Standing Committee B
Thursday 30 October 2003
[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]
Piloting conduct at european and local elections
Amendment moved [this day]: No. 45, in
clause 1, page 1, line 14, leave out from '2004' to end of line 15.—[Mr. Heath.]
The Chairman: 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—
Amendment No. 20, in
Amendment No. 48, in
Amendment No. 39, in
clause 9, page 5, line 6, leave out from '(c.2)' to end of line 7.
Mr. Tom Harris (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.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): 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—
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Heath: 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?
Mr. Hawkins: 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.
Mr. Heath: 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.
Mr. Hawkins: 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.
Mr. Heath: 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?
Sir Teddy Taylor (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.
Mr. Heath: 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.