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John Robertson: I agree totally with what my hon. Friend has said, but does he agree that putting a European election with a local election will make it very difficult to analyse the result? It will be difficult to tell whether localness has affected the European election, or vice versa.

Mr. Turner: That is true, but one could equally say that the same point applies to holding general elections and local elections at the same time. Do local elections influence the general election result, or—much more likely—vice versa? I do not see the difficulty.

Mr. Heath: Of course local elections and other elections can be held on the same day; indeed, the past couple of general elections have coincided with county council elections for non-metropolitan counties in England. However, complications do arise in terms of the scale of the operation, particularly in a very populous area such as the north-west. Also, our experience shows that county council elections tend to

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constitute an ineffective popular judgment on the performance of county councillors, simply because the campaign is completely eclipsed by the general election.

Mr. Turner: I accept the hon. Gentleman's latter point, but I take issue with the point about skills. Far be it from me to comment on the skills of electoral returning officers in the south-west, but I can certainly say that those in the north-west are more than capable of dealing with two elections on the same day.

I want to deal with the north-west and explain why it should be one of the areas included in the pilots. It is a large area with some 5.5 million electors, and it is extremely diverse. That is important because if the Electoral Commission is going to draw conclusions from the pilots, it is no use having a pilot scheme in an area without a decent range of diversity. That would prevent proper conclusions from being reached.

The north-west has many rural areas, from the hill farms of the western Pennines and those of the Lake district, which is important for tourism, right through to the market gardens and the cattle, cereal and root crop areas of the Solway, Lancashire and the Cheshire plains. The area is also hugely urban with major cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, historic tourist towns such as Carlisle and Chester, and industrial towns such as my own area of Wigan. We also have new towns such as Skelmersdale on my doorstep and satellite towns such as Partington, linked to Manchester. All those areas show the potential for the Electoral Commission to assess the impact of postal voting.

There is also considerable socio-economic diversity in the region. I have already mentioned Liverpool and Manchester and the huge problems that exist in their core inner city areas. Equally, however, there is deprivation—albeit of a different sort and scale—in the Pemberton area in my constituency, for example. The two wards there are among the top 5 per cent. of deprived areas in the whole country. There is also rural deprivation, often hidden deprivation, of the sort that exists elsewhere in the country. There is also great affluence in Cheshire and on the outskirts of the region's towns and cities, so we certainly have great diversity of socio-economic levels, as well as geographical diversity between rural and urban areas.

Differences in ethnicity are also evident. Some wards in my borough and elsewhere comprise an almost wholly white British electorate. Equally, other areas have majorities of Afro-Caribbean, Hindu Indian, Pakistani or other Muslim people. In some places, the Chinese form a huge part of the population. The divergences are wide, which also provides the Electoral Commission with the ability to assess the effect of postal voting on those diverse areas. In choosing the north-west as one of the pilot areas, the Minister and the Electoral Commission would be able to consider all those differences within wards and whole polling districts. They could assess different geographical, socio-economic and ethnic factors, so I urge the Minister to choose the north-west as one of the pilot areas.

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3.3 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): In introducing the Bill, the Minister made it clear that the prime aim was to try to increase turnout. He shared the worry of many in the House that turnout is too low and has fallen quite sharply in recent elections. The explanatory notes also make it clear that that is the prime driver of the legislation. In a Second Reading debate we should therefore ask why the turnout is so low and why it has fallen so sharply in recent years in respect of general and European elections.

The prime reason why so few people now choose to vote is that they do not believe that the people that they are going to elect, of whatever party, can make any real difference to their lives. They do not believe that those people, at whatever level they are seeking election, will have sufficient power to change the way in which people are governed. We can understand the process if we examine the differential levels of turnout between general elections, local elections and European elections. It is still the case that far more people turn out for general elections than for the others. The reason is obvious: many more people still believe that it makes a difference whether one chooses a Conservative or a Labour Government. People still believe that if they choose the right individual Member of Parliament, he or she can make some difference by representing the constituency well, having influence over bureaucracy, and helping to fashion laws in this place that might make more sense and affect their daily lives.

When it comes to local elections, people know from their experience over many years that, however well-intentioned councillors and candidates are—we obviously all believe that those in our respective parties are extremely well intentioned and capable—there are very tight limits on what can be achieved. In fact, local councillors are driven by legislation coming from this place and, more importantly, by guidance and guidelines in ever-increasing volumes from Whitehall, and they are circumscribed by the financial rules and amounts of moneys voted in the House in respect of local government settlements. As a result of their experience, more and more people are unfortunately saying that they do not believe that local councillors, however well-intentioned and of whatever party, can make much difference, so they are not bothering to vote. They probably sense that the most powerful person in any local authority today is the unelected chief executive, over whom they are unable to exert any direct or indirect influence.

When it comes to European elections, people take the dimmest view of all. More than three-quarters of the electorate say that there is no point in wasting their time going to the polling station. I suspect that many would say that it is not even worth spending time filling in the piece of paper that comes through the post. People do not believe that MEPs, however well-intentioned and capable, can make any real impact on things that matter in their daily lives.

If we examine the power structure in the emerging, more integrated European Union, we can understand that people are in many ways being rational. It is disappointing for me, as someone who desperately wants democracy to work, that there is such a huge democratic deficit in the EU. The fact is that our elected

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representatives have no or very little control over the people and the things that matter in the governance of the EU.

Let us suppose that voters are interested in the state of the European economy, whether there are enough jobs and enough credit, or whether interest rates are set at the right level. They would discover that Euroland, the decisive bloc within the EU, is on autopilot under an unelected official—the governor of the European Central Bank. Unlike in the UK, where an elected Chancellor of the Exchequer and an elected Cabinet could call the so-called independent Governor of the Bank of England to heel, change the rules, issue new instructions or, in extremis, change the personnel, MEPs have no such influence or control, because the central bank was deliberately set up to ensure that there was no democratic accountability and that dreadful politicians had no influence over it.

Let us consider alternatively the emerging settlement in the European constitution for the conduct of foreign policy. Again, in the British Parliament, a good tradition is established. We have an elected Foreign Secretary, who is senior to the permanent secretary to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and answerable through the Cabinet to the House of Commons. We can all directly have an influence over foreign policy, and even, on certain occasions, effectively have a free vote in the House over the big issue of war. Many Members recently exercised their discretion over that. In the EU, however, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, soon to be appointed once the constitution goes through, will be unelected, and no MEP will be able to influence that Minister in the way that hon. Members in this House can individually and collectively exert influence over the UK's elected Foreign Secretary.

Take defence procurement. Here the Secretary of State for Defence is answerable to the House in respect of the purchase of weapons. However, the new armaments agency, which will be set up under the new European constitution, will have an unelected leader, and it will be impossible for people voting in European elections to have any influence—[Interruption.]

I see that the Minister is getting impatient because he does not like my analysis. However, it is entirely appropriate for us to ask whether the Bill is tackling the problem in the right way. Why, for example, does it not suggest that we should elect some of the people in Europe who have the real power? That would be more sensible, but we are not allowed to do so under Europe's rules, and the Minister is not proposing to do so in the negotiations on the constitution. So we will still have this huge problem in future European elections. Many of our electors will say that they do not mind whether they vote by post or in person, or by some new electronic method, but they will not agree that this Bill has got it right. The problem is that an MEP cannot bring to account the men and women of power.


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