European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

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Mr. Hawkins: 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.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Will the hon. Gentleman take the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome with him?

Mr. Hawkins: 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.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Hear, hear.

Mr. Hawkins: 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.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: 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.

 
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Prepared 30 October 2003