scotland. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) comes from Scotland but has an English seat. He used to represent a Scottish constituency, with great distinction, and is also a former shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. He may want to expand on that, but I reassure him that there is no division between us. I cast no slurs on Scottish or English students at Scottish universities. My hon. Friend mentioned St. Andrews. My PA, who runs my office, comes from St. Andrews and is a Scot, although she happens to be mayoress of the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea this year. I hope that that shows that our party welcomes involvement from all areas, but I want to press the Minister to give us some indications about Scotland.

Amendment No. 20 would have a similar effect to amendment No. 1. We say that two regions with a common boundary should not be two of the regions in the pilot. If the Government go ahead with more than one pilot, we think it important that they be geographically separated. Sometimes the boundary between constituencies, as the Minister will be well aware, can be between two sides of a street. I do not know whether any of the regional boundaries will cross streets, or whether they are always in rural areas, but the Minister and his officials should look into that. It will be very confusing if it turns out that there is a regional boundary where one side of a street—or a neighbouring street—has one electoral system and neighbours only a few yards away have a different one. That might bring the whole process into disrepute. I hope that the Minister will take that point seriously.

Liberal Democrat amendment No. 48 seeks to add a new paragraph (c) on the Electoral Commission's criteria. We think that that amendment would subcontract too much to the Electoral Commission. We are not really happy with the idea that the commission should have too many things subcontracted to it that are properly the province of this House or of the legislation.

That deals with all the Conservative amendments, and the Liberal Democrat amendments, which I understand but do not agree with. I repeat the point for the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that we understand where he and his colleagues are coming from on amendment No. 48, but we believe that it would subcontract too much to the Electoral Commission that should properly be in the Bill or a decision for this House.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

I shall not trouble the Committee long. I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. We have had an interesting debate. I could speak in the stand part debate, but I think that my points are most appropriate to this group.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

Order. Perhaps I ought to alert the Committee to the Chair's view at the present time. There will be very little stand part debate on this clause; we have already had it.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

I appreciate your guidance, Mr. Cook, and I shall heed what you say. I shall try to keep to the main part of the business in hand.

My point has already been touched on by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, and I made several interventions about it on my hon. Friend the Minister on Second Reading. We all accept that Gibraltar is likely to be included in the south-west region, but why does that automatically preclude that region from being treated as a pilot? I feel strongly about that, as I said on Second Reading, because my area has had a pilot for increased postal voting and the use of electronic means of voting. I accept that we have to have experimentation to be able to evaluate the effectiveness of the different methods of voting, but once an electorate has been given more access to voting by different means, it is always much more difficult to take that away again.

Notwithstanding the problems that there will be by the nature of things—if we are going to widen the pilot schemes and have pilots all over the country, unless we include the whole country some areas will have that advantage taken away—I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ask the Electoral Commission to ensure that some analysis is done of the implications where people have had their electoral opportunities narrowed. There may be problems once people have been given different means of voting, if they then have to return to more traditional means at the next election, notwithstanding that they may still be able to get a postal vote. My experience of the electorate—without being in any way pejorative—is that people get used to a particular system of voting and take it as read that that is what will happen from then on.

There is an important issue about how we initially educate people about returning to another system—perhaps for an election or two—until we get all the means in place, which is what I would like. We need to accept that the electoral system is sorely in need of being brought up to date. It seems a little unfair that we are inventing systems that have within them reasons for precluding a particular region.

I will not get into the argument over Gibraltar; I welcome it into the south-west. No doubt some of my colleagues who are standing as candidates will welcome the opportunity to campaign in Gibraltar, particularly if the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will pay for them to go and if he is offering, on behalf of the Gibraltar Government, the chance for everyone to visit Gibraltar. I have not been to Gibraltar. To some extent, the issue is about the tail wagging the dog. Fewer than 100,000 people are affecting the voting opportunity for more than 3 million people. We must be aware of that.

If the Minister will assure me that he will contact the Electoral Commission to consider what will happen in relation to the non-continuity of the pilot, I have no reason not to support the Government on this clause. I am not sure whether the Opposition are helping. Instead, they are delaying the inevitable process of opening up our democracy.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 3:00 pm, 30th October 2003

I belatedly welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook, on my first opportunity to make a speech. I will confine my remarks to amendment No. 45 and, not surprisingly, to amendment No. 1.

I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said about amendment No. 45 and agree that there are issues. My major concern is that, by allowing an all-postal vote in one electoral region, the Bill will exclude the electorate in that region from the last week of a UK-wide campaign. That will mean that parties and candidates in regions that use all-postal votes will not have the opportunity to employ the same timetable for the election campaign. Being in an all-postal region will also distort and alter the experience of electors. They will experience a different type of campaign—certainly through the media. We all know that, during election campaigns, everything starts to heat up towards the last week. Someone in an electoral region with an all-postal vote will not be exposed to that part of the campaign and might miss out on some vital details.

Those things have to be balanced with the desire to have effective control. The pilot is an experiment and we have to assess whether it will work properly and whether all-postal votes work. We can assess that only if we have controls. That is why there must be a combination of all-postal ballots and traditional ballots through the ballot box. On balance, I would opt for ensuring that we have specific regions for the pilots.

On amendment No. 1, I accept that there are specific problems when it comes to Scotland. We have little experience of holding all-postal ballots in Scotland. In fact, there have been only three such ballots in the past couple of years, but the experience of those ballots has been positive. Scotland's lack of experience in conducting all-postal ballots goes against the Electoral Commission's view that the pilots should be about upscaling from the all-postal ballots that took place across the full election authority area. However, in the paper that we saw, the Electoral Reform Society suggests that only Scotland and Northern Ireland fulfil the two criteria, and so recommends that only they be considered for an all-postal pilot under any circumstances. We must take on board what it says.

It would be wrong to exclude Scotland. There are good reasons for including it, and I already mentioned a couple in an intervention on the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. In Scotland, we have our own media. I know that we do not have our own Scottish 6 o'clock news yet, probably much to the great pleasure of several Labour Members, but most of the media in Scotland are Scottish-based. We have a different political party system—there are six or seven parties—so we have our own areas of concern.

We have the advantage that there will be no other electoral contest on that day, so we shall not be affected by local election campaigns, as England will be, but we have concerns about the postal vote in Scotland. We lack experience and are concerned about security and fraud—I know that they will be addressed later in these deliberations—and we have to ensure that we have our own marked register. We worry about Scotland being used as an all-postal vote pilot area. At this stage, it is important that that should not be included in the Bill, and I would oppose the measure.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow Anniesland

I had not intended to participate in this part of the debate, but after the scurrilous attack on my nation, I feel that I have to speak up for it. I would not wish, under any circumstance, to exclude any region of the United Kingdom or, for that matter, Gibraltar from the Bill. I find it unbelievable that the official Opposition party should put forward a scheme that would exclude Scotland from the pilot. Why do I find it unbelievable? Because it has never before been averse to using Scotland for pilots—I distinctly remember the poll tax, the Minister in charge of which is now the leader elect of the Conservative party. It has used Scotland for pilots in the past, so I cannot see why it should not want to use it again.

Scotland has always had a lot of students; the attack that was made on them was ridiculous. We have students from all over the world, not just from England.

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

I said in response to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith that I was not making an attack on students. However, let me reinforce the point that I am not alone. I shall quote briefly from the Electoral Reform Society, which says

''Corrupt practices on a grand scale have become feasible again for the first time in 130 years.''

£Of course, that is not a guarantee that any such events will occur, but the risk is increased. It goes on to talk about houses in multiple occupancy, including student houses. I am not making any attack on students—I have two sons who are students—nor on Scottish or English universities.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow Anniesland

I thank the hon. Gentleman for trying to clarify the point, but that is not the way in which it came over to me. Might I also say that there has always been electoral fraud or a belief that electoral fraud could take place by personation at the ballot box? That is nothing new. Anybody could put any interpretation on what might constitute fraud for an election and make up a story that could possibly happen. It could, but then it might not; that is not an argument.

There is a degree of paranoia from the Conservative party about what happens in Scotland, because of its poor electoral performance there. It is now trying to hide that by trying to exclude an area of the UK from a pilot that would show it up in an even worse light. That is despicable. We are here to try to get people to vote—not to disfranchise them but to ensure that as many people as possible vote, no matter which party they vote for—whereas the Conservative party is acting for its own party political advantage.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Conservative, Rochford and Southend East

I wish to say a brief few words, and I promise not to make any racist remarks. I am unenthusiastic about most of the amendments, with the exception of No. 48, which is very good, and I am worried about Gibraltar. My family and I are regular holiday visitors there—we go to the Rock hotel and it is lovely. What might undermine Gibraltar, and our capacity for going on holidays, is the number of MPs we always see there. It worried me that when we discussed the inclusion of Gibraltar, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath said that he would want to go and see the election. Quite frankly, when my family and I go on holiday we want to get away from Westminster and all the problems we have here. The idea of sending more MPs is unbelievable.

I have been to one of Gibraltar's independence day rallies, and they are wonderful examples of democracy. If one were to read out the telephone book, they would cheer from end to end. I found that one was popular no matter what one said. Anything that encourages more MPs to go there is upsetting, particularly for those who pay their bills. If one goes to the Rock hotel in Gibraltar, it costs £1.80 for a cup of coffee. I do not mind paying that because it is very nice coffee, but if a pile of MPs take three cups of coffee at state expense, it is upsetting.

I was also upset about the proposals for Scotland. There was no justification for that amendment. I do not want to cause a party dispute today after all we had yesterday, but we cannot have such vicious and spiteful attacks on the Scots. I say that as an Englishman, as can be heard from my Essex accent. The proposals are ridiculous. The polls risk going wrong because of the problems caused by houses in multiple occupation. I represent an area with a massive number of HMOs, and disputes, mistakes and fraud occur in those places.

There is no problem with European elections because nobody wants to bother with them. If the European Parliament were to close tomorrow, nobody would notice, apart from the taxi drivers of Strasbourg. No one is concerned about how people vote, and that is why we only had a 25 per cent. turnout last time, which would have been less if the Government had not tried to get more votes with some ridiculous schemes.

There is an organisation called the UK Independence party. Members have probably not heard of it, but it wants a referendum on the EEC. It is possible that some people feel so strongly about the referendum that they will say, ''I have to get people voting for it.'' With HMOs, there is a great danger that people will say, ''Here's 10 ballot papers, I am going to pool them and cast them for the UK Independence party.''

There may be a case for excluding areas with a large concentration of HMOs, but it is ridiculous to exclude Scotland because it has too many universities. My son, who went up there, said that most of the trouble was from the English, not the Scottish, students.

Amendment No. 48 is very significant. It says that if the criteria set by the Commission are not met, we should not go ahead. The independent bodies should decide such things. It has been said that Scotland should be included, and not excluded because it does not have local government elections. We are doing things for the most ridiculous reasons. The Electoral Reform Society said do not try e-mail voting because it will cost a fortune and it will not increase turnout, so why should the Government go ahead with expensive plans when the experts tell them that it is against the interests of the voters and democracy.

The Government should show some humility. What is the rush about 2004? Would it not be better to take advice from an independent body and let them tell us what to do? If the Government think that the schemes are so good, do they accept what the Electoral Reform Society says about e-mail? It says that it will cost a fortune and that it will not increase turnout.

It would be better to forget about 2004. The Government should not worry about it too much as the experience of European elections has shown that fewer and fewer people are interested because they do not seem to matter. With our electoral system, we do not have one MEP for each area; we have a series of MEPs and the parties decide who gets the seat. It is wrong and undemocratic because it locates so much power at the centre. As amendment No. 48 suggests, it would be better to let the experts provide guidance and identify the problems, and then we can move on.

We are not helping democracy at all, and if we were to accept amendment No. 48, I would be far happier about the Bill. It would then make sense and would not be what seems to be a ridiculous rush for no obvious reason, which is not going to help people or democracy. In places with a concentration of HMOs, whether Scottish or English people—or even Welshmen, who I am told are just as bad as the other two—live in them, the provision would honestly be a major mistake.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart 3:15 pm, 30th October 2003

It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East—not for the first time in my career—as up until 1979 he represented my seat.

I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about amendment No. 48. The amendment reads

''any region which does not meet the criteria''.

The Electoral Commission documentation lists 14 criteria. Does the amendment mean that every one of those 14 must be met in every respect? Some of the criteria are open to individual assessment and judgment, such as the reference to rural areas. If a particular area meets 13 of the 14, should we exclude the whole region? That judgment has to be left to the Government and/or the House. The amendment is far too prescriptive, and would not improve the Bill.

The Committee will not be surprised that the main comments I want to make concern amendment No. 1. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath is an effective debater, in this Committee and in others of which I have been a member. However, I was extremely disappointed by his comments. He obliquely referred a number of times to instructions that he had perhaps been given by the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, who is not even a member of the Committee. Incidentally, she does not even represent a Scottish seat.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

She is indeed a Scot. However, I think that her views would be taken a bit more seriously if the people who elected her were Scottish and living in the electoral region that is the specific subject of amendment No. 1. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale is not here. I understand that he has urgent business elsewhere, and I do not criticise him for not being present, but it would be useful to know his personal opinion of this rather peculiar amendment.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making it clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale has urgent business this afternoon. He was hoping to contribute to the debate on this subject. We are, of course, reaching it at a later stage than expected, because of the Government's defeat on Tuesday and the putting back of the Committee. That is why my hon. Friend has missed one of the issues that he was most keen to speak on.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

I fully accept that, and the hon. Gentleman knows that I did not mean any criticism.

I shall address some of the specific arguments raised by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, and will do so quickly as I am getting the evil eye from my Whip. The first was that any electoral arrangements for the European elections next June should allow people to deliver postal ballots at the last minute to electoral headquarters.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

Presumably not to polling stations but to the municipal buildings. We already have postal ballots. Amendment No. 1 in effect provides not only that we should not have a 100 per cent. postal ballot in Scotland, but that we should not allow those people in Scotland who have already applied for postal ballots to have them. Next June, those people will face exactly the problems that the hon. Gentleman suggests. They have to post their ballots anyway. Is he saying that, under amendment No. 1, nobody should be allowed to have a postal ballot?

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

We may be under a misunderstanding, although of course I defer to the hon. Gentleman's knowledge not only of his own constituency, but of what has happened in Scotland. I freely confess that I do not have a detailed knowledge of what happened in postal pilots in Scotland. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster said, in some of the pilots that have already taken place there was a chance for people who wanted to vote in person on the day to do so, but that was not true of the postal pilot in her constituency. All I say is that whether a pilot takes place in Scotland, England, Wales or wherever, there ought to be a chance for people who want to vote in person on the day to do so. I would not want any of our amendments to go against that, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not suggest that amendment No. 1 is designed to do so, because it is not.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

I accept that, but the hon. Gentleman mentioned Scotland, England and wherever else, and the effect of amendment No. 1 is to exclude Scotland from the pilot. He is being a bit disingenuous in saying that such arrangements could apply in Scotland, England or anywhere else, as amendment No. 1 would prevent Scotland from taking part in the pilot.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

I am being far too generous, but of course.

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

I am grateful to hon. Gentleman, as I want to help him. I hope that he will appreciate that if amendment No. 1 were carried, those who already have permission to vote by post under the arrangements that have been made for all elections would still have the opportunity to do so. Amendment No. 1 would not take that away, but would simply stop Scotland from being one of the postal pilot regions. People who have already registered to vote by post for business reasons or whatever could still do so.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

I accept the hon. Gentleman's argument, but I stick to my original point that he is using a double standard in relation to people's ability to deliver last-minute ballot papers to the polling station.

I do not want to go over the arguments again, but on Second Reading I mentioned Strathclyde's water referendum. A large part of the Strathclyde region is rural, and none of the constituencies there, all of which took part in the ballot, registered a turnout of less than 70 per cent. That included Argyll and Bute, which as the hon. Gentleman knows is a very rural constituency indeed. He mentioned the problem of a postal strike, but, once again, a postal strike could happen next June anyway, and those who have applied for a postal ballot would be similarly affected. We might as well say that weather conditions could intervene on a traditional election, and people could be prevented from driving or walking to the polling station. We cannot account for acts of God or the postal workers' union, but events can derail any election, regardless of how it is carried out. The hon. Gentleman's arguments are not specifically against a postal pilot in Scotland; rather, they seem to be against the very idea of having a 100 per cent. postal ballot at all.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland put up a sterling defence of students in relation to electoral fraud, but the hon. Member for Surrey Heath perhaps has a point. There are all sorts of hurdles and questions that have yet to be answered about electoral fraud, and there is a range of mechanisms that will affect the pilots and the future of voting in any system.

What should we do then? Surely the best thing for the Government would be to say, ''Well, let's have a pilot area, or two or three pilot areas. Let's see what the problems are before we decide what the future of the exercise will be.'' The Government have already proposed the mechanism that we could use to identify the very flaws that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is so concerned about, but he is opposing it.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I explained to you before we broke for lunch, Mr. Cook, that I had to go to an Opposition Whips meeting, and I am sure that the Committee will accept my apologies, given the circumstances. That meeting was a wonderful experience: I was quite convinced that the troubles of my party were behind us and there was a total outbreak of—

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

Order. I hope that the observations that the hon. Gentleman is about to make are appropriate and relevant.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I understand that. My observations are very relevant, because although I was carried away in the meeting this morning, thinking that everything was hunky dory and that unity had broken out, it is salutary to come here this afternoon and hear my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East remind me that there are differences of opinion in my party, so it has been an interesting day yet again. It is good to know that some things never change.

I would say the following about amendment No. 1. I always make disclaimers; I explained this morning that I was not a solicitor and that became very obvious. It will now become very obvious that I am English. I am proud of it, and I represent a Middlesex constituency that does not have a university in it, so I approach the issue of Scotland with a little caution. It occurred to me as an Englishman looking at the amendment paper and listening to the debate that the uprising of Scottish Labour Members who denounced what my hon. Friend was proposing—I smelt a bit of a rat—was really all about party politics. The fact that the Labour ranks from Scotland are indignant about what my hon. Friend says suggests to me that the issue is a party one. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland because he went as far as saying just that.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith

Is it not fair to remind the hon. Gentleman that his colleague, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East, did not seem too happy with the line pursued by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath?

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

At the moment, the Opposition Whip's job is to heal, not to dig around in problems of that sort, so I shall resist the temptation to respond to that intervention.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland put his finger on it. I find myself wondering why the massed ranks of Labour Members should be so politically indignant if there are some reasonable arguments about excluding Scotland. That suggests to me that we might be on to something. They might be petrified that, if we were to exclude Scotland, support for their party in their heartland is so awful that they could no longer rely on people to motivate themselves and get to the polling station. What they are seeking to do in opposing the amendment is unfairly to stack the odds in their favour, to try to find a few remaining supporters.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

I hesitate to intervene on the hon. Gentleman's reverie with a message from Earth, but surely he will appreciate that there are some Members in this House, regardless of party, who actually believe that it is democratically a good thing to increase turnout, whichever party might benefit. We believe that a higher turnout does not benefit any particular party: it benefits the political system. I would have thought that he would welcome that.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Yes. I am happy with the principle of increasing voter participation, and when we come to other clauses I shall be able explain why that is so. If the hon. Gentleman is so wedded to this principle, why does the Bill suggest that there should be pilots only in some places? If the principle is so important to him, why has he not tabled amendments proposing that the whole thing should be done by postal vote?

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman. The Bill sets up pilots. I want to see a 100 per cent. postal ballot in certain parts of the country so that, as I said just a few moments ago—I do not know if the hon. Gentleman was present—we can see for ourselves what the hurdles are, and what problems there may be with the mechanism. Then we can move forward. We can either decide to scrap the whole scheme or extend it through the country. Surely that is a practical and sensible way forward.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

If I did not suspect that what the hon. Gentleman really wanted were all-postal ballots in parts of the country where that would be to his party's advantage, rather than anything else, I would agree with him, but I still get the message from Labour Members that this is a matter of party political advantage.

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

My hon. Friend in his interesting and perceptive analysis may not have spotted that there was not unanimity among all Scottish Members who spoke in the debate on Second Reading. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok was strongly opposed to what the Government are proposing, and—surprise, surprise—he is not on the Committee.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I would not want to intrude into the internal difficulties of the Labour party. I have enough problems of my own to deal with, without taking on the problems of others who are trying to deal with people of whom they do not necessarily approve.

My view is still that the Labour party is upset about our suggestion because it might undermine one of its ploys to gain some sort of advantage.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 3:30 pm, 30th October 2003

I make a plea to the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendments, because I have never encountered such poverty of discussion as in this argument blaming students and opposing the measure as giving a possible electoral advantage to another party. I just do not get it. It would be in the hon. Gentleman's interest to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I did not move the amendment. I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that it has not been his good fortune, or misfortune, to serve on a Committee of which I have been a member; if he is worried about my contributions thus far, he may have further views by the end of the Committee's sittings.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Labour, Glasgow Cathcart

I rise briefly to correct something that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said. He has brought into disrepute a colleague of ours, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok, by saying that he did not support the Government. My hon. Friend said on Second Reading:

''It gives me great pleasure so speak in support of the Government.''—[Official Report, 21 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 578.]

My hon. Friend does not need me to defend him, but perhaps it is better that I correct what was said, rather than allow him to do so.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I am sure that you will understand, Mr. Cook, that the discussion that has been started did not involve the hon. Gentleman who is now speaking. I heard neither the original speeches that were made, nor all the debate that has taken place on the matter in question. I think that it is best if I do not respond, as I am in no position to do so.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

Order. I have been lenient. I like to be from time to time. However, recent exchanges have been so circuitous that they are in danger of disappearing who knows where. Please will hon. Members bring to a close their discussions on the amendments—and on clause stand part, incidentally, as this debate is all that hon. Members are getting.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

I had exhausted my pearls of wisdom on the first of the amendments and was going to move on to one or two others. My eye fell on amendment No. 48. When I looked at it I thought, ''My word. This is sensible.'' Then I saw that it was tabled by the Liberal Democrats, so I doubted my judgment. However, it is sensible, despite its origins. If an Electoral Commission is set up to do a job of work, and it states the criteria that should be followed, that is what should happen.

As to the question of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) about whether 13 out of 14 would be adequate, if the Electoral Commission's criteria are sensible and proper—I have no reason to doubt that they are—why should we pick and choose? The Electoral Commission was set up to decide what was sensible and has announced it. My comment to the hon. Gentleman is that the situation is an all-or-nothing one.

For heaven's sake, why spend taxpayers' money setting up a commission to do something and then ignore it? That is what seems extraordinary to me. To say, ''Perhaps we can pick and choose,'' is probably worse than ignoring it. It is to say, ''We shall listen, but pay no attention afterwards. We will decide for ourselves.'' I am not sure of the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath, but I should be happy as an individual—I do not say this on behalf of my party—to go along with the amendment.

On the other hand, I should not be happy to support amendment No. 45. I spend a lot of time, and I have heard the hon. Gentleman spend some of his time, arguing for sunset clauses. I was rather under the impression that we were legislating for next year's European elections—and that is what we should do. If we were legislating in general terms, it would be sensible to omit the reference to 2004. However, if the intention is, as has been said, to experiment and to pick and choose, I cannot support the idea of using the Bill, which may, with the benefit of hindsight, be seen to be flawed, as a vehicle for all subsequent use of postal ballots. I am more than content to go along with amendment No. 48, but I shall not support amendment No. 45 if the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome presses it to a vote. I believe that we must return to the matter once we have learned.

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

It is a pleasure after an hour and a quarter, although we started debating the amendments this morning, to have an opportunity to give the Government's views on them. I am becoming slightly worried about the Committee's progress, so I may have to have further discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East about whether there might be opportunities for more sitting hours or days before Tuesday at 5 pm.

Liberal Democrat amendments Nos. 45, 46 and 48 suggest that regions and nations should be eligible for piloting and that the Electoral Commission's suggestions should, effectively, be the deciding factor as to whether a pilot takes place in a particular region or nation. Obviously, that would fundamentally alter the way in which regions are chosen for piloting.

Electoral Commission expertise can be called on to help to ensure that the selection process is based on impartial advice, but the answer to amendment No. 48 is that Ministers must decide which regions should be chosen for piloting. As they are accountable to Parliament, it is right that they should make pilot decisions and not leave such things to other bodies such as the commission. Of course, the Government will give heavy weight to its advice, but we must always have an eye to the fact that Parliament holds the Executive to account for their decisions.

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

Yes, of course, Ministers make a proposal to the House and it is then for the House to accept or reject it. What worries me is that Ministers should not divert from the Electoral Commission's recommendations, because to do so puts them in the dangerous position of being accused—wrongly, I am sure—of putting forward proposals for electoral advantage rather than the strictly neutral proposals that the Electoral Commission would make.

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

That is precisely why we seek the Electoral Commission's views and counsel about which regions or nations might be best for piloting. However, we cannot leave the final decision to the commission, because it is not accountable to Parliament in the same way as Ministers are. I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but it would be apparent if there were differences between Ministers' decisions and the commission's advice. Ministers can be held to account for anything that might occur in such circumstances.

On amendments Nos. 45 and 46, I believe that the next big step in piloting will be the regional level, moving up from the local level but without the ''big bang'' approach of going to the whole country and the potential risks associated with scaling up in such a large single step. Up to three regions would be a fair and good balance in the interim phase.

Hon. Members should be aware that the Electoral Commission is of a mind to recommend that, eventually, we should consider all-postal piloting for all local elections. There is a move towards a wider roll-out. Therefore, it is important that we are pragmatic and reasonable in the way that we scale up our piloting.

I do not share the view of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that there are problems with some European Parliament constituencies having voting mechanisms that are different from those of other constituencies. That is one of his principal objections. Many voting mechanisms and electoral systems are used by the different nation states to comprise the European Parliament, so there is already a great deal of variable geometry. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East will be fully aware that there is no federalised voting.

There are also several different voting systems within the UK. For example, Northern Ireland MEPs are elected in an electoral system that is different from that of Great Britain. In a sense, that helps to rebut the concerns of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.

Liberal Democrat amendment No. 47 effectively seeks to include the region with which Gibraltar will be combined. Conservative amendment No. 21 would effectively do the same thing, but it would include London. Conservative amendment No. 39 would also include London.

I shall set out the Government's overall view. Subsection (5) states that an order under clause 1 must not specify London or the region combined with Gibraltar. There are special circumstances in each of those regions that add further difficulties and potential complexities for regional returning officers and others in implementing those elections. We want to conduct the pilot and must have a scaling up, but we do not want to raise risks unnecessarily.

I have heard the forceful points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud about the south-west. He may be worried about taking away the favourable impression created by piloting in certain localities. It is necessary for some regions to use conventional systems as a control and other regions to scale up to a wider level. That is why we have taken this approach. This will be the first time that Gibraltar will have voted with the United Kingdom. Its inclusion creates extra complications for not only the Gibraltar returning officer but the regional returning officer for the south-west, the region with which we propose to combine Gibraltar.

Gibraltar has, of course, not been part of the Electoral Commission's wider studies over numerous years into matters such as piloting. That it was not part of the research base is another potential reason why it might be best to be a little cautious about including Gibraltar in the roll-out at this stage. That is not to say that it would not be included at a wide level at a future time.

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

As the Minister said earlier, I agree with the Government's view on not including Gibraltar. However, he must be careful in saying that the Electoral Commission has carried out studies over numerous years. The Electoral Commission was only brought into existence by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. It has not existed for numerous years. He should be careful not to over-egg his pudding.

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

I shall use phrase ''several years'' rather than ''numerous years'', although I think that three counts as numerous.

In respect of the amendments about the inclusion of London, the complexity relates to the different electoral systems that are likely to be used. The mayoral election, of course, uses the supplementary voting system. The London Assembly uses an additional member system and the European Parliament uses the closed list system. Those complexities add something that could be too burdensome for the regional returning officer at this early stage if they also have to cope with all-postal balloting. We have adopted our position for that reason alone.

Amendment No. 1 would exclude Scotland from being a pilot. My hon. Friends, and in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Anniesland and for Glasgow, Cathcart, have raised strong arguments about how irrational and illogical the amendment is. The idea that Scotland would be less capable of running a pilot than any other region is spurious, and the evidence is not particularly strong. That is not to say that Scotland will or will not be chosen, which is a matter for the Electoral Commission to advise upon; I will listen carefully to its advice.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 3:45 pm, 30th October 2003

I want to take the opportunity, now that the Minister has turned his attention to Scotland, to place it on the record that the last Member whom I would want to traduce in any way is the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok, who is probably my closest cross-party friend and is my fellow winger in the parliamentary rugby team. Having opened on Second Reading by saying that he would support the Government, however, he made it clear in his speech that he violently and strongly opposes the e-voting pilots. He told me that he did not believe that he would be allowed to sit on this Committee for that reason, which has been the case. I do not want to mislead anyone. I partially accept the rebuke from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart, but he knows the views of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok on e-„voting as well as I do. We both heard them in the Chamber.

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

We could spend all day trying to interpret the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok. That would be exceptionally interesting, but I will not be tempted to do so. It is slightly odd for the Conservative party officially to suggest that there are larger personation and broad risks in Scotland than anywhere else because of its student population. That is an odd approach, which we will pocket for the time being.

Amendment No. 20 would exclude two regions with common boundaries. There is no logical or fair reason for that. I heard the comments by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath about people on different sides of the street using different voting mechanisms, but even if people on one side of a street were to have an all-postal vote while those on the other could vote conventionally, I do not believe that those people would be particularly likely to talk about that fact, or that they would be bothered by it. Even if there were such discontent, it would not be an insurmountable problem. It would be discriminatory to exclude two regions with a common boundary. Boundaries between regions should not be a factor in the success or evaluation of piloting. I hope that my hon. Friends will reject the amendment, and that hon. Members will consider withdrawing it.

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

We have had an extensive debate on this group of amendments, so it is probably otiose to say too much at this stage.

I am grateful to hon. Members who have made sensible points about the amendments.

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

I did not exclude anyone, did I? I simply said that I am grateful to those hon. Members who made sensible points. I always am.

There is still an argument about whether elections in three regions would be better than a UK-wide election. If we had not had the break over lunch, which made me forget my point, I would have used the argument raised by the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart), which I also used on Second Reading, which was that a significant problem with part of the country voting on an all-postal basis while other parts vote normally on polling day, is that some people would be excluded from the latter stages of what is a national campaign. Paradoxically, that is an argument for Scotland to be used as a pilot area. Scotland has separate media and political systems, so if it were a pilot area, it would have a campaign that was appropriate to the form of voting, which would not spill over the border. However, I will leave that thought. I am not convinced that we are going down the right road.

I still have not heard a sensible reason why Gibraltar cannot do a postal vote when the rest of the country can. I had hoped to get such a reason from the Minister. He simply said that the Electoral Commission has not done any studies there, but Gibraltar is much like many parts of the UK. The population there are not particularly likely to be unable to cope with a postal voting system. I have great respect for the electorate in Gibraltar. We still do not know—

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

We have had a long debate. Unless the hon. Gentleman has a really pressing point with which to intervene, we should conclude our debate.

When speaking in support of his amendments, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath made some arguments about Scotland that were the most preposterous that I have ever heard in a Committee. The Conservative party has certainly had some difficulties over recent days, and I believe that the hon. Gentleman may be having similar difficulties of his own with a vote of confidence. On one of the amendments, he managed to mislay 33.33 per cent. of the Conservative members present in the Committee, and on another proposition, he lost 66.66 per cent. of his colleagues, who held a different view from his and chose to use their independent judgment. He may therefore need to consult a little more; otherwise, he might find himself on a slippery slope.

I am especially grateful for the very cogent points made by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East. He obviously understood some of our arguments, and expressed his views extremely well, as always.

I have considered what the Minister said, and I accept that we are not going to have a meeting of minds on amendment No. 45. I do not intend to press it to a vote, and will seek leave of the Committee to withdraw it. However, in view of the way in which the Minister intends to approach the laying of the orders, and given the views of the Electoral Commission, it is appropriate to ask for a Division on amendment No. 48. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will support it.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: No. 48, in

clause 1, page 2, line 3, at end add—

'(c) any region which does not meet the criteria identified by the Electoral Commission for inclusion as a pilot region'.—[Mr. Heath.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided -.: Ayes 4, Noes 10.

Division number 5 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 1 - Piloting conduct at european and local elections

Aye: 4 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.Clause 2Pilot order