Clause 3 - Pilot schemes under the 2000 Act

European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:15 am on 4th November 2003.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

I shall be brief as I anticipate that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole will also speak. The amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats was, inevitably, not selected because it sought to delete the whole of clause 3—in effect, a stand part debate. I also want to be brief when I think of what the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) will say if it turns out that the north-west of England is not selected as a pilot area.

The Opposition suspect that the Secretary of State will announce that the three pilot areas will be the north-west, the north-east and Scotland, because those are the areas that Labour Back Benchers are so keen on. That suspicion might be unfounded, but given that Labour Back Benchers such as the hon. Member for Chorley were so passionate on Second Reading, as they are now in Committee, about how incredibly well the postal pilots worked in places such as Chorley, I can only anticipate how mortified they will be if it turns out that because of this clause an area used for a postal pilot before cannot be used for a postal pilot next time if it is not in one of the given regions.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

I am glad that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath is so pleased to echo

the voice of Chorley that he ensures that Chorley is mentioned in Committee. He will be aware that his old seat of Blackpool was also a pilot area, so Chorley was not the only seat in the north-west to be a pilot area. The seats in the north-west were the ones that successfully ran a pilot scheme in postal voting. I do not know if the hon. Gentleman is aware of this but, when chief executives of all local authorities in the north-west met, only three objected to running a pilot scheme. All the others want to run one. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the north-west being chosen.

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

It is not for me to express a view one way or the other. We have said that there are some arguments for having postal pilots but we do not believe that they have to be run in three areas. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are very much against the e-voting pilots for the reasons that we gave this morning.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees that, as a result of the clause, there is a danger that any area used as a postal pilot area before will not necessarily be included next time. I will be interested to hear the Minister say how the Government will respond if areas such as the hon. Gentleman's in Chorley are left out next time because they were used to run pilot schemes before.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

We seek to delete the clause, because it is a retrograde step to permit something in only one circumstance. Local authorities that have had successful schemes are finding it difficult to make plans. How will they move forward? There will be a great deal of disappointment. People are less likely to want to vote if they have participated in successful all-postal schemes and suddenly no longer have them. They will ask many questions, and the electorate will find it difficult to understand why they cannot have something that they had last year.

The clause is a retrograde step. These pilot schemes have been appropriate for the authority to which the election applies, unlike the pilot schemes for the European elections.

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

I am slightly perplexed by the Liberal Democrats' position. I thought that they did not want differential voting systems in a single country. One of the reasons for the clause is that, if certain pockets in a single constituency—a region, for European parliamentary purposes—have voting opportunities that are different from those in other neighbourhoods or districts, some people in one part of the constituency may be advantaged by being able to vote more easily than others. I am sure that they would take the opportunity to point that out. That is why we want any parliamentary constituency to have a consistent voting mechanism.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

May I clarify a point? I am sure that we may well be using that argument but we do not agree with the pilot. Starting from that position, such an approach is logical.

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

We now have Liberal Democrat logic on the record and I am sure that, in years to come, people will look back at that great dialectic.

The clause disapplies section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000, so that local authorities cannot apply to run separate, local pilot schemes under the Act on the same day as next year's European and combined elections. That is not only about containing costs but about retaining other elections as a control with which the pilot results can be compared and scrutinised. That is the point of scaling up to a new level of regional piloting.

Consistency throughout European parliamentary constituencies is also exceptionally important. It is important not to confuse electors further by having different voting arrangements in different neighbourhoods. We must ensure that some regions will pilot, while other regions cannot. There are many good reasons why such action should be taken.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.